“Living Economies for a Living Planet” inspires hope.
It also made me nostalgic because I grew up in a community, which had a local economy and was self-sufficient in important ways. Cooperation and generosity outweighed competition and greed. People looked out for each other. Cars were not necessities. Ruby Tewksbury, the town drunk, didn’t have a car and neither did Harry Stephens, insurance agent and president of the First National Bank of Nicholson, Pennsylvania.
The local economy and self-sufficiency have largely evaporated, and cars, TVs, nursing homes and Pampers are among the new necessities.
This is my memory of a lost community.
Our neighbor, Sam Bailey, had a woodworking factory in this town of a thousand people where I grew up. During the Great Depression another neighbor, Arlo Davenport, worked in the factory for 28 cents an hour. Arlo and his family lived across the street from Sam and his family. Both wives stayed home. Neither had domestic help. Their houses were comparable although Sam’s was a little bigger and had room for an apartment for his elderly mother-in-law. Sam’s son had gone to the same school, on foot, that Arlo’s son attended later. They walked to the same church. They drank the same water – from Bailey’s spring. All of us in the neighborhood drank water from Sam Bailey’s spring because it was better than the town water which smelled of chlorine and was sometimes muddy. Usually it was the children who walked down the stone steps to the spring in Bailey’s back yard carrying gallon metal “milk” pails to fill. There was no fence and no permission required.
In the mid thirties a union organizer came to town. He failed because he was an outsider and because his portrayal of the factory owner exploiting his workers didn’t fit people’s perceptions. Sam was part of the community and was not living high off the hog. I don’t know if Sam could have paid his workers more. I do know that Arlo’s family, though short on cash, had the material necessities plus friends and neighbors, a place in the community and music – Arlo played the guitar
Arlo always had a big garden and his wife, Blanche, canned for the winter filling hundreds of glass jars with the bounty from their garden. They probably ate better than the majority of people do today because the food was grown on living soil without chemical fertilizers or chemical pesticides and it didn’t travel hundreds or thousands of miles from farm to table. Most of the wives in town put food by for the winter.
People could buy vegetables fresh from Harley Cornell’s large garden. He peddled his vegetables from door to door in his wheelbarrow.
My father had a meat market/grocery store and frequently bought from local farmers, for example strawberries, sweet corn, potatoes and apples. The strawberries often came from Blanche Davenport’s father who had a large strawberry patch. Many people saved money by going to the strawberry patch and picking their own. Sometimes my father would buy a side of beef from a local farmer. If a customer asked for a free bone for her dog, he would leave extra meat on the bone because he knew the bone was going into the soup pot. My mother baked pies and cream puffs, which my dad sold. In the fall my father would buy local cabbage and make a barrel of sauerkraut for the store. The manual cabbage shredder had been made by my grandfather Quick.
Grandfather Quick was handy. He made all the concrete blocks for the foundation of our house. He made concrete fence posts. He made screen doors and window screens for us and for many other people in town. They had wood frames and steel screens – this was long before there were aluminum storms and screens. When FM radio was still in the future, he invented a device to eliminate static from his radio.
Grandfather Quick worked for the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western (DL&W) Railroad. At one time he was in charge of culverts in the area but when I knew him he worked in the DL&W machine shop in Scranton, Pennsylvania. He commuted to and from work every day of his working life, about 44 miles round trip. Each morning he walked three-quarters of a mile up the hill to the station and took the train to work. He carried his lunch in a black metal lunch bucket, which had space for a thermos. His lunch was wrapped in waxed paper bread wrappers that my grandmother saved.
Milk was produced locally because the town was in the midst of dairy country. Farmers brought their milk to one of two local creameries where it was processed, including pasteurizing and bottling – in glass bottles, which were reused. One local farmer pasteurized and bottled his own milk and delivered to customers in town. My dad bought a part interest in a cow, which enabled us to get raw milk, which tasted better and, I learned much later, is better for you. The creameries provided work, as did the feed stores, the farm equipment store, the lumber yard/hardware store and icehouse. Ice was cut in the winter and stored in sawdust in the large icehouse for delivery to home iceboxes the rest of the year. There were active stone quarries. Every sidewalk in town was made of local flagstone.
There was a dump but no garbage collection. We had a garbage can, which we filled with care, because a local farmer came to our house and other houses 2 or 3 times a week to take the contents to feed to his pigs. People with chickens had a homegrown kitchen scrap disposal system. Much biodegradable garbage was composted. Unlike today’s aluminum, tin cans rusted away. We had a paper burner in the driveway and every week or two burned the scrap paper. The amount was small because there was virtually no junk mail and only a fraction of the packaging we are burdened with today. There was no plastic.
Most food was processed and prepared at home. No TV, no TV dinners. My mother made her own mayonnaise, cottage cheese, soups, cakes, cookies and pies. In the winter when my dad butchered a pig he had raised, my mother made pig souse. Home-canned food meant that the same glass jars were used year after year. Beer and soft drinks came in glass bottles that were not recycled; they were reused. The main beverage in our home was water. I must have tasted a soft drink because I knew that I didn’t like it (except for the root beer made by my friend Naomi’s mother). If Coca Cola depended on people like me, they’d quickly go bust. The local Italians drank wine, most (all?) of which they made. Each of my grandfathers had a cider barrel. When the hard cider froze in the winter, the remaining liquid was a potent alcoholic beverage. I remember the men drinking some in my grandmother Strickland’s kitchen. I tried it. It tasted awful.
Most homes had coal furnaces and cast iron cook stoves that burned coal or wood. Anthracite “hard” coal came from the Scranton area twenty some miles away. When I was still young, my mother replaced her coal stove with an electric stove and her icebox with an electric refrigerator.
My grandmother and grandfather Strickland had a dairy farm. They had a telephone but no electricity, no central heating, no indoor plumbing and no motor vehicles.
When I was in seventh grade our class was taught about the American standard of living, which was the highest and best in the world. By that measure, my grandparents had a low standard of living. Among the things they didn’t have were a flush toilet, bathtub, refrigerator, radio, vacuum cleaner, electric lights or a tractor. Although the phrase “quality of life” was unfamiliar to me, I realized that my grandparents had a very good life. Food was more than adequate: it was plentiful and delicious and mostly homegrown. My grandmother’s principal food purchases were sugar, salt and 50-pound sacks of flour. In addition to making the things my mother made, my grandmother churned butter, baked all her bread, made ketchup and, of course, put up hundreds of jars of food from the garden she tended and the wild berries she picked. After the morning and evening chores she cleaned the milking equipment. During haying season and when filling silo there would be extra men to feed at midday because the farmers took turns helping each other. She mended, sewed, knitted and crocheted.
Farming was labor intensive rather than energy and resource intensive. There were no combines that did the work of many men although some farm families had tractors rather than horses. Corn was cultivated. Today atrazine, a petro-chemical herbicide, has replaced the work of cultivating. Atrazine contaminates ground water and causes birth defects. Cultivating is benign.
Years later I wondered why my grandmother had more time for her grandchildren than I, with all my modern conveniences, had for my grandchildren. She worked much harder than I did, however she didn’t have to commute 3 ½ to 4 hours a day on a stinking (literally) bus.
Many people, including my grandparents, had no motor vehicles, but the lack did not keep people from doing what they needed to do and going where they wanted to go. Grandfather Strickland took his milk to the creamery by horse and wagon. People walked. And almost everything one needed was within walking distance – 2 or 3 grocery stores, bank, post office, 2 doctors, dentist, piano teacher, 2 insurance agents, 2 drugstores, lumber yard/hardware store, greenhouse, Sam Schwartz’ clothing store, variety store, 2 barber shops, beauty parlor, funeral parlor, 3 churches, school, movie-theater. There was even a millinery shop run by the Coyle sisters who would make a hat to order. What wasn’t available in town one could order from the Sears Roebuck catalog or buy in Scranton, which served 8 hundred square miles or more. Scranton could be reached by train, trolley (light rail) or car. All the stores were locally owned. Heavy items could be delivered.
Trains carried people and goods everywhere – even from the town of 1000 people where I grew up to the smaller town where I was born, 15 miles away. Trains carried the mail, milk, lumber, coal and the products of Sam Bailey’s factory. My grandmother’s sister, Nan, had married a Manhattan obstetrician. The sisters visited each other by train.
Years later I learned that my grandmother had delivered many babies. If the new mother was in need, grandmother Strickland would take a bundle packed with items for the new baby. In relation to her wherewithal, my grandmother was much more generous than the Ford Foundation.
Like mayonnaise and maple syrup, recreation and entertainment were largely homemade. My parents loved to dance and once when I was very little they took me along to a local dance hall. The music was live. My father loved fishing, especially fly-fishing. I enjoyed watching him tie his own flies. I helped get live bait for pond fishing. Barefoot and with a flashlight I would sneak up on a night walker (over sized earth worm) that was out of its hole and make a quick grab I remember early morning walks to a wooded area (no more than ¼ mile away) where I would sit and listen to the chorus of birds and try to identify them. There were Sunday school picnics, family gatherings, ice-skating in winter, swimming in summer. Olive Stephens next door played the piano and her husband Jack had a nice tenor voice. I and other neighbors of all ages would gather round and sing. I learned to harmonize. The school was a center of activities: competitive sports, school dances, the yearly operetta, class picnics, the senior play. The local movie theater was open Friday and Saturday nights to any child with 20 cents or adult with 35 cents.
As a teenager I enjoyed square dances – in a barn on the Tiffany farm, in a new chicken house before the chickens took over, round and square on Saturday nights at a nearby Grange Hall, always with live music and a caller.
My father loved sports, especially baseball, and played on a town team for many years. On Sundays they played teams from other towns. Other organized adult activities in this tiny town included a Masonic Lodge, a Rotary Club, bridge clubs, the History Club, Eastern Star, PTA and a garden club. The Grange was an active farmers’ organization. There were church related groups.
My parents were not unique in having a sense of civic responsibility. My father was on the school board when the school was expanded and he insisted that the new auditorium/gymnasium accommodate a regulation size basketball court. Rotary, of which he was a founding member, promoted the health of the local business community. My mother volunteered to help with what was called relief. Funds (federal?) were made available and once a month, in our living room, she dispensed checks to those hardest hit by the depression. She was Republican county chairwoman when Gifford Pinchot, who was running for Governor, stopped by our house. “Get the farmer out of the mud” was a campaign promise. When he was elected, he honored his promise!
A sense of civic responsibility did not extend far beyond our area, mainly because of what was and was not covered by radio and the printed word. I’m certain that my parents did not know about the oppression and death caused by U.S. foreign policy in Latin America because it was never mentioned during the frequent political discussions at the dinner table. We did know that Communism and Socialism were bad and that J. Edgar Hoover was a hero and that it was important to bring Christianity and civilization to the less fortunate, most of whom lived in Africa. I knew about leprosy in Africa but not about lynching in the South
From my perspective as a child, the town’s greatest shortcoming was the lack of a library. Not only did the town have no library; the school had no library unless a small room with an uncatalogued assortment of donated books qualifies. Also the school, which had grades one through twelve, did not have a single encyclopedia.
The time was out of joint. Even though our small rural community did not feel the full impact of the Great Depression, it still affected us. Hopes were deferred. Arlo wanted to be a railroad man but during the depression there were no openings. When the depression ended he was 12 years older and he never did realize his goal. Mr. Ayres was a painter. With money tight, people weren’t having their houses painted. Mr. Ayres spent his time doing jigsaw puzzles and drinking.
Another reminder of the depression was the hobos who came through town. My father’s store was visited more frequently than our home but at whichever place a hobo stopped, he left well fed.
A local currency would have been helpful because so many things, especially food, were produced locally. Was local currency a reality in the thirties?
As indicated above, what the town did have was a local community bank, family businesses, organic gardens all over the place, local organic farms, a local supply of milk and milk products, fruits, vegetables, chickens, eggs, beef, pork, lumber, stone, firewood, wood furniture, locally owned businesses, a full array of trades and services, access to an excellent public transportation system and home-grown entertainment and recreation. And people helped each other. It sounds like the basis for a living economy for a living planet.
It’s time to reinvent the wheel. This time, when local living economies are achieved, it is important to honor the chalice not the blade not just locally but also on the national level with an economy based on peace and cooperation not war and domination.
Yes, this was all taking place during the Great Depression (and before) but I don’t think anyone in Nicholson knew that it “represented a popular defense against the corruption of the financial system”. That was part of the problem. We didn’t realize what we had and we didn’t realize that the financial system was corrupt. My father, who was honest and fair in all his dealings, thought that he and General Motors were alike except that GM was bigger. Had he still been alive he might not have believed the revelation that GM was involved in a self-serving conspiracy to eliminate trolley cars throughout the country.
Another part of the problem was the belief in a certain kind of progress. Progress was having a car so that you didn’t have to walk or take the train or trolley.
Progress was television. No need to sing or dance or play ball when you could sit and be entertained by the Lucky Strike Hit Parade and learn to see the U. S. A. in your Chevrolet.
Progress was being able to buy a tomato in winter from some far away place where they had learned to cross a tomato with a rubber ball so that it looked perfect, traveled well and had a long shelf life.
Progress was the bulk milk tank and milk tanker truck, which eliminated local creameries and half the dairy farmers and put more money in the truck driver’s pocket than the farmer’s pocket.
Even if we had realized that we had a living economy and even if we had defined progress differently (as creating a local library, for example) our local economy and self-sufficiency would have evaporated. Our town of 1000 people could not, by itself, sustain the excellent system of public transportation or influence the economics of milk production. A critical mass of towns, cities and rural areas was needed.
A government that put the well-being of its people above the profits of corporations could have helped.
Return to DIALOGUE