Howland neighbor revisits life in the 1930s

The 1930s were sad years for our country. After the boom-and-bust 1920s, with its flappers, jazz, the Charleston and speakeasies, the ’30s were a great shock to America.

As the population ages now, fewer and fewer people remain who remember the hardships of those years. Some scholars know the details but the average person does not.

The government did provide programs that gave men and women employment. The Works Project Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps, Homesteads projects and other programs were developed.

The Skyline Drive through the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, which gave employment to thousands of people, was initiated by President Herbert Hoover and completed under the leadership of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, as were the Hoover and Shasta Dams in the West.

Artists were employed to paint murals in public buildings and post offices, including the one in Warren. Authors were put to work to use their writing skills to author commemorative histories of states and communities across the country.

A neighbor in Howland and good friend of ours has lived long enough to tell some of her firsthand experiences during the 1930s. Ninety-eight-year-old Lenore Syrstad’s family had settled in Sandusky from Switzerland and Germany. She was raised by her aunt because of her mother’s broken marriage.

When Aunt Mary heard the news of the bank failures in 1929, “It was as though she had been struck by a heart attack. She thought she had lost everything,” Lenore said.

But Uncle Martin got work two or three days a week in the Barr Company rubber factory in Sandusky making toys. People who could hardly buy groceries would buy a 10-cent toy for a child.

“The Depression wasn’t so hard on me,” Lenore said, “but it was hard on my friends. My girlfriend Dorothy was one of nine children. Her father lost his job.”

Lenore remembers going along when that family would go to pick up government commodities. A typical list of the “handouts” they would receive might include a one-pound sack of sugar, two pounds of flour, two cans of beans and a tin of English beef to last them a week of frugality and self-survival. These would be supplemented by whatever the family could grow or find locally.

Lenore remembers the kids going down to the dock of the Sandusky Sand Company to fish. The perch, pickerel, bullhead and catfish they caught were staples for Dorothy’s family and were welcome in Aunt Mary’s kitchen, too.

“We hated Herbert Hoover,” Lenore said, “because he refused to do anything about poverty.”

Among Lenore’s memories of the time are trips the family made in Uncle Martin’s 1926 Whippet automobile. Aunt Mary was always scared because it went so fast. The tires were patched and patched as no one could afford to buy new tires then.

Some of Lenore’s relatives lived on Pelee Island, a Canadian island closer to the United States than to Canada. Lenore remembers visiting there by flying in a Ford Trimotor airplane, a modern transportation innovation in those days.

But at age 16, Lenore felt she had to quit school and go to work to make her own way, staying with a family where a cancer patient needed nursing.

The beginning of the war in Europe produced a demand for manufactured goods that could be made in America and men and women returned to employment. By 1940, the Great Depression was on the way out.

This story is a reminder of how another depression could affect us if we don’t have proper government in office, able and willing to take action.

Contact Thomas at bthomass@aol.com.

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