Usually my first activity in the morning is to bring in the newspaper and to check the outdoor temperature. I couldn't believe what I saw -- the thermometer registered 84 degrees. Given the current heat wave and drought, I have been giving considerable thought to the Dirty '30s -- are we heading in that same direction? To discuss all of the events in detail peculiar to that decade (1932-1942) would be voluminous. The folks who weren't living then will forgive us for harking back to those years once more.
After the Wall Street crash and during the Hoover administration, unemployment peaked at 23 percent. Most of that occurred in the larger cities. Our less-populated areas didn't have many layoffs, but wages dropped appreciably. One was quite fortunate to earn $10 per week. To its credit, the federal government created the Works Progress Administration. Unemployed men could seek jobs building bridges, granaries and buildings, mostly making use of the abundance of limestone found in this area. The men were proud of their work, especially since they did not have to go with hat in hand asking for handouts.
So the hard times extended to us in western Kansas, too? Well, yes and no. Cash flow was hard to come by. On the farms, we sold our chickens, eggs and milk, and occasionally, we sold a steer for $10 to pay for our groceries and other needs. My sister and I milked up to 10 cows during our high school years. Mamma would bottle the milk, and I would deliver it house to house in Otis before school. After school, we would repeat the same routine. Our oldest sister was in college at Hays, and we didn't want her to have to drop out because of the lack of money.
Unlike the reports from the east, I never heard of anyone going hungry in our area. In the summer, we ate fried spring chicken, baking hens and eggs until we were ready to cackle. For beef and pork, we had to wait until freezing weather because we had no refrigerators or freezers. Relatives would assemble at one farm and slaughter a steer and two hogs and then divide up the meat. When that supply ran out, we met at another farm and repeated the process so we had red meat through the winter. We always looked forward to the butchering because of the goodies we anticipated such as liver, heart and kidneys (which usually contained quite a bit of gravel). Pig's ears and feet were a special treat especially when served with sauerkraut unn brei (mashed potatoes). The host family got to keep all of the treats; we also stuffed several rings of bratwurst and put up a dippe (large vat, I suppose) of sauerkraut for the winter.
During that period, few women other than school teachers worked outside of the home. I suppose some of the blame was because we hard-headed Germans and Bohemians still believed a "woman's place is in the home." Early in the 1930s, most of the ladies of the house spent the bulk of their time in overheated kitchens cooking for the farm hands. During harvest and threshing, they prepared food for as many as 10 men three times a day. They were up at 5 a.m. and didn't get to bed until 10 or 11 p.m. They did all this and kept house, too, without the aid of automatic washers, clothes dryers and all of the other electric devices that came along later.
They prepared the food in a small building called a cook shack where the men also took their meals. When the shacks no longer were needed, they became known as summer kitchens where the ladies prepared family meals. We ate meals there. It also served as a bathroom. To get a bath, one sat in a laundry tub with legs up. In the wintertime, we burned up on the stove side and froze on the back side. Since I was the youngest, I had to use my sister's bath water.
During the early 1930s, the farmers were converting from horsepower, steam engines and threshers to tractors and combines, reducing the crews from 10 to three people. We were happy for the ladies as this gave them more time for leisure, and since they made much of the clothes especially for children, more time for sewing. Most of the women had a sewing machine (Singer was popular) that was powered by pedaling it with one foot.
While automobiles were becoming popular, there was still some travel by horse and buggy. Grandma couldn't drive the Model T so we would hitch up her buggy horse, Gaggy, for a 20-mile trip to visit her sister Tante Kalina Jacobs (Aunt Katherine) who lived 20 miles northwest on the Smoky Hill River. We usually stayed two or three days, so cousin William and I enjoyed spending time together. If we were there on Sunday, we would attend services in the beautiful Catholic church in Pfeifer.
Up until the war came along, Otis could brag about the number of businesses that called Otis home. There were three beer joints, a pool hall, two butcher shops, a couple of clothing stores, a couple of auto agencies and so forth. Two churches, which were well attended, enjoyed large memberships.
A huge plus during that time was the patrons voted a new primary school building, and started a high school with a new building in 1932. Both buildings are still in good shape and continue to furnish the best educations possible for the children thanks to Mark Goodheart, who has been principal there for more than 30 years.
Tom Brokaw called us the greatest generation and maybe so. We experienced the greatest depression, drought and most costly war in lives and treasure in history, and we survived. Sometimes we refer to the 1920s and '30s as the "good ole days." Most of us were poor, but we possessed determination, and enjoyed what we had, especially each other. I suppose there are some particulars of our lifestyle back then we might like today, but I would not want to trade what we have now for what we had then.
Carl Schlegel lives in Hays with his wife, Darlene. They both grew up in Otis. He worked 40 years for the Bureau of Mines managing a helium plant; Darlene worked as a nurse at Cimarron Memorial hospital. They moved to Hays after retirement to live with "Unser Leute" and say they are happy to be back "home" again.