Family life in the 1930s, second chapter

By Barbara F. Dyer | Jan 16, 2020
Pictured is Elm Street School in Camden.

The Great Depression years are continued this week from my last article about Family Life in the 1930s.

At the end of the summer of 1929, Ma told Susie it would be time to start sub-primary and she would probably love school, as there would be other children her age for companionship. She would also learn reading and writing. That was very important in life. Ruth had come to America from a foreign country at the age of 10, because her mother had died when Ruth was eight years old. She could not go to school over there, as she had to cook and clean for her father and her three brothers. That is what girls did, until their father married again. It was then that her maternal grandmother thought life would be easier in America for the 10-year old. Ruth's cousin and his new bride, who were about 10 years older than Ruth, would bring her with them. Well, after the long journey, they arrived in Camden, but the woman with whom she was supposed to live had changed her mind. So, at that young age, she had to go to work to support herself. She was offered a job in Brewster's Shirt Factory and boarded with a nice family. (There were no child labor laws then.) Still, she could not go to school. Ruth felt school was very important and Susie thought it sounded exciting, until she began to really think about it. She did not know where the school was located, and it must be far away because she could not see it from her house. Would she get lost, as she had never been very far from home? Which way should she go? She began to get very uneasy.

So Susie said to Ma, “How will I know where to go?”

Ruth answered, ”Don't worry dear, as I shall walk with you for the first week, to show you the way, and where you will cross the roads. Then Phyllis and John will walk down the long street until you come to the library. They are going to school in another part of town and will cross there, but you will go through the business district, being very watchful of cars until you come to a nice, large, old school building with a fence around it. You go only mornings this year, and all day after that. The next year you will go to the part of town where your brother and sister go.” That sounded all right and she was anxious to start school; her new adventure.

Labor Day came and Ma had one of Phyllis' dresses that she had out-grown, and made it to fit Susie. Clothes were always handed down during the Depression. Susie didn't mind, as the dress was pretty. She did get a new pair of shoes and they must last the whole year. So Ruth walked with her little girl, all the way telling her where to cross the roads and watch carefully at all intersections for automobiles, as they might not see her because she was so tiny. It was a small town, where everyone knew everyone and only a few families had automobiles. It seemed like a long way for the five-year old, but it was a new, interesting and exciting thing to do.

School was fun and the teacher was lovable. Susie loved meeting all those new children and playing at recess time. They had some books, crayons and paper. She really loved it and Ruth was there to meet her and walk home when school was over. This went on for a week. Then Ma and Susie were both confident that she could make it fine. She even met a couple of children, who lived on the long street that lead to town, and they were going to the same class.

May came quickly and the school had Health Day in the Village Green. There was a maypole with colored streamers, and they would dance around it. The children had a toy band and they were to play their sticks, cymbals and bells. The teacher told Susie that she was to be the leader. They had practiced, practiced and practiced. Susie's best dress was a “made over” but she felt it was pretty. It was green crepe-like material with layers of ruffles on the skirt part. Susie stood a little nervous on the box and waved a stick, like a real band leader. It looked like the whole town turned out to watch the event.

School was over after a long time but it was fun, and she couldn't wait for the next year when she would go all day. Meanwhile it was summer and play time again. The man Pop worked for sold antiques, which were sometimes shipped in large crates. Pop brought some home and put them together for a playhouse in the back yard. What fun for Susie and John, but Phyllis was not the outdoor type. One night they asked if they could stay in their camp. Ruth was hesitant for a five- and seven-year old to be out there in the dark, but Pop said “Sure.” They took a flashlight, a Sterno stove and its can of fuel. They also took a can of tomato soup and some saltine crackers. Oh, they did not forget the “Devil Dogs” for dessert. When it began to get quite dark, Susie nervously suggested they go back in the house, but John was brave and said, ”Don't be silly; we will be ok.” Ma was uneasy but Pop said “Don't worry, they will be back soon, just you wait and see.” About 8:30 it was dark enough so Susie and John came running into the house. They were sure they had heard a bear or wolf or something that would eat them up, if they stayed out there.

Their home sat side to front on the property but the front door had no walk. So Susie wondered why and guessed maybe the house had been moved there. No one used the front door or little hallway, but like most men during prohibition, Pop made his own beer and bottled it in that space. Susie liked to watch the process of mixing yeast and stuff. Then putting it behind the kitchen stove to “ferment.” Then she watched while he poured it through a funnel into the little bottles. There was a gadget that one put the cap in and pulled the handle, making it tight. Susie was pleased that she knew how to cap, because most families made root beer for the children. Soda did not come in cans then and not many could afford it already made.

Susie and John wanted to go to the end of the street to the water and most of the “so-called” summer people spent only a month or two in their cottage. There might be more tennis balls left that they could find. They were playing near the cottages, when they heard a very fast boat coming toward shore.

“What are we going to do, John?'

His answer was, “Run and hide. Stay with me, but don't talk or even sneeze.”

It did not take much space for the children to hide. Some men came ashore and left some large square cans of alcohol. The children had heard of “rum runners” during Prohibition. The men quickly hid the cans behind the lattice work at the front of the porches. Then they heard the speed boat race off toward a larger boat at sea. The children went and emptied the smelly stuff on the ground and ran as fast as they could toward home. They saw a big car with two men headed down toward the shore, probably to pick up the booze and make a good sum of illegal money. How surprised they must have been to find empty cans.

This on-going episode was their most exciting entertainment. Their parents knew a man who worked in the Customs Office, whose job it was to catch the “rum runners.” But the kids told no one, not even Ma, because that was their game. They did not realize how lucky they were not to be caught. When home another day, they heard their parents reading the local paper and those men had been arrested and jailed.


Barbara F. Dyer has lived all her life, so far, in Camden and is the official town historian.

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Comments (1)
Posted by: Mary A McKeever | Jan 18, 2020 12:19

Thanks Barbara, I just  love history and you really tell the story GOOD!  Being Boston raised in Mass. I saw boot legging in real city time. Snow cover here in AZ and I do a lot of library book-reading. Cannot wait for warmer weather and swimming again in the outside pool here. I love my on-line Courier!

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