March 4, 2010

Hard times put strain on families' resources



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John Patriquin/Staff Photographer;Tuesday, Oct.20,2009. Grace and Phil Guzzi of South Portland remember growing up during the great depression.

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John Patriquin/Staff Photographer;Tuesday, Oct.20,2009. Grace and Phil Guzzi of South Portland remember growing up during the great depression. This 1939 photo shows Phil working at a CCCC in Bridgton.

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Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — Phil Gouzie had never heard his mother cry before.

His family lived in the French Canadian section of Westbrook. One night in 1939, when he was in bed, his mother's sobs floated upstairs from the kitchen. He crept down quietly to see what was wrong.

His father, Wilfred, was a dye man at the Haskell Silk Mill in Westbrook. He had just told his wife, Cleophine, that the mill had closed.

''My mother was worried that we wouldn't be able to make it,'' Phil recalled. ''My father said he'd get another job, but there weren't other jobs. That's when I decided to join the CCC.''

Then 16, Phil quit high school that fall and joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, one of several federal New Deal programs started under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He spent one year at a CCC camp in the woods near Bridgton, treating gypsy moth infestations, plowing snow when it stormed, assisting the camp doctor on his rounds.

Phil and his wife, Grace, both 86, have vivid memories of growing up during the Great Depression. He was the youngest of eight children in a family that was poor but proud. She was the only child of a South Portland housing contractor whose world changed dramatically when the stock market crashed in October 1929.

''We lived pretty well up until then,'' Grace said. ''My father had invested quite a bit of money. When the stock market crashed, he lost it. We were poor overnight. When his work dried up, he did small remodeling jobs. But it wasn't much.''

Like many people during the Depression, Grace's parents, Vernon and Constance Hazlett, put in a large garden at their home on Parrott Street in South Portland.

During the toughest years, her mother made Christmas presents rather than buy them at a store. Her father gathered firewood at night.

''It was very hard for my father to lose everything,'' she said. ''Before the crash, we had a housekeeper. After the crash, my father was out in the woods, scrounging firewood. He went out at night because he didn't want his neighbors to know, but I think they all were doing it, because they all were in the same boat.''

Some had it worse than others. Grace remembers that several families lived in tar-paper shacks along the creek that runs through the flats near Boothby Avenue. Some of the children were in her second-grade class.

''They had no bathrooms or running water,'' she said. ''The children came to school with rags wrapped around their feet to keep out the snow and cold. The teacher gave them Lifebuoy soap to take home. I remember thinking that was funny at the time, but it was really terrible.''

Phil's mother made bread and doughnuts from scratch and canned everything they grew in their garden on North Street in Westbrook. When she needed flour or cornmeal, she sent him to a store in the city's Irish section so their French Canadian neighbors wouldn't find out they were using government surplus items.

When he joined the CCC, his salary was $30 per month. The CCC gave him $5 for spending money and mailed $25 to his parents. After a month in the woods, he was so homesick that he decided to hitchhike to Westbrook on a weekend pass.

''It was only 40 miles, but in 1939, it might as well have been 4,000 miles,'' said Phil, who is president of the Maine CCC alumni group and a national board member.

Phil walked to Naples that day, then hitched a ride with a sympathetic logging truck driver who wasn't allowed to have passengers in his cab. The driver looked the other way as Phil climbed atop a huge load of logs. He lay down and clung to a chain all the way to Westbrook.

''I was so homesick for Mama, it didn't matter,'' said Phil, who later served in the Navy during World War II.

Phil and Grace met at a dance in Portland in 1948 and married the next year. She was a secretary and bookkeeper. He eventually earned a high school diploma and worked for many years as a propane company representative.

They raised a daughter in their Arlington Road home, which Grace's father built after his contracting business picked up in the late 1930s. They have two granddaughters.

The hardships and sacrifices that the Gouzies experienced during the Great Depression are still with them today. They remain frugal, keeping track of every dollar and saving up for luxuries, though they manage to live comfortably. They believe the current economic recession calls for similar action.

''We don't buy stuff because we see it. We buy it if it's a necessity. And we don't buy anything unless we can afford it,'' Phil said. ''We've been through the worst of times, and we know we can do it again.''

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

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Additional Photos

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Grace Hazlett sits on her father's lap during a trip to the White Mountains around 1930.


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