Richard R. Renner: Memories of the hard times


Published: Friday, January 23, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 22, 2009 at 11:14 p.m.

They laughed when I said "Hoover;" it was my first word.

Dad was a small-town businessman in southern Pennsylvania. President Hoover, a respected free-enterprise Republican, ran for re-election and won. A year later, in October 1929, the stock market crashed. One of my town's two banks soon folded. Dad lost a bundle.

Most local factories were owner-operated and non-union. Four made cigars, two canned vegetables, two made shoes, four clothing; there also were a foundry, a silk mill, a kitchen cabinet factory, and one made lamp shades.

Three cigar factories soon closed, and my baby sitter's father and many others turned to making cigars at home. The lamp shade factory closed and was converted to making shoes for babies, a niche industry serving mostly affluent foreigners in Latin America.

Although soup lines were common in the cities, I never heard of any in my town. For about two years though, various unemployed men would come by our house evenings asking for supper; some still wore the tattered suits of stock brokers. They ate on our back porch, even in winter. There was a small hobo camp located three blocks away.

Most of our town's workers lived on small farms or had relatives who owned small farms. When business was slack, factories closed one or two days a week. Many families ate corn meal mush and milk or fried mush and molasses. My dad rented vacant lots and grew strawberries, cantaloupes and honeydew for sale.

Since few people had money for recreation, they stayed at home. Remember, there was no TV nor computers; movies were only in black and white. Radio was in its infancy; by 1934, "Tom Mix" and "Little Orphan Annie," sponsored by Ralston Purina cereal and Ovaltine respectively, were popular with kids. And haircuts were down to 15 cents; the usual charge was 25. Movies were 10 cents for kids and 25 for adults. I earned one percent interest on my first savings account.

Since credit cards were rare, there was little temptation to indebtedness. Except for real estate and autos, if you couldn't pay for something, you did without. However, even small businesses extended personal credit to deserving customers. A respected pharmacist we knew committed suicide in the basement of his store when he became hopelessly indebted to his suppliers.

Credit sometimes took strange shapes: I was morbidly fascinated when dad chopped off the head of a chicken by my play tree for Sunday dinner. Unlike most of our neighbors, we had no "home chicken yard." I suspect that ours came from his farmer customers in lieu of cash.

Once, in 1937, I was hired to tidy up a house and outbuildings of a small farm that dad and his partner acquired for debts unpaid during the depression years.

No one then was entitled to government Social Security or retirement payments or food stamps; there were no government unemployment entitlements nor welfare subsidies. Of course, state sales taxes and income taxes also were rare, and the federal income tax was moderate.

I was startled by the street revelry and helter skelter of fireworks at the parade that followed Roosevelt's election in November 1932. Not until years later did I realize that the new high school I attended, completed in 1934, was a Roosevelt recovery boost, as was the town's new sewer system and the paving of farm roads.

Not until college, years later, was I to learn that my small town, according to its census size, had suffered less from the Great Depression than any similar community in the whole USA!

These memories suggest to me at least that (1) my town's usual production of cheap goods positioned it to "thrive" as economic times worsened, (2) that small and locally owned industries care more about their employees, (3) that particular cultures matter: about 90 percent of our locals were English-speaking descendants of 18th century German peasants. Hard work, frugality, punctuality and honesty were respected. Their ties with agriculture nurtured our sustainability.

Is Gainesville blessed with similar assets? Are Obama's plans a good start? We'll soon see.

Richard R. Renner lives in Gainesville

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