Surviving the Great Depression

Chickens, goats and gardens: La Verne College alumni and Hillcrest residents remember the hard times.

by Natalie Veissalov
photography by Courtney Droke

Economic times are presently tough. That is a fact. But, so it was in the 1930s. Then, as now, there was a survival instinct that kicked in. Simple was good. Being self-sufficient was the rule. In retrospect, the ‘30s were not a time of murky grays and despair — at least in the long ago memories of some residents. There was color during the Great Depression in the fruits and vegetables in their gardens and the survival social structure they invented to get by.

Although La Verne residents did not feel the effects of the depression right away, as the rest of the country, they did face challenges along the way. From their stories that follow, one can see the similarities and differences from today.

Dwight Hanawalt

Dwight Hanawalt

Dwight and Imogene Hanawalt

Life-long La Verne native Dwight Hanawalt faced the Great Depression as a child. His future wife Imogene Hanawalt lived through the Dust Bowl in Kansas. They are now in their 90s and early 80s, respectively, living in Hillcrest Homes.

La Verne native Dwight graduated from La Verne College in 1941. His father owned an orange grove and a pasture in the foothills. Dwight remembers they practiced substance farming, raising tomatoes, corn, and other vegetables and fruits, which helped sustain the family during the depression. In addition, the Hanawalt family owned a commercial dairy, from which they sold and delivered milk.

Dwight’s mother had been a teacher prior to starting a family, but when she had children, she decided to raise them full time. Nevertheless, she worked in the family dairy, washing the milk bottles with a brush bottle machine and keeping track of the monthly milk bills. He remembers many businesses would not hire you if there was someone else in your household who also had an income. “You were looked at with disfavor when you had a husband to take care of you,” Dwight says.

Dwight’s family lived near a railroad, and there would be times when a hobo riding the trails would come up to homes, including Dwight’s, and ask for food.

Dwight remembers also that when the Great Depression hit, many children were not aware of what was happening. However, Dwight first sensed it in school when the children exchanged family stories.

During the Depression, Dwight says he never went hungry because of the garden and dairy. “As far as my own family, we always had enough food. I didn’t suffer. I always had food, shelter and the potential to find a job.” Dwight says that one of his early memories was going door-to-door selling corn for 25 cents a dozen. “I remember selling a basket of tomatoes for 10 cents.” But running a business during the depression was not an easy task, since many did not have money. “You knew people couldn’t pay for their dairy bill,” Dwight says.

Dwight recalls that his family was known for never wearing shoes, and they received the title, “The Barefoot Family from California” with friends back in Indiana. One day, a lady asked Dwight whether his feet were cold, and he answered, “Is your face cold?” However, he says he did not wear shoes because the family could not afford any, but instead because the children felt it more comfortable for their feet. “I have no memory of having a shortage of clothes,” Dwight expresses.

He says he was lucky to find jobs occasionally to help pay for his expenses, including college. During the winter, the oranges in the groves could freeze, so the farmers relied on smudging, which entailed heating an orchard with hundreds of pots burning oil in sometimes desperate battles with Jack Frost. When the cold hit, many young men rushed to find a job as smudgers, including Dwight. He recalls that while smudging was a dirty, smokey, cold, all night job, it was a way to make cash. “Being paid in cash 35 cents to 45 cents an hour was good,” Dwight says. “I looked around for any job that paid cash.” One time, Dwight hitchhiked all the way to Washington with a friend, where he found a job. While in Washington, he made $4 a day working 15 hour days. “I came home with $100, which was a good thing,” Dwight explains.

When Dwight went to La Verne College, he had to rely financially on his uncle Jesse Brandt, college mathematics professor. Dwight worked on campus in order to fund his way through college, and he paid back his uncle monthly. “That’s how I went to college,” Dwight says, asked whether he used IOUs.

Since there were no dormitories for males at La Verne College, he lived at home, a mile away.

In those days, the simplest things were fun. Since times were hard, the movies were not a regular option. Dwight relied on sports — football and basketball — to keep him entertained. He hiked and roller skated, which he says many people do not participate in anymore. “You would go to the roller skate rink for a large event with the school,” Dwight says. He also recalls going to beach parties and swimming. “Also, singing together was a big thing,” Dwight says. “We would go some place and have a sing along with others and sing songs all around.”

Halloween was different from today, with more “tricks” than “treats.” Instead of dressing up in costumes, young people, including Dwight and his wife Imogene, would do tricks like putting a wagon on top of a building, soaping up someone’s window and dumping trashcans.

When the Dust Bowl hit Kansas harshly, Imogene’s family decided to move to Pasadena. Being from a small town, she says she absolutely hated the big city at first but became acclimated. When Imogene decided to attend La Verne College during her sophomore year, she also had to depend on her uncle financially, who was working at La Verne. Imogene recalls Dwight and his uncle having no salary for one or two years while working at La Verne College, but both Dwight and Imogene’s uncles had either La Verne orange groves or wheatland in Kansas, respectively, to help sustain themselves. “The college was pretty simple in those days,” Imogene says. “It was small. Although I’m sure we didn’t have extra things, we still had sports and debate teams.”

She worked at Kresses, which was a 10 cent store in Pomona, earning 35 cents an hour. She would spend a nickel to ride the Red Car, also known as the Pacific Electric Railway, to Pomona. “Cash was a pretty elusive thing,” Imogene remembers.

In 1940, Imogene had already met Dwight, and they decided to go to a conference for the Church of Brethren in Kansas along with other friends. No one in the group had much money, so they decided to pitch in with what they could afford for gas and drove in four cars with six people crammed in each. When they returned, there was a terrible snowstorm, and some of the cars did not have heaters, so they would take turns putting their hand on the windshield to melt the ice in order for the driver to see, Imogene says.

In the late ’30s, not many people owned cars, and Imogene recalls there being only one or two cars on campus. She does not recall any empty stores or closed banks in La Verne during the depression but remembers there still being barber shops and clothing stores. Since La Verne was rural and agriculturally based, there were not any factories, Imogene says. “I don’t think anyone in our families lost their jobs because we worked for ourselves,” Imogene remembers. “The Great Depression affected our parents more than us because we were not responsible for really anything.”

Mary Blocher Smeltzer

Mary Blocher Smeltzer’s love for life and positive attitude helped her get through tough times during the depression. As Mary revisits her life during the depression, she recalls her mother only having a quarter in her pocketbook. Although money was tight, education was always important in her home. She attended grammar school in La Verne from 1921 to 1929.

Mary borrowed money from people, and her older brother loaned her some money in order for her to attend college. She attended Pomona College before La Verne and graduated from LVC in 1937. After graduating, she received her master’s degree in math and earned a teaching credential.

Although divorce was rare in those times, her parents divorced when Mary was young. Mary, born in Texas, moved to many places as a child. “I remember we didn’t have much money, but we knew how to get along with a limited amount of money,” Mary says. “We didn’t feel poor, but we were.”

Mary’s mother owned a home in Pomona, renting the rooms out, but her mother owed $6,000 and eventually let it go. Her mother then bought a home in La Verne for $2,000.

“I didn’t feel that the Depression was awful,” Mary says. “I grew up in the Church of the Brethren, and the Brethren people do not live a very rich style of life. We didn’t drink, smoke or eat out. Brethren people know how to live on a limited amount of money.” For fun, Mary went to the Fox Theater in Pomona to see movies, hiked and spent time with her boyfriend. She always had a piano in her home, which she played and sang songs.

While attending college, Mary worked at Kresses. Although her father lived back in Texas and was not very supportive, Mary explains how her family always had enough money for food. Her mother would clean houses for a living. Still in college, Mary worked in a real estate office in Claremont during the summer, earning $15 a week; enough for her to buy a car and a typewriter for $30 each. In addition, they owned two farms back in Texas. Her mother got the smaller one, while her father kept the bigger one. “Having a family split up made it harder,” Mary says.

“I’ve always enjoyed life. I’m an extrovert,” Mary says. “I think I had a temperament that looked at the good side of things, but I worked very hard too.”

When she graduated, Mary received a job and soon after was married. “They were paying really well — $2,000 a year in 1938.

“I don’t think of it [the Great Depression] as being hard,” Mary says. “We knew how to live a simple life that didn’t need a lot of money.”

Mary Bowman

Mary Bowman is the last member of the class of 1933 and was a freshman at La Verne College 80 years ago. She still remembers the many struggles she faced while living in La Verne during the Great Depression. “I didn’t have a job, and my father wasn’t working during the depression,” Mary says. “My mother never worked.”

Before Mary came to California to attend La Verne College, she lived in Manchester, Indiana. “I’ve been here [La Verne] ever since. I wouldn’t live any place else.”

For Mary, the most difficult part of the depression was seeing her father unemployed. “We saved more, and we had more appreciation for things,” Mary expresses. She explains how many students attending La Verne College were on scholarships. “I wouldn’t have been there otherwise,” Mary expresses. She, like many other college students, could not afford to live in the dorms, so she “lived with various friends who had a dorm room at the college.” She helped sustain herself by doing housework for a couple living at the beach, making $2 a day. “It kept me out of a lot of fun at school,” Mary says. “What money I made, I gave to my parents, and they had to have it.”

“We had many wonderful people,” she says. “We had a wonderful class spirit and had a comfortable relationship with our professors.” Mary recalls the La Verne College’s faculty making $1,200 a year.

Mary played cards with friends for entertainment. “We didn’t go to shows or concerts. The college was strict,” she says. “There was no wine, cards or dancing. It was considered too frivolous.” Students applying to La Verne College at that time were asked on their application whether they danced or played cards. “I replied with a ’No,’” Mary says.

She explained how one year in college she was in charge of collecting $2 from each student for their class treasury. “It was like pulling teeth to get those $2 from people,” Mary expresses. “No one had any money; we just accepted that.” One day, while at the chapel, a young man sat next to Mary, and when she asked him for $2, he generously gave her the money. She was surprised and wondered how he was able to afford it. Later, she ended up marrying him, and he paid her college debt, which was $126. Back then, the graduation fee for La Verne College was $10.

At La Verne, fashion was not very important, and it was very difficult to buy new clothes. Mary’s mother made her clothes, even though, according to Mary, they were out of style. During the depression, many did not eat out at restaurants. Mary and her friends would cook their meals at a friend’s home. “It wasn’t good, but it was cheaper than eating in the dining hall,” Mary says. “We couldn’t afford to eat in the cafeteria.”

“Only two people got jobs after they graduated in 1933,” Mary says. “When I graduated, very few students went to get a master’s degree. 1933 was a tough year, a very tough year.” Mary found a job the next year. She began substituting at a couple of schools, making $7 a day. In spite of money being scarce, there was not much crime or stealing during that time, according to Mary. “It was a beautiful town as it is now,” she says. “It was full of orange groves. I thought it looked beautiful during the Great Depression — lovely old homes, so many trees.”

Her husband owned an orange grove and would hire students from La Verne College to do smudging. While newly married, she and her husband lived on $50 a month. They divided the money based on their priorities. They would spend only $20 for food a month, and Mary owned a notebook where she would keep track of all the food they would buy. It was not until they had their daughter, and the economic times eased, that they began spending $60 on food. In those times, bread was five cents a loaf and ground beef was five cents a pound. Mary made many meals with beans. Chocolate pudding and other creative dishes were adorned with produce and fruits she grew in her garden, and cheap items she found at the grocery store. “I couldn’t afford a roast,” Mary says. “I didn’t have diapers; we used cloth diapers, and we just washed them.” In 1934, Mary and her husband literally could not afford to go to a show. “But we survived. I was lucky to have a supportive and hardworking and loving family.”

Ruth Morgan

Ruth Morgan

Ruth Morgan

Graduating from La Verne College in 1936, Ruth Morgan, mother of University of La Verne President Stephen Morgan, remembers the struggles she and her family went through.
“My parents lived very frugally, so I didn’t see anything much different,” Ruth says. “They would go to a cheap store and stock up on things.” In order to pay for her children’s tuition, Ruth’s mother, Grace Hilemen Miller, took a job as a writer for the Pomona Progress Bulletin in order to pay for her children’s tuition. “At night, I would hear her typing,” Ruth says. Her father, J.L. Miller, owned a two-acre ranch in north La Verne where he sold produce and eggs, and raised chickens to sell to companies. She remembers only having chicken for meat because the chickens were readily available on the ranch; Ruth’s family also ate fruits and vegetables from their own land.

Like many men during the depression, Ruth’s twin brothers worked as citrus smudgers. One day, the owner of the orange grove invited them for dinner, where they ate meat other than chicken. “That was a big treat for them,” Ruth says. “It wasn’t easy,” Ruth comments. “We had to cut corners.”

During the start of the depression, she attended Bonita High School, and, luckily, she wore a uniform because it was difficult to pay for new clothes.

After completing high school, she went to La Verne College. “I think it was about $200 a year for tuition, but that was a lot for poor people,” Ruth says. “When I went to La Verne, the professors were taking IOUs from students who didn’t have the money to pay. And the administration didn’t have the money to pay the professors.”

La Verne College was small, and everyone knew everyone else in the student body, she expresses. At this time, when Ellis Studebaker was president of La Verne College, there were only three buildings—Miller Hall, Founders Hall and the gym, Ruth says. In the basement of Miller Hall was the dining hall. Female dorm rooms were in Miller as well. The library was located in Founders Hall.

On nights when she was free, Ruth would go to Saint Charles Grill, order a coke and dance. “None of us had much money, so we would pool our money to buy three gallons of gas to ride in our friend’s car. We just liked to take a drive because no one had cars. Back then at La Verne College, dancing and playing cards were taboo,” Morgan says. When they were bored, Morgan and her friends would drive to a flat place on a hill, turn up the radio in the car and just dance. “It did not cost anything,” Ruth smiles.

Ruth recalls doing many activities connected to the College. She went to all of the football and basketball games. All the students had to go to chapel at least once a week. “La Verne was a very religious town,” Ruth says. “A lot of the activities were centered on the Church of the Brethren.”

“Before the Great Depression, during high school, we could go to Pomona to the movie theaters. It was 10 cents to watch a movie during the matinee. We didn’t need money to have a good time when I was in high school and college,” Morgan says. “In those times, we didn’t have credit cards. We had no idea what they were. Life was simpler back then.”

While Ruth recalls there being bread lines only in Los Angeles and other big cities, she said there were still tramps and hobos near the railroads, and her mother would allow them to do some yard work for a meal. Although Ruth says she was fortunate that she was not forced to look for a job—all the male students had to find jobs—she occasionally worked at little restaurants in La Verne and babysat while she was in high school.

When Ruth graduated from La Verne College in 1936, she was looking for a teaching job and found it difficult. “I remember going to Imperial Valley; it wasn’t very desirable, but that is where you had to go for a teaching job.” She ended up receiving a job there, but later took a teaching job in San Dimas. After leading a classroom for a year, she left to get married. In those times, school districts did not hire married teachers. Ruth married in 1937. Even though it was tough to find employment as a married woman, the life of women in La Verne did not exactly parallel life of women in larger industrial cities.

“We were very sheltered here,” Ruth says. She remembers La Verne only having two banks, one post office, one grocery, one meat market, one bakery and one doctor. “The city looked really nice.”

Lucille Sarafian Keeler

Lucille Sarafian Keeler

Lucille Sarafian Keeler

Lucille Sarafian Keeler’s father, Kevork Avedis Sarafian, was the head of La Verne College’s Language Department for seven years. Then he became the head of the Education Department at La Verne College, which he started after receiving his doctorate degree at the University of Southern California. While teaching at La Verne, he also was a part-time professor of education at Claremont Graduate School, the University of Southern California and the University of California Los Angeles to bring home extra income.
Lucille remembers her entire family living in the San Fernando Valley practicing substance farming, including growing walnuts for income, while her father lived and taught in La Verne, visiting his family on the weekends, until a home in La Verne at 2030 Fifth Street was purchased for $2,500. Once the family moved to La Verne in 1930, they had goats in the backyard, which produced milk for the Sarafian family. “My folks would raise their own food – rabbits, chickens,” Lucille remembers. “We had gardens. My parents were very thrifty.”

Her mother ran a beauty shop in her home, and her creative talents enabled her to create beaded handbags, which she sold to Bullocks department store, bringing extra money to the household. As the depression economic woes hardened for the family, Kevork sold the La Verne house and purchased a two story home at the corner of Gary Avenue and Holt Boulevard, which he moved two miles east and subsequently, in 1936, opened a private school in his house. He put his wife in charge as principal while he himself continued his teaching duties at La Verne.

While trying to support his family, Kevork faced a trying question with the faculty as to whether to keep La Verne College open during the hard economic times. He recounted the 1933 experience in his autobiography, “From Immigrant to Educator”: “The Chairman of the Board of Trustees Pastor Edgar Rothrock posed this question to the La Verne College faculty, ’Should we close the college temporarily during the depression years as many colleges are doing, hoping to reopen it after the financial crisis subsides, or shall we keep the gates open for poor students to continue their education, accepting their IOU notes in place of cash and pay teachers’ salaries as best we can manage, giving them IOU notes to cash if they can?’”

Kevork led the faculty in refusing to close the college because he believed it would be more difficult to reopen. Kevork said, “I am talking for myself. I will willingly continue my work here even if I do not receive any financial compensation during this financial crisis.” The faculty agreed with Kevork. Each then voted with a pledge of devotion to keep the College open.

“They had to donate their services temporarily,” Lucille says of the faculty. “They took upon themselves the extra load of two teachers, and the college continued.” She remembers, though, that some faculty members later left their jobs. All the student IOUs were not repaid, and many faculty could not find the continuing means to sustain themselves.

“I remember that during the fall semester 1934, my father said he’d forgotten what a pay envelope looked like, for he had not received one for several months.” Then, just before the Christmas holidays, the mailman left among other letters, an envelope from the president’s office. “Gleefully, he opened it and found a stunning surprise during those black depression days—a check. I remember he said how considerate it was for the administration to mail a check a few days before Christmas.” She recalls her father took a second look at the check and was disappointed. It was a check for $13.50. “He told me that the next day he met some of his faculty colleagues who told the same story,” says Lucille. My father said it was a tough time. One could not buy the most essential necessities to sustain a life. He said he saw many families in despair; their children were suffering, and so were their wives.

Lucille, who graduated from LVC in 1945, says that during the depression, scholarships were scarce, but some lucky students were fortunate to gain them. It was difficult for the College to raise grant monies. The college would borrow money from the bank and would raise money with the help of the Church of the Brethren. Lucille’s son George Keeler is presently professor of journalism and department chair of communications at ULV.

Eugene and Ora Lea Bowers

Although Eugene is originally from Louisiana, and Ora Lea is from Western Kansas, they still faced many challenges, both in their hometown and in La Verne while they attended La Verne College, where they both graduated in 1941. Both were supposed to attend McPherson College in Kansas. However, Eugene fell in love with La Verne when he visited in 1935, and Ora Lea, sister of Imogene Hanawalt, moved from Kansas because of the Dust Bowl.

Ora Lea had an uncle who taught at La Verne, and, during the depression, Ora Lea was allowed to use her uncle’s credit. She paid her uncle directly. Her mother worked at the YWCA cafeteria and baked pies. Eugene had to borrow money to help pay for his tuition at La Verne College. He worked in the dining hall receiving free meals and in the chemistry laboratory, making 35 cents an hour as an assistant. He had to rent a room in town because there were no dormitories for men, which cost him $4 a month.

“In those days, when we went out, we would see a show for 35 cents and then go have a malt for 10 cents,” Eugene says. Ora Lea worked at a restaurant on D Street, and the owner would hire her at 35 cents per hour, which she would use to buy a hamburger and a drink at the restaurant.

During the depression, the La Verne Church of the Brethren was being constructed. “How those people managed to build that church in the 1930s, I would never know, but they did,” Ora Lea says.

Back home in Louisiana, the situation was not much better. Eugene’s father had a farm where they grew vegetables fruits and rice. “We were never hungry,” Eugene says. “There was plenty of food.” But Eugene recalls when his father once told his mother after a long day of farming, ’Well, mama; we made $1.69 on our rice.’ That was little money for all that hard work, Eugene says. His family relied on a barter system. Eugene would receive piano lessons in trade for butter. His father would take potatoes to the grocery store and trade them for sugar, flour and other products they could not produce. When Eugene went to a store with his father and wanted a Three Musketeer candy bar, his father told him they just could not afford it.

While living in Kansas, Ora Lea remembers people helping everyone. “We had a garden and a cow or goat for meat and milk,” Ora Lea says. “Being from a small town, we took extra milk or eggs to people who didn’t have any.” Ora Lea’s father owned one of the best machine shops, and her mother worked in the office. However, farmers did not have enough money to pay, so he closed down his business and moved to California. She remembers adding up all the bills that people owed her father as a way to entertain herself.

Her mother decided that Imogene and Ora Lea should have music and piano training. “I have no idea how they scraped money for a nice clarinet for me and a flute for Imogene,” Ora Lea says. She was supposed to play the clarinet solo at a music program, and her mother wanted her to have a new dress, so she decided to take her own wedding dress and created Ora Lea’s new dress, and she also made a jacket out of brown satin material. “She didn’t have enough money to buy me a new dress,” Ora Lea expresses, adding, “The love my mom must have had for me.”

Ora Lea also remembers moving into her grandmother’s home, living in the basement and renting the upstairs. She recalls how difficult it was to buy a little bit of coal for the furnace to heat their home. “I never felt deprived because everyone was in the same boat.”

Their stories are as varied as their personalities. They faced economic hardship with courage and fortitude, knowing that there would be a tomorrow and a fresh start. Now, as they look back, they realize that the journey through the ’30s was a grand part of their life adventure, which they faced with dignity and courage.

Eugene Bowers died Jan. 20, 2010, following surgery complications.

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