THE GREAT Depression started in 1929 and lasted well into the 1930s — some historians state that it lasted until the beginning of World War II in 1941. Today’s economic fallout from the COVID-19 Pandemic has an increasing number of media outlets comparing the Great Depression to what our nation, and the world, are experiencing today. Photos of thousands of present day Americans waiting in long lines to receive food are reminders of the black and white photos shot of unemployed, hungry people waiting in long lines during the Great Depression.
I WAS yet to be born when the Great Depression ravaged so much of what this nation was economically and shattered the lives of so many people who struggled to survive — living on almost nothing. My parents, uncles and grandparents were among those in Central Illinois severely impacted. Although mom and dad didn’t talk much about what they experienced as a young married couple during the Great Depression, when they did talk about it, their words left a definite impression. Sometimes, at family reunions years later, the conversation would turn to surviving the Great Depression and the stories of hardship were numerous. Many of you reading this column can also remember such stories from your parents, grandparents and other family members — and a few of you are old enough to have experienced it first-hand.
I REMEMBER dad saying that during the depths of the Great Depression, he went to a neighbor’s house to see if he could get a few matches that he needed to light a fire in the stove in the house — and he went home without a single match, because the person he asked didn’t want to share. (I guess hoarding is not something new.) I remember mom saying that someone gave them two baby chicks they could raise to have some chicken to eat when they were full-grown. When they were full-grown, they had to trade one of the chickens with the local grocer for some other food they needed.
I REMEMBER dad saying that he worked for a farmer all week and was paid 50 cents and he was glad to have it. Fifty cents for a week’s work would keep them going for awhile. Another time he worked at a job and the homeowner gave him a worthless, broken sewing machine as his pay. Dad, who even at a young age could fix about anything, took the sewing machine home and fixed it and mom used it to do some sewing for others. The person who “paid” him with the worthless machine was shocked when he found out that dad had fixed it!
ABOUT everybody was experiencing the same struggles to survive and family, faith and church helped them through it. Like most couples and families, they grew tough, but not insensitive. When dad was able to work, it was mostly farm jobs for little pay. When a government program was recruiting workers to build a park in Bement, dad helped build the park — which is still there. Dad, because of his mechanical skills eventually got a job operating a gear machine at Caterpillar, first in Peoria and then in the Decatur plant (the building which later became home to Firestone for many years, still stands on 22nd Street) and he was never without a job until his retirement. He also worked for other companies but returned to Caterpillar’s new Decatur plant and was supervisor of planning when he retired.
MOST OF the people who had similar experiences as my parents during the Great Depression came out with a new appreciation of the value of having a job and sharing with those who were less fortunate — because they once walked in those very same shoes. They truly could feel the pain of others because it was a pain they had lived through and were stronger as a result. Obviously, I’ve been thinking a lot about my parents the past few months and what they taught me about dealing with whatever life throws at me.
I DON’T know how long this pandemic will last, or its total eventual cost and impact on all of us. I do know that, for many of us, even though it could get rougher before it gets better, we also have the advantage of government financial and social safeguards in place that are the result of what happened during the Great Depression. We will get through this, just as my parents and others from that generation got through that terrible time in our history, and, like that generation, when we get through to the other side, we will have changed and we will be stronger. We will know, as we’ve not totally known before, what is of real value in this life and why the “sense of community” is so important. We will be a stronger community in everything that really matters.
–Reprinted from the May 13, 2020 print and online editions of the Decatur Tribune newspaper.