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In current crises, Iowa City seniors recall ‘Great D’

BY MARY HARRINGTON | APRIL 20, 2009 7:30 AM

Olive Wallace was just a little girl when the Great Depression left her family scrambling for cash.

Now, decades later, 87-year-old Wallace still picks up every curbside penny she comes across, cherishing every available cent like a tiny copper trophy.

Wallace remembers the day the stock market crashed as clearly as the bombing of Pearl Harbor or the 9/11 attacks. Her father came home to their Iowa farmhouse, shaking his head, she said. The family didn’t know how long what little money they had would last them. And even as a 7-year-old, Wallace said, she knew the years to come would wear on the pocketbooks and spirits of her family and friends.

As the economic outlook grew dark in the 1930s, Wallace lived on her family’s farm near McGregor. Unlike many of her friends in the city, she said, she didn’t feel as immediately affected by the crash as kids living in cities. Even though her family was penniless, food was still thriving in the backyard. It was in the morale of the community that she felt a real shift.

“The environment changed so much because everyone was jobless and everyone was poor,” the Iowa City resident said, remembering newspaper photos of soup-kitchen lines and stories of suicides.



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Her family was poor, clinging to dollars stuffed in a kitchen sugar jar. But despite the financial hurt, they used their resources to help some others in worse shape.

“On farms, everybody helped everybody else out,” she said. “I think my mother fed the whole town of McGregor at times, when things got bad enough.”

Meat butchered on the farm was shared with folks in town. Jobless men riding the rails would stop by her home, one marked for hospitality, for free home-cooked meals. Her mother got creative with foods, once trying to raise peanuts and drying them on an old set of box springs in the house.

If people had not pulled together, it might not have been as doable as it was, she said.
“People didn’t realize they were poor because everyone was in the same position.”

Like Wallace, Sieg Muehl, 86, watched the Great Depression hardships through the lens of a child’s eyes. Muehl’s father owned a drugstore in Indianapolis. He invested in stocks, all of them worthless following the market crash, and was left only with his income from the store. One day in the early ’30s, Muehl’s father came home, a disheartened look on his face. After keeping his drugstore open from 7 a.m. until 11 p.m., he ended up with just $7 for the day.

Customers unable to afford prescriptions at the store put them on credit. Sometimes they paid, sometimes they didn’t.

“I recall the pathetic sight of all these men scrambling to do whatever they could to make it through,” he said.

Luxuries were never an option during the depression for Eleanor Trummel. The now 93-year-old was working her way through high school and eventually college in Iowa while the state of the economy ate away at job openings and wages. She made her own clothes, unable to buy the fashions from storefront displays, and packed her belongings in a cheap cardboard suitcase whenever she moved.

“I could never buy something because it looked pretty,” she said. “Even the unpretty things were often out of my reach.”

Her time in Iowa was spent working low-paying housekeeping positions and dodging homelessness on several occasions when she was unable to afford housing during college. It was an experience that she said often made her lose hope, sometimes fearful to look further than a day into the unknown future. But the lessons learned from her struggles were lasting.

“Because I lived through that, I now know what it’s like to have been hungry, to have almost been homeless,” she said. Trummel now donates to local charities and crisis centers on a monthly basis.
Lois Muehl, 89, remembers the day the stock market crashed. She overheard her father saying he had enough cash on hand to last the family a little while in their Elmira, N.Y., home.

Muehl’s mother lived within a strict budget and her father hated then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt so much that any time he received a government dime he threw it away, she said. Similar to present day situations, Muehl said there was much divide concerning the government’s role in the economic turmoil.

“Some of the concerns of individuals today are very similar to those from that era,” Muehl said. “I think it may seem even more difficult now for the younger generations who are used to immediacy, not waiting.”

Locals who lived through the Depression said younger generations can take advice from their experiences, as the current recession hits some hard. From mending socks and sheets to saving meat-packing strings, these individuals cut back and clung on to what they had.

“It was not a throwaway society back then,” Muehl said. “What you had, you kept, because you might not get anymore.”


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