John Ziegler & Grant Sherritt, retired Professors in the College of Agriculture at Penn State, have been fast friends for 60 years now. In fact they live 2 blocks from one another in State College, PA. Part of their rich lives was lived in the lean years of “The Great Depression”. Hailing from distinctly different parts of the country & thus having had quite dissimilar experiences in those years, these two men, nonetheless, both joined the Navy & then developed markedly similar careers in Animal Science at Penn State.
Below is an interview conducted in March 2009, 70 years after the height of “The Great Depression”, in which John & Grant share some of their thoughts on how those days affected them.
1. How old were you during the height of the Depression (1929 – 1939)?
John was born in 1924 & was ages 5 – 15 during the height of the Depression.
Grant was born in 1923 & was ages 6 – 16 during the height of the Depression.
2. Where did you live at the time?
John lived in Altoona, PA on Bell Avenue but also moved to Kingsport, Tennessee, & Cumberland, Maryland during the Depression. In Altoona he lived on a dirt street with open ditches on either side into which wash water from the houses drained. When a privy was full, the owner dug a trench in his yard, & with the help of a “honey dipper” emptied the privy & covered the trench with soil. He recalled that the process usually “stunk up” the neighborhood for several days.
Grant lived on a farm, 7 miles outside Hunter, N D. He also lived in Hunter proper, Grandon, N D, the state of Indiana, & Canada during the Depression.
3. How many children are in your family? Where do you stand in the line of children, i.e., oldest, second to the youngest, etc.?
John was the youngest of 4 boys. Karl was 18, George, 17, & Leroy 11 when John was born. He hardly knew his 2 older brothers while he was growing up as they were married & living in Maryland.
Grant is the middle child of 5 children, having 3 brothers & one sister. When he was 8, his Mother died of pneumonia, soon after the family had moved back to North Dakota from living in Canada for 2 years. Grant then went to live in Indiana with a brother, but his Father brought them back to Grandon, N D where his Grandparents lived. He was there for 3 years until he was in 6th grade & then moved back to Hunter. The family lived on the farm in the summer & in the town in the winter. His father remarried.
4. Did you know at the time that there was an economic Depression? Did you really comprehend what a Depression was?
John knew that these were frugal times & that waste was not allowed, but everyone was in the same boat. He said that they even burned old bobbins from the silk factory (where his Father worked) for fuel. His ideas of “deprived” or “sufficient” depended on where he was & what his neighbors had or were experiencing.
Grant grew up on a farm where his Step-Mother canned all sorts of food & even aged meat. He remembers having a storeroom full of food on the farm.
5. How did the Depression make any difference in your normal family life? Did it hit your family hard?
John said “no” because his parents saved half of what his Father earned, & his Father was employed in several jobs over his lifetime. In his neighborhood of European non-English speaking immigrants, the Zieglers were the first to own a car, a Durant touring car. Later the family owned Nash cars, all bought new with cash (not credit). There was no driver’s education. Like the rest of the neighbors, his family had an outdoor privy which became indoor plumbing when John was 9. His Mother was a seamstress, having done her apprenticeship for the “Ladies of the Night”. She was kept constantly busy making clothes & doing alterations & was paid in whatever the patrons could afford so the Zieglers had some “extra” money.
Grant said that his family never went anywhere to spent money like fairs, etc. Farming was a 7 days a week job. Generally farms were @450 acres, & they grew wheat & oats in rotation with hay every 3 years. They had beef cattle & 7-8 horses to do the plowing & other farm work. The milk cows & chickens produced only for the family’s use. They also raised pigs that sold at market for .10 a pound. He remembers that some people shot their pigs because it was too expensive to get them to market. It was a tough time for farmers. Farms had no indoor plumbing. When he lived in the town of Hunter, they had indoor facilities which his Father refurbished when Grant was in 6th grade. But they kept the outhouse for use in the summer as septic tanks had to be pumped out at some expense. He mentioned that it was quite cold at 50 below in the winter to use an outhouse!
6. What was your father’s occupation? Was he out of work?
John’s Father had attended only 3 grades of school. His parents married in 1906 when his Father was 17 & his Mother, 19. His Father (John) had been an apprentice in a greenhouse at the age of 8 & worked in a silk mill, spinning thread from the time he was 11 years old (1900) until 1933, never having missed a day of work. Even when, after an operation, he hemorrhaged one day at work, he had put in enough hours not to have it count as a day of missed work. He worked 6 days a week, 13 hours per day. By 1933 he was working 5 days a week as a shift supervisor, but lost his job when the Swatchenbach-Huber Mill closed its doors.
Grant said that his Father was a farmer who was the second oldest of 8 children. One of the brothers was a prospector in Canada who made a small fortune in copper. He was the reason that Grant’s family had moved to Canada for a short time.
7. What did everyday purchases cost?
John said that bread was .07 a loaf, & small powdered donuts were .09 a dozen when John was 14 (1938). Streetcar fare was .07. For 3 years, he was paid .30 per hour working at any task necessary (cash register work, shelf stocking, clerking, etc.) at an A & P store in Cumberland, MD, which was the first walk-through market in town. He worked from 4:00-9:00, 5 days a week & 13 hours on Saturday for a total of $11.40 per week with .25 deducted for Union dues. He said that his friend had bought a new Ford in 1939 for $600.
Grant remembers that unsliced bread was .10 a loaf during one of the Depression years. It cost more if the store clerk sliced it for you.
8. Do you remember that your parents worried or did any belt tightening? Did they try to hide the economic strain from you?
John noticed that after the market crashed, his Father listened to the radio in the evenings. When the banks closed, John’s Father received .10 on each dollar that he had saved. Also at one stage John’s family left Altoona & headed for promised employment in Tennessee. When the Zieglers returned to Altoona, John’s Father settled a debt of extended credit that the owner of a local grocery store had considered as a write off. It was the first John had known of the “credit” situation. The owner was delighted to be repaid as times were tough.
Grant said that the children did not know that it was the Depression, but he did know the family had less.
9. Did you feel that you were poor? Were you ever scared? Do you remember being hungry?
John does not remember hearing any griping or complaining from his parents about food or the economy. He remembers that his Mother was a good cook. His Father, a man of few words (unlike his son), would declare his wife’s cooking “fit to eat” which was a high compliment. Since his Father had had so little as a child, he appreciated food on the table. John enjoyed the meals at home which his Mother created from what was available from the garden & from whatever she had canned. Organ meats such as liver, heart, kidneys, sweetbreads & brains were plentiful. Wild berries & fruits were gathered & made into jams or wine. Green tomatoes became pickles. His Father made wine from dandelions & elderberries & also made his own beer. His Father also took to collecting old toys as he had nothing as a kid so he was appreciative of having something.
Grant said that he knew he was poor but that he was never hungry. He knew kids who were hungry, especially Russian immigrants who went to school with him. The poor children were given free food at the cafeteria. Some did not want others to know they were poor so they did not accept the handout meals at school. Grant walked home for lunch. There were no school busses.
10. Did any extended family come to live with you? Did you go to live with someone else?
John’s German Grandmother on his Mother’s side came to live with them when the family was in Altoona. Her room was a very small one that had been intended as a bathroom. She washed dishes, worked around the house, & stayed with them for a long time. Relatives from West Virginia came to visit, & once brought with them a crate of chickens, intended as Grandma’s birthday gift. The eggs were most welcomed.
Grant said that no one came to live with them permanently. His Step-Mother’s brother who was a carpenter came to live with them for a few months at a time.
11. Did you eat any “depression meals”? If so, what were they?
John said that one of his favorite meals was ground liver dumplings in soup, made from a soup bone. & salad. He remembers that lots of things were made with dough with plenty of butter, cream, eggs, etc.
Grant remembers macaroni & cheese & canned foods.
12. Do you remember receiving any government provided food?
John said “no”.
Grant remembers people who lived off “relief” from a food pantry. He also remembers that every Friday a “food” train arrived. But he did not know of any “government provided” food.
13. Do you recall any rationing? What, in particular, was in short supply? Did you or your brothers or sisters wear hand-me-downs?
John doesn’t remember any rationing, but being the 4th boy in the family, he does remember hand-me-downs from his closest in age brother, Leroy, 11 years his senior.
Grant remembers hand-me downs & patched clothes that everyone wore. There were no new clothes. He said that photos were taken only when people were nicely dressed, hence there are no photos of him from that time except for one taken when, at age 6 or 7, he was injured by having a fishing hook get caught in his hand. His wife, (Sue) has a family photo that does show her family looking poor, but that was unusual.
14. Was school “business as usual”?” If not, what changed?
John said that school was normal. However, health education emphasized how to take a bath. Also dental exams were given every few years, & John’s Mother took tooth care seriously, sending John to have his teeth drilled & filled. He also confessed that in high school he concentrated on the few subjects he really liked (such as mechanical drawing) & “got through” the remaining classes required for graduation.
Grant said the law was that you had to go to school until you were 14 or finished 8th grade, whichever came first. There were 2 grades to a room. He remembers that there were some 7th graders who were much older than 14 but who had not yet finished school. There was no Special Education so children with learning problems were ignored. In fact he remembers a savant child who was a math whiz but had no social skills & was not taught any.
15. What games did you play? What else did you do for entertainment?
John remembers playing marbles, playing on ball fields in Prospect Park (built by the WPA) & swimming at the municipal pool in Altoona. He also recalls that when he lived in Cumberland, MD he & his friends had a passion for roller skating. He described the “Crystal” roller rink as having flashing lights with Johnny Miller playing dance tunes on the electric organ.
Grant remembers playing softball with the kids at school but not with his brothers or sister. He did not “get on well” with his siblings except for the brother closest to him in age. He played games in the snow – fox & goose – & also prisoner’s base.
16. What did you consider a “treat” in those days?
John remembers that when the weather was good the family would visit somewhere almost every weekend. He loved going to the Mishler Theatre in Altoona on Saturday afternoons. He also enjoyed driving with his family to Penn State College in the Nash, especially to see the Agriculture College’s Jordan Fertility Plots & animals. He liked picnics, Sunday drives, picking up arrowheads near Indian Caverns, & going to the summer cottage that his Father had built when John was 5 or 6. It was on the Frankstown Branch of the Juniata River. While the family lived at the cottage in the summer, his Father commuted to work. Even his Mother enjoyed the swimming hole, where early in the mornings she would take a private dip. He remembers a lot of friends of all nationalities & colors visiting him at the cottage. The 1936 flood swept the cabin away, but due to its solid construction, when the new owners found it, they were able to place it higher up on the mountain & continue using it.
Grant loved & still loves ice cream, but he could only have it if the family went to a fair or into town.
17. What, if anything, did you get for Christmas & birthdays?
John said that everything he received as a gift came from the Sears & Roebucks catalogue. He remembers skis, a sled, a bike, a 22 rifle, & a 14 gauge shotgun.
Grant said that he received mostly clothes for presents – sox, underwear, etc. Each year he was allowed to write a letter to Santa to request one thing, & he usually got it. He still remembers one very disappointing Christmas when he received something he did not want instead of his requested gift.
18. Do you recall any “resourceful” measures taken by your parents or others due to the tough times?
John said that since his family had gardens & chickens, they were well off as far as eating was concerned. As far as resourcefulness went, his Father retrieved a discarded vat from the silk mill to be used as the family bathtub. His Uncle killed chickens for Jewish people in Altoona, keeping the entire .15 for himself & eliminating the Rabbi who was supposed to do the slaughtering to deem the meat “Kosher”. John’s brother, Leroy, when he was 16, biked to Georgia with his banjo & chopped wood etc. along the way so that he could eat. John said that there were always thoughts of how to make money to purchase whatever was deemed “necessary”. At one stage in Cumberland, MD, John & a friend went into the “rabbit business”, selling them for Easter, then raising the unsold ones & selling them to a local restaurant. When he wanted a “twin sweater set”, he had to pick rocks from his landlady’s garden to earn the money. He also worked as a hair gel mixer, floor sweeper, & bobby pin picker upper (with a magnet, no less) for the same landlady who owned a Beauty Shop. All of this plus working on a farm in Somerset showcased John’s resourcefulness before he worked in the A& P in Cumberland, MD.
Grant related that at age 11 he herded cattle in the summer on a huge Bonanza farm of 1200-1300 acres owned by a Chicago corporation. There were bunkhouses & stalls for horses. He was paid to chase cattle & earned money by the day, saving enough to buy a bike. His family ate inexpensively & wore their clothes until they could no longer be patched. They repaired everything from clothes to horse bridles. When his father died when Grant was a Junior in High School, the farm was sold. His Step-Mother retained the house in Hunter & on a widow’s war annuity raised the 3 remaining children. The estate paid a minimum for food & clothing.
19. What did your grandparents do during the Depression? Were your Grandfathers still working or were they retired? What occupations did they have?
John’s Aunt (Lizzie) was the first woman to work in the foundry of the Pennsylvania Railroad. His Grandfather, whom he calls the “meanest” man, made John’s Father, when he was 11 – 16 years of age, turn over his salary, allowing him to keep only .25 for himself. He had to purchase anything he needed out of that, even his sox. However, in defense of this “mean” man, John mentioned when his Grandfather’s wife died, she left him with 6 children (4 boys & 2 girls) to raise alone. He later remarried, & when he died in 1925, the funeral cost $75. He is buried in Boalsburg.
Grant said that he did not really have Grandparents in a sense as his Mother’s parents had died before he was born. His Mother’s Father was shot in the Civil War, & his Grandmother lived on widow’s support of $10 per month. All of his maternal relatives except one died young (ages 18 – 32) or suffered a variety of afflictions – from pneumonia to being run over by a horse-drawn streetcar & becoming an invalid. On his Father’s side the Uncle with the copper mine, died, having fallen out of an open cockpit airplane which, in those days had no straps to keep one in. This Uncle had left his money to his Father & Mother who then wintered in Florida & summered in North Dakota.
20. Were there people that you knew who were worse off than your family was?
John remembers the Heiss family in Duncansville who had a farm & 13 children. He recalls having stayed with the family for a week one time & eating sweet corn with lard since their cow had dried up & butter was not available. Eventually, their house burned down. John’s Mother gave the Heiss family the Ziegler’s dining room furniture for Christmas when Leroy, John’s brother, wanted to use the room as a music studio. John’s father, who always treated people well, returned a pair of diamond cuff links, given to him by people who worked with him, used the money to buy groceries & delivered them to various families in Duncansville for Christmas. Also when John’s Aunt was left a widow with a number of children, she sent them to an orphanage as she was unable to afford to feed them.
Grant said that the banks owned many farms. He remembers that farms were foreclosed, bought by the government & sold back, but only a few were able to turn their circumstances around & be successful. He said that there were lots of people who were worse off than his family. He remembers the Hopper family of 6 children who were the poorest of the poor. Their house had a dirt floor, no electricity &, of course, no indoor plumbing. Also brothers who lived nearby died of food poisoning as they did not do proper sterilization when they canned their food. There was a lot of hardship.
21. Did families help each other out or was it” every man for himself”?
John said that neighbors helped each other out. An Italian family who had a double lot in his Altoona neighborhood was able to keep a goat & grow vegetables. John’s Father had hired the sons of this family so in repayment John’s family “ate Italian”. Since John’s relatives worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad, his Mother was able to get her hands on free rail passes so that a Polish neighbor girl with crossed-eyes could to travel to Philadelphia to receive a free operation.
Grant said that he did not eat at anyone’s house nor did anyone ever eat at his. He remembers having stayed the night at a friend’s house once, but he did not eat there.
22. Do you know any people who had their wages cut or were given pink slips? Did any of them move away to seek work elsewhere?
John said that sometime after his Father had lost his silk mill job, he became a WPA worker, building stonewalks in public parks. John remembers that the winters were so cold that his Father had to line his boots with newspaper so that his feet would not freeze. His Mother, Rosa, received a call one day from a friend of his Father who was running his own thread making business in Kingsport, Tennessee. He offered John’s Father a job. Rosa, who ran the show in the Ziegler household, put her husband on the next bus, & with the help of an older son, later transported herself & John, with a crate of bantam chickens in the back of the truck, to Tennessee so that the family could be together. This move lasted only about a year as the family could not abide the segregated south. John’s classmates came barefooted to class. Also quite different from his Altoona dining experiences, he & his family were invited to an opossum dinner by some nice people at the Methodist Church. Finally, the workers in the plant went on strike (in the midst of the Depression!), & though John’s Father was working (as a night watchman with John & his Mother delivering his dinner each night), the plant eventually closed & moved elsewhere. John’s family moved back to Altoona. His two oldest brothers worked steadily during the Depression for a Maryland Celanese Corporation that made man-made silk. With his knowledge of the silk industry, John’s Father developed the skills needed to work in the Celanese plant. So the Zieglers were off to Cumberland, MD. They had a small apartment which necessitated that John’s bed was in the livingroom; thus he had to make it up every morning. They also had a decent second-hand car.
Grant said that his hometown’s, Hunter’s, claim to fame was that it built outhouses during the Depression on a WPA program. He remembers that the outhouses were lined up on the main street, & people could have them for free if they came to pick them up. There was no public maintenance of streets or roads in those days before the WPA hired some men to put gravel on them. Farmers went broke. A number of banks closed as they were privately owned then. People moved off to work elsewhere. When his Father’s sister’s husband’s farm went belly up, he got a new job fixing farm machinery so they moved to Washington state & became prosperous. His Aunt’s husband who had been a butcher became a union man in a shipyard in California.
23. Were farmers any better or worse off than others?
John felt that the farmers were better off than others because they had staples such as eggs, milk, vegetables, etc.
Grant said that they did eat, but there were lots of foreclosures between 1929 – 1934 which was the worst part of the Depression & just before the government enacted measures. His family farm was bought by Norwegians just after his Father died. His Grandfather had been a Homesteader.
24. Did any stores close in your town? Did they ever come back?
John said that as far as he could remember, no stores closed, but there were only a few nearby, a small grocery owned by a family & an A & P. He remembers that there were horse carts with crates of live animals – geese, turkeys, chickens – that would be sold on the streets & that the cart owners even killed the animals for the customer.
Grant said that there were grocery stores at railroad sidings. People came with teams of horses to buy things. However, there were stores that died & never cam back. Big general merchandise stores (like O W Houts) in the towns lasted through the Depression. But Fargo, N D, the largest town near to where Grant lived, was an all day trip.
25. Was there a soup kitchen in your town? Did you family take advantage of it?
John did not know of one.
Grant recalls that schools fed poor children. There were also handouts of surplus goods.
26. Do you remember seeing any beggars or hobos?
John said that for a few years his family lived in Hollidaysburg near the railroad tracks. He told the story of a hobo who came to the door of his Mother’s friend who lived next door. He asked for food, but seemed menacing. Being resourceful, the woman yelled up the stairs for her husband, who at the time was not even in town, much less upstairs. The hobo ate & left quickly. He said that everyone fed the hobos.
Grant said that the Great Northern Pacific Railroad passed through his town, & there were always hobos looking for work. People put food out for them. In the summer young people were hired as threshing crews of 12 -13 people. They were paid in money, fed, & slept in barns. Grant was 14 when he too did this type of work.
27. Did people abandon driving their cars & take to bikes or walking?
John remembers that people walked or took streetcars that cost .07 per ride.
Grant said that small towns grew up in North Dakota with respect to how far a horse could travel. Some had only 20 people. But he also remembers that people did not abandon their cars as distances in the country are quite different from those in the cities.
28. Was anyone you knew involved in the CCC program? What did he do?
John said that no one he knew worked in the CCC, but his Father worked in the WPA for a time in Altoona as a pick & shovel worker.
Grant said that his Step-Mother’s brother, Merritt, was in the CCC (which Grant calls the 3 C’s).
29. What did the local government & community do to help out the residents?
John said nothing that he could think of.
Grant said nothing was done.
30. For John: Did Penn State do anything to help students? Were there fewer students during the Depression?
John was not aware of any of this as he was in Altoona at the time.
31. For John: Were there any New Deal programs in State College? If so, what were they?
John knew that the faculty had agreed to reduced wages.
30. For Grant: What can you remember about the Dust Bowl? Did it affect anyone you knew?
Grant said that he remembers the Dust Bowl far more vividly than he does the Depression. He recalls an afternoon birthday party, perhaps the only one he had ever attended as a child, that had to be taken inside as the dust blowing around made it seem like night time. He said that dust seeped into the houses, & in the mornings the window sills would have mounds of dust on them that had accumulated over night. The beds were covered with dust, & all food had to be covered to protect it from the dust. He also remembers the grasshoppers that covered the sun & the planted crops that were blown away by the wind. Even the fences were buried under all the dust. For 5 -6 years his wife’s Father did not plow the land on his farm. He left it in grass to preserve the soil.
31. For Grant: Were there any New Deal programs where you lived? If so what were they?Grant was not aware of any in his particular area.
32. Do you feel fortunate/deprived or neither that you were a child of the Depression? Why?
John said “neither”. He feels that he has been blessed his entire life. He said that if you lived in a home that your parents purchased, it was paid for & much improved, & you owned a car, you were living the good life. His parents bought their home in Altoona in 1910 for $1850, paying a $15 per month mortgage plus taxes & insurance. They sold the house in 1942, when John was @18 years old, to John’s brother, Leroy, for $2300.
Grant said “neither”.
33. What lessons did you learn from those years that have lasted throughout your life or shaped your attitudes & values? What have you passed on to your children from those years?
John said that the waste of today’s society is bothersome to him. Also if you are young & a member of a family that is somewhat short on material possessions, every addition is an improvement. Then life becomes better all the time. The problem is when you have everything & must adjust downward that you see the Depression in an entirely different way. He & his wife, Jane, did not live lavish lives, giving their children a decent & adequate home, food & medical care. He feels that they gave their children opportunities & that their children learned by osmosis that waste is wrong & that living within your means is of value.
Grant said that he has learned to be concerned about money. He feels that he has passed on this value to his older children but not so much to his younger ones or to the grandchildren. He related a story of his 25 year old niece whose bill at the hair salon was $260. She didn’t seem to think much of it. To Grant, that was an extraordinary sum to pay for a hair do.
Any further thoughts:
John’s wife, Jane, lived in Somerset County. When she was 6, her Father joined neighbors to form the REA (Rural Electricity Association) of Somerset County, an FDR Depression program, that brought electricity to the countryside. It made possible water pumps, thus indoor privies, electric stoves, fridges, washing machines. It revolutionized everyday life for millions. He also spoke of not really deciding on his career until quite late. When he & Jane “got serious”, his (then “to be”) father-in-law asked him what he planned to do after college. John replied, “Gee, Mr. Shockey, that’s a good question, & I wish I knew the answer.” Mr. Shockey regarded his answer as “smart alecky” or not very bright. John wistfully confessed that it was “too bad Pa Shockey didn’t live long enough to see that I did become ‘something'”.
Though John’s & Grant’s lives during “The Great Depression” were quite disparate, yet their love of agriculture & the values that life in those times taught them are remarkably similar. They have forged a lifetime friendship that has transcended all that was different & culminated in all that is common ground.
Grant graduated from Hunter High School in North Dakota in 1940. He attended North Dakota State in Fargo for 1 1/2 years before joining the Navy. Having served for 3 years, he returned to college, this time at Iowa State because its veterinary program was considered to be the “best in the country”. However, not being a native Iowan, he was not accepted in the program & so he majored in Animal Husbandry, graduating in 1948. He did his Master’s degree at the University of Illinois in Animal Industry in 1948 -1949 & found his way to Penn State to accept a position. He had a 3 year contract & was assigned none other than John Ziegler as his grad assistant. In the second year of his contract, an attractive position opened in Montana. As he was considering the move, his “boss” told him that he should stay at Penn State & work toward his Ph D. He did so, earning his degree in Animal Industry in 1961. He was then employed by Penn State & retired in January of 1986.
John graduated from Cumberland High School in Maryland in 1942 & attended Potomac State College in Keyser, West Virginia for 2 years, earning an Associate Degree in Agriculture. There he had an agricultural philosophy instructor who gave him some important advice: when you meet a girl, be sure she likes agriculture & be sure to save (money) for it gives you independence. Before John joined the Navy in 1943, he attended Catherman’s Business School in Cumberland, MD for a short time where he learned business writing, typing, & shorthand that became useful to him as a Yeoman in the Navy. When he was serving in Italy as a “skeeter beater” helping to eliminate the scourge of malaria, two college graduates, with whom he worked, convinced him to go to college. John earned all three of his degrees at Penn State in Animal Industry. He had his B S conferred in 1950, his MS in 1952 & his Ph D in 1965. He was employed at Penn State until his retirement in 1987. In 2007 he was honored as the Distinguished Alumnus of the Department of Dairy & Animal Science, having been one of the founding fathers of the Food Science Department at the University.