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The Depression
Memories of A Farm Girl

Sarah-Eva Carlson
Heritage School, Rockford

Dorothy Bell grew up on a farm on Simpson Road, just south of Rockford in Winnebago County. Her father bought the farm from his wife's father, who had immigrated from Ireland in the early 1870s. Her father also bought his father's farm on McGregor Road in Ogle County.

Dorothy was nine at the time the stock market crashed in 1929, and she grew up during the Depression. It still haunts her memory of childhood. However, she maintains that the love everyone shared through the hard times overcame the troubles of the 1930s.

Although only nine years old at the time, she remembers the Crash of 1929, the day the stock market crashed. That was called Black Friday, and its name suits the event.

I asked Dorothy Bell whether the Depression changed the schools. "Oh yes," she replied, "We had no money. Of course, schools had chalk, paper and things like that, but we couldn't buy clothes. We made do with what we had. I started Roosevelt Junior High in the fall of 1933; I hardly had anything to wear. My cousin Margaret was twelve years older than I. She took all her old clothes and made them over for me."

I then questioned her on how she went to school. She said a neighbor who worked for Farm Bureau Insurance bought a great big Buick that had jump seats.

Eight of us rode with him. My father paid him $ 1.25 a week (or me to get to school. We drove six miles

ILLINOIS HISTORY / MAY 1993 69


and he let me off. I walked a mile then. Louise Fagerstrom came the same way. We met and walked the mile together. A girlfriend walked from Prairie Avenue to Roosevelt Junior High. That was six miles. Sometimes she could get rides and was very lucky. In those days we'd accept rides from strangers. We were never afraid. No one would have thought of taking anyone. My friend had no mittens. She had cracks all across her red hands.

I asked her what they had for lunch, and she told me that everyone had plain bread sandwiches in Holsum bread wrappers. The wrappers were wax paper. No one had new wax paper. When you left the table you left everything on it. No one except little children used lunch buckets. Her school served hot lunches. She bought hot lunches three times in ninth grade: once for her birthday, once for Christmas, and another time. They were treats from her parents. After lunch, boys would come along and shove everything into baskets. She said that she received a penny a morning at age thirteen. That was five cents a week. When walking towards home to meet her ride, she bought a big cream candy with a cherry inside.

We then talked about heating and her house. Houses were very cold, she said, and added, "We only heated the kitchen. We had a cook stove. We had no radio. My father had a couch in the kitchen. We did have electricity. My father had it brought in in 1929. Some people used lamps, but we always were able to pay for the electricity."

I questioned her further on what they ate. Dorothy Bell said, "Sometimes we ate wheat. I loved it."

She also recalled one of her saddest memories:

I shudder to think about it. A family came to the farm who lived in their car. They drove around to farms to find work. There were three children. My father couldn't afford to hire the father, but he found something for the man to do for a couple of hours. Of course we gave him lunch. Dinner was at noon. My mother had chocolate cake, in addition to the sandwiches. The man said that he was going to take his piece out to his children. My mother said you mean that your children had no dinner? You can't do that. It'll make them sick! So my mother packed a lunch of sandwiches and milk. When father paid him, mother then gave them the cake. They had had no breakfast, either.

I then asked her what she remembered about Christmas. "For the Christmas of 1933 I expected nothing, but I received three things. I had lost two fountain pens, the kind with levers that fill. We had to write with them. My mother was so disgusted with me. So for Christmas, I got a new fountain pen and mittens. I had had no mittens all fall. My hands were so cold."

Dorothy Bell's face brightened as she told about the fun parts of her life. "Everyone played cards," she said, "children too. We played Five Hundred. We had jello for dessert. It was winter. We all sat together. We played progressive and the tables moved up. There were prizes and booby prizes. Even the little children of eight played with the adults."

I asked her when it was the worst. Her eyes lost their exciting look and she said:

Nineteen thirty-three and 1934 was the worst. It took a little while to take hold. Those were terrible years. The worst part of it for the farmers was that the dust storm came at the same time. In 1933, my father had no crop. The government made bean seed available in the summer of 1934. If you went to the 1C [Illinois Central] Depot, you got seed free, soybeans. Most neighbors wouldn't go because they were Republicans and very proud. This didn't bother my father. He went and got some seed. The rains came that summer and he had a great crop. My father used the soybeans for hay to feed his cows.

Dorothy Bell continued:

In the neighborhood, farmers had foreclosures and then an auction. Men refused to buy and if they did they would pay no more than five cents. My uncle, John Pelly, had to have an auction. He didn't have to sell everything. John Pelly had twin calves. He had fussed with them so much to keep them alive. He cried when they went up for auction. The man who bought them saw him crying and gave them back to him.

Even so, farmers were better off than some others. "The only ones that had money were people that had government jobs," she said. "Factory workers suffered terribly. There was no money and no way to make money. Everyone was poor."

But her eyes had a gleam as she ended by saying, "My father was able to save both of his farms. No one cried in the Depression. There was more bonding with people than now. We were close to each other."[From student historian's interview with Dorothy Bell, Feb. 7, 1993.]

Rural Americans suffered along with the rest of the country. The Depression, combined with the dust bowl in the mid-1950s, left many farmers without a crop to sell.
Farmhouse

70 ILLINOIS HISTORY / MAY 1993


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