The Depression

The same day John Knutson came over to see if I would help him, he said he had heard on the radio that the stock market had crashed, but we didn't realize that that was the start of the Depression. It took a while before it soaked in and we began to feel the effects of it. It took a year or more before we really suffered out here in the sticks. [21.135-3]

Raymond Knutson had a little portable barn and kept a team down in the big gravel pit in the thirties. His job was moving things around the pit on a stone boat and hauling the big rocks that came in with the gravel over into the woods. He bought oats from a farmer for eight cents a bushel, but it was so dry that there wasn't any hay to get. In the fall, after the sparse grain crop was off the field, pigeon grass and Russian thistles came up and he cut and stacked a bunch of that for his horse hay. [21.135-4]

Cows would only bring a few dollars on the market and eventually the government, under Roosevelt, started buying cows at South St. Paul to help farmers who didn't have any feed. They paid $20 a head and I remember seeing some big, beautiful, roan shorthorn cows that Bill and Gamey Peterson were shipping to get the $20. [21.136-1]

Ulcers and/or "gas on the stomach" seemed to be almost a universal ailment for a few of those worst Depression years. Those with mild cases carried Tums in their pockets. Others carried soda and drank mineral oil and when two people met anywhere they would always compare their ailments more than they would the Depression and accompanying worry and tension that caused them.

Many quit drinking cream in their coffee and many quit eating pork because they thought that caused gas. Sawing ice and the up and down forward motion is what Pa blamed for starting his "gas session." He ate Tums and soda and mineral oil, etc for several years. When times got good again we never heard any more about gas on the stomach. [21.136-2]

The combination of no rain and no prices for farm products caused a lot of foreclosure sales. Luckily Pa had just gotten out of debt before the Depression hit, so we weathered it much better than those with debts. Also, we had a farm with lots of sloughs and low spots where we could raise some stuff and pasture cattle. [21.136-3]

Pelican Lake dried back so far that Carl Peterson farmed a few acres by his place that is lake again now. [21.136-4]

(Pelican Lake wasn't the only thing drying up then. People were cutting slough grass for hay where water had stood as long as anyone could remember. Carl Peterson raised barley all around the west side of the bay by his place.) [21.151-3]

It got so dry that grain headed out only a few inches above the ground, much of it too short to cut with binders. Everybody got bunchers to attach to their mower sickles so they could mow the grain, lift the gate, and leave the heads in piles to stack up for chicken feed. Only the lower, wetter spots could be cut with binders. [21.137-1]

There were a lot of foreclosures and bankruptcy-forced sales among farmers that were in debt. A large group of farmers banded together to stop the sales and called their organization "Farm Holiday Association." When farmers began to be forced off their farms one after another, they did stop some sales. They tipped bankers' cars over and would bid only one dollar or so on big items and intimidate others who would have bid more. The bankers got a lot of the blame (and/or abuse) on account of the sales. [21.136-5]

There was a government agency called "Rural Credits" that was something like P.C.A. is now; it lent government money to farmers. [21.136-6]

I doubt John Knutson had ever been in debt before, but he got a rural credit loan to build the new barn and a big cistern with piped water just after the Depression started. [21.137-1]

If Knutsons hadn't spent that money building right then, they wouldn't have been losing the farm and we wouldn't have been able to buy it. [21.137-2]

There was a big migration to Washington and Oregon in those years because there was rain along the coast. Knutsons bought a big, old car that had been a taxicab in New York, hooked a trailer behind, and loaded six or seven kids and food and stuff in it. They went to Oregon in the fall of 1936, before Marj and I went to California. [21.137-3]

Everybody had some idea on how to cure the Depression. I heard Carl Iverson say he didn't see how it could get any better, and after only a short time a store in Fergus put a sign in the window that said "Wasn't the Depression Awful?" They were way ahead of their time: it got much more awful after that. [21.137-4]

Otto Otteson always talked at the top of his voice and one day in the Post Office he said, "This country will never see better times until cars are as scarce on this street as horses are now."

Later on, when there was beginning to be talk about plowing the snow off the highways in winter, Elum Bystol wrote a letter to The Fergus Falls Daily Journal and said, "It doesn't make any more sense to plow the roads than it would to have the government come and thaw out our fields so we could farm in the winter." [21.137-5]

Ma always baked bread and stuff for lunches and some good bakery stuff was a real treat to me, because we could never afford any of it. She always had cake on hand, "War Cake," they called it, invented during World War I, out of plain ingredients.

When we went to Fergus I always looked in the bakery window and drooled. Even plain "boughten" bread seemed so much better than Ma's bread (especially her bran bread that everyone else "oohed" and "ahhed" about).

One day I saw "cross buns" in the window and worked Pa to buy half a dozen. What a letdown! I thought the crosses were frosting, but they were dough. I thought raised doughtnuts were extra special, but Pa said they were made with cottonseed oil. [21.137-6]

Elton's Restaurant always had a small chocolate cake on display for 50 cents. I drooled over that several times when we were in Fergus and finally worked Pa to blow 50 cents for one. I think we stretched it out for a week or more, it was so good. (Ma would never bake a chocolate cake. I guess chocolate didn't agree with her.) [21.138-1]

About that time, Gus Comstock of Fergus became coffee-drinking champion of the world by sitting in a store window and drinking 85 cups of coffee in one day. We didn't see him that day, but we saw him on the streets of Fergus at other times. [21.138-2]

During the worst Depression years I didn't get any money for working at home, but I got all the money I earned off the farm, teams and all, and I was soon "rolling" in wealth: $550 the first summer and $700 the second summer for hauling water. [21.153-3]

To keep me from wanting to blow it for cars, etc., the folks talked me into investing it in the wood lots that were for sale over by Ask Lake: $330 for 11 acres next to Teisbergs' wood lot the first year and $400 for 20 acres of brush and old hollow trees the second year. (That is field now and we drive across it to the Indian Mounds.) That land only cornered with the 10 acres Pa owned off from Hoffs' farm. Then he bought the 20 acres that run south from the Hoff 10 acres for $30 an acre. [21.153-4]

When we bought the Knutson Farm (for $30 an acre) it all fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. [21.153-5]

I still was only 18 years old, or thereabouts, when I owned 31 acres of land. This served a dual purpose: it got my money out of circulation (temptation) and kept me busy in the winters, cutting wood and brush and clearing it. [21.153-6]

I got the money for the wood. We fenced it in for sheep and pastured it until most of the stumps rotted out and burned out most of the other big hardwood trees in the summer when it was really dry. We cut the trees (mostly elm and basswood with some ash and ironwood mixed in) with a two-man crosscut saw. He hired a circle saw to cut it up into stove lengths and sold it to truckers, mostly from Elbow Lake, for $3.50 to $4.50 a cord. (A full cord: 4'x4'x8' in four-foot lengths.) [21.153-7]

Sam Olson from Elbow Lake had some trucks with grain boxes on them and when filled with sawed up wood, just thrown in and not piled, they were supposed to hold two cords. He bought a lot of wood from us and sold it in Elbow Lake. We heard later that his drivers would stop by Sam's house and throw off some on his woodpile and then deliver it for a two-cord load.

Most buyers just paid for a load and then went over into the woods and loaded their own. A prosperous farmer from near Elbow Lake got a load and someone saw him and his son load it. They piled every stick in the big grain box so they got in almost an extra cord, but we only got paid for a loose cord. [21.154-1]

By spring my muscles would be so hard I felt like I could tear anything apart with my bare hands. I never was nearly as strong as Pa, though, with his wide Norwegian shoulders and big muscles and hands. I had too much German "Kaiser" blood in me. [21.154-2]

During the dry years in the thirties, it didn't rain in the summers or snow in the winters and I think the ground was too dry to freeze. Some farmers (like Raymond Skaar) set out to make a record, like doing a little plowing each month of the winter, but they didn't make it past January or February. [21.160-3]

On New Year's Day, in 1931, I found a pocket gopher digging down near the hunting point and set a trap. I found him in the trap the next morning. They even printed that in The Fergus Journal. [21.160-4]

Raymond Knutson tried to break the record for early seeding and seeded some wheat the last part of December and had that printed in The Journal. I don't remember hearing any more about it, so it must have been a failure. [21.160-5]

Just before the Depression started, Pa bought a 1928 Essex four-door sedan with 2,500 miles on it for $700 or $800. Andrew Runningen was the dealer and he had sold it, new, to some affluent bachelors out on the prairie. They decided they would rather have a Hudson instead, so they traded it back. It was a really nice car, but the Essex motors were poor. The pistons were all beat up when he had someone take it apart to put rings in it at about 20,000 miles, in 1935. [21.160-6]

Marj traded the Essex in on a 1935 Plymouth four-door de luxe and was allowed about $80 in trade for it. The Plymouth price for a de luxe four-door was $807. Marj decided to buy a new car so she would be able to use that "need" for the money to put the squeeze on Carl Iverson so he would have to give her the "back-pay" he owed her. She was supposed to get about $40 a month, but Carl had only given her $5 or $10 at a time when she asked for money up until then. She told Pa he could use the Plymouth if she could trade the Essex in on it. [21.160-7]

Even during the worst years, we got ahead a little, adding a horse or a secondhand piece of machinery or something each year, while other people were losing their farms and just walking off and leaving them. (Of course I couldn't spend anything, except probably a dime for a half-pound candy bar when I went to town for something, and that was only permitted in the daytime.) [21.161-1]

About 1931 we bought a 1927 Chevrolet coupe for $115 and traded in a 1921 Model T, which we had converted to a pick-up. I suppose the dealer allowed about $10 for the Model T in trade. [21.161-2]

I didn't get much good out of that coupe the first years we had it, just "legal" things like going fishing (in the daytime), etc. It was good for hauling feed to town to be ground, pulling a rubber-tired, four-wheel trailer and box made from a Model T Ford. We later got a two-wheel trailer, too, with a stock rack on it to haul calves and pigs in to the stockyards (east of the depot) to be shipped by rail to South St. Paul. [21.161-5]

Just before the dry Depression years there had been a cloudburst, evidently centered on the Knutson farm. The hollow at the south edge of the house yard there filled up and ran over with such volume that it made a washout in the field just above the road, big enough to bury a couple of threshing machines in. It also washed out the road about eight feet deep and 10 feet wide. Later, after we bought the farm, we used the big ditch in the field for a dump. [21.161-3]

About 1939 we junked that 1927 Chevrolet coupe to make a wagon out of the running gear. It was only worth $15 in trade on another used car, and it was in perfect running order, not even any dents in it. We buried that perfect coupe body in that washout, along with Kent Skaar's perfect 1929 or 1930 Essex coupe body. (They made a wagon out of its running gear, too.) [21.161-4]

Before we made the Model T into a pick-up (while it was still the family car), when we had a veal calf to ship it was my job to sit in the back seat and hang on to the calf while Pa drove in to the stockyard. I'd holler, "Drive faster!" all the way, while the calf would twist and squirm and beller and put his feet in my lap and up on the seat and spread rich, smelly calf manure all over everything. [21.161-6]

When we got the calf out, Pa would take some grass and wipe my pants and the car seat off. [21.161-7]

When we had a cow to ship, Pa would tie her to the side of the wooden-wheeled wagon. That worked pretty well. If she tried to go too fast, she would land against the front wheel, and if she went too slow, the back wheel would get her. If she refused to go, I was walking behind her with a club and also twisted her tail. [21.162-1]

Some of the bigger farmers had long, narrow stock racks built on low, iron-wheeled wagons to haul their livestock in with. Some, like Clifford Monson, would bring their fat steers in on foot with a couple of saddle horses. One time we had a big sow to ship and Pa and I walked her to town on foot. The first cow we shipped had been someone's tame, family cow before we got her, and I led her in on foot. [21.162- 2]

The second spring we were on the farm Pa had four beautiful, big, black Poland China sows that he had raised from his one sow the year before. Our neighbors were raising a lot of the same breed of hogs that year. All of a sudden they hauled every one of their hogs in to the stockyard to ship them to South St. Paul. [21.162-3]

At that time the shipper that went along to South St. Paul with them could sell out of the yard here for the price the others brought in South St. Paul. Pa bought a couple of the smallest ones there to raise for butchering. What nobody knew was that the hogs being shipped had just gotten hog cholera. (The owners left the country for a few years, right with the pigs.) [21.162-4]

Pa's sows got the cholera from the feeder pigs. They were just ready to farrow and three of the sows and the two feeder pigs died. The fourth sow lost her little pigs, but she survived. That was really a major blow when he was just getting started farming. [21.162-5]

Pa and Sam Schram carried wood and kerosene and waste oil and fired for a couple of days to burn those big sows and their germs. We had to start again, real cautiously the next year with one pig, until we were sure all the cholera germs were gone. John Knutson gave us a little pig so we could try it again. [21.162-6]

We were the only ones who got the germs from the Ashby stockyard, but it's anybody's guess how far they spread from the South St. Paul yard, as they would have been sold as "feeders." [21.162- 7]

We got our first camera when I was 16 and Marj and I resolved never to waste film on people unless there was an animal in the picture, too. The Eastman Hawkeye 2-1/4" x 3-1/4" folding camera, from Sears Roebuck, cost approximately $7.50. It was our main toy for quite a while. [21.167-6]

We took mostly animal and scenery pictures. Stills, action, time exposures, moonlight, doubles (the same person twice in the same picture), etc. Some of our experiments worked and some didn't, but we did pretty well with the simple equipment we had. [21.168-1]

When Marj finished 8th grade, Humboldt College in Minneapolis was advertising a high school correspondence course. They even promised a "position," or your money back. They were right on Seven Corners in Minneapolis and had a "position or your money back" sign in four-foot letters clear across the front of the building, even though it was during the worst of the Depression and there weren't any jobs anywhere. [21.162-8]

Ma had been a schoolteacher and could help, so she decided this was just the thing for Marj. That way she would have to stay home and wouldn't get corrupted in high school. They sent in the coupon and a long-winded school representative came out and explained everything. [21.163-1]

For something like $150 she would get a new typewriter, lessons sent out every week and she would send in her papers every week for correction, for a couple of years or so, and then finish up in Minneapolis in six weeks. [21.163-2]

When the typewriter came, with the self-teaching book, I decided I would learn to type, too. Whenever I tried it my left arm would get tired right away and then I discovered it was a quarter turn off. I had to hold my elbow high up to get my hand level with the typewriter, so it didn't work. Luckily, I hadn't aspired to be an office worker. I don't know whether I was born deformed or not, but I always blamed it on Ma's taking me by the hand when I was little and yanking me back when I wanted to go the wrong direction. [21.163-3]

Marj worked diligently on the correspondence course, knowing it was the means to an end, and then Pa and Ma took her to the cities to finish up while I stayed home and did the chores. Someone found her a place to board and room with a family. It took eight months instead of the few weeks the high pressure salesman had promised.

Soon after she got there, one of the students finished the same course Marj was taking and demanded a job or her money back, but the school's owners said it was only if you completed all the courses they taught, and there were several different courses, that they would guarantee them a job. [21.163-4]

When it was time for her to come home in the spring (1931, I think), I had been promised that I could go down with the 1927 Chevrolet coupe and get her. [21.163-5]

Just a day or two before I went, all the banks in the state closed and the only money anyone had was what they had in their pockets. Pa happened to have $25 and some cents, which was more than he usually had in cash then. He gave me all of it to go to the cities. Out of that I was supposed to stop at "Wards" in St. Cloud and get a new knobby tire for the Chevy to match the new one on it. (The tire was something like $8.) [21.163-6]

When I got into Minneapolis on University Avenue, I was supposed to turn right on Lyndale Avenue. I watched and watched, but I didn't see it. I was too busy following the flow of traffic on University Avenue. Before I knew it I was on the other side of St. Paul. I stopped at a station and found out where I was and had to go all the way back. I made it that time and got to where Marj stayed about dusk. [21.164-1]

Marj had half a day of school left, so it had been planned for me to stay overnight where she stayed and sightsee that one Friday afternoon. She stayed with Maureen Rowland and they took me for a streetcar ride that night. [21.164- 2]

Marj knew her way around by then and had figured out how to make a long, U-shaped trip of many miles on the streetcar by getting transfers and only walking a few blocks. The whole trip cost two dimes, or 14 cents with tokens. [21.164-3]

I sat in the school office the next morning while she finished up and Maureen got the Friday afternoon off from her job. In the afternoon we toured the capitol and the public library, the museum and other things. The next day, Saturday, Maureen was to ride along to Anoka. Her brother from Mora would meet her there and take her home for the weekend and we would go on home. [21.164-4]

Before we got to Anoka the Chevrolet's motor started to make a terrible noise. We kept going anyway until we got to the Chevrolet garage in Anoka. They diagnosed a broken piston.

Saturday hadn't been made into a holiday then, yet, and the shop foreman said, "I'll put two men on it and get it out today." Two good mechanics went to work. The cylinder was scored about the depth of a wooden match in one place, but they smoothed out the rough spots and put in another piston. I still had enough money to pay for that job, but it took almost all of it. [21.164-5]

We made it home by about 11 p.m. Pa's $25 was all gone, but nobody else had any money then, either. It was the peak of the Depression. [21.164-6]

Carl Iverson needed a bookkeeper in the Equity and he had heard about Marj taking a business course, so he sent word for her to come and see him. The next day Marj was mowing hay with Bird and Polly, in by town on Emma Melby's field between where the Ashby Apartments are and the cemetery, so she tied her team to a tree and walked up to the Equity and got the job. She was almost 16 years old and she had the job for 3-1/2 years. [21.164-7]

We were planning a trip to Wisconsin with the Essex just before Marj started working, when she got a letter from Humboldt College asking if she could be in Minneapolis on a certain day. They wanted her to have her picture taken with the class she graduated with for their next set of advertising propaganda. It just happened to be at the exact time we would be in Minneapolis, on our way to Wisconsin.

They never dreamed she would come and were going to have someone else in the picture and say it was her, but she called them and told them she was coming. [21.165-1]

We visited at her old boarding place while she went for the picture. We had dinner there and the bathroom door was only about four feet from the dining room table.

I whispered to Pa, "It's sure handy here."

"Too blame handy," he whispered back.

After dinner he made an excuse to go out to the car for something and he and I walked two or three blocks down the street to a service station and used their "rest room." [21.165-2]

When we took the trip to Wisconsin after Marj's graduation, I was 19 and Marj was 16 and we really had a good time. Our cousins Thelma and Stella Borreson from North Dakota (also 19 and 16) and our Wisconsin cousins, Bobby and Oscar Johnson (13 and 19), got to drive around some. The six of us were a real live, fun bunch. There was a family picnic one day and many more cousins, but most of them were older and some were really "backwoodsy." [21.168-2]