The Great Depression

The Depression of the 1930’s was a hard time for a working class community like Youngstown. The steel mill was closed much of the time, putting up a small blackboard to notify employees when there was an order that would produce a few days work. Many Riverside residents worked in public projects under federal programs like the Works Progress Administration. Women went to work at the National Cannery Company, on call whenever products such as pork and beans, fruits and vegetables arrived or the local fishing fleet brought its catch.

People relied on their gardens, on fishing, on keeping chickens and goats, and on drinking goats’ milk when needed. They would get through the winters by canning fruit from trees in the neighborhood. Residents also gathered coal that fell off the railroad cars passing through. The customers at Skalabrin’s grocery store ran up large charge books; the store would carry families until payday and often beyond.

Dale Corliss and his family were invited to dinner by a family who had thirteen children. “We had corn flakes and canned milk and bread with lard on it. That was their dinner–that was a special dinner. We never forgot that.”

Many of the children at Youngstown came from large families. Harold Tuffs (whose family had 11) mentioned the Walcotts who lived up on Avalon and had 18 children. “That mother would bring this huge box out on the porch. Then the youngest would come out, and get a kiss and a sack. And a kiss and a sack. Kiss and a sack [he makes a motion like a stair-step]…. I used to love to run up there and watch that.”

At lunchtime, many students could not afford to buy the hot lunch. Those who did considered it a treat. “[I]n the late Depression, we could never afford to throw away food,” Clifford Harrington recalls. “My mother used to say, ‘If you can’t eat it, don’t take it.’ I think I remember peanut butter sandwiches and soup and that little bottle of milk…. we never would leave any food because it cost too much.” Others remembered oyster soup, surplus meat, and tapioca pudding. In addition, those students who qualified would receive a milk lunch, a morning snack of milk and crackers.

The school also hosted a program for pre-school children which included a daily lunch, and there was a commissary by the steel company where people could get milk, bread, flour, eggs, sugar, and salt. “I remember my brother had his little red wagon,” Baxter recalled. “He and I, it was our job to take that wagon down and get our stuff and bring it home.” Her father trolled for fish for the family and sold the extra fish for 25, 50, or 75 cents, depending on size.

Hard times showed up in sewing classes, too. Girls making dresses allowed a generous hem so it could be let down as they grew. Instead of buying new fabric, they brought scrap from home for their projects or fabric from old clothes that could be dyed and re-used. Georgia Baxter’s mother would rip up hand-me-down clothes people had given them, wash the material, then cut out patterns and make new clothes for her children.

Youngstown students who went on to West Seattle High School often walked to the top of Duwamish Head to save the streetcar fare. “We used to get streetcar tokens, two for a nickel, and if you couldn’t afford them we walked from there up to the high school…,” recalled Erma Schwartz. Once during a snow storm, “three of us went up there and Abbe Cash [the boys’ advisor] met us at the door and he said, ‘You crazy kids. Why did you come?’ Well, that was a letdown after we had struggled all that way to get up there in the snow storm.” The children warmed up in a room of the school and then trudged back down the hill.