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“The Depression has Changed People’s Outlook”: The Beuschers Remember the Great Depression in Dubuque, Iowa

by David Shannon

Before the Great Depression of the 1930’s the Beuschers—he was a sixty-two-year-old railroad worker; she was the mother of their eleven children—had been fairly prosperous: they owned their home and had several life-insurance policies serving as savings. But by the time the Works Progress Administration (WPA) interviewed them in 1937, their lives had dramatically changed: the father had lost his railroad job and the mother was taking in sewing. This interview summary, published by the WPA, showed how they struggled to make ends meet during The Great Depression.


FROM FARM TO SHOP TO RELIEF:The Beuschers At Home

Mr. Beuscher 62

Mrs. Beuscher 60

Paul 13

Katherine 17

Jeannette 19

Bob 21

Married and away from home

Charles 23

Celia 25

Butch 26

Eileen 28

Helen 30

Caroline 32

Interviewing completed December 13, 1937

Mr. Beuscher, 62 years old, had been working for 29 years for the Dubuque railroad shops when they closed in 1931. He was recalled to work at the shops after he had been unemployed for 4 years. Tall, gangling, weather-beaten, he stoops forward when he talks so that he may follow the conversation with greater ease, for he is more than a little deaf. He expresses opinions decisively and vigorously, his black eyes gleaming from under bushy black brows.

Mrs. Beuscher is 2 years younger than her husband. She is the mother of 11 children, but has found time to make dresses and coats and suits, not only for her own family, but also for customers outside the home. A genial, mild-mannered woman, she is earnest in her speech, but always ready to laugh at her own and other people’s foibles. Her eyes, merry but tired, are protected with spectacles that slide down on the bridge of her nose when she bends over reading or sewing and that are pushed up on her forehead when she raises her head to talk or to listen to an especially amusing radio program.

Four children remain at home: Bob, 21, a high school graduate, has had only short-time employment and is now out of work; Jeannette, who completed a high school commercial course last spring, is now clerking in a 5-and-10-cent store on Saturdays; Katherine, a high school junior who goes out occasionally with her “boy friend,” cleans the house on Saturday mornings; Paul, attending junior high school, is privileged as one of the “Knothole Gang” to see the local ball games at 10¢ a game and contributes his proceeds from the sale of magazines, sometimes as much as “a whole 15¢,” to his mother’s purse.

One daughter died several years ago. The other children are married and now have their own households. But during the early years of the depression Charles, then unmarried, was at home; and Celia and Butch, who had had their own homes, came with their families to the Beuscher home when they could no longer pay rent.

Mr. Beuscher was educated haphazardly in country schools in Wisconsin during the seasons when work was not too pressing on his father’s farm and his “old man” didn’t “make him saw wood” in preference to sending him to school. He worked as a “hand” on his father’s and neighboring farms until he came to Dubuque, with his wife and two children, in 1902. He was employed at the boat works for a few weeks before being taken on as a boilermaker’s helper in the railroad shops. Promoted to a job as boilermaker in 1910, he continued at the same job, except for brief interruptions because of illness, a disagreement with his foreman, and, again, a general railroad strike, until the closing of the shops in 1931. . . .

The Beuschers never had a savings account—they thought it more practical to pay as much as possible on the house, especially as the rate of interest on the mortgage exceeded that on savings accounts—but they did invest in insurance policies for all members of the family. As the 10-payment life insurance policies carried for the older children had matured, they had been cashed in, but premiums on policies carried for Mr. and Mrs. Beuscher and the four youngest children were kept paid up to date until the spring of 1931, when the Beuschers found themselves with a mortgaged home, five children still largely dependent on the parents, and no regular income.

As they “look back on it,” Mr. and Mrs. Beuscher scarcely know how they did manage to get along during the time that he had no regular work. The irregular income from Mrs. Beuscher’s sewing continued, though she was forced to lower prices until earnings averaged no more than $3 or $4 a week. Instead of buying any new clothing, Mrs. Beuscher made over the old dresses and coats which, though discarded, had been packed away in the attic trunks. Insurance policies were cashed in one by one. Mrs. Beuscher’s 20-payment life insurance policy, with face value of $500, netted her $137; cash surrender values of the four policies carried on the younger children averaged about $35. Though they were able to keep Mr. Beuscher’s policy, $200 was borrowed against the face value of $1,000. Premiums have now been paid to date, but interest on the loan has been deducted from the value, now no more than $600.

For a year after Mr. Beuscher lost his job, the family’s only cash income was the four hundred seventy-odd dollars obtained from the insurance policies and Mrs. Beuscher’s irregular earnings, as contrasted with the pre-depression regular income of about $130 a month, Mr. Beuscher’s full-time earnings. In spite of all the Beuschers could do to reduce expenses and to raise cash, not all of the bills could be met: payments due on the principal of the mortgage and the property taxes had to be disregarded, and Mr. and Mrs. Beuscher were harassed with worry over the $68 grocery bill, for they had never before asked for credit, except from week to week. Expenditures for replacements of household equipment were eliminated from the budget. By the time Mr. Beuscher returned to work, the family had almost no bedding; this was the first special item purchased when the family again had a regular income from private employment.

Although they had heard about other families, some of them in their own neighborhood, who had applied for relief grants, the Beuschers had never thought of requesting relief for themselves until one day, in the fall of 1933, Mr. Beuscher came home from a neighbor’s to say to his wife, Do you know what Jim said? He said we ought to try to get relief. Mrs. Beuscher was so “shocked” that she gasps, even 4 years later, when she recalls her emotion. But after talking things over, Mr. and Mrs. Beuscher agreed that application for relief was a virtual necessity. Mr. Beuscher remembers going down to the courthouse for the first time as the hardest thing he ever had to do in his life; his hand was “on the door-knob five times” before he turned it. The investigation, which the Beuschers recognized as necessary and inevitable, was so prolonged that Mrs. Beuscher “really didn’t think” that the family would ever get relief. But finally, after about 2 months, a grocery order of $4.50 was granted. Mrs. Beuscher had long before learned to “manage” excellently on little, and though the order was meager, the family “got along” and “always had enough to eat.” Mrs. Beuscher believes that the investigators “did the best they could”; she resents only their insistence on the disconnection of the telephone, on which she depended for keeping in touch with her customers.

Soon Mr. Beuscher was assigned as a laborer to county relief work, for which he was paid, always in grocery orders, $7.20 a week; this increased amount gave the family a little more leeway. Yet they were still without much cash. Payments even of interest on the mortgage had had to cease. Because they anticipated foreclosure of the mortgage, the Beuschers applied for a Home Owners loan, which was refused, since there seemed to be little chance of Mr. Beuscher’s getting back to work.“Things looked pretty bad then,” and Mr. Beuscher was considered a “bad risk” because of his age. Though Mr. and Mrs. Beuscher were “terribly disappointed at the time,” they are glad now that they are not burdened with such a debt.

Mrs. Beuscher cannot guess how the family could have managed during the depression without the home, but Mr. Beuscher found home ownership more of a handicap than a help, for relief grants made no allowance for taxes or interest payments, while “bums” who had never tried to save or look to the future had their rent paid “regularly.”

While the relief grants continued, a married daughter whose husband, as a collection agent, found his commissions going lower and lower, and a married son, who “hadn’t a sign of a job,” moved in with the parents. There were then 13 living in the 7 room house. Of course, the children had come home only after a general discussion in which it was agreed that this was the best plan, and everyone had thought of the arrangement as quite “temporary”; actually Celia and Butch and their families remained in the household for about a year. For a time, Eliot, the son-in-law, was able to contribute $5 a week, which probably covered any additional expenditures for himself and his wife and their two children, although there was no attempt to keep separate household accounts. But soon he could make no collections at all, and payments to the Beuschers ceased.

Eliot and Butch found that they could not obtain relief grants for their families while they remained with the Beuschers, nor could the grant for the entire household be increased. They did all they could to help the family: worked with Mr. Beuscher for the gas company to pay the gas bills, and for the coal company to pay the coal bills; they worked in the garden and helped to saw wood for the family’s use.

For a time Charles was able to contribute a little to the family income by playing ball on professional teams in various towns; almost every weekend during the baseball season he accumulated $7 or $8 in this way. But since he could find no regular work in Dubuque, he soon went to Detroit, where he stayed with a married sister. Though it was not absolutely necessary for him to leave home, in his absence there was “one less mouth to feed,” and he was in a better position to seek work. He has since paid his back board bills to his sister, and is now married and working in a neighboring Iowa town.

The family’s garden, for which the city furnished some of the seeds and the plot of ground on the city island, added fresh vegetables to the list of staples which alone could be purchased on the grocery orders; there were even some vegetables to be sold from house to house, and Mrs. Beuscher canned a little almost every day, just as the vegetables were ready for use. One summer she put up 500 quarts of vegetables. The family had never had a garden before 1932, both because there was little space and because they had “never thought of it,” but Mr. Beuscher has continued to garden even now that he is back at work. Since the island garden plot could be reached only by boat, transportation was something of a problem, solved when Mr. Beuscher and three of his neighbors chipped in $2 apiece for the materials from which they built a jointly-owned boat. Only infrequently did two or more families set out to work in their gardens at the same time; so they were forever having to halloo across the water to ask that the boat be brought back to the town side to pick up more gardeners.

Grocery orders were supplemented with surplus commodities. The only other outside assistance which the family received was a sack of seed potatoes for Mr. Beuscher’s garden planting in the spring of 1932 and several tons of coal during the winter of 1933–34 from a private charitable organization to which the Beuschers had in previous years contributed with the thought that they were “giving something away;” now they consider these contributions the “best investment they ever made;” they have been“repaid a hundred-fold.”

Although the Beuschers never felt comfortable about receiving relief, it came to be more or less an accepted thing. “You know, you went down to City Hall, and had to wait in line, and you saw all your friends; it was funny in a way, though it was pitiful, too... People went down to the relief office, and talked about going, just the way they might have gone anywhere else.”

The family received food orders for only a few months, as Mr. Beuscher was soon assigned to the CWA [Civil Works Administration] Eagle Point Park project as a laborer, earning 40¢ an hour. Later he worked on the lock and dam project at 50¢ an hour. Mr. Beuscher cannot understand why there was so great a difference between the wage rates of laborers on work projects and those of skilled carpenters. Although he was glad to be assigned to projects, there was little essential difference in his feelings about direct relief and about “work relief”; he worked hard for his pay, but still felt that he was being “given something.” He has heard many times that persons on relief do not want work and will not accept jobs in private industry, but he knows from project employees whose reactions were similar to his that such is not the case, except perhaps in a very few instances. Nothing makes him “more mad” than this criticism of project workers.

Mrs. Beuscher believes that relief, as such, has not fostered dependency. “Of course, there have always been some people who have wanted something for nothing,” but “the right kind of people—the people we know, except maybe a very few—” have invariably tried to remain independent, applied for relief only as a last resort, and made every effort to go back to private employment. It may be true that some persons have become so discouraged and disheartened that they have ceased to look for jobs, but any such discouragement Mrs. Beuscher considers “purely temporary.” Men will go back to private employment as soon as there are jobs to be had “without standing in line day after day waiting” on the chance that someone may be hired from among the men at the factory gates.

On principle, Mr. Beuscher decidedly favors work projects as against direct relief. “Men should be made to work for what they get,” and the “majority of them—at least 70 per cent—” prefer to work. In any event, however, Mr. Beuscher believes that some direct relief will always be necessary as there are a “few people who aren’t eligible for pensions and can’t work.”

Some time before the time that Mr. Beuscher was called back to work at the railroad shops, Eliot and Butch had reestablished a household for their two families. They received relief for a time, but finally both found work in local factories, and Butch moved to a home of his own. Now, they are independent, as are the Beuschers, senior.

Bob tried at various times to be assigned to a CCC [Civilian Conservation Corps] camp. The family does not fully understand the many delays, though they believe that boys from smaller family groups were sent in preference to Bob because other families were more demanding and insistent than the Beuschers. But Bob’s turn finally came in the fall of 1935. He liked the woods work, except when the temperature was well below zero. During a prolonged cold spell he asked for and was granted a transfer to kitchen duty. He was chagrined when the temperature dropped still lower, and the woods workers were permitted to loaf indoors while he labored in the kitchen where the thermometer stood at 5 above zero. Again he requested a transfer, which was arranged just as the weather warmed up enough for the woods workers to be sent out every day. On the whole, he considers it quite a joke that he managed always to choose “the wrong thing.” He was enjoying the work most “just when he came home,” after a 10-month stay, to take a job as a saw-operator, paying 30¢ an hour, with the Mississippi Milling Company. Several increases had brought his hourly rate up to 37¢ when he was laid off because of a general reduction in the force in August 1936. During the winter months the plant “took on every kid they could find”; then when the warehouse was overstocked the younger workers were laid off in great numbers.

Although Mr. and Mrs. Beuscher “don’t say the depression is over,” times have been better for them since the late fall of 1935, when Mr. Beuscher was called back to his old work at the shops at the old rate of pay. Mr. Beuscher considers this “regular work,” and, as such, far superior to relief work, especially as he now “feels more independent.” Still, it is not as it was in the old days when 1,500 men were employed rebuilding damaged and out-worn cars. Of the 130 men taken back at the shop, only 25 remain at work, which now consists of wrecking instead of reclamation, and no one of the 25 men knows how long his work will last. Mr. Beuscher was one of those to be recalled and to remain at work because of his “seniority right.”

While he was out of work, Mr. Beuscher had regularly made the rounds of the local factories looking for jobs and had kept active his registration with the State employment office. Though he frequently grew discouraged with looking for work, Mrs. Beuscher thinks that he “enjoyed it in a way.” He and his neighbors used to get together in the evenings, air their many disappointments, and decide not to bother going out again to look for jobs. But invariably the following morning found them “off again.” When Mr. Beuscher learned that a few men were to be rehired, he went to the shops to explain that he was available. Soon, he was called back. Since his return to work, the Beuschers have paid up all back bills, including interest on the mortgage, property taxes, and street assessments which totaled about $500. Within the past month, the Beuschers have been able to claim the deed to their home, as the principal of the mortgage has been reduced to $1,500. The interest rate from now on will be only 5 1/2 instead of 7 percent.

Mrs. Beuscher thinks that perhaps young people have had the most discouraging experiences in the search for work. After Bob was laid off at the mill, he made every effort to find other employment. He reported regularly at the State employment office, which referred him to only one job, a job as chronometer reader for a battery factory. Bob thought that he could do the work, as he had had some practice in chronometer reading in his high school machine shop work, but when he reported at the factory he was told that only a man of 35 years and 200 pounds could be employed. “The local factories will not file applications” and usually offer jobs only to those men who are waiting at the plants when openings occur. Thus, when the word goes around that some factory is “hiring” — which may mean only that one man, perhaps “a relative” of another employee, has been taken on the day before—the men all go to the factory to wait for jobs. Bob has spent many hours and days “waiting” at the gates of factories in Dubuque and in Illinois towns to which he has either hitchhiked or traveled on the family’s railroad pass.

Bob has thought of going to Detroit, where he would live with one of his sisters while hunting work, but Mrs. Beuscher tells him, “If you don’t have a job, your place is at home, not with your brothers-in-law, who have a hard enough time taking care of their own families.”One of the brothers-in-law has recently had his hours at the factory cut in half.

Finally, Bob heard that an insulating company was expanding and taking on more men. Next morning he went to the plant at 7 o’clock; he stayed all day. Of the 30 men waiting, only l was hired. On the second day Bob was given a job weighing and carting raw materials. He had worked a full 8-hour day and about 2 hours of the second working day when some of the machinery broke down and the plant was closed for repairs.

Jeannette, like Bob, has kept a registration active at the State employment office. She is now clerking on Saturdays in a 5-and-10-cent store and hopes to have several days' work just before Christmas. Although she would prefer stenographic work, she says that she has been willing to take what she can get. She talks to the other kids and knows that none of her friends has a regular full-time clerical job.

Mrs. Beuscher believes that “the depression has changed people’s outlook.” In a way she is more “comfortable” now than when both she and Mr. Beuscher worried about bills and tried to plan for the future. Now, they “just live from day to day,” with the feeling that since they “lived through the depression” they can face anything to come. Of course, it was fun to plan and look ahead, “and that’s one way we’ve lost.” This resignation and acceptance of what the future may bring, Mrs. Beuscher accounts a “sign of age” as well as a result of the depression. Another “sign of age” is Mr. and Mrs. Beuscher’s being content to spend leisure time at home; lack of money “was the start of it,” and when they were Once again reasonably secure, they had "lost the ambition to go. . . .

Mr. Beuscher is intensely interested in discussions of the causes of extensive unemployment. As a reader of 5¢ weeklies he cannot agree with “editorial writers” that there is no serious “technological unemployment.” From his own experience, Mr. Beuscher knows the work of many men has been taken over by machinery. When he first worked as a helper, it was a good 10-hour job for 3 men to hammer by hand 300 rivets; after the introduction of pneumatic drills, 1,200 rivets could be placed in the same length of time with about the same effort. Once a freight train crew of 5 men handled about 20 cars; now a crew may be responsible for 5 times as many cars, “and not the old 40-ton cars, either, but 60-, 80-, or l00-ton cars.” And so it goes, in railroad shops, on the trains, and in other industries as well. Though it has been claimed that displaced workers are absorbed by new industries, Mr. Beuscher believes that the proper balance has not been maintained, as the new machinery wears longer than the old and need not be produced in such great quantity.

Mr. Beuscher has only one suggested solution for the problem of unemployment: persons of “wealth” should be persuaded to invest their money in industries that might increase or create new employment. He believes also that there should be a better “distribution” of the money paid for commodities. But Mr. Beuscher does not hold “radical” ideas. At one time there was quite a group of Socialists in Dubuque; now the movement has “died out.” Mr. Beuscher expresses his feeling about the group by telling gleefully an old story. A friend of Mr. Beuscher’s approached one of these Socialists, who had a remarkably fine garden, and asked, “John, you believe in distribution, don’t you?” "Yes.“ "Then I want you to give me your carrots and cabbages.”

Mr. and Mrs. Beuscher are agreed that they would not in any event be willing to give up property which they might have struggled to accumulate. However, they would not want great wealth, as they would scarcely know how to spend or handle it. Mr. Beuscher is nearing his 63d birthday; at 65 he will be eligible for a Railroad Retirement pension of $62 or $63 a month, the precise amount depending on the extent of his earnings during the intervening period. His greatest present hope is that he can work steadily until he reaches the age of 65; his greatest fear, that the work will peter out between one day and the next. When he leaves the shop, Mr. Beuscher would like to be able to buy a small plot of ground, but this is only a wish, not an expectation. He would not want to go back to farming as a renter or laborer, but he would like to farm if he could own his land, just enough to work comfortably with his efforts alone.

Though the Beuschers are reasonably well satisfied with remaining in Dubuque, they consider it “the cheapest town there is,”so far as wages go. The local factories have “never paid what they should, but then rents are low here, too.” Mr. Beuscher thinks that he would not be “telling anything” by explaining the reason for the low wage scale, for “everybody knows that a few factories control the town.” Mrs. Beuscher says with some dismay that she has read recently that “even office workers in Dubuque get less than in any other city in the United States.” Then she rises to the defense of the town, which has “good schools” and a comparatively new radio station; it numbers among its famous people a movie star, the wife of a movie star, and a great football player. On the whole, “it’s not a bad place to live”; and anyhow, the family “can’t leave now because you even have to pay to get across the toll bridges” into the adjacent states of Wisconsin and Illinois.

Source: David Shannon. The Great Depression (Englewood Cliff, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1960), pp. 138–146

See Also:The Bum as Con Artist: An Undercover Account of the Great Depression
Losing the Business: The Donners Recall the Great Depression
Deaf and Unemployed in Dubuque: The DiMarcos Remember the Great Depression