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Welcome to the Pioneering Today Podcast. This is Episode No. 81.
This is a very special episode. This is where I get to interview my dad, and share with you his wisdom from growing up during the Great Depression. Even beyond on then, they still lived without electricity, without indoor plumbing, and raising almost everything themselves. You get to hear what it was like from someone who really lived during that time.
Want more tips from the Great Depression Era as well as over 100+ recipes and tutorials?In my new book, Hand Made: the Modern Guide to Made-from-Living, passed down from my grandparents, my father (whose earliest years and memories are from the Great Depression), and many other dear friends and family members, that their wisdom may bless you and not be forgotten.
Snag the details here and find out more of what's covered in the book and the bonuses go here.–> Hand Made: the Modern Guide to Made-from-Scratch Living
The Homestead is the house that is still standing, and still doesn’t have electricity. It’s wired, you can hookup a generator or battery but it’s not really wired for electricity. There is no electricity that runs out there, there’s still no indoor bathroom or indoor plumbing other than the sink that has the hand pump. We refer to it as the homestead because that’s when he and my grandparents moved out here from North Carolina in the 1940s and ended up purchasing their property and living during his childhood years.
Click Here for our Great Depression Era Cornbread and Biscuit Recipes
MKN: Welcome, Dad!
DAD: Thank you!
MKN: One of the first questions that we have, it came in from a reader and listener Jeanette, she said…if you knew that there’s another Great Depression coming or worse, where would you choose to live, if you could? What area of the United States?
DAD: Probably, right here!
MKN: Right here, in the Pacific Northwest. If you knew another Great Depression was coming, what’s one thing would you make sure that you have before it hits? What would be some things that you would make sure you have lined up or in place?
DAD: Well, I think you should have a cow for milk, butter from the milk, and a pig or two, and chickens. And you pretty much have everything there that you would need, besides growing a garden in the summer time.
MKN: Rachel asks, what was it like to use the outhouse, at the different seasons of the year?
DAD: Very cold! The Sears Roebuck catalog pages got a lot stiffer in cold weather.
MKN: Is that what you guys used for toilet paper – old catalogs? Is that what you had?
MKN: With the outhouse, how often did you have to move it? How deep is the hole dug where it’s at?
DAD: They moved it around. It was probably moved for at least 10-12 times for I could remember when we lived there. Then they would dig down a hole probably 3 or 4 feet underneath, and then, they’d saved the dirt. Then when we move the outhouse, we took that dirt and put on top of the remains of the outhouse.
MKN: Yes, you just cover it up and then moved it around. How often do you move it, like once a year.
DAD: it depends on how many people were using it, and it could be once a year, maybe twice a year
MKN: So not really often?
DAD: Yeah. And you put lime in it to keep it from smelling
MKN: Oh yeah, the lime. Patricia has another question. She said, where there any dangers from other people, or do you need guns to protect your family?
DAD: well, you always had a gun. And that was for hunting also. And there wasn’t that many people coming through, not like now, but there’s still a few that we considered outlaws. You’d want to protect your family from them, and that was one way to do it.
MKN: We got question here from Lisa. She wants to know what you guys do back then for fun?
Forms of Entertainment without Electricity During the Great Depression
DAD: Well, we have a battery-powered radio and in the evening we get to listen to the Lone Ranger, and Gene Autry for 30 minutes. The kids were very quiet then, because all you had was the voice coming over the radio. You could hear the horses galloping, and coming through the radio, stuff like that. They played card, such as fish and checkers, different things like that.
DAD: We had so many chores we had to do everyday. One of them was, we had to get wood for mom, for the wood-cooked stove, and have kindling for next morning. So when she got up, dad used them to build fire, and cook breakfast. We always have big breakfast like biscuits and eggs and oatmeal and gravy.
MKN: So you always have a pretty big breakfast?
DAD: Oh, yeah.
MKN: Was breakfast the biggest meal of the day, or did you have a big supper, or a smaller dinner?
DAD: There’s a big dinner, we always had lunch, because it’s always like a pot of beans or stew setting on the stove and they kept it just above the boiling point. A lot of times we just added to it and kept it going for a few days.
MKN: so you just keep adding.
DAD: because there’s no refrigeration, so we’d keep it hot.
DAD: And they had what they call the “cool room”. Instead of having windows, it has screens where the window was, and it would let the cool air in.
MKN: And that was in the kitchen or outside the house.
DAD: No, it was on the outside wall, usually at the end of a row of cupboards. Now, some like Grace Owen, Howard Stafford's grandma and grandpa, they had theirs in the kitchen and you just open up the door, like in the cupboard. Usually, the one on the end or next to the wall.
MKN: On an exterior wall?
DAD: Yes, it had the screen in it and let the cool air in, and that’s where they put the butter and the milk. Although, we did have, over at the backside of the homestead house, we had a hole dug and there was water, that stood in that hole, we set the milk and stuff in that to keep it cool.
MKN: Did you have your own milk cow that you guys milked?
DAD: We usually have two or three milk cows. When one was dry, getting ready to have a calf, the other one you could milk. You just changed back and forth.
MKN: So basically, you’re getting fresh milk everyday?
DAD: Oh yeah.
MKN: You just used the milk that you’re usually gonna use for the meal time, or turn into butter, and what was left’s will go either in the cool room or out in the little hole with water to keep it cold.
DAD: And the same way with the lard, although, you just butcher the pigs probably once a year and rendered that down into lard(How to Render Lard). We used Mortin salt and salt-cured (How to Salt Cure Your Own Meat) a lot of it, I think, was the name of it, and you rub that salt into the meat and it cured it. Then, we have the lockers at Rockport. In the general store you had lockers that were refridgerated, and you rented a little cage-like thing in the big room of the locker. Then, when you go over to get your mail, or stuff, if you needed meat, you pick up, go up, and get a package or two out of the locker.
MKN: They had electricity and refrigeration there, so if you needed to store something big like your meat you just kept in the locker.
DAD: Either that or you can it. We ate a lot of canned meat.
MKN: Grandma canned a lot of it
MKN: Well, like today, a lot of people, you know, just run to the store on your way home from work or wherever. A lot are going by the store, grabbing something almost everyday or every other day or whatever. How often, back then, did grandma actually go to the grocery store and go grocery shopping?
DAD: Well, our basic thing for going to the grocery store like flour, salt, sugar and stuff like that and lard of course. But when we butcher the pig, then we rendered the lard and it was good for gravy and different things. She usually bought it in bulk, like fifty pounds of flour, 25-50 lbs of sugar and things like that.
MKN: She didn’t go to the grocery store very often, just when she need the bulk items.
DAD: Often? No. She made a lot of cornbread and biscuits. Occasionally, she would make what we call light bread. Other than that, until I started to school, and then they finally got a cafeteria in Rockport school, it was quite a treat to get a piece of, I guess you call it, factory-made bread.
MKN: Right, so when you say light bread, you mean like a yeast bread that rises. It’s like the right kind for sandwiches. She didn’t bake that very often, was it because she hadn’t purchased the yeast and yeast was an expense?
DAD: yeah, and it took more time. Homemade had no additive to keep the shelf life. It was just easy to make so many biscuits, say you have 6 or 8 people that’s gonna have dinner, that’s what’s easier to keep than bread and not let it spoil. You have to be very careful of the food that you throw away, all of what come off the table went to the pigs.
MKN: Oh I see. Yeah. What was your favorite thing to do as a child? Anything that you didn’t get caught?
DAD: Probably going out, and having as my grandson Landon says, having a campfire. We would cooked up potatoes and different things. Occasionally, we’d catch a fish and roast it over a fire.
MKN: So, they didn’t have really the hunting and fishing seasons or restrictions they do now, back then or people just did what…
DAD: They did what they did without having to worry too much about Game Warden because it was quite a ways to come to the homestead. As long as you didn’t waste anything you killed, people didn’t think too much about it. Go ahead and use it, if you use it, and that was fine.
MKN: So Grandma, how often did she make butter, did she churn everyday or she would just save the cream?
DAD: No, not every day. I don’t know exactly how long the butter would keep. But she used buttermilk for biscuits and different things. When she ran out, then it was time to churn again.
MKN: She’d just make it again as you went through it then.
DAD: Yeah. And she used a lot of sour cream buttermilk. And myself, I like the sweet cream much better, especially for cooking with. Dad would take the butter and he would fry potatoes and different things in it.
MKN: Yeah, well, I think with the sour cream, that, it naturally sours without refrigeration but it also creates like a culture so it keeps it longer, which is probably why she is used it, to preserve it longer.
DAD: Yes, that was part of it.
MKN: It’s kind of natural way of preserving it when we didn’t have the fridge.
DAD: and she would make cottage cheese, and different things but I think on the cottage cheese, you have to use a sweet cream.
MKN: Does she make any of the hard cheeses, does she make like the aged cheeses…
DAD: not that I remembered
MKN: just the soft cheeses, so that wouldn’t take as much time and resource
DAD: and she would churn a lot of butter, and take it over to Rockport to Mrs. Presentien and milk to Ellen Osborne and she would trade that for different things in store.
MKN: How many chickens did you guys keep?
DAD: oh, probably 50-60 chickens. We always have plenty of eggs and stuff, and plenty of chickens to eat. If company came, we’d just go out and butcher one.
MKN: And that was dinner. She pretty much only bought staples from the grocery store, then basically your, like fruits and vegetables would have been just what you guys grew yourselves and that’s pretty much what you had.
DAD: It was nothing to mom to have probably, in the fall, she would probably can 300 jars, quarts, some half gallons. It was a whole different thing than what most folks do today, and like fish, she always canned a lot of fish and a lot of canned meat, especially deer meat. It was much better canned, and it is still today.
MKN: you prefer the canned flavor or texture of the meat?
DAD: Oh, yeah! You can open up a can of deer meat, and you get the gravy in the meat right there. All you got to do is heat it up, and have some biscuits and you gotta good meal there.
MKN: With fruit and stuff, she would just can it and dry it or what kind of fruits, like apples
DAD: yes she canned everything — peaches, pears, apples and prunes, and just a lot of things.
MKN: just anything you can get here, then she would just can it to preserve it and to eat throughout the wintertime.
MKN: so fresh vegetable wise, and until it was time for the garden to come back on, you didn’t really have a lot of fresh vegetables. All have to be pretty much canned or dried. I mean, you didn’t go to the store and purchase the head of lettuce every week for salad or something.
DAD: No, that didn’t come in until the later years. It was a different lifestyle. And you gotta plan ahead. Because there was no unemployment, and back then wages – I still remember when dad just made 8$ a day, and then he got up to 12$ and literally, he thought he was getting rich.
MKN: That was a day!
DAD: yep! That was day’s wages, maybe 10-12 hours. There were no 8-hour shifts.
MKN: And that was in the woods.
DAD:Yes, that was in the woods. And they did work. I don’t know what they got when they worked in the shingle mill up at Marblemount when we first came up. We lived up there. And then we moved to Mount Rainier. He was froze on the job, that’s when the war broke out.
MKN: so he was froze out, so he wouldn’t leave his job or he’d be drafted?
DAD: Right, they made the piling and stuff for landing ships, stepped on the shores over there and he was a good timber faller. He was froze on the job there. When that ended, then we moved back up here and went to the homestead.
MKN: How many kids did grandma and grandpa have at that time when you guys moved over in to the Homestead? There’s only two rooms there now.
DAD: well, it did actually have 3 or possibly 4 with the attic.
MKN: oh, back then!
DAD: upstairs, yeah, see there were bed upstairs and mom, she kept boarders from time to time. Uncle Ralph, boarded with us, too… mom’s half-brother. She took in, got a few bucks that way. Maybe 20/25$ a month and she did the washing, cooking for them.
MKN: so what was like a yearly salary back then?
DAD: I don’t think there was any..
MKN: like an average or just whatever you were able to get
DAD: Just what you could earn.
MKN: So, she would sell the eggs or take the butter to help for barter for groceries and stuff, and taking boarders. But, as a whole, back then, the women really didn’t work. They were staying home.
DAD: That’s right! They had a full time job, just keeping the house going and canning, and taking care of the milk and different things. Although mom didn’t milk much. I mean, that was my job and one of my other brothers that’s two years younger. And dad, he kinda oversaw the milking.
MKN: Did you guys do your own haying? Or what was the feed. Did you raise your own feed for the cows through the winter or what did you with that?
DAD: well dad, he worked around. We got a lot from Albin, which is a place I owned now…the hay would get a little damp, and when they have plenty of hay, they let people take it because they didn’t want it left in the field to mold and rot.
DAD: although dad did that, he did cut some hay in the homestead.
MKN: Did they hand cut it or with a mower?
DAD: By hand, cut with a sythe.
MKN: and do you have a big barn that you put in a lock to store?
DAD: well, to start with they stack it outside, like they do back East. They put a pole at the ground and stack around it. And it was like a thatched roof and the water run-off. There was a lot of waste here because of the moisture. Like eastern Washington it was dry and you can get away without putting it inside the barn.
MKN: and here it mildewed more.
DAD: And dad, he build a pretty good sized barn over there. We put the hay in the barn, which was much better.
MKN: I bet, the hay will last a lot longer. Did you have the chickens in the coop or they just free range?
DAD: No, no, we have a big chicken pen, and probably, I would say, 10×20 chicken house and it had nests in there for the chicken to go lay in.
MKN: Did you have a lot of predator problems with them, like anything getting in and killing the chickens?
DAD: well, except for some fox who try to get the chicken
MKN: I’ve got one more question here, this one is from Lisa. How old were you when you got married?
DAD: I was 18.
MKN: (laughs) well same here, I followed in your footsteps. And how old were you when you guys had your first child?
DAD: I was 18. (laughs) yeah, 18 or 19, but before that, when we lived at the Homestead, we have to walk to Rockport, which is about a 3-mile-walk.
MKN: and that was to school.
DAD: that was to school, yeah. We had to cross on the ferry.
MKN: and the creek, there was a creek that ran across the driveway.
DAD: yes, it was there. We had to cross it on the way, the creek.
MKN: and you guys didn't thump each other on the way?
DAD: and I’m sure was some of that. That school house would sure look good though when your pant legs just froze half way to your knees and it was coal fire over there. We would stand over the heat register there, and we would let the warm air come up your pant legs.
MKN: Til you were thawed out. Man!
DAD: And in the later years, I did operate the ferry, off and on, til they put the bridge in.
MKN: so what was some of your very favorite things that grandma cooked? What was some of your favorite recipes that she made back then, or food?
DAD: ah, rice pudding! It just melts in your mouth, rice pudding!
MKN: was that a special treat, or did she make it very often?
DAD: She bought the rice, of course at the store, in Presentine’s Mercantile Store, Frank McGavern’s and once in a while we got down to Vanhorn, which, the Alberts’ own that, which built the store that has the Red Apple now, their grandparents.
MKN: How many outfits or shoes did you have like clothes and shoes wise? I mean, now, we’ve got closets full now but back then…
DAD: well, we usually have a new pair when school started, and the other pair that you have, that is work shoes.
MKN: So, you just had two – your nice pair and the work pair.
DAD: you got your butt warmed when you got up there and your new shoes got dirty and scuffed.
MKN: I can imagine grandma, whooping you (laughs)
DAD: and we usually have boots in the wintertime, rubber boots.
MKN: Obviously, you ordered the shoes or went in the store to buy…
DAD: Sears Roebuck's
MKN: the catalog.
DAD: and Presentine’s usually have shoes and Frank McGovern have some, too.
MKN: What about your clothes, , did she order them?
DAD: she made a lot of them, especially shirts. Pants are usually bought.
MKN: and most of the items you got them from the catalog, too or was there a store you go…
DAD: a lot of times, yeah! And if we got down in the little store in town.
MKN: Then, what was a typical thing or kind of average thing that grandma would cooked, like I knew you said you liked biscuits, and gravy, and eggs. What were some of the the typical lunch items, that you’ve had when she does not do the sandwich, what will you have for lunch, then?
DAD: we always had like biscuits, there were beans, like I say it’s always on the pot, boiling. Occasionally, dad, he was quite a fly fisherman and he would catch trout and you know whatever is handy, we cooked up.
MKN: so when you have pot of beans, do you mean like green beans or the shelly beans, or dried beans or both?
DAD: well, we can have green beans, if we want, we opened a jar. Mom always can a lot of green beans, and the shelly beans, she was pretty good at that.
MKN: Pretty much, what you ate for lunch is not really a different meal. It is pretty much the kind of the food you cook for dinner or supper, what you call back then.
DAD: You might want to say leftovers.
MKN: Lunch was more of leftovers from day before.
DAD: and biscuits like from breakfast. They were still good at noon.
MKN: so she just made double batch of the biscuits or corn bread or whatever from breakfast to carry over until lunch.
MKN: Pretty much, you had a bread item, be it corn bread or biscuits or something like that with dinner or with breakfast.
DAD: I remember she never used the bowl to mix up the flour in, for the biscuits.
MKN: Oh, really.
DAD: She would just make a hollow, a little spot inside the 50-pound sack of flour and she would pour the milk, and stuff the buttermilk right in that and mix it up. She made the batter right there.
MKN: right in the bag of flour?
DAD: and then she’d take it out, put them out, with what she calls, the spoon bread and she would put that on a pan that was set on top of a stove. Of course, biscuits, they’d went into the oven and bake. Same way with pie crusts, she would just pour whatever she’d mix up there to make a pie crust, she would pour right in on top of the flour, she’d roll the cloth of the flour where it was in…the sack and she roll that back, and it was like a little bowl itself.
MKN: She just put it right in there, than had another bowl to wash. Oh, that’s cool. I didn’t know that. You haven’t told me that story before.
DAD: I can see her, when she mixed it up, she’d wash her hands, then she would dig in there. She made a hole up, and then the flour, she mixed it up. When she felt that she had enough milk in her dough, , mixed up well, the rest of flour is there.
MKN: And she would just bake it up.
DAD: And she would pick it up, and probably we have a cupboard. She aways calls it a cupboard, and it had a sifter in it. You could put the flour in the sifter, because a lot of the flour then wasn’t as refined as what we are used to today. It have different, maybe kernels and stuff on it and you turn that sifter and it would sift the nice and fine stuff. Then you would take that sifter out and dump it out and give it to chickens.
MKN: oh. ok I know grandma is quite particular about her corn meal, she only used white corn meal.
DAD: She said the yellow corn meal was for cows, and duck.
MKN: Yeah, I remember her saying that. I still remember that one.
DAD: Yeah, she had her way of thinking and you wouldn’t change it.
MKN: Do you think white corn meal is better because of it’s texture or does it taste different?
DAD: It has a different flavor. I prefer the flavor and taste of the while better.
MKN: Yeah! Did she cook grits or just mainly oatmeal?
DAD: No. not very many grits, I like the oatmeal and she always seem to have a bucket of raisins around.
MKN: to put them in the oatmeal. She pretty much cooked every meal and most of the food, she was also preserving. And that she’s cooking what she put up herself.
MKN: was there ever a time that the harvest really failed and you guys felt that you were really low on food?
DAD: Oh we always have plenty to eat. Because we always had meat, and dad always had 3 or 4 hives of bees for the honey.
MKN: Oh grandpa was a beekeeper, I didn’t realize that.
DAD: And there’s nothing better than honey on a hot biscuit or piece of cornbread. That was really a treat, and we have a lot of that. We didn’t go hungry. Sometimes our clothes was a little bit…
MKN: …tighter or getting a little smaller…there was never a problem on food.
DAD: Yeah, no.
MKN: but if you look at some kids and people today now. The average society as a whole, I say because there’s always special cases, do you think that the way of life back, well it is much harder but in a way something’s far better about it?
DAD: well, I do. We didn’t have kids then sitting on the…what do you call them?
MKN: a cellphone?
DAD: cellular phones and different things, the kids have something to do. They kept their minds. They didn’t have trouble that they do today. There were no drugs, not like you see today. I guess you can say, there was no drugs, but there was alcohol and cigarettes.
MKN: do you feel that families are closer as a whole because you are working together or not necessarily?
DAD: I believe so. It was a good life. You might say it was a hard life, but it was a good life. If you want heat, you got your firewood up during summer time, and stock them in the woodshed.
MKN: Now, we’re spoiled. We've got automatic wood choppers and chain saws, back then all was done by hand. It was the hand that cut the saw with axe.
DAD: To start with, yes, and then later on dad got a chainsaw. It was a lot easier with the chainsaw. A lot of the guys would put it off and get into the woods during summertime because they felt they could go up there with chainsaw. Back then there was a lot of old growth lying around, because when the log, they only get the best part and you could go up there, and all your 3 hours you could cut a pile of wood. This wasn’t really good with the women because if they cut off the wood during summertime, when the heat was up, it would all be dried up wood. And there’s quite a story there on the pitch, but I wouldn’t tell that one.
MKN: Oh, you’re gonna give us a teaser and not tell us it. The wet wood is harder to cook on. It would be smoking and not producing heat.
DAD: Inside the old growth, away from the sap wood, the old growth was dry. But you know, when you cut it and you’re up there on the rain, it’s raining on it then it would, just like a sponge, it has tendency to soak up with so much more moisture.
MKN: so in the summertime, even when it’s hot out, you still had a fire to cook on.
DAD: absolutely, we caned outside, it was too hot inside. She put a big tub over a fire, and we had this framework with three legs. It was stood up so high that you can a fire under it. She would save can lids from the winter before and she put the can lids in the bottom of the tub and she would set the jars that she was canning down on that. Then she would take towels and wrap it around. So, when it got to boiling they wouldn't rock together and break.
MKN: now, she just made her own canning rack and she used towels and can lids to keep them up off the bottom of the pot.
DAD: now when dad finally found the little motorized washing machine, he really went around for that. It had a little ringer on it, and had a little motor underneath and that was a big improvement from using the scrub board.
MKN: I bet. Because when you do laundry, obviously, with just a tub, and water and soap and scrub board..how often, do you just have a washday once a week…
DAD: whenever there was a pile of clothes there to wash
(laughs) There was a line hung upstairs, there were two chimneys up there. They’re still there, and some of the lines are probably still up there. And mom would hang them up there. There’s a wire stretched across in the living room around the stove. And she would hung, if we need a pair of socks, then she would hang socks on it, and pair of pants, and it would dry quick.
MKN: and it would dry there from the heat.
DAD: with the little ringer washing machine it would squeeze a lot of water.
MKN: oh yeah!
DAD: and I don’t know whatever happened to that little machine.
MKN: Now we just open a lid, press a button and throw it in and there she goes. I like to line dry our clothes in the summer time. I prefer line dried myself.
Melissa K. Norris inspires people's faith and pioneer roots with her books, podcast, and blog. Melissa lives with her husband and two children in their own little house in the big woods in the foothills of the North Cascade Mountains. When she's not wrangling chickens and cattle, you can find her stuffing Mason jars with homegrown food and playing with flour and sugar in the kitchen.