Depression Stories

 

(This 928th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on January 4, 2009.)

 

2Bridge over Deh-Ge-Wa-Nus Falls Winter.jpg

Bridge over Deh-Ge-Wa-Nus Falls in Letchworth Park

constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps

photo by David Lawrence Reade

 

One thing about being old: you remember past history for comparison with current events. Especially to the point with today's economic conditions, as a small boy I lived through the depression of the 1930s. I offer here some personal stories from that period.

 

A New Deal road construction project was underway near my home in Rochester and my friends and I bottled root beer to sell to the laborers. That summer was very hot, but few of them could afford the five cents we charged and we finally ended up giving away several bottles to exhausted workers. What most impressed me, however, was the fact that many of these people working with picks and shovels were dressed in suits and ties. I later learned that they were day workers who hoped for better but took any job offered.

 

Rochester, where I then lived, was conservative and much was made at the time of make-work projects and lazy men leaning on shovels. I saw little of either: that roadwork was clearly tough and exhausting.

 

One day a job hunter rang our doorbell. My mother seldom had tasks she could assign but on this day she wanted some leaves raked and offered the man ten cents to do the job. He quickly did so and went off with my mom's dime. But after he left the number of job seekers increased significantly and one would appear almost every hour.

 

As my own experience attests, my mother was not easily fooled. She had noticed that, as the first man walked out along our sidewalk, he had appeared to drop his dime and retrieve it. She checked the sidewalk and found that the man had marked it with chalk, identifying this as the home of a soft-hearted person. My not-so-soft-hearted mom erased the chalk mark and the number of vagrant visitors returned to normal.

 

We also camped during the summer near an Adirondack Mountain CCC camp. CCC stood for Civilian Conservation Corps, another Roosevelt era project. We visited that camp on Sunday evenings to see the men play baseball, but their daily work was mostly preparing and maintaining the campsites and trails in the Adirondacks. They were paid room, board and a dollar a day, their leaders, $1.50. Five-sixths of even that pay was sent home to their families.

 

If you want to see some of the lasting contributions those workers made, you need only visit Letchworth Park. Almost all of those roads, campsites and viewing areas were constructed by CCC workers. I consider the quality of their work outstanding.

 

But my favorite Depression story I only learned much later. In 1950 while teaching high school in Warsaw, New York, I was a member of the village Junior Chamber of Commerce. At one of our meetings John Simons who had been village mayor in 1933 talked to us about his experiences during those times. He told us how hard those times were and how frustrated he and his town board felt. Almost everyone in town was out of work and he and his fellow part-time, unpaid leaders had no answers to their problems.

 

But early in 1932, the mayor received a telegram from Washington. Sent by the just-established Public Works Administration, the message invited proposals for local projects.

 

Perhaps this was something they could apply for, the mayor thought, and he and his board drafted a plan to develop a town park. There were no forms to complete, no detailed budget required; they simply estimated what they would need to hire a few town residents to do the work. Based on their back-of-the-envelope calculations, they came up with a figure of $6000.00.

 

Off went the telegram.

 

Two days later came the response: "Your request for $600,000 has been approved." Someone had left the decimal point out of the original application. (That equates to $27 million in unskilled wages today.)

 

I urge you to visit the resulting Warsaw Town Park. It must be the best in western New York with its buildings and ball fields and swimming pools. But best of all, it provided jobs and income to many through those really difficult times.

 

Some mistakes do indeed work to our benefit.-- Gerry Rising