Teens, seniors offer perspectives on the Great Depression PDF Print E-mail

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Last modified: Thursday, April 16, 2009 11:46 AM CDT

Phyllis Brown was less than 1 year old when the stock market crashed in 1929. She grew up through the Great Depression. Jake Misener, Jen Warning, Logan Simpson, and Trent Zelko are just high schoolers now - but they will be facing tough times of their own as they make career and education choices. (Herald Photo by Adam Nekola)

Teens, seniors offers perspectives on the Great Depression

On Jan. 1, 1929, Phyllis Brown was brought into the world - the reason the Great Depression began, according to her.

“But I didn’t start this one. I’m going to die in this one,” Brown said.

In a roundtable discussion at Saratoga Tower, residents Phyllis Brown and Bill Burkhart, who were born or raised during the Great Depression, sat with Logan Simpson and Trent Zelko, students from Morris Community High School, Jake Misener, a student at Seneca Township High School, and Jen Warning, a home-schooled student from Minooka, to discuss the perceived ideas of the era and the truths, as well as to compare them to today’s economy.

“It was little bumps in the road that started the depression,” Burkhart told the group.

Brown told the group her father worked the railroad and would bring home $13 every two weeks until 1940, when a chemical plant was built due to World War II.

“We kneaded bread every day and made doughnuts and rolls,” she said. “Bread was nine cents a loaf; we couldn’t buy it.”

The students shared with the residents how today’s recession is being seen in their homes.

“I’m starting to notice,” Simpson said. “You see it on the news and it’s being talked about, but I don’t know enough how my parents pay the bills and budget.”

Warning said that, in her home, there are five children and she sees how careful her parents are with their money.

“They tell us to save and to shop before you buy,” she said. “We are struggling like everyone else.”

Zelko said taking care of the animals he has for 4-H has made him realize where he spends money and that it doesn’t grow on trees.

Misener told the group he is looking at it as he decides to go off to college.

“I will be using loans and grants to pay for college,” he said. “It will cost $46,000 a year to go and I’m going to be a teacher, so I won’t make a lot of money to pay it back.”

Burkhart told them that no one worried about going to college when he was growing up.

“My brothers dropped out of high school so I could go to high school,” he said. “Those that were well to do went to college because they had money.”

He said his brother worked in camps that built bridges.

Brown told the group she was lucky they had cornfields and they would sell to get by, but her dad went without work and, when her great uncle lost his wife, he moved into the home.

“I never felt sorry for myself,” Brown said. “Our neighbors gave us parts of the animals they didn’t eat and we got pants they didn’t want.”

Brown said she wore boys shoes and knickers thanks to some nice neighbors, which is also where they bought their milk.

She said grown children moved home often with their families and her grandfather walked from Morris to Minooka to work.

“Everybody had gardens,” Burkhart said. “Everyone was poor; there was no work, no money.”

“There was no unemployment check and if you got sick you died,” he added.

He said you’d rent a home for about $10 a month, but there was no insulation.

“I can remember sticking newspaper in the holes to keep the wind out,” Brown added.

Warning asked them if communities grew closer during this time.

They told her, like family when a crisis happens, you join together.

The students are all aware of local relief agencies like We Care of Grundy County, which Burkhart explained to them weren’t there during the Great Depression. But food lines were, he said.

“We were fed water with sugar and sugar on lard on our bread,” Brown said. “We grew up healthy.”

Simpson said he fears his future.

“I want to go into medicine or theater,” he said. “I know with theater money would be an issue.”

Misener said he plans to take political science classes because everywhere you look there are political issues that need to be addressed.

Burkhart warned that President Obama wasn’t going to get America out of the trouble its in.

“He’s pouring trillions of dollars on it,” he said. “They are bringing on inflation and we will see deflation just like the housing market.”

Brown told the students if they want to get rich they should go into politics.

“They are millionaires,” she said. “Go into that life, serve one year and get money for the rest of your life. I think that’s pretty crappy.”

Warning told the group she wants to go into law and, perhaps, become a judge.

“My family is incredibly politically motivated,” she said.

She said she feels that, in that line of work, she would have work security.

“Another issue before is we got out because of war,” Simpson said. “But people backed the war.”

They discussed bailing out banks.

“It’s scary that they are bailing out banks with money,” Brown said.

Burkhart said that, in the fall of 1929, people just couldn’t get money.

He said we owe too much money to China and wonders why we did this.

“We went to foreign cars and our own people got canned,” he said.

Warning said part of the reason for the depression, she feels, is the roaring ‘20s.

Simpson said research he has done shows that stocks on loan and what banks were doing with investors caused it.

They all agreed the more-recent housing market caused the loss of money in the same way.

“In the late 1930s, you put a third down on a car or house or you didn’t buy it,” Burkhart said.

The students discussed some of the things they wouldn’t want to live without, including cellular telephones.

“There was no radio, TV, phone, no electricity,” Burkhart said, “There was no inside bathroom.”

He said everyone can go without these things, but they have become accustomed to them.

Warning said she would need food, a house, and running water.

“The other day, we had no hot water,” Burkhart said. “It was an inconvenience, but we can do without.”

Simpson and Misener both work outside the home, but they said they are noticing fewer jobs are available.

“Two years ago, you could get a job anywhere,” said Misener. “Now there are no help wanted signs.”

Burkhart said he doesn’t remember being poor.

“Living in America, we have never been poor,” he said. “Even in the depression, we had more than some countries have.”

They said they aren’t sure how far down the economy will go this time.

“What can you count on?” asked Brown.

Burkhart replied, “You can’t count on the government.”

Burkhart and Brown ended the round table with some advice for everyone.

“I can give you a piece of advice,” Burkhart said. “Get what you need, and want what you want.”

Brown agreed, telling them that if they don’t have the money, don’t buy it.

“And you never have so little you can’t share,” Brown said.

Burkhart told them a story of how he’d be playing in his yard and the hobos would turn up his driveway and go to the back door, where his mother would always give them food.

He learned later they had marked the pole by his home to let others know they would help.

“That attitude doesn’t exist anymore,” Misener said. “Everyone is out for themselves.”

Brown replied, “That is because everyone has too much. I never thought I’d say that.”