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.
The oysters had caused somewhat of a turmoil, for I had stopped in Oblong on my way home from Chambana and bought two quarts of blue point oysters. Dad, still suffering from “Depressionitis”, was quite upset that I would “blow” my hard-earned money for such high-priced “goodies.” I admit that the $1.35-a-quart price tag made me pause for a moment, but “What the heck? Thanksgiving comes but once a year.” I well remember when Grandpa Piper would have a four-gallon case of iced-down oysters shipped in at Christmas time, but then that was in those good old days of 1916.
That hoary old barred rock chanticleer that had been greeting the dawn for many a year had finally given his all, and had been stewing on the back of the cook stove all night, making a broth that would soon be cooking a mass of Aunt Lil’s famous yeast -raised dumplin’s. Uncle Clint, Aunt Lil Caudle and Sue were having dinner with us. She was my grandmother’s sister, you know, and we were at their house last year, or was it the year before?
Turkey Day was still the big day for high school football, and even though my alma mater, Bridgeport, was again meeting arch-rival Lawrenceville with the game starting at 10 a.m., none of us were planning to go, even though the game would be over long before dinner would be ready. Instead, I was meeting a longtime neighbor buddy, Art Vanatta, pretty quick now, and since last night’s skiff of snow was just enough to track a cottontail, we were planning to whet our rabbit-hunting skills. I was using Dad’s Winchester .22 pump, but Art was still proud of the Stevens single shot that “Santa” had brought him several years ago. MaMa warned us that dinner would be ready around 3 p.m., so “you boys be back, hear? Good!”
As I crossed the back porch to join Art, I could not help but catch the unmistakable aroma of fresh baked pumpkin pies cooling on Dad’s old desk. Since the fire, there had been no room for the desk in the house, so the desk sat out there on the back porch for more than 10 years before the new house was ready to move into. My sister, Margaret, was in Dad’s big chair there at the desk. She was busy whipping several bowls of heavy cream from the Jersey to top the pies. I spotted a big glob on the side of the crock that she was using, and rather than take a chance on it dropping off, I slipped a forefinger along the edge and lifted it off. Good? You betcha boots.
Dad had always been particular about buying only Peaberry coffee from Charley Saxton, and I was surprised when MaMa told me that, lately, Dad had been sending a dollar a week to “old man Henderson” down New Orleans way for a pound of special coffee that was being sold to finance a wild campaign against the chain stores over a New Orleans radio station.
Aside from that coffee, and the suet that Dad got at Jess Brian’s, and, oh yes, my oysters, the cash outlay for this dinner was minimal.
Art’s waitin’. See you in a couple of hours when the dinner bell rings. Okay? Good! FC
Perry E. Piper’s recollections of his childhood on Muddy Creek – “which lies astraddle of the Indian Boundary Line that old Chief Tecumseh and William Henry Harrison laid out back in 1803” – have appeared in newspapers in Illinois and Indiana for the past 12 years. He has collected the columns into two volumes of memoirs, available from him at 71 Concordia Drive, Paris, IL 61944.
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