By C. Paul Bergeron
Part 3: The Economy
The stock market crashed in 1929, when I was
seven years old, and almost immediately bad things began to happen in
the rural community along Coulee Kinney. Some of the banks closed,
denying access to savings and checking accounts.
Crops of rice, cotton and sugar cane brought very low prices, and in some cases could not even be sold. Some of the farmers who had mortgaged their farms were not able to pay back the loan and wound up losing their property. In some cases the farmer wound up being a share cropper for the new owner of the farm.
My father told me a horror story that he witnessed. The year before the stock market crash, rice had sold for $20 a barrel. That was an excellent price. The following year, my father accompanied a friend to a meeting of farmers on a farm where the rice crop was being threshed. A thresher separated the grain from the stalk, depositing the grain into sacks and shooting the straw unto a straw pile. At the meeting a young farmer, who had borrowed a considerable amount of money to be able to grow his crop, persuaded all the farmers there not to sell for less than $20 a barrel. When the first wagon load was ready to roll, the owner of the rice was reminded of the agreement.
The threshing of the rice continued while the farmer made the trip to the mill. A couple of hours later the farmer returned with the rice bags still in the wagon. When questioned by the other farmers, he related that the mill was not buying rice at any price. The young farmer who had been so vocal seemed to go into some type of seizure. He began to gnash his teeth and took his straw hat off his head and ripped the hat apart with his teeth. All of the farmers were in a very somber mood and showed their frustration as well.
The year before, my father had bought 5 bags of rice for $100. That year he bought 50 bags of rice for $100. He used the rice to feed his milk cows, pigs and chickens, along with rice for the family table.
My two oldest sisters were newlyweds, and soon both the young husbands were laid off by their employers. So for several months they got up very early each morning and went to Magdalen Square, where they joined many others who were hoping to be employed for the day doing farm work. If they were selected by one of the farmers who came by in a wagon or truck looking for temporary help, they received 50 cents for 12 hours work or 75 cents for twelve hours work, depending on the type of work that was being done. The farmer also furnished the noon meal.
My father's job as school bus driver paid $90 per month, but the school board could only afford to pay half of that in cash. The other $45 was paid in "script", which could be redeemed only at Landry's "The Big Store".
But this store was a general merchandise type store and sold groceries, fresh meat, eggs and dairy products, shoes and clothing for the family, and even some hardware items. Pop had to furnish the school bus, which was a home made bus body on a Model T Ford truck. Most of the $45 cash that Pop got from the school board went for the monthly payment for the truck and the repairs and maintenance of the bus. So there was never much cash around our house.
In addition to The Big Store there were several small "mom and pop" type grocery stores that survived the economic crash, and they usually advanced credit to their customers when they were not working, so with that and with other positive approaches to the problem, people had enough to eat. Those positives included having milk cows, raising chickens for meat and eggs, raising pigs, having big gardens for fresh vegetables and canning the surplus, picking and canning figs and blackberries, making preserves with and canning watermelon rinds.
My two brothers-in-law eventually got regular employment—one found a new job, the other was recalled by his former employer. The going rate about that time was $1.00 per day. Sometimes the day of work consisted of 12 hours. The brother in law who went back to his old employer was paid $6.00 for a six day week. Saturday was a work day. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt's NRA (National Recovery Act) was passed, it required that this brother in law's employer pay him $14 per week. So the brother in law was laid off again. But this layoff did not last long. One day I was playing in my brother in law's front yard when his former employer drove up in his car. The employer asked me to tell my brother in law that he would like to talk to him in his car. I informed my brother in law and he went to the car and soon came out with a big grin on his face.
The boss had told him to come back to work, that he would be paid $12 per week and the record would indicate that he was being paid $14 per week.
A Cajun Boyhood, by
C. Paul Bergeron
© 2007 by C. Paul Bergeron