While nothing to celebrate, October did mark the 88th anniversary of the historic Black Tuesday stock-market crash that launched the Great Depression.
Few alive today were adults during the worst of the nation’s most devastating and prolonged economic disaster, but members of what Charles “Colonel” Kindred, 96, refers to as the Depression Generation remain. They were teenagers during the 1930s and couldn’t help but be influenced by the hard times.
The jaunty era of the Roaring Twenties seemingly came to an abrupt end as investments were wiped out overnight Oct. 29, 1929, when Wall Street’s markets collapsed. Certainly, there were others factors at play, and many economists still argue about what caused the Great Depression, but there’s no debate about the devastation it wrought here and abroad.
The newspapers wrote about the newly bankrupt committing suicide by jumping out of windows and of banks locking their doors, swallowing the life savings of rich and poor alike. Unable to pay their debts, people lost their homes, their farms, and other businesses with few, if any, avenues to recoup those losses.
During the 1930s, 9,000 banks closed — including an estimated 4,000 in 1933 alone, the worst year of the Great Depression.
Kindred, of Smithville, recalls, as a boy in 1931, walking home one night through the small town. He stopped to see why several people were reading a notice posted on the town’s lone bank.
It read “This bank will be closed until further notice.” Kindred’s father had just deposited $10,000 — a considerable sum at that time — into the bank to pay cash for a 200-acre farm. He eventually received sixteen cents on the dollar for the loss of his savings, Kindred’s wife, Loula, said.
It would have been difficult for those who lost so much to buy John Dillingham’s reminder that “all good things have an equal and opposite set of bad things.” Or that the reverse is true.
From the wholesale collapse of the banking industry came the creation of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, which has protected future depositors from such catastrophic losses. Another far-reaching safeguard passed as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal remains much-debated today.
In August of 1935, FDR, as the president was known, signed the Social Security Act, guaranteeing income for retired citizens at age 65. Of course, the average age at death for men at that time was about 61 years old, according to researchers at Stanford University.
The impact of the Great Depression touched every corner of the country and all walks of life. But not equally.
By 1933, unemployment was at 25 percent. Old photographs show soup lines and lines of job hunters, who felt fortunate to find work even jobs well below their former employment status. Men “rode the rails” from town to town seeking work.
Some families in the Dust Bowl states, like Oklahoma and Arkansas, tied their scant possessions on ramshackle cars, abandoning their farms to head to California — a migration immortalized in John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath.”
Dillingham — a businessman and historian, whose ancestors came with the earliest settlers of this territory — recalls how the Great Depression made an impression on his father. The late Jay B. Dillingham, became the president of the Kansas City Stockyards, the second largest stockyards in the country during its heyday, and remains the only person to serve as president of both the Kansas City, Kan., and Kansas City, Mo., chambers of commerce.
“He worked like the devil,” John Dillingham said. “We saw him on weekends. We had one one-day vacation to the Ozarks. Deep down, he did what he did so the rest of the family would not have to go through (what he did). He sacrificed for future generations.”
The younger Dillingham laughed recalling how his father said during the hard times he had three meals a day, “oatmeal, cornmeal and miss-a-meal.”
Still, it’s a common theme among those who grew up during the Great Depression that it did not change their lives dramatically. While Kansas City and its suburbs was not immune to the effects of the economic catastrophe, expectations were simply lower.
Perhaps Kindred summed up the experience best: “Everyone in the town was poor, so no-one really knew any difference. The people became closer and had more dependence on each other. This made people thrifty, very frugal, and probably helped our generation even to this day. My generation certainly remembers those times. You were brought up at that age when you had to be frugal. It probably had its good effect on us.”
Gladstone resident Margaret Klamm Jenkins, 91, agreed.
“Nothing went to waste,” she said. “I was very fortunate. When I grew up, I was taught to save. Dad saved string. Socks were darned not thrown away. I still have a darning egg.”
Although, her mother did not turn collars, many did. Frayed along the neck edge, the life of the shirt could be extended by taking the collar off and turning it around before reattaching it to the shirt. Clothes too worn to be salvaged were used to make quilt pieces.
Born in 1924, the oldest of four daughters, Jenkins grew up in a farmhouse built in 1925 that later was razed to extend Missouri 45 east from Missouri 9.
“We had no electricity until 1946,” Jenkins said. “We had a coal-oil stove in the summer and wood cut from the farm in the winter. Water came off the roof through a charcoal filter into a cistern and was pumped into a basement tank. In dry years, we would order a tank of water to fill the cisterns.
The Klamms were farmers — growing fruit trees; raising livestock, a few cattle, pigs, chickens; and also growing some vegetables. Today, their former farm is the site of the new apartment complex west of the Burlington Creek shopping center.
“My father sold land to his brother during the Depression and then lost the money he received when the bank in Parkville closed,” Jenkins said. “My mother never forgave the banker.”
Her father, however, never complained, Jenkins said, “If someone needed a dollar, he gave it to them.”
The family trudged on and always had food. School clothes were scarce and were passed down from sister to sister. Good shoes were the only extravagance Jenkins remembers.
Martha Brenner Noland has a similar story. She grew up as one of four daughters near present-day Northmoor on Brenner Ridge. Like Jenkins, she also is in her nineties and, like Jenkins, she never lacked for food, but she recalled the little boy in grade school who only had biscuits.
“We just accepted it,” Noland said. “He was not looked down on.”
The family shared what it could, including her father’s gift of an acre of land to build a two-room school.
Entertainment was home-based on Saturday nights and the family felt fortunate to have a crystal radio.
Noland’s father, a farmer, would deliver milk from the family dairy and cut wood near the Missouri River to sell at the market. When the river froze in the winter, ice was cut, packed in sawdust, and stored in her grandparents’ 25-foot deep ice house despite the fact that the farm was not mechanized.
“We used newspaper or paper sacks to wrap packages,” Noland said. “We didn’t waste water. My father always made laundry soap with lye and household grease.”
Many things were homemade at that time. A typical treatment for a sore throat was a poultice of goose grease and turpentine worn around the neck.
Charles Bradley, 97, lives in the house where he was born in Platte County and still does some farming.
“We lived on a farm and grew our food,” Bradley said of his family’s experience during the Great Depression. “Hunger was never a problem to us. Nobody had any money. If my parents gave me five cents for an ice cream cone, that was a treat.”
The family bought staples in Weston, but that did not include cake.
“Once a week we would take a can of cream to the train to go to the creamery in Kansas City,” he said.
But perhaps that experience made him the man he became.
“All I ever wanted to do was farm.,” Bradley said. “You put a seed out there and you can sell or use (the plant). I worked in the tobacco patch when I was 6. It is a year-long crop.”
It fell to him to help kill the tobacco worms with Paris Green insecticide, which was applied with a hand-held bellows. The toxic chemical also was used to kill grasshoppers.
“It is arsenic and lead,” he said, “never heard of anyone dying from it.”
Politically astute, Bradley recalls President Hoover and the election of Roosevelt in 1932.
“He was a good man, but we were headed to war,” Bradley said. “Getting into war — it’s a terrible thing to have a war to bring us out of the Depression.”
Bradley is the lone remaining survivor among 27 from the 1937 Weston High School graduating class. Married young to “a country girl who lived five miles to the north,” they had a good life. Their 76th wedding anniversary will be March 8.
Bradley’s philosophy, “Set goals and make them. Not everyone is lucky enough to do that. Study, work, and try to keep ahead.”
If there was another Great Depression today, Bradley fears a revolution would ensue.
Margaret Wilson, traveled during the Great Depression with her father, a career soldier in the U.S. Army.
It was a secure life, which helped the family avoid many of the hardships of the time.
“He was happy to be in the army,” Wilson said.
Food came from the commissary, but her father always had a garden, too.
She remembered an uncle losing his job in Chicago and living with her family until he found a job as a carpenter in Kansas.
Occasionally, playmates from school were forced to move as their parents sought employment.
Eventually, Wilson graduated from the University of Kansas in 1940, one of the few who were able to do that. She counsels taking life as it comes and being patient to wait for the good times.
“It may be awful at first, but later ...,” she said. “I had a good life. Wait for it to come along.”