Hard Times Remembered


Elsa Ponselle , a young teacher during the Depression, is now the principal of one of Chicago’s largest elementary schools.

At our school we had many Mexican children. When I get violent against big business, I think of those poor little kids. The Mexicans were imported to come up and work on the railroads, and when the work gave out, well, brother, can you spare a dime? They were thrust out, just like that. And they accepted it. I mean, this was the way the world was.

At times, when it was raining and snowing the middleclass children were all bundled up, or else kept at home. Our kids came to school every single day, whether they had anything to wear or not. ‘Cause it was warm, the classroom was warm….

Today the kids blithely make fifty dollars and off they go and spend it. As they very properly should. One time somebody said to me, “What these’kids need is to experience a depression.” Two of us, remembering the hard times, screamed at him, “Never! Not in a thousand years!” I don’t care how blithe they are in spending money. Nobody should experience a depression. No young person should….

Pauline Kael is now the film critic of The New Yorker magazine.

When I attended Berkeley in 1936, so many of the kids had actually lost their fathers. They had wandered off in disgrace because they couldn’t support their families. Other fathers had killed themselves so the family could have the insurance. Families had totally broken down. Each father took it as his personal failure. These middleclass men apparently had no social sense of what was going on, so they killed themselves.

It was still the Depression. There were kids who didn’t have a place to sleep, huddling under bridges on the campus. I had a scholarship, but there were times when I didn’t have food. The meals were often three candy bars. We lived communally and I remember feeding other kids by cooking up more spaghetti than I can ever consider again….

Robert Havighurst is a professor at the Graduate School of Education, University of Chicago.

The S.D.S.-type of student was rather visible on the campus during the thirties. As I see it, I think they had more to object to than today’s young dissenters. They emerged from the social soil of the Depression. They came from families where the father had no job, though desperately seeking one. No one living in that decade could avoid the feeling that something was terribly wrong with society….

Clyde T. Ellis was in the Arkansas state senate from 1934 to 1938. He later was elected to Congress.

The Dirty Thirties—the phrase was coined where we had the dust storms. My people came from Arkansas, where the years of drought coincided with the hard years of the Depression. Even the one good year was no good. Everything dried … the springs, the wells, the ponds, the creeks, the rivers.

We saw bank failures everywhere. In my county, all but three failed. The president of the bank where my people had their little savings didn’t wait to be indicted. He committed suicide. The worst thing we lost was hope. A man can endure a lot if he still has hope.

Mountain people are more rigorous than others. We lived a harder life. We had to grow or make most of the things we needed. The country never did lend itself to mechanization … still doesn’t. Rock. We had relatives who just gave up. Broke up homes, scattered to different states. From down in my county, many would go to what we called DEtroit. Then they started to go to California, any way they could. Thumbing rides … I thumbed rides when I was peddling Bibles. It was during a summer, while still in high school. The Grapes of Wrath was no exaggeration. We saw it, we lived it. The Joad family had an automobile. We never could afford one. Had we been able to, I’m sure my family would have done the same—gone to California. And we were better off than most….

Ruth Loriks lives on a farm in Arlington, South Dakota. Her husband, Emil, was a state senator from 1927 to 1934

This neighbor woman lost her husband and, of course, he was owing in the bank. So the auctioneers come out there, and she served lunch, and she stood weeping in the windows. “There goes our last cow. …” And the horses. She called ‘em by names. It just pretty near broke our hearts. They didn’t give her a chance to take care of her bills. They never gave her an offer. They just came out and cleared it out. She just stood there crying….

Oscar Heline , seventy-eight years old, has lived on the same Iowa farm all his life.

What I remember most of those times is that poverty creates desperation and desperation creates violence. In Plymouth County—Le Mars—just west of us, a group met one morning and decided they were going to stop the judge from issuing any more deficiency judgments. This judge had a habit of very quickly okaying foreclosure sales. These farmers couldn’t stand it any more. They’d see their neighbors sold out.