Struggling to Grow Food and Find Work During the Great Depression

Reader Contribution by The Mother Earth News Editors
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These stories are from Victor Swann, submitted as part of our Wisdom From Our Elders collection of self-sufficient tales from yesteryear. The stories were passed to him by his grandfather, C. Murray, and depict challenges for children during the Great Depression and how the experiences shaped him.

We had a farm. It wasn’t large, but we were surrounded by unused, unwanted, and some repossessed property so it seemed larger than it was. Arkansas was hit hard by the depression and there wasn’t any money anywhere. My family had been poor a long time, and all our neighbors were poor, so we didn’t know the difference growing up. 

I was next to youngest of four boys and two girls. I wasn’t school aged yet in 1928 and I helped my father pick and chop cotton on a nearby farm for a few nickles a day. To get work during the Great Depression you walked to the farm where you were surrounded by hundreds of men, hands waving in the air to get picked. My father was a very strong man. He could push his way to the front of the crowd where the man on the podium would point at him. He was picked a lot. With the money we made, we bought things we couldn’t grow.

We had dry weather at the time, and it was hard to grow things. We grew beans and ate them every day. My chore was to gather wood, wake up first and get the fires going. Mamma’s wood-burning stove also heated the house. She would wake up and make biscuits every day. To this day, there is no better biscuit than one cooked on a wood burning stove.

Years into the depression, I left school at 3rd grade. I had to help support the family. I cut timber and made green railroad ties with my father. Even at eight years old, I could carry a railroad tie by myself. My father could carry a green double tie by himself, the only one on the yard who could. We made enough money to purchase a Jersey cow. That was the best cow; very nice and good milk.

We had no fences, as there was nowhere for animals to go anyway. Our cow wandered around the farm and improved our soil. We grew watermelons and other things with our new-found fertilizer. My brothers liked watermelons so well, they tried to steal some from a neighboring farm and the farmer shot at them. Survival was a serious thing at the time.

I seldom left the farm except to go to church and work. A teenage boy used to pass our farm daily and I would always stop and talk to him to socialize. He was always nice to me. I hadn’t seen him in a while one week and I heard he was shot. He tried to steal liquor from a farmer and was killed.

We survived on what we grew. There was no hunting. All the game in our region had been hunted out. A joke my father would tell was “things are improving, I saw a rabbit and only three men were chasing it!” We drank from a well, we ate what we grew, wood was our fuel and walking our transportation.

I was nine years old before I had a Coca-cola. I earned enough money I was allowed to keep some and bought my own. I had never had anything but well water and milk at that time; I loved it!

When World War II was starting I made ammunition boxes for the war and was getting paid by the box, so I was making good money and married a girl I went to church with. Later, I became a mechanic and owned my own shop. I didn’t have to farm, but I did. Farming was part of being human; I gardened as long as I was able and kept mason jars under every bed.

Photo Credit: Fotolia/ Burtsc

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