March 15, 2010

'Stretching a buck' got families through the Great Depression


— By

click image to enlarge

Staff photo by David Leaming HANDYMAN: Al Duguay installs siding on a neighbors home in Fairfield recently. Growing up during the Depression in the 1930's Duguay watched as his father John Babtist Duguay would search for work as a carpenter to earn extra money to support his large family.

Blethen Maine News Service

They called it ''stretching a buck'' during the Great Depression.

Plant a garden. Don't throw things away. Try to save a little money instead of spending it on luxury items. Find a way to co-habitate -- even if it means a mixing of generations.

People who lived through the difficult years of the 1930s can recall such tips that were used to ease one's life. Many who survived the Depression say that what they did then could help others now.

Loring Pratt, who practiced medicine in Waterville for decades, remembers the hardscrabble life some of his neighbors knew.

Pratt, 90, who grew up in Glens Falls, N.Y., was fortunate enough to have a father who retained his job in a research laboratory.

His neighbors were not so lucky.

''They all had gardens, and they moved in together,'' recalled Pratt, who maintains his Fairfield home. ''Married couples lived with their parents. Everybody lived under one roof. That was one way they kept the wolf from the door.''

Extended families living together might have been common in the 1930s. That might be more of a challenge for people used to their independence today.

''What worked once might not work again,'' Pratt said. ''The young people these days want it, and they want it now.''

Wild game for supper, anyone? Not many people eat rabbits or squirrels these days.

During the Depression, Livermore resident Alfred Carver hunted deer and other game. His wife, Gladys, made good use of it.

''My mother would make a meat pie out of it that was excellent,'' said Richard Carver, who lives in Wayne. ''I wish I had one today.''

Carver, 82, said that people then had to be self-sufficient.

''Everyone I knew at that time had a small garden, a pig and, if they had room, a cow,'' he said. ''You'd be surprised at how much produce you can get out of a few hundred square feet of garden. And nothing got thrown away.''

Plus, neighbors helped neighbors.

''It was difficult,'' Carver said. ''Everybody was in the same boat. People were more helpful to each other. There were group activities such as the Grange suppers, and lots of social activity.''

Carver, who quit high school at age 17 to join the Navy, is somewhat encouraged by Mainers' response to the energy crisis.

''Most people I know are burning wood,'' he said. ''That's using your natural resources in a very sensible way.''

Fairfield resident Al Duguay can remember when his father, a Canadian immigrant named John Baptist Duguay, hit the streets for hours at a time looking for work. John and Anne Duguay raised a family of 13 in Winslow.

''He used to go on Front Street with his tool box on his shoulder,'' Duguay said. ''He'd do that at night, after work at the Lockwood Mill.

''Sometimes he'd walk as far as Oakland,'' Duguay said. ''My mother would send me to get him late at night so he could go to work early the next morning. Wherever there was work, he took it. He was a heck of a man, I'll tell you.''

John Duguay also raised an in-town garden, and maintained a root cellar.

A paper boy in those days, Al Duguay and his siblings chipped in, as children did.

''We had to chop wood,'' he said. ''Everything was done by hand. Weddings were quiet, and small. Only one kid in the neighborhood had a car. We were all in the same boat, so we didn't know any different.''

People lived within their means. They got by without credit cards. They were thrifty.

''They're not living today like we were,'' said Duguay, who still maintains a home with his wife, Toni. ''We tell our grandchildren to be careful. Start out by putting $10 a week in the bank, and then gradually increase that.''

Leroy Hunter lives not far from the farmhouse where he grew up in Unity. Hunter, 90, agrees that entertainment wasn't a cost factor in those days.

''We didn't have to go far,'' Hunter said. ''We had the Grange, and card games on Saturday nights.''

Hunter's parents, Gaunce and Amber, moved to Unity from Aroostook County in 1910. As they had in ''the county,'' the Hunters raised potatoes. They also had an apple orchard and a few cows.

''It was different than it was for people in the cities,'' Hunter said. ''We could live off what we raised. We were poor same as the rest, but we didn't notice it so badly. We were poor and didn't know it.''

''People think they've got to have everything. They have to cut down on that,'' Hunter said.

Like Pratt, Peter Joseph of Waterville had a family that didn't struggle too terribly during the Depression. Joseph's father, John R. Joseph Sr., opened Joseph's Market on Front Street in the mid-1920s.

The 84-year-old Joseph, an ordained deacon at St. Joseph's Maronite Catholic Church, not far from the market, worked early mornings there when he was 12 or 13. He would open the store at 6 a.m., when his father went to work across the street at the Wyandotte mill. At 8 a.m., his sister Sadie would take over so that he could go to school.

In those days, most of those mill workers smoked or chewed tobacco.

''They couldn't afford a whole pack,'' Joseph said. ''So we would open the packs, and sell the cigarettes for 1 cent apiece.''

Joseph's also supplied the mill workers with wrapped cakes and other items to go into their lunch boxes. John Joseph extended credit for many families in the neighborhood.

Neighbors are still helping neighbors. Joseph said many clergy members met two weeks ago at the United Methodist Church on Pleasant Street to organize help for those in need this winter.

''We had a good gathering,'' Joseph said. ''There were people from different denominations, and the United Way of Mid-Maine, and the Salvation Army. We're seeking out organizations for those who are down and out, like churches, food banks and soup kitchens.''

Were you interviewed for this story? If so, please fill out our accuracy form

Send question/comment to the editors

Further Discussion

Here at we value our readers and are committed to growing our community by encouraging you to add to the discussion. To ensure conscientious dialogue we have implemented a strict no-bullying policy. To participate, you must follow our Terms of Use.

Questions about the article? Add them below and we’ll try to answer them or do a follow-up post as soon as we can. Technical problems? Email them to us with an exact description of the problem. Make sure to include:
  • Type of computer or mobile device your are using
  • Exact operating system and browser you are viewing the site on (TIP: You can easily determine your operating system here.)