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Lessons from the past: Surviving an economic meltdown

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Hallowell-great-grandparents (All photos courtesy Leon Pantenburg)

Story by Leon Pantenburg

When the stock market crashed in 1929, the economy tanked, farm prices dropped, and my grandfather, Peter Pantenburg, lost the family farm in central Iowa. My people have been in that area since my great-great-grandfather, James Hallowell got a land grant after the Civil War and homesteaded in the late 1860s. My great-grandpa, Charles Hallowell, plowed the prairie for the first time in the 1870s with a John Deere breaking plow.

Leo Wirth moved his family to Wesley, Iowa, to find work. Here’s some of the kids, in – I think – the mid-1930s: Vincent, Alina, my mom, Mary, and Eldon.

My dad’s family went from being prosperous farmers to homeless in a matter of months.

My mom’s family had a similar story. Grandpa Leo Wirth also lost a farm, and he had a large family to feed.

Both families were destitute, but they weathered the storm and stayed intact. There were a lot of lessons learned about coping with economic disaster.

To put this in context: By 1930, according to history.com, four million Americans looking for work could not find it; that number had risen to six million in 1931. Meanwhile, the country’s industrial production had dropped by half.

My grandparents, Peter and Harriet Pantenburg, on their wedding day in June 1917.

By 1933, when the Great Depression reached its nadir, some 13 to 15 million Americans were unemployed, and nearly half of the country’s banks had failed, according to history.com.

The United States didn’t come out of the depression until 1939, at the beginning of World War II.

Despite the hard times, both families stayed intact. All their children turned out to be upstanding, successful people.

Here are some of the lessons learned:

Never give up: Leo moved his family to Wesley, Iowa, because he found work managing a gas station/garage at a Standard Station. Pete and Leo took whatever work they could find and did any jobs that were available. Neither sat around waiting for someone to help them out. Nobody expected any government help, and both men would have felt it demeaning to take assistance from anywhere.

My uncles Eldon, Vincent and Fredrick, and Grandfather Leo Wirth, probably in the late 1930s in Wesley, Iowa.

Figure out your resources and come up with a plan: Even though it was a good crop, Pete’s corn was not worth harvesting in 1930 with the low prices, so the family burned corn for heat one winter.

Some of the displaced farmers headed west or to other areas to look for work. Others tried to stay in place. Take an inventory of your resources and assets and use that list to decide what to do next.

Subsistence hunting and fishing: My dad was 11 in 1929. He was too small to be much help farming, but he was an excellent small game hunter. Dad hunted all the time, and frequently, the rabbits and squirrels he killed became the main course for the evening meal.

His marksmanship got really good. Years later in the Army, that skill got dad a job training troops and teaching rifle and pistol. Dad’s primary hunting firearm was a single shot .22 rifle. He used .22 shorts, because of the low price and noise, and he only shot once before moving along. (It’s difficult to locate a single shot by sound.) Still, he got caught poaching once.

My dad and his sisters, Agatha (left) and Edna, sometime in the 1920s.

But don’t depend on hunting or fishing. Hunting and foraging can supplement the food supply, but heading for the hills and “living off the land” won’t work. Have other ideas and plans to put food on the table during emergencies.

Have a skill or supplemental job: All farmers, it seemed, had some sort of side occupation. Leo was a butcher, and he would travel to farms to process cattle and hogs. He frequently got paid in meat. (Leo died when I was 7 or 8, but I remember him skinning a pig and tending his bees.)

Charles Hallowell and his daughter, Alice Johnson, used their musical skills to survive. Charles played the violin at bars, dances, parties and other social events. Alice accompanied him on the piano or played another violin.

They made enough to keep ends meeting and to take in Pete’s family temporarily. (It’s in the DNA – today, I play Charles’ fiddle in an old-time string band. We do some of the same tunes Charles did. Check out how grandpa’s fiddle sounds on “Over the Waterfall.”)

Leo’s butcher knife is a treasured heirloom my sister Karla still uses.

Everybody, including the kids and old folks, had a job they could do based on their abilities. These tasks could be anything, from gathering eggs to snapping beans to helping with the harvest to working in the garden. Every little bit helped.

Stick together: Pete’s family moved to another farm north of Ames and got a new start. I grew up on that farm, and my dad bought it in the 1960s. (I hunted the same hills and timber he used to hunt as a kid, but I never had the pressure to be successful!)

Other neighbors were not so fortunate, and many of them had to hit the road (think “Grapes of Wrath”). Our next-door neighbor, Jo Stahlman, was born in Foley, Ala., when her family moved south to find work.

Make do: Fix, repair, recycle and reuse. Clothing was patched, handed down and used up. When it finally reached the rag stage, it might be made into a quilt.

My great-grandfather, Charles Hallowell, sometime in the 1940s.

That went for just about everything. Money was scarce and fixing or mending something didn’t cost anything.

Garden: While millions of Americans went hungry, my relatives gardened like they always did. Every farm had a large plot, and many families were largely fed off the produce. Fruit orchards and berry patches were common.

There was virtually no market for livestock, but farmers could and did raise animals for their own tables. As far as I know, places like Iowa and other Midwest states, which didn’t have the severe droughts of the dust bowl areas, fared better than many other areas.

Raise chickens and rabbits: Farms back then were more diversified, with a variety of food-raising activities. Every farm had a flock of chickens for the eggs and meat.

Rabbit meat is one of the most nutritious meats available, according to Rise and Shine Rabbitry, and rabbits can produce six pounds of meat on the same feed and water as it takes a cow to produce one pound of meat.

Both animals can be raised in small spaces and are productive and prolific.

Preserve food: Every farm wife knew how to can and preserve vegetables, and every farmer had a pantry. My relatives, being of mostly German extract, made lots of sauerkraut and pickled many other vegetables.

My grandmother, Sophie Wirth, with my aunt and uncle, Irene and Eldon, probably in the middle 1930s.

Canned and smoked meats were also important. Just about every farm had a smoke house, where meat was preserved by smoking. This included hams, of course, but bacon, sausage and other smoked meats last a long time and could get you through the winter.

This probably explains why bratwurst and sauerkraut is one of my favorite comfort foods. That’s also in my DNA.

Build a root cellar. These were the family’s food insurance policy. They were generally an area under the house, like a basement, where canned foods could be stored. The temperature, being underground, was pretty consistent, and it allowed for long-term storage of root vegetables. Hence the name.

The root cellar was an essential way to keep carrots, turnips, beets, parsnips, potatoes and other root vegetables fresh through the winter months. According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, to work properly, a root cellar must be able to hold a temperature of 32 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit and have a humidity level of 85 to 95 percent. Ground temperature stabilizes at 10 feet deep, according to the almanac.

My aunt Irene, 86, recalls that Grandma Sophie Wirth frequently ended up feeding extra mouths at the table.

“He (Leo) was known for supporting siblings in any way he could,” Irene told my cousin Lisa Faust Swenson. “On weekends, anywhere from one family to all his siblings’ families would show up for dinner. Grandma would just keep taking food from the root cellar to make sure all were fed.”

It took World War II to bring the country out of the Great Depression. There are still arguments over what caused it, and who is responsible. That discussion can take place somewhere else.

We’ve all heard that cliché: Those who don’t learn from the lessons of the past are doomed to repeat them. I think the lessons learned from my families’ survival of the depression are valid today.

Here’s the bottom line: You have to be part of a tribe, family or larger group that cares about the individual. Stick together. Learn how to produce, preserve and store food. Learn job skills and how to get by.

And maybe the most important lesson: Never give up!


This story first appeared on Leon Pantenburg’s blog, Survival Common Sense. It has been reprinted here with permission from the author. All photos are courtesy Leon Pantenburg.

People

Pastor Reginald Harris Celebrates 17 years at Bright Morning Star Church

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Photo by Thomas Parker

Vicksburg Daily News was on hand to celebrate a special day with Pastor Reginald Harris and his family.

Sunday, the congregation at Bright Morning Star Church honored Pastor Harris for 17 years of leading the church.

Churchgoers decorated their vehicles and took the opportunity to join in the drive-by celebration and show their appreciation to the Pastor and his family.

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People

Those who keep us safe: Sam Winchester

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Photo by David Day

For 30 years and counting, Samuel K. Winchester has been a public servant.

In 1990, prior to a career in law enforcement, Winchester enlisted in the United States Military.

“I’ve always been involved in that line of work,” he said. “I am a veteran. I was in the United States Army, so that work really centered around a career in law enforcement after that.”

After the army, he got his first start in law enforcement by working at Alcorn State University. After a brief stint with the college, he started at the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department in 2000.

Winchester grew up in a tiny town in Jefferson County, northeast of Natchez, called Rodney, Miss.

His upbringing resulted in him seeing first hand what it means to be a public servant.

“The person I looked up to was my father,” Winchester said. “Ironically, we both mirrored each other’s occupations. He was in the military and also he worked at the Jefferson County Sheriff’s department.”

Winchester saw that the Warren County Sheriff’s Department was hiring and he was hired in 2004.

With almost two decades with the Warren County Sheriff’s Department, Winchester wears many hats.

Winchester has worked his way up the ranks and in 2006 was named detective for the Criminal Investigation Division. He also is a hostage crisis negotiator for the department. Winchester is also called on to investigate county fires as a county fire investigator. Lastly, one of the most notable positions Winchester serves is as the primary driving instructor at the Mississippi Law Enforcement Officer Training Academy for the State of Mississippi located in Pearl.

With all these responsibilities, Winchester is a mild mannered man who enjoys being there for his community.

“My favorite part of serving on the sheriff’s department is that I get to help people,” Winchester said. “In today’s society, our job is centered around the public, so we always want the public to know we are available to them and it’s very crucial that we help everybody. If you can just help one person and touch one person’s life you can consider that a successful day.”

The people of Warren County are not the only people who recognize Winchester’s hard work. In 2017, he was recognized by Hon. Bennie G. Thompson in the House of Representatives by a Congressional Record for his service.

In the record, Thompson wrote, “I ask my colleagues to join me in recognizing, Det. Sam Winchester for his hard work, dedication and a strong desire to serve his country and community.”

After all of this success in his career, Winchester was asked to define a community hero.

“When you serve the public you dont put alot of thought into it being an individual community hero because it has so many moving parts to it,” he said. “Its a team effort. It’s not an individual effort. I look at everyone who serves the public and in law enforcement as a hero. Everyone who wakes up and puts on the uniform and risk their life to save someone else’s life or touch someone else’s life, that’s a hero.”

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Education

Mississippi native elected as Harvard student body president

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(photo courtesy Noah Harris)

A Mississippi high school graduate has been elected as Harvard University’s student body president.

Noah Harris, a 2018 graduate of Oak Grove High School in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, is the first African American to serve in the role at prestigious Harvard University in Massachusetts.

“I’m really grateful that the student body is entrusting me with such a historic and unprecedented moment,” Harris told WDAM. “To make the right moves and to really bring their voices to the forefront. I just never expected that I would be in a position to run for this.”

Harris is a junior and a political science major at Harvard. He served as treasurer on the finance committee in his first two years. His vice president and running mate is neuroscience major Jenny Gan. Both plan on making a difference at the university.

Harris and Gan will be sworn in Dec. 6.

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