EXPERIENCES FROM MY LIFE IN THE GREAT DEPRESSION
(Growing up in Sebastian County in the 1930's)
by Dulcie Heafner in 1984
Submitted by Maxine Brown
I remember growing up in the middle of the "Great Depression" on a hill-farm outside a small town in Arkansas.
My father, Richard Franklin Heafner, an impoverished but hardworking man was a "share-cropper" but if there were profits to share, my mother, Bulah Brady Heafner who was born in 1886 in Georgia, or we children never saw them. I suppose, though, they were what my father used for his yearly late fall binges to Fort Smith, from which he returned, somewhat subdued, after a time- usually about three weeks.
We children were allowed-incredibly-to make our own decisions about attending school. As for myself, due to a sensitivity about poor clothes, no textbooks, and often no shoes, I elected not to go at all. Saved from complete illiteracy by my abiding love for words, I remember occasional treasured books-not paper backed in those days-but perhaps saved and brought or sent by kindly neighbors who knew my insatiable appetite for them. Wonderful magazines such as: American Magazine, Cosmopolitan (not a sex magazine then) Liberty, Blue Book, Argosy and, of course, The Saturday Evening Post. All of these brought by a kindhearted mailman after (possibly) noticing a skinny, freckled girl waiting in the broiling sun and cold rain for that week's Kansas City Star and its installment of "Rowena Rides the Rumble" or the monthly Farm and Ranch and "Can't Get a Redbird".
I remember especially one wonderful neighbor lady-who died of cancer later-surely rarer then- before I was old enough or smart enough to thank her for all her kindnesses to me, but I remember her with loving appreciation.
Another-a fellow reader-must have been a saint on earth to put up with me breathing down her back whenever she got a new Gene Stratton Porter, Zane Grey, Faith Baldwin, etc. till she finished and passed them on to me. Once, an older married sister brought from her in-laws in Northern Arkansas, two old orange crates filled with the little weekly papers called "Grit". We went through those papers in one sitting, humor, serials, household hints, poems and all. I must confess I never much liked that one again.
And then there was an aunt by marriage with a dubious, but prolific taste in literature: one could almost always find a copy of True Story, True Confessions, or True Romances at her house, only half a mile away. There were drawbacks to some of these sources. You had to listen (squirming) to the aunt discuss the confession till you could make your escape.
The beloved mailman was prone to lecturing me on the subject of school. After testing my reading ability, he assured me I could move into a grade suitable to my age and even offered to talk to the school officials about me. As far as I remember, I paid no attention at all to this excellent advice.
Of course, we kids weren't used to much advice, if either of our parents sat down to talk to any of us about our problems (or their's for that matter) it has fled my memory. I know they loved us in their way-but were so busy with the back-breaking labor of scratching out a living on that hill farm, they didn't have time for counseling us. I learned about all I didn't get from books from bad examples-a negative approach to life, maybe, but one that has served me well in a number of ways. Certainly, we were another kind of creature entirely from today's cosseted, catered-to children.
One very important way, they failed to discipline us was in our habit of visiting neighbors, sometime staying the night, possibly without being invited or wanted. I especially remember one saintly family with ten or eleven kids of their own who must have quailed at the sight of me, but never failed-with beautiful courtesy-to make me welcome in their home.
I remember how dirt poor we were, but there were a few families who were even more poverty stricken than we. One of these who lived for two or three years in an old abandoned house about a mile below our farm and whose father was unable or unwilling to work, and whose mother did any kind of work, no matter how hard or degrading. She took the children to the potato fields and bean and corn patches after harvest to scrap any left behind ear of corn or vegetable. Of course, these children never attended school either, which meant we always had playmates in such times as we had no work to do.
My two younger brothers and I played with those two slightly older boys and smaller girl without fighting or petty meanness or any sexual advances (we were early teens by then) made or even thought of as far as I can remember. I wonder if country children play like that today. I hope they do.
This Mrs. Travis, whose face I can't recall at all, must have been fairly young and pretty because she was whispered about by some (the aforementioned aunt, for one). I suppose that if (as I doubt) this poor lady did sometimes sell her favors it would have been for food for her hungry children, since no one had much cash money, even for romance, in that time and place.
Another "freedom" we children were allowed was the freedom to adopt any bad habits prevalent at the time. Thank God there was no cocaine sniffing or pot smoking in those long ago days, and we were much too poor to have books in the house. But anyone who wanted to could drink cheap black coffee and dip snuff-both popular then, at least in that part of the south. I've never been able to remember when I didn't read or drink coffee, but an older sister told me I learned both at the age of four.
Thank God I never got the snuff habit. I do remember trying it once and getting sick enough to die. Some of the kids did get the filthy habit though, and had trouble shaking it later. I've never been able to understand why our parents didn't at least forbid the snuff: I guess that's what other parents did. Actually, I don't know if our parents ever laid down the law to make us do the back breaking work, or if we just took for granted what was expected of us. I know to this day, I feel compelled to hold up my end of any work going on unless I have paid someone to do it.
We must have received some kind of character building though, or maybe we absorbed the work ethic with mother's milk. Anyway, we were good kids. We didn't steal, for instance, not a watermelon, apple, pear or any other edible thing that some kids considered fair game. We just didn't mess about with other people's property. Also debts-you didn't make debts you couldn't pay. My dad would never have cheated anyone in any way. There were two things that we always knew about him. He was honest and he worked hard.
We were often left alone in winter with snow on the ground, and no firewood for the drafty old fireplace-our only source of heat-or the cook stove. Dad never got firewood ahead, only on a day-to-day basis. We kids went out with burlap wrapped feet to gather dead, fallen wood, which we hacked up with an old dull axe and fetched to the house. As you might imagine, this consumed a good part of our winter days. And even when he was home, this was where most of the fuel came from.
It might be argued that we were cheated of education and other niceties of life. Along with school, we didn't attend church or have any religious training at all. Even now I find it hard to believe that we didn't have a Bible in the house, but we didn't. My mother became a devout Christian (Baptist persuasion) much later and quite a Bible scholar, at that. But in those days, she seemed to know nothing of God or even give him a thought. Her own raising was showing, I suppose.
Both my parents were fluent readers. Many share-croppers were not, some signing their names with an x because they couldn't read or write their names. My dad's father, William Rufus Heafner, an orphan living with Dr. Barnes in Independence Co., Ar, in 1870, hadn't been a share-cropper, but a land owner. The story went that his land had been lost during a previous depression after his death in 1916.
In addition to the younger brothers already mentioned, I had three older sisters. They had a total of 22 children, most of whom have settled in California, with a few in various other states. Our youngest brother, Challie, died at the age of twelve in the middle Thirties of what was probably Rheumatic Fever brought on by a severe case of Whooping Cough suffered the winter before. His funeral was a charity one furnished by the funeral home in another nearby town. There wasn't any government welfare in those days. My mother attended the funeral in a dress borrowed from my brother-in-law's grandmother because she hadn't a decent dress to wear. And believe me, no one was particular about the way they looked. She simply did not have a whole dress.
Any material that came into the house was used for dresses and shirts for the kids. We three younger kids picked dewberries one spring, we picked three lard buckets full-each about a gallon, I suppose. One could easily sell them today for what would have been a small fortune then. Anyway,(pretty overripe and mushy after being carried the three or four miles to town) we took them door to door, Starting with high hopes for 25 cents per bucket, but soon offering them for anything anyone was willing to give, finally getting to a kindly lady at the town's only cafe who bought them all for 40 cents. And even then, I knew she didn't really want the berries but was sorry for us.
We didn't blow that 40 cents on soda pop (5 cents a bottle) or even candy or ice cream-hot and starved as we must have been by this time. We took the money to the mercantile store and bought 4 yards of light blue fabric for a dress for our mother. We called this solid colored material "percale" then, but it bore no resemblance to the percale of today. The purchase was my idea and it has come back to haunt me many a time-those two tired, hungry uncomplaining little boys! (I wasn't much older, but I felt I was.)
Nobody would believe what we wore in those days. We didn't own a sewing machine. Once, they said, we had, but it had to be left in some earlier move, along with any other piece of furniture deemed unessential by dad and which made the wagon too full.
This was the longest stay. I'm told, but I remember the move there. I was about seven at the time and before that we had always lived in what was called the river bottoms. No wonder we kids thought that place heaven with its creek, trees and rocks, in spite of its privations.
But to get back to the clothes, they were made by hand or by my Aunt's sewing machine (My Uncle Clint being more lenient in moving matters, they still owned one.)Any way, the garments were made unskillfully with any material available, which included flour sacks (we used a lot of flour in those days), but feed and even cotton sacks, the latter being the long heavy duck sacks the cotton pickers pulled behind them in the fields, pulled by a wide strap over the shoulder. These would finally become too frayed and worn to be of further use, so the top or bottom ends could be used as clothing or household items. Sometimes these were dyed with Rit dye, when available, but mostly they were sewed in their natural color. With modern methods of machines, patterns, etc. no doubt, these could have been made into handsome garments, but as I remember,they were not very handsome then. The feed sacks (when we were lucky enough to get them) were sometimes printed and these were in great demand.
Overalls were my treasured wearing apparel and a new pair was a rare and happy event.
I especially loved striped ones. I can remember only two or three pairs of new ones. One, my dad brought back from one of his trips, and even though I had given him my cotton-picking money to pay for them, it was still unheard of his returning with anything for anyone. And even though they were too short and later had to have a strip from an old pair added to the bottom of each leg, still I was happy to have them and wore them proudly.
Could be this all adds to my amazement with the young's pre-occupation with alligators and polo players on their clothes nowadays.
I barely remember my paternal grandmother though I must have been a pretty big child when she died. My vague memory of her is that of a tall, slim, handsome woman with snow white hair and coal black eyes-some Indian blood we were always told.
I remember that she sometimes visited with a boy cousin who was a few years older than myself. He was the only child of her dead daughter-being one of three children who had died in young adulthood of tuberculosis, and the only one who left a child. His name was Woodrow and he was fascinating to us country children. For one thing, he lived in Fort Smith. Also he went to school regularly and he didn't do farm work. He was very real and kind and brought me trinkets from time to time. Woodrow also had T.B. and died a few years after Grandma.
My mother's family had moved to Arkansas from Georgia about 1890. Two of her aunts lived near Fort Smith. One, Aunt Ad, allowed us to stay at her house a few times when on our way to or from Fort Smith. Aunt Ad's husband, a much older man, had been well off, but by this time he had lost most of his money and property. I remember him as a rather dissipated looking man with a deep southern accent. He had married Aunt Ad, it was said, when she was thirteen, after coming to court her older sister.
In reading this over, I find that I have tended to leave out the really ugly hurting parts of being so grindingly poor, and I have said that I never went to school when I actually did attend for a few weeks,-about seven as far as anyone could recall-between the time the cotton-picking was over in the fall till the little two-room schoolhouse caught fire and burned in mid-winter-just like the old joke.
I vaguely remember the first day in card class-the clean white cards with perforated outlines of fruit and lengths of brightly colored yarn, red for apple, yellow for lemon, etc. I loved it. But, alas, it didn't last. A Bobbsey Twins book won out. (I can see it now, backless and dog-eared). It was there and I cabbaged on to it as I did every book within reach. Anyway, the teacher found I could already read and moved me up. I never was able to remember how many grades, but that was the end of the beautiful fruit!
After the fire, school was resumed in a private house and school books-or the lack of them-caused trouble right away. I don't know if we had a few that were burned in the fire or not. But we had no schoolbooks now. Alas, my clothes seemed more out of place there, too, so I simply stopped going.
I remember that the boy of the house seemed rather kind. He introduced me to snow ice cream. He was scooping up snow for that purpose one day as I was heading home. I shyly explained that we had no cow, therefore no milk (which I was told was needed, along with eggs, sugar and vanilla.) Then he said Pet Milk could be used instead of fresh milk. How could I make this well fed boy understand that canned milk and eggs in winter were unheard of at our house?
Anyway, later at the hill farm, we had the use of a cow for milking sometimes, and I tasted snow ice cream and remembered the boy. The place that we lived (where the school was) was a very small farming community (not large enough to be called a village) in the river bottom near a levee on the Arkansas River.
At that time when transportation was a real problem, people who worked on the soil lived on it. Of course, this was before tractors and other machines revolutionized farming and changed the whole concept of it, as recorded in John Steinbeck's powerful book, "The Grapes of Wrath". At any rate, there were a few poor scattered houses, one or two a little better, a small country store and the school. No church. Cotton was the only crop grown there in those days. Now spinach and soybeans are raised on the same land, but no one lives there now, the houses are long gone.
We must have moved after this winter I've mentioned and I never attended school again until years later I went back for a GED certificate. I remember being hungry habitually. We ate biscuits made from flour and water and whatever was available in the way of shortening with gravy made with exactly the same ingredients. We ate this, not just for a day, but for weeks in winter. An onion was a treasured treat most of the time, eaten with the bread and gravy-mostly saved for my dad(as most treats were) because, I suppose, he was considered the most important part of the household, and he did work hard, always, as I have said.
I've wondered many times why they didn't organize some sort of lessons or school work of some kind for us kids in the long winter months. Of course, my two younger brothers did go to school (when they wanted to) and I seemed to remember that they liked it pretty well-but for playing and socializing, not for learning. They learned almost nothing, and the funny thing is no one at home or school seemed to notice or care!
But, back to food. One of our special treats, maybe two dozen times a year, was bologna, not refrigerated in those days, but kept on the end of the counter along with rat cheese, and covered with a white cloth. No filleted steak will ever taste as good as that bologna did then! In cotton or strawberry picking time, when we sometimes had a little extra money, we had salt pork, dipped in flour and fried crisp. It tasted heavenly. We ate corn pone cooked on the top of the stove and onions with this, and in the spring, wild dandelion and poke greens and a wonderful lettuce from the garden when we were lucky enough to have it.
My mother always had some sort of garden, depending on how much room she was allowed for it. They say that in earlier times in the bottomlands, she wasn't allowed any at all, but slipped in a bit of this or that between the rows of cotton. On the hill farm though, she had a real garden with a tumbled down fence around it so she could take full advantage of it, we ate better than we ever had before. But it was unbelievably hard just to get seeds and plants for the garden. We all-except dad-helped to work it. I remember the job of pulling off potato bugs which were dropped into a can with a little kerosene or coal oil as we called it.
At least two years on that farm, we raised peanuts, a luxury not imagined before-or after for that matter-because times got worse after we had to leave that farm, in spite of the fact that President Roosevelt was giving out surplus food by that time and putting people to work on the WPA. I remember at least one #100 bag of pinto beans we got and how good they tasted.
Also, my dad got work on the WPA two days a week, they say. By this time he was unable to get on as a share-cropper. Things were really bad in that part of the country in the middle and late thirties.
The bad thing about the WPA work was when dad saw cash money, he wanted to get away and spend it, and things went from very bad to even worse. Food staples such as flour, sugar, and lard, had always been charged at a store at which credit had been arranged between harvests and after settlement with the landlord, this account was paid in full and whatever was left was what Dad made his trips on. Probably not much at the best of times.
Now though, working on the road as we called it (that is what they were doing, building gravel roads) and living in a small squalid house at the edge of this small town, we hadn't our usual access to farm raised vegetables, any milk, or the occasional pork. Therefore, almost everything we ate had to be purchased at the store. Also, maybe we were not as frugal as of old, knowing a little money was coming in regularly.
Anyway, it was all owed by the time he was paid each month and as I have said, he always paid his debts, but he desperately wanted to get away on one of his "trips". He made do with beer on Saturday night at a local tavern and, for the first time, we saw him drunk at home.
Since at this time, our house had two small rooms and a porch, there was no getting away from the quarreling that resulted from these episodes. It was here, at this house, that my brother died. As the baby, he had been the favorite of my dad's and I know he must have been stricken with grief and maybe guilt, but his railings and raging did not stop, and his life gradually went further down hill. He went from this period of public work to farm work in yet another capacity-day work this time-behind a plow or hoe from sun up to sundown for one dollar a day.
My sisters were long married by this time and after I married and left, my brother was drafted into the Army. My mother, at 59, was left to raise his two little daughters. The girlís mother had been killed in a car accident.
Two of my sisters eventually went to California, looking for better times and Dad joined them there. He loved California and he died there when he was 83.
During the war, my mother took those little girls, and went to Illinois to work in a munitions plant. When she returned, using the money she saved and my brotherís allotment money she bought a little house in Van Buren, Arkansas. She didn't move from that place until she was 92, when she asked to be moved to a rest home. She died at age 99.