Guest Post: The Great Depression, as I remember

By Walter Stoiber

The Great Depression began on Thursday, Oct. 24th, 1929. It would become known as “Black Thursday,” and rightfully so. The stock market crashed, and a record 13 million shares were traded that day. Some of the larger banks tried to help by buying shares at above the quoted prices. It didn’t work. Several corporations suffering today — General Motors , General Electric , Sears — were in dire straits. Some companies’ stocks dropped 50%. After five days, banks began to close. Most depositors were left “holding the bag,” and an empty one at that!

We were an average blue-collar family in Altoona, Pa. My father worked at the silk mill, as a shipping clerk and later as a supervisor. As businesses in Altoona cut back and then closed entirely, the silk mill did too. My father had a backup career, giving piano lessons and playing in a five-piece band for weddings and other events. As the Depression got worse, though, those things were no longer affordable. He took a job as an insurance agent. But people didn’t have the money to buy more insurance.

I was in the sixth grade in 1929. I got a job at our grocery store, stocking shelves for 25 or 50 cents a day, plus a bag of penny candy. My sister, Charlotte, who was in the third grade, helped Mother with chores and meals and made her own doll clothes out of odds and ends. We “patched” holes in our shoes by lining the insides of the soles with the cardboard separators from old Shredded Wheat boxes. Mother was a great cook. She got vegetables from other families in our neighborhood and made soup. Our butcher would give us soup bones (leaving a little meat on it), free of charge. He remembered that we were good customers in good times.

We couldn’t go to the movies on Saturdays anymore. But we kids had no trouble finding fun things to do. We had a makeshift baseball diamond in the city park. There were eight or 10 of us, and not everyone had a glove. So we would just keep swapping. A ball lasted us a long time. When the cover came off, we would get black friction tape and wrap the ball with it. Eventually we would all have to contribute the pennies we had saved to buy a new ball.

We also had a favorite swimming hole about 10 miles away. We would ride there on our bicycles. Somehow everybody managed to have their own bike. My father’s friend had an old bike gathering dust in his basement, so he gave it to me. We had to work on it, but it lasted me a long time. We also made our own scooters. We’d get a wooden soap box from the grocery store, a three-foot piece of 2×4, and a pair of old roller skates. Soon we were set to go.

Things didn’t get easier for a long time, but we managed. My last two years in high school, I got two part time jobs — ushering at the State Theater, for 25 cents an hour, and delivering special-delivery letters and small packages on my bike for the Altoona Post Office.  I was paid a percentage of the postage, and sometimes I made $4 on a weekend! When my father was no longer with us, we couldn’t afford the $35 a month to stay in our home. Luckily, we got an apartment across from the Dutch Kitchen, where my mother got a waitress job. My mother liked her job and made good tips. On a good day, she would make as much as $10.

We got through it. In 1932 Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected our 32nd president and brought with him a number of wonderful programs and signs of recovery. I graduated from high school in1935 and went to work as a meter reader for Penn Edison. Charlotte graduated three years later and got a job as a secretary. Things just seemed to get better as time went on.

So now it’s 2008. We’re now in the midst of another financial crisis — this one global — brought about presumably by “the powers that be” on Wall Street and in the upper echelons of the federal government. A classic display of selfishness, greed, and politics. I’m 91 years old, and I sure don’t want to see another Great Depression. But I wouldn’t part with the experience I had 80 years ago. I learned that we could do without things that we thought we had to have. I learned how to “stretch” a dollar. And I learned that the words on the back of the dollar bill,  “In God We Trust,” have merit. Hoping and praying isn’t all we need to do, but it helps.

Walter Stoiber is my uncle and an amazingly healthy 91-year-old. He lives with his wife, Dorothy, in Boardman, Ohio, outside of Youngstown. Charlotte, his sister and my mother, died at 87 in January.

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