Clabe Wilson: Hiring Out During the Great Depression

What does a man do when he has five kids at home and no job? The temperatures have reached 100 degrees and the garden is drying up.

And you’re cut off from a WPA job because you two oldest sons are in the Navy, and surely they can send some money home.

The local canning factory may or may not have jobs available, even though you’ve been promised one if they can get up and running.

Clabe Wilson of Dexter, Iowa, had lost blood during surgery (perhaps for hemorrhoids) the winter before, but he was working toward getting his energy back by taking sunbaths and taking liver extract.

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Leora and Clabe Wilson and 10-year-old Junior, 1935 

Starting out on foot in July 1935, he trudged miles into Dallas County, asking for work.

According to a letter Clabe’s wife wrote one of their Navy boys, Fred Peitzman said, “Well, you are a stranger but I’ll try you.” At the end of the week Fred Peitzman wanted to  know if he’d return.

Clabe said those folks didn’t know what a depression was. They paid him $2 per day plus board. Around Dexter the pay was $1.50 and 1 or 2 meals, and they didn’t want anyone staying with them. “Sure fine people and satisfied with Dad,” Leora wrote, “as they wanted somebody they could trust.”

Not only that, but Fred and Nellie Peitzmans had modern conveniences so Clabe was able to take a refreshing bath every night.

That Saturday, young Dale Peitzman (about 26 years old) gave Clabe a ride to Adel, where he started out walking to Dexter. Someone recognized him, picked him up, and drove him home.

By Monday morning he’d been paid so he took the 5:45 a.m. bus to Waukee, then hoped to catch a ride to get closer to the Peitzman farm.

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Clabe even stayed with the Peitzmans over the next weekend. Leora wrote her boys that it seemed so lonesome without him, and that he never was away so long except when he was in the hospital. She worried about his clothes, but he managed to wash them somehow. Maybe in the Peitzman’s tub?

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“He is standing it fine,” Leora wrote, “I’m so glad and sure cheers him to feel like working and to have it to do.”

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In early August Clabe pitched bundles in the field during threshing. Altogether, he must have worked at the Peitzman’s farm about a month.

By the end of August the Dexter Canning Factory had started up. Clabe was a foreman and his oldest daughter also worked there, missing the first two weeks of her senior year.

It’s hard to imagine being desperate enough to look for a job that way. It’s also hard to imagine someone taking a chance on a stranger on foot looking for field work, and allowing him to stay with you.

God bless the Peitzman family of Dallas Center, Iowa.

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Peitzman’s son who gave Clabe a ride to Adel:

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20 comments

  1. Such an interesting time in our history – so transitional in many ways. Love that you have the old letters – can you imagine – sunbaths and liver extract to get your energy back…the sun knocks me out 🙂

  2. Sometimes we just don’t realize how hard it was to live during that time.
    Thank you Joy for this great story about our Grandfather and Grandmother.

    • It’s amazing what you can learn from these dear letters. It sure helps to understand Grandpa Clabe a little more. Mom told me that when they were staying with them those last months of the war, that I heard him start up the car and ran out to go with him. He heard a thud and he’d hit me. He had nightmares from that as well.

  3. So glad you are recording these stories. It warms my heart to hear of the neighborly ways people people took care of one another during the Depression. You have inspired me to write down stories I have heard in my family. Thank you 😊

  4. This was an awesome story. Sacrifices and Generosity – People seemed to be more honest and trustworthy back then. Thank you for sharing. <3

  5. The letters are so neat for other generations to get a peek at everyday life and struggles during that time era. People were so much more trusting and hospitable. I remember my parents picking up hitch hikers with four little children in the car. We would just squeeze in a little tighter and make room for one more. Today no one would dream of such a thing.

    • Manette, there are very few letters during the Depression Years, until the two oldest sons joined the Navy in 1934 to have something to do and enough to eat–and even sent a few dollars home every month. I’m so thankful that Grandma Leora saved these, and that relatives of those trusting folks still live in that area. My husband is a Vietnam veteran. He went to college before joining the Air Force and regularly hitchhiked back and forth!

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