Lilly Marek: Great Depression and the Barter System

President Franklin D Roosevelt great depression

Once upon time a long time ago a little girl was born in the little town of Victor Montana. Population 250 (some people said the census bureau that came through must have included the dogs too, lol).  This is not meant to be my life’s story, but since I was born in 1923 right before what they called the “great depression” and grew up during the depression I thought you might enjoy how people got by with absolutely no money, no refrigeration and still managed to live.  Remember this is through the eyes of a little girl. It looked entirely different to my parents who had to wonder how they were going to feed 12 kids (I had 11 brothers and sisters).  it is not meant to be the story of my life at all, just how I saw it. My first memory is wanting to go to school. I was all alone with my parents since I was the baby. I started school in 1928 and before I was 5 years old. Here goes. We were the Marek family.

We had a huge ranch. We were self supporting in raising all the food for the humans and for the animals. Had large hay fields,  put up hay for all the animals. Field of oats, field of wheat. My father took a wagon load of oats to a mill to be made into oatmeal for us to eat. He had a huge grainery to put oats in bins to be fed to the animals. He took several loads of grain to the mill to be made into flour and stored the rest for chicken feet etc. We had a huge orchard and a huge garden. The cash crop was from the dairy cattle. All of us had to milk cows. We had what was called a separator. You poured the milk into this huge container on top, turned a crank (by hand of course) and it separated the cream from the skim milk. Mama kept back what cream or whole milk we needed for the day for making cottage cheese or cream for butter etc. The cream can was set in a little ditch that ran through the yard right from the mountains. It was ice cold. The Creamery man came daily to pick up the cream. I have no idea what or how he paid but that was the only money coming in except for steers my father sold in the fall. My mother canned everything from the garden and we had what was called a cellar. You filled it with apples, carrots, squash and other things to last all winter. We also had what was called the ice house. In the winter you sawed large squares of ice from a shallow pond and filled this building with ice. When we butchered or shot a deer etc it was hung in the ice house. Of course it was not cold enough to keep meat more than a few days so this is how that was handled. I didn’t know why so may neighbors came to our house on butchering days. One would take a side, one a hind quarter for example. No money exchanged hands but when that neighbor butchered my dad would get a hind quarter from the guy that got one from him etc. They all staggered the butchering so we had fresh meat almost all the time. Of course we had chicken for fresh meat and lots of trout all year round. Everyone helped everyone.  The person who got meat and had no animals to butcher traded so many days work to my father. When it was haying time lots of neighbors came to work for us. No money changed hands so that took care of the fresh meat for him as well as help for us.   A man came through with a thrashing machine to separate the oats and grain from the fodder. Not sure how he got paid but the neighbors who got meat and other farm produce from us came to help too.  I think some of them got some grain for their chickens or ducks, not sure about that. It was the only way any of us could have survived. My Dad needed help, and they needed food.  We could not use up a whole steer or pig before it spoiled. I didn’t think of us as being that poor, even though we had no running water, no electricity, and no car. Actually, looking back as a grown up and understanding how people actually starved to death I was a very lucky child. I had good food, a warm place to sleep, and a goodnight kiss from both parents. I am thankful I was born then. The only car I saw was the mailman on the road once a day. If someone died or some other news he left a note in our box. We had no newspaper, no TV or radio. And we had a big school bus that picked us up and brought us home.

Other people in “town” traded their talents for what they needed. I will just include one family. Other families had different talents and service they bartered to survive. I will talk about the Olson family Johanna and Ole.  He was a chimney builder. I don’t know how they managed to live in Victor. We had tin stove pipes going out through a hole in our roof, and he built us a chimney of bricks. It sure cut down on the fire danger and we could have a hotter fire. He got credit somehow for meat, veggies and eggs. I remember my mother telling Mrs. Olson she still had a months worth of eggs coming. Not sure how many eggs that was but the Olson’s had 12 children also. As a personal note here, two of the Olson boys married two of the Marek girls.

Back then we had a lot of hungry men come through who were really REALLY hungry and tired. Now they would be called homeless, back then they were called hobo’s. They wanted a meal and a place in the barn to sleep to rest up so they could travel on looking for work. They offered to split wood, or do anything. My mother never refused them. She made them a big plate of food and always packed them a lunch when they were rested enough to move on. We never made them do anything. Mother would say a prayer for them and always said “but for the grace of God” this could be my son.

Things begin to slowly change. At school they gave us a cup of hot chocolate in the afternoon and sometimes a little box of cream of wheat we could take home. Dad complained and said where are they getting the money to pay for that? He had trouble getting enough cash to buy us kids all a tablet and pencils.

There were fewer hobo’s coming through.

We little kids could work for neighbors so we could earn a few pennies. Labor then was 50 cents or a dollar a day but mostly piece work. We got to keep the money we earned and could either save it or if we spent it but it had to be on clothes. One of the Olson boys that married my sister started what they call a truck garden. Rows and rows of onions, radishes for example. I got a job weeding rows of veggies, then when they were big enough to harvest we did what they called (bunching them) you pulled ten radishes and put a rubber band around them. We did the same with onions. He had a pick up truck then and took them to stores. That was his cash crop. Another man had a huge strawberry patch and us little kids picked his berries for so much a box. Our goal was to pick enough to earn 50 cents a day. He had cash to buy other stuff he needed.

It worked great. We kids had jobs and they made a living. One year my brother in law didn’t plow his field. He said someone from the government offered him more money not to plant that he could earn from planting. Made no sense to hard workers but it was called the Conservation Resource Program. He didn’t have to work but all the little neighbor kids lost their jobs. Didn’t seem very good to me. Not many hobo’s came anymore. On the school bus we could see men standing all along the road leaning on a shovel, doing absolutely nothing. We learned this was due to the Workers Progress Administration or WPA. This was in 1932 and 1933. It was the start of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s, New Deal. To me and lots of others it seemed like a bad deal. We talked to the men leaning on their shovels when we would wait for the school bus. They got boxes of what was called “commodities”. These boxes had coffee (we could hardly afford to buy it) big cans of beef similar to these nice cans we buy at Costco now. Little cans of deviled ham, and cans that were like spam but not called spam. In fact most cans had no labels. We would trade the men with the commodities of our fresh stuff and fresh meat for their little canned stuff which was like a candy treat to us little kids who had never had any “store bought stuff”. By 1932 most banks were closing and people lost all their savings.

The Olsons and the Mareks all could play an instrument of some kind so together they built a dance hall, called Pine Ridge.  I even got to play the piano in the band part of the time. People paid $1.00 a couple to dance on Saturday night. The band got paid whatever was taken in at the door and one night I earned $5.00. Then the truck gardener Olson started to build wooden toys because hints of war was starting and there was no metal for toys. I then got a job painting toys for him. One of the other Olson boys that married a sister of mine had the thrashing machine. So if you are ambitions and not lazy you found a way to make it.

Just when you think things can’t get any worse, they do. My Mother died. I was 13. Dad was almost blind and us girls got jobs with neighbors cooking and cleaning their houses etc and staying with our married sisters or brothers occasionally. I did manage to finish high school (only one in my family to do that). By 1940 5 million farmers were on subsidies.

Franklin D Roosevelt won the election from Hoover in 1932 and was trying to get his New Deal going. By the next election in 1936 he won his second term by the biggest landslide of any president and his New Deal was off and running. It was the start of the government intrusion into how we run our lives. This story is not about politics. You decide if it was better or worse.

Just two other things need mentioning here. Health Care, and Criminal Justice.

1.  We had no healthcare,  My mother had no pre natal care. No babies were delivered by a doctor or nurse, No babies had a doctor exam or shots of any kind. (yep we all got the mumps, measles, and whooping cough and survived. My mother had 12 babies, everyone lived, not a one had attention deficit or any health problems of any kind. No one died young, and that sure is a better record that what we have today with all the doctor visits and shots.  You form your own opinion. We had no dental care either. According to rules and regulations today I.e. don’t drink coffee (my first solid food was homemade bread soaked in coffee). Raw milk, fried food at every meal. Now eggs are supposed to be so unhealthy (I ate several a day). Everything was fried in lard. Why did all 12 kids grow up so healthy. 12 out of 12 is mighty good score. I will be 92 in three months. I live alone, take  care of my self, have none of the old age afflictions except hearing and eyesight which comes with old age no matter what you do or eat. Still eating my eggs, fried food, drinking coffee all day. Still have my long and short term memory (I think). I should be dead or sick according to the best medical advice. Took boiled eggs in a little lard bucket (lunch bucket) to school to sit in the hot class room, but no one died from that. WHY?

2.  The only crime we had was cattle rustlers occasionally. You shot to kill anyone you saw trying to round up your cattle. If a new man moved on to a ranch that had been abandoned and all of a sudden had a herd of cattle, the ranchers paid him a homcoming visit to see if his heard had THEIR BAND on them. They knew they hadn’t sold him any. Our Marek brand was Lazy Heart, Half Circle, J.  If you saw your cattle there, you had a right to shoot him. There was no sheriff to come and arrest him or you. It was completely obvious what happened. He did not get a free lawyer and a long trial and appeal. It was overwith. The best part of that system was NO REPEAT OFFENDERS.

I will end this by saying I hope you have found it interesting and you make your own opinions about life then and now. If all of a sudden our power grid is sabotaged and you have no water or food, I hope you can work together to help one another. I can’t even picture it and glad I won’t be around. The mind set these days seems to be try not to have to work at all (you are rewarded with a welfare check, free healthcare, and a house) and without government to provide you with those things – I hope you have a plan B. But if you are smart if you loot a grcery store instead of taking three big TV’s (you won’t have power to use them) you take canned goods to tide you over. My guess is someone will burn the store down and ruin even the good food. Hope I am wrong. Good luck out there. REMEMBER, the government has nothing to give you. It has to take it from a wage earner to give people a welfare check, affordable health care, and a affordable house. The word “affordable” should be determined by the person getting it. If you don’t want to work YOU CANT AFFORD ANYTHING.  People filling that welfare cart are getting fed up and if the cart tips over empty, do you have a plan? Your parents are the only one who were ever responsible for your housing and health until you were grown and it’s up to you now to figure it out. It worked for the Olsons and Mareks.

Having lived in Seattle (Georgetown) for over 80 years, Lilly has a passion for the area. A true Seattleite, Lilly has the history & experience to discuss any topic. Being retired, she enjoys visiting with her many grand children, gardening, and writing.

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