Lew Russell


Mr. Russell’s recollections of FDR


Mr. Russell of the troubles of 2008

Mr. Lew Russell was born in 1930, just as the Great Depression hit.  He lived in Wayland with his parents and older brother and worked at Russell’s, Wayland’s well-known nursery.  Mr. Russell recalls his boyhood of relative isolation and the simple joys of life growing up on a farm.

Hi I’m Lexi Cohen, Colleen Belinsky, Bridget Hodgdon, and we are interviewing Mr. Lew Russell on May 6th, 2008 for the Wayland high school history project.

Q: Could you please state your name?

Mr. Russell: Lewis Russell

Q: How old were you in 1929?

Mr. Russell: Well in 1929 I wasn’t born yet, I was born in 1931.

Q: Where did you live during the depression years?

Mr. Russell: I lived very close to where I live right now, and that’s – are you familiar with Russell gardens? – There is a house right out on route 20, its only set back about 6 feet from the pavement, and that’s where I grew up.

Q: What were your parent’s names and what did they do for work?

Mr. Russell: Lewis Russell, I’m Lewis Russell Junior, and Ruth Russell. Russell’s is a farm so my father worked in the fields. He did have a roadside retail stand right on the edge of Russell’s current front parking lot; He did have a roadside vegetable stand. My mother was primarily a homemaker, but she did work the retail also.

Q: Did you work at a farm?

Mr. Russell: It was a farm; we converted it to a garden center.

Q: How many brothers and sisters did you have?

Mr. Russell: One brother, four years older, now lives in Crasbury Common, Vermont.

Q: You mentioned your mother was a homemaker, as a homemaker, was she impacted by the depression at all?

Mr. Russell: Well, it’s interesting, not as much as you would think. You know my parents they lived off the land and of course I was born after the depression started but so I don’t know what it was like before the crash but there wasn’t any real hardship. They lived off the land and they had their retail stand there.

Q: As a child, was there anything special that you ate? Any pre-made food?

Mr. Russell: Well, we didn’t eat spam. We ate the basics, there used to be a First
National store almost in the center of Wayland over here and I would stop by on my way home from school (my grade school has been torn down you know where the Congregational Church is, just beyond that, its been torn down but that’s where my grade school was) and I would drop by the store and Louie Graves who ran it, if you asked for a jar of mayonnaise he had a little handle with a hook because it would probably be way up there on the shelve and he’d reach up hook it down and catch it put it on the counter. I would buy butter and meat and mayonnaise not processed food. I remember peanuts were one of my favorites. And Buzzy Bawers who went to school just a little bit ahead of me, he worked at the First National, and I remember Buzzy joking with me, “oh if you keep eating all those peanuts you may pee nuts!” I remember how terribly embarrassed that kind of bathroom talk was to me. But I guess I liked my peanuts. But we didn’t have the Spam and the processed food.

Q: Did you grow and can goods back then?

Mr. Russell: Yes, my mother did a lot of canning.

Q: Did your family own a car?

Mr. Russell: Not until after the war, the war ended in 1945, so it wasn’t until 1946 that we got a car and I was 15 years old. So we did not have a car.

Q: Was it pretty easy to walk from place to place?

Mr. Russell: Well, yes and you know we didn’t go that far. It’s comical, George Lewis is a historian here in Wayland, well he doesn’t live here in Wayland anymore. He’s written at least one book on the history in Wayland and he grew up here a few years older than me, he’s in his 80’s, and he was only around the corner less than a mile from me.  But we never knew each other. I really primarily only associated with my cousin who was the next house down, where Caraways is now, and once I got into grade school, I had one very close friend, Chuck Parfin, who lived over in Cochituate on sunset road. But we didn’t get around a lot. During the war my grandparents they had a car and they were three miles up the road in Sudbury and they’d come down, they’d give us a ride up to their place and that was fun.

Q: How would you compare typical clothing back then to today’s?

Mr. Russell: You know, I’ve never been into paying that much attention to clothing and therefore I don’t notice a huge amount of difference. However; I remember I guess being told to wear knickers in, I don’t know, fourth or fifth grade–the pants that came down and wrapped around under your knees. And I didn’t like them. I remember telling my mom I didn’t like them and she acknowledged that and I guess they are going out of style. But otherwise I don’t notice a great difference in clothing.

Q: Do you notice a difference in maybe what your mom wore?

Mr. Russell: Well she wore a dress, not pants. A dress.

Q: What are your earliest memories from the hard times in the 1930s?

Mr. Russell: Well, again, it did not seem like hard times to us, it really didn’t. We had what we wanted. It was a simple life. We didn’t have any cars, I said, until 1946. But it was no hardship, we ate well, had lots of fields to play in and enjoy. So I’d say we just didn’t feel that.

Q: How did you spend your time as a kid? And what did you do for fun? Like games you played…

Mr. Russell: Oh yes, I had my little Fenway Park miniature, all set in my play yard right where we sell our white impatients now. And it was kind of elaborate it had some burlap for the screen, it used to be a screen at Fenway Park. It had a gutter with a roll down and I used stones. I forget what I had for a bat. I’d pitch it in but if I hit it into the screen why then it would go into the gutter and roll down into the dugout. And I get this marble; we used marbles as a ball. My playground was right there, right where I work nowadays. I never did have a bicycle, I think my parents were afraid of route 20 and I never did learn the bike until after I graduated from college, and now I love the bicycle. So it was on foot.

Q: Did you ever go to the circus or the carnival?

Mr. Russell: Yes, the circus would come into Boston Garden, oh maybe once a year, we’d go in. Don’t think I ever went to a carnival, but I went to several circuses and my parents would take me into Boston to the movies and playhouse and Red Sox baseball games, a few. I think a good grandstand seat cost 2.50, real good seats. They cost a little more now.

Q: Who was your favorite player on the red sox?

Mr. Russell: Ted Williams, Bobby Doerr, Johnny Pesky is still around. I think he’s still with the Red Sox; he’s in his 80’s. Dominic Dimaggio and then for the Boston Braves; Warren Spahn, and Johnny Sain, and there was a joke about the braves it was a little song that went…

“First we’ll pitch Spahn
then we’ll pitch Sain
then an off day
followed by rain
back will come Spahn
followed by Sain
and followed. we hope by two days of rains.”

Because they had these two star pitchers and not much else. But back in 1948, the Red Sox had just about an all star line up, I remember a whole bunch of stars, everybody was batting over 300 and they did not win. The Boston Braves had a much more average talent team, and they won. And I was so impressed at the teamwork of the Boston Braves and I became a Boston Braves fan, course they moved away, they’re gone but the dilemma was that Braves field, BU now owns it but there was no aesthetic beauty whatsoever the Brave’s field. Fenway park, I consider to be a classic, with a footnote, I think a lot of the advertising on the walls has spoiled it but I go back to Fenway park before they put all the beer ads and all the other ads on the walls and I think Fenway park and Wrigley field in Chicago are two classic architecturally pleasing parks. I’ve digressed from your answer a little.

Q: Did you ever see movies? What were the movies like? Or radio shows?

Mr. Russell: I was quite young when my mother took me to see Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in Boston. Oh and I got scared of that witch, I panicked. And I remember a year or two later, going to the movies was a big thing you would take the bus into Boston and you would probably go out to dinner and to a movie. And I remember being in there I guess about a year later and you know you could go one way to one show and one to the other. And my mother stepped over towards snow white and I had seen it and panicked before and then panicked again. My mother said know don’t worry were not going here,” I’d forgotten what the other one was that we went to instead but we liked it!

Q: What kind of music did you enjoy?

Mr. Russell: Oh music, Guy Lombardo. I don’t know if many of you knew–before your day. I’m trying to think whom else, well it was radio when I was a little kid and “ I’m dreaming of a white Christmas and your hit parade. And I remember Dreaming of a White Christmas” was number one for about 35 weeks in a row, some of those hit tunes.

Q: Were there any sports around Wayland that were popular?

Mr. Russell: Sports? I tried out for baseball and basketball. Wayland only had three then: football, baseball, and basketball. They only had the three and I couldn’t make the team. I had been skipped ahead a grade. I did the first and second grade all in one year and my parents made the judgment that I could get the grades, and that’s true, I could. But I guess they missed was that socially I couldn’t catch up. And I was literally scared and afraid when I got on the baseball field and the basketball court. So I didn’t do well in those sports but at home I could play ball.

Q: Many say that in those days most kids had heroes, did you have a hero? And who was he or she?

Mr. Russell: A hero, well, of course I named you a few sports heroes. I’m trying to think if I had any others. I can’t immediately.

Q: On an average day what did you do? And did you have any adventures?

Mr. Russell: Probably not enough new adventures, When I was real young we didn’t go away very often and I mentioned into Fenway park for the ball game, and into Boston for the movies and about once a year for the circus. But that was a big event but otherwise I was primarily playing in my yard or working the fields.

Q: What was community life like in Wayland?

Mr. Russell: We pretty much were to ourselves. I really didn’t know, I shouldn’t say I didn’t know the people who lived down in the center in Wayland, I knew them in school, but I didn’t see them out of school. We just really were by ourselves. There was another farm, you know where the old Raytheon property is which is going to be a town center, where there was a big hill there and just over the other side of the hill was another farm, the Decatur Farm and you know I don’t know if I ever met Joe Decatur and it was just over the other side of the hill. We just didn’t get around much.

Q: What was school like?

Mr. Russell: My High School was the town building and it was easy for me, not socially, but getting the grades was easy for me. I don’t think we really got challenged the way you do today for one thing I never learned how to write even one page until I got into my freshman year of college and that was a shocker. And also with one exception I never stood up before the class I remember once it was required to stand up in front of the class and describe some event. I remember I got up shaking like a leaf and my brother had played football the weekend before and he broke his neck. He was lucky, very lucky, it’s the kind of injury that could kill you but it didn’t. And I remember getting up and that was my story and then feeling inwardly guilty because relying on the misfortune of my brother but I couldn’t think of anything else to say. But my brother came out of it fine.

Q: What chores or responsibilities did you have growing up? And were they impacted by the depression?

Mr. Russell: Working in the gardens working at the retail and again as I told you. I would really say no, not impacted by the Depression.

Q: Do you recall your first job that you got paid for?

Mr. Russell: I only went out and got a job once, it was after college and after I’d been in the army, and I worked for a wholesale florist for five months. After two months I realized I was only doing it for the experience, I expected to go back to Russell’s. I realized after two months this was a waste of time, but it took me another three months to get up the never to say, “Hey Verny, I have to go back to Russell’s. I’ll give you two weeks notice I’ve got to leave.”

Q: What did you do with the money you got paid with?

Mr. Russell: When I first started, when I went to bed at night, I might find twenty cents on the counter because my father knew I had been out, and I was only about nine years old, and my father felt I had done twenty cents worth of work. I do remember also working for twenty cents an hour with my friend Chuck; I think I was nine years old. It was twenty cents an hour, and twenty-five cents on Sundays. And then for nine years each year it went up five cents. But still after nine years, and we were teenagers it was about 75 cents an hour.

Q: Were members of your family affected by the Great Depression?

Mr. Russell: No, really not.

Q: Do you have any recollection of people in town in tough circumstances at this time?

Mr. Russell: The interesting thing is, certainly when I was young no, and I was in the army for three years, and it was so different then. It was peacetime and I was over in the Philippines, it was peacetime and I never saw any fighting, or any hardship. What I did see because it was in the Philippines, I saw bombed out sections and rusting ships in the harbor. I saw the damage of WWII, or course this was six- seven years later.

Q: Was your faith strong? Was religion a big part of your life?

Mr. Russell: Well I don’t know if I’d call it strong. haha. My parents were members of the Congregational Church; they didn’t attend maybe once or twice a year. And to be honest I, I went to Sunday school there, and I did not relate. I became churchless. I remember when I was in the army over in the Philippines I was with a rather evangelistic group. I knew right away I didn’t really agree with them at all, but I thought what the heck I’m over here I’m with the army I’ll go to some meetings and stuff with them. And I remember one for my friends there warning me about Adlay Stevenson who ran against Dwight Eisenhower for president. And I said, “What’s wrong?” And he said, “Well he’s a divorced man, he’s a Unitarian.” And I said “Oh, what’s a Unitarian?” He said, “Oh they don’t believe in anything.” And I thought you know what there’s a Unitarian church in my hometown, but I’ve never stepped into it. And I was still to shy to tell him, but he immediately tweaked my interests. I resolved as soon as I got back, to go into that Unitarian Church, and find out what it stood for. And that is my religion now. haha. I consider my self a Universalist.

Q: How do you recall FDR?

Mr. Russell: Oh yea I’m going to love these, I love these. Back then, in the thirties, well I’ll tell ya, almost without exception every English Protestant was Republican, and we were Protestants. And every Irish or Italian Catholic was a Democrat. And I don’t think there was an exception; we didn’t have hardly any Jewish. And the funny thing is we didn’t feel bias about it, that’s just the way it was. So my parents, they didn’t like him, with his WPA projects, and the people lean on the shovels. And we have a railroad crossing just beyond us here and there was an experimental barrier, a WPA barrier project to stop the traffic from trains crossing. And I remember once it malfunctioned and the car got trapped in the wrong side of the barrier, but fortunately not on the tracks. And I remember my parents saying, “ Aw that damn Roosevelt and his barriers, its lucky he didn’t kill the people.” [ Laughs]. Now the interesting thing is I came later to admire him.

Q: Do you remember Eleanor Roosevelt? And if so, what did you think?

Mr. Russell: Yes, what was it like…my first memory I was only about six years old six or seven, in the thirties it was more colored by my parents thy were life long republicans and they thought she was probably overstepping her boundaries, getting into politics where a lady really didn’t belong, probably should mind her own business. I think I told you last week that when I was a kid almost every (I think without exception) all English protestant were republican and all Irish or Italian Catholics were democrat. There seemed to be no exception to that and we didn’t feel bias about it, its just the way it was…I definitely came to admire Eleanor Roosevelt. I thought she was a wonderful person really cared and I was really impressed.

Q: Did you recall ever seeing a Hooverville or a group of homeless people?

Mr. Russell: Not really, no. It was a farm, we lived off the land and there really wasn’t any significant hardship during the depression and we didn’t travel much. So, no we didn’t.

Q: Do you remember any of FDR’s plans to help end the depression?

Mr. Russell: Absolutely. I do and again at first my views were colored by my parents;  “that damn Roosevelt he’s got his work projects.” They were putting in a sidewalk, the WPA they just wanted to lean on their shovels “They’re not working that hard and then we had an experimental barrier out here at the railroad crossing and it was I think one of the WPA projects and I remember that barrier malfunctioned once and it trapped a car on the wrong side, but fortunately not on the tracks. So it wasn’t a serious accident and I remember my father saying. “that damn Roosevelt and his barrier, he’s lucky he didn’t kill the people.” Again, I later on I came to very much like Franklin Roosevelt; I think he was one of our best presidents.

Q: Did your parents think that FDR’s new deal was a good program?

Mr. Russell: I guess I already answered that, no they did not. My parents were republicans and Roosevelt was a democrat. Roosevelt tried to change Thanksgiving. It use to come on the last Thursday of November, it could come as late as the 29th or 30 of November and he tried to move it a week earlier. My parents and a lot of other small business people who were almost all republican they didn’t realize it was really doing it for them, it was helpful for business because we had a Christmas business year and a late Thanksgiving made it difficult to get shifted over and they should have been for it but they weren’t. That damn Roosevelt trying to change our traditions and we wound up with a compromise. We made it the fourth Thursday in the month so at least we eliminated November 29th and 30th, helped a little bit.

Q: Were any of your family or friends part of the New Deal program?

Mr. Russell: No.

Q: Do you remember any of the great construction projects of the period? The Golden Gate Bridge, Empire State Building, Hoover Dam?

Mr. Russell: Well, kind of vaguely. I knew bout them as I said we didn’t travel so I never got to any of those places and I wasn’t really that conscious of them but we did follow the news and yes I did know about them.

Q: One event during the 1930’s was the New York 1938 World’s Fair, which was titled the World of Tomorrow, how do you remember this famous fair?

Mr. Russell: Well I don’t. I was 8 years old at the time, however my wife, who lived in New Jersey then, she got to go to the world fair and she was very impressed and surprised. They actually predicted the super highway programs, which we now have come to get use to very much.

Q: While the country was in the depression, do you recall learning about Hitler’s rise in Germany or the Japanese military advances in Asia?

Mr. Russell: Definitely. Hitler’s rise in Germany, not so much the Japanese advancements, but I do remember the news. Hitler came to power when I was about 2 years old, and I wouldn’t remember that, but I do remember before the war broke out the really concern about Hitler and his aggressive practices and also the war broke out in
Europe in 1939, two years before this country got into it in and remember…[interruption]… The war broke out in Europe about two years before, and the US got into it in September 1939 maybe August, and I remember my mother trying to shield me from the news. I use to listen to Lowell Thomas, fifteen minutes of radio news, every evening and I remember my mother saying well you don’t want to listen to that, they knew it was bad. But yes I do remember that.

Q: Do you think we are still affected at all by the Great Depression?

Mr. Russell: Yes, and back in the 50’s and 60’s I thought we were getting well beyond it and I thought we had learned our lesson about the Great Depression and it would probably never happen again and we probably would not be affected much more, but starting with the JFK assassination and about the same time… well no, a little later was the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination and Bob Kennedy assassination and I think which we thought was getting good turned bad and very bad. I had become very much an admirer of John F. Kennedy and I really thought we were headed towards peace and we’re not going to into the Vietnam War and I don’t think we were going to… that’s hard to prove because Kennedy was killed at the wrong time, but with those three assassinations things turned bad. We went to war in Vietnam and awful lot of the fabric and the country came apart and in a way went back to the depression, granted it was a different kind of depression and it was a little more…[inaudible]…rich sailed along fine, but in many ways we went back to depression again, I feel.

Q: As you see it, how are kids different today than in your childhood era?

Mr. Russell: Well yes, there is certainly more diversions…granted back then I was a shy farm boy. I lived right here, I worked in the fields right out in the same location where my garden center is now. My play yard was right here in the same yard where we have the white impatiens for sale so I was really a shy farm boy and there was another farm across the street where the Raytheon property used to be where we are going to get a new town center, I’m pretty sure we are going to. There use to be a big hill over there about 100 ft high and on the other side of the hill was another farm, the Decatur Farm, and I don’t think I ever met Joe Decatur. There’s another good historian in Wayland George Lewis, he doesn’t in Wayland anymore; he’s moved I think to Bedford he lived a little bit… he’s in his 80s he lived in the center of Wayland only about a half mile from here but we didn’t know each other so we were kind of isolated the kids now a days, you know, get around you see each other more and also I see a bigger diversions I have been kind of depressed it seemed to me that lot of the young people, and not just the young people, some of the older people also, just don’t care as much about what’s happening in the world as they should and as I think we did. We didn’t have as much news, but we did care. However I look at this list of questions and I’m very impressed. You folks do care and that makes me feel very good.

Q: We’ve been learning about how bad the economy is doing these days, oil prices are at record levels, food prices are way up, inflation is up, unemployment is up, work costs are up to a trillion dollars, and our national debt is over seven trillion dollars, what are the lessons from the great depression that we should learn today?

Mr. Russell: Well these are serious problems and as I said before I felt in the ’50’s and ’60’s that we had learned from the Great Depression, but we seem to be back in a different kind of depression now and all of these things we should be doing much better then we are. We are too dependent on oil this idea of a tax holiday on oil on gasoline for this summer is disgraceful. We subsidize oil. Technically our taxes do not pay the true cost of gasoline and oil; they don’t pay for the damage that is being done to our environment. We had much better gasoline standards under Jimmy Carter in the ’70’s then we have now then we went back to the SUV’s and the lower gas mileage and that pollutes and it wastes oil and it’s a huge mistake. Food prices, there’s a crisis occurring right now and much of the poor world they are right on the edge of starvation because the price of many of the basics; rice, wheat etc. have almost doubled in less than a year and again the gap between the rich and the poor, too many of the rich not really caring, consuming and not caring is a major factor in this and using food for ethanol to keep us on our gas habit, which is like a drug habit, I feel will make it worse. We certainly could do better; inflation some of it is inevitable but some of it shouldn’t happen, again the food, diverting some of the food to wasteful gasoline usage, that causes painful inflation. Unemployment… well I believe in free trade but I believe in decent free trade and the kind of free trade like NAFTA that we have now. The big conglomerate corporations can manipulate too much and they can transfer jobs from here to really slave like conditions around the world; some of them are even… there’s a US territory in the Pacific I forget the name of the islands but they don’t even have the minimum wage laws, and they say Made in the US but their slave labor there really is no excuse for this. The war costs, close to a trillion dollars, I put it higher. I think the true cost of this Iraq war, and that’s not the only war, is going to be way over a trillion dollars. It isn’t just the direct expenses, it’s what it does to people…to a lot of the soldiers who come back with various injuries; mental and physical etc. and what it’s done to our whole economy. It’s a totally inexcusable war and I feel its totally disgraceful war on our part. It’s well over a trillion dollars and obviously this is a major factor in our national debt. We have a government now that is too focused on war. War on terror that amounts to giving into the terrorists. One of the aims of the terrorists is to put us at war. They know war, they are suicidal themselves, they are radical, they are belligerent and one of their goals is to put us at war and Mr. Bush’s statement that we are at war until we eliminate terrorism, we will never allow it and he’s allowing the terrorists to put us at war, by his standards forever, and there is absolutely no excuse for this. Look at some of the best police forces, some in the cities and towns in this country, that do it the best and if they get some real bad crime in their city or town, they don’t put the whole city at war, they do go after the criminals. But we need to focus on helping people, not killing people. We’ve gone wrong. Have we learned these lessons? Too many have not. I’m kind of hopeful. I am hopeful we are ready to make a turn, to turn towards peace. I think I already told you I am an Obama supporter and I have some friends who call me a Pinko home liberal or a leftist. And my message to them is that I was an Eisenhower Republican and many of you remember Dwight Eisenhower, he was president from 1952 to 1960, 8 years. He was a war hero before that, World War II, and he started out maybe on the hawkish side but he evolved into a man of peace and before he ended his term in his office as president. He warned us to beware of the military industrial establishment if you don’t look out it will own us. Well it does. And I think there is a way to break out of it. But military industrial establishment has got way too much power… I wish I could call up Dwight in heaven, and say Dwight who should I vote for. And good Republican that he was, I think he would say well none of those Republican candidates and not Hilary. They are the military industrial establishment, they’re excluded. And I think he would name three democrats; Obama, Richardson, and Edwards who would fit his standards and they would fit my standards as well.  Now I’m very much an Obama supporter. Now that was a liberal Republican and but there is no room in the Republican party of today for that philosophy.

Other Interviews