Thursday, August 2, 2012

Grandma's Story

[Eleven years ago, my grandmother wrote a story in response to a school paper one of my cousins was writing.  This is her unedited account of her childhood.]

My Life as a Child During the Great Depression
by: Mary O'Donnell
     Jonathan Coates is doing a paper when he has to interviewes someone.  He asked me to write about how my life was a child during the Great Depression.  I want all my grandchildren to have a copy of this, as I want them to know how easy their life is in comparison and belive this will give them some family history to tell their children.  2/13/01

     "I was born on June 18, 1925 in Myrtle, MS, four years before the beginning of the Great Depression which began in 1929.  My parents, James and Floy Rhea owned a hill country farm which consisted of about 500 acres.  The farm was a desolate place to be at that time, but I suppose it was better than living in the city, as we always had plenty to eat.  My dad cultivated crops of cotton, corn and soybeans, as well as vegetable crops such as the general garden variety, as well as sweet potato, Irish potato, popcorn, and watermelon.  In order to survive, every member of the family had to learn to do hard work as soon as they could walk.  We had small chores when we were very young, such as helping my mother in the house with chores.  When we reached the approximate age of eight years, we took on more responsibility.  Everyone in the family shared in the work.   There was no mechanized machinery to farm with, my dad and two older brothers did all the planting and plowing of the fields with mules and plows.  Once the cotton crop had come up and was about 5 inches high, it was time to go into the fields to chop (hoe) the cotton and corn.  All of us would get into the fields about 8 o"clock, each taking a row to hoe.  Some of the rows were half a mile long and would take about an hour to hoe.  We had to leave one to three plants in a hill, the width of the hoe, thinning


the cotton or corn and digging out the grass and weeds.  (You children only see blacks working in the fields, but we all worked on our farm).  We would begin working in the fields (after completing our other chores).  We began work at sun-up, would break for a wonderful southern cooked meal, prepared by my mother at noon.  After a short rest we would be back in the fields and work until almost sundown.  Times were very hard, as the price of cotton had sunk to about 5¢ a pound, which ment the total profit from the yearly crop was only about $1,000.  Not quite enough to feed a family of 9.

     Everyone was taught to work.  That was just how it was.  We were better off than most of our neighbors, as my dad owned the land we farmed.  The task of "hoeing" had to be done at least twice during the growing season.  When the cotton or corn was knee high, th crop was called "laid by", that meant we didn't have to work in the fields until it was time to harvest the cotton.  The cotton would grow to about waist high, when pretty pink blossoms would form on the cotton limbs for one day.  The next day the color would change to white blossoms.  In a few days a small green ball would form called the cottonbowl.  When the cottonbowl was mature, it would open up and a soft mass of white cotten formed in the bowl.  The bowl contained cottonseed.  We had to go into the fields to pick the cotton.  This was backbreaking work.  We went down each row, with a burlap sack over our shoulder, dragging behind us, as we had to pick each stalk clean.


Some of the cottonbowls were not mature at the first picking, so this process had to be done again in a couple of weeks.  We would pick the cotton, and when we had a sackfull, would go to the cottonhouse (located in the fields) to be weighed.  Sometimes, as I got older I could pick one hundred pounds in a day.  When we had picked about 2,000 pounds, my dad would load up a truckload and take it to the cotton gin to be bailed into a compressed bale, which would weight about 400 pounds, once the cottonseed had been removed from the cotton.  I know this sounds cruel to you children, but it was a way of life.  We all wanted to help our families survive, and that ment lots of work.

     Another chore we all had to share, was milking 20 cows a day.  Each of us would be assigned 4 or 5 cows to milk by hand.  There were no milking machines on our farm.  My parents sold cream to a cheese factory.  The milk was put into a separator, which separated the milk from the cream.  The cream would put into a milk can and taken down to the road, where it was picked up twice a week by our milkman.  We would be awakened about 5 a..m. in the morning, in all kinds of weather, to get up, have a big breakfast, and milk.  This was done before we got dressed and ready to go to school.

     There was no electricity, telephones, indoor plumbing.  We had to carry water up a hill from an artisian well to use for cooking and bathing.  We had to share the responsibility of gathering eggs, bringing in the firewood for the stove for cooking, as well as


the fireplace which heated our farmhouse.

     I remember the dustbowl very vividly.  Mother had asked me to get the clothes off the clothesline.  I heard the noise of the wind whipping dust, sand and gravel from the ground and twirling through the air.  I ran into the house as fast as I could.  We quickly shut all the windows and doors, but still the dust got into the house.  You could not see 10 feet in front of us.  The duststorm lasted about 20 minutes.  Everything was covered with dust.  I remember helping my mother sweep the front porch, which had 6 inches of dust everywhere.  The storm had been caused from a terrible drought that year.  Many crops were completely chocked and destroyed by the dust, sand and gravel.

     Christmas was always the highlight of our life.  We were all as excited as you children are today, expecting Santa Clause to come.  We wouldn't get much, perhaps a $1 doll, an orange and some candy, but we were so happy we would run before dawn to one of our friends who lived a quarter mile from us to show what we had gotten.  We were happy with whatever we got.  We would all load into the walgon to go about 3 miles to my Grandmother Reeves house.  We would be joined by about 50 other cousins to have a wonderful Christmas feast together.  I must tell you about a custom they had that I did not appreciate and that was, the men ate first, the women next, and the children last.  I would pick out a cocaunt cake or some


other wonderful southern dessert when we first looked at the table.  By the time the children ate, there probably wasn't any cake left.  This custom is quite the opposite as today, as the children eat first.

     My mother was a wonderful, strong, hard-working woman who held us all together.  She was responsible for all the household chores as well as the garden.  She had to gather and clean the vegetables and was a marvelous cook.  everything tasted so good when we all worked so hard.  The girls had to help with the housework, washing dishes (by hand), washing clothes on a washtub, cleaning the lamp globes, shelling butterbeans and peas for canning, helping to set the table, take care of the smaller siblings as well as a hundred other things.  My mother was a kind, patient mother, always sacrificing for us to have a new dress or coat and she would do withoug.  She was also an excellent seamstress, making the girls' clothes.  She would tell me, "you cook the dinner and I will make you a new dress for a date I had that night.  She always allowed us to bring our friends home to sleep overnight.  She never knew how many friends we would have for supper, but no matter how many, there was always enough food and they were made welcome in our home.

     Both mother and dady were very religious.  The church was our social outlet during the depression.  We had a wonderful, happy relationship with friends from school and church.  We loved to go to a party at one of the homes where we danced and played games.


We all have turned out to be responsible, hard working citizens and all have done well, with good families and beautiful homes.  Our parents are both gone, but we remember them with such admiration and respect.

     I had a great life with many friends.  I was voted "Most versatle" and "most friendly" and "most popular" in high school.  I played basketball in high school, when it wasn't a popular sport for women.  I made the varsity Team my freshman year in high school.  At Holmes Junior College in Gooman, MS, I had lots of friends. I also played basketball both years in college, and made All state as a First Team Forward; sang in the Octet and Glee Club.  I had the lead role (can't remember the play) my sophomore year.  I was voted "most Versatile" also in college.  So you see, the tough life and hard work did not harm me as I was not bitter or resentful of my hard work during my childhood.  I consider myself very lucky to have had the wonderful parents and happy childhood memories, I so vividly cherish.  It was a good life, we were a happy family.

[signed with pen]

Your grandmother
Mary (Rhea) O'Donnell