Depression Dust Bowl sparked migration west

The Great Depression began when the stock markets crashed in October 1929, sparking more than a decade of economic turmoil.

It taught some hard lessons about frugality.

Len Goldberg, 87, of Fresno, is one who learned. "Even my neighbors who aren't that much younger than us can't understand what it was like not to have anything," he said.

Goldberg was from Philadelphia. He remembers jobless World War I veterans -- "they called them 'doughboys' " -- standing on the street corners in the 1930s.

"They were there wearing their old army greatcoats, selling apples for a nickel apiece," he said. "You felt real sad for them, and for yourself, too, because you didn't even have a nickel to buy one."

Bread lines and soup kitchens were common.

Elizabeth Holcroft, 89, of Miramonte said she clearly recalls her youth in Fargo, N.D., where farmers hard-hit by bank closures and drought lined up for bread and soup.

"Later on, I was a relief case worker in western North Dakota, and almost every farmer was on some kind of relief," she said. "And there was a lot of surplus food shipped out to unfortunate people."

Life on the move

The Dust Bowl -- a drought that created thick, choking dust storms to devastate the Midwest breadbasket -- added to the nation's woes and created a westward migration of misery, perhaps best documented in John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath."

Cecil Perry, 81, of Clovis said he remembers the yearlong trek his family made from Kansas to California in search of a better life. Perry's dad was a hard-rock miner in southeastern Kansas.

"In March of '31 my father threw the family of six and everything we owned into the old Model T and headed to California," Perry said. "My father did everything he could to make money along the way, from selling beer in Texas to putting my older sisters on crosscut saws to cut firewood to sell, to picking cotton.

"We lived in garages, ate anything we could get -- blackbirds, squirrels, rabbits."

The itinerant life continued once the Perrys reached the West. The family worked lettuce fields in Salinas, panned for gold in the Sierra foothills and followed the crops into Oregon and Washington.

Willard Nissen, 84, of Visalia said that for men roaming the country looking for work, mealtimes were sometimes few and far between. But, he said, people who had little to spare did what they could to help others.

Nissen, whose father came from Iowa to California in 1929 to deliver a truckload of hams to San Francisco with his wife and five sons following in a Model T, said the family eventually settled in a home in El Monte, not far from the railroad tracks. It was a haven for hobos who rode the rails in search of a job.

"I remember some of them stopping at our house willing to work for something to eat," Nissen said. "I don't remember any of those men being turned away. My ma always had something [for them] to eat."

Helen Condit, who was born and raised in Fresno, said her mother also fed the downtrodden.

"I remember men used to knock at the back door -- never the front -- to ask for food," said Condit, 84. "They looked like tramps. They looked pretty shabby, but they were just hungry. ... I remember my mother making sandwiches for them. She never refused to give them food. They would sit on our back steps to eat, then leave."

One such railroad "bum" was Randolph Jordahl, 93, of Fresno, who rode the rails and hitchhiked his way from Iowa to California after his dad's family farm went bust.

"I did a lot of hitchhiking and quite a bit of bumming on the railroad. And some of those old dudes taught me a few things," Jordahl said. "They showed me how to put a buck in my socks so I wouldn't get robbed, how to ride in the reefer cars to keep warm.

"You had to bum for food. And I taught some of those guys a lesson, too. I found if I offered to do some work, people would give me food over these guys who just asked for food."

When Jordahl -- who later found success in the insurance business -- got to California in 1938, he landed a $10-a-week job at a gasoline station in Los Angeles. Back behind the station, he said, "people were rummaging around in the garbage for food."

Improvising to get by

Many families did what they could to earn a few extra pennies or nickels and stretch whatever money and resources they had.

Two men -- Goldberg, the Philly kid, and Paul Corcoran, 81, who was raised in upstate New York and now lives in Fresno -- recalled using cardboard to extend the life of their shoes after the soles wore through.

"You'd be OK until it rained, then you'd end up with a hole in your stocking," Corcoran said.

Hunger was common, but those fortunate enough to live on a farm almost always had food and sometimes were able to sell surplus produce or livestock.

Ben From, a farmer and retired agriculture teacher in Fowler, was reared in Caruthers, where his Danish immigrant parents had a dairy. "Food was never a problem. We had farmland, mom had a garden and we always had a bunch of chickens," said From, 80. "Dad would have a few pigs, and from time to time we'd slaughter a calf.

"Money was a difficult situation, but for food, not only did we not starve, we ate very well."

Robertha Matranga, 91, of Clovis said her father used to plant vegetable gardens on vacant lots near her childhood home in Arkansas City, Kan., plowing the lots by hand to feed the family. "What was left over I sold by the bucket door-to-door," she said. "I went barefooted and used the money to buy shoes for my senior year in high school.

"During the worst of the times my sister went door-to-door and took orders for cinnamon rolls that my mother made. My mother canned everything left over from the garden that we didn't eat or sell."

"What surprised me is I was always able to get a dime for a bucket of potatoes, and that would buy a lot of things," said Matranga, who retired in 1960 after a career as a college professor teaching home economics, nutrition and biochemistry.

Nissen, from Visalia, said his family shared meager meals in the toughest times. ''Times were hard in the Depression days trying to feed five hungry boys," he said.

"In the '30s, my mother would send my twin brother and I to the store with 50 cents and instructions to buy a 'soup bunch.' The clerk would gather a small sackful of vegetables that my mom used to make vegetable soup."

Many of the meals Nissen's mother made were simple one-dish preparations, and often as meager as bread and milk, corn on the cob or pancakes. "One dish that showed up on our table often, during the summer months, was creamed asparagus on toast," he said. "I often wondered later how we had this meal, then it dawned on me that our property joined a neighbor who planted a field of asparagus.

"I still like asparagus on toast to this day."