“Mom, did you know the Dexter library used to have an upstairs?” The old photo I held showed a two-story building on the corner, with a handsome arched window.
“Yes, that was when it was the doctor’s office. My dad worked on the remodeling of it, when they removed the top floor.”
“He did? Why haven’t you told me this before?”
The tiny library in Dexter, Iowa, and the adjoining hall held pleasant memories for me. The library introduced me to The Boxcar Children and Nancy Drew and the Bronte sisters. Church bazaars, where I bought baby tears planted in a coffee and a set of Depression-Era glasses during my pink-crazy years, were held in the library hall. Family reunions and even a junior high Valentine party–where I wore a red velvet jumper and starched white blouse–happened in that dark paneled room.
“Because it was a WPA job during the Depression, and we were ashamed to have to be on relief.”
The Depression again. When I was younger, I got sick of hearing about it. All the other junior high girls were wearing thick, rolled down bobby socks with their felt circle skirts held wide by billows of stiff petticoats. I needed bobby socks instead of babyish anklets to complete the accepted look.
“You don’t know how hard it was, with everyone in town knowing we were on relief. Dad couldn’t even earn enough to feed his family.”
Depression days for my mother meant hand-me-downs, towels so thin they were raggedy, not being able to pay for rides to out-of-town ballgames even though she was on the first team, having the grocer announce that rancid bacon was good enough for a family like theirs, government handouts of food, ‘possum for dinner, and your dad working a few hours a week on a WPA job for a little cash.
WPA jobs were make-work programs to hire jobless men for part-time jobs during the Great Depression. Clabe hated having to apply for it, but his fortunes began to collapse with the 1920s farm prices. During that decade, he lost his farm, worked as a night watchman in Stuart, a hired man in Dexter, and in the kiln at the Redfield brickyard. But he became anemic after losing too much blood during a surgery and didn’t regain his health for years.
At first he was turned down for a WPA job because he had two sons in the Navy. They sent home $5 or $10 a month from their meager wages, and told their folks to fill up the five kids at home with meat and milk, which the Wilsons couldn’t afford to buy.
The two older boys had joined the Navy because there was nothing for them to do in Iowa. Their mother said the money was a real godsend, that the coal they bought with it on winter kept them from freezing.
Clabe was finally hired for roadwork during the 1930s. Later he worked sixteen hours a week keeping the Dexter town pump running, which mentioned several times in letters to his “Navy boys” the winter of 1934-35.
“Where was the pump?” I asked, imagining it to be in part of the downtown buildings. “Is it still there?”
“I don’t know, but it was just southwest of town.”
“Let’s see if we can find it. I’ll take my camera.”
Yes, it was still there, tucked away in a ditch. Clabe’s job was to climb down into the brick shell, oil the pump, and keep it running. I don’t know how much he was paid. There was no heat and he did not have adequate clothing for winter.
There was even more pain associated with that meager job. One time a railroad man asked around town if anyone had seen anyone loitering along the tracks. Clabe Wilson, came the reply. The man found Clabe and asked about stealing equipment along the tracks. Yes, he’d walked along the track, part of his path from home to the pumphouse. No, he hadn’t taken anything.
This was a man who, rather than tell his boss no when asked to filch railroad ties accepted another job to get away from working for him. Clabe may have been coarse when drinking too much, but I believe he was careful to be honest.
He was mortified and deeply affected not only from having to accept handouts, but also from warnings to stay away from the tracks.
But I liked knowing that my grandfather had taken care of the old town pump, and that he’d helped remodel the Dexter library in 1939. My connection with those touchstones are not clouded with shame. From my vantage point, he did what he had to with the hand he’d been dealt.
Well, I did get to wear bobby socks, along with the other junior high girls. The anklets ended up in the attic with all the other stuff that Mom warned we might be mighty glad to have some day.
The ghost of the Great Depression haunted those who lived through it for the rest of their lives. The Dexter library and the old brick pumphouse are poignant symbols of those raw years of scrimp and scrabble.
Leora’s Dexter Stories: The Scarcity Years of the Great Depression was published in June 2021.