Wednesday, December 4, 2013

A Little Child Amidst a Great Depression

How could someone with a cheery disposition grow that way, despite enduring a childhood in some of the most depressing economic conditions of the last century?

After sharing a brief introduction to my aunt yesterday, I realized there are so many items in her papers I’ve found to scan that I’m not sure where to start. Of course, the obvious answer is to start from the beginning. That, however, would call for two things: first, to organize everything so I can find documents from the beginning, and second, to already know the facts pertaining to those documents, wherever they are.

My first problem: when it comes to beginnings, I don’t even know, exactly, where my aunt was born. Oh, I know it was in Florida. I just can’t tell you where. No, not even with We are not talking ancient history here. Online genealogical resources are generally not that recent.

One of the first pieces of information that came to my hand, though, was a picture of my aunt and my mother in their childhood days, so I decided to go with that for today’s post. This entire series may be helter-skelter in approach. I think it will be more a season for reminiscing and discovery than one for documentation and disciplined recounting.

The picture I found reminded me of what I mentioned yesterday: that these girls were children of the Great Depression. Of all the childhood events they could remember, none preceded that fateful stock market crash of 1929, and by the time the country was out of that last unfortunate economic dip known as the Recession of 1937, both my mother and aunt were well into their teen years.

With such dire financial straits facing an entire nation—and really, the rest of the world, too—by necessity, that meant they were travelers—fellow travelers with a father who refused to take “no” for an answer when it came to looking for a job.

On the back of the photograph, in handwriting so characteristic of my grandmother, was the note:
Patsy Ruth—11 years
Jacqueline—10 years
Denver, Colo.—1937

For whatever reason, my grandmother had taken a fancy to the name of an actress of the time—who knows, it might have been Patsy Ruth Miller, recently starring in The Hunchback of Notre Dame a couple years before my mother’s birth—and ended up bestowing that same name upon her own first daughter.

My aunt, born a year and four months later, was named after Sara Broyles McClellan, her maternal grandmother, and…well…I don’t know where the Jacqueline came from, but it became her working name, and the Sara was all but discarded from the time of her birth onward.

For the family to have been in Denver in 1937 must have meant a fairly brief stay in that part of the country, for the family showed up in the Columbus, Ohio, city directory within the next two years.

Knowing the other states the family had lived in, this inspired me to see if I could document the various moves, based on any evidence I could find online. It was easy to find the family’s location at the time of my mother’s birth: as luck would have it, Iowa conducted a state census in 1925 in which my grandparents—but not my mother, yet—appeared. That confirmed their residence in Oelwein in Fayette County, Iowa for at least that year.

They weren’t there long. Remember, my aunt was born in Florida, and her arrival was not much after my mother’s first birthday. So I generally know the family’s whereabouts for 1926.

The next point where I could find documentation of the Davis family whereabouts was in the 1930 census. Once again, the family had moved far afield of their last residence. This time, they were in Detroit, Michigan, where the auto industry must have acted as the magnet to draw my automobile-loving grandfather to a job there. Those must have been his golden days, as far as career options went, but judging by the date, they most likely didn’t last long.

I couldn’t find any verification in city directories, but I know that shortly after that point, the family returned to Florida, where a second painful memory interjected itself into the struggling family’s story. My aunt apparently developed some serious health issues, and the choice had to be made to seek expert medical advice. In order to do so, my grandmother and aunt moved from Florida to Baltimore, Maryland, to be close to the medical center at Johns Hopkins University. In the midst of this crisis, my mother was to be left behind in Florida with her maternal grandparents. The separation at such a young age must have been unbearable for her.

I don’t know how long she had to wait until the family was reunited, but I know that, once they were together again, the family was back on the road. Only by oral tradition do I know that, on the way to a job in Colorado, the family stopped at a distant cousin’s horse ranch somewhere on the road between Dallas and Abilene, on the southwest side of Eastland County—a place infused with all sorts of Booth family legends that, judging from the distant cousins I’ve met online, have been spread far and wide within the extended family.

Who knows where else the family stopped on their way so far west. Ultimately, they arrived in Denver in time to be listed in the city directory for 1937, in corroboration with the photo so diligently hand-labeled by my grandmother.

To finally show up in the city directory listings in Columbus, Ohio, must have been a relief to at least the weary housewife who continually had to pack up the family’s few belongings and hit the road again, following a husband who was once more looking for work. I can only imagine, seeing the listings at for 1939 and counting—not to mention, the 1940 census confirmation—that with each year, somehow, the family eased into a life they perhaps thought they would never be able to achieve.

Columbus, at long last, became home.


  1. If anything of a "silver-lining" can be said, it was nice that the grandparents could (and would) help out while the one girl was sick; that the father had a good work ethic; and that he had a family -- which kept him from becoming a hobo like creature, riding the rails to find work/food.

    My family's depression stories are less "grievous" but no less "impactive," as memories of the hard times never actually left my grandparents and they hoarded the "silliest" of things (like sugar and ketchup packets from McD's) until they died.

    1. It's funny how those hard times bring out the best in some people. You would never expect it--it just doesn't seem logical, but that's the way it is, for some people. Thankfully, through it all, my aunt "learned" cheerfulness and perseverance, and my grandfather demonstrated some admirable qualities, himself.

      I don't think we can fully understand the devastation suffered by those living through the Depression. I couldn't help wincing every time, in this last economic downturn we've all been through, when media people would refer to it in comparison to the Great Depression. We may have seen rough times--but nothing like the tough lessons of the 1930s.

      Funny, but those die-hard habits of hoarding the "silliest" things have even rubbed off on some of the next generation. I still save plastic bags and used paper for a second use. It's just the way I grew up, I guess. Thankfully, its only because I learned from others' lessons. I can't even imagine what it would be like to live like that because we had to.

  2. Paper my Grandmother hoarded paper little bits and pieces and coffee. They were hard times. Luckily they lived on a farm. people in cities were not so fortunate. I enjoyed the photo! I wonder what the dogs name was ...Rover..Jack..looks like a boy dog:)

    1. Yes, there were a lot of families thankful to have relatives back on a farm somewhere. Since I started researching our family history, I've run across more than one story of city families sending their teenagers to the relatives to work on the farm over the summer. At least that way, those teenage boys would be able to get enough to eat :)


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