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Spring 2009

They Lived to Tell

by Rachel Coleman

Since last autumn, Americans have heard ominous phrases like “recession,” “economic downturn” and “Great Depression” almost daily. The prospect of unemployment, foreclosure and a cost of living that keeps inching higher is nothing to laugh about. Still, some Kansans view the current situation from a vantage point that puts the notion of difficulty in perspective.

“It was just awfully hard times,” said Aline Johnson, 100, who rode out the Dust Bowl and the Depression in her early married years. “I think even my own children couldn’t have gone through what we did once they were grown. You know, they had so much growing up that we never expected. We were used to hard work to begin with. I don’t think many people now could make it through.”

Johnson, who was born in 1908 and raised in Floris, Okla., just over the state line, grew up on the farm her parents homesteaded in 1904.

Her father held on to the venture until 1926, when he turned it over to Aline and her husband, Sam.

“We only farmed one year,” she said. “We had $7 profit after the first year, and that won’t hardly keep you, even back then.”

The couple moved to Liberal in search of a better living. But the financial benefits were clouded by the dust storms that blackened the sky and made everyday life an exercise in futility, Johnson said.

“It was so terrible. We’d wash the stove, wash the dishes, the table, and put a cloth over the clean things. Then a few hours later, you’d have to wash it all over again because the dust came in from outside. I remember one time, we had the coal oil lamp lit in the living room, and no one could even see the flame, the dust was so thick.”

Many families gave up on High Plains living and moved west, but the Johnsons stayed put with their young sons, Bob and Don. Although many young children sickened with “dust pneumonia” and asthma, the Johnson boys stayed healthy.

That was a good thing, their mother said: “I don’t remember ever talking about it with my husband, but I think we didn’t move because we probably didn’t have the money.”

Then, too, both Aline and Sam were the youngest children in large families of eight children or more. They were reluctant, she said, to leave their loved ones.

For Grace Smith, a fellow Panhandle native, the Depression hit at an earlier age and sent her family in all directions. She was just 16 when her father, D.R. Ward, concluded farming was not going to support his seven children and took a position as a grain elevator operator in another town.

“Dad had five sons to run the farm, and there was a chance for him to earn a salary,” she said. It seemed like a good plan — except for the miserable nature of life during dust storm days.

With the “good money” Ward sent back home, Smith’s mother opted to move to Denver, where members of her extended family had found work and refuge from the billowing dust clouds.

“I thought it was Utopia,” Smith, now 90, recalls today from her home in Liberal. She especially liked the park across the street, where she and her brothers could run barefoot without thistles or thorns to trouble them. It wasn’t all green grass and childish play, however. One brother sought work as a dishwasher, while another found work at the Denver Mint.

Smith got a job “painting false teeth,” she said with a chuckle, though she no longer remembers how much it paid. “I just gave all my money to my mother to buy groceries.”

In time, city life grew old. Smith missed the Mt. Olive one-room schoolhouse built on land her grandmother had donated to the community. She missed “Papa” and the simple pleasures of country life that had been rubbed out by dust and hardship.

When an Oklahoma suitor hopped a ride on a grain truck and showed up at her door, Smith’s mother “wasn’t too happy,” she said, but the couple married and made a home in Colorado, where work was more plentiful. It was more than two decades before she made her way back to the Southwest.

Her father, she said, was never able to return to the farm life he’d hoped to establish.

Back in Kansas, the Johnsons found their way through the hard times by making do with less. It was not much different than the way Aline had grown up.

“My mother was a seamstress who made all our clothes from feed sacks. It wasn’t fancy, but we were clean. We made our own soap. We wouldn’t run to the store if we ran out of something,” she said. “My parents had always grown what they called a ‘truck patch,’ a vegetable garden that covered an acre. We canned what we grew. We put in fruit trees even though people warned my dad not to bother. But we had fruit enough to share with the neighborhood.”

That, she added, was because the children hauled buckets of water to each tree, every day, all through the growing season, year after year.

As a young wife and mother, she adopted the same long-term view, doing each day’s work as it came and hoping it would end well.

“We never did get to the place where we needed government relief, and our boys grew up and went to fight in World War II,” she said. “I’m so thankful they came home from that.”

At 100, Johnson survived times harder than most 21st-century Americans have yet seen. She has outlived her husband and both sons and battled cancer twice.

“I wouldn’t know how to advise people who are worried about the future,” she said, noting she can only speak from her own life experience. In that, she looks at the good.

“There’s been lots of disappointment in my life, lots of sorrow,” she said. “But you put them in the balance, and it comes out even.”

 

 


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