Saturday, July 18, 2009

There's a reason behind giving you an insight into the family history before getting to the story of how we survived The Great Depression, and that is to show that many people were well prepared for it because they had been taught from an early age how to work, and work meant survival. In other words, they were prepared for such upheavals. Uncle Harry, whom I have mentioned, as a well trained technician as a lens grinder in the optical trade, also had other abilities and seemed to always be employed throughout those years. In fact, right in the middle of it, in 1935, he took his savings, borrowed other money from friends and family, and opened his own business in Hew Haven, Connecticut, an optical shop where you could take your prescription for glasses and he'd grind the lenses, sell you the fames as well, and fit them to your face. He employed from three to five people, sponsored a weekly radio show, giving his nieces and nephew a chance to act, and was quite successful and lived in a nice home in an upper-class neighborhood. His business continued on until his death, and, in fact, after he died my father, who had also obtained his Optician's license, continued the business until his retirement.

This is a good example of why I say that opportunity was not dead because of the Depression, it was simply not available to everyone because they either didn't have skills to sell or if they had them, they didn't know how to market them. Uncle Harry obviously did. This may sound simplistic to some, but I saw it time and time again in those years, and young as I was I recognized it. As an example, one neighbor, an Italian named Steve Cerra, opened a barber shop half a block away on the main street. He spoke English with a strong Italian accent, but he built up a stead clientele and continued there during the thirties, saving his money, and one day had enough to buy a nice home in another town on the south Jersey shore, where he opened another shop and continued to earn and save. He never had trouble feeding his family and he saved enough money to send both his son and daughter through college. It was an immigrant's dream, America, the land of opportunity and open to all.

Another neighbor had an ice cream parlor and it was successful all through the Depression. In fact, at one point when our finances were in a precarious position, mother went to work for him and she became his most valued employee because of her pleasantness with his lunchtime customers.

Small businesses were the backbone of the country in those days. A butcher shop usually had two or three employees. The local hat shop had one or two. The garages employed three or four mechanics. Many men opened filling stations and each also had a garage and mechanics. The local farmers displayed their fruits and vegetables in the back of small trucks and drove up and down the streets, delivering freshly picked items right to your door. There were vegetable stores, with displays of fruit on stands out front. Dress shops had two or three employees. There was seldom a vacancy in the stores, as someone always wanted to go into business for themselves, a typewriter repair shop, a shoe-maker, an Italian grocery, a German grocery, a baker (German in our area), and all of them usually had their children behind the counter, learning how to handle the business and treat customers.

Many men, with lots of free time on their hands, tinkered and came up with inventions, then sold them out of their garages. Others took jobs they might not have considered before the Depression, but that often opened new vistas to them, opportunity was there if you sought it out. This was free enterprise. After all, this was America.

We read about the coal miners who were out of work, the farmers in the Dust Bowl who lost their land, the auto workers in Detroit who were laid off, the people living in tenaments in New York who were evicted because they could not pay the rent, it was all there in both story and photo in the newspapers and magazines, so we knew what was going on. The coal miners? They had it rough, but I never did think that God created a man and said that he could only work in a mine. Or that he should not travel a hundred miles or two to find a new type of employment. The farmers in the dust bowl suffered enormous privations and thousands of them migrated in pitiful condition to the west coast, to California. Along the way some people would not even give them a glass of water for their children. They suffered, but many built new foundations in their adopted state. Walter Knott, who would build Knott's Berry Farm, was one of them, but he came up with a new berry, the Boysenberry, and from there came the beginnings of his fortune. (Read the story of Knott's Beery Farm; it is as exciting to me today as the first time I read it.)

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