Bob and Grace Bowen
Mr. and Mrs. Bowen were teenagers when the Depression struck in 1930. Though for many the Depression was a time of mourning, many made the best out of it. Mr. and Mrs. Bowen sure did, as is reflected in their memories of the Great Depression and how they made the best of it.
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This is Tracie Shames and Nealy Stiles and we are interviewing Mr. and Mrs. Bowen on May 20, 2008.
Mr. Bowen: I was born in the United States, they went up there, and I was born up there, then I came back to the states when I was seventeen. I was an American, born by two Americans. All my family was born in the United States but me. So that’s the story of me. So I have got both countries in the Depression.
Q: So you were born in Canada?
Mr. Bowen: Yes.
Q: When did you become an American citizen?
Mr. Bowen: (inaudible) the examiner says “would you like to swear yourself in?” and I said “yes.” And after I swore myself in as a full American–see, I had dual-citizenship up until that time, he laughed and I said, “what are you laughing at sir,” and he said, “I just had to swear my own son in an hour ago.” It was a Canadian hospital that was closest to him when his wife was pregnant, so over to that hospital, naturally, so he had to swear his own son in! But his son and I could have had dual-citizenship if he had left things alone. But I was with my uncle, who was American born, at the time, so naturally they wanted me to be not dual-citizenship, which I wish I had now.
Q: What were your parents’ names, and what did they do for work when you were small?
Mr. Bowen: Dorothy Bowen, and (INAUDIBLE) Bowen, my father. My mother, she worked in a grocery store, and, well, she was in millinery, actually, she made hats above the grocery store, and there was a shop for that. And my father; I don’t remember much of what my father did…I know he was a great shot with a rifle, at one time the world’s greatest…well I’ll tell you, he shot before Buffalo Bill, when he had that show, Buffalo Bill was a very old man when he had this show, and he came to my father’s town in Colorado, and my father was a young boy, and they had a rifle shoot-on, and he says “you’re missing,” to my father, and he says, “let me see your gun,” and he corrected the sites on my father’s gun. My father never missed after. And my father did give gun shows and in fact he, I think if I’m correct, my grandmother told me that (my mother and father divorced, and that’s why there’s a split-up there) he shot before the crowned heads of Europe. I don’t know because that Buffalo Bill show was over 100 years ago because Buffalo Bill was old then. So that is the history on my father and I enjoy thinking about it.
Mrs. Bowen: My mother’s name was Millie, which was short for Amelia, and my father’s name was Carl. My mother stayed home and took care of the four of us, and my father worked at (INAUDIBLE) Brothers, where they make soap and all that stuff. I’ve forgotten what his job was.
Q: How was your mother’s role as homemaker impacted by the Depression?
Q: What did she cook for you? Did she buy food from the grocery store, or any pre-made food?
Mrs. Bowen: Unlike now, where you can buy everything pre-made, you could not: she had to go from scratch…like soups, or whatever she made, was made right in the home…she didn’t just go out and buy the way we do now. You walk into any store and you see everything is pre-made…like “Oh, great!” That’s something we did not have.
Q: How much did the food in the grocery stores cost?
Mrs. Bowen: Well, I would say if there was five dollars, and there was a family of four or five, they could do it easily. Once we moved, see we came from Somerville out here to Wayland, I was only ten years old, and being the oldest I had a great deal more responsibility. We always brought our lunch. We had to…because we went to school in Wayland, so I always had to make lunch for my sister…that’s the way it was done. Being the oldest, there was a lot more responsibility.
Q: Did you can your grown goods back then?
Mrs. Bowen: Yes, yes…although I must say, my mother wasn’t a good one at doing that. But then in my later years, when I got married, then I used to can vegetables and chicken. That I learned from my mother in law [Inaudible]
Q: How many brothers and sisters did you have?
Mrs. Bowen: I had 4 sisters
Mr. Bowen: I had a half sister and a half brother due to the break up of marriage. They are all westerners, like I was saying I was the only one born out of the country, I’m the only foreigner in the group
Q: How was your mother’s role as a homemaker impacted by the Depression?
Mr. Bowen: My mother was not much of a homemaker but my grandmother was and my grandmother brought me up. She used to plant cranberry bushes, and she did a lot of preserving in the summer and we had them all in the winter. Sugar, if I remember correctly, was a nickel a pound so we had plenty of sugar to work with. There was no money then and no one had any money, It was a small town and when the farmers came into town, all the kids in the town (I was one of the kids) we all got to know the farmers, they used to throw off a bushel of potatoes, a bushel of turnips, on the front lawn. The milkman would come down and throw off a bottle of cream so we all helped each other, and we never thought we were poor and we were the happiest people in the world. It was the happiest part of my life.
Q: Did you ever go to the circus or any carnivals?
Mr. Bowen: Nope, they used to have at one part of the island, where the circus would come to the island, but I never made it.
Mrs. Bowen: And I went once with my father into Boston, that’s when we lived in Somerville.
Q: Do you remember it well?
Mrs. Bowen: Yes, I do remember it clearly because a chameleon was walking all over me and the fact that I was going with my father and my other sisters were no going because of the difference in age
Q: What did you do for fun?
Mrs. Bowen: We made our own fun. Everyone would get together and have an idea like what we should do and kick the can was one of the things we did. I know it was a stupid game now but you just got together and had fun; that’s what I notice now the kids don’t just get together and laugh and giggle that’s just what we did [inaudible] you know the things like that.
Q: How old were you when you used to play?
Mrs. Bowen: Well, we moved from Somerville, Mass to Wayland in 1929. I was probably eight or ten years old.
Q: Would you guys go to the movies at all?
Mrs. Bowen: No. Well, yes but that was a treat. Anything that costs money was a treat
Mrs. Bowen: You know where Honey Farms is now?
Mrs. Bowen: Well a group of young men in the town used to flood the back of it and they would have hockey games there and that was one of the things my friends and I would go to we just made our own fun.
Mr. Bowen: I used to collect bottles, got a penny a piece for the bottles.
Mrs. Bowen: I used to take a bus, ten cents to take the bus, ten cents for the movie, and then ten cents to come back. So thirty cents total. And a nickel to get a snack. So for thirty-five cents we would have a wonderful time. And you could even sit through it twice if we wanted to.
Mr. Bowen: That’s right, we had such fun with nothing.
Mrs. Bowen: That was the point; we didn’t need to be entertained.
Mr. Bowen: Somebody bought me a hockey stick and I was all set.
Mrs. Bowen: This is a picture of the high school I went to that it no longer there (Newspaper clipping). This is the building and there were many classes. This is the one building starting with the freshmen. You can smell the oldness of that.
Q: It’s from 1979! Wow.
Mrs. Bowen: Yeah that’s what I say to myself all the time WOW.
Q: Did your family own a car and if so, how did it impact your family life?
Mr. Bowen: No, we had no car; we had to go on foot everywhere we went or hitchhike.
Mrs. Bowen: We did not have a car, we lived in Somerville because it had public transportation, but once we moved to Wayland, after a few years my father did. He used to ride with someone when he went into Boston. He worked in Cambridge. That’s where the Lehman Brothers were in Cambridge. His friend had to leave early enough so that my dad could ride with him and he would let him off in Cambridge and then continue to Boston where [father’s friend] worked. So then after a few years he did get a car.
Mr. Bowen: We would share a ride with someone even to work and I want to tell you something that would interest you. Do you know how much gas was in a gallon?
Q: How much?
Mr. Bowen: About five gallons for a dollar.
Mrs. Bowen: That’s what it was!
Mr. Bowen: In Canada, they had the imperial gallon, so it was even cheaper.
Q: Oh my God!
Mr. Bowen: I knew you would get a kick out of that because gas now is almost four dollars.
Mrs. Bowen: Do you know where Lavin’s Liquor store is? Well that used to be a small dining room and convenience store and that is where I worked. I think it was twenty cents an hour that you got.
Q: Wow that’s not even close to minimum wage now.
Mr. Bowen: I think Grace will tell you, with five dollars you could shop for all your groceries for a week. Today five dollars will buy you a cup of coffee.
Q: Do you remember the Hurricane of 1938?
Mrs. Bowen: Yes I do, we lived here in Wayland. I remember looking out the window and seeing all the trees being torn up, the whole root and everything. I could not sleep. I remember looking out the window and seeing all of these things. Then we lived on Dudley Pond, which has changed a lot…your money went a long way, and one of the things I remember about working at this, it was called Crooker Store is they had these candies and if you got a pink one than you could get a small bar of candy free. That was your prize.
Mr. Bowen: But you know I think we were the happiest people alive in those days, because everyone was the same.
Mrs. Bowen: Nothing to compare it, to nothing at all the way the advantages that you young people have today. I built a crystal set then. I used to receive the broadcast, you know, all over the world with that crystal set. Then when I got a little bit older I got a hold of some batteries and this hand radio operator gave me some parts. I could have learned German but I let it slide. DJG and DJC were Germany; I was picking them up myself on a short wave just using telephone batteries.
Q: Did you have heroes at all?
Mrs. Bowen: Probably someone like Tom Mix (laughter). No I did not, I could not name anyone in particular because they were real heroes back then not movie stars or celebrities.
Mr. Bowen: Well, Babe Ruth would be one of my heroes.
Q: What was school like for you?
Mrs. Bowen: We had to walk. Are you familiar at all with Wayland? You know where Happy Hollow School is? Ok, we lived a little further than that, but approximately that will give you a good idea. We had to walk up to Lavin’s and get the bus there, and we would go down to Stonebridge Road and pick up children there and then we would be on our way to Cochituate School.
Q: How many kids were in your class back then?
Mrs. Bowen: I graduated with seventeen [kids]. I went to my granddaughter’s high school graduation in D.C., and I think there were 725.
Q: So you have one kid?
Mrs. Bowen: I only had one son.
Q: When were women allowed to go to college?
Mrs. Bowen: I don’t remember because I know that some of the girls I went to school with did move on and go to college. But it wasn’t the way it is now. It’s an accepted thing that everybody is going to college. But back then people just didn’t have the money.
Q: How do you view kids like us now, compared to kids back when you were young?
Mrs. Bowen: I think that many of you are very thoughtful and kind, and all the things that you have perhaps learned from your parents. But I was going into Building 19 recently, and a little girl ran by me and I thought, “oh, she’s going to open the door for me.” Well, it slammed in my face. So then she ran through the next set of doors, and the same thing happened. So I turned around and I said to the woman behind me, “are these your children?” and she said, “Yes, they are. I’m sorry,” because she could see the whole thing. But I felt as though this was a good time to teach your girls something: you hold the door open. See, we had a great deal of respect. It didn’t make any difference if it was family, or if it was just somebody like in this instance. It was time for the mother to correct them and say, “you should have held the door open. Come back and hold the door open.” We wouldn’t have thought of disobeying even a neighbor, if they told us to do something… No. That was just respect for anyone older than you were.
Mrs. Bowen: Well, we have to give you a little background, because you will get very confused and wonder. I was married, and two months before my son was born my husband was killed. So I brought up my son until he went to college. And maybe that’s why I realize now how kind people were…I mean, I had this baby who was going to be born in a couple of months, so I appreciated all the kindness that was shown toward me. And then when Kevin was in college, I married Bob. He lived down the street. I knew his wife and his children better than I knew him.
Mr. Bowen: And of course, my wife, Jean, she died too.
Mrs. Bowen: So that was just so you don’t get confused.
Mr. Bowen: But Grace and I did do a lot of traveling due to my work…
Q: Did you ever go out of the country other than Canada?
Mrs. Bowen: We went to France, England, and Switzerland…
Mr. Bowen: Traveling today isn’t what it used to be…We also went to Portugal, Mexico, Alaska, Hawaii…I have been there a couple of times. And then we cruised a lot.
Q: Do you guys remember Franklin D. Roosevelt?
Mrs. Bowen: Didn’t he start the New Deal? I remember one of my neighbor’s fathers was very active at that you know going around to have people sign papers for that…and then the act would be enacted. I remember he encouraged us to vote for that because it would be a good thing.
Mr. Bowen: Back then I used to pick up coal on the railroads. See, they had steam engines then and so there was always a little coal dropping on the railroads. I used to pick it up, go home, and then we would have coal. I was probably eight or ten years old when I was doing that.
Q: Do you guys recollect anyone who as in really tough circumstances?
Mr. Bowen: There was no one really in tough circumstances, because it was a small town. We thought we were great—we were all poor and had no money. But I mean we were all the same. And we always had plenty of food because of the farms around us. And those farmers….I mean, some of those farmers are probably still millionaires…they had about three or four hundred acres of potatoes, and cattle…it was just like a big ranch for each farmer. So the farmers never suffered because they didn’t know what it was to suffer. They worked hard, don’t get me wrong…but they were so kind-hearted, just throw-off a bushel of potatoes, or (INAUDIBLE)
Mrs. Bowen: They were very kind, if they had a surplus of food that they had grown, to give it, not waste it. And they didn’t make you feel like you were taking charity, or anything like that. It was just “I have this extra, could you use it?” type of thing.
Mr. Bowen: It was the happiest time of my life. I played (INAUDIBLE) and hockey and I was good. (laughter) Those were the happy things…Up in Canada there was a rink in every town.
Q: Was there anything that you wanted as a kid? Was there anything new and exciting (like ipods for us), or something that you considered a treat?
Mrs. Bowen: Well, going out to eat was a treat.
Mr. Bowen: Oh yes, that was a big treat.
Mrs. Bowen: I mean, now everyone goes out to eat all the time…multiple times in the week. We did not.
Mr. Bowen: I look back, and life was rough compared with today, but we were all so happy. So it didn’t bother us a bit as far as being poor and being happy. It was a wonderful feeling.
Mrs. Bowen: It made it better because then, when you were able to get more, you appreciated it.
Mr. Bowen: Like when we were walking around Europe, I couldn’t believe we were there. I mean, as a kid I never would have dreamed of that. And I remember in school they said that the person who was most likely to travel would be Mary Kazley…she never left the island and I often think of that when we are crossing the Atlantic. (Laughter).
Mrs. Bowen: I often wonder how he can remember that way back then. I mean I suggest that we do something and he goes “oh I don’t remember you telling me”.
Mr. Bowen: But I go back and I remember the old blacksmith and he was the blacksmith himself an American he was from Cripple Creek, Colorado. And all the stories he could tell boy, I am telling you I could write a book.
Q: How many kids were in your graduating class?
Mrs. Bowen: Seventeen
Q: How many kids were in each individual class?
Mrs. Bowen: Probably twenty.
Mrs. Bowen: There were only two year difference between me and my sister and than two years between her and my next sister and two years between that sister and my youngest sister so now you know how old we are.
Mr. Bowen: Are you kids thinking of college?
Q: Yes of course.
Mr. Bowen: Good, because today even high school is no good to get a job. Even to this day I had five FA licenses. And that meant money coming in. I mean it’s tough really things are harder today for the young people. It’s good in a lot of ways you have the opportunity but then the money is tight. We are living in a different era all together.
Q: While the country was in the Depression, do you recall anything about Hitler’s rise in Germany or the Japanese military advances?
Mrs. Bowen: Bob?
Mr. Bowen: In World War II, I was turned down after Pearl Harbor for a bad heart. There were six of us turned down at the same time by the same doctor. And we stood down on Commonwealth Avenue on the floor bare naked for hours. In the evening they examined us, and naturally six of us was turned down because we were worn out. So anyway, I don’t know how it happened, I ended up in uniform near transport command, and I was stationed out of Prescott, Maine. The only reason I wore the American uniform is according to international law if they pick me up anywhere as an enemy, they could not shoot me as a spy. Actually, I told them I got in trouble that day, I said, “ what do you mean they would knock the heck out of us anyway because we don’t know anything right now. We were working on the aircraft they would think we knew something and they would kill us.” They replied “ oh no they can’t kill you according to international law.” Well, they could. There were several of us lost and never heard of Now if I get lost on the test top, what we would do we would change the engine and go in the test top. We would test top half way across the Atlantic. See, we were flying cargo, so this other pilot was in the same boat I was in, and I looked at him and said,” what are you doing here?” and then he says,” well, what are you doing here?” Neither one of us knew how we actually got there, we were fighting for Uncle Sam anyway. That I can never explain. They paid us extra money for being there. We had plenty of money to gamble, I was single then, and I shot craps every night. I had a wonderful time during World War II. Although it was very dangerous. Uncle Sam took care of us for some unknown reason. we’ll never know why. I never asked any questions. They took half my uniform away when I got out and that was the end of it. Here I am today an American but not a veteran. It was hard to figure out and there were several hundred like that. Uncle Sam used us, and for a good reason We got paid extra for it. It was really something, taking a test top halfway across the Atlantic and later on in life, they got me a job on the airlines now I have to take my test for my engine license. I went in to take my test, the said,” your name is Bowen?” I said, “yeah” the said,” you have got all military time you can take the test right now” I did not have to go to school “…I took the FAA tests and passed all of those now I hold five FA licenses but I don’t fly anymore because I cant see out of my left eye
Q: Do you remember any of the great construction programs like the Golden Gate Bridge, the Empire State Building, or the Hoover dam?
Mrs. Bowen: No, but I remember the Aqueduct, we had to leave our house because the aqueduct was coming right through it.
Q: Where did you go?
Mrs. Bowen: We had a house on Dudley Pond and we just moved next to it.
Mr. Bowen: Grace has had an interesting life like myself. I live to see what will happen next.
Mrs. Bowen: The thing is even when we lived in Somerville, we had a place out on Dudley Pond so we used to come out. I remember my father carrying me to and from the bus that would take us So this has always been a connection with me to be in Wayland.
Mr. Bowen: I found my house to live because I used to fly, I flew over the area and said I would like to live down there. So I bought a house right below hers.
Mrs. Bowen: This is ok for me to tell them, he loves a new audience, and I have heard some of these stories so often .
Q: We have been hearing a lot about how badly the economy is doing these days with oil and food prices, inflation is up, the war costs are close to a trillion dollars, What are the lesions of the Great Depression for us today?
Mrs. Bowen: I think unfortunately we older people, we can adapt because we went through the Depression. So, it does not affect us as much as it does you young people because you are used to going out to eat all the time and doing all this and buying more or less what you want to a certain extent. So to us having gone through the Depression, it’s not going to be that bad because I learned from my mother how to cook things for my family nourishing and good and all that. When you people are so used to going into a store and everything is precooked so we older people are not going to mind it as much as you younger people.
Mr. Bowen: Well actually, there is supposed to be a recession right now right? Well as far as I am concerned there is no recession and as far as I am concerned there will never be another Depression like there was. I don’t understand why people are saying times are tough. Times aren’t tough now, they are great.
Mrs. Bowen: I can see why, because you have nothing to compare to and we do. So, that is the reason.
Mr. Bowen: I am eating well. Grace is a good cook; she spoils me.
Mrs. Bowen: That’s because I learned to cook from my mother. But I understand if the mothers working and the fathers working and the kids have to eat so it has to be quick.
Mr. Bowen: So if anything ever happens to me you will know Grace killed me in the kitchen. (laughter)
Q: Well thank you very much.