Everybody Has a Story: Times were tough but life was happy in 1930s Wyoming

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In the mid-1930s, at the height of the dust bowl years, my parents moved our family to Wyoming from a small town in Nebraska. I entered the second grade in Riverton while two of my siblings, Sara and Hobart, enrolled in high school. Three older siblings moved with us but lived and worked in town.

I didn’t adjust well in school, and the teacher called my oldest brother, Pete, who drove me home and announced to Mom, “You’ve got a sick girl on your hands.” A school with 500 kids was overwhelming after a small town with 20 in the whole school. The other kids were kind to me, though, and slowly I made friends. Finally, I got the hang of it.

Those were Depression years, and people didn’t have any money. Dad built a small house on our property, and an outdoor toilet with a wet moon on the door. Soon after we settled, Mom’s youngest brother, August, arrived, and he built a tent on the edge of our property. It even had a wooden floor. It was spring, and he hoped by winter to have a place of his own. He brought his wife and three boys, the youngest a baby of 6 months. By Christmas, August had a job with the Works Progress Administration building Bull Lake Dam, and he rented a house in town. His sons joined the Civilian Conservation Corps.

When my aunt came with gifts for everyone, Mom explained we were not exchanging gifts as we had no extra money — but I received a doll and dishes from Santa. I’m sure my older sibs, who worked in town, were the gifters.

The theater offered movies for school kids at Christmas. Each of us needed to bring 25 cents before Dec. 15, and if everyone in the class complied, we’d walk as a group to see “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” The 15th came and one student, Almena, hadn’t complied. She was the only one without funds, and everyone was mad at her. Some kind person gave her quarter to the teacher. I remember that poor girl with holes in her socks and dirty heels that showed through. The class joined hands and walked to the theater and back.

After the drought in Nebraska, the irrigation ditches in Wyoming were a lifesaver for farmers and ranchers. They served livestock as well as crops with water from snowmelt in the Teton mountains. The ditch rider would arrive at our property and announce that he’d pulled the dams off the ditches, and water would arrive directly. His name was Burt, and he had a huge wart on his nose that bounced when he talked. We were fascinated, hanging on every word he had to say.

When the irrigation water swept in, we’d put on bathing suits and swim in the ditches. We quickly learned the difference between water moccasins and water snakes. The town had a swimming pool, but I don’t recall we ever swam in that — it had a huge “CLOSED (contaminated with salamanders)” sign, and there was no money to drain and repair it.

By the next Christmas, Mom had raised her first batch of 200 chickens, and we bought a separator for our cows’ milk. Dad sold cream and eggs to the creamery. That butter-and-egg money paid for lots of things for our family. Dad took pleasure in the best potatoes and sweet corn he’d ever raised. Mom canned everything she could preserve in a glass jars, and Dad dug a food cellar that kept everything through the winter. We went to the garden with 3-gallon buckets and filled them with vegetables and strawberries. We hid our melon vines in the sweet cornfield, away from occasional thieves.

While times were tough, we were happy and celebrated the tender mercies of life every day. Looking back, country was really cool.

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