From the book about Eastern and Northeastern South Dakota
A Depression Years Kid
Submitted by Lola Gelling of Frederick, South Dakota
Many times when my children asked if I had “this or that” when I was young, my answer was usually, “No.” I was a child of the depression years. There are many good and bad memories of those years, but the year of 1930 when we lived on a farm southeast of Frederick for the summer stands out so vividly in my mind. My sister and I loved that summer. We played with the new kittens in the barn and roamed the pastures. We started country school that fall; we only attended two months before we moved to town, but those were wonderful days.
The road that ran by the farm, which was called Sunshine Highway, was the main road to Aberdeen in those days. It was this road that brought experiences we’ll never forget. These were the years of the hobos or bums, whichever you want to call them. Many were neither, just poor men with no jobs trying to find any kind of work. The majority were polite and so grateful for the handout they always received from my mother. She never turned any away, even if it was only bread and butter that she had to offer. Scarcely a day went by that we didn’t have someone in need of food.
We learned that our house was marked; that meant that it was a home where you always got a handout. To this day, I do not know what the marking was. Many old-timers will tell you this was the gospel truth.
There were a few times we were frightened. Our father ran a shoe repair shop in Frederick, so he left in the mornings and did not return until late in the evening. My mother was left alone with us children. After we started school, she was alone in the daytimes. One hot day, a hobo stopped begging for something to eat. After he ate what my mother could spare, he went down to the barnyard where an old well was. He stripped off his shirt and proceeded to wash it. Only a trickle of water came out—just enough to wet the shirt, but not enough to wash it. He came back to the house very angry, blaming my mother for not telling him about the well. This was one time our mother was very happy for the lock on the door!
One evening as my mother, my sister Lucie, and I were sitting on the back steps, we saw a man coming down the opposite side of the road. He went into the ditch and just stayed. We sat on the steps until nearly dark and then we went into the house and locked all the doors. Later that night when my father came home, his car lights shone on a man sleeping in the ditch on our side of the road just north of our house. After checking on us and making sure all the doors were locked, he drove down to the neighbor south of us and brought the neighbor back with him. As they were coming back, they met the hobo walking down the road, so they watched him until he was long out of sight.
A wagonload of Gypsies stopped once. We children were fascinated by them but our parents did not take their eyes off of them.
One wonders how many men trudged that road those bleak years when the trains came into Frederick. The boxcars were loaded with men. When we see people today with so much and so much waste, we can’t help think of those years when a slice of bread was so dear. I believe our generation came out of it stronger and more independent in spirit as well as having a profound appreciation of life.
In memory, I wander through the years. I hurry back and listen for the whistle of the iron horse on the track. If I could share a special childhood memory with the youth of today, I’d have them turn off their computers, television sets, and video games and come with me down memory lane to when I was a child and we’d watch the train coming down the track into Frederick.
If we stand where the old depot stood (across from the Masonic Hall and now an antique shop), close our eyes, and listen real hard, we’ll hear that old whistle as the train comes rolling down the hill from the north. We’d open our eyes and see the black smoke pouring out and the steam hissing from the sides as it came to a screeching stop. What a feeling as the ground under us shakes; it is a sensation you never forget. I can still hear the townspeople hollering to each other, “Train’s coming!” and there was always a crowd there to greet it. It came from the south in the morning and back from the north at about 4:30 in the afternoon. It was a very important part of our life in those days, as the mail came by train, farmers shipped their cream by rail, and all freight came by rail instead of trucks. Many people shopped by catalog in those days, so their orders came by train.
The depot was a second home to my sister Lucie and I, as our childhood playmate was Mary Ellen Cook. Her father, E.W. Cook, was the agent in Frederick for many years. I can still see him briskly walking up the street, always whistling. Many people did not know he had an artificial leg. As a young brakeman in St. Paul, Minnesota, he slipped under a moving train car and his leg was cut off. Many hours we spent playing in the passenger room with its big, long benches and potbellied stove. Sometimes we’d play games up on the window desk in the office. I can still hear the old telegraph clicking out a message. But the grandest place to play was the old freight room. What a great place to play hide and seek! We’d hide in the big, dark coal room. I remember the little Henry boy that always wanted to play with us. Because we were older, we always made him hide his face and then we’d run way down to the park and hide from him! Usually he gave us hunting us and went back home. Shame on us, but back then, we thought it was funny!
Years ago when Emory and I visited Mary Ellen and her husband in Arizona, we had a wonderful time reliving all those old memories of our days at the old depot. She laughed as she told how her dad used the old freight room to teach her sister Dorothy a lesson. The girls’ mother was an invalid, so it was their job to keep the house clean. Dorothy was told time and again to pick up her clothes, but as Mary Ellen said, “She always liked to try Pa’s patience,” so she usually forgot to comply with his orders. One day Dorothy came home from school, bounding up the stairs to where the Cooks lived above the depot. There was a door at the top of the stairs that when opened looked down into the freight room. That day it was opened and as she looked down, she saw all her clothes on the freight house floor! In a fit of anger, she ran down to her dad, demanding to know what her clothes were doing down there. Her dad calmly replied that she had two choices: to pick them up upstairs or in the freight room, whichever she preferred. I asked Mary Ellen if this worked, and she said that it did for a while.
I wish our young people could have met those trainmen. They were so kind to us little girls. Many of them had Irish names, especially the engineers. One day they put us in the engine and gave us a ride down the track a ways. Another time we rode in the caboose up to Ellendale. We went up in the morning and came back on the afternoon train. We really felt grownup. I can remember making mud pies and offering them for sale to the new train crew. With our hands full of pennies, we’d run up to Sleeper’s Store. It was hard to decide what to spend them on, as there were so many choices for a penny in those days! Years later, I would smile when I heard my dad tell my son Mike that he’d give him a penny if he’d do something for him. I heard my son reply, “Pennies are no good, Grandpa. They don’t buy anything.” Today, a quarter hardly buys anything.
There were sad times too at that old depot when Mary Ellen’s mother passed away, leaving her without a mother while she was still a child. I’ll always remember when Dorothy’s little boy Jimmy, about two years old, drowned in a big crock jar of rainwater on the back steps of the freight room. It was my first experience with death. I remember going to Pete Hanson’s to see him. He looked like a wax doll.
Remember—isn’t it a powerful word? The greatest gift God could give us. Have you noticed that as you grow older, it is hard to remember your appointments and what day it is, yet the past can be so clear? Time never dims my memory of three little girls standing by an old depot, eagerly watching north, just waiting to tell the world, “Train’s coming!”