Memories of the Great Depression

Written By:  Bob Smith

as told by Ellen Distler and Jean Koistinen


The ‘30’s, the 1930’s that is, are remembered for being the decade of the Great Depression.  It began with the stock market crash of October 1929, which led to the greatest economic decline in the history of the industrialized Western world. Every community in the country was affected by it.  At the same time, the mid-section of the nation was hit by a drought which devastated farmland and swept away precious topsoil in the swirl of winds which darkened the skies of what was called “The Dust Bowl”.


East Williston, as did every community in the country, suffered, but it also grew during this time.  From 1930 to 1904, the number of houses increased from 150 to 343 and the population rose from 493 to 1152.  As in so many small communities across the country, many of the old ways were still followed.  We may have been close to New York, we might even have been considered a suburb, and many of the families who lived here had moved out from the city, but we were very much a part of a world that was still “close to the farm” and community centered.  The way of life that made us strong and independent had not yet been superceded by the supermarket as the source of all food and TV as the source of all entertainment.  We were self-reliant and helped each other in time of need.


         For Ellen Distler, there are many fond memories but sad ones as well.  Some folks lost their jobs and homes.  Her father lost his job in a merger though he connected with a new type of business within a year, but, like other people, “we made do with less, ate less.     It didn’t hit us at first, the stock market crash, but by 1931 it had become a terrible fact of life: hardships, few jobs and falling prices.  ‘Brother Can You Shape a Dime’ was more than a song, it was true, and people did sell apples on the street.  We had friend, not from East Williston, who committed suicide.  Many people pooled what they had to help others: the minister of the Community Church came around collecting stale bread.   In those days, before the widespread use of preservatives, bread didn’t keep long.  I recall that Judge Moore gave coal to several people.   The New Deal had programs to help but there were still many suffering people.  I can remember a very poorly dressed man, he barely spoke English, who would garden for us just for a meal.  My mother would make him a French omelet.  Our house always smelled so good.  Lots of people kept chickens. My mother wouldn’t have them, but five families on Fairview Avenue kept them, so one had fresh eggs and a roast bird on Sunday.  Mr. Keiselman, who worked in Griffin’s general store and was also the superintendent of the Community Church (verger is another name for what he did, all you Agatha Christie readers), he rang the bell for years, came around on Saturday mornings to chop off the heads of the chickens destined for Sunday dinner.”

HISTORICAL NOTE  (On August 1, 1939 The Village Board passed an ordinance prohibiting the keeping of chickens or other fowl in the Village.)


              Jean Koistenen remembers a different aspect of the times.  "We were in Europe in 1929 and my father got word that there had been a Wall Street crash.  We had to return home but had trouble getting passage.  Eventually we got a ship from Le Havre and arrived in New York on Christmas Eve.  I was 10 at the time and had heard about the crash being spoken about all during the entire voyage home. So, when my mother took me up on deck to see the city when the ship sailed into New York harbor, I looked at all the buildings and said, ‘I thought they all crashed’.  To this day, I have that same feeling of amazement when I come into the harbor and see the buildings still standing as they were when I left.


            We didn’t have any particular hardship during the Depression.  I didn’t know of anyone suffering: my family wasn’t, my father didn’t lose his job. Life went on as usual for us, though I was away at school from 1934 to ’36 and from’36 to ’40, and may have missed some of it.  However, I remember my parents having a dinner party for friends on what might have been election night in 1932, or shortly thereafter.  What was said left a lasting impression on me.   Franklin Roosevelt had just defeated Herbert Hoover.  Most of the guests were prosperous people from Glen Cove and many of  them were Quakers.  The women were saying things like: ‘Oh, we’ll never eat again.  This is going to be terrible.’  They were dyed-in-the-wool Republicans and didn’t want change and FDR and the Democrats were promising plenty of change.”


Most Historians and economists are in agreement in holding that The Great Depression lasted throughout the decade only coming to an end with the outbreak of World War II.  RS