Gary Graupner grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, but tales of the hardships that his close family endured as they struggled with poverty, disease, war, and the Great Depression were passed down to him in vivid detail. This People's History begins with the arrival of his paternal grandfather in Newport, Pend Oreille County, at the start of the twentieth century. From there it traces one family's story as it faced the daunting challenges of its time, including the 1918 flu pandemic, World War II, and the Great Depression. It is above all a story of persistence, generosity, and success, both in war and in life: Gary Graupner's grandfather builds a business as a butcher and grocer and during the Depression helps to feed needy friends, neighbors, and even strangers; his father, Roy, learns the value of hard work at an early age, serves in the Pacific during World War II, and comes home to raise a family; two generations of Graupners persevere through challenges that later generations have not faced, at least not yet. This reminiscence is filled with charming anecdotes of daily life in an earlier age, and reflects on what we as a nation have learned, or perhaps failed to learn, from the lessons of the past.This is reprinted with kind permission from Nostalgia Magazine, Vol. 11, No. 4 (April 2009).
The Great Depression by Gary Graupner
I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, and therefore was spared first-hand experience of the Depression years. However, as my parents, grandparents, and many aunts and uncles lived it day in and out, I heard many stories of how it affected them in their living and attitudes about life. My father often said that you can take the boy out of the Depression, but you cannot take the Depression out of the boy!
He often told me that he hoped very much that my generation and my children's generation would not have to experience what they went through, but feared that we may, since we seem unable as a society to learn from the dumb mistakes of the past. Now we find ourselves in deep water as a society, and we may well have to repeat history!
My second-hand account begins in Newport, Washington, where my grandfather, George Graupner, came to settle around 1900. He did not like the idea of farming in Missouri, so he left home to follow his older sister, Emma and husband, Frank Vawter. He settled in Newport and married in about 1908. His wife, Ruby, gave birth to a son, Evan, in 1909, but died a few days later of complications, leaving my grandfather with a tiny son to raise. There was no life insurance on her, nor were there any survivor benefits like Social Security. He worked in a store and eventually started his own business, Graupner's Meat Market. Times were hard even before the Depression, as Newport was a new town, and a rough one, since there were two railroads, the Great Northern, and Milwaukee Road, as well as mining, logging mills, and riverboat traffic on the Pend Oreille.
A year after Evan was born, there was a huge fire that burned a lot of the entire area. Newport was spared, although many towns were not, and many people perished, since communications were almost non-existent. George married a young Swiss lady, Nadine Stahly, and they had three children together -- Gladys, Gordon, and Roy, who was my father. He was born in 1921. In 1918, the flu pandemic came through Newport and killed many, including entire families. The Graupners were sick with it too, but no one died, unlike many friends and neighbors who were not so lucky.
When the Depression began, it was about 1930 before anyone really noticed any change, which happened slowly at first. My father, Roy Graupner, was 9 years old, and he told me that he of course didn't really know what was happening. In Newport, his father, George, worked six days a week at his grocery store -- mainly as a butcher, but he also had other grocery items to sell. Business was good; there were several stores in town and everyone made a living, although there was not much left over to save even in good times. The Graupners were luckier than many, as they had a home they were buying in town and a car, which was soon to become a real luxury.
There was always food on the table, and lots of it! Every Sunday, after attending the Methodist church, the family would have a nice dinner with visiting friends or relatives, and after dinner my grandfather usually went down to the store to do inventory, stock shelves, and do the books. Life was pretty much this way for many years. My dad recalled that the family never lacked for the things they needed, but he knew that if he needed spending money, he'd have to find a way to earn it by doing odd jobs around town. Once, my Dad decided to make money by going into the Christmas tree business. He took orders and went into the woods with axe in hand. He soon discovered that they don't grow in the woods like they look in the books. Another job he had was to stack wood in the basement at home. He was no dummy, so he often gathered his friends for a little help -- his traits of a salesman were already at work.
Life for the family consisted of the boys taking care of chores like cutting, splitting, and stacking wood in the basement, which they also had to bring up each day for their mother and sister, Gladys, so the meals could be prepared on the wood-burning cook-stove. In the cold months, the boys also had to take care of the stoking and cleaning of the coal in the furnace downstairs. In the summer months, they had to keep the yard mowed, the bushes trimmed, and flowerbeds weeded. As a boy, I recall trying to mow my grandma's yard with that old reel push-mower, and came to understand what a luxury it was to use our gas-powered, self-propelled mower!
In the early years, my grandmother's house had no indoor toilet, so every so often the boys got to tend to the duties of digging a new hole for the outhouse. Not only that, but they had to fill in the old hole after moving the outhouse to the new location. I recall as a boy, my dad told me that he helped some kids push an outhouse over on Halloween night, but the joke was on him and his buddies since he and a few of them fell in -- which left a lifetime memory for all involved!
The women took care of the housework, which included a trip outside to the spigot to fetch the water. Then the water was boiled on top of the stove to do laundry (usually on Mondays). The scrubbing was done on a scrub board inside a washtub and squeezed out with a hand wringer. Great pride was taken to have a bright white wash hanging on the line early in the day on Mondays. Women were judged on such things. Dad told me that he hated having to go out and get his scratchy wool underwear off the line. In the winter, it was frozen stiff and stood up like a cardboard figure when he took it in. There were no dryers in those days.
Daily, the cooking was done by the women, and they baked from scratch, since there were no frozen quick meals, and no refrigerator, just an icebox, for milk and perishables. In those days, ice was cut in large chunks from nearby lakes and stored even into the summer months. Life was much harder and busier than we imagine it is today, and there was not as much time for complaining or getting into real trouble like kids do today.
The Graupner family had one real luxury most folks in the early thirties did not have, and that was a radio. Consider that a radio cost the equivalent of a couple months pay for many people, which would make it cost about $3,000 in today's dollars, which would be almost unaffordable in good times, let alone tough times.
When the Great Depression started to hit Newport, there was a decreased demand for lumber, so the mills and loggers suffered the most, and of course miners were hurt, too. When people were out of work, they couldn't buy cars, eat in diners, or purchase things from stores. It all trickled down until everyone was hurting. Many car manufacturers went out of business during the thirties, when costs went up and demand dried up -- just like the soil in those dust bowl days.
When prosperity ends, it's like unraveling a ball of string. One man loses his job, and his job touches others who lose their jobs and then stores close. It just keeps getting worse like falling dominos. When the stores close and tax revenues fall in the cities and states, then they have to close schools, and roads don't get fixed, and on and on. In a small town like Newport where there are only a few large employers, such as the mill, it happened quickly and with very grim results.
My grandfather soon found himself faced with many families who asked for credit so they could feed their families. They had been customers who used to pay cash at his store! Being a kind and generous man, he gladly extended credit to many of his customers, who were often good friends and neighbors. Grandpa said that he was giving credit to customers to the point where he was almost unable to raise enough money to pay the bill when he ordered from the grocery wholesalers, and was close to going out of business himself because of it. My father said that he recalled his dad coming home from work nearly in tears with stories of people on the edge of starvation. In those days, people had no options, since there was no unemployment insurance, no credit cards, and their savings had dried up.
It was rare for people to not pay grandpa back after they got money again. Some were even paying him back little by little after the war! In those days, people took great pride in keeping their word and reputation, and no one wanted to be considered a freeloader -- unlike today! In those days, bartering was common, and many people paid bills off by trading goods and services, such as firewood, work on cars, etc.
With two railroads in town, there were many men riding the rails who were hard up. They traveled the country looking for work, and when they found no work, they lived in "hobo" camps or "jungles" on the outskirts of town. In Newport, they camped along the river. Many of the men would enter a store and beg for a handout. Grandpa had compassion and often gave the men bread, but there were days that he gave away more food than he sold, and then he had to think of his own family and try to stay in business. Some of the men were even willing to steal.
Once a man demanded a loaf of bread even after grandpa said he could not give any more food away that day. As the man grabbed the bread, grandpa threw a meat cleaver his direction. Word spread fast among the hobos about the crazy German who ran the market in Newport. Grandpa knew that most of the men were not criminals, but just hungry men out of work.
As a young boy, my father learned the fine art of fishing from some of the men in hobo camps along the Pend Orielle River near Newport. Unlike today, the men were fairly decent. He liked talking with the men, so once when he was mad at his ma, he hopped on the train with the guys, he told the men that he was running away with them. When the train began to move and was going too fast for him to jump on again, they kicked him off. He felt so betrayed!
Dad said that although there were a lot of good people then, there were law breakers too, as hard times turn some people mean. He said that the sheriff in Newport, who was a good friend, was killed when he interrupted a burglary at a creamery. Butter was scarce, so it was stolen to sell on the black market in Spokane. In those hard times, there was a lot of game poaching, too, and although it was illegal to hunt out of season, the police sort of looked the other way because it was pretty tough to arrest a man who was only trying to feed his hungry kids.
Many families had no car, since they were too poor, and others shared expenses to get a car and then shared it. Some of the cars didn't have heaters and it was not unusual for people to heat bricks on the stove and put them on the floorboards to keep their feet warm during trips in cold weather. Tires were kept long after they were safe. When they finally got too bad for use on the car, they were cut up to used as soles on boots and shoes that needed to be fixed. Not much went into the trash, unlike now. Even flour sacks were made into clothing.
My father had cousins who lived at Arden, near Colville. My grandmother's family was very frugal, and they worked very hard to do well on a farm that they bought a few years after they arrived in 1904. The cousins had had different perspectives on life than the kids in town. Although the cousins never were cold or hungry, life on a farm was harder in many ways than in town. Those kids seldom had money, and they thought their Uncle George Graupner was rich because he owned a store, bought them wieners, and gave them money when he came for a visit. They assumed that everything in his store was owned free and clear by him! When he showed up on the farm, he often brought things like bananas, oranges, nuts, sausages, and candy! One item of particular craving by the cousins was what they called "boughten bread," which was sliced and wrapped. They were used to homemade bread that their mother made. I recall as a boy being excited when my mom would make homemade bread!
Kids often went to work to help their parents pay bills. My dad went to work at a blister-rust camp during one of the summers in the late thirties. It may have been part of the government CCC programs. Blister rust was a disease of white pines. Many men worked in Civilian Conservation Corps camps to make money during the Depression, but it did not solve the Depression. My dad got lice during his stay at the camp, since no one had money for their own sleeping bag, and the bags were shared by lots of people over several years at the camp. My aunt was not pleased, because she did his wash and had to scald everything! Dad had to use some sort of medicated soap when he returned home! No wonder he hated bugs!
As you can see, the times were very hard indeed for many, and when my dad, Roy, graduated from high school in 1939 the Depression was still rolling along. He had a scholarship to play football for WSU, but couldn't find a job in Pullman to support himself for living expenses, so he went to Ellensburg for a semester. Then he had to return to Spokane, live with his brother, and get a job. It didn't last too long, because the Army Air Force needed him, so he got trained as a radioman and spent World War II on a B-24 bomber in the Pacific. When the war ended, he bought his first car, a 1939 Plymouth, which was about worn out, but he paid over $1,000 for it anyhow. It cost about $700 new in 1939! There were no cars made from 1942 to 1946, so they were scarce.
The Depression did not end because of FDR or any government programs that were invented. It took the war to put people to work and to end the Great Depression in the U.S. After the war, the country enjoyed the longest period of prosperity in its history, but it appears it's ending now as debt grows and jobs are lost.
They say that hard times build character, and that may well be true, but they also reveal character. People are very tough when they need to be, and people had no choice. You cannot just lie down and die when times get hard, but as these people learned and suffered, they also had a new outlook on life when it got better. Many have learned nothing from their parents' struggles, and now seem doomed to repeat the misery, and now we find ourselves possibly looking at a repeat of the Great Depression.
We will see.