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Reminiscences of June, a Traveling Grandmother

Chapter: 4 - 1927-1946 - Weathering the "Great Depression."








(News Paper Announcement of Stock Market Crash)


The severe worldwide economic downturn of the 1930's (1929 - early 1940's) has been designated in history as the "Great Depression". It has been said that the stock market crash  of October 29th, 1929 (Black Tuesday) was the signal of the start of the "Great Depression". During these years, unemployment peaked at 25%  in the U.S. (33% in some countries)

 Farm and rural areas suffered greatly as crop prices fell by approx. 60%. Industrial production dropped by 46%. The negative effects of this time period lasted until the start of World War II. 

June was born in 1927. Stan was born in 1928. June's and Stan's growing up years were all centered in the "Great Depression" years. During this time, June's family lived on small farms in the Colfax and Wheeler areas (Dunn County) of Wisconsin. Stan's family lived on a small 20 acre farm in Rural Rice Lake, WisconsinThe tough times were June's and Stan's formative years. June's  and Stan's parents were hard working Christians of Scandinavian origin

These years were responsible for developing June's life long philosophy of:    

"Be Happy With What You Have."


Henry Rolstad and Team of Horses 1940(June's Father Henry Rolstad with team of Horses - Circa 1926-1936)


Farming operations in the early days was commonly done with horsepower rather than with the much more expensive tractor power.

June was then in the grade school and the high school years. 

Stan during these same depression years, was living on a small farm near Rice Lake, Wisconsin...

Stan's family could not afford either a tractor or horses and their monthly income varied from 1 to 5 dollars. When a horse or tractor was needed for farming operations, this was done in exchange for labor.

June's family used a team of horses to power their farming implements and all their machinery.

Even though many farmers were using tractors, at this time, Neither June's or Stan's family could afford the luxury of a tractor.


 June's home had no electric power (nor did most farm homes) until she was a junior in High School. (1943-1944) Kerosene lamps provided the lighting in her home. 

There were no refrigerators, of course, as refrigerators required electricity. Even in urban areas, ice boxes were common as a means of keeping food from spoiling.

The ice box as a means of providing refrigeration date back to the mid 1850's. Their use continued up into the 1930's when the first electrical refrigeration was introduced into the homes. The walls of the ice box were hollow and packed with insulation. These were devices with a large ice compartment in the top. The local ice man would deliver a large block of ice to be placed in the ice compartment. This would then provide cooling for the food compartments.  A drip pan under the box caught the melted ice run off. The Ice boxes resembled the present day refrigerators in overall general appearance.They were usually constructed of wood and some were handsome pieces of furniture.  The ice man was said to be as much a social institution as the Milkman was during that same time period.

Neither June' family or Stan's family had ice boxes as ice boxes required ice and ice was not available to the farmer's.


(June left with  Father Henry Rolstad - 3 sisters- 2 brothers - Circa 1940-1941)


Henry Rolstad Family Circa 1940-1941.


 As indicated earlier, rural area's did not even have the luxury of an ice box as there was no ice delivery available. In rural homes like June's, and Stan's, the only place with cool temperatures would be the basement or the cellar as it was called. The cellars were almost always entered or accessed by way of an outside set of double wooden cellar doors that opened outward at the center and sloped down towards the front of the doors. Opening the doors revealed the steps leading down into the cellar. The cellars being underground, provided a cooler temperature.

The cellars also provided a refuge in case of severe storms and tornadoes. The floors of the cellars were usually compacted dirt.

There was a popular and catchy song in Circa 1940 that reveals much about rural life in June's and Stan's time. The song was called "Playmates." (Saxie Dowell)  The song goes like this:

"Oh Playmate , come out and play with me.

And bring your dollies three.

Climb up my apple tree,

Look down my rain barrel.

Slide down my cellar door

And we'll be jolly friends forever more"


Most homes had a rain barrel to catch run off rain from the roofs of the home. The rain water provided a soft water for washing clothes. The cellar doors were set at such an angle that one might slide down a cellar door. Most rural farms had an apple tree or two in the front yards.


Early day automobile tires

Pneumatic inflatable  tires were  invented by R. W. Thomson in 1846. The early day pneumatic tire required inflation by way of a rubber inner tube. The  inner tube could fail for a number of reasons, such as: incorrect tire fit, puncture or friction between the tire wall and inner tube generating excess heat causing a blowout. The "blowout" is much like the bursting of a balloon leading to rapid deflation.

Henry pumping up his tires

 (Henry Rolstad - hand pump to pump up Model T. Ford Tire - 1926-1936)


Flat tires were very common in the early days. The most common cause of a flat tire was the tire picking up a nail or other sharp object that would in turn puncture the inner tube. resulting in a flat tire. Frequently the value stem/core would be the cause of a slow leak.

Every car owner learned how to change tires. A spare replacement tire was a necessity that was in frequent use. Inner tube patching kits were available and every car owner learned how to patch their inner tubes. A hand pump was also standard equipment on every car. A slow leak of a tire required hand pumping to restore tire pressure if a service station was not close at hand.

An extra supply of valve cores were always kept  on hand in order to replace leaky cores.  The cores would thread into the valve stem. An end cap served as protection for the valve core.

In 1947 B.F. Goodrich introduced the tubeless tires. It was a few years later in the 1950's before the tubeless tires became the standard in the auto industry and available on the market.

The tubeless tire sealed on the wheel rim and did not require an inner tube to maintain inflation.

With the later steel belted radial tubeless tires, the life of a tire extended from 25-30,000 miles up to 100,000 miles.

Flat tires became rare. A tire picking up a nail would usually only become a very slow leak over a period of days and  no longer an instant flat. The life of the automobile owner and operator was thereby much enhanced.


Electric power

Electric power was not available to rural America until well into the 20th century. The power companies took the position that the cost to provide power to the rural areas was too great and thus unprofitable. The few companies that did provide power did so at rates that were double the in town rates.

This all gradually changed with the entrance of the REA. The "Rural Electrification Administration" (REA) was one of the "New Deal" Agencies created under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The REA was created on May 11th 1935 with the primary objective of providing or promoting rural electrification. The REA made loans available to local electric cooperatives which operated the lines and distributed the electricity.

By the end of the 50's decade 90% of Rural homes had power available, compared to only 10% in 1930. The effect of the REA programs was a prompting of private electric companies to begin serving rural areas.

It was in the early 1940's that electric power first became available to June. Even thought the power lines went by a farmer's property did not mean that every farmer could afford to have their property buildings wired and connected to the lines or to pay the cost of the newly available power...

It was in the 50's that Stan's family first had electric power.


(Photo  is June at the age of 3 years in 1930)


June Rolstad 1930


Heating and cooking was done by way of wood burning stoves.

Electric cooking ranges were usually well beyond the budgets of most farmers even when electric power was available.

The fires would go out over night in the heating stoves and would require June's and Stan' father/stepfather to restart them in the morning.

On a cold winter morning, one would usually complete the morning dressing process near the living room stove. 

One of the children's daily chores involved carrying in wood to replenish the wood box kept next to the stove.

June's sister Betty asked their mother  Haldis one day if she would have to carry wood for stoves when she was in heaven.

Stan's first job every day after walking home 2 miles from his rural school, was filling all the wood boxes for use that night and the next day.

On sub-zero cold winter days, the only really warm place in the house was near the stove.



There was no indoor plumbing. The toilet was a small unheated outdoors building referred to as an "outhouse". No one tarried in the outhouse on a brisk winter day.

June did not have indoor plumbing until after high school. Washing clothes was done by hand using scrubbing boards and galvanized tubs. Because rainwater was soft water, it would be collected for use in doing the laundry. June's Dad Henry was able to in later years, attach an old gas engine to an old washing machine to reduce the wash day labors.

Another of the daily chores was hand pumping pails of water to be carried to the house. There were no showers and no bathrooms. Baths were taken in a metal washtub, usually in the kitchen and close to the stove. Water had to be heated on the stove and added to the cold water in the tub to warm it to a temperature fit for bathing. The Saturday night bath was traditional in most farm homes.


( Henry Rolstad's old grade school - purchased, moved - converted into barn)


Henry Rolstad's Grade School---

Because June's family could not afford to construct a barn, her father Henry acquired an old abandoned small country school building (his old grade school) that he converted to a barn.

The belfry (bell tower) was removed and became a playhouse for the children.

On the back of the picture of the Father Henry's old school, June had written the following note:

"My Dad - Henry Rolstad's Grade School. Later in the years after he was married, he bought it for a barn. He took the bell tower down and it was used for us kids to play in.. The floor was filled with sand. We baked all our mud pies on the ledge."



June's family was unable to afford a telephone until after June graduated from high school. Rural telephones were all party lines. (6-or more people on the same line) This resulted in no privacy on calls. When the family phone would ring, so would every one else's phone on the same party line. Each party on the line had a code of a certain number of short and long rings. The members of the party line were only supposed to answer the phone when their special ring was heard. Unfortunately, when getting a call, one could always hear the clicks of other party line members lifting their phones to "Eve's Drop".

Milking machines were not yet in common usage nor could many farmers afford this expensive machine. The family dairy cows were all milked by hand. The children in the family were expected to assist in the milking operation. June's milking chores were rather short lived. June was afraid of the big milk cows. Whenever the cow would switch it's tail, June would jump up from her milk stool in alarm. Finally her dad in exasperation suggested that she might as well go to the house. That ended June's milking days forever.

Stan's family only had 5 milk cows...Stan would mil 2-3 cows by hand.

The dairy farmers would all send their milk to the local creamery by way of a milk hauler. The fresh milk would be strained and then stored in steel milk cans in a milk house awaiting morning pick up by the milk hauler. The cans would be partially submerged in a cold-water concrete tank to keep the milk cool until pickup. The milk hauler would be paid a modest monthly fee for the hauling job.

Most milk haulers were obliging sorts who would frequently be asked to do favors for their customers. Picking up feed for the cattle at a nearby feed mill was a common request. The feed stores would put the feed up in sacks with color prints in the cloth of the sacks that could be used by their customers to make clothing for their children.

June could remember her mother instructing their milk hauler (Otto Mork) to pick up two matching sacks of feed. When emptied the sacks would then be opened at the stitched seams to produce a large piece of cloth for clothing pattern layouts. June and her sisters had fun making up a short poem about their milk hauler.


"Otto Mork,

 sat on a cork,

eating his pork,

with a knife and fork."


Statistical data indicates that in 1940 only about 54 percent of the homes in American had complete plumbing (running water, private bath and flush toilet. Almost a quarter of the homes had no electrical power. Most American homes in 1940 had only 1,000 square feet of living space. In 1998, it was estimated that new single-family homes have more than double that space or a little more than 2,100 square feet of living space.

In spite of the hard times during their growing up years, June's and Stan's parents maintained a positive outlook on life, reinforced by strong family ties, family values, friends, neighbors, and their local Lutheran Church.

The depression did not relax its grip on the U.S. economy until the advent of World War II and the heavy government defense industry spending of the early 1940s. The unemployment was solved by the armed services taking every able bodied man except those needed and exempted for farming operations or other critical needs as established by the war effort. Without living through the depression years, it is difficult for anyone to appreciate how hard the times really were.

June and Stan lived through the age of deprivation and individual responsibility to the age of the excess and governmental social responsibility. One would have thought that the poverty of the great depression years would have spawned much crime. Not so – this was prior to poverty becoming an excuse for committing crimes. Basic honesty and sound family values along with strong Christian values carried the day. No one locked their home at night or when away visiting friends...every family had a gun behind the front was used for hunting and to put food on the was never used to shoot up schools or kill innocent people.

Today it is common to frequently visit a doctor for health problems, issues or complaints...then it was rare and required something serious like a fractured leg...Mother's home remedies carried the day....Stan saw his first doctor (At age 20) when he went into the service on the eve of the Korean War and was examined by an Army doctor.

Stan did not know what June's family monthly income was but it was well into the low poverty levels...Stan recalls the years when his family's small dairy farm in the winter months produced incomes of less then 5 dollars a month.

Stan remembers one December which included Christmas when his mother announced that their family income for the month was 1 dollar...Christmas was still a happy time even when very little money was available...Stan remembers how he and others always loved to sing the favorite Christmas Carols...the small country school always held a big Christmas party for the students and the family...everyone went home with a big bag of candy, nuts and fruit plus an inexpensive exchange present distributed by drawing names...every home had a Christmas tree...a real Christmas tree! Lights on the tree were real candles as most had no electric power...Stan still wonders how they avoided starting a fire and burning the house down with such candle use. 



Unemployment Lines 

(Unemployed in line for free coffee and doughnuts)


At the end of 1929, the "Great Depression" was just dawning and had not yet opened it's doors to the economic hardships that would soon follow.

1929 ended with a very favorable employment figure of 3.14%. In the years to follow, the unemployment rose dramatically to peak out at 24.75% in 1933...almost 8 times higher

At the peak of the Great Depression, 60 percent of the U.S. population was classified as in poverty.

The unemployment figure gradually diminished to 16.8% at the end of 1936. Unfortunately, this was short lived as 1938 saw the unemployment again jump to 18.91%. A general downward trend then followed until the end of 1941 when it stood at 9.66%.

The Pearl Harbor attack in December 1941, signaled the beginning of  WWII. At the end of 1942, the first year of WWII, the unemployment was cut in half to stand at 4.7%.

Unemployment continued downward during the WWII years as every able bodied man was either in the armed services or utilized in critical industries for the war effort.

WWII years of 1943-1945 averaged yearly unemployment of 1.75. This would suggest a level of an irreducible minimum.


Alzheimer's in the Depression Years

While the disease of Alzheimer's was first discovered by Dr. Alzheimer's in 1906, knowledge of this disease and the use of the term "Alzheimer's " was uncommon in the years of the great depression and the 1950's...

During June and my growing up years, the term Alzheimer's was almost unknown...the common Alzheimer's symptoms were then referred to as "senility" and "hardening of the arteries" of the brain...teen agers would often kid other teen agers of getting "Senile" when making some common mental mistake.

From my observations of June's Grandma Mathea, I think it was likely that Mathea had Alzheimer's disease....Mathea was father Henry's mother...Mathea died in 1956...a death certificate is not available...when ever I observed her, she was one who walked stooped over with a cane and would sit quietly in a chair with no conversation.

June's mother died of the effects of a stroke. June's father died of a heart attack...June appears to be the only 1 of the 6 children to have been a victim of Alzheimer' least to this point that is the case...June was also one who always watched her weight, ate healthy foods and received annual physical exams...however, since Alzheimer's is a disease for which the risk of getting the disease rapidly multiplies with age from 1 chance in 8 at age 65 to 1 chance in 2 at age 85, the final results are not in...(2 sisters and 1 brother are still a part of the living family)...deceased are 1 sister of heart attack and 1 brother of kidney failure, heart and related problems. 

June's first symptoms of short term memory loss were noted in 1997 when she was approaching her 70th birthday...June passed on in 2008 just before her 81st birthday and after a long journey into the darkness of the disease of almost 12 years.