Clabe Wilson and FDR’s New Deal

“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.

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“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 Dexter library 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.

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Leora and Clabe Wilson, Dexter, Iowa, July 22, 1934. “Depression & Drought,” Leora added.

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.

Accusations

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.

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This picture was taken probably in 1939 when they’d started gutting the second story. There are men working on the roof.

 

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.

12 comments

  1. Your post is ‘living history’ and a real peak into what life was like. These are the stories that should be in school text books. Great post! I have some wonderful library memories about our my store front library in the 50’s. My mother was the librarian there. Love the photo’s too!

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    • Your mother was the librarian! How wonderful. I was so thankful to learn the historic connection to all of this. I help some with the Dexter Museum, so have pictures on my desktop from the “old days.” I’m happily surprised when I learn family connections with all of it!

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    • Bless you, Eilene. I wish I’d gotten to talk to Grandpa Clabe. I only remember him probably the day before he died. I was 2. Mom had taken baby Gloria and me to Perry to see him after he’d gotten home from having a stroke and spending time in the hospital. I think I remember it because I’d never seen him in bed before. Mom’s two older brothers had wonderfully resonant voices. I suspect that Grandpa Clabe did too. I’d love to be able to hear him tell stories of growing up in the wilds of Guthrie County, Iowa. He even had a wolf as a pet.

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  2. A glimpse into this time, thank you. In college, we read a book on the depression and the photos within broke my heart. This writing is beautiful–I felt as if I was sitting at your feet listening to you tell it.

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  3. Really interesting, Joy. My mother shared many stories of her life in the Depression. She lived in Chicago with her parents and siblings. Grandpa was a bricklayer and had no work for years. One day, Grandma told him he needed to go to the church bread line as they had 3 children to feed. That was so humiliating for Grandpa but he finally did it. Mama also married right from high school just to help her parents not have to take care of her. Interesting, that marriage only lasted 7 years and back in the 30s, and Catholic, divorce was not really an option but she divorced him. I could go on but just had those come to mind after reading you great post. Thanks.

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