Thanksgiving During the Great Depression

Perry Piper recalls Thanksgiving during the Great Depression in 1933


| November 1998



Thanksgiving during the Great Depression

Thanksgiving during the Great Depression

The Indian Snake Root Tonic calendar on the wall beside MaMa's cook stove had Nov. 29 printed in red and was marked "THANKSGIVING." The multi-paged "bible" was an annual give-away from the Dale and Sheridan's Drugstore, and had been printed and distributed long before President Roosevelt, in an attempt to prolong the Christmas shopping season, had decreed that, this year, the observance would be held one week earlier. MaMa was now reluctantly preparing what she called "an early Thanksgiving dinner."

In 1933, the country was wallowing deep in the worst Depression the world has ever known. Money was still scarce, even though FDR had inaugurated several dozen alphabet-named agencies whose express purpose was to encourage "recovery": the OPA, WPA, AAA, FCC and many more seemed to be working.

The WPA (Works Progress Administration) certainly was putting men to work, albeit at "make work" projects, but men were bringing home paychecks, and for many, it would be the first time in several years that their women folk could "rub two dollars together" and might just be wearing a new dress at Thanksgiving time. For many farmers, like those along Muddy Creek, the Agriculture Adjustment Administration was giving them cash money after a far too long dry spell.

I was in my third year at the university. Many of my classmates were long gone, succumbing to the lure of a job offer or giving up the fight against the twin adversaries of a lack of money and a tough course of study. The football season was just over, and Zuppke was closing out a long career with but modest success. The Depression had leaned up his bank of talent, but happily, the loyal Illini boosters could still find the $4.20 for a seat. Even more importantly, for me, they could and did listen to my sales pitch of "you can't tell the players without a program," and so they shelled out 25 cents for a program, of which I made a whole nickel. Multiply that nickel by several hundred, and now you know how I was able to sport a new chamois skin jacket that the downtown Champaign Jos. Kuhn shop had on special when I went home for the Thanksgiving holiday.

The big house had burnt three or four years before, and my folks were living and "making do" in the tenant house, so there wasn't much room. But as usual, most of the Piper clan, invariably including some kin or maybe the preacher, would gather on Muddy Creek for MaMa's traditional Thanksgiving dinner. No fuss was ever made for a few extra mouths to feed.

Dad had mixed beef suet from Brian's Butcher Shop with a long list of ingredients, including raisins, chopped apples and hickory nut meats, and had stuffed a muslin bag with the mixture and boiled it for hours in the wash boiler. He would be serving the Suet Pudding as the dinner's piece de resistance. At least two heavy, fat, old hens had been dressed and stuffed with oyster dressing, and baked.