The Great Depression's impact on our country is frequently ranked along with the American Revolution, the Civil War, the second industrial revolution and World War II as one of the formative events in our nation's history. What were its effects on Arkansas farmers?
This is one of the many questions I asked more than 80 Depression-era farmers whose responses were included in my book “Stories of Survival: Arkansas Farmers During the Great Depression”(Phoenix International, Fayetteville, Arkansas, 2011). One of these remarkable respondents was Geneva King Emerson, who was raised near Cave City in Sharp County.
Downs: Were necessities hard to come by in those days?
Emerson: “Yes! Every scrap of anything was saved. We cut off the tails of otherwise worn-out shirts and dresses to piece into quilt blocks as we sat by the fireplace during winter storms or at night. Blocks were sewn together to make a top, feed sacks had been washed and dyed with walnut hulls for a lining, de-seeded and carded cotton saved from the fall picking was layered between top and lining, and those were fastened with thread or tacks to homemade quilting frames in which the material could be kept taut for stitching all materials together. I learned to piece quilt blocks by school age and do the actual quilting before my teen years.”
Downs: How did you pay for garden seed?
Emerson: “We saved seeds from one crop, traded with neighbors. If seeds and fertilizer had to be purchased, Dad might have to borrow the money against the next crop. A failing crop meant you might lose your milk cow or farm. Dad tried to save money from a cotton crop or produce from ‘truck patches,’ which he peddled in town for such expenses. Also, we cut cedar posts, cross ties, and stave bolts from our woods.”
Downs: What’s one of your funniest memories of the Great Depression?
Emerson: “Things were still awfully tough when WWII began and we were hit by rationing. Elastic to put in the bands of under garments could not be had. Buttons and ties were plain unhandy. But if someone in the community could obtain an old tire inner tube that was beyond patching, the ladies were in business! Through trading, or somehow, my grandma got hold of a piece of inner tube which she cut into strips and used in the bands of our bloomers.
“My aunt was of courting age. She and her boyfriend were standing at the end of the house next to the cistern, as far as they were allowed to go from Grandma’s sight, for privacy. Suddenly, my aunt felt the inner tube-strip break and her undies started falling down her legs.
“Quickly she pointed to something over by the garden, diverting her beau’s attention, stepped out of the dropped garment, and kicked it behind the cistern. Hey, we learned to be innovative and quick on our feet in those days!”
Downs: What is your worst memory of the Great Depression?
Emerson: “The hell of summer heat, humidity, and field dirt with no relief until we could finish the day’s work and get to the spring branch or a pan of water — it kept us yearning for relief. Our country school dismissed early in the year so the children could help with clearing the stubborn, re-sprouting brush from the fields, planting and working crops, picking strawberries, making the garden, etc. There was no electricity for fans to cool us. Just dipping our hands into the wash basin and splashing our heat-reddened faces and arms was such a luxury! I tell you: when our pastor preached hellfire, we didn't have any trouble understanding the concept!”
Downs: What is your best memory?
Emerson: “I'll always remember riding in the wagon bed with my siblings, behind my parents or grandparents up front in the wagon spring seat, and thinking about that box of cakes or pies and fried chicken to be spread at the church dinner. Or riding along at night as we went to a revival meeting and watching the beautiful full moon.
“When I was very young, I thought the moon followed us! Sometimes we sang the gospel songs as we rode along. Then there were the nights after the day's work in the fields, after chores and supper, when my parents and young aunts and uncles gathered on my grandparent's porch in with the lamp extinguished — kerosene cost about a dime a gallon and we had to make it last a long time. There were few radios and no one had dreamed of a TV. In my mind, I can still see the big moon rise over the hill as the family rested and visited.
“We sang the same old songs of faith, which seemed to be more healing than medicine, listened to the "katydids," or crickets later in the season, the screech owls and hoot owls. A little child — a very blessed little child — I soaked it all in; dreamed on it, grew on it. When I come to the final sleep, I think that will be my last memory.”
Next week: Reaction to last week’s renewal of the half-cent sales tax.