Monday, May 7, 2012

"We had nothing, but we always had plenty to eat."

Genevieve hardly ever talked about growing up on the farm on Potters Road during the Depression. I know she attended a one-room schoolhouse and rode a pony to get there -- there was a hitching post out front where the kids would tie them up during the day.

 The one-room schoolhouse Genevieve attended on Potters Road still stands today -- 
now it is the Spring Prairie Town Hall.
The Spring Prairie Town Hall did indeed used to be a school. It was built in 1895 on land that Genevieve's great-grandfather Joseph Potter must have given or sold to the village. But it's not the school that Genevieve attended. I am told that school was at the corner of Bowers Road and Highway 11.
Both Gen and Corinne showed signs of Depression-era trauma for the rest of their lives, obsessively saving and reusing things -- even note paper, until there wasn't any white space left on the page. When Corinne passed away, there were about 30 years' worth of National Geographic magazines stacked neatly in her attic; Genevieve had a similar collection of newspapers in her garage when we cleaned out her house. They both lived in modest houses all their lives and stuffed them to the gills with things that might be needed one day: things like Kleenex, soap, pencils... the little necessities we take for granted and run to Wal-greens to pick up every day just for something to do.

I can only imagine what kind of deprivation led to these lifelong habits. My mom remembers Genevieve telling her that they considered themselves lucky during the Depression, because although they had nothing -- honestly nothing -- they always had enough food to eat thanks to the farm. I've been reading Studs Terkel's Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression recently, and I have found that this was a very common experience in the rural Midwest. The Stock Market Crash of 1929 didn't come out of the blue; it followed a decade of agricultural Depression, where large surpluses led to diminishing prices at a time when farmers found themselves burdened by debt (all of which was related to World War I.) During the 1920s, more than 600,000 farmers went bankrupt. And then the Stock Market crashed. Two of the interviewees from Studs Terkel's book put this in perspective:

"The struggles people had to go through are almost unbelievable. A man lived all his life on a given farm, it was taken away from him. One after the other. After the foreclosure, they got a deficiency judgment. Not only did he lose the farm, but it was impossible for him to get out of debt."'

"He recounts the first farm depression of the Twenties: "We give the land back to the mortgage holder and then we're sued for the remainder -- the deficiency judgment -- which we have to pay." After the land boom of the early Twenties, the values declined constantly, until the last years of the decade. "In '28, '29, when it looked like we could see a little blue sky again, we're just getting caught up with the back interest, the Thirties Depression hit."

... "Grain was  being burned. It was cheaper than coal. Corn was being burned. A county just east of here, they burned corn in their courthouse all winter. '32, '33. You couldn't hardly buy groceries for corn. It couldn't pay transportation." - Harry Terrell

And yet, there were those like Genevieve who considered the challenges of farm life the best option available:  

"I was young and didn't pay no attention to it. I didn't get the clothes or the underwear or stuff like that, but the eatin' part was good. I'd rather be back on the farm than anything I ever done." - Aaron Barkham

Genevieve's parents were lucky; they didn't lose their farm. In fact, her brother continued to operate it right up until he retired. In fact, as of last year, 98% of farms in Wisconsin were still family farms -- a truly incredible number in these days of corporate agri-business dominating the industry. But that statistic is in grave jeopardy.

Many of the recipes in Gen's recipe box seem to date from the Depression. I can understand how living through an era where you had no material goods but plenty to eat would make you a little obsessive about food and the many various ways to prepare it. Perhaps this explains why even when she was in the nursing home and had long since given up cooking that Genevieve would ask, somewhat obsessively, "You know where my recipe box is, don't you? We still have it?"

I wish I could tell her that we do indeed still have it, and that's I'm working on sharing its contents with all of you.

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