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Remembering the Great Depression
Those old enough to remember the '30s see familiar signs

October 20, 2008

As Joe Labovsky, 96, watched the recent turmoil on Wall Street, he began flashing back to when he graduated from high school and his adult life was just beginning. The year was 1930 and the Great Depression, the country's most severe economic downturn, was under way.

"I thought to myself: I may be living through the same thing," said Labovsky, who lives in Forwood Manor, in Brandywine Hundred north of Wilmington. "But I'm blessed with old age."

Labovsky is not alone in making comparisons with that long economic slump, roughly from 1929 to 1939. In recent weeks, there have been many events on a scale not experienced since the Great Depression, including the stock market plummet, the home foreclosure crisis, the tumbling in house values and the recent government intervention in the nation's banking system.

"Every so often you realize an unconstrained market will run off the railroad track because people become so greedy," said John Stapleford, senior economist at Moody's Economy.com. "But people who were born after 1982 never experienced a prolonged, difficult stretch in the economy."

In the next few years, people could see the ranks of the unemployed increase and income decline to levels not experienced since the Great Depression, economists said.

While economists don't predict an economic slump as deep as the 1930s, it will be an eye-opener for many, said Jim Butkiewicz, an economics professor at the University of Delaware who has studied the Depression.

Those, like Labovsky, who lived through the Great Depression, know what a profound effect economic hard times can have on a society.

It haunted an entire generation, Butkiewicz said.

"It was the single most damaging thing that happened in the United States in the 20th century. There was nothing like the Depression. It's a memory they'll never, ever forget," Butkiewicz said. "It changes your outlook on life in the way you think about things."
'The value of money'

Consider the so-called "Depression mentality," which is characterized as being extremely cautious economically and highly security conscious.

"The Depression mentality was a willingness to take any job -- if you could get a job -- and a willingness to live extremely marginally," said Delaware historian Carol Hoffecker. "There was a real sense of hopelessness. People who lived through that -- it continued through the rest of their lives."

Guilt and self-doubt came into play, as well, Butkiewicz said.

Don Roney, 91, who lives at Shipley Manor in Talleyville, agrees. He still feels guilty when he thinks about throwing something away, because of a lecture at the University of North Dakota. An economics professor held up the stub of pencil and said: "You might be inclined to throw it away. But it's still useful. It has utility."

And utility means it has value, the professor said, and value translates to cash.

"Every time I go to throw something away -- anything that still has value -- I still get a little twinge of conscience," Roney said. "The Depression taught us the value of money."

To this day, if Roney has an undershirt that has seen better days, he said, he can't shake the notion it still has some utility, if only as a dustcloth.

Some argue that the rise of the credit card industry and consumers' willingness to carry debt didn't take hold until the Depression generation was "no longer part of the economic picture," Hoffecker said.

"I didn't know what a credit card was because we had been taught by my parents not to buy anything we couldn't pay for right then," said Theodora Winters, 92, of Forwood Manor. "So many of the younger people now don't believe me when I tell them what happened during the Depression."

Children of the Depression didn't believe in using credit cards because they feared running up a big bill, said Winters, who grew up in Kansas. She had a credit card for a short time and got rid of it, she said.

"I'd see something that was very attractive for my home and I didn't really, truly need it and I was tempted to charge it. But I didn't do it. I talked myself out of it. I knew I had to pay for it," Winters said.

Depression children paid off their homes as quickly as possible, Hoffecker said. There was a ritual of burning the mortgage document. They knew what it was it like to have the bank knocking on the door, just like in the movie melodramas.

Clara Freeman, 96, of Shipley Manor, watched her parents lose their farm in Missouri.

"My father had bought the farm and had worked so hard. They had it for at least 25 years. We were born on it. My parents were very proud people. That's what hurt," Freeman said.

The hard times didn't come all at once, she said.

"It came on slowly and we just couldn't make the payments," Freeman said. "It was a sad thing to see the banker coming up the road. It was absolutely a heartbreaking thing forever. They didn't go back to farming after that."

There was such a lack of money, Freeman's mother would search for a nickel or a penny for the kids to take to school to get school supplies, she said.

Wayne Saufley, 91, of Shipley Manor, said the banker appeared at his family's farm near Hershey, Pa.

"This guy came to our place one time. I was the only one at home. He scribbled something on a piece of paper and said: 'Tell your dad to have this up there' by a certain day. I was kinda worried for my father," Saufley said.

The family raised pigs, but they went out and shot groundhogs for food to avoid cutting into their stock, Saufley said.

"It wasn't too bad," Saufley said.

Labovsky's father, a "carriage trade" tailor for the wealthy du Pont family and the city bankers, was wiped out financially because he had lent money to his employer, who played the market. The employer went bankrupt and then disappeared.

Labovsky recalls his parents crying in the kitchen. There was no money for Labovsky to go to college.

"All the prosperity, all the luxuries suddenly collapsed," he said.

There were bread lines and soup lines along Market Street, he said. Louise Lee, 95, of Shipley Manor, recalled soup lines in her North Carolina town.
Learning to make do

For many, the refrain from those years was doing without or making do.

"Dad always said, 'Ah, you can get along without,' " said Manville Bro, 85, of Shipley Manor, who lived in Iowa. "The 1930s, that was a horrible period in the Middle West. That year, 1934, we watched our crop dry up to nothing. Nobody had anything. We had 30 milk cows and we got down to 12 and we fed them just cornstalks. We sold them for little or nothing in Omaha."

Bro said even when times got better in the 1940s the feeling was "if you didn't have the money, you didn't buy it."

Mabel Erickson, 87, who lived in Albany, N.Y., remembered she had white shoes for summer.

"When it got cool, my mother took the shoes and had them dyed black," said Erickson, of Shipley Manor.

Emma Donovan, 95, of Shipley Manor, graduated from Wilmington High School in 1931 and was lucky to land a job at the YMCA. But she remembers eating "navy bean soup quite a bit," she said.

Robert Hallsted, 92, of Shipley Manor, said the schools in his Ohio community ran out of money and had to graduate students in April. None of the graduates had the money to buy a class ring, he said, and sports programs were dropped.

Labovsky, who immigrated to the United States when he was 11, had lived through historic hardship and upheaval. As a child, he experienced horrific pogroms, organized massacres of Jewish people, in his shtetl in what was then Russia. There was chaos, turmoil and famine in Russia during the civil war between the Communists and anti-Communists, he said.

During the Depression, Labovsky worried the suffering of the American people and the great ranks of unemployed could lead to the rise of Communism or Nazism, he said.

"Roosevelt saved America from revolution," Labovsky said, referring to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his social and economic reforms.

Bro agreed that Roosevelt was a hero to his community. People made fun of the workers with the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a massive employment relief program under Roosevelt's New Deal.

"We Poke Around -- WPA," Saufley said.

But Bro said the WPA gave people needed jobs. He recalls a WPA crew coming to his home to dig gravel out of their gravel pit for use on the roads.

"I knew all these guys. They weren't really very proud of having to work on the WPA. But, gosh, they had to eat," Bro said.
Sharing their wealth

In Delaware, the du Ponts took a major role in providing relief to the poor, in part out of enlightened self-interest, Hoffecker said.

"I think they were fearful we would elect a president who would lead us in a left-turning way," Hoffecker said.

Because Labovsky's father catered to DuPont Co. executives, he managed to get one of his customers to recommend Labovsky for a job at the company's Experimental Station. Labovsky went to work there as a chemist's helper to the brilliant scientist Wallace H. Carothers, who invented nylon and neoprene, a synthetic rubber. Although Labovsky said he constantly feared losing his job, Carothers protected him. What's more, Carothers helped his assistant get a college scholarship from a du Pont family member.

Still, it was very painful to see men with families lose their jobs, Labovsky said. DuPont laid off workers and cut hours and salaries, Hoffecker wrote in "Corporate Capital: Wilmington in the 20th Century."

"Married men would get laid off and I'd feel guilty," Labovsky said.

The state had "nothing worthy of the name of public welfare," Hoffecker writes.

Alfred I. du Pont, one of the three cousins who founded the modern DuPont Co., was appalled at the treatment of the elderly in the almshouse, Hoffecker wrote. He urged the state to provide assistance to the seniors who did not have pensions or relatives to care for them.

For two years, du Pont took it upon himself and mailed monthly checks to the elderly poor in the state until the state took responsibility, Hoffecker wrote.

"I think his whole life demonstrated a concern for the poor, partly because he grew up working in the mills. He worked with the workers," Hoffecker said.

The psychological effect on Labovsky of the Great Depression was different than his earlier experiences, he said.

"The [Russian] revolution was violent. In a pogrom, there's violence, shouting and shooting. The Depression was mournful," he said.

He recalls a married man with children telling him he had lost his job.

"He was crying," Labovsky said. "It made me cry, too."

Contact Maureen Milford at 324-2881 or mmilford@delawareonline.com.

From: http://www.delawareonline.com/article/20081020/BUSINESS/810200340/1003


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