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Memories of the Depression Still Sear

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The Wall Street Journal


As hard times return, witnesses to the 1930s recall lessons they learned

When the Great Depression hit, people came to the front porch of William Hague's home near Pittsburgh pleading for food. One well-dressed young woman asked Mr. Hague's mother if she would hire her for $2 a week. Why would she work for so little? his mother asked. "We have nothing to eat at home," she replied.

Mr. Hague, 89, was just 10 years old during the Crash of 1929. His father was a prosperous small-town lawyer and the family led a relatively privileged life during the Depression years. Yet even as Mr. Hague found success as an editor and author he says he remained careful about food and money. He monitors the news intently, on the lookout for signs of "trouble." Now that trouble has come, he says he wonders if younger generations have the mettle to survive tough times

"We had unlimited prosperity for more than 60 years," says Mr. Hague, who lives in an independent senior residence on Manhattan's East Side. "I don't know if people are ready for hard times."

There are 11.5 million Americans who are 80 and older, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The period from the Crash of 1929 to the start of World War II shaped their lives, affected how they raised their children, and influences their reactions to today's economic turmoil.

The memories aren't all negative. For many, President Franklin D. Roosevelt "was like a god," recalls Mr. Hague, and there was hopefulness amid the desperation. "People had confidence in the American way -- which I am not sure they have now."

James Dickinson, 87, is Mr. Hague's friend and neighbor at the James Lenox House. Mr. Dickinson once worked on Wall Street, and for him the recent stream of economic calamities has been like watching a "horror movie," he says. "The horror is the people being pushed into unemployment," he says. "Bank managers, mutual-fund managers, hedge-fund operators, technical support people -- the horror is there are no jobs for these people."

Mr. Dickinson also grew up near Pittsburgh, but in an impoverished household where his widowed mother had to scrape by with help from relief. As a boy, he would accompany his mother as she stood on lines to get government food relief. The supplies were barely enough to live on: powdered milk, dried fruits, margarine, raisins, he recalls. Often, he found himself with men who had lost jobs in the steel mills and were devastated at being dependent on handouts.

Mr. Dickinson went on to work in Wall Street brokerage houses, he says, and retired as a manager of human resources. He says during the last five years, he annoyed his friends with repeated warnings that a day of reckoning was coming.

'This recession is like a picnic compared to what we had back then," says Dorothy Womble.

Mrs. Womble, 89, lives at a residence for low-income seniors and the disabled in New York's Harlem neighborhood. She grew up in a small house on a dirt road in Winston-Salem, N.C. People around her were so poor, she says, "They couldn't even get money to get seeds" to plant vegetables.

She can still picture the strangers who wandered through with nothing but a bundle on their backs. Her family also struggled, though her dad was able to hold onto his job on the railroads. Even so, says Mrs. Womble, no matter how little people had, they shared it with one another -- and that is one of her defining memories of the period, as much as the dire poverty. Her mother, for instance, used to share precious supplies of flour.

When FDR was elected in 1932, there was a "big jubilee" in the neighborhood, Mrs. Womble says. "It wasn't a big celebration like it was on 42nd Street" in New York this year, she says. But when people heard Roosevelt became president, "everybody came out and they were laughing and clapping their hands."

Her neighbor at Logan Gardens, Gloria O'Loughlin, 88, was a girl in Harlem during the Great Depression but has the same memory of people giving each other what they could. "If you were sick, they helped you. If you were hungry, they'd feed you. That was the Harlem I knew," she says.

Ms. O'Loughlin, one of the first women to drive a yellow cab in New York City, was born in Harlem and says she plans to die there. The Depression hit the neighborhood hard. While unemployment in the U.S. was about 25%, it was closer to 50% in Harlem. All over the streets, she saw men selling apples for five cents each.

At home, there was barely enough to eat. Her mother baked "Johnny Cakes," a kind of pancake made with flour and yeast and served with butter. It was a way to fill an empty stomach and stave off hunger. "You got used to eating what you got," Ms. O'Loughlin says starkly.

To survive, her family received a form of welfare that entailed standing on lines for supplies. Simply being on the line was embarrassing, and she and her sister used to argue about whose turn it was to go.

Marion Leonard, 99, was shielded from the worst of the Great Depression. Still, in 1931, she took a sailing trip around Puget Sound on a yacht belonging to her husband's uncle. From the boat, she could see hordes of unemployed men standing at the dock staring and staring at her. Ms. Leonard recalls she ran and hid in a stateroom out of embarrassment. She also witnessed great poverty as she drove across the country with her new husband in a $100 Ford.

Ms. Leonard still recalls how kind people were as she and her husband drove from town to town -- people were anxious to rent rooms for a couple of dollars, both because they needed the money and because they wanted to help. The experiences helped compel her to devote her life to social change and environmental activism.

Now, living in Vermont, she thinks only someone in Roosevelt's mold can rescue America from its slump. "I keep thinking, why doesn't someone do what Roosevelt did -- shut down and start from scratch and give everyone jobs," she says. "He put a lot of people -- young people, older people -- immediately in jobs. There were artists painting murals inside post offices and young kids out in the woods clearing away the brush."

Farmer Richard G. Hendrickson, 96, has been predicting another Great Depression for years, even decades. He warned family members and friends that America's profligate ways would bring back the hard times he had experienced in the 1930s when he watched his father almost lose the family farm.

He repeated the dire prediction so frequently, says his wife, Lillian, 90, his own children thought he was "getting old."

Mr. Hendrickson lives today on a farm in Bridgehampton, N.Y., a short walk from the one his family nearly lost. He can easily conjure up the day seven decades ago his dad faced financial ruin because of debt he had incurred on the farm. Three men in fancy "business suits and vests" descended on his family's property: The president of the local bank, the president of the lumber company, and the head of the feed company.

With his father in the room, the men sat silently in the living room for what "seemed like an eternity," Mr. Hendrickson says. Though shy, he decided to make a bold personal appeal. "If it makes any difference, I like outside work," he remembers saying. "And I think if we are given some more time, I believe we can keep our head above water and make the farm pay." He then stood up and walked out.

His father later got a loan from a bank in Springfield, Mass., he remembers, and the farm stayed with the family.

Bridgehampton, Mr. Hendrickson says, was a farming community so breadlines weren't an issue. Even so, there were signs of widespread misery. At one point, he recalls, the government set up a Civilian Conservation Corps encampment about a mile and a half from the farm. Men of varying ages lived in communal housing and were given jobs as part of Roosevelt's efforts to get the country working again. The men, who typically wore overalls, were a moving sight, and stood out in the small farming community.
One Sunday, he and his first wife picked up one of the CCC workers and drove him to church. He told them he had come all the way from Michigan.

Long after the Depression, Mr. Hendrickson worked as if he were about to lose the farm. For years, he worked seven days a week, his only son, Richard H. Hendrickson, 68, says. The elder Mr. Hendrickson worked day, evening and night.

Mrs. Womble's son, Larry Womble, believes that his mom's Depression-era experiences, as well as those of his grandparents, deeply influenced the way he was brought up. Being frugal was a cardinal value, as was avoiding excess. But so was sharing with those who had even less.

"As a little boy I used to hear them in the room talking about how they were able to survive the Depression," says Mr. Womble, a Democratic state representative in Winston-Salem. "We shared whatever we had. When people didn't have rent money, we took up donations and helped them pay the rent, when someone died without a burial, we took up a collection."

His grandparents and mom would often cite a favorite proverb: "They used to say, 'Even in good times, a squirrel will hide his nuts because wintertime is coming.' "

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