My grandfather often spoke about growing up on a poor mid-Missouri farm during the Great Depression and the period immediately following. Thankfully, I’ve never had to experience the challenges that confronted those who lived during such trying times, so while I found the stories fascinating from a historical standpoint, I struggled to truly grasp the everyday fear, discomfort, and despair that were their constant companions. One story, however, changed the paradigm, bringing the full brunt of what living on the edge of scarcity must have been like for those who experienced it first-hand. Despite being told through many decades of memory, the events that took place one bitterly cold winter night in Missouri’s “Little Dixie” came to life for me via my grandfather’s words, and it was in that moment that I came to fully appreciate the generation that survived The Great War/World War One only to suffer and nearly starve as they prepared to send their sons into World War Two, not knowing if the world would survive or if the Rapture was close at hand.
The Great Depression touched everyone’s life in some form or fashion. For those living in “Little Dixie,” however, it was exceptionally difficult. Having never fully recovered from the ravages wrought by the spill-over fighting from “Bleeding Kansas,” the War for Southern Independence, and the guerilla fighting that carried on for many years after the war, the farmers who generally comprised the lower social strata barely made ends meet, despite often herculean efforts.
Life’s daily struggles during this period were often compounded by nature, which seemed to sense that many were at their breaking point and decided to pile on the misery, as if God had decided to punish a sinful world for their wicked ways. For many farmers, it was as if they were twentieth-century Canaanites soon to be pushed off the land by the Lord’s hand. The winter of 1939/1940 was a good example of the Almighty’s wrath, as temperatures dropped to negative fourteen degrees Fahrenheit in January 1940. It was during one of those nights that my grandfather, just a boy of nine years of age, believed his family’s survival had reached its end.
Being from a subsistence farming family, my grandfather’s people canned food as a means to survive the lean winter months for which Missouri is well known. Generally, these canned foods were stored under the beds in their home, as they did not have a cellar. This storage method, while not as good as a below-ground option, kept the jars covered, out of the way, and relatively close at hand, when needed.
During one of these bone-chilling nights, my grandfather was awakened by the sound of glass shattering. Thinking at first, as he tried to overcome the shock of being roused from a deep sleep by a sudden jolt, that it must be the windows giving way to hail or some other weather event, it quickly became apparent that the sound was coming from the Mason jars under the bed. Apparently, it was so cold in the home that the glass jars in which the food was stored fragmented as their contents froze and expanded, spilling the family’s provisions onto the floor.
Once my great-grandparents realized what was happening, they moved quickly to get a fire going in an attempt to prevent further spillage by warming the home as rapidly as possible. The last fire had been allowed to burn out, as they rationed their wood consumption due to burning through their stock in an effort to combat the extreme cold. As they had to cut wood on land belonging to others, for which there was a fee, they had tried to make do with what they had accumulated. Clearly that plan, created out of necessity, had backfired.
Being of strong German peasant stock – stoic rather than emotional people – they moved to salvage what they could, as there would be time later for tears when they could hide their fear from the children. That stoicism is a family trait of which I am extremely proud: always show the kids that things will be fine, even while you are consumed by panic, fear, and desperation. Show certainty and strength in public and despair in private.
When the morning came, the family was able to take stock of the destruction, being forced to utilize candle light during the previous night as their limited electric lighting had been affected by the weather, and the hard reality of their situation became clear: they did not have enough food to survive the winter. Despite this seeming rebuke from the Almighty, my great-grandfather mustered his inexhaustible reserve of soul-deep Protestant work ethic and, despite the arctic-like weather, bundled up as best he could and trudged to the nearest town on foot, not wanting to subject his precious draft animals to the biting cold, lest they fall ill. Upon arrival, he began looking for what work was available, making arrangements for any odd jobs to fill what little time he had in between the work he was already doing, like many other famers and laborers, to make ends meet between crop seasons.
Somehow, perhaps it was divine grace, with the Lord sparing those who demonstrated the resolve to keep going without losing faith, the family, and many of their neighbors, made it through the winter. They eked out a living until they were able to get a new crop in the ground to start the process of growing and saving over again, in the seemingly endless cycle that was life in that place and time. How exactly they did it seems to be lost to memory, as the whole region was still coming out of the worst of the depression and bouts of apocalyptic weather. Maybe it is like any other trauma, once you are on the other side of whatever hell has been endured, you do your best to suppress any memory of the event, lest it haunt your dreams and rob you of any chance at happiness. Regardless, the family somehow gathered the means to meet adequate caloric intake for all of its members and made it through to spring, despite the continued onslaught of winter and icy conditions.
For “Little Dixie’s” farmers, the respite earned from their never-ending labor was fleeting, as war was once again on their doorsteps. And while this event was to be fought far from central Missouri’s fields and forests, it was nonetheless all-too close and present, as mothers wailed and fathers stoically shook hands with sons in what may have been their last moments together. This was the same sad ritual played out by their parents and seemingly every Missouri generation going back to the War of 1812. Thankfully, my great-grandfather was too old and my grandfather too young for this conflict, but other family members were not so lucky, and took up the call to arms on distant shores.
Before he passed away, I asked my grandfather whether or not he harbored any anger or bitterness towards the way he grew up, to which he replied in the negative. By his reasoning, the experience of that time made him the man that he was. Due to surviving lean times, he was compassionate to those in need. When work opportunities presented themselves, he happily jumped at the chance, having experienced extreme poverty. And when able to eat a good meal, he relished the nourishment and full belly that followed, as his childhood had been marked by lean times. Being a man of deep faith, he often compared that period to the Israelites wandering in the desert, being prepared by God for better times in the Promised Land, hoping his children and grandchildren would know easier times. While by no means comparing my great-grandfather and his contemporaries to the patriarchs of old, they do deserve credit for being men (along with their wives) who would rather work themselves to death than see their children go hungry or without the basic means of survival.
In today’s world, where toddlers masquerading as adults whine and cry about nearly everything, referring to words as “violence” while sipping $9 cups of coffee and using smart phones to “live” in virtual worlds, I often reflect on the Great Depression to remind myself that men – real men – and their wives and children withstood and triumphed over challenges that would completely wipe out the weak “men” and mascu-feminists that, unfortunately, seem to overwhelmingly characterize contemporary young “adults.” While I will never be the man that my grandfather, great-grandfathers, and great-great-grandfathers were, never having faced the same kinds of fire that harden the steel of one’s soul, I can ensure the stories of their faith, stoicism, and heroism endure.