The Great Depression and some Greater Memories
The Great Depression
YOUNG PEOPLE of today—even those of middle-age— 1 have almost no conception of what conditions existed in America during the years of THE GREAT DEPRESSION. Those words have to be put in stark capital letters. They express the enormity of despair which spread across the land in those times. The first shock of that depression hit our country like a thunderbolt, or—to employ a more apt description—like a crash of lightning. In the autumn of 1929 came the great stock market crash. Throughout the entire ’30s, with a few intermediate ups and downs, the dismal years dragged on like a funeral dirge playing itself out across the land.
The year 1928 had been light-hearted and carefree. After our marriage on May 1, 1928, in Howell, Michigan, Helen and I basked in the glow of a youthful, benign America. My brother and I owned three five-and-ten-cent stores and in September of 1929 I sold my share of those stores to him for $15,000. An unheard of sum! Helen and I instantly became rich. And instantly—actually in the space of just three days—we stored our furniture, packed up, loaded our little Ford with everything it could hold and carry, and headed west.
Helen’s home had been in California, her folks and four of her sisters lived there. “California, Here I Come.” That phrase had been set to music just five years before, and its upbeat, adventurous connotation expressed our feelings exactly.
For $25 a month we rented a nice house in Ontario, California. That was in late October, 1929. One day later, the great stock market crash hit Wall Street, all of America, and eventually much of the world. On the first day after the occupancy of our new home, the Great Depression began.
I got a job as a proof-reader and reporter for $20 a week, on the Riverside Press, 18 miles from our home, having to rent a room there for $2 a week, seeing Helen only on weekends.
This was no good, for comparative newlyweds. There was a depression, sure. But we had $15,000. We were almost filthy rich. Our original honeymoon in the Lincoln country of Kentucky had been short-lived, because of those stores I had to help run. A Second Honeymoon! What an inspired thought. Again, packing our little Ford, we steered our way out on what would one day be Route 66, and headed for Michigan—and where else fancy should lead us. Our fancy received a great boost from a sign in the window of a travel agency in Santa Fe. “Roundtrip Transatlantic Tickets, $120.”
Our Michigan visit was brief. Helen had never seen our nation’s capital. On a Fourth of July eve, we sat in a park near the White House and enjoyed the fireworks display that lit up the sky for President and Mrs. Hoover to see. On to New York; we could get a modest hotel room for $7 a week, so stayed a full seven days. On to Cape Cod, then Maine, and finally Montreal. Storing our car on the sixth floor of a drive-up garage (which would later prove a lifesaver for us) we took a steamer to Europe. This is a scrapbook on America, not Europe, so I’ll curb mention of our weeks in England, tour of the Continent, ship journey across the Mediterranean, and our dreamlike rail trips and excursions through most of northern Africa.
Several months after we had parked our little Ford on the sixth floor of that Montreal garage we had settled our storage bill and I put my foot on the starter. DEAD! The battery was gone. And so was most of our ready cash. Not enough left to buy a new battery. My nearest relatives were in Plainfield, New Jersey, just below New York City. That was 600 miles away. Have you ever driven that far without a good battery? We did.
Coasting down the six floors on a circular ramp got the car started. We turned it off only once, the night we spent en route, and we had to drive a long time before finding a suitable hill to park on while we slept. The entire length of New York City’s Broadway we drove, without a battery. On the New Jersey ferry we still kept the engine running. At Plainfield, warm greetings from my uncle and his family. Equally warm, the feel of enough money to get a new battery. We scarcely stopped on our transcontinental drive back to California. By now, we were homesick. After renting a nice little house, again in Ontario, for $20 a month, we figured up our expenses for the seven-month trip, twice across America, twice across the Atlantic, through Europe and North Africa.
Total cost for everything, for the two of us—just under one thousand dollars.
We still had fourteen thousand in the bank. For America in general the Depression was a seemingly unending era of sadness. For us, it was luckily different. Prices, in today’s terms, were completely unbelievable. During the Depression years movies got down to a quarter, hamburgers a dime, daily newspapers two cents. Even for a long time after the Depression ended, coffee was five cents a cup, with as many refills as you wanted. Helen and I bought a two-story house in Ontario for $1900. When Helen became pregnant we engaged a physician. For seven months of care and the hospital delivery, the total fee was $25.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, having defeated Herbert Hoover in the 1932 presidential election, took office March 4, 1933. Almost his first act was to close the banks. Wilbur White, the cashier of one of Ontario’s large banks, lived across the street from us and was one of our closest friends. News of the impending closings reached my ears by early morning radio. Rushing across the street, I was the first to break the news to Wilbur. People were caught without funds; some didn’t even have enough money to carry them through a day. Consternation gripped the country. Soon the banks were examined, and those in sound condition allowed to reopen. Those were trying times.
As the Depression wore on, we often drove into Los Angeles, to attend operas and plays at the Biltmore Theatre. Even though rich by Depression standards, we were also frugal. By sitting in the balcony, never did we pay more than 50 cents each for seats, thrilling to the presence of such stars as Heifitz, Menuhin, Kreisler, and Marian Anderson.
On one Los Angeles trip, as the Depression was approaching its end, we saw a huge FOR SALE sign on some acreage at the border between Los Angeles and Pasadena. The enormous natural landmark, the 12-million-year-old Eagle Rock, was for sale, together with 13 acres surrounding it and six small houses. The total price for it all was $29,000. Of course there were no buyers. Time and again Helen and I explored that property. From the upper house there was a view, not only of the majestic rock in the left foreground, but of the city of Los Angeles seven miles away, and beyond that the ocean and the harbor, with ships easily discernible. We are sitting
ducks for good views. Finally we could resist it no longer; we went into escrow to buy the property.
But $29,000! We wondered. We had qualms. We got cold feet. That monstrous sum seemed larger than the great Eagle Rock itself. There was some sort of minor flaw in the escrow. We took advantage of it. We backed out.
A year passed. The sale sign still drooped dismally in disrepair on the Eagle Rock property with its 13 adjoining acres and six houses. No buyers. One day we stopped there again, drove up the hill to the top and began absorbing the million dollar view embracing much of the Los Angeles terrain.
“What the heck,” I said to Helen. “Let’s take a chance.”
Obviously $29,000 was too high. I offered $28,000. The estate handling the property jumped at the offer, which had been more than three years coming. Another escrow, this time flawless. The Eagle Rock became ours. Leaving Ontario, we moved into the upper two houses, where we outlasted the Depression and lived for 19 years, absorbing the view nearly every day of our lives.
A portion of Southern California. The Lines lived in Ontario for 14 years, Eagle Rock (a part of Los Angeles) for 17 years, and Capistrano Beach for 30 years.
Francis Line, with the historic 12-million-year-old Eagle Rock in background. The Lines owned the rock for many years and lived beside and just to the left of it.