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11: DEPRESSION

<< 10: RATTLESNAKES AND REPTILES || 12: CONCLUSION >>


The men in the front office called to those of us who worked in the back of the lumber yard and told us that the stock market had crashed and we were going to have a panic. One would suppose that some of the office people did have a small amount of stock and maybe they were going to have their own private panic. A panic did not scare me for I thought that was the natural way of life; or at least, it had been for me since cotton went to six cents per pound in my native Georgia. And, on top of that, the boll weevil came to dwell among us.

    This was in 1926 and I had come to Florida to try and make a living in the lumber business. Guess I was just stupid, for how many fat retail lumbermen have you ever seen? I should have known better. One thing this panic taught me was how to be a good iceman; for some people still had money and were willing to buy ice. Bet I have had my hands in more people's ice-boxes than anyone you will ever see. If the home owner wanted fifteen cents worth of ice, they nearly always put all of the spoilable groceries on top of what ice was left in the box. It was my job to clean out the box, place the ice in it, and then put the groceries back as they were. Good thing that time was not a factor; except that the ice on our truck was melting all of this time.

    One old lady saw my Mercer belt buckle and was greatly perturbed that a college trained man should be servicing her with ice. I told this dear old lady that I had a wife and baby and was making $20.00 for a seventy-two hour week; but none of us were hungry. Groceries were unbelievably cheap and we fared very well.

    There were almost no jobs to be found anywhere and bread lines were forming in every city. Here are a few of the prices I remember on groceries:

 

a loaf of bread...5˘ grapefruit...1˘ ea.
tall cans of evaporated milk...4˘ Irish or sweet potatoes...1˘ lb.
slightly tainted hamburger...5˘ per lb. shrimp...10˘ per lb.
reasonably fresh hamburger ...10˘ per lb. mullet...5˘ per lb.
hot dogs...10˘ per lb. oysters...30˘ per qt.
steak...25˘ per lb.     ham...15˘ per lb.    
eggs...15˘ per doz. 
cabbage...1˘ per lb.


  

Sounds great but don't kid yourself, we are living better now, than man has ever lived before and if we are not careful, ever will again.

    People knew they were in trouble and the birth rate dropped lower than it had ever been before (or has been since). Some people began to despair and wonder if things would ever right themselves; then someone coined the phrase "Prosperity is just around the corner." It was some time before we arrived at that corner, and now everyone is complaining about inflation and too much prosperity. We don't stand prosperity very well, but I sincerely hope that this generation will not be called upon to stand adversity.

    During one of the worst periods of adversity, a truck driver picked up a big stingray on the beach. He put it on the truck and brought it back to the yard where it was dumped. I don't know how the word got around so fast, but it was almost no time until groups of ladies with pans and knives began cutting steaks from the ray. The meat looked white and flaky but I did not want any of it. There was no danger of ptomaine poison. Ptomaine would not dare attack a group of people as hungry as these were.

    Then we got a new group of politicians in office and they approached our problem from a different angle. Their approach was that we had too much foodstuff and immediately began to destroy the food. Baby pigs were killed and hogs were slaughtered, Irish potatoes were piled up and a green liquid poured over them to keep people from eating them. (This did not work for it was found that the green was not poison and the potatoes were eaten anyway.) There was an attempt to destroy every semblance of a surplus so that prices would go up. Being an old conservative die-hard, this broke my heart for I have always been told "A willful waste makes a woeful want."

    Then came the bank closing, and for a few days every bank was forced to close so that hardly anyone had any cash. This could have been a good thing, for some of the banks failed to reopen after the moratorium. Hope it did a lot of good for it certainly inconvenienced hordes of people.

    The next step was the N.R.A. (National Recovery Act) and everyone was supposed to sell at the same price. No one was to work for less than 35˘ per hour on a forty hour week. This price fixing was blasted by the Supreme Court and we were in a legal transition period until things more or less improved of their own accord. Panics were not new to this country but somehow they have become known as "depressions". Maybe a rose by a different name will be sweeter.

    Just noticed that cotton futures had advanced to ninety-two cents per pound. Guess I quit too soon, but why am I complaining? Lumber that we did retail for $18.00 per thousand is now selling for $285.00 per thousand. Try that on your computer for size. By the way, a computer that cost $75.00 is doing the work of a computer that cost $850.00 some years back; that should be some improvement in the right direction.

    Now, for the W.P.A. (Works Progress Administration); this was likely the best thing that could have been done to give the heads of households some income and still accomplish some worthwhile things. The bulkhead at Jacksonville Beach was a W.P.A. project and there was much ditching and draining—all done by hand. Roads were built and sewers were installed, and they even had workshops where cabinet makers could earn a few dollars. There were many stories told of the inefficiency of the W.P.A. but over all they did a good job. Besides, who was in a hurry?

    Commodities were distributed on some kind of basis. I never did know how they arrived at their decisions as to whom to feed. It must have been a traumatic experience to tell a man who had ten children that he could not have food because he had not lived here long enough. The theory was that each community was to take care of its own—and you were not a part of that community until you had lived there a certain length of time. It did cut down on transients somewhat. This was in the days before people had forgotten how to make biscuits and flour was given away in twenty-four pound bags. One man was heard to remark "Yonder goes old Sam Jones with a sack of flour and I bet he ain't got airy a drink in his house." Probably true, for something to drink seemed to be easier to come by than food.

    This wheat deal still intrigues me as we send bushels of wheat, by the millions, to starving countries and just dump it on them. While other countries with more astute thinkers, set up ovens and bake loaves of bread which are distributed among the people. I can still remember the smell of a loaf of hot bread, and also the taste of it as my mother baked it for us. It would seem that I am very much different from other people in remembering the wonderful bread and almost forgetting the hardships that it took to produce the bread. The Lord has a way of helping you to retain the sweet memories and to discard the bitter ones. If there were no memories, there would be no roses in December.

    I was accosted on the sidewalk by a little boy who looked to be about eleven years of age. "Mister, I'm hungry, can you give me something to eat?" This little boy's face was ashen and scaly. I knew the symptoms, after having seen so much of it, but I was curious so I asked him where his folks were. "I live with my sister and brother-in-law and they don't feed me." There was a store nearby so we got him a loaf of bread and he was folding the slices together, cramming them into his mouth when I left. The boy was hungry. As the depression wore on, people seemed to get stronger and more able to bear up under the privations, for there was so much food here that could be had with just a little work: heart of palm, fish, oysters, crabs, berries, plums, gophers, and wild hogs, just to name a few.

    One of the teachers at the little Palm Valley school told this to me: "For a long time I had been watching this little boy open his lunch box, take out a small bottle of clear liquid, drink it and then eat his lunch. The best way to find out about the liquid was to ask him and I did. His reply was 'ain't nothing but shine, teacher, it won't hurt nothing!'

    Guess I had better explain about the little Palm Valley School. It was a one room school house on the east side of Palm Valley Road just north of Canal Street. It was later abandoned and the few pupils were brought to the school in Jacksonville Beach. At a much later date St. Johns County put in a modern school out on A1A near Ponte Vedra.

    During the depression, people had a hard time getting around and even if you had a car, in all probability you could not afford a tag. This problem was solved by buying one tag and when you needed to go somewhere, and someone else had beaten you to the tag, you could borrow it and travel perfectly legally (or illegally, depending on how you looked at it). There was not much danger of litigation even if you had a wreck and the old worn out automobiles we had to drive usually were not capable of very high speeds. I was remarking the other day about how conditions had changed. In those days, you almost had to go out of your way to even get near a kid on the highway. Things have really changed, could be an overabundance of law schools. I am reminded of the old carpenter who was installing acoustical ceiling in the cafeteria. "Things have changed, when I was a boy they put the quietning on the seat of a kid's pants. Now they put it on the ceiling."

    My sister Louise tells this story:

I was going to town and saw a car stopped on the road with six women in it. I asked them what was the trouble and they replied, "Out of gas." In those days, cars had good bumpers, so I got behind their car and pushed it into a filling station where all of the women stood around looking helpless. One more question, "What's the trouble now?" They answered, "We don't have any money." Each of the six women had a big pocketbook and there was not a dime in any one of them, so I handed them a fifty-cent piece and checked out.
Hope they made out all right. They were in nearly as bad shape as the boy who said his shoe soles were so thin that he could stand on a dime and tell if it was heads or tails.

    One of my carpenter friends had worked for a certain contractor all week and when Saturday noon, (pay day), came the contractor had slipped away. Late that night when the contractor came home, there sat the carpenter on his front steps, still two weeks late with his ablutions. "Do you want to pay me, or am I going to sleep with you tonight?" Never has a man been more willing to pay his honest debts than was this contractor.

    Lots with sewerage and paved streets only three blocks from downtown were selling for as low as $300.00. There was a man who had a peg leg and he made a living grubbing these lots by hand at $50.00 per lot. That included getting all of the palmetto roots up and piling up the trash. Sounds cheap, and it was until you consider that a good truck driver only made about $12.00 a week. We paid $350.00 for our lot and it cost $3,000.00 to build a six room brick veneer home, with hardwood floors, fireplace and tile bath.

    For some reason, a great many people turned to making whiskey or moonshine, and some of them made time in the pokey because of their choice of vocations. There seemed to be money for shine even if there was no grocery money. It was a little rough on the kids but a great many of them survived in spite of everything.

    My friend Walter Merritt tells this story:

I was a young fellow just starting out to be a brick mason when a man came by the house and asked me to come do some work for him. He had the materials at the site. There was a stack of brick, some mortar mix and some sand, along with a big jug of syrup. The man told me that I was to build a still and to use the syrup in the mortar so that it would set quick. I had never heard of using syrup so I layed up the still as I was told. The next morning the man was back at my house and told me to come with him. When we got back to the site of the still every brick was lying out to itself as clean as a whistle. The hogs had found something sweet and eaten all of the mortar. I laid it up again but this time we sure left out the syrup.
    Another friend of mine got so enamored of the fiery liquid that he had to have some professional help. He, along with several others, was put into a "Kill or Cure", and slowly began straightening out until he was able to sit out on the front porch and watch the traffic go by. The group, all a little uncertain of themselves, was sitting on the porch when a covey of quail came from under the house and walked through the yard. Every man saw them but no one said a word, they just looked at each other. Then along came an old dilapidated car with a donkey sticking his head out of the back seat. That did it! Without a word, every man went back to his bed. Famous last words: "How can they sell that stuff for a dollar a quart?"

    Our first year at the beach we went to a Christmas tree party at the Baptist Church, we saw one little baby taking his milk from a half pint liquor bottle. The lady saw that we were somewhat puzzled and she explained, "I'm sorry but that is the only kind of bottles we have at our house!!" Later we understood better.

    It does seem strange that I, a complete teetotaler, should have so many friends who imbibed too much, made, or sold the stuff. Many of my very good friends were bootleggers and have now turned to the carpentry trade. I've never believed the old story that painters drank to combat the effects of lead in their paints. They still do; and now there is no lead in paint.

    Tony Mier, Senior, told this story to me:

One of my relations was running a still in Mandarin when I was a kid and wanted me to watch the still one night. I sat there all night and every time a wild cat or panther would scream, I put more wood on the fire. Every limb that fell sent cold shivers down my spine. And finally, when a great horned owl rested in a tree just a few feet from the still and began his blood curdling screams, I was ready to get out of the distilling business; only I did not know which direction to go. When daylight finally came and I was relieved, I left that place and I ain't been in a still since."
Did you ever hear a great horned owl scream?

    Shorty Powell always said that "You can't drink yourself sober or borrow yourself out of debt. I know 'cause I've tried 'em both—and I still want a drink and I am still broke."

    The boys said they did not mind Unc going to the still and getting himself a drink but they did wish the old fool would not go the same way all the time and leave a path. The shiners knew that when you went down a path early in the morning and did not run into spider webs, it was likely that someone had been there ahead of you.

    In the year 1934 there was a man by the name of Jim Read who lived across the canal* and made his living by gathering broom straw. His home was just a small shack and he had to row a boat across the canal any time he wanted to go anywhere. He kept an old model T Ford on the east bank of the canal so that he could come into town and go to church. He rarely ever missed a service and on some of those dark, rainy nights. I wondered how he would have the courage to drive up to his boat, step into it without a light, and never worry about a cottonmouth moccasin lurking there. He must have had a lantern or lamp in his home. That would try the faith of a snake handler. It was a rough way to make a living but often heard him called on to pray and he always said, "Oh Lord, forgive us our sins, both omission and commission." I never heard anyone say an ill word about this man, but somehow he must have gotten mixed up, for he left his car on what is now the east approach to the McCormick Bridge and refused to ever touch it again. Said it was possessed of spirits.

    Some people made an existence by trapping, catching fiddlers, picking out crab meat, shucking oysters, catching fish and some probably ate quite a bit of deer meat. In all of my years here I have never heard of a native eating rattlesnake meat. Some people dig clams but after my experience with clams, I had almost as soon eat rattlesnake. Clam is one seafood that I can't want nor does octopus really appeal to me, either.

    Bolita, or the numbers racket, flourished during the depression. You could see sellers standing around with tickets sticking from their pockets. Some of the very poorest people had a regular number that they bought every day. Guess they figured that they were always going to be in bad shape unless they caught something special and here was a chance to get well, all at one time.

    A most pathetic sight was in watching one boy eat an apple while several small boys in patched clothes stood around and begged for the core. Things like that hurt you to the quick and make you wish that you could do something about it. One little boy did. That same affluent boy, feeling his importance too much, pushed his luck too far and tried to bully one of the hungry kids only to find himself flat on his back looking up. Never has there been such rapid improvement in a boy's disposition. I know, I hit him.

    We sometimes wonder why the Lord did not have everything just perfect for us so that we would not have all of our trials and tribulations. It is my belief that the Lord uses adversities and hard times to create great men and women. I am reminded of a story that helps to illustrate this point. A man had died and gone on to his reward, only to find on his arrival that he was given a big beautiful room and bath. It was announced that dinner would be served at 6:30 PM, breakfast at 5:37 AM and lunch at 11:56 AM. The meals were excellent and always on the dot. This went on for several weeks until, finally, he was able to get an audience with the management. "If this is all you have for me to do, you might as well send me on to hell." "And where do you think you are?" was the reply.

    During the depression many people raised chickens and gathered their own eggs. The feed came in bags of good quality; only they had the name of the feed on them. For one cent each you could have these bags bleached and they made excellent material for shirts and underthings. We used them for most anything where a good cloth was desired. As the conditions slowly improved, you could buy a pair of little girl's panties for a quarter so that about eliminated that particular need. This little girl was sitting on the floor with some other children playing with dolls and the elders were paying no attention to her as they told about having to use flour sacks for undies and how tough things had been. Out of the mouths of babe's often come words of wisdom, we hope. "Them pore old flour sack drawers days are gone forever." Let us hope this child was a true prophet.

    Sometimes I get so confused. Just the other day Ben Robertson was in my tool closet and came up with a Ball Mason jar full of nails. The jar had some bubble defects in the glass and he told me that it was worth $6.00. I have always had to pay for my mistakes, and here is a case where the more mistakes a man makes, the more valuable the item becomes. It is not only in glass but in nearly everything that has any age on it except people. As the years pass, I have become able to see the beauty in an old oak tree standing stark and bare as the winds blow through its dead limbs.

    For years I had looked at this old cypress log lying in the edge of the canal and had visions of a table for my den being made of it. Finally, my daughter married and I got me a big husky son-in-law to help me get the log and bring it home. Fortunately, my brother-in-law, Charles Creech, was an excellent cabinet maker and was willing to make Paul Chivington, my son-in-law, and me each a table. I have a picture of my table in my office, and it is really surprising how many people think the table (rough as pig iron) is a thing of beauty. There is no accounting for the taste of people, which makes life more interesting and enjoyable. Some people complain about a rainy day.

    The Lord never made a bad day and if I were to complain, it would only be because of the passing of each day I have one less day to enjoy. About that depression glass, I still can't see much beauty in it and, if other people want it, more power to them.

    During the early thirties the wife of one of the roofers died and, of course, all of us went to the funeral. These men probably hadn't had a coat on for years, for they never went to church, and had no need for coats except for occasions such as this. I would venture to say that this was one of the most nondescript bunch of men ever to get together in one small church. Makes you know that if you don't clean up from time to time you can be completely out of step with the times.

    Someone has wisely said that you should profit by the mistakes of others, for you will not have time to make them all yourself. Let us hope that we, along with our government, take this to heart.


*. The canal connected Pablo Creek/River with the Guano/Tolomato River.
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