Monday, August 16, 2010

The Great (personal) Depression

My mother, Elsie (Rathjens) Branscomb, was talking tonight about how when she was a little girl her father, Bill Rathjens, would sing the song "Big Rock Candy Mountain" to her. When she was a little girl she knew all the words, but it has been so long since she had heard it that her memory was fading. I showed her how easy it was to go to Youtube and listen to anything she liked. I went to a Burl Ives rendition of the song. She said "no that's not it, the song was about trains, Hobos, dogs, and soft boiled eggs, and hope for a better life.” So I looked a little further on Youtube and found the version that I also remember Grandpa Bill singing when I was a child. My memory of the song was polluted with all of the modern versions, that are more about Candy Mountains than hope.

I read Hoy Kersh’s book, "Suitcase Full of Dreams" about a black girl growing up in the south. Talking to her really made an impact on me. She said that reading “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck really made her realize that the white people also had life-and-death struggles. I thought that up until then that I was the only one that understood that human struggle was not race based, but class based. Poor people are always trodden upon.

If you keep an open mind about history and try not to lay blame or solve anything, a lot about life, and people, will come to you. The dust bowl and the great depression were difficult times for people, many starved to death, and many lost all that they owned.

My Grandfather Bill Rathjens was the manager of a very successful ranch and business enterprise in Laytonville, The “Rancho El Primero”. His uncles owned the ranch. My Grandpa Bill and his two uncles were German emigrants. His uncles came over here before him and started an, also, very successful German sausage company. It was called the Rathjens Sausage Company. When I was going to college in San Francisco, in mid ‘60’s, I was down near Ghirardelli Square taking a much needed break from school. I was walking through a park and I looked up, on a multi-story red brick building was a very big, and very fancy, painted sign. Although faded almost beyond recognition, I could make out the words. The Rathjens Sausage company. I had no idea that the sausage company was that big until then.

The two uncles bought the Rancho El Primero in Laytonville. With the help of My Grandfather Bill, they built a sawmill, dairy, and gas station. All of which my grandfather managed. He ran his own side-business of selling and installing Kohler Light Plants. The Hartsook Inn was one of his Kohler customers.

The depression took all of that away. The two uncles lost everything. My grandfather Bill didn’t loose that much, because he didn’t own that much. But, he found himself having to work for other people after many years of being his own boss. I think that part of his soul broke in the loss of what was important to him, but he had many things left that he felt was important, and he continued on as a partly broken man. He helped my mother as much as he could, and he cared for my sister and I like we were his whole life.
After my mother and father got married, and my sister and I were born. My grandfather built the house that we lived in in Laytonville. My dad worked as a truck driver For the Mast Lumber company in Laytonville. As money would permit he would bring home lumber. My Grandfather Bill built the whole house with a hand saw, a level, a square, and a hammer. I was about five at the time. I remember “helping” him. He would give me a bucket full of nails and a block of wood and I would pound them all into the block. After I finished pounding all of the nails into the wood, he would pull them out and straighten them, then use them on the house, and give me some NEW nails to pound into the block.

After he got the house built, he built himself a little one room cabin with a tin wood stove in it to keep himself warm. When he wasn’t doing anything he would enjoy his habit of listening to the radio, “The Polka Party” and playing solitare. He called it “playing the Chinaman”, because in san Francisco the Chinese would charge you for a deck of cards then give you money back for the cards that you played up. The odds were fairly even, so the Chinaman only made money when you made mistakes. My grandfather said that they would watch you like a hawk. He really liked beating the “Chinaman” by winning.

One thing, that almost anybody that knew him knew, is, he was always whistling, He whistled when he played cards, he whistled while he worked, and he whistled when he walked. If he wasn't talking, eating, or drinking, he was whistling.

Sometimes I would go out to his cabin and visit him, he would get me into a Pedro game. He loved to play Pedro for money, so even playing against a kid kept his playing skills sharp. Sometimes he would let me win, I knew it, but it was still sweet to my young mind. One time he whittled me a wooden boat, he used to make me sleds and wagons. He used to make me “Steamboats”, which was a board with a wind up paddle wheel on the back that he powered with a rubber band. I never lacked for toys. He made me spinner tops. He made my sister and I an ice sled that he would use to push us across a frozen spring in a field. He made me wooden monkeys, that would climb a string. He made yoyo’s, popguns, bows and arrows. He was my constant companion as a child.

I guess that I always knew that my grandfather was somebody special, it’s just that some things are hard to appreciate when you are a kid.

I remember that he had a set of leather leggings, that were like strap on boot tops. He would strap them on and walk four miles to work in a sawmill that my uncle owned. He would work all day then walk home. On payday he would go to town and get drunk as a skunk, as the saying goes. In the evening he would come staggering down the road to our house. When he got there he always had a big grin on his face, and two paper bags in his hand. He would hand my sister Sharon and I each a bag. In Sharon’s bag was a Cherry-a-let and a bag of peanuts, and in my bag was a Butterfinger and a bag of jerky. We got one of those gift bags every payday up until almost the last day of his life.

As I got older, I think probably some time in my teens, when I started to notice the opposite sex. My grandfather getting drunk and staggering home became a great embarrassment to me. I remember avoiding him and wanting to have nothing to do with him. Even as I avoided him I always found my paper bag with The Butterfinger and jerky laying on my bed when I turned back my covers.

Many people took the time to tell me what a great man that my grandfather was.
Just as we see children today that are ashamed of their folks. We want to shake them and say, “Hey you idiot! Here is a person that is a great person in all respects but a few, and they care for you. Stop being a jerk!” We realize that parents, and grandparents, become a lot smarter after we grow up. I grew up to late to really appreciate, or thank, my Grampa Bill for the things that he did for me, or the good things in my life, that he unselfishly provided.

My Grampa Bill had a lifelong drinking habit that he controlled most of the time. But payday was a tradition that he just could not pass up. He spent more money at the bar on his friends than he did himself, so his money didn’t last long, and he was sober again. After he retired and collected social security he lived with my mom and dad. His “paydays” only came once a month, which was good. My mother had more compassion than I, and she cared for him and took fastidious care of him.

My only excuse is I was young, and very, very stupid! But, I do have some wonderful tales about him, that I will probably start telling now.

Until then, I’ll leave you with one of his favorite songs about the depression. By the way “HOBO” actually stands for: Helping Our Brothers Out.
Some say it means HOmeward BOund.

Click on arrow to play.



Photo and article below from Wikipedia.
Portrait shows Florence Thompson with several of her children in a photograph known as "Migrant Mother". The Library of Congress caption reads: "Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California." In the 1930s, the FSA employed several photographers to document the effects of the Great Depression on the population of America. Many of the photographs can also be seen as propaganda images to support the U.S. government's policy distributing support to the worst affected, poorer areas of the country. Lange's image of a supposed migrant pea picker, Florence Owens Thompson, and her family has become an icon of resilience in the face of adversity. However, it is not universally accepted that Florence Thompson was a migrant pea picker. In the book Photographing Farmworkers in California (Stanford University Press, 2004), author Richard Steven Street asserts that some scholars believe Lange's description of the print was "either vague or demonstrably inaccurate" and that Thompson was not a farmworker, but a Dust Bowl migrant. Nevertheless, if she was a "Dust Bowl migrant", she would have left a farm as most potential Dust Bowl migrants typically did and then began her life as such. Thus any potential inaccuracy is virtually irrelevant. The child to the viewer's right was Thompson's daughter, Katherine (later Katherine McIntosh, 4 years old (Leonard, Tom, "Woman whose plight defined Great Depression warns tragedy will happen again ", article, The Daily Telegraph, December 4, 2008) Lange took this photograph with a Graflex camera on large format (4"x5") negative film.

50 comments:

Ross Sherburn said...

Ernie,Has your mom seen the movie"Oh Brother where art thou" ??

This great song and many others are sang during the movie!

olmaniver said...

Thanks for starting my day with such a heartful tribute to your grandfather Ernie.
Whereas my sister and I had the sense to get my mother's life recorded before she passed, I had no awareness or appreciation to do the same for my grandparents who died in the early '80's. You were fortunate to have him living close by, as my kin were hours if not states away.
Was that gas station just north of Laytonville?
I can't resist...but I think you have just shared the origins of your hammer on reality test...you started early!

Robin Shelley said...

I don't know about the etymology of "hobo" but I like the idea of it being an acronym for "helping our brothers out" , Ernie. Hobos were migrant workers, of course, but of a higher station than tramps or bums who didn't work unless forced to & bums stayed in one place. There is an annual hobo convention in Iowa.
I grew up singing "Big Rock Candy Mountain" & when I went searching for the lyrics not too long ago I was surprised to find so many different versions.
Thanks for the wonderful story about your grandpa. I've always been partial to stories from the Depression era & "Grapes" is probably my favorite all time book.

suzy blah blah said...

Thank you Ernie, that is a really really great one. I think I like your portraits the best. This one and the one's about Speed, and Coca Cola Earl, and others from this area's past, they give me a lot.

He made me wooden monkeys, that would climb a string.

Precious.

On another note, I notice that the lives of upper class folks often seem to be full of struggles too. Even life and death struggles. It seems to be inherent in the human condition. Nobody escapes.

Ernie Branscomb said...

My grandmother Ruby was always a soft touch for "Hobos". They would knock on her door and ask if they could do any work for food. She would give them some chores to do, then she would give them a jelly sandwich. After they finished the job she would give them a couple of scrambled egg sandwiches. Some of them would leave after the jelly sandwich. Those that stayed got some good food.

She thought that it was funny that some would leave before doing their chores. She said that a jelly sandwich wouldn't last them long. Some people sell their honor cheap.

One story that my mother tells, is about a Hobo that knocked on the door begging for food. Gramma Ruby made him her standard deal. The guy faked passing out in the yard. My Aunt Lillian, Ruby’s Daughter, was young at the time and she knew that throwing water on somebody was supposed to revive them. She grabbed the hose at the garden faucet and ran it in his face. The guy revived all right. He jumped up cussing at her and left without getting his scrambled egg sandwiches, the kids got to eat scrambled egg sandwiches for lunch that day.

Anonymous said...

My mom told me when she was young, she wanted to be a stranger when she grew up.

Oregon

Robin Shelley said...

That IS hilarious, Oregon! I can't wait to share that story with somebody!

spyrock said...

that was a great story ernie. i think you told me once that your grandpa used to play pedro with fred or frank simmerely. i bet they were drinking right along with him. the first person i saw who was really snookered was howard simmerley when we visited spyrock back in the 50's. uncle delbert drank about everytime i saw him when he was young but he was ususally cussing up a storm so he always sounded like he could take names and kick butt. my mom and dad didn't drink at all because of my moms job as a school principal. and because she made enough money by herself to support us my dad stayed in the depression era until he died in 2006. he lived on the barter system. i never saw him pay for anything. he got everything for free because everyone owed him and he never sent them a bill. of course, he never threw anything away and would take stuff nobody else would want. his junk yard was my inheritance. i'm still sorting out his things 4 years later. there were lots of funny things that i remember about him but seeing his legs sticking out of the garbage can he got stuck in at 97 years of age trying to save something important i threw away takes the cake. there is no way to judge depression people. one mans trash is another mans treasure.

Ernie Branscomb said...

Robin
Brothern Pinches is one of the people that always had a job for my grandfather Bill. Anytime something needed doing in the hayfield he'd call Grampa Bill.

I never realized until I grew up how hard Grampa Bill must have worked. Hayfield work is not fun.

I didn't understand that a job was important, or how hard some people worked.

olmaniver said...

Again, this is good as it gets.
I thought all day long about how your grandpa let you "help" and then was patient enough to hammer out the nails and use them. Smart and kind. All those handmade toys! Any survive?
Great hobo stories...my grandparents were sharers with the hobos passing through S. Indiana in the depression, the hobos left a mark on their mailbox post to let others know these people shared food.
I have had some brief episodes of hard work in my life, but I cannot even conceive of how long the hours were and how bodybreaking the work was just to survive in the country back in the 1930's Depression days and of course earlier. My grandparents knew.

Ernie Branscomb said...

Knowing my gramma Ruby she was probably plenty glad to get somebody that wanted to work for food. She always had plenty. She had a big garden and orchard. She had all of the farm critters and a big chicken house, so food was plentyful but money was non-existant. She probably put the mark on the front post.

olmaniver said...

LOL!

Robin Shelley said...

Remember, too, that that was a time before welfare, food stamps, WIC, MediCal or any other social services, Social Security, MediCare & unemployment insurance.

suzy blah blah said...

What a marvelous language form. It's more bare bones than even Hemingway.

hobo writing

easy mark suzy

Ernie Branscomb said...

I wonder if that's where the expression "easy mark" came from?

olmaniver said...

Cha Cha answers "What is an easy mark?:
An easy mark is a person identified as an easy target, or "sucker;" one who is easily cheated out of money. The origin of the phrase is from Old English traveling carnivals from the late 1800s to early 1900s. Need More? ChaCha is here for you 24/7!"

So Cha-Cha says no, but Wiki says you are right Ernie: "Easy mark a hobo sign or mark that identifies a person or place where one can get food and a place to stay overnight"!

Anonymous said...

--Grandpa Bill also built a Doll House for Ernie's sister Sharon when she was around 5 years old. He built it from shim stock from the mill where he worked.(shim stock is the edgings they saw off of the lumber when it goes through the edger to make the lumber into a uniform size, or sometimes they will saw a shim off of a squared up log with the main saw to make it the proper size to cut into the lumber they want to make it into,)When they take shim off of the squared log you get a big sheet like a 1/4 inch or however thick the shim is,) that you can use like you would a sheet of ply board cutting into the size you need. And he also hand carved all
of the furniture for it, a bed, a table and chairs, and a replica of an old wood burning kitchen stove with a fire box with a front door and also an oven door that opened and closed. The stove lids he made from the metal inserts that used to be in the center of scotch tape rolls.
---Sharon still has the Doll House and furniture, and she also has the carved wooden monkey on the
string.
--Elsie----Ernie and Sharon's Mom---

Anonymous said...

Granpa Bill also always helped the traveling fellows with a hand out of food and a place to stay for a time while they did the work he had for them to do. He also let the Gypsys camp there when they were going through the country something no one else would do. They were all scared of the Gypsys and afraid they would steal from them. Grandpa Bill said he wasn't afraid of them and if they camped there then he knew where they were. ---Elsie---

Anonymous said...

The Big Rock Candy Mountain song that Ernie posted is the one I remember from childhood and I read his Blog about his Grandpa Bill and listened to the song and by the time I was through I was in tears.---Elsie---

Anonymous said...

Ern, you forgot to tell how Grandpa Bill threw packages of candy and peanuts out of the upstairs window to all of we cousins. He was such a wonderful grandpa ... and taught me to sing Silent Night in German when I was about 6 years old. Isn't it wonderful that when you're good to people their memory does not fade. That's what it's all about.

Cousin

Anonymous said...

Correction

When people are good to you their memory does not fade.

Cousin

olmanriver said...

Yay Elsie....hope to hear from you more! These are just wonderfully heartwarming!

suzy blah blah said...

demo

suzy blah blah said...

candy

Robin Shelley said...

On a summer day
in the month of May
once a hobo was a hiking.
As he strolled along,
he sang a song
of the land of milk & honey.
Where a man can stay
for a year & a day
and he won't need any money.
Oh, the buzzin' of the bees
in the bubblegum trees
near the soda water fountain
There's a lemonade spring
where the whippoorwills sing
on the Big Rock Candy Mountain
Something, something
lake of stew & ice cream, too,
you can paddle all around
in a paper canoe...
lalalalalala,
The funny old clown said,
"Boys, I'm now in clover.
I'll see you all
this coming Fall
on the Big Rock Candy Mountain."

There's more, of course, but that's the version I grew up with.

Robin Shelley said...

A child's version, no doubt.

Anonymous said...

Me too Robin. The record I had back in the early 50's was by Tex Ritter.

Oregon

olmaniver said...

I got all excited when the song came on tv last night, but it was just an LL Bean ad for kids backpacks .....the preferred brand of hobo children?!?

Anonymous said...

Now I am in tears . . . How sweet the momories. I love the dollhouse and have it set up where I can always "play" with it. I was just describing it to a friend yesterday! And the "monkey on a string" hangs from my kitchen window, and I play with that too. Oh yes, and the Candy . . . YUM! My Mom and Dad (Elsie and Everett) were very gentle people, but one day, I guess I pushed them too far and they were scolding me (I was 4 or 5). I went to Grampa Bill's room and told him "they are yelling me both at once"! He took me back to the kitchen and "resolved the matter"

Ernie Branscomb said...

WOW!!! An all time first, I didn't even know that my sister read this blog!
That last comment was from my Cityfied sister Sharon. HI SIS!

Robin Shelley said...

Tex Ritter. Yep. 78 rpm. Left over from aunts & uncles.

Anonymous said...

Hi Sharon, I bet you're in Laytonville so you might not see this for a couple of days but wanted to tell you that being called "cityfied" is fightin' words where I live.

Oregon

spyrock said...

better to be cityfied than cityfried. when i hit the city, those folks still don't know what hit them. doncha know.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone else remeber the Gypsys I spoke of in one of my comments?
I can also remember once the Circus travelig on the roadway north of Laytonville toward Laytonville to set up the Circus there The elephahts were pulling the wagons, some with equipment in them and some with caged wild animals,they also used the elephants to set upthe big tent and do other heasvy work--Elsie--

Anonymous said...

Elsie, I have done nothing but picture the elephants pulling those wagons since I saw your post. Did you mean they traveled that way. It makes sense but seems like a slow moving outfit. I wonder how they fed the elephants while traveling, did they let them graze the fields along the way?

Oregon

Ernie Branscomb said...

Mom Elsie
Tell them about the half-bridge.

Anonymous said...

I'm first Ernie. I want to hear more about the elephants.

Oregon

Anonymous said...

The Circus that went by didn't have a whole herd of elephants, only one or maybe two, seems like I can remember one pulling a wagon and one walking along side on the edge of the rode. Maybe they took turns. I don't know what they ate , but I know they eat vegetation type foods, grass, hay, twigs and small tree branches,also fruits and vegies, so maybe they grazed along the way and they carried some hay along for them.It says an elephant eats about 300lbs. of food a day so if it was all hay they would need at least three bales a day for each one as the bales we used to buy for our cows weighed around ninety lbs. each. I suppose they could get something for them from farms etc. along the way. If they did take turns pulling wagons the one not pulling could be having his turn to graze. As I remember it there were 2 or 3 wagons tied togetherlike cars on a train so they were pulling more than one wagon at a time. they could have had some vehicles too although I don't rememberthem but there were some cars etc. at the time. Yes the elephants would have been slow traveling but the autos at that time wouldn't have been any faster and the elephants were most likely more reliable. It wasn't a large Circus, just a small traveling one that hit the little towns along the way.--Elsie-

Anonymous said...

I suppose what Ernie wants me to write about the half bridge (later called the slab) (like Ernie says they changed names on us)is that they used elephants some in building that. I didn't see that myself but heard it when I was growing up,---from old workers who worked on building the Redwood Hiway and they would have no reason to lie about it. In those days there wasn't any heavy duty equipment for building Hiways, just a pick and shovel and blasting powder to break up the rocks . So I guess they used the elephants to move some of the heavy rocks and the heavy beams they used to build a bridge from rock to rock. That is why it was called The Half Bridge, because it was half roadbed on the rocks and half Bridge going from roadbed to the next piece of roadbed and in someplaces it would be built out to the side to make it wide enough for a roadway. Don't know when they built that part of the road but some of the concrete culverts around Laytonville had the date 1919 stamped in the concrete I think they were all later replaced wit corrurgated metal pipe.-Elsie- culverts.

Anonymous said...

A minor error in the above comment. Don't know how I got my name in there before the end of the last sentence, but it's that way so will just have to live with it.--Elsie--

Anonymous said...

Well Elsie, I think elephants rank up there with heavy equipment. I remember Uncle Everett telling me the guys name that was the engineer on that project. Uncle said he was well known or at least famous around Latonville.
When I was young I used to hitch a ride on the Foremost truck headed back to Oakland. I went as far as Laytonville. The truck was a tractor with a set of doubles and it had to use both lanes on the Half bridge to get around the turns.
When I was old enough to drive the best I could do around one of those turns was 20 MPH and stay on my own side of the road. That was a 10 MPH turn on the half bridge and I was on my motorcycle.

Oregon

Anonymous said...

The circus traveled by train, and the nearest train stop was at Longvale and/or Dos Rios. After unloading, the elephant pulled the wagons to the closest towns where the circus performed. They would then return to the railroad. The circus traveled this way as far as Eureka hitting any town large enough. I once heard about an elephant traveling the Bell Springs Road with it's circus wagons, and a very oldtimer wrote in a book about an elephant being held in a barn near Harris. Musgraves, Wilsons and many other school children of the 1930s well remember the circus coming to town and working for it while being paid with free tickets to water the animals in 10 Mile Creek near Harwood Park.

Anonymous said...

Ooooops!

Cousin

Anonymous said...

Cousin to Ernie, Niece to me,--do they also remember the bands of Gypsys traveling through the country?--Elsie--

Anonymous said...

Yes, and the hobos too. My aunt up Dos Rios said as a child her mother always fed the hobos and they'd go on their merry way. Occassionally she'd give them a little job to do. She remembered hearing about the gypsys going to their ranch and that you could hear the pans banging on their wagons like teambells, which alerted the stage or wagons someone was on the one-way road. Same with the stage going over the hill into Covelo, ha. Isn't that something??

Cousin/niece

Anonymous said...

--Cousin)--Thank You Niece--For letting me know someone else besides me remembers the Gypsys, I knew it had to be someone near my age who also grew up in that area as I was only 4 or 5 at the time from which I remember them. I couldn't think who it might be, but I know the Aunt you are refering to.--Aunt Elsie--

Anonymous said...

Yes you do, Auntie.

Cousin/niece

Sofia said...

We do love paydays and for sure during paydays we tend to splurge a lot of money mostly on nonsense things that's why we cannot save enough money for our future. And it's bad because we're experiencing economic crisis and yet, we still don't care about that. For instance, I always make ways in order for me to save money. Sometimes I would apply for a payday loan (Utah) and from there, I will keep a part of it and put it in a bank for safe keeping.

Sofia said...

We do love paydays and for sure during paydays we tend to splurge a lot of money mostly on nonsense things that's why we cannot save enough money for our future. And it's bad because we're experiencing economic crisis and yet, we still don't care about that. For instance, I always make ways in order for me to save money. Sometimes I would apply for a payday loan (Utah) and from there, I will keep a part of it and put it in a bank for safe keeping.

Sofia said...

We do love paydays and for sure during paydays we tend to splurge a lot of money mostly on nonsense things that's why we cannot save enough money for our future. And it's bad because we're experiencing economic crisis and yet, we still don't care about that. For instance, I always make ways in order for me to save money. Sometimes I would apply for a payday loan (Utah) and from there, I will keep a part of it and put it in a bank for safe keeping.