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Lessons of the Great Depression

A breadline during the Great Depression
A breadline during the Great Depression

Eighty-eight year-old Irja Kallio recalls a time when all her neighbors lived hand to mouth and no one in her hometown of Conneaut Ohio was rich.

Irja: "It was an altogether different time. Our expectations were less than they are today."

Kallio, who now lives in Florida, was on 90.3’s the Sound of Ideas® call-in show last week, part of an hour-long program on remembering the Great Depression. One caller told about how their family heated their home with coal they picked up along the railroad tracks. And Kallio, who was just a child when the stock market crashed in 1929, recalled her mother feeding less fortunate friends and neighbors with potatoes and eggs from the family farm.

Irja: "I think it was a sense of community. Everybody helped each other. You knew your neighbors and you knew what your neighbors needed."

Back then, there were many people in need and periods of panic as long lines formed in front of closed banks. At the height of the Great Depression in 1932 and 1933, more than a quarter of Americans were out of work. Ohio’s unemployment rate climbed to nearly 40 percent. Compare that to 7.2 percent of Americans and 7.8 percent of Ohioans today. And remember, back then, there was no government safety net such as federal deposit insurance, unemployment insurance or social security.

For some who lived through that era, the depth and breadth of the nation’s economic collapse made personal hardships somewhat easier to bear. Eighty-six year-old Richard Grondin of Medina remembers his father no longer being able to make payments on the family farm in rural Michigan. His father and older brothers loaded all their farm equipment onto a flat bed wagon. Over the next two days -- a team of horses hauled it all to a new farm 50 miles away where the family worked as sharecroppers.

Richard: "A lot of people we knew were losing their jobs, losing their farms. I guess that's why it never appeared like that much of a tragedy because we were not alone doing it. "

Today virtually everyone is anxious, many are struggling but compared to the ‘30s, relatively few have experienced financial devastation. Still, in many ways - people from Grondin and Kallio’s era were better suited to get through it. They grew up with parents telling them: Don’t look to others to get you through life. Use your own two hands.

It was much later that America became a consumer driven culture where credit is easy and living beyond your means is common. Just ask 92-year-old Norma Krivak of Munroe Falls.

Norma: "You didn't get something new unless you really needed it. I remember kids putting cardboard in their shoes when they got holes in them."

Krivak, who grew up in Beaver Falls Pennsylvania, says her family was lucky. Her father held down a job guarding an idle factory. And he found creative ways to save money. For instance, he began cutting all nine of his children's hair.

Norma: "He got himself a scissors and a comb and whatever. And I have a picture of me with my hair - and it looks like he put a bowl over my head."

Back in Michigan, Richard Grondin’s family lived thriftily by spending time together at home. No one went out in those days, he says.

Richard: "We left one room in the house unfurnished and we would use it for square dancing. The local banjo player and fiddler and guitar player would come over and play for free. We'd have all the neighbors and relatives over and just dance."

As policy makers in Columbus and Washington search for the right formula to cure the sick economy, Americans do need to remember that our forbearers got through much worse and many of the lessons they learned during the Great Depression might help us manage to live with less.

Caitlin Johnson, 90.3