My mom's parents would be referred to as preppers if they were living in today's world, but back in the day, they lived like many country people did. Great Depression life wasn't easy, but their daily choices afforded them more abundance than many, especially once rationing set in during the second World War. Mom used to tell me stories about growing up on their small diversified farm, and I always admired the ingenuity and determination of the two of them. Grandma and grandpa passed on when I was still very little, so I didn't get a chance to know them well, but I will always remember these lessons, and pass them along to my children – and you.
Grandma and Grandpa Were Preppers – 5 Lessons from Great Depression Life
#1 – Raise Your Own Food and Store for Lean Times
Grandma raised large flocks of laying hens, which she replaced annually as production dropped off. Some birds were canned, some were sold to neighbors as stewing birds. She had a big kerosene incubator, and used that in combination with broody hens to hatch the different types of poultry. Grandpa raised geese, cows and pigs, and had horses for farm work and other heavy jobs.
They had a large garden, with a sizable area just for breadseed poppies. Grandma was Czech, and you had to have poppyseed for kolache and other baked goods. Although grandma and grandpa passed when I was just a toddler, I still remember grandma's yellow raspberries, and grandpa with the geese. Grandma had bees, which they used for beeswax and honey, which was a real blessing during WWII when sugar was rationed. Momma once showed me the ration coupons she'd saved from when she was a little girl.
They butchered and canned their own meat, and rendered their own lard for cooking. Each summer and fall the cellar was stocked well with home canned goods.
When money was tight and food was rationed, the family was always well provided for off of their own land.
#2 – Live Within Your Means
It may not be polite to talk about such things, but mom's parents acquired their main homestead because others defaulted on their loan and taxes and lost the property, and grandpa had the money to pay off the debt and take over. When they first moved to the site, they lived in an old granary that was overrun by mice and rats. It was pretty nasty to live in at first, but grandma made do and got the place clean enough to live in while grandpa built the house.
Mom said went she went to school, she could always tell the poor girls from the more well off girls, because the poor girls (like her) wore flour sack dresses. Her mom would take her to the general store and let her pick out the print she wanted for her dresses. Nothing was wasted.
#3 – Learn Skills That Allow You to Tackle Jobs Yourself Instead of Hiring Everything Out
Grandpa used a large scoop pulled by horses to excavate the foundation for the home he built for them by hand with the help of their hired hand, who mom referred to as “Injun Joe”. He and Joe built their dairy barn and other outbuildings, too.
Mom told me a funny story about the barn. When they moved to the site, there was an old barn in rough shape that needed to be replaced. Grandpa took out a lot of the fasteners, hoping that a good wind storm would finish the job, but the barn kept standing. Finally, he gave in and tore the barn down by hand and built a new one. Not long after the new barn was up, a tornado came through – and landed right on the barn. Grandpa had to rebuild again. Not “funny” funny, but what are the odds?
They had an ice house for keeping things cool, so each winter they gathered ice off of a local lake. There was no electricity in the house until grandpa rigged up a windmill with a battery bank. Mom said she and her brothers would get in trouble for flipping the light switch off and on just to marvel at how it worked.
#4 – Work Together with Neighbors
The neighbors got together to work on projects, like stripping feathers for fluffy down feather ticks (mom used to call them “pierzynas”) and for quilting bees and ice hauling. Many hands still make for lighter work, especially with very time consuming and tedious projects.
Card parties and dance socials were still regular gatherings where you could talk and catch up on local events. People knew and cared about their neighbors.
#5 – Use Creative Problem Solving
You may recall that the Great Depression (October 1929 – late 1930s) coincided with the Dust Bowl period of the 1930s, when severe drought swept much of the country. Pastures and hay fields dried up, and fodder was hard to find to keep the cows fed. Grandpa drove the cows every day to graze on a brush covered area of the property to keep the herd alive.
On a smaller scale, grandma enjoyed fresh tomatoes, which of course don't grow very well here in Wisconsin for many months of the year. To support her tomato habit, grandma kept a plant growing inside in a south window all through the winter, hand pollinating the blossoms so she could have fresh tomatoes.
Preparing for Tough Economic Times
Things have changed lot since those days, but I think grandma and grandpa would appreciate our garden, root cellar and canning pantry. She'd probably be wondering where my animals are, but I didn't marry a farmer so for now I'm thankful I have close friends and neighbors who love critters. (Don't worry, grandma, we're planning on getting chickens this year!)
It's important to preserve the old skills while making room for the new. Figure out what works for you – where you are, with what you have. Don't be afraid to try new things and tackle big projects – just create a support system that helps you complete them.
Do you have any family stories from the Depression Era that you'd like to share? I'd love to read them.
Note – It's my understanding that this was grandma and grandpa's wedding photo, taken years before the Great Depression, but I may be mistaken. This is the only older family photo that I currently have a copy of in my possession.
- Prepping Food Storage – Top 10 Foods to Stockpile
- Rising Food Prices – 6 Proven Strategies to Stretch Your Food Budget
- The Salatin Semester Homestudy Course for Small Scale Farming
Originally published in 2013, updated, 2016.