A Collection of Life Stories from the Great Depression

Reader Contribution by The Mother Earth News Editors
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This story is from Virginia Grace Abraham, submitted as part of our Wisdom From Our Elders collection of self-sufficient tales from yesteryear.

I cared for Mary Virginia Smith for more than two years when she was in her late 80s. Mary raised her children during the Depression on Black Oak Farm, owned by the Lyon family in Loudoun County, Va. As was the tradition, each of the Lyon children was given a farm. Mary’s husband, Geoffrey, was farm manager for the dairy, crop and animal farm. Mary raised and butchered chickens and turkeys, gardened, canned, made butter, soap, lard, sausage and more. She told tales from her childhood of her father being a horse trader and her Mother had orchards. The only staples they purchased were sugar and coffee.

The funniest story was one regarding Mary’s daughter, Blanche, (she liked “Bunny” better). Bunny’s husband came from Georgetown, D.C., during hard times to work on the farm and stay in fighting shape, (he was a boxer). Legend has it that Geoffrey was as big as a horse and could, indeed, pull a plow if necessary. When Mr. King arrived at the farm he eloped with 13-year-old Bunny overnight. To inform Geoffrey that his daughter had wed, the boxer climbed a tree and shouted down rather than risk the punch!

My own paternal grandparents lived briefly near the Illinois River after my Grandfather lost his job as an alderman. At some point during World War II he managed a local restaurant. During that time, the owner’s out of town relatives came to visit and had first dibs on the rationed meat stamps. As a result, Grandad hunted for dinner and Grandma cooked something wonderful that was not chicken. The Sheriff, their dinner guest, had seconds of the wild mystery meat. To this day I don’t know if they ever told him what it really was…

I was also told of an exhausted farmer’s wife crying by her sink at 5 a.m. as she began yet another day of cooking for the farm hands of Loudoun County. Many people speak of how a farmer must rise early to milk, but few speak of the wives, who in addition to raising children and feeding the farmer, cooked “slow food” on a wood stove for all the hands, from before sunrise to dark again. I wonder how well I would fare under those circumstances, and I find it much easier to accept working through the holidays as a result.

Photo by Fotolia/Hank Frentz

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