Preparedness Lessons from the 1930s – Part 2, by J. E.

(Continued from Part 1. This part concludes the article.)

Twice a year the cabin was emptied of everything. The walls, floors, and ceilings were scrubbed with lye soap and a bristle brush. All the belongings were also cleaned before they came back into the house. This was pest control and it was needed until DDT became available. Even then, bedbugs, lice, ticks and other creepy crawlies were a fact of life and were controlled by brute force. Failure to do so left you in misery and maybe ill.

Foods were stored in bug proof containers. The most popular was fifteen pound capacity metal coffee cans with tight lids. These were for day to day use in the kitchen. (I still have one of them. It’s a family heirloom.) The next were barrels to hold the bulk foods like flour, sugar, corn meal, and rice. Everything was sealed or the vermin would get to it. The vermin was also why people sifted flour in particular. There was always at least one, preferably two, months of food on hand. If the fall cash allowed, they would stock up for the entire winter before the first snowfall.

The closest thing to a cooler was a metal box in the kitchen floor. It had a very tight lid and was used to store milk, eggs and butter for a day or two. Butter was heavily salted on the outside to keep it from going rancid or melting. Buttermilk, cottage cheese and regular cheese was made from raw milk after collecting for a day or two. The box was relatively cool in the summer and did not freeze in the winter.

Pests

Mice and rats love humanity because we keep our environment warm and tend to be sloppy with food they like. Snakes love rats and mice so they were always around. If the kids were going to play outside, they would police the area with a hoe and a shovel. After killing and disposing of the rattlesnakes- there was always at least one-then they could play for a while in reasonable safety.

The mice and rats were controlled by traps, rocks from sling shots, cats and coyotes. The cats had a hard and usually short life because of the coyotes. The coyotes were barely controlled and seemed to be able to smell firearms at a distance. There were people who hunted the never-ending numbers for the bounty.

After chores were done, kid’s active imagination was used in their play. They didn’t have a lot of toys. There were a couple of dolls for the girls, a pocket knife and some marbles for the boy, and a whole lot of empty to fill. Hide and seek was played for fun, but had a serious side when their parents were gone for the day and strangers stopped by. (It’s lonely out there.) Their father’s beef calves were pretty gentle by the time they were sold at market – the kids rode them regularly. (Not a much fat on those calves but a lot of muscle.) They would look for arrow heads, lizards, and wild flowers. Chokecherry, buffalo berry, gooseberry and currants were picked for jelly and syrups. Sometimes the kids made chokecherry wine.

At night when it was too hot to sleep, the kids along with their parents, would often play cribbage at the kitchen table. The windows had no screens so bugs would come in through the windows and fly around the kerosene lamp. The big fat June bugs were the worst. People got so used to squashing the bugs on the table, they wouldn’t even think about it as they shuffled the cards. Cribbage was a great way to teach the kids about numbers.

If the siblings wanted to play with other kids, it was a three mile hike through open country to the neighbors and those kids had their own chores to do. That never stopped them, they just pitched in and got the work done so they could play. Nobody worried about walking that far or about getting lost. The neighborhood had a different meaning then.

On a hot summer day in the afternoon, the shade on the east side of the house was treasured and the east wind, if it came, even more so.

Adults hated hailstorms because of the destruction to crops and animals, kids loved them because they could collect the hail and make ice cream.

Childbirth

Childbirth was usually handled at a neighbor’s house with a midwife if you were lucky. If you got sick you were treated with ginger tea, honey, chicken soup or Sulphur and molasses. Castor oil was used regularly as well. Wounds were cleaned with soap and disinfected with whisky. (I don’t know which would hurt worse, the lye soap or whisky.) Mustard based poultices were often used for a variety of ills. Turpentine, mustard and lard was one that was applied to the chest for pneumonia or a hacking cough.

Contact with the outside world was an occasional trip to town for supplies using a wagon and team (you could haul a lot more in the wagon than in a car.). A battery operated radio was used very sparingly in the evenings for the one station it could bring in. A rechargeable car battery was used for power. Yes, they did have a car. It was rarely used as it took gasoline, couldn’t haul much and so, was more for emergencies than serious work.
School was a six mile walk one way and you brought your own lunch. One school teacher regularly put potatoes on the stove to bake and shared them with the kids. She was very well thought of by the kids and the parents. Salt? Pepper?, Butter? Bring your own or do without.

These people were used to a limited amount of social interaction. They were used to no television, radio, or outside entertainment. They were used to having only three or four books, one of which was a bible. A fiddler or guitar player for a picnic or a dance was a wonderful thing to be enjoyed. Since these people were a relatively small social group, when kids in particular went to town for high school, they didn’t have good socialization skills. They were terrified by all those strange people they had to deal with. The schools went out of their way to work on that and one thing they did was find jobs for some of the students that required dealing with the public, whether it was as a waitress, sales clerk or other activity.

Church

In the country, church was a social occasion as well as religious. Church in town was also a part of the socialization efforts for the country kids. While the school couldn’t recommend or force, they definitely didn’t stand in the way. It wasn’t unusual for the Gideons to hand out bibles at school.

The church ladies and their butter and egg money allowed many rural churches to be built and to prosper. The men were required to do the heavy work but the ladies made it come together. The civilizing of the west sprang from these roots. Some of those ladies had spines of steel. They needed it.

That’s a partial story of my mother’s family’s homestead years. People were very independent, stubborn and strong but still needed the community and access to the technology of the outside world for salt, sugar, flour, spices, chicken feed, cloth, kerosene for the lights and of course, coffee. There are many more things I could list. Could they have found an alternative if something was unavailable? Maybe. How would you get salt or nitrates in Montana without importing? Does anyone know how to make kerosene? Coffee would be valued like gold. Roasted grain or chicory just didn’t cut it.

I don’t want to discourage people trying to prepare but rather to point out that generalized and practical knowledge along with a cooperative community is still needed for long term survival. Whatever shortcomings you may have, if you are part of a community, it is much more likely to be covered. The described community in this article was at least twenty to thirty miles across and included many farms and ranches as well as the town. Who your neighbors are, what type of people they are, and your relationship to them is one of the more important things to consider.

Were there fights, disagreements and other unpleasantness? Absolutely. Some of it was handled by neighbors, a minister, or the sheriff. Some bad feelings lasted a lifetime. There were some people that were really bad by any standard and they were either the sheriff’s problem or they got sorted out by one of their prospective victims.

These homesteaders had a rough life but they felt they had a great life and their way of life was shared by everyone they knew. They never went hungry, had great daylong picnics with the neighbors, and knew everyone personally within twenty miles. Every bit of pleasure or joy was treasured like a jewel since it was usually found in a sea of hard work. They worked hard, played hard and loved well. In our cushy life, we have many more “things” and “conveniences” than they ever did, but we lack the connection they had with their environment and community.

Our Future

The biggest concern for our future: What happens if an event such as a solar flare, EMP, or a plague takes our society farther back than the early 1900s by wiping out our technology base. Consider the relatively bucolic scene just described and then add in some true post-apocalyptic hard cases. Some of the science fiction stories suddenly get much more realistic and scary. A comment out of a Star Trek scene comes to mind “In the fight between good and evil, good must be very, very good.”

Consider what kind of supplies might not be available at any cost just because there is no longer a manufacturing base or because there is no supply chain. In the 1900s they had the railroads as a lifeline from the industrial east.

How long would it take us to rebuild the tools for recovery, to the Early-1900s levels?

One of the greatest advantages we have is access to a huge amount of information about our world, how things work and everything in our lives. We need to be smart enough to learn/understand as much as possible and store references for all the rest. Some of us don’t sleep well at night as we are well aware of how fragile our society and technological infrastructure is.

Trying to live the homesteader’s life would be very painful for most of us. I would prefer not to. I hope and pray it doesn’t ever come to that.




30 Comments

  1. I want to thank you for this beautifully written article. We just laid my Dad to rest a couple months ago, he lived to almost 94. He told us of many things similar to what you describe. I will share one thing, he told us of waking in the morning in winter time and there would be lines of snow across the blanket where it blew in between the cracks in the wall. Yes, many of us live “cushy” lives.

  2. I really enjoyed this article. It’s refreshing to read some new content. I have grown weary on reading about the contents of the BOB, BOL, Best caliber of gun to own, and how to store ammo. These have been thoroughly dissected and debated over the past decade.
    I would love to read more stories about the old days, maybe in areas where logging, and mining took place. North Idaho and Western Montana is full of history and as such has to have a few old timers still around to tell the stories about the brothels of mining towns like Wallace Idaho, or the logging camps of Potlatch… Or even stories on how the new migrants fresh off the boat survived the inner cities of New York and Chicago. I’m sure the criminal element saw these people as perfect targets.

  3. Thank you for sharing your family….your history. It reminds me a lot of my father’s life. He grew up in the country in Alabama. Your story inspired me….maybe I’ll share.
    Lisa

  4. my mom grew up on a farm in North Dakota, I saw pictures of their farmhouse and in winter they piled up dirt along the foundation because insulation was unheard of. The girls slept 3 to a bed with a pee pot under the bed because no one wanted to make the dark icy trip to the outhouse in the middle of the night. Jacks, rhyming jump rope and board games were the usual entertainment, in the evening the father sat with his feet up on the open range door reading the paper while mom knitted or crocheted and the kids did their homework under the pulldown ceiling lamp.The water barrel outside the kitchen door would freeze in winter and the mom would have to scoop up snow water to melt on the coal-fired cookstove before going out to feed the chickens.

    Babies died with terrible regularity because they were unable to be breastfed and there were no wet nurses or baby milk formula available. Families had large numbers of children not only because of lack of birth control but because many hands were needed to help with the chores. Women wore themselves out having a baby every year. If the father brought home a sexually transmitted disease like syphilis and infected the mom, they just had to cut their throat in the barn or hang themselves as the medical risks of infidelity exacted a terrible price. Many many orphans and they were usually parceled out to relatives or got left at orphanages.

    Going to church was a big deal, all the kids got dressed up, hair combed, Sunday school lessons in hand along with a nickel to put in the collection plate. Small town folk all knew who [it was who] drank, who beat their wives, who could not be trusted in a business deal. Definition of small town was “no need to use your turn signal, everybody already knows where you are going, and why”.

    1. Remember that for every father who brought home a sexually transmitted disease (very few per capita back then) that there was an equal guilty party in the female class of adulterous conduct. Something the media doesn’t pin on women today. The Me2 movement?

      What’s worse is today’s society of women’s rights whereby women no longer marry in the late teens and early twenties but in their late thirties and early forties. Liberating women has also played a toll on society especially liberating them from the marriage bed and creating a generation of sexually starved men and then tagging them with rape and harassment due not being in marriage.

      In the army’s own words “we give out therapy dogs to returning vets from combat because this is the first generation of men that go off to war and have no wives to come home to. “

      Sad very sad what we’re doing to society as a whole. It’s not all men’s fault.

      1. Most soldiers in most modern wars had no wive to come home, since Marius reformed the legion´s of Rome from a drafted citicen force to a Profession force.

        A Roman soldier couldn´t mary his Woman before he was discharged after 2 decades of Service.

        Born in camp was the birthplace their sons said when they did enlist in the legion´s.

        I don´t consider it a justification for rape if somebody had no sexual relationship for any time at all.
        Rape in marriage is considered a blasphemy against the holy sacrament of marriage

        1. Your missing Ole Granny’s point. She is trying to keep the media brainwashing in perspective.
          Thank you Granny it takes two to roll in sin and men have been taking the brunt more than half the time when it comes to relationships or the destruction thereof.

      2. I agree with you, Ole Granny, about the blaming of men in our culture. The mainstream media, at the same time, portrays women as powerless and unable to make a choice. In that narrative, no one wins.

        I’m curious, ThoDan, what History you refer to that Ole Granny has wrong.

        Always willing to inform my opinions.

        Carry on

        1. Since the Renaissance most of the time soldiers hadn´t really the ressources für a Family.
          Roman soldiers were not allowed to marry in their Service time.

          How many redcoats had families during your Rebellion, how many enlisted man in the US Army could afford a Family till the 20th century?

  5. My grandparents were married at the ages of 15 and 13 and bought our Tennessee farm in 1920, paid for by cutting railroad ties. I own this farm now, bought from my grandmother in 1981 after grandpa rolled a tractor over on himself. I spent a great deal of time here when I was a kid and on through high school helping my grandpa with the work. I was 14 before they had electricity or indoor plumbing. I once asked my grandparents about the Great Depression. Their reply: “We didn’t know there was one”.

  6. I also enjoyed this excellent article. It brought back nostalgic tales from my grandparents about their lives wile growing up. It is humbling to think of the hardships they had to face and their faith to overcome adversity. Much can be learned by studying our past that may be of value to us in the future. Thank you for this view into the past.

  7. Great perspective that is completely lost by the majority of folks that are unable to see or know so little about how these pioneers transformed this country, and now perhaps balancing on the brink…

  8. Here is another comment/observation on a well written, informative and entertaining article. A comment my father-in-law has always stuck with me: ‘our life was very hard and busy and when our day was done we had no time for vandalism, partying and mischief. All we wanted to do was go to bed’.

  9. My mother grew up in a small town in North Dakota. At 93 she still lives independently and last week she told me she drove to her eye doctor’s appointment in a snowstorm, said her old Subaru got her there just fine. For sure, she is of very tough stock and her steadfast attitude has always been one not to hold grudges but to carry a big stick. Though my attitude is lot like hers, I learned my feisty tenacity and hard work ethic from her and my father, a tougher than nails giant who grew up on the rough side of Newark and fought in WWII. He taught my brother and I how to fight to win while not being a criminal or a neighborhood bully . . . I digress.
    During the Great Depression mother’s father worked odd jobs while maintaining his tenure at the rail yards as an train engineer. During the summer “hobos,” men chiefly looking for work, came into town in boxcars. He would greet them and tell them where they could go for an evening meal and bag lunch for the next day, provided they were willing to work all day for it. Where? . . . his house! Boy, those were different days. He never had a single problem with them. There was reason, however, for that which I will divulge later.
    When the depression came on strong in 1930 he dug up every bit of his lawn right up to the curbs and added extra garden space to an already large garden. My mother remembers many long hard hours spent working this extended food patch and the helping with the canning they came from it. These hobos would come and work all day in the garden and then eat a sit down meal at the picnic bench set up near the back door. When dinner was done they were to be on their way. My grandmother oversaw all this charity work with a cheerful smile and loaded .38 in her apron pocket.
    During the Depression all was not peaceful in her small town, by any means. Though it was a staunchly Christian town packed with churches the theft problem was huge, and chiefly accomplished by towns folk . . . and not the hobos. Whenever a batch from the garden was canned, they had to have trusted neighbors keep an eye out on their place should they leave the house for even a short while. My mom said that if it was not nailed down it was soon gone. They stole more than food, however, and took whatever they could to sell for a few silver dimes.
    This was small town rural America in a time when most folks had Christian morals. It appears that even “good” folks would rather steal than go hungry and many were not prepared by any means nor willing to work by the sweat of the brow. Theft was easier . . . the default position of unregenerate man when pressed into a corner.
    Our now overtly pagan culture has moved light years in depravity from then. I shudder to imagine what will transpire when the kimshi hits the fan in our day. It will turn down right bloody quickly. My mother having been through it has reminded me several times that we have seen nothing yet and to keep a big stick handy.

      1. You may be right ThoDan. But speaking only for myself I can say that when I’m tempted to do wrong I think about the example that I would be setting in front of my family but I consider in a far greater way what God would think of me. So for me my Christian upbringing has been a definite affect on my character.

        1. The source is one of the vicars(IIRC) for one of the 2 Bishops who lead the Chaplains of the german Military(and i would be very surprised if the other Ordinariat wouldn´t be in it too)

          So my source are the men and Organisation who ´ve every Motivation to believe different.

  10. My father was raised on a farm in Illinois. I can remember him telling me that during the depression they burned corn to stay warm during the winter because they could not buy coal and they could not sell the corn.

  11. The books by Laura Ingalls Wilder tells of similar ways of living, with the exception of the radio and owning a car. Lots of wisdom in her stories, as well as in the early lives of our parents and grandparents.

  12. Compare with living in the city where someone is likely to rob or shoot you. Even if you lock your doors you are likely to have a burglary. No one trusts anyone. You eat well until the EBT/SNAP card stops to work. Church? What’s that? Trust in Jesus? Isn’t he dead – trust in Government! Divorce? Well, I wasn’t finding marriage emotionally fulfilling! Also I didn’t like to be pregnant so I had an abortion!

    Read – or try to – any 8th grade textbook from 1875-1940. You probably can’t as it would bewilder most college grads who couldn’t handle the vocabulary or the math.

    Hardships? Yes, but they survived. They didn’t commit suicide because of having bad things said on social media. Or when no one else accepted they were a woman trapped in a man’s body.

    STDs? Yes. A few. And that is why we had the Comstock laws. There were only two Today, I think there are over 20, 1/3 of the US has had at least one (see CDC) and it would be a SHTF Pandemic if it weren’t a STD but something like Measles. They do occasionally leave you sterile, but there will be IVF or surrogate Mothers (talk about Handmaid’s tale!) if/when you decide to have children.

    They got married early. Paul Harvey would have “75 years on the way to forever together”. Today, they don’t get married, and if they do, they get divorced. Children are considered like getting a new vehicle, not as gifts of God.

    Rez had a song that had the line: “Bulging Wallets, Empty Hearts; Walking Dead push Shopping Carts”.

    And what will your eternal state be compared to these homesteaders?

  13. Thank you for a very good 2 part writing. I appreciate it. One huge item we can do now, unavailable a century ago, is batteries and propane appliances. Solar energy with a deeply stacked battery bank, and hefty propane storage, are both excellent investments.

    The Redoubt just had a cyber attack power outage. My kids in Wyoming were impacted. Be ready.

    1. Exactly. The best move is to hybridize modernity with old fashioned.

      For example, practice plantings that attract beneficial insects, work with natural repellents like garlic or nicotine, and if all else fails slather on the Sevin Dust like nuclear winter.

      I’ve never tried it, but I know you can extract insecticides from chrysanthemums. I’ve also never built an airplane but I know the concept is valid. Ditto antibiotics. Let’s celebrate the ways we’re further ahead than our forefathers, instead of gazing backwards all the time.

  14. There’s a huge difference between the young men of the depression era and the young men of today. Can you imagine these sissy boys today trying to survive a post SHTF world? I can just see the look of bewilderment on their faces as they stand there in a state of panic in their low cut, tight legged pants and their girl shoes and with their freaky hardware hanging out of their faces as they try and try to call 911 for help on a cell phone that will never work again. God help them, they will be preyed on by everyone.

    1. Not so sure about the weakness of our current crop of men. Or the strength of many of the urban men prior to the Great Depression. A read of the history of the urban world in the Roaring 20s does not reflect a particularly tough or virtuous society in certain well to do urban settings. A lot of sissy boys recorded. The poor urban and rural people were by necessity pretty tough although not necessarily overly virtuous.

      A lot of the virtues we see in people from that era were ACQUIRED in the 30s and 40s. I highly suspect young people of today would be knocked on their heels initially by hard times, but would respond pretty much like every other generation of humans and acquire the skills needed to survive.

      And from another angle, I think that virtually everyone today (myself included) are pretty soft. So many of the people I know of my age (57) have diabetes that I sometimes joke that it must be an infectious disease. In truth, in probably over half the cases, it is just one piece of evidence of how soft we are physically. And I think we are equally soft mentally, financially, emotionally, spiritually. Young and old. The young still have the physical adaptability of youth to fall back on. The older folks, not so much.

      I think older folks (myself included) would do well to concentrate more on hardening ourselves up and less on criticizing how soft the younger people are. If we did that, who knows? Some of the younger people might just emulate us.

  15. My mother is 104 years old. She told me that the difference between her life and mine when she was in her early twenties and still living in the town she was born in was that by the time she was 25 she had about two dozen godchildren. She had numerous girlfriends and girl cousins and they were serious enough about their friendships that they would ask each other to take on the responsibility of being godparents to each others children.

  16. My father grew up in southern NM in the late 1920’s. One of my favorite stories was about his trips to visit his friend and classmate at the Baird Ranch. He would put a can of tomatoes and can of peaches in his saddlebags, get on his horse and ride the 15 or so mile from Mesilla Park (now NMSU where his father taught) into the Tularosa Basin. At that time, a carrying capacity study recommended no more than one cow-calf unit per 10 sections in the basin. The Ranch house was a big adobe rectangle with high windows and Vegas (roof joists made from round poles) that stuck out from the adobe under the roofline. Mrs Baird lived in town. Furniture consisted mostly of metal beds with thin mattresse held by rope webbing, a few straight-back chairs, and a big wood-fired cook stove. Dad explained that the diet was essentially beans and meat. A pot of beans was always simmering at the back of the stove. If you planned to be there for the next meal (i.e. only breakfast and dinner were meals) you put a cup of dry beans in the pot for yourself after the current meal. A slice or two of meat was cut off the current haunch of meat (usually venison, sometimes beef) and fried up in lard for dinner or breakfast to go with your beans. On some occasions, there would be biscuits or bacon.The haunch of meat was hung high outside at night to keep cool, roped over the end of a Vega to avoid vermin and carnivorous predators. In the morning, the backsides of two of the thin mattresses would be flipped over so the cool sides were against the haunch of cool meat (sandwiched). That was their refrigeration. They would ride out and spend the day moving cattle toward areas with grass or water, or on rare occasion hunt for deer. Dad said he was always welcomed, as he managed his horse well, and they enjoyed the break in monotony brought by the peaches and tomatoes.

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