Stories from the Depression

Family Legacies

My parents, Willie & Martin Johnson

“Mom, what was school like when you were a little girl?”

I was reading Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder to Jennifer. She couldn’t imagine the one-room school house of the 1870s Wilder described in her books. Reading my childhood favorites to my eight year old fueled questions: “When was TV invented?” “Were there cars when you were little?”

I decided it was time for her to listen to a special tape I had been saving for the right moment. Four years earlier I gave my father a blank cassette tape and a request. I asked him to remember his life as a boy – the games he played, what he ate, his school days, etc.

At the time, I had two motives. He was recovering from surgery, and I knew how restless he would be with inactivity. I thought it might help him pass the time, and he was always a great story-teller. The other motive was a little selfish. I needed some authentic research for a writing course of children’s books that I was taking.

The next time we went to West Tennessee he gave the recorded tape to me; I tucked it away without listening to it, knowing there would be a time when I could use it. Six months later, during Daddy’s funeral I remembered the tape. When I returned home, I found the tape and listened to it. Daddy’s voice brought tears and sweet memories, but I had to put it away because it was too painful.

When I played the tape for Jennifer four years later, tears came just as easily, but I am so thankful for that tape!

Jennifer and Daddy, 1982

Some of his grandchildren barely remember Daddy, but they can hear those stories and imagine him as a young boy growing up on a Kentucky farm during the Depression. Now there are great-grandchildren who who are scattered across the south and an extended family that finds it difficult to get everyone together at one time. Through the latest technology these grandchildren and great-grandchildren can hear the stories on a CD and read them in this blog. The value of the audio are the little things you can hear in the recording – the emotion in Daddy’s voice when he talks about his family, his mother’s clock striking the half hour in the living room as he talks, the sound of him lighting his pipe. We have no home movies of Daddy, just this tape and some reel-to-reel radio sermons he preached in the 1960s.

I wrote most of the story above in 1989. The original was published on May 7, in The Tennessean, Nashville’s daily morning newspaper.

School Days and Wash Day

Here’s how he began: “I guess I’ll just sorta reminisce a little.”

“When I think of school I first think of my years in the old one-room school house at Massac in McCracken County, KY. In this one room there were six grades, all taught by one teacher. I remember the names of only two teachers, Mrs. Bradshaw and Mrs. Johnstone. We walked about a mile to school each day; there was no bus to ride. My younger brother, John Andy, and I cut a path across a neighbor’s farm, then another farm. By walking through the fields our route was down to about half a mile. One of the great highlights in my young life occurred about the 5th or 6th grade; the teacher employed me to build a fire every morning in the old potbellied stove. I was paid the grand amount of 25 cents a week!

We carried our lunches to school, and this is the lunch I remember year after year after year. Mama bought crackers in a box with 6-8 crackers to a sheet. She would spread peanut butter on a sheet of crackers and that would be one lunch. She would usually stick in a home-made cookie. We never had anything to drink; we just drank water from the well at school.

We studied reading, writing, spelling, and arithmetic. The hardest subject I ever had in school, in fact the hardest subject all my life was spelling. I never learned some of the newer systems of spelling words as children do today. I learned phonics many years later. I always loved geography. To me, geography was a study of places that I never knew existed. Our geography book with its many pictures always fascinated me. I believe the study of geography in the 5th and 6th grade gave me the best comprehension of this old world  any kid of that age could have.

Grandparents, Daddy, John Andy

At recess we played a lot of softball games. Once in awhile we had competitive games in which parents would be invited to attend, but there was no basketball court or any other sports, just a crude softball diamond. Another game, usually played by boys, was Fox and Hounds. We would divide up with the older boys as the fox and the rest of us as the hounds. Since the older boys could run faster, we spent the whole recess period running just as hard as we could, chasing each other around those hills.

Wednesday was Wash Day, the day for washing clothes at our house.  I don’t know why; it just was. Before school the kids had to draw the water and fill the wash kettles and washtubs for Mama. We would also build up the fire and get plenty of wood up to the wash kettle for her. The wash kettle was an enormous old black kettle that sat in the yard. The clothes were boiled in lye soap. You would use a pole or a stick to pick up the clothes, put them in the next washtub, and then plunge your hands in to work the clothes around to rinse them. Then you put the clothes in another washtub for the second rinse. You wrung them the best you could by hand and then hung them on the clothesline.

I remember when Mama got her first washing machine, before we had electricity. The washer used a gasoline motor that made the loudest noise and billowed plenty of smoke. Mama was so proud of that machine that she kept it on the back porch. She didn’t want rain to ever reach it. You pushed the clothes through a wringer that would squeeze the water out much better than you ever could with your hands. We thought we had really advanced ourselves in society with that gasoline-powered washing machine. I expect Mama thought more highly of it than the rest of us.”

“We were poor people, but we didn’t know we were poor. We had no money, but then nobody else had any money. It was the 1930s, Depression years in America.”

I’m counting so many joys today:

3049. hearing the voice of my father again

3050. memories of Daddy’s stories when I was growing up

3051. a legacy of hard work and honest struggle

3052. God’s hand guiding ancestors through difficult years

3053. humble beginnings that gave my brothers and I a heritage of people who did not give up

3054. the never failing love of parents and grandparents who trusted in God’s love all their lives



3 thoughts on “Stories from the Depression

  1. dmjlollar05

    I have the tape. Do you have it on CD? I liked to listen to it when I had a cassette player. Another great entry!

  2. brenda1573

    I don’t think we have a copy on cd…I would love to listen to it again. Thanks Martell. Always enjoy reading what you write!


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