My grandma Laura Helen Wilson Davis (b. 1924) died this week. On December 15, 1999, I interviewed her and my great uncle Phil (1919-2004) for a school project about their childhood living on a farm in Ohio during the depression. Phil was 80 years old, and grandma was about to turn 75. I was 16. These are my notes on what they told me.
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The family was my great-grandma and great-grandpa, Austin and Jessie Wilson, and their seven children, Wells, Paul, Wayne, Phil, George, Laura Helen (my grandma), and Bob.
Every year the farm had about 100 acres of corn, 100 acres of wheat, and 100 acres of pasture. No tractors until they were out of high school. Great-grandpa liked to work with horses — he’d plow corn with two horses in one row.
They had a car, a 1916 Chevy, but no truck. Great-grandpa used to put baby calves and sheep in the back of the car.
They sometimes rode in a horse and buggy, but only for fun.
They milked cows in the morning before school. They worked in the garden, carried water to the animals.
The house had a tin roof, later replaced with slate. There was glass in the front door, so they could see who was coming. When the boys would wrestle, they’d have to put a board in front of the glass to keep them from kicking it out.
They didn’t have electricity until the Rural Electrification Administration, when they got the first lights and radio to their house.
They had little round stoves in almost every room of the farm house that burned coal and wood. In winter the snow would blow in on their beds. They had their windows open all summer. No fans until electricity.
The kitchen had a wood-burning range. When it was too hot, great-grandma used a little kerosene stove.
They took a tub upstairs with a sponge.
Because they had so many children and boys with shirts to launder, they had a gasoline-powered, one-cylinder washing machine.
They had a party line phone with a crank you turned and talked to the operator to connect you. Sometimes the women at home would just talk to the operator.
They stored food in the cellar. Potatoes, canned vegetables, fruit, and meat.
They made ice cream in a hand-turned freezer. Sometimes they went in to town to get a cone.
Great-grandpa didn’t drink anything but water and milk. No soda, root beer, or alcohol. No tobacco. He said he didn’t want to ruin good water by putting coffee in it.
The boys wore corduroy knickers, knee pants, and a shirt. They wore bib overalls to do chores. Girls weren’t allowed to wear pants, so grandma wore dresses. In the winter, grandma wore long underwear under her stockings and snow pants over her dress. Sometimes kids would dry their wet clothes on the register at school.
Grandma went to high school in the same building where I went to elementary school. In school she studied math, physics, English, history, bookkeeping, Latin, French, and physical education. Professors from the university gave free lessons, so she took violin and played in the orchestra..
They had a wind-up phonograph, but they mostly made their own music. The brothers sang in The Wilson Brothers Quartet, and everyone played an instrument: Wayne on violin, Paul on the saxophone, Wells on the piano, Phil on the trumpet, George on the clarinet, grandma on the piano.
As a high school graduation present, Phil got a radio that was 3 feet tall. It worked on something like a car battery and he had to take it to the nearest town to get it charged up.
Every Sunday morning, they would go to church. Sometimes great-grandma would stay home to cook. Sunday afternoons, there was always lots of company. People visited with each other.
They played basketball in a big round barn on the farm. My grandma met my grandpa when he came over to play ball with her brother George. My grandma played in high school for two years until the state of Ohio decided basketball was too dangerous for girls. That broke her heart.
In summer, they would go to the swimming hole at the creek and play marbles under the big maple trees. The ground was bare from so many kids running around.
It was better to live on a farm during the depression. They lived pretty well. There wasn’t much money, but they always ate. They got agricultural gas rations, so they could drive the car. My grandpa lived in town, and my grandma would bring him milk, butter, eggs, and chickens from the farm.
They always got the local newspaper, and great-grandpa got the Columbus paper, too, to know what was going on. People weren’t as interested in current events until WWII. Another time it was good to live on a farm: farmers tended not to get drafted.
Most folks thought FDR was good for the people. (Except for the “red-hot Republicans.”) The WPA and the CCC really helped.
When the oldest, Wells, went to college it was a big event. It was the first time my grandma saw her mother cry. Several of the boys went to Ohio State. Route 23 was a dirt path, and they would hitch rides up to Columbus and rent rooms. Sometimes they mailed clothes to be cleaned and ironed and mailed back. They came home for a good meal.
I asked them what they thought of young people today, and Phil said, “I think they’re growing out of their pants!”
Neither of them ever thought about making it this far.
RIP Laura Helen Wilson Davis, my grandma, who died this morning of complications from COVID-19.
Today I will listen to big band music, watch Astaire & Rogers dance, play the piano, and dream of her fried chicken and apple pie.
Here she is with my son, Owen, in better days: pic.twitter.com/RMYAUFbo0Q
— Austin Kleon (@austinkleon) February 11, 2021