October 21, 2021

Memories of scarcity & happiness

Photos provided by Cortland County Historical Society

Crescent Corset employees, Sept. 27, 1939.

Betty Fish said it probably seems fantastic to someone from today’s world — to hear how she grew up during the Great Depression.

“My father and mother always had a garden. Mom canned everything in sight. Dad raised a pig for pork. That’s what we lived on. We had a cow so we had our own milk.”

Fish, one of nine children, graduated from Cincinnatus High School in 1935, smack dab in the middle of the Great Depression.

“I don’t remember personally that we suffered. My father had a job,” the 101-year old Cincinnatus woman said.

“It was the larger cities that suffered from the Great Depression, and stockholders. We did have bread lines where they furnished food for people. But as a small town, we weren’t affected that much,” Fish said.

Parents dealt with Depression

Residents say their parents bore the brunt of the Great Depression from 1929 to 1939, with unemployment rates that ranged from 14 to 25 percent.

But to hear their experiences growing up in the ’30s and ’40s is eye-opening.

Parents put their cars up on blocks and took to bicycles because of rubber and gas shortages, moms made dresses out of feed sacks, single moms of five worked two jobs, and grandmas did look-outs for enemy aircraft.

Provided by Jaffrey Harris

The Harris Homestead, where Jaffrey Harris grew up, now at 81 N. Main St., Homer, in 1946.

Our tough times

Americans have seen tough times. There was the Dust Bowl of 1930 to 1939, a drought in the Southern plains that saw massive dust storms from Texas to Nebraska, killing people and livestock, wiping out wheat fields and causing mass migration.

African Americans endured slavery here for more than 250 years. The 13th Amendment banned it, but the suffering didn’t end there.

The U.S. saw a Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 to 1920 that killed 675,000 Americans and 50 million worldwide. Its military fought in World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Today, the COVID-19 pandemic has infected 1,295,000 Americans and killed 77,000 by the first week of May. The national unemployment rate jumped to 14.7% last week.

A blip and then it’s over

Yes, said Jaffrey Harris, 90, of Homer, we got through the bad times.

“The 1918 epidemic 100 years ago — We got through it. They are terrible when it happens, but when it passes, the people don’t think of it,” said the retired Harlan Industries wood company owner.

Harris, a volunteer at the Cortland Historical Society for 25 years, said if you look at these events on a chart, “It’s a blip. It doesn’t take long for it to be forgotten. Another one will come along.”

Harris grew up in Homer and his dad had a “mini-farm.” They had a cow for milk, a pig for pork and a beefer for beef meat, he said. There were eight kids in the house.

“I was number six. We didn’t know there was a Depression.”

He was born in 1930. World War II, he was aware of. When that hit, three kids were out of the house and his parents had ration stamps that dictated how much they could buy. They had a huge “cobblestone garden.”

“I had to go out and work in it,” Harris said. It was like they were raising cobblestone there were so many rocks in the garden.

There were two drug stores on Main Street, three grocery stores in 30 seconds of each other, and a post office, built in 1937. Homer Laundry was there.

“The people, they were so polite. The older gentlemen like John Briggs. … They were polite to us youngsters. It’s a lot different to today,” he said.

A kid today won’t answer a ‘hello.’ “They worry about ulterior motives,” he said. “We don’t socially mix like we used to.” “The village green was there. It was not as well done as it is today. We didn’t have money. It was the Depression. Today it’s head and shoulder above in looks.”

Entertainment was Monopoly, cards and going to the movies.

“In high school, we went to Skate Land. It was across from the Central New York Living History Center. During the war, big bands would come and play.”

There was government rationing during World War II, to prevent hoarding and price increases.

Harris’ dad could buy four gallons of gas a week — “Which is why cars were put up on blocks and people went to bicycles.”

Plus rubber from the Far East was in short supply.

“You couldn’t walk into any store and present what you wanted to buy,” Harris said.

“My dad never had what I consider much of a job. But he always worked: Maxon Staerin, Marathon Line Co., justice of the peace, school bus driver. All during the war he was working.”

Photo provided by Cortland County Historical Society

The A.B. Brown building in 1929. Exact locale, unknown.


Black outs and look outs

“We had a happy childhood,” said Joyce Camp, 83, of Cortlandville. It was her parents who felt the brunt of the Depression.

“We didn’t have a lot of possessions,” Camp said. “We didn’t need possessions and stuff to be happy.”

The retired registered nurse said church and Sunday School and outdoor play was their childhood.

“We loved it.”

“My family, we moved quite a bit. My dad worked at the war plant in Sidney.” Called the Scintilla Plant, it made airplane parts.

“The only house we could find was living with this old man … My mom stayed home and took care of us and cooked. There were three of us little girls. Times were different. We couldn’t get all the food. Things were in short supply,” Camp said.

“My grandmother hoarded sugar. She had a barrel in her bedroom with sugar. We didn’t talk about that,” she laughed. “Both my grandmother and mom made clothes out of feed sacks.”

“Feed came in colored sacks,” she said. “They made curtains out of them. I had any number of dresses and skirts made out of feed sacks. I can remember some of the patterns we had. That was pretty cool.”

“While we lived there, the rubber was in such short supply. We didn’t drive too far. Your tires wouldn’t hold up. We had two flat tires every time we visited our grandmother. That was par for the course. “

“We had re-caps. The tires were recapped. They put a coating of rubber on the tires. … Rubber went to the war effort. A lot of things were in short supply, going to the war effort. People did not complain.”

And in Sidney, they had to turn off the lights and blacken the windows so enemy airplanes would not attack them, Camp said. Wardens would walk the streets to make sure people were not emitting light.

“I remember my mom saying, ‘I have three little kids in here. How do you expect me to have no light?’”

Camp’s grandmother, Ruth Forder, volunteered to sit up on a hill and watch for airplanes, in a hut. She had binoculars and for days would see nothing.

“I think it was for eight hours … Once in a great while, there was a plane. It was an American plane. She had to report the kind of airplane.”

“There was a certain amount of fear that we would be attacked,” Camp said.

Provided by Cortland County Historical Society

The Cortland House around 1930.

Day and Night Jobs

Tabitha Scoville, director of the Cortland County Historical Society, said her great-grandmother had five children and worked two jobs as a single mom to support them.

Georgianna Finch used to work at the Crescent Corset Co. on South Main St. all day and catch the trolley to Homer to work in one of the canning factories in the evening, Scoville said.

She had five kids at home and a girl lived with her and helped with the kids in return for room and board. The Finches were divorced and her great-grandmother had virtually no help from her ex, said Scoville.

“She used to say the kids each had two sets of clothes and that was all.”

‘We didn’t go to the doctor’

Fish’s dad had a very hard-working, low-paying job, tending the coal fires of Borden Co.

“Dad died young. I thought that (job) had a lot to do with it. Back then, we had nine kids. We didn’t go to the doctor,” Fish said.

“We grew up right where I live now,” she said. “We had a neighborhood that had big families like we did. In the summer, we swam. That was our entertainment. We played softball out in the yard.”

In the winter, the kids went sledding. And Sunday School was a big deal.

“I had a very happy childhood,” Fish said. “I had a bunch of friends in the same situation that we were.”

That helped.

Camp has a strong faith in God.

“I am not afraid,” she said of COVID-19. “I keep hoping. We take all the necessary precautions. We wear the masks. In our family, we are careful. I think we are going to get through this. We keep saying, ‘Later this summer we will be together.’”

Harris said he had tough times as a businessman and considered giving it up. But he didn’t.

“You just have to keep plugging,” he said. “People look at you in your retirement years, you are comfortable. They can’t conceive that you had it as bad as they have it.”