Radio shows, barn dances, homemade ice cream parties, weddings and card games provided some emotional relief during the economic hardships of the Great Depression (1929-1941). Both farm families and townsfolk enjoyed much-needed entertainment, as frugal as it had to be. It could have been as unorganized as fishing or impromptu challenges at horseshoe throwing or as cooperative as a baseball game.
A battery-operated radio provided news and songs. Franciscan Sister Agnes Hafner, who grew up on South Ridge near La Crescent, remembers a radio comedian on air for an hour each evening after dinner. Recorded music could be played on phonographs with the large horn on top, but like clothing and meals, music was mostly homemade on guitar, piano or player piano. Hafner remembered traveling salesmen always being welcome, since they brought news as well as products. She greatly enjoyed one family purchase, a stringed instrument called a ukelin, “a board about two feet long by eight inches wide, with numbers, played using a violin bow.” The instrument was placed on a table in front of the player, who played the melody strings with a bow in the right hand while base strings were plucked with a pick or the fingernails of the left hand.
What otherwise could have been lonely work became social with quilting bees or wurst (sausage) parties. There was no professional meat processing. On the farm, after butchering a cow or pig in the autumn or early winter, women canned the meat to be eaten throughout the long Minnesota winters. Making wurst with the sausage machine was the harvest finale. “Neighbors came together, played cards, then enjoyed fresh delicious homemade wurst.”
Quilting, since colonial days, had provided warmth in winter. By the mid-1800s, quilting “bees” or parties had become popular social events during which women could socialize and catch up on the latest neighborhood news while displaying their skill and creativity.
On many Friday nights or Sunday afternoons, there were card games, some of which could be played by as few as two people and others by as many as six. Adults played euchre, 66, pinochle and 500. Children also enjoyed card games, most notably Old Maid.
As in all generations, children during the Great Depression were creative while entertaining themselves; there was little or no boredom. There were always cats and dogs to play with or a tree or even a windmill to climb. With a softball, two or three children could play catch; with more kids, a softball game could break out. Indoors, there might be a game of Old Maid or commercial products such as tinker toys and erector sets. Hunting rabbits and squirrels was mostly a “boy thing.” However, everybody benefited when the meat appeared in school lunches. Leaving details to the readers’ imagination, Hafner noted, “nearby woods often lured a boy or girl with a dog.”
4-H clubs provided extensive group opportunities, such as stage plays, sewing, animal care and gardening. Hafner recalls her seventh-grade drama group winning first place in the one-act play contest at the Houston County Fair and advancing to the state competition at St. Paul.
While growing up in the 1920s and ‘30s, Lucille (Clifford) Swing lived in Caledonia with her grandparents in the last house on South Decorah Steet. The end of that dead-end street made it a prime location for playing the game of cricket. They dug the “cricket hole” (about three inches deep) in the middle of that clay street. “If a car should come by – usually someone who lived in the neighborhood, we would step aside to let them pass and then resume our play.” She recalled the game being played with two sticks, fashioned from an old broomstick. About three-foot long, the larger stick was the bat; the small stick was about three inches long. Play consisted of four steps: boosting, batting, crickety-crick, and up-and-out. The team game was especially popular during the spring and autumn, when there were junior high and high school students from Brownsville who boarded in Caledonia during the school week.
It was an era of jokes. I asked a fifth grader, “Do you know who Joan of Arc was?” She answered, “Was she married to Noah?”
Thanks to Sister Agnes Hafner for the many memories in her 2004 book, “Life on a Farm in the 1930s.” Lucille Swing contributed to the book, “Caledonia Pride 1854–2004.”