December 3, 2008 > '08 economic problems don't compare to Depression
'08 economic problems don't compare to Depression
By Dave Philipps, The (Colorado Springs) Gazette
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP), Nov 29 _ Louise Simpson first realized the extent of the Great Depression through the shoes.
``I can still see them now,'' said the 82-year-old who grew up on a small farm in Fountain.
``Mom's shoes were all rundown. There was almost nothing left. And we were well off compared to a lot of kids at school. I remember their shoes _ all dried out and falling apart. No socks. They had shoes you won't even find in a dump now.''
That was in 1932, three years into the Depression. Two dozen banks had failed in Colorado. Crop prices had fallen through the floor. One in four men in the state had no job. The Broadmoor hotel went bankrupt. Even the weather turned against the people. Record droughts turned the land to dust in the 1930s, then floods washed it away, only to have droughts bake it again. Tens of thousands of people were driven off their farms to wander, destitute.
However bad the economy seems now, Simpson and others who lived through the Depression say it doesn't seem so bad if you put yourself in those worn-out shoes.
``We were lucky,'' Simpson said. ``We always had enough to eat, but a lot of people didn't.''
The Depression hit people differently. Some in the Pikes Peak region had only to cut back on luxuries, while others went hungry.
In Fountain, Simpson saw kids at school with only a slice of bread for lunch. Hunger grew so rampant that the local Junior League established a ``nutrition camp'' so children from poor families could eat.
As the Depression grew worse, thousands started riding the rails, looking for work.
``I'd see them go by, riding in boxcars,'' Simpson said.
Other times she would see families she knew going along the tracks, picking up coal to heat their homes.
Simpson's father worked off and on as a sign painter.
Even so, the family had little money. Coins went to necessities like flour and sugar. Rent on the house was $10 a month.
Almost everything else came from the farm.
``We had a big garden and mom canned just about everything,'' Simpson said. The family had pigs, chickens, a milk cow and rabbits they raised for meat.
Luxuries were few. The eight kids got soda pop once a year, on July Fourth. Simpson remembers going to the movies only once during the Depression, to see ``Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs'' in 1937.
You made your own fun _ pretending the farm animals were a circus or hunting for bird nests by the creek.
``We didn't have all the things kids have today,'' she said. ``Then again, nobody did, so we didn't notice.''
Growing up like that changed Simpson. She's a saver, self-reliant, never too trustful of Wall Street.
``I'm not complaining. I had a wonderful childhood, but it made us more thankful for what we had,'' she said.
Most had to suddenly make do with less when the stock market crashed.
Archie Musick, an up-and-coming artist in town, had enjoyed the patronage of Colorado Springs society in the 1920s.
There were parties. There were dinners. There were plenty of people to buy his paintings. Then the stock market crashed and he hit the skids.
According to his memoir, ``Musick Medley,'' he was soon living in a chicken coop, depending on one of the only patrons left in town: a butcher who paid in meat.
``I'd string (my payment) out with the cheapest kind of boiling beef or soup bone, which I'd expand into a mulligan stew,'' he wrote. ``After simmering a large water bucket of stew on the kerosene burner all day, I'd set it in the ice and snow on the north side of the shack to freeze. Then for a week or so, when the mealtime came, I'd take the ice pick and chop out my meal, bring it to a boil and sop it up with bread.''
He eventually found work painting government murals for various New Deal programs that put thousands of local people to work.
The Works Progress Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps, and a number of other federal programs employed about 50,000 people in the state, injecting needed cash into the economy while building infrastructure, including many Colorado Springs-area buildings, dams and roads.
``That helped a lot,'' said Stephen J. Leonard, author of ``Trials and Triumphs, a Colorado Portrait of the Depression.''
A young man who signed up to build roads and plant trees for the CCC would get $30 a month, of which $25 was sent to his family.
``There was no social safety net at the time. So, though work programs didn't cure the economy, they at least kept people from starving,'' Leonard said.
These days, many television and print commentators have drawn parallels between the rampant speculation and subsequent crash that cause the Great Depression, and the housing bubble and credit problems of 2008.
Leonard says the similarities do not mean Colorado will fall into another depression.
``In the 1930s, few people owned stocks. These days, a lot of people do, so in some ways this affects more people,'' he said. ``But the general theory is that if the crash of '29 had been followed by the right policies, it would not have led to a 10-year breakdown. Some of those things are being done now.''
Locals who lived through the Depression say that's a good thing.
They grew up making clothes, canning vegetables and entertaining one another.
They say younger generations, accustomed to $4 lattes, no-money-down McMansions and pay-by-the-hour life coaches, will suffer.
``We didn't have that much to lose,'' said Mary Lou Nevins, 91, who grew up on a small family farm in Kansas, and now lives in a local retirement community called MacKenzie Place.
She recently sat down with a friend, Margaret Bush, 84, to compare the Depression with the latest downturn.
``After the Depression I vowed I'd never buy stocks, and I never did,'' Nevins said. ``So I'm not doing so bad. My son, it's harder for him. He's got a 401(k) and a mortgage. And people have grown so materialistic. They have so much. They have a lot more to lose if they don't have work.''
Bush, who grew up in Wichita, Kan., nodded.
``My children's generation can't even understand it. They have too much. Even if you lose a lot these days, you still have more than we had,'' Bush said.
Bush received a dime a week for allowance. Then the Depression hit and it was cut to a nickel.
``Then it was gone entirely,'' Bush said.
Her father lost his job. The family lost several investment properties. Then they lost their house. Then the Dust Bowl came. She remembers walking to school in the dust with a wet cloth over her face.
``We were so young then, we didn't really see the significance of it _ what was going on in the world,'' Bush said. ``But as a kid you still felt it. The worst part of it for me was that mama would make all our underwear from old flour sacks.
``I used to dream of having real underwear.''