Current economic woes bring memories of a time in the nation's history when many people weren't sure where their next meal was coming from - let alone a job and a regular paycheck.
Brainerd residents Roy Pearson, 95, and Wayne Johnson, 98, were young men during the Great Depression.
"I decided to go working when Dad come home and said 'I haven't got any money for groceries' and he was shedding tears," Pearson said, his voice cracking with emotion at the memory. His father was an electrical engineer in Minneapolis and faced long spells without work. "So I said to him the next morning, 'Why don't we go out to see if I can't get a job out on a farm outside of town?'"
Wayne Johnson's aunt and uncle operated a general merchandise store in Fort Ripley. This photo was taken in 1933. The store burned down two years later and wasn't rebuilt.
Pearson, who was then 15, made $30 a month and board and room working for an elderly couple whose grown children had left the farm. He took the street car from Minneapolis out to the farm, which was just outside Robbinsdale. The oldest of six, Pearson attended school through eighth grade before seeking work full time. He was able to send his family money from his monthly check and to send vegetables home for the family's food supply.
Without options to haul their crops to the cities, farmers often sold produce from highway stands. Residents came to them. Sunday was the busiest day. Anything ready to eat was hauled to the stand. Pearson remembers seeing hungry children who looked longingly at the food stand. Sometimes, he said, they donated a few carrots to a customer.
The Depression years, which stretched from the stock market collapse in October of 1929 to the early 1940s, left many Americans struggling.
"They never talked much about it," Johnson said of his parents. "We knew it was rough times. I lived in Fort Ripley. There just wasn't work. I don't know what some of the men did because there weren't any regular jobs that you can think of in Fort Ripley."
Johnson graduated from high school in 1929. A year earlier he started working for Hallett Construction Co. out of Crosby and stayed with them for 20 years. While many businesses struggled, road construction and paving provided work.
Roy Pearson, 95, of Brainerd, went from school to work during the Great Depression to help bring in money for his family as his father, an electrical engineer, struggled to find work. Pearson worked on a farm, getting room and board and a monthly salary so he was able to provide money and vegetables to his family. Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls » Purchase reprints of this photo.
First Person audio
» "I was the oldest...decided to go work..." (click to listen)
» "There were lot...that didn't have food..." (click to listen)
While they heard of soup or bread lines to feed people in the bigger cities, those images weren't pervasive. News wasn't as easy to come by. Months could go by in central Minnesota without hearing news from Minneapolis, let alone about big cities on either coast. The Great Depression followed the boom time of the 1920s. Banks failed. Fortunes evaporated. Businesses closed. The Depression spread worldwide creating an extended period of harsh economic conditions.
Pearson and Johnson said people didn't talk about their problems much and everyone understood as they were all in the same situation. Johnson said the Depression's harsh conditions were really felt in the bigger cities. In rural areas, he said, families helped people that were in dire straights and small communities tried to help, too. In 1929, Johnson said there was greater concern about the Depression in Little Falls than in Fort Ripley, where people were out of work but getting by.
An only child, Johnson started high school in the fall of 1924. Attending school meant going by train to Little Falls and paying $18 a week for room and board. As sparse as income was, Johnson said the room and board money meant a lot to the family he stayed with.
Fort Ripley, a town of about 100 people, boasted two grocery stores and a hardware store among other businesses, Johnson said. His father earned a monthly salary working on the railroad. He remembers his mother worrying more about her brother - a farmer with seven children.
"In 1932, everything went bust for them," Johnson said of his uncle. "They had to leave their farm and everything."
Johnson was 21 that year.
Pearson's work took him from Minneapolis to Roseau, where he could live with relatives and find road construction work.
"We were still using only horses and I loved to drive horses so I got in on that," Pearson said. During his first year in Roseau, Pearson worked for room and board alone. And when a Roseau hunter and trapper was looking for a worker to handle chores in his winter absence, Pearson's family offered his services for room and board.
Wayne Johnson held a replica of the 1925 Model T pickup he drove for three years while working on construction projects. Johnson, 98, of Brainerd, graduated from high school in 1929, the year the Great Depression started with the Oct. 29 stock market crash. Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls » Purchase reprints of this photo.
First Person audio
» "We knew it was rough times..." (click to listen)
» "...You could feel it..." (click to listen)
"I must have looked hungry all the time," Pearson said and laughed.
As a bonus, Pearson met his future wife on the job as the trapper turned into his father-in-law. So taken with her, Pearson and his brother would later drive from Minneapolis to Roseau each Saturday to double date. After getting married in 1937, the Pearsons moved to the Twin Cities. Pearson peddled theater bills around Minneapolis for little pay and worked 44 hours a week, at 50 cents an hour, in a foundry making parts for machinery. He was bringing home $22 a week.
"You didn't buy anything you absolutely didn't need," Pearson said.
An income boost came when Pearson's wife took care of young twins from the welfare department, bringing in $45 a month. Later, the Pearsons left Minneapolis and returned to farming, eventually buying their own place. Things began to pick up in the late 1930s and early 1940s as the Great Depression was replaced by World War II.
"I don't think there is much they can do right now," Pearson said of advice for people today. "If you've got any money you don't know if you'll have it tomorrow."
"I wouldn't want to go back to it," Pearson said of those years.
"You look back, they were all good times though," Johnson said.
RENEE RICHARDSON may be reached at email@example.com or 855-5852.
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