My Great-Grandfather’s Life in the Great Depression

This year, on the Vermont side of my family, a box of daily journals came to light after being packed away for about 90 years. They were kept by mother’s father’s father, Charles Orson Brewster, who was a successful builder in the southwestern Vermont town of Manchester. One of my cousins found the journals while clearing out a house for sale. He gave me the one for 1929 and 1930.

My first thought was: “Bean Bean!” That was the affectionate name another cousin gave him, and it stuck. I scarcely remember my great-grandfather, since he died in 1962, when I was 4. He dressed formally in retirement — necktie, suspenders and arm garters — and was fond of having great-grandchildren on his knee. Having been born in 1879, just 14 years after the end of the Civil War, he was our link to an unimaginably distant past.

My second thought was that he must have had a lot to say about the Great Depression. Thinking I could find something to write about, I opened the journal and went straight to Oct. 24, 1929, the day known as Black Thursday, when the stock market crashed and the Depression unofficially began. I have to say I was disappointed.

Here’s the entire entry: “Cloudy, warm A.M. 60. Trying to rain tonight. 3 eggs.”

Thinking that perhaps news of the crash took a day to get from Wall Street to Vermont, I looked at his entry for the next day.

“Harold Thompson struck the telephone pole out in front of our house late this afternoon,” it read in part. “Finished work at Mrs. Powers today.”

I flipped ahead to Oct. 29, another bad day for stocks, known as Black Tuesday. Still no luck. He wrote in part: “Cold, part. clear. Jessie and Cecile went to Bennington today. Woolley took last of his cider tonight. 1 egg.”

So I went back to the beginning of the year and read every entry. I also read all the entries for 1930, which he had thriftily entered on the bottom of each of the 1929 calendar pages. Mostly it was about the weather, construction jobs, family dinners, trips in the Buick to Rutland and Bennington, and the number of eggs laid by the hens that day.

Charles at about age 35 in his Vermont garden.Credit…Via Brewster family

“Easter Sunday,” he wrote on March 31, 1929, in a typical entry. “Rode up to Wallingford. Robert had three jobs today. Will Purdy to hospital tonight. 18 eggs.” May 14, 1930: “They laid the first concrete on the road to Bennington today in Shaftsbury.” July 3, 1930: “Slate floor nearly laid at Hardy’s.” July 8, 1930: “Cut hay on meadow today.”

The only time the outside world intruded on the diary over the two years had nothing to do with the economy. On Oct. 1, 1930, he reported that the Philadelphia Athletics beat the St. Louis Cardinals in the first game of the World Series.

Well, I thought, maybe it just took a while for the effects of the economic downturn to be felt in Manchester. I asked my cousin Robert Brewster what else he had. He sent me the journal for 1932. By then my great-grandfather had stopped mentioning eggs and started mentioning the number of men he had working for him. He had five working on Jan. 4, eight on Jan. 12, nine on Jan. 14, seven on Feb. 17. I couldn’t detect any trend, and eventually he stopped including the number in the diary on a regular basis. Work was still coming in, though. Building a house. Putting up a wall for a vegetable cellar. Covering a boiler with asbestos. Laying brick.

National news appeared twice in 1932. On March 2 he noted the kidnapping of the baby of the aviator hero Charles Lindbergh, which had happened the night before. In November he wrote, “Roosevelt & Garner elected Presd. by big majority.”

Franklin Roosevelt’s victory probably didn’t please him — I’m pretty sure he was a Republican, as were most Vermonters in those days. (Vermont was one of only six states carried by Herbert Hoover that year.) But he didn’t express any opinion.

At this point I had two theories. One is that, as a taciturn Vermont Yankee in the mold of Calvin Coolidge, he didn’t like to complain. The other was that he didn’t have anything to complain about. The latter theory — that Vermont escaped the worst of the Depression because it was accustomed to self-reliance — is something that a lot of Vermonters say about themselves. It’s what my grandfather Robert C. Brewster had told Carrie Brewster Coy, one of my sisters, when she interviewed him for a term paper in college. He told Carrie that most people “worked harder, raised a little more and got by on a little less.”

My grandfather was echoing George Aiken, a Republican who served as governor and later senator. Aiken wrote in 1938 that Vermont farmers were used to being self-sufficient: “healthy and well-nourished, comfortably warm and self-supporting — ‘statistically bankrupt’ … but actually solvent.”

In reality, the Depression hit Vermont harder than one would think from the governor’s book, my grandfather’s assertion and my great-grandfather’s journals. For one thing, the state’s farmers were not entirely self-sufficient. Their sales of milk fell by more than half from 1929 to 1933; that, plus declining demand for other products they used to supplement their incomes, such as potatoes and lumber, reduced agricultural workers’ purchasing power to the lowest it had been since 1877, according to an article for the Vermont Historical Society. State income from industrial products fell 60 percent from 1928 to 1933, devastating hubs of industry such as Rutland, Burlington, Barre and Winooski, according to “The New Deal in Vermont: Its Impact and Aftermath,” by Richard Munson Judd. There was a granite worker strike in 1933 and a marble worker strike in 1935-36. The state’s population shrank over the decade. Things got so bad that Vermonters were forced to accept help from New Deal agencies, especially the Civilian Conservation Corps, which put at least 2,600 people to work.

Manchester, however, was less affected. The biggest reason, I think, is that since the 19th century it had been a summer resort for wealthy people from Boston, New York and Philadelphia. In 1929, Vermonters drew nearly two and a half times as much income from the seasonal recreation business as they received from quarrying, according to “The New Deal in Vermont,” which cites a 1935 report to the Vermont State Planning Board and the National Resources Board. Despite the stories of wealthy investors leaping to their deaths, the reality is that rich people had more of a cushion than the poor and were able to keep spending during hard times. What was true of Vermont as a whole was even more the case for Manchester, which to this day is considered one of Vermont’s “gold towns” for its tourism-fueled wealth.

My great-grandfather was a particular beneficiary. He helped build Hildene, the palatial home in Manchester of Robert Todd Lincoln, the son of President Abraham Lincoln, who became president of the Pullman Palace Car Co. Journal entries in the summer and fall of 1930 mention his building an airplane hangar for Peggy; that would be Mary Lincoln Beckwith, the president’s great-granddaughter, who was then the owner of Hildene.

I emailed my cousin Rob about what I’d been finding. He responded by mailing me a box of Big Chief desk calendars for the years 1933 through 1939, plus a travel journal about a road trip my great-grandfather and his wife, Jessie, took to Florida and back in January 1931. (They saw whales and porpoises off Daytona Beach, marveled at citrus groves, celery fields and the sweet peas in bloom near Orlando and filled a bag with white sand in Miami.) The desk calendars had all of their pages torn out, but there was a stub for each day in which my great-grandfather noted important happenings. I read every one of them.

As I had gathered from the first batch, my great-grandfather benefited from a succession of wealthy customers. They included Bartlett Arkell, the longtime president of Beech-Nut Packing Co.; Harry Herman Wehrhane, a New York City banker; Mrs. J.N. Pew Jr., an heir to the Sun Oil Co. fortune; and Peter H.B. Frelinghuysen, a lawyer and banker from New York. Several of his customers were benefactors in town. Arkell saved the Ekwanok Country Club from financial ruin during the Depression. Pew donated a stained-glass window to the First Congregational Church. Arkell and Wehrhane helped pay for Manchester’s first sewer system, according to “Manchester, Vermont: A Pleasant Land Among the Mountains, 1761-1961.”

Reading between the lines, though, I saw that my great-grandfather wasn’t entirely insulated. In 1933 and 1934 he frequently noted days when no one worked. He did more jobs himself. He worked on his own house and his son’s. He found time to help his son, a funeral director, with his business. And he saw trouble around him. One horrific entry mentions a fellow businessman who hanged himself from a tree in his backyard.

Things got better for him in 1935 and 1936, as they did nationally. “Lots of work now,” he recorded on June 10, 1935, and again that July 6. He shingled, plastered, built piazzas, put in steel beams and so forth. Life went on. There was a new Buick, a new truck, shopping trips to Troy, N.Y., Rotary Club dances, the circus, the Manchester Fair, summer vacations at Lake St. Catherine.

One thing my great-grandfather had going for him was that most of his costs were variable — if business declined, he simply used fewer workers. He could have a dozen people working one week and none the next. I can’t help wondering about those workers. How did they scrape by when he had no work for them? I’m sure my great-grandfather was concerned for them, but the journals have no information about them.

The Great Depression was still dragging on as the 1930s ended, but Manchester was looking ahead to a new source of prosperity. Seven miles east of town, the Works Progress Administration had hacked out a ski trail in a national forest on the west side of Bromley Mountain in 1936. Two years later the beer heir Fred Pabst Jr. opened an area nearby that became Bromley Mountain Ski Resort. “Town full of skiers,” my great-grandfather wrote on Dec. 31, 1939.

I would love to ask him about all of this, but as I said, he’s been gone since 1962. All that’s left is his handwritten record of daily life in the Green Mountains a long time ago. Happy New Year, Bean Bean.

The Readers Write

Your newsletter on Monday gave a misleading description of effective altruism. It is true that some effective altruists regard the dangers of artificial intelligence as one of the world’s biggest problems. But that is not the focus of much of effective altruism, which uses carefully considered evidence to find effective interventions and organizations that truly save lives and reduce suffering (e.g., mosquito nets, vaccinations for children, vitamin A supplements).

Angelo Tomedi, M.D.
Albuquerque, N.M.

Quote of the Day

“Any justice which is only justice soon degenerates into something less than justice. It must be saved by something which is more than justice.”

— Reinhold Niebuhr, “Moral Man and Immoral Society” (1932)

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