Oral History: A Child of the Great Depression – Part 2

(Continued, from Part 1.)

The Principal of Dinuba High School, Walter Hellbaum, came up recruiting at UC Berkeley, because Howard Page, his Agriculture and ROTC teacher–who was another Army reserve officer–had been recalled to active duty.  Daddy was a good fit for a position at Dinuba High School because he was qualified to teach both Agriculture and ROTC classes. But then a more experienced Agriculture teacher came along. So my father ended up teaching Math, Science, Spanish, and he led the Junior ROTC program. Daddy moved our family to Dinuba in 1940. We first lived in a modest two-bedroom rental house on Park Way, very close to Dinuba High School. The rent for that house was $27.50 month.

Dinuba is in a portion of the Central Valley hat has very rich soil and a long, mild growing season. You can grow just about anything there. Both then, and now, there is a mix of row crops, vineyards (table grapes and wine grapes), nut orchards, and fruit orchards — including citrus. Other than some dangerously foggy driving conditions in the winter, the climate is just about ideal. It rarely got below freezing.

In addition to his other teaching duties, my father directed high school plays. And he was in the Toastmasters Club, which had meetings in the nearby town of Reedley. He was a jokester and always the clown, at any gathering. Daddy was a man of many interests. For example, he liked to make furniture.

In the 1930s and 1940s, public school teachers were quite poorly paid. So, to support our family, he kept very busy, working on weekends and in the summer months when school was not in session. He worked as a salesman at a shoe store, as a checker at a local grocery store, and as a Spanish tutor. Each summer, he was also hired by the government to work at a migrant labor camp, to be a Spanish Interpreter for the Bracero Program.

Meanwhile, my father DeWitt was still an Army Reserve officer.  He kept current by attending Officer Reserve Corps (ORC) camps for two weeks, each summer, in southern California. Those camps, including travel and meals, were all at his own expense. Army promotions were very slow, in the 1930s. But they accelerated rapidly, when the war began. By 1941, he had been promoted to Captain, but soon after, he became a Major.

War Clouds

All through the late 1930s, our family had been closely watching world events. The Civil War in Spain, the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, and the outbreak of World War II in Europe were riveting everyone’s attention. Many were tense and worried about their relatives in the military. As I watched my father parading the JROTC cadets on the high school grounds, I could only wonder if they would be safe in the future.  Because my father was over 35, he was not subject to be recalled to active duty.

Hearing the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor was such a heavy blow to the populace–especially to those who had sons in the military.  I can remember our family being called to gather by our radio at the kitchen table, to listen to the news of the attack. As I recall the newscaster said, with an edge of hysteria to his voice:  “Attention, attention, everyone. We have some important news.” Then he began reading the headlines and reports from the wire service. Daddy said: “Be quiet.” Intermittently, they would return to repeating the headlines, in case someone had just tuned in.  Hearing the news broadcast, we were just stunned, frozen. I asked: “What shall we do?”

We stepped outside and we could hear and see neighbors out in the middle of the street, talking with each other. They were all there as if they were waiting for someone to come and tell them what would be happening. I remember hearing one little girl ask:  “What is a pearl harbor?”–as if this was some thing rather than a place.  When Daddy said, “It is a military base, in the Hawaiian Islands”, I felt as if something had just grabbed me. We knew so many families that had sons on active duty.

Dinuba’s Demographics

It is now predominantly Hispanic, but when we arrived in 1940, Dinuba was a roughly 90% white town, with just a few Hispanics, Japanese, and Filipinos. There were some fairly recent white immigrants–notably, quite a few Armenian Americans, who were involved in both farming and ranching.  They were doing well at integrating themselves into American society, and they didn’t talk much about what their families had endured in the Armenian genocide.

The relocation of the Japanese families to the internment camps a few months later was tragic and heartbreaking. One family was a Japanese family that we knew. This was a Japanese priest. When they were ordered to leave, my parents heard that they were selling some things before departing, and so they bought their refrigerator. There were more than a dozen families from in and around Dinuba that were interned. Some of these Japanese men had been very crucial farm managers. There were several Japanese-American children in my grade at school. For us, it was mind-boggling to think that they’d be forced from their homes, and sent to live in barracks in the Nevada desert.

There was a great labor shortage in farm towns like Dinuba, during the war. So many young men enlisted or later were drafted. And some went off to work in war plants. Moving the big lug boxes of fruit was heavy work. Women filled in and did “men’s work” jobs that were previously unheard of.

As the war progressed, there many shortages, and rationing. Coffee, chocolate, sweets, and store-bought meat were in particularly short supply. We were also under gasoline rationing. That made our car trips infrequent. There was even a shortage of cars, since there were no new cars being produced. Two of our family friends owned car dealerships. So those became used car dealerships. They had a really dry period!  All of the fruit still needed to be packed. So there were lots of women working in the fruit packing houses. Women also filled in as bank and store clerk jobs in large numbers, while men were away at war.

Civil Defense

With his military experience, my father became a civil defense block warden. Even living in Dinuba, which is near the eastern edge of the Central Valley, for several years we were expected to have blackout curtains or  shades. The saying was: “When the sun goes down, the shades go down.” My father would take regular inspections on our block, and warned people if they had any big light leaks. The California blackouts ended only after it was clear that the U.S. mainland was no longer at risk of a Japanese aerial attack or naval bombardment.

My younger brother, DeWitt Creveling, Junior was born in 1943. Soon after his birth, since they needed a bigger house, my parents moved from their rental house near the high school. They bought a small house at 346 North L Street. The house cost just $2,000. My father built some of the furniture for the house. That is the same house where my mother lived until just before she died. She used the same gas kitchen range for all of those years.

A Victory Garden and Rabbits

All through the war years my parents and most of our neighbors grew Victory Gardens. Our gardens were small converted flower beds, since we were on a small lot, but some our neighbors’ vegetable gardens were quite large. People grew all sorts of vegetables: bell peppers, tomatoes, corn, all sorts of squash, and even potatoes. Lettuce didn’t do too well, since wild rabbits came in — to feast. But the corn they couldn’t do much about.  Our little garden provided enough for salads and some vegetables for our table. In addition to converting the flower beds, we also planted vegetables alongside our hedges.

The neighbors often shared garden produce. Our neighbors, the Gapen family, had an enormous fig tree in their back yard, and each year they had lots of figs to share. Everyone seemed to have their favorite things to plant, and the ones that were generous would share. Victory Gardening was the thing to do. Even in a farming town, the grocery supplies had to be supplemented. Daddy worked part-time at the grocery store, so he would talk about it. He knew how scanty the shipments were, coming into the store. And we had to put up with the “new” [ersatz] butter. This was an early form of white margarine that was like eating plastic, with a little bit of ghastly yellow-orange food coloring that had to be mixed in, at home. That was one of the jobs that Anita and I shared.

My mother already knew how to do home canning. After they bought a permanent home in Dinuba, she acquired both a water bath steam canner and a pressure canner. She home-canned many dozens of jars — mostly fruit — each summer. Mother always started her summer canning in the cool of the morning, since it was such hot work. And this was long before the days of air conditioning. Canning was just one of the many ways that my mother pinched pennies during the Great Depression and the war. Our often-repeated motto was:

“Use it up, wear it out;
Make do, or do without.”

(To be concluded tomorrow, in Part 3.)


  1. As amazing as our families stories all are, it’s even more striking to me how the ‘passed down’ stories of generations shape the thinking and direction of future generations. What you said about – history not repeating itself, but it rhymes – is the proverbial Spiritual ripple of life we see when the water is disturbed.

  2. Fascinating. Looking forward to tomorrow’s installment.

    Thank you for sharing. I’m praying for your mother as well as for you and other family members who care for her. I’m sure you are cherishing every moment with her.

    My dad was born in 29, Mom in 33. Think of all the changes societal changes our parents experienced. From outhouses to multi-bathroom homes. From party lines to individual ‘smart’ phones. From (generally) working together as a country during the war to today’s divisions and disdain for authority. Kind of mind boggling.

  3. Thank you, JWR! So enjoy the shared stories, and especially loved the Victory Gardens planted right to the curb. People understood the importance of providing for themselves in every way possible, and the urgency of the times in which they lived.

    Prayers continue for your Mom, and for all the family.

  4. Thoroughly enjoying this dissertation. I also remember taking the small plastic bags of white “butter” with the small yellow button of coloring and kneading it till it looked like the real thing.

    1. Me too! As the oldest child, kneading the oleo was my job. Later, our neighbors made clandestine “oleo runs” to Upper Michigan to get margarine, returning with their car’s trunk full of the stuff. It was illegal to sell colored margarine in Wisconsin then. But butter was $.32 a pound, and oleo was $.11 cents a pound.

  5. I have enjoyed hearing about the way people made do, during trying times. I know of a couple in my Boise neighborhood who have been using their front and back yards for gardens for about 10 years to save money spent on groceries.

  6. I remember the white “butter”. One day it came without the yellow dye. Mom used what she had. Blue dye. Dad was the only one in the family that would eat it. Lasted longer.

    I also remember our victory garden and walking down the rows picking peas. Mom warning me not to eat too many. My cousin had died from eating too many green peas that resulted in a blocked intestinal tract.

    When we moved dad I had to leave @ 20 cases of mason jars of old vegatables that were left over. Mom had continued to can .

  7. My mother was born in 1925. She would tell stories of the depression years which included moving west during the dust bowl and the odd jobs my grandfather took to squeak by. Mother and her family spent time in Jantzen Beach, Oregon down near the river. This area was rows and rows of a tent city for families with no money and no place to go.

    My husband’s parents also came out west during the dust bowl and took odd jobs to squeak by. Some of the jobs included gathering and candling eggs. Working packing fruit at a cannery and picking. They lived in an old converted chicken coup with two of their three kids for a period of time.

    Both my mother and mother-in-law learned to can and preserve food. My mother-in-law was especially frugal and could stretch a penny father than anyone I met. Gardens were prevalent unlike the yards today and sewing, cooking and repair skills were required.

    Both women have long passed and the mistake I made was to not record their oral histories. I applaud you for recording your mother’s experiences. Cherish your time with her and we will pray for her.

  8. More great stories. I don’t think this country has seen the last of rationing and new generations of Americans will learn to “Use it up, wear it out; Make do, or do without.”

    Her fig tree story reminds me of my own grandparents. I have two ‘Chicago Hardy’ trees which die back to the ground every winter so I only get 100 figs on a really good year, but they taste great and are a connection with my grandparents and great grandparents who also moved to California when times were hard and found a better life there.

    Her story is also a testament to what people can do when they pull together, and a reminder that people were tougher back then (IMO) and very few people considered themselves too good to do this job or that. I wonder how that will play out this next time around?

    I hope more people are getting their parents’ and grandparents’ stories down on paper for the younger generations to learn and profit from, and if nothing else, just to get to know them in a more personal way instead of them just being a face in a photograph.

  9. Enjoying the story! My family moved to Caruthers, California (from Arkansas) in 1962 when I was 9 years old. Dinuba is 10 miles away. My father farmed. I have lived in North Carolina now for 25 years, but I grew up in the central valley and still consider it my home. My friends and I worked in the vineyards and tomato fields as that was about the only work for a teenager. My mother grew a huge garden and canned everything. I still crave the delicious tree ripened fruits and wonderful vegetables there. Impossible to find in a grocery store! Thanks for the memories!

  10. Wow. Thank you so much for sharing this story.
    It makes me sad in many ways, but not for the hardworking people you described.
    It makes me sad for a generation of children who feel “stressed” if they can’t get a custom made Starbucks coffee.

    Today, two teenage brothers, who are neighbors of mine, came over to help me. One worked all day at splitting and stacking firewood. The other worked clearing out weeds and discussed with me what I had in mind for a large garden. They were so mature and so hard working, so polite, and both had a great sense of humor. I was humbled and impressed. There aren’t many young boys these days with that kind of a work ethic. I always try to over pay them and thank their parents. These boys will do well in life.

    re: butter. NOW I understand why my grandmother said, “Never use margarine. Only use real butter!! That margarine will make you sick!” She would always peek into my refrigerator to make sure I only used real butter. LOL. The things you learn in SurvivalBlog!!

  11. O’ how things are so intertwined. I also remember the white butter with the red dot, the canning of literally hundreds of quarts of fruit and vegetables. We also canned young cockerels ( I think they were 6-9 months old) they fit perfectly in half gallon jars. My father worked at an egg ranch where they hatched out their own hens and just killed off the cockerels. He used to pick up a hundred or so in the spring and by fall they were ready to butcher.

    It reinforces my notion that you can NEVER store enough food! You had better be in the position to produce your own.

  12. My mother was born in 1918 and grew up on her parents farm as the youngest of three girls. I remember the stories of how my grandfather farmed with a mule and a plow and managed with my grandmother’s help to raise a family of three girls. My grandfather once started a sawmill but it did not prosper because he never made even poorer people pay him. At his funeral many of the children of those workers came to pay respects and all had a story how my grandfather had helped them, loaned (gave) them money for emergencies and help them along the way. My mother said she remembered him coming into the kitchen and asking my grandmother is she had any money saved back because someone working for him had a sick child or a child who needed shoes. My grandmother always reached back and got what little she had saved by raising chickens, selling eggs and butter in town and gave it to him for others. My grandmother and a helper had a long chicken house and daily worked with eggs and made butter. She sewed for herself and their three girls on a tredle sewing machinge late into night eventhough she suffered from heart problems even as a young woman. She gardened and canned food, cooked over wood stove, sewed by hand and with the old sewing machine, crocheted and tatted and made quilts. My mother remembered getting up and milking the cow at 5 A.M. before getting ready for school at a local country school. Children walked literally miles to the school in all types of weather. Mondays were wash days and occasionally the girls would miss school on those days when wash was done in the yard in large, iron kettles which I still have. Warmth was from fireplaces. Transportation was a mule and a wagon until the late 1940’s when they had an old truck. A local teacher needed a place to stay during the summer when school was out as there had been a small house where the teachers were given a place to live during the school year but not during the summer, so my grandfather who was chm of the local school board told them the teacher could come stay with his family of girls during that summer. My mother said the teacher felt like she should earn her keep so for that summer all three girls attended “summer school” at their house and she remembered hearing all the summer sounds of the farm outside while they were inside having school. All three girls were good students but got an extra summer of school due to the teacher moving in with them. My mother says they were poor and did not have money for their wants, but they had food and all their relatives and neighbors were in the same situation so they did not know they were poor. Their home was always open to a cousin who needed a place to stay when their own mother was sick and died. The attended church regularly and my grandmother’s beautiful flower garden was often used for someone who needed to supply flowers for the church. When a doctor was needed in the night, usually for my grandmother’s heart condition, the oldest sister who was about 12 years old got to ride the mule in the dark for 5 miles to the nearest relative’s house who had a telephone to call the doctor. These were hard times of people doing without in many cases, but the children all grew up to value education and hard work. These same people were the ones who several years later struggled with the effects of World War II. The women lived together and worked while the men in the family were away in the military. We owe them respect and admiration for their faith, hard work, and sacrifices that helped us endure. These were children of the depression who grew up to face world war II. They were the greatest generation. Their stories need to be remembered.

  13. It’s good to read all of this about morally better times when people had community values but not Communist values. There is such a big difference. These days we are bombarded by attacks on American values, and in the face of that warfare we need reminders of when people had it tough and yet bonded with others.
    There is value in what JWR is capturing and I look forward to seeing more of it. It’s encouraging to hear life stories of people who are decent at heart, and not so much in news of savages pulling down statues such as the latest news of someone campaigning against statues of Christ. We need more of moral enheartenment and less of self-centered whiners.

  14. I was just missing my mom today. She died seven years ago, June 28. I regret that I was too self-centered to help tend to her in her final days. Sigh.

    My sweet sisters took the burden and sw her to the end.

    Carry on in grace

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