By Ken Lass
It seems we are living through difficult times. We have seen a pandemic, political division, rampant gun violence, and a general decline of moral values. But I suspect the things we are dealing with pale in comparison to what the generation of the early 20th century went through.
This was brought home to me in a very personal way after the passing of my mother in the summer of 2020. Among her personal effects was a tattered notebook. Apparently she took a writing course during her junior year of high school, and one of her assignments was to keep a journal of her entire school year. The pages cover the 1932-’33 school year, during which Mom would have turned sixteen years old.
At the time America was deep in the throes of the Great Depression which caused massive unemployment and poverty. It was also during Prohibition which forbid the sale of alcohol, resulting in a heavy increase in organized crime activity, bootlegging, and a sharp drop in tax revenue, which made the economy even worse.
Mom’s journal is largely an account of how her family of seven made it through a brutal midwestern winter with little income and limited basic necessities. The first entry is dated September 10, 1932. She describes herself as “shy” and adds:
“I think the journal will be great fun when I look at it in years to come”.
I’m sure she never dreamed that, 91 years later, her septuagenarian son would be reading her words with wonder and admiration.
It is clear the poverty of the era affected her school life:
“October 3, 1932 — This afternoon our class had a meeting at which we discussed the getting of class rings. Mr. McLane suggested that we postpone it until we are seniors on account of the scarcity of money.”
These were desperate times. Some folks, with nothing to lose, and aided by the underworld, turned to crime, even in Mom’s small town of West Bend:
“November 2, 1932 — The First National Bank of West Bend was robbed yesterday morning by three bandits armed with machine guns and pistols. They escaped with about $15,000….no one has been identified as yet.”
Republicans were in office at this time, but with all of the upheaval, evidently voters were ready for a change:
“November 9, 1932 — Well, the elections are over….the Democratic party made a clean sweep….President Hoover carried only six states. Governor Roosevelt’s election is considered the greatest landslide ever made by a political party in American history.”
Money for food was not plentiful. Fortunately, Mom’s father was an avid hunter and fisherman:
“December 5, 1932 — Dad and Walter (Mom’s younger brother) came home late Saturday night with forty-four rabbits. We ought to have a few meals out of that.”
“January 5, 1933 — Before classes this afternoon Mr. McLane announced that ex-President Coolidge was found dead in bed this morning. This was indeed a surprise to everyone.”
“February 18, 1933 — There has been quite a bit of excitement lately in connection with a milk strike…several dairies refused to comply with it…In today’s paper there was an account of a large milk truck being stopped and all the milk poured into the snow….Also on Tuesday an attempt was made to assassinate Franklin D. Roosevelt in Florida by an Italian. This caused a great deal of excitement as he is not yet in office. He escaped injury.”
“March 3, 1933 — This morning all the banks in the state closed up for an indefinite number of days. This was quite a blow to many people as they had received their checks due the beginning of the month and had not had them cashed.”
On March 21, 1933 President Roosevelt signed into law the Cullen-Harrison Act which legalized the sale of beer and ended Prohibition. Mom’s family operated a lake resort which included a restaurant and bar. The legislation may well have saved their livelihood:
“April 8, 1933 — Many hailed the return of beer at midnight on Thursday with an all night celebration….Dad had a little party and was up until four o’clock in the morning”.
There didn’t appear to be any money for gym decorations for her junior prom so they made do with colored paper:
“April 22, 1933 — We are collecting branches and twisting pieces of pink paper on them to make them look like cherry blossoms, as the gym is to represent a Japanese cherry garden.”
Mom writes that she didn’t attend the prom. I wonder if she couldn’t afford a dress. The journal ends after an entry on May 25 describing how the family is working hard to get the resort ready for the tourist season, and praying for a good turnout.
These were not the only uncertain times Mom endured. Eight years after writing this account, she went through World War Two, wondering each day if her husband would return alive from the battlefields of Europe. By the grace of God, he did, else I would not be here.
Mom went on to live a long and mostly happy life of humility and service to others. She left this earth at the ripe old age of 103. She survived all of the hard times, and I expect we will too. By the way, in the margin of the final page of the journal, her teacher wrote down her grade. She got an A.
As a writer, and as a person, she is a hard act to follow.