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Tag Archives: Great Depression

Christmas at the Cotton Mills

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There was always a Christmas program at the mill school. Children memorized parts of the Christmas story from Luke, stood in a row, and recited it, verse by verse. The children learned carols, and some sang solos. The school presented its program during the week of Christmas during school  hours. If parents weren’t working the first shift, they attended, sat in uncomfortable straight back chairs, and beamed at their children’s performance. Mothers were the mainstay of those in the audience.

The company filled the bags with just the right amount and variety of fruit, candy, nuts, peanuts, and jelly. Because fruit was scarce and sweets were dear, these bags were appreciated.  Folks who were unable to come to the mill received home delivery. Some mills gave each family a turkey for Thanksgiving and a ham at Christmas.

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Most mills presented to each employee of one year service or longer, a check in the amount of one week’s salary. Those who had been in the employ of the Mills for less than one year received checks in proportion to their time of employment. The workers, who were children, would receive monetary gifts of $1-$3.

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Fireworks were part of the celebrations in the village. Early in November, catalogs from distant companies arrived in the company store. Orders would be shipped by railroad express. Packages of All American Boy, Noisy Boy, and others would arrive for only a few dollars.

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Parents worked hard to put food on the table during the Great Depression. Sometimes the dad would trade for silver bombs for their sons. It made a powerful popping sound, and soon the air was full of those pops. Late-sleepers had a sudden awakening when a silver bomb was thrown on their porch.

Most families had a tree. Christmas trees were decorated with lead icicles and small  snow  flakes that the mothers crocheted. Strings of popcorn and berries were woven around the limbs.The cut trees were either a small pine or holly found in the woods and nailed to a wooden base.

The wives baked chocolate and coconut pies, fruitcakes, and chocolate and coconut cakes. They were for company and family who might drop by and couldn’t be touched until Christmas day.

Mill families lived a hard life. It took the adults and children working to make ends meet. Christmas didn’t erase this life style, but for a day they were forgotten.

 

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Bill Shephard writes about what he bought for his family in 1935 with money he earned by selling trees he cut down and splitting some wood for a neighbor.

My Christmas earnings now totaled ninety cents! If I didn’t earn another penny, I could purchase a gift for every family member and have some left for myself, and that is exactly what I did!

A small tea-set for my sister cost a dime. A pretty box of ladies handkerchiefs for Mom cost another dime. A necktie for Dad, which he never wore, and a pair of socks for each of my brothers, cost ten cents each. I still had forty cents left for myself! I purchased a box of ten rolls of caps for the cap-pistol I knew I would get from Santa, and six boxes of firecrackers, along with two boxes of sparklers. I still had a nickel left with which to buy a large bag of p-nut brittle for me.

Mr. Shephard learned early how to stretch a dollar.

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Depression Hobos and Aunt Annie Mae

The two-story boarding house proudly graced the corner of Green Street and Boyce Street in Union, South Carolina. It faced the Union Mill.

     Painted white, like all of the other mill village houses, the windows sparkled in the June sun. Annie Mae Bobo was an excellent cook, but she also took pride in keeping her household spic-and-span.

     Her eight male boarders felt blessed to pay room and board for one dollar a week. Two men shared each of the four upstairs rooms. The bachelor’s ages extended from sixteen to nineteen.

     Annie Mae and her daughter Noddie, a family nickname for Norma, washed the sheets and swept the rooms once a week. She provided her own handmade quilts for warmth in the winter. Opening the two windows in each room brought in fresh, and sometimes cool, air in the spring and summer. Available for spit baths and shaving were a pitcher, bowl, mirror, and towels.

          A single, light bulb in a brass socket, dangling from the ceiling, provided pale light at night. Two, black wires loosely crawled up the walls and across to the socket from the switch beside the door. Green tape partially held the two wires together.

     The outhouse was only yards from the back door. That forty-yard dash was not inconvenient to anyone, and it was a two-hole necessary house.

These are the opening lines of the short story, “Annie Mae” in my new book, Tales of a Cosmic Possum. (available October 14, 2017) Annie Mae was one of my husband John’s aunts, and she had a open heart. She often reminded her children, as well as all within earshot, to “do right by the good Lord, he’p yer own kin, he’p others ye meet along the way.”

Hobos lived a life on-the-go; most of them traveled from one job to another by train.

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In the hobo villages, family safety was a concern, and ingenuity was the answer.

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Finding food was a constant problem. Hobos often begged for food at a local farmhouse. If the farmer was generous, the hobo would mark the lane so that later hoboes would know this was a good place to beg. They took jobs no one else would take.

Hobos created items to sell for some spare change. This cup was made from a tin can, a hollow stick, and some copper wire.

The Hobo Code was quickly learned; it was a survival tool. Life as a hobo was difficult and dangerous. To help each other out, these vagabonds developed their own secret language to direct other hobos to food, water, or work – or away from dangerous situations. The Hobo Code helped add a small element of safety when traveling to new places.

The diverse symbols in the Hobo Code were scrawled in coal or chalk all across the country, near rail yards and in other places where hobos were likely to convene. The purpose of the code was not only to help other hobos find what they needed, but to keep the entire lifestyle possible for everyone. Hobos warned each other when authorities were cracking down on vagrants or when a particular town had had its fill of beggars; such helpful messages told other hobos to lie low and avoid causing trouble until their kind was no longer quite so unwelcome in those parts.

Since Annie Mae and her husband Roy’s house wasn’t far from the railroad, their home would have seen many of these hobos. This couple had little in the way of worldly possessions or ready-money, but they believed in and daily lived out the Golden Rule.

Matthew 7:12 (NIV) “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and Prophets.”

Whether a cup of cold water from their well, several apples picked from the apple tree in the back, or a left over biscuit from breakfast, Annie Mae shared what she had. She loved her neighbor.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The first question which the priest and the Levite asked was: ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But…the good Samaritan reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”

Perhaps the question for me and you today is “Who is my neighbor?” Annie Mae would tell us anyone we meet “along the way.”