Friday, December 5, 2008

Recession or Depression?

Now that we have officially been in recession for a year, we can all let a sigh of relief and congratulate ourselves on our survival. How hardy we are! The financial media is now falling all over itself to present an escalating view of how close we are to armageddon.

One of the last great stories my dear old Dad told was about his first realization of what the Depression was like. It was the thirties, he was in his early teens. I will do my best to convey what he told me.

When it was clear that the depression was impacting everyone, my Dad's father was fortunate to be in a good position at Ford, as a foreman in a stamping plant. A little side story here. These were the days when Henry Ford was beginning to lose it, he was autocratic and paranoid. He had turned over much of the day to day operations to Harry Bennet, a thug in the truest sense. The riots and beatings in which Bennet's henchmen beat and killed workers were his "management style".

My grandfather ensured his job in the best way he could, by running his stamping machines faster than anyone else. He was not a very pleasant man. But he had the ingenuity common to most folks from the farm, he could really get it done, whatever it was. In these days Ford was learning how to run the world's biggest manufacturing plant, The Rouge, as it was built. Guys like Grandfather made their contributions. One was that when he got his line's production running at a hell for leather pace, the scrap out of the machines became ankle deep, and had to be cleaned up. The sweepers interfered with running the machine, and production suffered. So he had pits dug under the machines and the tailings were kicked into the pit, where they could be cleaned out with less interference to the work.

The day foreman had the pits filled in, because they weren't supposed to be there. In a very credible threat to the day foreman's life, Grandfather prevailed, and the pits restored. That is how guys like him kept their jobs.

One day, as Dad told us, his father came home on Friday and announce that he had bought a small farm. The family was packed up in the Model A, and drove out to the farm, about 90 miles north of the plant, 60 miles north of where they currently lived. Here is how dad put it: "He let us out of the car, and told us, "Here it is, this is how we will make it. You will learn to farm it, and you may starve, but by god, this family will not take one cent of public assistance." and that was that."

Now I'm sure it didn't happen like that, Grandfather may have spent the weekend with them to get things going, and Grandma was a very capable farm gal, but the fact is that the family was moved that quick, and the alternative to learning to farm was not going to be going on the dole. People thought like that then.

That year, Grandma, Dad and his 4 brothers and sisters cultivated, planted and harvested 40 acres of the farm with hand tools. There was no tractor, no horse team. They planted beans and potatoes. That is what they lived on, trading for other staples, hunting, fishing, and picking berries for the rest. They made the farm work, built it up into a good operation of about 120 acres which for various reasons my Dad ran at the age of 16. Grandfather continued to work at the Rouge, making the 90 mile drive to and from the farm every weekend in the Model A, quite a commute!

Oh, and Grandfather seems to really have been that much of a hard-assed bastard. But I don't really know, I only know what Dad told us of him, and his word was gospel.

All this is typical of what was done by people during the Depression. Do you think we are in one now? Here are four other views of what life was like in the Depression.

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