Oral History: A Child of the Great Depression – Part 1

JWR’s Introductory Comments: I transcribed and edited the following, from a series of interviews that I recently recorded with my mother, Barbara Marie (Creveling) Rawles. She is now 88 years old, and in failing health. But her memories are still vividly with her. She was born just as the world was entering the depths of the Great Depression. She grew up in a small farm town in California’s Central Valley. There, with a depressed economy, the community’s hardships carried on through World War II.

I took the liberty of some paraphrasing and re-sequencing of a few passages, to keep them in chronological order. I believe that SurvivalBlog readers will find it useful, in formulating their own strategies for surviving the years to come. History doesn’t repeat, but it often rhymes.

I was born in Dallas, Texas, in October of 1931.

My mother, Julia Marie (Kinsella) Creveling was the oldest child of an Irish immigrant, William James Kinsella and his wife Ida (Holloway) Kinsella.  My grandfather’s family arrived from Ireland with little more than a few clothes.  My grandfather was fond of saying: “I came to America with two strong arms and $14.” But by the time his grandchildren reached adulthood, he had a fine house, with a carriage house, behind it. He eventually established his own hat manufacturing company.

Julia was born on August 20, 1905, in Dallas, Texas. She learned how to drive a car when she was 13 years old. Her father never learned how to drive. Growing up, one of her favorite activities was watching their hired cook, and helping her, in the kitchen. Unlike her mother, who never learned to cook, Julia became a good cook and learned how to do canning, in glass jars. After attending Southern Methodist University, she taught school in Dallas until her marriage to DeWitt Creveling in June, 1930.

Following a year living in Mexico, my parents returned to Dallas, where my sister and I were born. In 1937 our family moved to California, eventually settling in the small farming town of Dinuba, in 1940. My father was a teacher at Dinuba High School until his death at age 46, in 1949. My brother, DeWitt, Jr., was then just five years old.

After my father died, my mother Julia was a fifth-grade teacher at Lincoln School in Dinuba for nineteen years. She later tutored and taught special classes at Grandview School until retiring at age 69.

My Father

My father, DeWitt Creveling, was born December 3, 1903, in Mexico. His parents were Americans living abroad. His father was a mining engineer, at a silver mine in the Mexican state of San Luis Potosi. The nearest town was called Aguas Calientes. So my father often joked: “I was born in Hot Water, and I’ve been in hot water all my life.”

Daddy grew up speaking Spanish and didn’t learn English until he was about 12 years old. He eventually spoke faultless English. So he was fully bilingual. He was the eldest of five sons. He and three of his brothers were born in Mexico. But one of them, Thaddeus, died of Typhus, when he was just six months old. The family then moved to San Antonio, Texas, where their youngest son, named Gray, was born. Their sons that lived to adulthood were: DeWitt, Robert, Louis, and Gray.

The Depression

My father and mother were married in June of 1930, just as the Great Depression was setting in. My parents first moved to San Luis Potosi, to work at a silver mine as a junior mining engineer.  When my mother learned that a baby was on the way (that was me) they decided to move back to Texas. Remembering the infant death of his baby brother Thad, my father wanted me to be born in an American hospital and raised in the States. My grandparent’s home was on Santa Monica Drive, in Dallas. So, now in the depths of the Depression, my father took various part-time jobs, in Dallas. And he worked for his grandfather-in-law, attempting to collect rents on some rental properties owned in Dallas. The collections because more and more erratic, as the Depression set in. In addition, to parents, my grandparents also housed my mother’s four teen and college-age siblings. My grandfather Kinsella had previously owned a hat factory in Dallas, and had been president of the Dallas Chamber of Commerce. My grandfather Holloway had invested in rental houses, in Dallas. Actually receiving a rent payment was cause for celebration. Some renters could pay, and some could not. For 25 cents several of the siblings could go out to see a movie.

Fairly early on in the Depression, my grandmother and grandfather realized that their house had somehow been “marked” by the hobos. When someone is generous, news travels fast. So almost daily, there would be hobos at the back door, very politely asking for hand-outs. Often it was just a mayonnaise sandwich–just mayonnaise on bread–that would be handed out. Or perhaps a piece of cornbread. We lived just a short distance away from a Dr. Pepper bottling plant. Somehow, the Kinsella house was marked by the hobos, and they would trudge up the hill, on Santa Monica Drive, to beg for food. House curbs or back kitchen door lintels would literally be marked by the hobos, until these marks were finally painted or puttied over. The tramps and hobos were always expected to come to the back door, never the front door.

The Kinsellas had a succession of fox terrier dogs-all named Yippee–at the Santa Monica Drive house. Oddly, when the Depression began, the dogs began disappearing, one after another. Two were hit by cars, but the disappearance of the others was never explained. Some suspected that they were being eaten.

Downward Revised Expectations

My mother Julia had grown up in polite society, in an upper-middle-class Dallas household with a maid, a yard-and-cleaning man, and a cook. She had grown up attending bridge luncheons, formal dinners, sorority parties, and dances. The Great Depression forced most families to revise their expectations. But even more so for my mother, who had married a man who since 1931 rarely held a full-time job. But thankfully, my mother had a gradual transition. Their year living in Mexico started her in “changing gears.” Life in Mexico was very congenial, living amongst the other engineer families, but very lonely for my mother during the day. And she learned how to cook and clean house.

As the Depression set in, there were tough days, for everybody. My mother and father started running out of savings. They began selling off anything that they could: Jewelry, furs, silverware, furniture, and so forth. They no longer bought fancy foods or fancy clothes. By 1932 they were living on just a couple of dollars, per day. In 1943, they were still driving the same old Chevrolet sedan that Dewitt had bought used, in 1928. And if it were not for the charitable generosity of my grandmother, they would not have bought their house in 1943. That house, which was built around 1928, cost them $2,000 in 1943.

Off to California

William Henry GrayIt was while they were still living in Dallas that I was born, and then in 1934, came my sister Anita. The economy in Dallas was very depressed. My Grandmother Anna Lavinia (Gray) Creveling (who the grandcildren called “Gomma” and the adults called “Vinnie”) was a widow who lived in Santa Monica, California. Her quite elderly parents lived nearby, in Santa Monica.  My great grandfather was Captain James Gray, a Civil War Army veteran. Gomma invited my parents to come to California, to live with them. DeWitt and Julia accepted because it was difficult to earn a living in Dallas, and they hoped that the job prospects would be better California. So, in 1937 they loaded us up their 1928 Chevrolet sedan and moved to California. My Uncles Charlie and Jimmy Kinsella were left in charge of selling off their remaining furniture, after they left Dallas.

Arriving in California, we first lived in Gomma’s cliffside home, in Manhattan Beach. Gomma’s mother was quite senile and needed constant attention. Grandfather Captain Gray was in his mid-90s. He was a feisty old character, who would swing his cane and cuss at car traffic. He had many quaint expressions. One of them was:  “Bread is the staff of life, but coffee is life itself.”

After arriving in California, my father could only find part-time jobs. For instance, he got another part-time job in electronics working on Gillfillan brand radios. He even did some babysitting. He was a baby sitter for the actor Tyrone Power. My father also helped construct a house, on a lot that Gomma owned, next door to her house.

Unable to find any full-time work, my father decided that he should get a teaching credential. He had a great rapport with kids. So, in 1938, he moved our family to Alameda, California. We lived in a rental house, just across from San Francisco Bay. He enrolled at the University of California (UC) Berkeley, in a two-year program, to get his credential. Part of that program required a temporary move to UC Davis, to take more Animal Husbandry classes. His mother helped pay for this post-graduate school.

My father always wanted to be a rancher or a farmer. After High School in San Antonio, he studied Agriculture and some Engineering, at Texas A&M University, and again post-grad, at the UC “Cal” Berkeley, and later at UC Davis. While at Texas A&M, he worked at an experimental farm that was involved with the development Guayule, which is used as an alternative for making rubber. My father was in the Corps of Cadets at Texas A&M. He was commissioned as a Lieutenant in the Army Reserve Corps (ORC).

(To be continued tomorrow, in Part 2.)


  1. It is wonderful to learn from your parents before they pass. My father also related stories of hobos marking his family back yard fence and it was his responsibility to give them water and food from the back yard fence. It was fascinating to learn the hobos marked the generous places to stop along their travel. He lived into his 90’s and like most elderly recalled their childhood days in detail. He could still name every child’s name in his first grade class. I took him often for an ice cream cone and he would shake his head at the price and remark he could feed the whole class with ice cream for the price the charged today. Such fine memories in the last few years to treasure and reflect on how the depression influenced their lives.

  2. Jim, thanks so much for sharing this.

    I had to laugh because I found myself tearing up several times, and I don’t even know these people! There is so much in the news these days about how bad people can be that the good news gets drowned out. So when I read of people being kind to one another, it always makes me tear up, like Grandma feeding the hobos. I wonder if my grandpa-in-law was one of them? lol. He couldn’t find work as a single man during the Depression because jobs were going to guys who had families to feed, so he went hoboing, up and down California and the western States, and he knew all the marks, and got lots of handouts from nice folks like your great grandma. He tried to do add jobs for them to help pay for the food before he moved on.

    The coffee quote is going to be routed into a plaque to hang in my kitchen, that’s the best coffee quote I’ve heard. 🙂

    For me, the best take-home message from this Part 1 was when your grandpa had a good paying, professional, engineering job in Mexico, where the cost of living was no doubt much cheaper, and he gave all that up during the Depression for something more important, even though he knew he was taking his family into a much lower standard of living. He sacrificed all that convenience because it was far more important to have their child born in an American hospital, and have access to better health care growing up so his chances of survival would be greater.

    I think there’s a message there for preppers who are still just dreaming of getting out of the city.

    Really looking forward to part 2. Please tell your mom you have at least one reader who wants to give her a big hug and take her to lunch, bring her some flowers from my garden, and hear more stories first hand. 🙂

    For those interested, here are the hobo marks:


    1. “Please tell your mom you have at least one reader who wants to give her a big hug…” Better get a hat so we can all put our names in. I’ll put my name in that hat.

  3. In looking at different stories and recipes from the Great Depression era, it is coming to light that bread was readily available and cheap. Is it just me, or will that not be the case this time around? We are in a different era, with a different type of supply chain. I’d love to hear thoughts on this aspect.

  4. Very interesting family history. My family moved to a small town near Dinuba in 1963. I grew up playing sports against Dinuba teams. The middle of “raisin country”. My uncles had traveled to the area in the depression driving a model A, and they found work, so they stayed for several years. After the war, one uncle moved back to the area, and so did other members of my family. That’s why we finally moved in 1963. My mom finally moved from our town in 2000. It was a great place to grown up – then.

  5. Thank you so much for sharing this, JWR. I love hearing these stories. I ‘interviewed’ my dad for the past several years before he died (last September). And everyday, I think of questions I wish I had asked him. He was born in 1929. My 93 year old aunt is his only living sibling. I call her weekly and ask her about the past.
    An African proverb says, “When an old man dies, a library burns down.” So true. We need to hear and record our elder’s stories.

  6. Great stories. My mother, now 95, grew up in North Dakota, a tough to place to live during the very cold winters of the Great Depression. My grandfather was a railroad engineer who was furloughed until troop trains were needed in 1941. To survive he and a friend used scrap parts from old trucks and built a trash truck to run a garbage hauling business. Between that and washing windows and doing odd jobs they made ends meet. To keep his tenure as a train engineer he had to work once a month at the train depot, where he polished the engine and did various maintenance work.
    He tore up every inch of his large yard and planted a garden right to the curb. When the hobos would come into town during the summer they were directed to his place where my kind grandmother, with a loaded 38 in her apron, would direct them in working the garden. For their day’s work they received an evening meal served on the outside picnic bench and a sack lunch for the next morning when they would ride the trains again looking for work.
    They never had a problem with any of them, but lots of problems with local town folk, especially theft. Whenever my grandmother would can vegetables and put them away, she had trusted neighbors watch her house when she left on errands, because hungry folk would break in and steal what they could. The smell of canning wafting through the neighborhood was the dinner bell that drew in the thieves. My mother said if anything was not nailed down and watched like a hawk, it would disappear. That was back in the days when a large portion of the population had morals and a hard work ethic. Imagine how it is going to be when our humanist, entitlement minded culture goes hungry in another great depression now well on its way!

    1. Missouri Mule + wormlady, very true. Precious stories like yours and JWR were passed down by us from our dear parents.

      Today, its difficult to find respect for elders. That’s actually one reason why the “entitled” college kids (who wasted 4-6 years and thousands of dollars on secular univ) pull down precious statues= Ulysses Grant, Robert E Lee, George Washington and even abolitionists! The pain in them makes them mad, insane. They don’t just dishonor American history, they dishonor elders (and probably their own parents)

      We are facing a fatherless generation, taking out their wrath on everyone and anyone…. within striking distance.

      Hard times are on the way. We were told in the Bible. Great times are also coming. Times of refreshing, family, laughter and true community. I think back to Little House on the Prairie!

  7. This reminds me of what my mother, father, aunts and uncles talked about of times during the depression in England and Ireland.

    Unfortunately we are late preppers and just getting started, more for our grandchildren than us. I do believe we will have a financial collapse.

    This story is wonderful and shows the amazing resilience of some folks.

    Trust in the Lord to lead you along the right path. HE is talking to us but will we listen?

  8. I’m very interested in stories from the Depression era and what we can learn from them to help us now. My mom is only a few years younger than your mom but she grew up in the city and I don’t think much of that is relevant to my life at this point, even if she were inclined to share any stories.

    My general sense though is that a lot has changed in our lives since the Depression which may make it more difficult to get by in hard times. Just to name a few things, our cars are built so that “backyard mechanics” can’t work on them for the most part other than an oil change or other simple task. Our large appliances such as fridges and washers are built with “planned obsolescence” in mind such that they don’t last longer than 7-10 years. Decades ago people had appliances that easily lasted 30 or 40 years. Our small appliances and electronics are designed to be “disposable”; who would try to get a toaster or microwave fixed now? Property taxes have reached stratospheric levels which force us to have enough of a cash income even if we own the property outright or else lose it due to non-payment of taxes.

    So I guess I realize that much has changed since the 30’s and 40’s but I’m hopeful to obtain info that we can still use today.

  9. My Father was born in 1922 in Atlanta Georgia. Lived most of his life in a small town in central Florida. With the exception of his Army Air Corp service in WW2. I as born in Alabama where he was stationed at the time. Indeed I am a baby boomer. My Mother was from Pennsylvania, a true Coal Miner’s daughter. Mom was Nurse. They met on a blind date. She worked at a veteran’s hospital. During the Great Depression, as it was always called in my house. The story was that your town or home could be marked as friendly or not by hobos. The mark was a X or an O. The X meant bad dog. Meaning to stay out as they were not friendly. An O meant good dog. Possibly good for a hand out. The marks were placed on an object, like a fence or curb stone. Easy to recognize if you could not read and not understood by locals. They were hard times. A piece of cornbread could be a treasure.

  10. So interesting to read. My great grandfather was a mining engineer in Mexico as well. The children all spoke Spanish. His wife would go back to St Louis to have the children. He eventually went to Silver City NM but spent his latter years in Ohio with a daughter.

  11. Thank you, JWR, for sharing these wonderful stories of life (and history) with all of us. We are grateful for you, and all you do. The sharing of the story of your Mom’s life is a beautiful extension of your person, and your commitment to the people of this community. We also know that this time with your Mom is bittersweet. We are so sorry for the news of her failing health, even as we know God holds her (and all of you) in His gentle and loving Hands. We are lifting all of you up in prayer.

  12. I read the book:

    We Had Everything But Money (Priceless Memories-Great Depression) Reminisce 1992

    These are a compilation of letters written by elderly people and their experiences during the depression. Their memories were of course when they were children or teens. So many letters had the same theme such as when the depression hit my mother started a vegetable garden in the back, or kids were sent out to collect buckets of dandelion leaves, they were fried in bacon grease and dinner was served. Also a sandwich consisted of 2 slices of bread and bacon grease in between. they canned jams from berries picked by the kids then sold most of it to those who could afford it. There is also various jobs that everyone in the family would take on just to make ends meet.

    How many skills do todays families have in order to keep the family together and from starvation. Certainly a lot to think about.

    Let us all include JWR’s mother in our prayers for better health and recovery.

  13. Many in my family (very poor) spoke often about the depression. Not so much my mother but definitely my father. He hitchhiked and hobo-ed across the country several times. He said he preferred hitchhiking because it was cleaner that riding the rails (which could be very dangerous).

    Thank you for sharing about your family.

  14. Excellent story. I’m looking forward to the next installment. My parents were born in 1919 and 1920 and were teenagers in the Depression. They married in 1940. A lot of their stories have stuck with me, like eating ‘jam sandwiches’ — two pieces of bread ‘jammed’ together! My parents were always painfully frugal after that, and it has carried on to me. My wife’s parents grew up in the Depression as well, had eight kids, and were also painfully frugal. We’re both ‘tighter than bark on a tree’, as our kids say, and come by it naturally 🙂

  15. I don’t have much to share, but perhaps others do. I do have a photo of my mother as a two year old toe head in the middle of some hens bare foot in front of a dirt floor cabin her daddy built on the farm. That was about 1938. Lessons from the Great Depression are priceless.

  16. The great depression and dustbowl are a part of my history and I wish I could have gotten more firsthand accounts before they passed. The stories are worthy of listening.

  17. Reading the stories, we are just so thankful to everyone for sharing. My Great Grandmother lost her husband, my Great Grandfather, just a couple years before the bank closure that marked forever in history the Great Depression. She was left to raise four girls, and my Grandmother was the oldest among them. No one is entirely sure what happened, but genealogical research and connections with people who had heard family stories suggest that he was injured in an accident involving farm equipment, and that although he did not die from the trauma, he was lost to inflammation following surgery (probably a surgical infection). When my Great Grandfather died, she had to travel by train to the hospital to retrieve his body, and in that same time she had to sew a funeral dress for each daughter and one for herself. She went on to farm the land she and her husband homesteaded, and at the time of the bank closure, she had just deposited all the proceeds of her farm sale. It’s hard to imagine what she must have thought or felt, and tears come to my eyes even thinking about it. Those years were very, very difficult, and there are many family stories that come from those times. The lives of these people have inspired my own, and help to inform and form my own values in the best ways. My heart is filled with joy for my own name which was based on my Great Grandmother’s. It’s one of the reasons I have such a tremendous appreciation of history. We can learn so much from those who came before us, and should be grateful to each and every one of those people — we should remember them always, and record their stories. With great love and devotion, they led the way and created a path for us. It’s an earthly parallel to the way in which God came before us, our Heavenly parent leading the way for His children.

  18. JWR,

    What a wonderful story your mother is telling you and you sharing it with all of us! My grandma passed in September last year, 3 months shy of her 99th birthday. I miss her terribly. she was so much fun! She’s the one that took us kids to see the movie Jaws the day it came out, and of course we sat in the front row. She’s the one that took me cross country to New York and then into Canada to track down the new Hummel annual plate. (I now have her whole collection, still in the original boxes)! She was such a blast, driving like a crazy woman, always having her makeup & hair perfect. I also now have all of her jewelry of which she was VERY proud of.
    She outlived 3 husbands & two of four children.
    I love hearing stories about the people that REALLY had it tough back in those days, it makes me extremely thankful for the path that they paved for all of the things that we all have today
    I’m so looking forward to the rest of your moms story
    Thank you for sharing

    Have a Rockin great day

  19. My Mom wrote enough stories to fill two small books, and was working on a third when she could no longer do that. She passed on 5 Jun of this year at 93. Her Grandfather, my Great Grandfather, made the Cherokee Strip run in Oklahoma. He sorta did, he was an admitted Sooner. That family is traced back to Switzerland through the early 1600s. My Grandmother’s family is traced back to Gov. William Bradford. Something about one missing piece of paper to make it official, but the line is still there. Great stories of past lineage is always good to read and hear. Can hardly wait until tomorrow.

  20. Great article JWR. And timely, considering the frontal assault on our cultural and national heritage. And every bit as important as a” how to ” post. The comments resonated with my mind. I was so blessed to have a mother born in 1922 and with us untill february of this year. And my grandmother, born in 1899 and lived till 2005. what a treasure and great personal blessing to myself and my family. IN many ways they have all taught us how to live in this present time. Carry on in faith. REread Hebrews 11.

  21. My mother was born in 1923. Served on Okinawa during WWII as an Army nurse.
    At 97 she is still going strong. Lives alone. Walks on her treadmill twice a day, every day. Still drives better than most of the people I see on the road. We take turns riding with her to make sure she is still OK.
    Two of my brothers live close to her and check in on her.
    She has many pictures that she took over the years. We are saving them..
    Best of luck for your mother’s well being.

  22. My mother was born in 1923. Served on Okinawa during WWII as an Army nurse.
    At 97 she is still going strong. Lives alone. Walks on her treadmill twice a day, every day. Still drives better than most of the people I see on the road. We take turns riding with her to make sure she is still OK.
    Two of my brothers live close to her and check in on her.
    She has many pictures that she took over the years. We are saving them..
    Best of luck for your mother’s well being.

  23. Such a wonderful story. We will all be mesmerized by every word, as it helps us gets through this time. I think the most important thing people can be doing is learning their land. What natural items can you eat? Have a botanist out…, share pics on the internet with foragers, etc and LEARN your land. God has placed items within reach of each of us, both for food and economy…..Would love to hear more of how even children helped, financially.

  24. Really enjoyed reading this and looking forward to the next two installments. So much to learn from these folks. My grandmother was born in 1905, grew up on a farm, lived until 98 and had many stories to tell: lighting the schoolhouse wood stove for heat if you were the first one in, taking her father’s team of horses home from the market in Schenectady NY to their farm while he slept after a long day, being one of the first women to drive a car in that area of NY, etc. These stories are as good as many of the how to articles we read, for the inspiration they provide. I think we’ve become a nation of wussies (myself included), compared to these folks. I wonder how we’d do under the same circumstances. Prayers for your mom and your family during this time.

  25. As soon as I read the first sentence of the article it instantly dawned on me where I’d heard (and read) JWR mention the last name, Creveling. It was in his novel, Patriots. The character, “Rose Creveling” was Jeff Trasel’s girlfriend, later becoming his wife.

  26. I am sorry your mom is so ill. I am glad you can spend time with her. I am so glad you are posting her story. Thank you. Prayers for all of you.

  27. Thank you JWR for the wonderful story. They all had so little then (compared to what we have now (in the way of “things”)), but oh, so much richer lives in spite of it! Beginning to think I should look back to that time–and learn how to start living more simply.

    Prayers for all of your family.

  28. My Father also shared stories of growing up in the depression. His father abandoned the family which made things even more difficult. He lied about his age, joining the merchant Marines (15) during the first part of WW2 and volunteered to cook just so he would have something to eat. When he turned 17 he joined the Marine Corps and again volunteered to cook, which probably is why he survived the island hopping in the south Pacific. He shared those stories with some resentment not as fond memories. Fortunately he came to Christ in his late 40s and that allowed him to avoid the bitterness that difficulty can bring. We have no idea how difficult it could become, but we also can see events developing that require a prepatory response. As best we can…

  29. We are your age Wife July 1931 R Aug 1937 I moved to LA in 1940
    Uncle A moved to Ceres 1947. In 50 & 51 I Helped in his gas station in summer. My Sis Moved to Hillmar in 72 Many visits when the Kids were young to both Families. Oh the joys of 99 from LA and later from Salem Or to the Ceres area. My Dads fam 4 boys and 4 girls +Gm & Gp, Moved from East coast area to SW LA over about 15 months. Lots of hard times Stories.

    Peace to You and You Mom

  30. Thank you so much for sharing your mother’s stories. She is a beautiful and resilient woman with a rich life and interesting memories.

    My mother was a young girl during the Depression. She lived with her grandmother and remembers that her usual breakfast was strawberries and milk. Whenever she asked grandma where her breakfast was, grandma would always say she ate earlier. It wasn’t until many years later that my mother realized that her elegant, thin grandmother was giving up breakfast so she could eat.

  31. Wonderful series of three articles. They inspired me to do the same thing while my parents are still living.

    Would you mind sharing some pointers on the equipment and interview questions/techniques you used or would recommend?

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