My Grandfather and the Great Depression

Next to the Civil War, the Great Depression was the single most major event in American history that impacted nearly all Americans.   John Steinbeck wrote the story of the “Okies” who lost their land and were forced to move west to sustain their families, but they were only part of the story of this event.  It touched many others.  My mother’s father was one such man.

My grandfather worked the land.   Today we would call him a successful small produce farmer. He grew lettuce and onions on the rich, dark soil, called Muck Lands, of the Lake Ontario alluvial plains north of Syracuse, New York.   He told me the following story about how it all ended.

At the Muck farm about 1925.

At the Muck farm about 1925.

“In the 1920s I was making good money. The first year I had the muck farm I made about $9,000. 1 I was setting on the top of the world. I paid $7,500 for the muck farm and I borrowed the money from a fellow I used to work for. I worked for him for 7 years and the 8th year he said are you going to hire out for another year and I said, No! He looked at me bewildered and asked me why.

I said, “I’m going into business for myself.” He told me you don’t have any money and I said, No; well, he said, how can you go into business without any money. I said, I’ll run across somebody that’s got some money and I’ve got the experience. He said, I’ve got a few dollars and I said how are the chances of borrowing some? He said, OK.

So I got the money off him to pay for the place at Ingell’s crossing.  There was a muck farm there about 20 acres cleared and 52 all told. It wasn’t all muck. Some of it was upland. I did pretty well for 4 years and then everybody entered the business: lettuce, celery, spinach–all bringing in money. Of course, the more you put on the market, the lower the prices went.  At that time, it was my habit to have a $50 bill in my wallet all the time, in case I came across an opportunity.    It went along all right and I made about $2,000 a year until the Great Depression started.

When it started I felt funny and I said, this depression is going to be bad. I’m going to get out of here. This was about 1930.

One morning at 5 a.m., I came up from thefarm and started to change my clothes and Mother said, “Where are you going?”

And I said I’m going downtown. “What for,” she said, “You never go downtown in the daytime.” I said I’m going to get a job.

“You’re crazy! , there are people out of work and there are a lot of people looking for a job.”

I said, “They’re not looking for a job, they don’t want to work, I know I can find a job somewhere working and I’m going to get that job.”

In  many ways he was lucky that he was able to get a job and had steady work.  He made 33 cents an hour and worked a 12 hour day, six days a week.   He was luckier than most at a time when it was estimated that about 25 percent of the county was out of work.  He lost all his land, yet he saved his family in a difficult time.

It was not without a cost. He  remained in the factory for another 28 years.


1 In today’s money, $9000 would be about $127.000; $2000 would be about $27,000.


About jenorv

John E. Norvell is a retired Air Force Lt Colonel, decorated air combat veteran of the Vietnam War, and former Assistant Professor of American and Military History at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He has written freelance for the Washington Post, the Middle Tennessee Journal of Genealogy and History, and for several newspapers around the country.
This entry was posted in American History, Family History, Great Depression, New York, New York State History, Norvell Family History, NY History and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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