Story by Enrique A. Geronimo, Gracie Martin and Hayden Schimborski/ Contributing Writers
Oct. 29, 1929. Black Tuesday. Ninety years ago today the nation’s stock market dissolved into a frenzy of panic selling, causing a drastic decline in stock values.
Men went to bed on the 28th as millionaires and before the next day was done, they were paupers, brought down by the Great Crash. The Great Depression, a decade of financial misery that shaped the psyche of generations to come, took hold and didn’t let go until the United States was on the threshold of entering World War II.
The numbers of Americans who persevered through the Depression are fewer and fewer each year. The infants and toddlers of the 1930s are today’s 90-somethings. To see how the Depression affected their lives, reporters talked to five residents of Adams Place, a retirement and assisted living facility in Murfreesboro, about their memories from that time.
Faye Brandon, 92, rolls into the room slowly, her walker decorated in a Halloween theme. Nearly 60 years after graduating from Middle Tennessee State University, Brandon still supports the Blue Raiders, as evidenced by the MT earrings dangling from her ears.
She was a toddler in 1929, child number seven in her large family. Because she was so young, her memories from the Great Depression aren’t as complete as if she had been older.
“We didn’t have a big fine home, or anything, but we always had good things to eat,” said the woman with eyes as blue as the ocean and a quick self-deprecating chuckle.
She remembered her parents having a hard time making ends meet, but there was always food on the table. Several times in her childhood the family had to move so her father could keep a job. He worked as a carpenter but was also a farmer, growing wheat and corn.
Several years into the Depression, Brandon’s father cobbled together enough money to buy a small farm in Cannon County and the family’s situation began to improve.
“When we moved up there we had chickens, we had hogs, we had cows for milk and they made a garden… and there were wild fruits and things around… so we began to eat real good. My mother was a good cook,” she said.
The election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt as president in 1933 was another turning point. “Things began to improve for our country.”
Brandon went to school at the age of six, delivered there by horse-drawn buggy. She was a reluctant student, although it’s not clear why. Through tutoring from an older sister who was a teacher she was promoted to second grade because her skills were above first grade level.
Once she started school she loved and couldn’t understand why she didn’t want to go in the first place. “That’s how my life got started. The siblings they helped me, they would come home and bring things for me.”
After high school, Brandon attended what was then known as Middle Tennessee State College, majoring in health and physical education. She played basketball in 1946 at MT.
“I was always in the gym and if I wasn’t in the gym, I was in the dormitory having fun.” Brandon said.
Her time at MTSU didn’t stop there. After teaching stints in Ohio, Virginia and Kentucky, she returned to Murfreesboro to become a health and physical education professor for 21 years. Overall, she taught for 44 years and never married.
“I was always too busy to get married and I loved to travel. If I would have gotten married I couldn’t travel,”
Brandon said she’s had a good life.
“We lived just the way we lived. It was very frugal, and we didn’t have a whole lot. I would say that the poor people today have a whole lot more then I had when I was growing up.”
For a 97-year-old, Mary Isbell has firm grip on reality and access to her memories remains intact. She’s a walking narrative of growing up in rural Tennessee. In her case, Gibson County in West Tennessee.
Isbell has green eyes that peer through large round glasses. Her hair, perfectly coiffed, is white as cotton, and two golden loops hang from her ear lobes.
She was going on 8 on that fateful day in October 1929, when the American economy was shaken as it’s never been shaken since. The Depression took a heavy toll on the daily lifestyle of many Americans and it didn’t take long for its long tentacles to reach Gibson County, not because of the stock losses directly, but because of the side effects of the crash: increase in unemployment, rising costs of goods and services and the fear of the unknown.
Life’s necessities that had been taken for granted in the roaring 1920’s became expensive novelties to a country now focused on survival, Isbell said.
But for she and her family, the stock market had little to no direct impact.
“I had to be 16 years old before I learned about the stock trade,” explained Isbell.
She married Hollis Isbell, who was a neighbor, right out of high school. As jobs became increasingly difficult to find in west Tennessee, Isbell and her husband, Hollis, grew resilient to the ever-changing conditions. During World War II, her husband spent several years abroad fighting in Europe, while she was at home raising their daughter. She was pregnant in 1943 when he shipped out and didn’t get to meet his first born until his return in 1945.
Isbell broke down the mindset of young people during the Depression.
“The problem was that the whole country was upside down, there was no hope for things like college. It was all about finding somewhere to live, and something to eat. If you had kids, you had your work cut out for you,” she said.
Isbell said resiliency was the key to surviving the Depression and, in general, all of life. For instance, the Isbells moved often due to her husband’s transfers during his career in the armed services. The family had stops at many locations, including several years in the Panama Canal.
Following her husband’s military service, she reinvented herself, going from homemaker to banker. She took classes in finance and worked her way up in an industry dominated by males, a fact that still gives her pride.
Isbell carriers her resilience to this day. She takes a morning walk every day.
Nathaniel “Wash” Washington Powers Jr., 98, is the youngest of four sisters and one brother. It’s doesn’t need stating, but supporting a family of eight during the Great Depression wasn’t an easy task.
Powers grew up in a “big log house” on a farm in Rutherford County where the family raised cows, chickens, hogs and vegetables for food and a gaggle of geese for the feathers.
“Have you ever slept in a feather bed? I know you haven’t,” Wash said with a worn voice as he cracked a toothy smile.
“When you lay down in a feather bed it rolls up around you.”
At 98, his voice can still boom, when he wants. He’s got an easy laugh. His thick eyebrows form an arch over each eye, which are framed on the side by thin wrinkles. His white hair, thinning on top, is neatly combed, not a hair out of place.
Wash looked down and to the side with a furrowed brow as he recalled some of his earliest Depression memories.
“We didn’t have nothin’ but overalls. We had one store around where we would go to get our one pair of shoes a year,” Powers recalled. “I walked over a mile to catch the wagon, there was no bus. Rain, snow, or what have you. There was no water inside the school building, the toilets were outside along with a well. A lot of boys rode horses to school, and they had stables to put ‘em in,” he remembered.
Powers’ mother passed away in his youth, and he lived at the jail for six years, which is where he picked up the nickname “Jailbird.” There’s a good explanation: His dad was the sheriff at the time.
Powers said he and his father moved back to the country in the 1930s.
“We used to have an old radio that we ran off a car battery. All our neighbors in the country would come and bring a chair in the backyard and we’d listen to the Grand Ole Opry.”
Enrique A. Geronimo
Born into the middle of the Depression in 1932, Gayle Murks, 86, remembers the hardships surrounding the era. The Murks’ family of seven had a 40-acre farm in southern Tennessee. For the most part, they were subsistence farmers.
“We had an orchard with apples, peaches, plums and grapes. We also had a veggie garden where we grew peas, tomatoes, beans and peanuts. We also raised cows and chickens,” Murks recalled, twiddling her thumbs.
“We always had good food, but only because my mom was a good cook. She was the youngest of 14,” Murks said with a grin. “My mother made our dresses out of flour sacks, and when our shoes wore out my dad would take the sides of the boots and attach them to the soles since we wore holes in them,” she added.
Like most others, the Murks children walked to school, “a mile and a fourth, and if we all went into town we went in the horse-drawn wagon,” Murks continued.
One of her most vivid memories was a “hobo” coming to their house one day looking for a place to stay. “He was travelling the roads by foot looking for work, my parents fed him, but my dad said, ‘Man, I’m afraid you’ll set my barn on fire.’ So, he took hay from in the barn and set up a bed of hay outside the shed and he was gone by the morning,” Murks recalled.
Peddling trucks, sort of like a grocery store on wheels, were a common way for rural folks to get various goods. “My mom would buy things that we couldn’t grow. Salt, sugar, crackers, and things of that sort. We would trade eggs or old hens that couldn’t lay eggs anymore for these things,” Murks said.
Around 1939, when Murks was about seven, “there was a federal program instituted by Roosevelt to provide mattresses. Prior to that we slept on wheat straw mattresses.” Things started to get better after World War II, Murks remembered.
Her father was among the thousands of men who worked for the Tennessee Valley Authority, helping to bring electricity to the region.
“We were proud because we were the first ones with electricity.”
Enrique A. Geronimo
Virginia Ericson was born Nov. 2, 1933, barely on the tail end of the Great Depression. Ericson, wearing all green to show off her hazel eyes, was born in Cincinnati.
“I remember that everybody was in the same boat. Everybody was poor in the area that I lived,” she said. “We never had much but we always had enough.”
Ericson remembers the major changes in her life occurred when World War II started in 1941, when she was 8 years old.
“People couldn’t drive their cars and young men volunteered to go get shot at. I had five uncles that were in the war,” she said.
The memories of her childhood were more of events than hardships. “There were a lot of changes. Things were rationed. You couldn’t buy a tire, you couldn’t buy a pair of shoes. There were a lot of things that people depend on all the time,” she said.
“When we moved to Arizona, I was 9—we went on a train and it was rare,” she said. Her grandfather worked for the railroad for many years so she thinks he pulled a few strings to let them aboard. Her grandparents lived near her and she specifically remembers her grandpa having a garden in the backyard. He told her the tomatoes were hers so she would stop on her way home from school and pick a few. “All of my grandparents lived right within a half mile of each other. It was a very tight neighborhood, an old neighborhood,” she said.
With her associate degree from Mesa Community College in secretary studies, she worked as a proof-reader, church secretary and a book keeper. She described her adult life to be built around the military. “I’ve had a good life. My husband was military. My five sons all joined the military and one of them just got out after 31 years in the Air Force.”
Ericson moved to Murfreesboro four years ago to be near her daughter’s family.
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