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Great Depression took a toll, but many managed

posted: August 07. 2017 09:06a CST

The Great Depression, which began in 1929 and continued through 1941, caused untold misery and grief to those who lived in cities as well as on farms. Many people lost money when banks closed. My parents lost the money they had been saving to make a down payment on the home farm and they were forced to continue paying rent for the place. The income they received from the sale of milk, hogs and potatoes, a cash crop, plummeted and the money lost from the bank closing was never recovered.

But different from many urban people who were without work and thus had no source of income at all and were often hungry, farmers always had something to eat because they grew most of their own food. Ma purchased or traded eggs and other farm produce for such staples as coffee and sugar.

Along with the Great Depression came years of severe drought, where the crops produced on our home farm were but a shadow of what was produced when the rains came. The hay crop, needed to feed the cattle through the long winter months, was slight. The summer pastures that the cattle depended on dried up by August, forcing Pa to feed the cattle some of the scarce hay crop that had been stored for winter. And to make matters even worse, a dry wind blew from the southwest, day after agonizing day, filling the air with clouds of dirty, yellow dust. The wind tore up the soil on newly plowed fields and sent it swirling high into the air.

I remember one day, it was in the late-1930s, when a man stopped by the farm and knocked on the door. He wore torn and dirty clothes, an old felt hat, and walked bent over. Ma answered the door and the man in a low, quiet voice said that he would be willing to do work for something to eat. Ma invited him in, sat him down at the kitchen table and made him a big thick cheese sandwich, which he hurriedly ate. She also poured him a glass of milk.

I had not known about men like this, who had lost their jobs and were riding the freight trains from town to town, in search of work and something to eat. But Ma and Pa had. Ma told the man that he didn’t need to do any work, and she even prepared another sandwich for him along with a couple cookies that he could take with him. With tears in his eyes, the man thanked Ma for what she had done. I last saw him trudging down the country road, hoping to find another handout, and perhaps some work.

I do not remember being hungry during the Depression, as we always had a huge garden that we depended on during good years and bad. But on the down side, I do not remember getting any new clothes or shoes during much of that time. Every spare nickel, the income from our small herd of cattle, the few dollars worth of eggs my mother sold and traded for groceries at the Mercantile, and the money from our 20-acre potato field helped keep us on the farm. The folks were ever hopeful that better days would come, which they eventually did.

My mother, to save money, made dresses and other clothing items from feed sacks that had printed designs on them. Often it took more than one sack for a dress, so the feed companies saw increased sales as well. In addition to dresses and aprons, some of the feed companies also printed front and backs of toy animals on feed sacks. My first teddy bear was printed on a feed sack. Ma cut it out and sewed the front and back together after stuffing it with quilt batting from her quilting projects. This was one of the first toys I remember receiving.

The feed sacks varied from commodity to commodity. Those which held sugar, flour and salt were more tightly woven than those designed for animal feed. By the beginning of World War II, dozens of U.S. textile mills were producing feed sack material. It was estimated that by 1942, 3 million Americans wore at least one item of clothing made from a feed sack. By 1950, large, reinforced paper bags began to replace the now quite famous cloth feed sacks.

Excerpted from “Old Farm Country Cookbook,” Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2017. For questions and comments, contact Jerry Apps at

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