(A novel by Susan Overturf Ingraham)
Hastings, Nebraska, September 1933
[The Depression is part of the daily lives of everyone who lives in Hastings, Nebraska. In September, 1933, Janie McAlan Cullen says good-bye to her husband, Simon, knowing that today he will close his store and lay-off his employees. Desperately, she tries to find the goodness left in life.]
Janie sat down at her small writing desk in the living room and took stationery and pen out of a drawer. She wore a simple housedress. The day seemed like any other, and she planned to clean the house and then prepare a good dinner for her family. But first she needed to talk to her aunt.
She wrote the date — September 1, 1933 — at the top of the page. "My dear Aunt Sarah", she began. "So much has happened and I have so much to say. Where shall I begin? I wish you could be here now, but I know that is not possible."
Janie looked up from her desk and stared out the window. The morning air felt cool — fall was in the air — and her clean sheets hung neatly on the line. She planned to get them down before noon — before the dust clouds formed. Everything was so very dry; it was hard to keep anything alive in the yard. Nebraska, despite all their troubles, was their home now and she knew that they would remain, no matter what happened. She closed her eyes and the words from the Twenty-Third Psalm came easily to her mind. Her mother, grandmother, and aunt had said them to her often as a child, and they had always comforted her. We will be all right, she said to herself. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.
Janie looked back down at the page and began to write again.
"I just said good-bye to Simon," she continued. "He has gone to the store to tell the employees that the bank is foreclosing on the mortgage. Hastings Fuel is no more. He worked for others for more than twenty years and his store finally became a reality. Now, just four years later, his dream is gone. Simon and his partner, John Livermore, don’t know what will happen next. Without the Crash, they might have made it. How I wish that terrible day in October had never happened! It has brought misery to so many".
Janie paused, recalling her good-bye to Simon that morning. He had looked so sad, and she had tried to cheer him up. She had given him a hug and he had mumbled something about how everything would be fine. She knew he didn’t believe that.
"I know that Simon is putting on a brave face for my sake", she continued, "but I don’t think he has ever been more discouraged in his entire life."
Janie looked up from the page. I wonder if this is how my father felt when he committed suicide? she thought. She shook her head and thought of Simon. No, Simon would never take his own life. My father had lost everything and he was dying as well. And Simon is a better man than my father was.
Janie continued her letter: "The boys are fine. James is tall and lanky and working for the CCC. He still attends school part-time. Al is earning high grades in school and excelling as an athlete, both in football and basketball. He delivers papers after school, sweeps up at Mr. Jenkins’ grocery store, and brings home all his money to the family. Simon Jr. is enjoying kindergarten.
How did my baby get to be five years old? Where have the years gone? she asked herself.
Janie had loved Simon from the first time she had seen him. He had been a good husband and father. He had worked for the local department store, Wolbrach & Brach, and saved enough money to start his own business. He enjoyed a well-deserved reputation as an important community leader; he served on City Council and the School Board, and was active in the Presbyterian Church, the Chamber of Commerce, the YMCA, and the Lions Club. His proudest achievements came from his work with the Hastings Museum.
Janie returned to her letter: "Simon has done so much for Hastings. I know we won’t dessert this community now when it needs us the most."
She looked out the window again. All was quiet and peaceful, but there was still not the slightest wisp of cloud. The street was empty: no cars, no people, no children. It seemed unusually quiet, as if the whole world knew of the tragedy which had befallen her family.
"I know we are not the only ones who have suffered", she wrote. "We can still do much to help others who are worse off than we. At least we have our home, fully paid for, and our children are healthy and growing. We have a garden and I can make a little money selling my jams and jellies. I’m sure that Simon can find a job with his skill and experience. But how could any of us imagined what that day in October would bring?"
She remembered Black October four years ago with crystal clarity. Simon had come home early, and tried to calm her fears: “The stock market always has fluctuations,” he had said. “The economy is strong and it will recover. We’ll be all right.” Janie had known — even then — that he had grave doubts, and in the end, her instincts had been right. Today had become the reality they had both feared on that day four years before. What incredibly bad timing, Janie thought. But then, do these things ever happen at a good time?
Janie shook her head, as though it would clear her thoughts and help her to remain optimistic.
She continued writing to her aunt: "The dust clouds come almost every afternoon. Mother Cullen told me once of the terrible times she had with dust in their cabin when Simon was born. She said she couldn’t keep it out of the cabin, no matter what she did. With this drought and the daily dust storms, I understand her plight completely."
She finished her letter: "I think of you and Uncle Jake every day. Please take care of yourselves and keep in touch. With much love, Janie."
She re-read the letter, took an envelope and addressed it to her aunt, folded the paper and put it inside the envelope. She decided not to seal it quite yet. Perhaps there would be other news to add after Simon came home. She placed the unsealed letter into a small drawer, put her pen and stationery away, and closed the top on her desk.
Since she had been a little girl, Janie had always found that if she worked and kept busy, she coped better with life. I can do my part, she thought, by making sure my family comes back to a clean, comfortable home. She walked purposefully to the kitchen and picked up her cleaning supplies. She dusted the furniture in the parlour first, a daily job because of the dust storms.
The phone in the living room rang three times — their number on the party line. She hesitated, put down her dusting rag, and answered the phone.
“Yes, this is she. Marion, is that you?”
Marion and Janie had been good friends for nearly ten years. They had met at the church, had children similar in age, and had both once been teachers.
“Are you all right?” Marion asked.
“Yes, why do you ask?”
“I heard about Hastings Fuel.”
Silence passed between the two friends.
“I can’t quite believe it, Marion. How did this all happen?”
“I’d give anything for it to be 1920 again.”
For the first time that day, Janie smiled. “Well, maybe not 1920. I really don’t think I’d like to go through that great social experiment called prohibition again.”
Marion chuckled. “True, true.” During the 1920’s, Prohibition laws had become a challenge for any parents trying to raise children. It had been no different for Janie and Simon. If you approved of Prohibition, you were dismayed and appalled by the lawbreakers. If you did not support Prohibition, you had to break the law to enjoy what was once considered a normal social pastime. It seemed odd that while church membership was at an all-time high, the illegal sale of alcohol also soared. Janie and Simon — both teetotallers and supporters of Prohibition — had been greatly disturbed by the crime that arrived with Prohibition. As early as 1921, saloons became underground speakeasies. It seemed as though drinking became a popular activity on its own; alcohol no longer seemed to be a beverage to accompany a meal.
“Well, the ratification of the 19th amendment was better,” Janie added.
“This terrible Crash,” Marion said. “Everyone is struggling. What will Simon do?”
“I’m not sure, Marion, but we won’t be leaving Hastings, that’s for sure.”
“Thank heavens!” Marion almost shouted. “I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
Janie smiled again. “Despite recent events, Marion, Hastings is a good place to live. Our children have grown up here. Our roots are here. We won’t leave. And, anyway, things are bad all over the country.”
“I’m glad to hear that you won’t leave, Janie. I just wanted to call and see if you were all right, but I must go now.”
They said good-bye and Janie returned to her cleaning. Hastings has been good to us, she thought. We married here, had our children here, and Simon has worked here. We won’t leave. She said it — even in her head — without a great deal of conviction. But memories crowded in: planting trees in memory of young men who had lost their lives in the Great War, enjoying an evening at the Kerr Opera House, attending the first performance of “The Messiah” at Hastings College, the purchase of a Model T Ford, a trip to the top of Pike’s Peak in Colorado, the boys swimming at Lib’s Park, Fourth of July celebrations, and visits from Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus. She smiled when she recalled Al’s excitement when new powerful lights were installed at the Hastings College football field so that night games could be played.
Of course, not everything had been good, Janie thought. She recalled an evening when two men were jailed for using vulgar language at the ball park. Nearly five hundred men had gathered at the jail, demanding the men’s release. As they became more agitated, some of them used a five-foot battering ram to try to break down the door. To prevent any further trouble, the police released the two men at ten-thirty that night. Simon had been disturbed both by the men’s actions and the police response. As a member of City Council, he had written a strong condemnation of the entire incident to the city newspaper.
There had been other disturbing events. In the early 1920’s, the Tribune reported the first meeting of a local Ku Klux Klan in Prospect Park. Simon believed the Klan would not thrive in Hastings, but Janie was less certain. The KKK directed its hatred towards Catholics and Jews, and there were rumours of cross-burnings in rural areas and reported threats towards a few businessmen who did not support Klan activities. They were told that there was only a handful of men involved, even though Hastings was rife with rumours about who belonged. One of them, Simon had heard, was Lars Jacobsen, and that had not surprised him, or Janie, at all. The Ku Klux Klan unfortunately grew in strength, and in 1925 they had sponsored a night-time parade in downtown Hastings. An astonishing five hundred men had appeared on horseback, wearing the traditional and frightening hoods and robes of the Klan. Janie had not gone to see it, and they had forbidden James and Al to go, but Simon had watched because he wanted to try to identify them. When he came home he told Janie that a local cobbler, Angus Mahoney, had sworn that he could identify some of the Klansmen by the shoes that they wore. Among them, he said, was Lars Jacobsen.
Janie continued with her cleaning chores, moving from room to room, her thoughts racing through memories, time moving quickly. Turning momentarily to happier times, Janie remembered Simon’s prediction that airplanes would become more a part of their lives as the century progressed. He had certainly been correct! Simon and their two older boys had been excited by Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic. They had been even more thrilled when he had flown over Hastings in late August, circling low over the city four times. Lindbergh had dropped a message in a canvas sack with a yellow streamer, and James and Al, along with many other children, had looked everywhere for it. Janie could still remember their looks of sad disappointment when they had come home totally and utterly defeated; Al, particularly, had been so convinced that he would be the one to find the message. As far as Janie knew, it had still not been found — six years later.
As Janie thought about it now, things started to get worse in 1928 when Simon’s mother died. Life had continued on, but who could have predicted what would happen? What if they had had a crystal ball? Might Simon have continued working for the department store and not gone into business for himself? But, of course, they didn’t know; they could not have predicted the Crash. It was the beginning of a terrible time for so many people. Each day following the Crash got tougher with more worries about how the bills would be paid, how they would save Simon’s business. In one day, the whole world changed forever.
Two hours passed without Janie even realizing it. She finally took a break from her housework and got herself a glass of water. Stepping outside on to the front porch, she sat in the swing and thought about the last three years — 1930, 1931, and 1932. Such terrible times. Economic woes as well as a terrible drought. There had been a robbery at the Hastings National Bank; four gunmen had stolen $27,000! Dust storms blanketed the city several times every summer. With no water and no money, farmers had abandoned thousands of acres of wheat. Government work projects tried to keep some people employed, including her son, James, but there were many jobless. The professors at the college had taken a 40% cut in their wages to prevent personnel cuts. Janie had helped the Hastings Women’s Club organize a special Women’s Market where she had sold her homemade jams and jellies. We will get through this, she thought. One way or another, we’ll get through this.
She walked to the clothesline and took the sheets off the line, folding them neatly in her basket. On the horizon, she could see dust clouds forming. I hope it isn’t too thick today, she thought. She brought the sheets in and put them away, returned the glass to the kitchen, and moved to the second floor to continue her cleaning. She went first to James and Al’s bedroom. James’s side of the room was cluttered and messy; Al’s was neat and tidy. My sons are so different, she thought. While James struggles to figure out what to do with his life, Al seems to be enjoying every minute of it. A high school junior, Al played football, basketball, and ran track. In the first game of the football season, however, he had fumbled the ball and then desperately tried to get it back; in the ensuing scramble, he had broken his collar bone. He is a young man with a great deal of spunk, Janie thought. A broken collar bone was nothing compared to fireworks going off in his pocket. She smiled now at the memory. Thank heavens he survived that one.
Janie completed her work upstairs and returned to the kitchen. She sat down at the kitchen table and took a few moments to read yesterday’s evening paper, but she could not concentrate. Simon’s store is closing, she repeated to herself once again. There were other stores closing, too — she had heard that the Stein Brothers, after thirty years in business, were closing too — but this knowledge did not make her feel better. Life isn’t fair. Simon doesn’t deserve this.
But Janie was an optimist by nature and she remembered the words of her grandmother: “Never look back.” She folded the newspaper and placed it on the table. She had kept busy through much of the day by cleaning house. Now, she decided that the best thing she could do was prepare the family’s supper. I’ll make a pie, too, she thought. Simon and Al will like a pie. When my boys return home today, I will not let them see my despair. They will see a clean, tidy home. They will smell supper cooking on the stove. They will see a wife and mother who loves them. No more self-pity, she reminded herself.
- Continue to Chapter 18.
- Refer to Family Tree to keep relationship of characters in mind.
- Return to Family Legacies Table of Contents.
Disclaimer: While it is true that my characters were inspired by my own genealogical study, I could not and did not know my ancestors with the same intimacy that I have created in my characters. Therefore, let it be said that these characters are fictional and created from my own imagination. Similarity to persons living or dead is unintentional and coincidental.