This was something you have to live through to believe. I can't speak for the entire country. It was nationwide, but much worse through the Midwest because there were several years of drought to go with the Depression. It started from the stock market crash in 1929 and lasted till 1940 when World War II got under way and our factories started gearing up to supply war materials. Men and women went to work everywhere. For the first time in many years, about 90% of the people got above poverty level. The Depression period was, for most of us, the time in life when young people should be able to enjoy life and get themselves an education. But, very few people were able to give any of their kids even a high school education. In the Dakotas where I grew up during the Depression and drought years, I took everything in stride. I hadn't been anywhere and didn't realize things could be better elsewhere.
There were about ten years of very little rain, particularly during 1934, 35, and 36. A thunderstorm would come up with dark clouds, strong wind and bad lightning. It would then roll over the area and not a drop of rain would fall. It was hard to comprehend this sort of situation. Dust would blow so at times, it was hard to tell day from night. Nothing would grow. If there was a speck of green, the grasshoppers would get it. They were so thick, when you walked through the pasture, hundreds would fly up in front of you. They chewed the fence posts white, and when they migrated, it would look like a plastic curtain between the sun and earth. Live stock were starving since there was no way to raise feed. Pasture grasses were non-existent. Cattle would die, and when you cut open their stomachs, you found nothing but mud balls. Farmers and ranchers didn't have the means to have feed shipped in. I do remember some cottonseed meal being shipped in from Georgia. In those days, there were no government programs set up to assist. President Franklin Roosevelt came into office in 1932 and was still President until April 12th, 1945 when he died. His administration got some assistance programs going while he was in office, which enabled many people to keep from starving. One could write a book on that subject alone.
Buffalo had been killed off in our area by 1900. In the hilly country where I grew up, we had a lot of small ponds where ducks were plentiful. Prairie chickens, grouse, and geese came through the area in the Fall on their way south. Pheasants were introduced in the 1930s; they multiplied rapidly. Prairie chickens moved from the area after the pheasants moved in. Klotzie and I managed to hunt enough in season to keep plenty wild game on the table which supplemented our domestic meat supply.
We also did a bit of trapping. There were coyotes, badgers, skunks, muskrats, weasels, and fox in the area. We picked up a little money from pelts. Of course, we had to keep it out of sight of Dad because he made short work of any available cash.
In the hunting season, we shot ducks, but had no dogs to fetch after them. The water in the ponds was pretty cold for wading. So, Klotzie decided to solve the problem by building a boat. He came up with a contraption that resembled a large slice of pie. He nailed it together from some old boards found around the barnyard. It had cracks in it big enough to drive an army tank through. He shot a couple of ducks, pushed the boat into the water, and jumped in it. He got about 20 feet out and the contraption sank faster than the Titanic - leaving Klotzie in the water up to his arm pits and the shotgun at the bottom of the lake.
Most of us kids were delivered by a midwife. After about the fifth one, we older ones knew that when we had to sleep at the neighbor's place, that we would be honored with another family member the next morning. Our neighbor, Mrs. Wirch, was a midwife. Rather than being compensated for her services, she even had to furnish all material needed for the delivery, plus she even furnished a supply of diapers. That's the way my dad handled his obligations.
At our house, no kids helped themselves. Dad dished out everything. He would say, Wann daß gefressen hast, hast genug. (When you've devoured this, you've had enough). We kids never had to worry about over-eating. I remember I was working for a rancher and neighbor, Walt Haas. I had no idea what it meant to pass food around the table and for everyone to help themselves. Mr. Haas said, "Please pass the bread." It happened to be in front of me, so I grabbed a slice and handed it to him. He said, "That's just the one I wanted!"
New Year's was something everyone looked forward to. It was a break from the drudgery of everyday life. The pioneers had brought over a custom from their former home in Russia. They had their own method of celebrating New Year's. Dances and other types of entertainment were not available to them due to sparse settlements of most areas. Also, their transportation was strictly by horse-drawn vehicles, particularly in the wintertime. All households would prepare extra food and alcoholic-type beverages on New Year's Eve, then retire for the night. Right after midnight, however, they could expect a rap on their bedroom window, indicating that there were some New Year's shooters outside (Neue Jahr Schießer) ready to wish them a Happy New Year.
Let me first describe the action of the Neue Jahr Schießer. These consisted of a group of young neighborhood men who armed themselves with shotguns. Sometimes there might be several groups in the same vicinity. After midnight, they would come around the neighborhood, stop at each residence, then rap on the windows to get the occupants' attention. When the householder would answer, the Neue Jahr Schieser would loudly recite one more of the following New Year's greetings:
Nun ist das Neue Jahr gekommen, hab ich es mir vorgenommen, Euch zu wünschen in der Zeit. Friede, Glück und Einigkeit. ( Now that the New Year has come, I will take it upon myself at this time to wish you peace, good fortune and unity ). II
Wenn ich Euch nur wünschen könnte was ich in meinem Herzen finde, so viel Glück und so viel Segen fährt man nur auf einem Wagen. Kehrt man in alle Häuser ein, Leib und Seel soll gesegnet sein. ( If I could only wish you what I find in my heart, so much luck and so many blessings, these could only be hauled on a wagon. Men stop at all the residences to bless both body and soul ). III
Ich wünche Euch ein glückseliges Neues Jahr, und ein langes Leben, darauf solls Rauch and Feuer geben. ( I wish you a luck-filled year and a long life. Consequently, fire and smoke are offered ).
...and then they would shoot.
After all the wishing and shooting, the Neue Jahr Schießer were invited in and served all the goodies prepared for the occasion. After eating and drinking the best wine and schnapps, they'd depart for the next place. By dawn, most were so intoxicated they would start falling out of their sleds.
This was typical of how New Year's was celebrated by early German-Russian pioneers in the Dakotas - as well as in other parts of the country where these people had settled.
Halloween was also observed by the early settlers. But I believe this was not something that was observed in Russia as I never heard my folks mention it. But I do recall, as far back as I can remember, that there was some kind of mischief going on the night of the 31st of October. I also recall when we lived in Merricourt, North Dakota, some guys had taken a cow upstairs into the principal's office and tied it to his desk.
Later in life, I went out a few times to help some guys tip over a few outdoor privies. There were many stories about certain farmers waiting in their toilet with a loaded shotgun. When they dozed off and the toilet was pushed over (laying on its door), the farmer became trapped inside. The only way out was to crawl through one of the holes - if he wasn't too fat. He would also have to negotiate the moat that was exposed when the toilet went over. If he failed, he wasn't apt to be welcome among his friends for a few days.
Another trick used by the farmer was to have someone help him move the toilet off the pit. When the pranksters arrived and groped about in the dark, they would ultimately wind up in the mess below.
I have to mention what role geese played in the lives of the early German settlers. Geese were a common site among the Germans in Russia. Most dorfs (villages) in Russia that were inhabited by Germans were next to waterways. Under these circumstances, geese were easy and cheap to raise. As soon as goslings crawl out of the shell, they graze, swim and eat bugs off the water. Geese graze all summer, foraging their own food. In the Fall, they are fed grain to fatten them up for butchering. They provided a variety of products for human consumption.
After butchering the fine feathers, commonly referred to as goose down, were picked off the breast. These fine feathers were used to make feather pillows and feather ticks which are unsurpassed for softness and buoyancy. The geese that are left for breeding stock also have their breast feathers plucked - early enough so that they grow back before the onset of winter. The end of the wings were used for whisk brooms. We also used some of the large feathers to make potato guns (toys).
The meat could be utilized in several different ways. Breasts and hams were put down for a couple of weeks in a garlic and salt solution. Following that, the meat was smoked and hung in the attic for wintertime consumption. The rest of the carcasses were used for roasting. They were kept in a barrel in the granary, frozen, till they were needed.
The lard was put on the stove and rendered. When done, the grease was drained off the crackles. Crackles were salted and eaten like potato chips. When the lard cools, it becomes thick like butter. It may be salted and is delicious on bread once gotten used to. Often, that's all we kids had to eat for our school lunch. When you're hungry enough, it goes down better than sirloin steak.
It is also worth noting that while our ancestors lived in Russia, they lived in villages with low walls around their farmsteads. The house, barns and livestock were kept within this enclosure. Several persons were hired by the village to come each morning to take the livestock out to pasture. From what I could gather, they had no other fences. The goose herdsman would come and pick up everyone's geese, take them to a certain area along the stream, and keep track of them all day. It was the same way with the cow and swine herdsmen. In the evening, the livestock were returned and the various animals delivered to the proper owners.
My dad was a great storyteller. He had no difficulty getting truth and fiction mixed up, so long as it drew attention. He normally came out the hero. He had a gift for knowing how to get people forget their troubles, and, in fact, that was one of the few entertainments people of those days had access to. There were no TVs or even radios - and very few newspapers - among rural folks. In town, there were occasional dances. Many had phonographs for a bit of musical pastime, or perhaps a player piano. Anyway, dad used to keep his audience spellbound by some of his ghost stories - especially the kids. As I mentioned before, going out after dark took all the courage we could muster.
One story he told about a large slough which was near our home. Dad told about some fellow driving in there with a team and wagon. After he became lost one dark and stormy night, neither he nor his team were ever seen alive again. But some of the neighbors claimed that some dark nights when the moon was just right, they could see him floating over the water. He told this so often he had most of the neighbors leery about this lake.
So, one night two of his cousins decided to find out if he really believed this story. Dad walked over to another cousin's home - a guy he always drank with. While Dad and this other guy were visiting and drinking, two of this fellow's brothers were relaxing on the floor pretending to be asleep. As soon as Dad started walking home (about 1 1/2 miles),they borrowed a couple bed sheets, mounted their ponies and made a large detour, positioning themselves some distance in front of Dad. They donned the sheets, then approached Dad making some kind of unearthly sounds. The story told later claimed Dad got next to a rock pile and threw rocks at them. When they seemed to disregard the rocks, he thought maybe this was for real. So he finally took off, burning rubber. The story goes that he encountered a rabbit and said to the rabbit, "Get the hell out of the way and let a guy run that knows how!"
This story was soon all over the neighborhood. The following Fall, he was helping out the people on the next farm at thrashing time - and this meant he had to walk home after dark. So some pranksters, outfitted with a couple of bed sheets, staked out on the path Dad had to take to get home. When Dad came upon them, he just brought them home, whereupon Mom made good use of them.
Along with storytelling, my dad had another talent that appealed to people and added to his entertaining ability. He had learned how to play the accordion really well - strictly by ear, of course. This was not the piano keyboard type, but had buttons on both sides. Occasionally, he would be called on to play for barn dances, but not too often, because he couldn't be trusted to stay sober when there was moonshine around.
This was one form of entertainment the rural folks enjoyed. There was normally a barn dance somewhere in the neighborhood on Saturday nights within driving distance. People would come in every mode of transportation: horse & buggy, horseback, sleds, Model-T Fords and other makes of cars such as Dodges, Buicks, Reos, Whippets, Chevrolets, etc. The music normally consisted of fiddles, accordions and banjos. We danced waltzes, fox trots, square dances, two steps, polkas, etc. This was during the prohibition era, so the drinking at these dances was mostly home-made moonshine. Once in a while, someone would get hold of Canadian whiskey which had been sneaked across the border.
Having brought up the subject of drinking, I might as well tell what transpired through the years in the alcoholic beverage field. I remember, back even before starting school, dad hauling home what looked like a 30-gallon barrel on the back of the buggy. It was full of beer bottles, all individually wrapped in light corrugated paper. This must have been their method of of packing bottled goods for shipment in those days. Among the farmers and ranchers, there were just basic types of wine and whiskey. If they wanted anything like gin, rum, and brandy, that was obtainable in a bar in town. Mixed drinks didn't come into their own till years later.
I'm not sure what year prohibition was enacted by Congress. It must have been shortly after World War I. This restricted any alcoholic beverages from being made or sold in the U.S.A. - in effect from 1920 till 1933 when it was voted out. But there were still some states that did not have to abide by the national law and could restrict sales under state laws. As a result, they had the same problems then as we have now with drug traffic. Bootleggers and rum runners organized themselves, brought in alcoholic beverages from Canada, Mexico and Cuba. Also, stills sprang up where people manufactured their own. This homemade stuff was called moonshine because it was mostly made at night.
Many made a business of peddling booze from their homemade stills. They kept prohibition officers busy running down violators and busting up stills. Bootleggers refer to people who sell illegal alcoholic spirits. The word Bootlegger comes from persons who hide bottles in the upper part of their boots. Those were the days in which some of the more famous outlaws acquired their reputation. They were heavily involved in bootlegging: John Dillenger, Babyface Nelson, Machine Gun Kelly, Ma Barker, Bonnie and Clyde... to name a few.
It seems as if most people had large families back then; the early pioneers raised kids to work. Everything was done by hand. I remember the Schlauch family... (Mrs. Schlauch was a cousin to my dad). They lived six miles north of us and had 17 kids. On one occasion, 1000 lbs. of flour were being given to the family in the vicinity that had the most kids. Mr. Schlauch didnt hesitate; he hooked up his team to a buggy, drove up there and got it.
Henry Brandenburger, who lived 1 1/2 miles north of us, had 15 children. He handled everything like a First Sergeant in the Army. Every kids work was laid out for him in the morning. From that point on, all he did was check on them and make suggestions and corrections on any job they were doing. And if there was any grumbling, they got an occasional cuff on their ears. At mealtime there was a table half the length of a city block. All of the kids had their particular place; all sat down at once and no one spoke a word. Then old Henry stood at the end of the table and offered a blessing after which everyone pitched in. There was no talking except to pass a dish. One time I was over there having a meal with the family and I noticed I didnt have a fork. So, I whispered to Henry Jr., I havent got a fork! Henry whispered back in German, Gott sprach zu seinen Jüngern, wer keine Gabel hat, ißt mit den Fingern. God spoke to his disciples, the fellow that hasnt got a fork gulps it down with his fingers. This remark made me giggle. Then I looked at Henry Sr. He gave me a look that would freeze the ears off an eskimo.
August Martin, across the hill from our place, had 12 kids. They were called Martins Separator Calves. When Martin was in the process of separating the milk in the morning after milking the cows, his oldest son, Mike, would come with a big bowl and hold it under the separator spout till it was full. Then he would crumble a loaf of bread into it. At that point, all the other kids would grab a soup spoon and have breakfast.
While the Martin children were small, whenever a stranger drove in the yard most of the kids wound up under the bed. The forth son, Henry Martin, had a habit of sleepwalking. One night his folks watched to see how he managed. As he rose from the bed, he swung both feet out simultaneously and brought them both onto the floor at the same time. The following night his folks waited till he was asleep. Then they took a washtub filled with cold water and placed it where his feet would land. When he hit the cold water, he got the shock of his life. After that, whenever he swung his feet off the bed, he would wake up.
As mentioned before, Klotzie and I went out to Montana in 1934 looking for work. We worked for a rancher for a time. Before leaving for Montana, I had put in an application to the U.S. Army, because at that time you had to be on a waiting list to join up. During those depression days, many wanted into the armed services just to have a place to eat and sleep. The pay was $21.00 a month. Well, I got a letter telling me to report to Fargo, North Dakota recruiting station by 3:00 p.m., June 27th, 1934. I decided to go. When I told my bosss dad, he cussed a blue streak. He said, You damned hoodlum... why dya want to run off to the Army? Were paying you twice as much money! He had to drive to Belle Fourche, So. Dakota, to sell some wool so he could pay me my wages.
I left with my 1927 Model-T coupe, got near Faith, So. Dakota, and there was a helluva clang in the transmission. The car came to a halt about 9:00 p.m., leaving me stranded in the boondocks. I waited in the car till morning. When I awoke, I was out in no-mans-land... nothing but sage brush as far as I could see. I started out on foot. After covering about seven miles, I came upon a small ranch. The rancher was just in the process of milking his cows. I described my plight and said, Where can I find a garage to get my car fixed? ...40 miles back to Belle Fourche, or 40 miles ahead to Mobridge, So. Dakota, he replied. He had no phone, so I said, What will you give me for the car? We finally came to a $35.00 figure; however, the car was worth $100 because I had it in excellent condition - but there was no choice in the matter. My time was limited in which to get to Fargo. I packed up my belongings and when the mail truck came by, the rancher made arrangements for me to get a ride to Aberdeen, So. Dakota. There I put an address on my clothes and shipped them home, but they didnt arrive in time at home to enable me to take them along to Fargo.
I caught a ride home (from Aberdeen) with an old neighbor. I had to wear the clothes I had on, which consisted of a ten-gallon hat, a western shirt, and cowboy boots. In this outfit I made my arrival at Fort Snelling, Minnesota. From that time onwards, I was known as The Cowboy or Home-on-the-Range.
There were quite a few guys that had come from other parts of the country that we were sworn in with. They took us to some temporary barracks at Fort Snelling prior to our being assigned to permanent companies. Some of the guys came in to go to prep school. This meant they had to put in one year and study for West Point Military Academy. After one year, they were given an examination. If they passed this test and a complicated physical, they could enter West Point as cadets. If they fell slightly short, they still had a chance of getting a political appointment through their congressman, especially if their folks were people well known or had political pull.
A couple fellows that became good friends of mine made it into West Point. One was Robert Studer from Lakeville, Minnesota. During World War II, he became a prisoner of war when the Japanese captured the Philippines. As a result of that, he became involved in the famous Death March.
I met Robert again 30 years later in Washington, D.C. at an airport stop-over. He had become a Colonel. I was a First Sergeant with the Army Reserve on my way to Fort Bragg, No. Carolina for annual training. On that occasion, one of Roberts younger brothers was in my reserve unit and had told me Robert would be at the airport.
Anyway, the first morning at Fort Snelling we got our initial introduction into Army life. They took us out to police up the area, (pick up cigarette butts, etc.). At breakfast we were all given a pint of milk. This came in small bottles with sort of a pressed paper cork in it. Id never encountered milk in a bottle before, so I looked quizzically at this cork, thinking How in the blazes do I open this? I then recalled someone telling me that if you pushed a knife handle down one side, the seal would turn on edge, and youd be able to pull it out. So I picked up my knife, took aim and gave it all I had, which was more than plenty. Half the milk came out with the cork and went all over the table, soaking the guys around me who were dressed in Class A uniforms. I was embarrassed to death. There heard remarks like damned hillbilly along with murmurs about dry cleaning uniforms. I had myself pictured going to the guard house!
After about three days, three of us fellows from the group were assigned to H Company, 3rd Infantry of the Old Guard, as machine gunners. The 3rd Infantry Regiment is the oldest organized military unit in the U.S. Army, which was organized 1784 from units of George Washingtons Continental Army. They took us down to the quartermaster supply depot and issued us some ill-fitting uniforms. I got several pair of shorts of at least size 44. (My waist at that time was size 32). These shorts reached below my knees. After three months in the service, having completed basic training, I was entitled to a Class A uniform. We went down to get measured up for the Class A so the guys got a look at my shorts and just about died laughing. They said, Who in the hell issued you your uniform? I told them, Some of your screwy buddies!
Well, Army life wasnt so bad, but it seemed like someone else was in charge of your life. You were made to believe the officers were some sort of gods. They thought so too. This has changed a lot. In the old days, few of us had more than an eighth grade education.
Officers of any rank had some private or PFC keep his boots and leather shined, plus doing other menial chores for him. Sometimes they would give the guy a few cents, but it wasnt required. These orderlies were known as dog robbers. In those days, all the buildings were heated with coal. The soldiers were expected to keep the fires going during the winter. Now days, civilians are hired to help keep the army post functioning.
We didnt keep much of an army after World War I. There werent supposed to be any more wars. In the 1930s, we hadnt improved the armed forces. We were wearing WWI uniforms and had mostly horse and mule-drawn vehicles. Weapons were basically the same. A few units were being mechanized. At least they were getting trucks to do the hauling and to pull artillery pieces.
In the infantry we walked 90% of the time. In the Fall of 34 we had our fall maneuvers at Camp Ripley, Minnesota. We walked up there all the way from Ft. Snelling - approximately 125 miles. This walk took an entire week. We rested on Sunday next to the Elk River. It was September and the edge of the river already had ice on it. But most of us needed a bath, so we stripped down to our shorts and hit the water. We swam for about 30 feet and headed for shore.
Our field kitchen was on wagons which were pulled by mules. The ambulance, too, was a wagon. It followed along behind to pick up stragglers - guys that developed foot trouble, (mostly blisters).
In the Fall of 35, I was lucky enough not to make that hike. 35 of us were sent down to Fort Leavensworth, Kansas because they were short on training personnel to train CMTCs, known as the Civilian Military Training Corps. We were down there over a month. My pal, Lloyd Millard, stayed back at Fort Snelling, so I wrote to him asking what he was doing. He said, ...herding Service Companys mules out on the Ft. Snelling reservation. (This area is now the Metropolitan Airport). I also mentioned I had some heat rash; the heat in Kansas was hard on us Minnesota guys. Air conditioning hadnt been heard of. I asked Lloyd if he had a remedy for heat rash. He wrote back, Soak your ass in a salt brine.
There wasnt an awful lot to do around Ft. Snelling in those days. We had a theater on the post and tickets were 35¢. There was also a service club where they used to hold dances or G.I. belly rubs. Most of the guys went off-post to Minneapolis or St. Paul for entertainment. They could have a pretty good time for $3.00. To get uptown and back cost two streetcar tokens, which cost 10¢ apiece, or six for a buck.
Sports on the post were very limited during the Depression years. The Army had few funds to spend on athletic activities. They did start a boxing program in the Fall of 35, which I took part in. We trained all winter, but nothing ever came of it. No matches were ever scheduled. Training took place in a building called the Riding Hall which is still in existence today (1990). They used to train horses in it. There was one famous horse called Whiskey. This horse arrived along with a bunch of broncos from Montana in the early 30s. He won a lot of ribbons for the post, living to be 29 years old. Now he lies buried on the the post reservation near the Veterans Hospital. A monument has been erected for him.
Military training was very limited. We did a lot of manual labor . There was lots of guard duty, particularly at the stables where the horses and mules were kept. Some of the fellows would sit on the mangers instead of walking the post and when they fell asleep, theyd fall off the manger and wake up. If the O.D. (Officer of the Day) would catch any of the guards asleep when he came to check the post, they would be given six months in the guardhouse. It happened to a buddy of mine. In those days, they didnt mind giving you the business.
Some of our daily tasks were: K.P., stable detail (where we fed, groomed and cleaned up), area police, firemen (who kept all the buildings warm by shoveling coal, hauling ashes, etc.), snow shoveling in winter (without snow blowers), manicuring the parade grounds and all officers yards in summertime with push mowers, changing and cleaning of windows on all post buildings in the Spring, as well as maintenance painting by paint crews.
In the Fall, we put on parades every Tuesday and Friday. Tuesdays there were battalion parades and Fridays were regimental parades. These were normally in the evening so people from Minneapolis and St. Paul could enjoy them after work. We had mules and horses in the parades also. For example, in the machine gun unit, there were mules hooked to the machine gun carts, munitions carts, water carts, and so on. After the parade we had all that stuff to clean up and put away, wash all the carts, groom the mules, and wash the harnesses with saddle soap. All in all, they managed to keep us busy.
I must say that we ate quite well in the Army in those days compared to the general civilian population. This was during the heart of the Depression; there were soup kitchens set up in the cities to feed the homeless. Many still had homes, but no food.
I wrote a little of this organization in a previous chapter. Some of their units were stationed in the area. We used to draw on some of their manpower to help us maintain the post. I remember the officers club was in the process of being built and I was put in charge of a squad of CCC boys. We had a wagon and a team of mules with which we hauled flat rocks up from the river bottom for some of the stone work being done at the club. Wed get the wagon loaded up and the mules couldnt get the wagon up the steep embankment. At this point, we all had to jump off the wagon and push.
Our uniforms consisted of three classes. The Class-A, which was our issued dress uniform, was well-tailored of fine, woven wool. It also consisted of a garrison cap (visor type), a blouse with a brown belt, a cotton shirt with shoulder tabs, britches, and rolled leggings, with well-fitting garrison type shoes (color, light brown). We were also issued slacks to be worn for dress with this uniform, but had to wear britches and leggings at all official functions.
The Class-B uniform consisted of a campaign hat, rough wool shirt, britches, leggings and a combat-type rugged shoe. This uniform was worn for drill and generally around the area, but not off post.
The Fatigue uniform was a real monstrosity. It was ill-fitting, made of blue denim consisting of a shapeless hat (looking like a soup bowl with fringes), a denim jacket and blue jeans. The jacket fit like a tent with sleeves, and the jeans fit like something worn by an underground balloon corps. The shoes were the same type worn with the Class-B uniform.
We were also issued a flimsy raincoat, an overcoat made of the same rough wool as the Class-B uniform, and a couple black neckties, several pairs of undershirts, shorts and socks. There was also field equipment, such as a webbed belt, pack, canteen, blankets, holster and a 45mm semiautomatic pistol.