The 1930s weren’t the greatest years in which to grow up. But some of you did.
One such person is Barbara (Braseth) Johnson. She now lives in Forest City, Iowa, but she was born in Twin Valley, Minn., to second- and- third generation immigrant families from Norway.
When she was 3, her father received a job offer from Roy’s Garage and Machine Shop in Mahnomen, Minn., so the family moved there.
Barb graduated from Mahnomen High School in 1949 and from Concordia College in 1953.
Recently, at age 88, Barb published a book, titled “The Back Door People Memories from the Houses Where I Lived.” It tells of her life from kindergarten through her first job at the Mahnomen Pioneer newspaper office, “living life,” she writes Neighbors, “without technology, but with a woodburning stove, wringer washing machine, etc. You know, the ‘good old days.’”
Barb sends along some of her book’s contents, including what life was like in the 1930s.
“Our radio was a special connection to the outside world,” her book reads.
“I quite clearly remember my parents listening with the utmost respect to President (Franklin) Roosevelt’s fireside chats. According to an internet report, he delivered 30 chats between March 1933 and June 1944 and reached an astonishing number of American households, 90 percent of which owned a radio at the time.
“President Roosevelt used simple vocabulary and relied on folksy stories to explain the complex issues facing the country. I could sense the deep respect my parents had for President Roosevelt and that they felt reassured because he was at the helm of the nation. What a wonderful feeling it was to have the people united behind their leader and no one publicly criticizing the government in the media.
“When President Roosevelt took office in 1933, the country was wallowing in the Great Depression, and people couldn‘t find work. There was a run on the bank, and the president declared a ‘bank holiday’, which meant that he shut the bank system down for a week.
“I was too young to understand the conditions of the country at the time, but as I look back and also as I heard my parents talk about it, I knew that his reassuring voice told them that their money was safe, there would be jobs created and food available for those who needed help.
“My parents probably did not have money in the bank; more likely it was in my dad’s billfold or in a sock or under the mattress. My dad always had a job, and he worked long hard hours for $25 a week. We kids just knew by their attitudes that our parents would never apply for relief; that was for destitute people.”
The old Singer
“Mother was an accomplished seamstress,” Barb wrote, “and made most of our clothes with the Singer treadle sewing machine that would follow us from house to house.
“One of her prized possessions, the machine head was folded down into a wooden cabinet which rested on fancy wrought-iron legs. The cabinet had an attached wooden leaf hinged and folded over it.
“When Mother got ready to sew, she removed the sewing basket and button box sitting on top, lifted the wooden leaf, positioning it to the left where it became workspace, and then lifted the head of the machine, which swung into place. The cabinet was built with two drawers on each side with leg room in the middle to operate the treadle with one’s foot, which powered the machine. The drawers were filled with colorful spools of thread, needles, pieces of elastic, buttons and miscellaneous sewing supplies.
“Mother sewed our dresses out of flour sacks, often trading with another seamstress so she could get more than one sack of a particular pattern — enough to make a child’s dress. Very cleverly, she also recycled the fabric from a man’s suit and created a woman’s suit for my third grade teacher, Miss Guptil. She did something similar for Mrs. Whiting, making a suit for Mary Kathryn from her dad’s old suit. Her pay for that was the fabric from another discarded man’s suit, which she could use for her own sewing projects.
“Looking back and having done some sewing myself, I realize how much work that really was: ripping, pressing sections of fabric and cutting it out, matching the plaids. But the material was high-quality wool, so it looked great on her finished product. She made her own patterns by looking and measuring from garments that fit. A fabric artist and a genius at being thrifty, she was always looking for ways to be creative and save money.”
Were they poor?
“My mother,” Barb wrote, “managed each house we lived in, shopping for groceries, cooking, cleaning, washing clothes in the wringer washing machine, taking care of our clothing needs and sewing our dresses from those colorful print flour sacks. She did it all on the allowance my dad gave her of $25 a month.
“She secretly stashed away nickels, dimes and quarters out of that allowance and eventually saved enough to buy their four-piece bedroom set, for which she paid the handsome price of $39. No wonder we sometimes had all-you-can-eat oatmeal or eggs for supper. Much later, her grown grandson would comment that she should have been in charge of the national debt!
“I remember visiting with my sisters when we were adults, and I commented, ‘I didn’t know we were poor when we were growing up.’
“(My sister) Betty was astounded at my naive statement, ‘Incredulous! You didn’t know we were poor?’ she exclaimed.
“I always felt like I had enough and was content. I didn’t expect to have more. But I can understand Betty’s perspective.
“For instance, she was the one who loved summer sausage, and the one piece she was given for supper was not enough for her. She used to put it on the center of her bread and eat toward it, and then she kept moving it a little at a time so she could have some for another piece of bread. She even asked for a whole summer sausage for Christmas one year.
“I guess one piece of summer sausage was enough for me.
“Although times were uneasy, and providing for two and later three children in that era had to be challenging, we as children didn’t sense any fear or lack of confidence from our parents. If they wanted to talk about something they didn’t want us to hear, they just spoke in Norwegian.
“I always felt protected and safe and cared for.
“And my older sister Betty? She showed a little more spunk. She wanted to learn Norwegian!”
If you have an item of interest for this column, mail it to Neighbors, The Forum, Box 2020, Fargo, ND 58107, fax it to 701-241-5487 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.