We Somehow Got Through the Great Depression

(From the project Dialogues with Julian Moody: On Life, Business, Sustainability, and Other Things by Julian Moody and Brandy Walker)

BRANDY W: What was your earliest memory and awareness of the Great Depression?

JULIAN M: Well, let’s see, this was hitting in ’29 and I was born in ’17 so I would have been twelve years old and the impression is very vivid in my mind still. My father was a salesman in real estate and in those days, they didn’t build these big developments like they do now. Usually a builder would buy some land and maybe build about five or six homes on speculation. And they would usually have a little office on the land because it was kind of out in the country and my father used to go out there every Saturday and Sunday to the office to take people around and show them the homes and try to sell one. And one particular day, I went out with my father and as he drove up to the few houses, I said something along the lines of, “Daddy, something’s wrong. We were here last week and nothing has changed. There’s big holes in the ground where they were gonna have a basement. There’s some houses that are just roughed in with two by fours. There’s one house that has a roof but no walls. What’s happening?” And my dad said, “The stock market crashed.” I can still remember that, and I said, “What’s a stock market?” And he did his best to explain. And I said, “Do you have anything to do with that?” He said, “No. But I’m a real estate salesman and real estate has stopped selling entirely.” I remember this vividly. We were there on a Saturday, and the stock market had crashed about a week or so before that. And we sat there in that little office all day and nobody came. And here were these five or six houses all the way from a hole in the ground to a framework. It was very dramatic. So from that moment on, he had no work because real estate was dead. What he worked with, nothing was selling.

BW: And after that your father never worked as a real estate salesman again.

JM: No. New houses weren’t selling. People were being foreclosed on because they couldn’t meet their mortgage. And so there was chaos in the real estate market. So being a salesman, he began to look for sales work. He would come home and say, “I got a job.” I remember the first one was selling electric refrigerators. And he was going to be making a commission. And so he was gone everyday, and after about two weeks, he came home looking very sad and dragged out. And he said the company closed. So he looked for another job. And he finally found a little company, became a salesman for them, but that quickly closed. Businesses were collapsing by the hundreds. And so he was unable to find any consistent work. My brother, who was four years older than me, had gone to work when he was twelve, and so I started working too. As kids, you could earn all different kinds of money, a little bit here, a little bit there. We both had paper routes—in the morning and in the afternoon. I had the Buffalo Times which was in the afternoon and the Buffalo Courier Express which was morning. I made three dollars a week delivering the afternoon paper and the morning paper—you had to be up at five o’clock to deliver and I think for that, I earned about four bucks a week. And my brother was doing the same thing. So we had customers. And so when we needed to earn a few extra bucks, we would go to the customers and say, “What can I do for you to earn ten cents or fifteen cents or twenty-five cents.” Even though they were struggling too, they might say, “Well, if you beat my rugs, I’ll pay you ten cents.” Or they might want me to spade the garden. And so we just constantly searched for ways to make a few dollars. At the same time, at the corner of many blocks in those days, there were usually three stores. One was a meat market, one was a grocery store, and one was a variety store. And the grocery store used boys to deliver to people’s homes. We would go there with our wagon and they would load it up with maybe two or three orders and we would pull our wagon and go deliver it in the neighborhood. My memory was that we were paid twenty five cents for that. And so in every way possible, for years, we picked up every dime we could. My brother also worked in a hamburger joint. In those day, there would be a little shack, and you could get coffee, hamburgers, and french fries. And so he would work the night shift. And so we were doing all kinds of little things like that to bring in money.

BW: Was this commonplace? In your neighborhood, did all the children work to bring in money? Or was this situation unique to your family?

JM: Well, let’s see, I had seven friends on the two blocks. The boys. And all the boys that I knew more or less said, “There’s no way to get work. It’s a hopeless situation. There’s no jobs.” I said, “I got to get work.” And they said, “There’s no way.” They said they were trying to get work, but they couldn’t. But they didn’t really try. They sort of assumed there was no work because the newspapers said the unemployment was 35% and that there’s no work for anybody, and they believed it. They just gave up. Many people did. During the Depression and during the war, everything in life is upside down. And many people were lost souls. They didn’t know what to do, how to survive.

BW: But you didn’t give up.

JM: No. I said, “Yeah, there’s a lot of unemployment, but there’s probably a job out there somewhere doing something.” My memory was that six of my friends just kept saying, “There’s no way to work. I can’t get work.” And I would say, “Well, you can dig gardens, beat rugs, deliver groceries.” And they seemed to have the attitude, “I’m not going to dig gardens, I’m not going to beat rugs, I’m not going to deliver groceries. That’s beneath me.” And so their families would suffer. I think the reason my brother and I had the work was because many of the boys didn’t want to look for the work.

BW: And so you felt part of the problem was pride.

JM: That’s part of it. And it might have been other things, but I don’t remember. So then, pretty rapidly on our street, there must have been, let’s see—our street was a quarter mile long—I think there was around twelve or thirteen homes foreclosed on. Probably more, but I’m remembering about twelve. People were losing their homes all over the city.

BW: What happened to these families? Where did they go?

JM: God only knows. They went to live with relatives or something.

BW: So you never followed up on any of these people?

JM: How could we? We were busy trying to survive.

BW: As far as you know, in your little circle of friends, you and your brother were the only ones who were really working.

JM: I think so. There were two other boys who were friends of my brother and they were working as caddies on the golf course.

BW: During the Depression, there were some people playing golf.

JM: There were some people who weren’t hurt by the Depression. As always. And they could play golf. Because you could play golf for cheap. Whereas now you need ten bucks or more just to get started, they paid about twenty-five cents. It was a diversion and they used young boys—I think they had to be twelve—to carry their bags for them. And I think they paid them twenty-five cents. And so two of my brother’s friends did caddying all the time. They didn’t have golf carts in those days. And so any ways, I knew how to take odds and ends of jobs like spading gardens, cleaning houses, washing windows, mowing the lawn, shoveling snow, but those didn’t bring in enough income. They brought in some. Then in high school, I got a job washing dishes in a creamery, which was a place that sold milkshakes and sandwiches. And that brought in two dollars a night. And of course, two dollars a night doesn’t sound like much now, but back in the Depression my memory was that my mother was able to feed us on that income. There were eight of us in the family, six kids—I think she fed us on 25 dollars a week. So the prices were low. Loaf of bread was 8 cents, gasoline was 11 cents a gallon. If you had a car. Of course, very few people had cars. I didn’t have a car until I was twenty. And that was an old wreck. So we managed.

BW: And so it was just boys who were allowed to work and girls weren’t allowed to work?

JM: Well, our culture back in the twenties and thirties was basically that the women stayed home and took care of the kids and men. And so the only work that women could get was nursing, stenographer, and housecleaning. And so my older sister, she would be ninety-seven now, and she was one year older than my brother, she got a job as a stenographer and brought in some money. My next sister, Carolyn, was three years younger than me, and she was hit with polio when she was two, because in those days, disease was very rampant. Infectious diseases like scarlet fever, whooping cough, and polio raged through the country—there was no medication for those. And so they just died by the thousands. And so my sister Carolyn was hit with polio and it made her right arm and leg useless. And totally deaf. And so when they discovered that she was deaf and couldn’t use her right arm and right leg, my folks somehow found a school for the deaf—they were very rare. We were in Buffalo, New York, and the school for the deaf was in Rochester. And it was a live-in school. So when she was five, we started her in that school so she could learn how to write and do sign language. And so there was no way she could work. My other two sisters were much younger.

BW: So during all of this time, your father tried very hard to work as a salesman, he tried numerous jobs, but all of the companies went bankrupt, and I remember you telling me, at one point, he just kind of gave up?

JM: I think that basically he started giving up around 1931 or ’32. After about three years of this, it really was pulling his sense of confidence down. But he kept plugging away. But then he had a bad accident in 1936. He fell from a height on a job—laid up for months. And then he was hit with pneumonia in 1937. And there was no good antibiotics in those days. It took seven months of nursing to bring him back to life. And so his health was going downhill fast as well as his confidence. But my mother was stalwart.

BW: She provided the morale?

JM: I would say she provided a lot of love and confidence. Different than morale. And then she used to bake pies, date nut loafs, and cakes, and sell them to bring in money.

BW: To try so hard and to not be able to provide must have been devastating for your father.

JM: It just tore him apart psychologically. And spiritually. In fact, in some ways, I think it probably caused his early death. Because he died in 1944. They didn’t know much about cancer in those days, so they did surgery on him, his belly, and found it was full of cancer. And he died within two months. And he was only sixty-five. And I think all of the agony and everything he experienced in the Depression affected his health. But that was true of many, many thousands of other people in Buffalo. We were actually better off than most people. What is vivid in my mind even to this day are the soup lines and bread lines.

BW: Did you see them or stand in them?

JM: I saw them. We didn’t stand in them because we were picking up a few bucks here and there.

BW: So your family was pulling in enough income so that you didn’t have to stand in the soup lines or bread lines.

JM: I would not say that we were pulling in enough, but we were not allowed in the bread lines. The people in the bread lines had nothing. And in the cold of winter, I can still remember the people standing there practically shivering to death. They were all over the city. Soup lines and bread lines. And sometimes the lines were three, four, five blocks long. And I remember, at some point, eventually, they set up a program called “the man of the block” because the city was laid out in blocks. A quarter mile on one side, an eighth of a mile on the top, a quarter of a mile down. And somebody came up with a bright idea—if there was an unemployed man on the block that went for the job, the neighbors were all told that he was available for work for a very low hourly rate. And he would go from house to house and find out if there was something to do. And so the program “man of the block” became very, very famous. Every block had one. My dad, by that time, was too sick to participate.

BW: And was this a program that was unique to Buffalo?

JM: Well, I don’t know, because I wasn’t anywhere else. And it was also around this time that President Roosevelt started to do things to get people working again. He set up several national programs. One was the WPA. The cities got money from the federal government to hire crews in the cities to do work of all different kinds and they could pay them a little bit. And they set up a program for the young people. And so Roosevelt set up quite a few different programs to develop jobs for people all over the country. Cleaning the streets, repairing stuff, that sort of thing. They didn’t make very much, but they survived.

BW: You mentioned your family wasn’t pulling in enough income.

JM: We were actually better off than many people, but the little bits and pieces of money that we brought in were mostly for food, and our mortgage was 240 dollars a year. And we hit a point in ’37 where we had no money to pay the interest on the mortgage. And so the man that had the mortgage carried us for a while, about a year, and then he foreclosed. My mother said to me, “They’re going to foreclose on the house next month.” And I said, “What does that mean?” And she said, “Well it means, they’re going to take the house away.” We decided to write my brother a letter in New York City. My brother was at that point working in New York for twelve bucks a week with Dunlop Tire and Rubber company as a bookkeeper. And so he got on a bus and came home. And the three of us sat around saying, “Ok, they’re going to foreclose on the house, we don’t have the money.” The money my brother made wasn’t enough to save the house. “What are we going to do?” We were not sitting in turmoil. We didn’t fall into despair or panic or complain. We were searching for a solution. And as we sat there in the living room, trying to figure it out, and suddenly, my mother lifted up her left hand and said, “Can you sell this Glen?” And he said, “That’s your wedding ring mother.” She said, “Yes, but can you sell it? And we can save the house.” And so she gave the ring to my brother and he went back to New York City. There were people he knew in the company who knew where he could sell it. And so he sold my mother’s wedding ring for 900 dollars. And then he set up a bank account so that we would have the money for several years to pay the mortgage. So that’s another very dramatic picture of what you do for survival. Well, it wasn’t too long afterwards that they turned off the electricity and the heat. Because we couldn’t pay the bills. So there was never really an end until World War II.

BW: So after his accident and pneumonia, your father never did go back to work?

JM: No.

BW: And so it was you and your brother basically supporting the family.

JM: Basically, yeah. And then my brother went into the Marine Corps in 1942 and I went into the army in 1943. Because the war was going badly in the Pacific and Africa and those places, they had to begin to take brothers. Before that, they would take only one brother. So they paid fifty dollars to the soldier and sent fifty dollars home. So there was fifty dollars coming from the government for my brother, and fifty dollars from me. And that’s all they had in the way of money starting in 1943. I think my sister had moved to Alabama and gotten married.

BW: And you say your mother was stalwart through all of this. What else do you remember about your mother during this time?

JM: Well, I am able to see her and remember her better and better all the time. What I’ve come to realize over the last few years, is that one, despite all the problems, she was a very gracious woman with everybody. The family, friends, the neighbors, everybody. Very gracious. Number two, she had a very high sense of responsibility. And so when I had my paper routes, she helped me learn how to take a notebook and put down the customer’s name and have columns for when they paid. Because newspaper customers would pay once a week on Saturday. I’d deliver papers all week long. Saturday morning, I would go from customer to customer and pick up twenty-five cents, I think it was or thirty-five cents. She taught me, very patiently, how to keep good records. And she taught me how to be kind and helpful with my customers. And so she had a big heart and she was a very—although they never used the word love—both my mother and father were very loving people. And looking back on it, I feel that I grew up in a very loving atmosphere, even when we had nothing. And that was due, I think a lot, to my mother. Those are some of her characteristics. She was the daughter of a very well-to-do family from Alabama and despite moving from the elegance of life in this town in Alabama, where her father was well-to-do, to where she was living hand-to-mouth. She never complained. She just taught us to face reality and work honestly. I remember my mom with a great deal of love. My father too. And I was with him and I got leave from the army in April of 1944, because he would not go to the hospital for surgery unless I was there. I was with him when they operated. When they wheeled him into his room, the doctor said he would last about two hours. And so I spent the night in a chair by his bed. Holding his hand. And the nurse would come in, in those days, regularly about every hour and check him. And at one point, I think it was about two or three in the morning, she said, “He’s only breathing four times a minute, so he will leave you very soon.” And when she came back an hour later, she said “Something’s happening. He’s breathing eight times a minute. He’s gonna live.” So I was with my dad in the hospital for about eight days and then we got him home. And of course there were no at-home nurses, so my older sister came from Alabama to take care of him and to help my mom. And I had to go back to my battalion. And so I went back to my battalion at the end of April and D-Day in Europe was June 6th. And our outfit headed towards Europe in July something. Well about, I guess about the time we landed in Europe or something, dad died. I did not know of his death for two months because communications during the war were very poor. And he was sixty-five.

BW: So you grew up with loving parents. That must have helped a lot during the Depression. Having a loving home.

JM: Right. Even though I don’t ever remember them using the word love. In those days, you didn’t. I don’t know why. But you felt it. From my parents. My parents were loving. And so anyway, that was sort of a summary of how we somehow got through the Great Depression.