By John Deering
“TO THE RED COUNTRY and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently…The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weed colonies and grass along the sides of the roads…In the last part of May the sky grew pale and the clouds that had hung in high puffs for so long in the spring were dissipated. The sun flared down on the corn day after day until a line of brown spread along the edge of each green bayonet.”
Thus begins John Steinbeck’s classic: The Grapes of Wrath. * Later the clouds appeared and the farmers hoped for rain. However, “The surface of the earth crusted a thin hard crust,” one of our Nobel-winning American authors continues. The rains had stopped. It is the description of the drought that all who lived in the 1930’s remember so well. It was the record heat that added to the misery of the Great Depression that had begun with the stock market “crash” of 1929. Our upstairs bedrooms were so hot, Dad brought our mattresses down to the floor of the living room so we could sleep. Even with every window open, the upstairs was almost too hot to breathe, much less sleep. This was long before home air-conditioning or even large exhaust fans.
During the afternoons, we kids were not allowed to play outside. Yes, it was that hot. “…so the earth became pale, pink in the red country and white in the gray country.” The rains did not come often. This novel is one of the truly great ones of the era of the Depression. It is the story of the fictional Joad family and so many real families who were driven off their land by the heat and the lack of rain and the foreclosed mortgages. Their sojourn, a forced migration of sorts, was leaving Oklahoma for the “promised land” of California where they were anything but welcome. They were collectively called the “Oakies.”
This great novel electrified a generation that was still trying to get over the worst depression of all time. However, it was not just the fictional Joads of Oklahoma who were so forced along, but Americans in general. I was just a child when this forced migration and life in general was going on, but the Depression is a memorable event that I can never forget. In some ways, it is the same as World War II was in that the presence of both the Depression and the War was everywhere. Some people lived it, but everybody else observed it. The signs were omnipresent. However, a person did not have to go to Oklahoma to witness the Depression. The land became so dry and literally dusty, the West became called the Dust Bowl, much of which was blown east and even so far as to fall on ships at sea.
I grew up just minutes away from Holmes High School – still a rather nice part of Covington. There was neither poverty nor suffering on such streets; in other words, fathers were rather well-employed on our 26th Street. Among them there were three railroad locomotive engineers, a conductor, a Crosley [WLW] radio engineer, the owners and operators of a funeral home, two teachers, and even the bishop of the Methodist Church for the area. All were fully employed. Dad was the chief engineer of the R.A. Jones Company on 15th Street. [now Crescent Springs, KY] and remained in that position the rest of his life. Yes, there were other such neighborhoods, but then there were the other neighborhoods where people couldn’t sleep either, and they did not often eat much either.
The children of the others showed up in the schools where some classmates wore shoes with holes in the bottoms so large they could literally pull a marble up into the rest of the shoe. (Playing marbles was a big-time game during this time.) Their clothes were ragged and thin – and sometimes dirty. Teachers regularly began the day asking, “What did you have for breakfast?” Then they’d go seat-by-seat to get an answer. (I envied those who said “rolls.” Ummm! I had had oatmeal or some other such cereal. YUK!) There was no such thing as a cafeteria in most elementary schools. Some of us went home for lunch and some brought their lunches, of course, but then again there were the “others.” Just what the teachers did with the information of those who had barely anything, I have never known. I chiefly remember kindergarten through the 3rd or 4th grades. After that, I presume we just took everything for granted. Kindergarten and the 1st grade were half-day sessions in order to keep classes small for the fundamentals of learning. That stopped after the 1st grade. As a result, our 2nd-grade class had forty-two in the same room with one delightful spinster who taught us phonics and so much more. (Yes, I have a class picture showing all forty two of us and our tiny teacher.) The heat of summer continued and then there was the “chill” of winter and children with barely enough clothing – and shoes.**
Now how did the Depression rear its ugly head all over? There were beggars and pushcarts! Can you imagine someone pushing a “push cart” up Fort Thomas Avenue or Madison Avenue? Well, I don’t remember one on Fort Thomas Avenue, but I saw them on Madison Avenue. These poor men gathered trash and such, put it into the cart, tried to sell it to – well, anyone else who would buy it. They also had kindling wood since almost all furnaces were coal-fired. Were there beggars on the back porch? Oh yes. They always knocked on the back doors. This was a common sight. Mother rarely but sometimes refused one by not answering the door. When she fed one, it had to be on the back porch. (After all these years, I still have memories of some man sitting on the back steps eating.) They were not allowed in the house, though. Dad told the story that he had come home for lunch one day and there was the grey-bearded old man seated at the kitchen table and I was sitting nearby in my high chair. That episode ended any more inside feedings. Some beggars asked for money, but this was not usually allowed: “They might buy beer with it!” ( Horrors!) Were homes such as ours marked somehow? Yes, I think so since someone might come walking down the street and stop at ours or others’ who would feed them. In the case of the Joads and the other such migrants, the police and other such authorities were “on their cases” constantly.
Of course, in the 1930’s, the schools were racially segregated, but they were integrated/segregated by income. I look back on this as one of the embarrassments of being one of the “haves” in our school. No, I was not embarrassed then with birthday parties, for example. I had them at home and I was always invited to others’ homes. How were we invited? By cards, of course. Cards sent to our homes? No! The “invites” were put onto the desks of those who were being invited and these were the kids whose clothes were warm in the winter and other such marks of homes with incomes. As I think back on this, I can still see some youngster going around the room placing invitations onto some desks while ignoring others. I have to wonder how those others felt about being so ignored. I believe the financially poor in cities were treated similarly to the migrants in Steinbeck’s, book. Many authorities had to “put up with them.”
Well, what did things cost then? Have you ever bought a loaf of Ruble rye or Taystee bread for a dime or two Hostess chocolate muffins in a dual package for a nickel? (I really liked those!) Well, I have. A boy’s haircut was a quarter? I didn’t buy a car until I was a teacher at Highlands in 1949, but I have been told a new Ford. Plymouth, or Chevrolet cost $400.00? I remember being sent to the corner for a quart of milk for a dime? (Of course, there was a nickel deposit for the glass bottle.) A nickel bought a street-car or trolley bus ride. One of my favorite recent answers to the question of cost from another “survivor” of the Depression said when someone asked him about bread now costing about $2.00. He answered: “I had rather have the bread cost $2.00 a loaf and have the $2.00 than to have it cost a dime and not have the dime.” Such was the case all too often.
Well, some good things did happen during the Depression. Fort Thomas got our new post office and Highlands got our new Senior Building – the one we called our “New” building for years. With the coming of the Roosevelt administration, the government established the Works Project Administration [WPA]. New roads were built and other projects galore put men to work all over the country. The large Federal Building on Scott Street in Covington and the Administration building of Holmes High School were two others. Of course, there were thousands of other such projects.
If you enjoy the roads and bridges and hiking paths at our State Parks -- Cumberland Falls State Park, for example – they were really improved during this era by teen-aged boys of the Civilian Conservation Corps [CCC]. They were brought to the parks as paid employees; however, most of the money they earned was sent home to their families. In the living room of the lodge, there is a photographic display of these boys working on roads and paths and a wooden bridge they and their adult supervisors built during the 1930’s. Mother and I and another mother and her same-aged boy went to Cumberland Falls in the early 1930’s. (The fathers who were employed did not always get to take such breaks.) We stayed in a cabin that leaked during the night, was not very clean, and the roads to the park were unbelievably rough and “pot-holed.” We had a good time, though, and the Falls were beautiful. In more recent years, Ann, Dana, Mark, I have gone there to a beautiful lodge and grounds have been vastly improved by the state; however, it was those CCC boys and men who started those great improvements. Today it is one of our favorite places to visit.
Gradually but finally the Depression began to fade until World War II brought it to an end. As bad as the recent recession has been, it barely compares with that one of the 1930’s. The Great Depression finally became a part of history, and it goes without saying, we certainly no not need another. Add to the 1930’s misery the disastrous 1937 flood, the worst ever in the Ohio River Valley. Gosh, it was just what we needed! Yea, right! If you have never read The Grapes of Wrath, I encourage you to. Such authors as John Steinbeck, Earnest Hemingway, Pearl Buck, and William Faulkner are among our best, and you can read them to your great grand parents without offending their ears with unnecessary crudeness. I know! I am a prude.
*First published April 14, 1939
**One of my classmates showed up at our home on a school day and he was cold. Mother recognized him, put him into our 1931 Chevrolet, and took him downtown and outfitted him literally from the skin out – including a winter coat. Then she took him to school.