Voices of the past have lessons to teach us if we are willing to listen and learn. In the midst of what many economists are now describing as the most challenging economic times since the Depression in the early 1930’s, three area seniors took time last week to reminisce about what they learned during hard times of the past and how to apply those lessons today.
Ledah Bennett is 103 years old. She grew up in the Pleasant Valley area outside Central Lake. Her delicate agility, upright posture and educated awareness completely deny her century-plus epoch. The bright red blazer she wore exhibited a small heart on one lapel, and with her freshly done hair, as she strode into the dining room, she could have passed for a living valentine.
She will tell you as if it were yesterday, that her descendants, Earnest and Leona Barnes settled in the Echo Township area in 1774, having come up from what is now Iowa.
Elena Thomas (formerly Mason) grew up between East Jordan and Charlevoix right about where Ironton is now. Elena is 97 years old, and every bit the staunch and proud Dane that characterized her parents’ heritage and life style.
Although she gets around now in a wheel chair, she speaks of the past as if reading a time-machine teleprompter. She has a proud, strong demeanor and speaks of her family with chin held high. Her snow-white hair has a youthful cut, and she looks like she could still manage the household in which she raised her children.
Ledah and Elena have many things in common, not the least of which is a fond relationship with Sherman Thomas. Sherm is Elena’s brother-in-law. He is a long-time resident of East Jordan with roots that extend to Antrim County. In fact, a barn built by his father still stands between Central Lake and Bellaire.
Mr. Thomas makes it a point to visit these ladies often at the Grandvue care facility. It was he who hatched the idea of having Ledah and Elena share an oral history about their experiences during the Great Depression in the hopes that people who are struggling now might gain from their knowledge.
Sitting around a table in one of the brightly lit and decorated Grandvue dining rooms, it didn’t take much to get a discussion going about a time, that for these Golden Agers, took place 75-80 years ago.
As he reached across the table to both ladies, Sherman initiated, “Ladies, economic conditions are very tough for people right now, and what we want to talk about is the things you did during the Depression to get by.”
Both Elena and Ledah began by describing their living conditions at that time. Not surprisingly, there were similarities and differences. In 1929, both ladies had two children, and were homemakers. They both lived in rural settings.
They shared many interesting features and every day occurrences that began to paint a picture of the times. Ledah told of the 1-room schoolhouse she attended. Elena remembered her husband, Harold, riding his horse seven miles to East Jordan High School (1926 graduate). He earned $45/month working in the Evelyn Orchards. John Bennett, Ledah’s husband, on the other hand, worked cutting wood, and also earned money as a butcher. Ledah said, “He would get one dollar for butchering an animal. He happily took it, because there just weren’t any jobs around.”
The Thomas’ lived on the family homestead in Evelyn Township and farmed. The Bennett’s bought a house for $75, and then moved it about a half mile down the road on property they received from Howard Porter where they began farming. Both ladies told about the advantage and desire of living on property that had a creek.
“For entertainment, the grange hall was the center of activity for most people at that time,“ said Elena. Sherm added, “All activities were designed to bring people together. It’s where they shared help, fun and food.”
Ledah mentioned dances at Gleaners Hall on Densmore Hill. “It was on the way into Central Lake,” she said. “Quite often they had organ and fiddle music.” She also mentioned the Smelt Jamboree in East Jordan and home parties as social outlets. “What was big though,” she added, “Was ball games. My husband was one of the 10 Bennett brothers, and they had their own ball team. There was nothing extravagant about our fun, but everyone would come to those Saturday games.”
Elena also mentioned dances. She remembered, “There were regular dances at the grange. Once the well-known town drunk came up and asked me to dance. My mother pulled me right away, and told him I didn’t do things like that. I was only fourteen years old at the time.” Elena also remembered attending Fourth of July activities in East Jordan.
Sherman brought up community dinners, and all three remembered those. “We had them every Sunday somewhere at somebody’s house, “said Ledah. Elena remembered, “Stewing chickens were very popular and good. “ Sherm said his favorite dish was baking powder biscuits, and at the mention of that treat, what seemed like a silent reverence enveloped the group, eventually broken by someone saying, “I wonder what is being served for lunch today.”
Next, the women enjoyed joint reminiscence about the popular box socials they attended. “Boxes were auctioned off. The men always tried to get their girlfriend’s boxes. Sometimes prices would get as high as five dollars,” said Ledah. She continued, “The money usually went to the grange or for school supplies.”
Elena shared, “Those boxes would sometimes have sandwiches, chicken, pie, a banana or an orange. The boxes were usually decorated, but the trouble was that sometimes the prettiest boxes didn’t have good food.”
The self-made historians agreed that those gatherings were valuable to break up the tedious work that filled the rest of the week. It was no secret that times were tough, and the best way to survive was to work their way out.
When it comes to sharing coping skills for a depression or recession, one thing that wasn’t included in their recommendations was pity.
Sherman summarized, “Life is what you make it, not what others make for you. Self-pity is a bad thing.”
In his suggestions, Sherm added, “Get to know your neighbors. Back then, they meant everything to us. They were our mainstay when you had needs.”
Elena expressed the importance of independence as a key to survive. “We baked our own bread, put in a bigger garden, raised vegetables and canned. I learned to bake when I was little, but if there was something I couldn’t do, I would make myself learn. I think people should do that today. Do things yourself, and don’t be dependant on others. Soon I could make anything.”
Ledah mentioned government assistance programs that were available after F.D.R. became president. “I remember commodity lines in East Jordan where people got flour, rice, prunes eggs and butter. That was important, but what you really need to do is try to live right and trust the Lord. Don’t give up. Have faith and have some backbone.”
There was a final discussion about the advantage that Ledah, Elena and Sherm’s families had during the depression that is still true today, and even connects those days with current times. It was agreed that living in a rural setting is much better than living in cities. “At least there is some control,” said Elena. She continued, “We saw terrible things in the news like the food lines in cities, and wondered about the loss of dignity those people had. Some farmers failed, and it was just miserable, but at least we could all help each other out.”
Elena just may have hit on the best recommendation of all. All three shared that becoming more independent was important, and teaching yourself cooking and gardening skills were significant, but tops on this group’s survival skills prescription for people today was to be ready to help each other out in any way possible.
This group had offered their memories, lessons and wisdom. The question remains whether or not we will hear them and head their advice.
As Sherman Thomas and I walked down the halls of Grandvue on our way out, we could only wonder and marvel at the vast knowledge that most certainly is held like a museum in the memories of the senior residents here and elsewhere.
Jeff Kessler can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org