"Memory is the diary that we all carry around with us." - Oscar Wilde
Textbooks indicate that during the 1930's Americans suffered through the leanest, most challenging economic times of our collective past. Unemployment rates hit 25%, breadlines were common sites, and ordinary folks had to sacrifice and make do in ways unlike any other era. What was it like growing up during these hard times? How do the last Americans living at that time recall coming of age during the Great Depression? In 2009 we are a country enduring our own share of economic woes; what can we learn about today from the struggles 75 years ago, when times were considerably tougher? The Wayland High School History Project team decided to travel back in time to explore the memories of 42 octogenarians to discover some answers.
Our interviewees all have a connection to Wayland, our small town of 13,000 some 15 miles west of Boston. Some have spent their entire lives in the community, others arrived in the mid-20th century to raise a family, while still others only visit on occasion for Sunday dinners with grandchildren. While having a diversity of backgrounds, they all possess strikingly similar memories of the good old days of their youth. As they recall it, the 1930's were times when folks enjoyed the simple pleasures of life: of playing board games with the family, baseball in the backyard, blueberry picking in a favorite patch of woods, a rare journey to see the circus. In those days the family car was still a rarity and the household needs were met by the ice man, the milkman, the fish peddler and the meat man, who generally arrived once a week to sell their wares. Produce could be attained at a local market or farm stand, and come winter the bounty often came from the cupboard's Atlas jars of canned goods put up during the previous summer's abundance. Mom was the homemaker and Pop was the breadwinner, and while together they may have struggled to make ends meet, they strove to shelter their children from the harsher realities of life. Members of the community knew and looked out for each other, living in neighborhoods infinitely closer then those we live in today. Folks only spent what they had to and saved whatever they could. To an interviewee they are a bit dismayed by our debt-ridden and consumer-driven culture and continue to live lives of thrift and frugality. The Depression's indelible stamp, established during their formative years, endures to this day.
The long-time locals recall a Wayland hit hard by the Depression, as the shoe making factories of Cochituate sat dormant and the rural economy, never an easy means to make a living even in good times, left many without. Over time the number of boys in the graduating class dwindled, as young men sought to help their parents make ends meet by entering the work world increasingly early. Dudley Pond's summer cottages became primary housing for some, handouts were provided in the commissary line at the Grange Hall, and hundreds of thousands of New Deal dollars came to town for emergency relief and through the Works Progress Administration. The WPA's effects were significant and funded a range of projects including the construction of the 1935 high school, laying street pipes, painting projects, repairing thousands of school textbooks, transcribing historical records, cleaning up after the hurricane of 1938, sewing for the needy, and even beginning a "moth project," using creosote to obliterate more than 1.1 million local gypsy moth nests.
Yes, the 1930's were tough times, but our interviewees nevertheless remember them as good times.