Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - August 6, 2021
"The Roaring '20s" is a phrase that brings to mind a time of great growth and excitement in the U.S. Electric lights were
rapidly coming into use so people didn't have to go to bed with the chickens. They could stay up late, reading books or
listening to music on one of those new-fangled radios. Factory jobs meant men didn't have to get up with those chickens either.
Women could vote, bob their hair and wear pants if they chose to do so. Automobiles were shifting from a curiosity to providing
reliable transportation. Prohibition was a victory for the "dries," while others found circumventing the law for a drink
exciting or even a source of income from producing the "bootleg" variety.
Few farmers were so lucky. The pre-World War I years had bolstered farm prices and farmers bought new machinery to increase production. But as Europe recovered from the Great War, demand waned and farm prices fell. Farmers couldn't pay for those expensive labor-saving devices they had bought, devices that increased production for a market experiencing declining demand. For farmers, the Great Depression began when the war ended.
The Freelands were better off than many. Great-grandfather William had homesteaded in Western Kansas and later worked on a ranch in Chase County until he could buy his own place outside of Burns, Kansas. With the future of farming looking bright before the war, wife Mary had invested the money from her father's estate in another farm nearby. Yet only youngest son Ralph showed much interest in farming. My grandfather Robert followed his older brother Willis, becoming a station agent for the Sante Fe railroad.
Then our family's story took a sudden turn. Ralph left to raise oranges in Florida. Mary died of cancer and grandpa was diagnosed with tuberculosis. It was hoped that a stint at Modern Woodmen Tuberculosis Sanitorium in Colorado Springs would restore his health, while my dad, his older sibling Bob and grandma Ethel stayed on the farms with Will.
Another event sent things in yet a very different direction. Grandpa heard from another patient that in the summers, rich folks from the East were flooding into the foothills of the nearby mountains, some for vacations, others to partake of the then-popular religious revivals while still others explored the recent fad of spiritualism. Grandpa abandoned thoughts of returning to the railroad and bought a 160-acre farm near Crystola, Colorado in 1921. The rest of the family joined him after the Kansas farms were rented to others. Soon, the Freelands were selling vegetables raised on part of their new land and milk from cows pastured on the remainder. Summers were good, but the winters were lean after the tourists went home.
In the summer of 1929, a heavy rain in the Crystola area caused several small dams to break, sending flood waters down the canyon, killing one and washing away many of the summer cottages. That pretty well spelled an end to the area's summer visitors, and marked the beginning of the rootless years for the Freeland family. In 1926, Florida had been hit by a huge hurricane and Ralph was wiped out. He moved to California and began a business selling soda pop and operating a hamburger stand. So Grandpa packed up the family, including son Stan who had been added in 1923, to join Ralph in California.
In the spring of 1930, the family returned to Colorado to give it one more try. Rob sold popcorn and taffy in Manitou. But that fall, they sold their Colorado farm and moved to Redlands, California to operate a sandwich stand.
I recently unearthed Robert's well-worn 1930-'31 ledger. The cover has an ink splotch and water stains, and the inside is stained as well. It has page after page of figures - 200 lbs. popcorn, $14.00; 3# butter, $1.02; 6 box Yum Yum candy, $5.10; 100 lbs. brown sugar, $5.92; 2 white caps & apron, $1.25 ...
On August 6, 1931, grandpa made $14.90 - equivalent to $266 today - selling sandwiches, candy, popcorn and taffy. But while there were good days, there were too many days like June 9, 1931. Receipts only amounted to 45 cents.
The family then went to Norman, Oklahoma. In November 1931, they moved to Lubbock, Texas to sell popcorn and candy at Texas Tech football games. Six weeks later, they returned to Norman, where Robert opened a hamburger stand.
All these businesses failed. Grandpa asked grandma what she wanted to do. "Return to the farm," was her reply. In May 1932, they moved to the farm outside of Burns.
By then, the Depression had taken hold in cities and the Dust Bowl years had begun in the Great Plains. One summer was so dry the grasshoppers ate the bark from the hedge fence posts. Women put wet tea towels around window frames to keep the dust out and turned dishes upside down until mealtime to keep their food from becoming gritty.
But while others fled the Midwest to search for better lives elsewhere, Robert, Ethel and the three boys hunkered down on the farms. Years later, dad's brothers returned to California, but dad stayed on the farm, where he and mom - the daughter of another farmer - raised us three kids.
I think of us as a farm family, but grandpa's ledger made me remember it wasn't always so. And it wasn't the first time I was reminded. In 1990, brother Dave discovered in the barn the slightly-rusty "Bobs Candies, Pop Corn, Salt Water Taffy" sign - the one grandpa had on his various stands. Dave's son Paul and wife Rachel hung it in their family room. Next to our fireplace is the copper kettle grandpa used to make candy, rescued from one of our farm's outbuildings.
So we weren't always a farm family. And for country folks, the Great Depression began much before any stock market crash. The past is rarely as simple as we like to make it.
Top-left: Some mid-December 1930 entries in grandpa Freeland's ledger for his sandwich shop in Redlands, California. Top-right: The Freeland family after grandpa fulfilled grandma's wish to return to the farm in Kansas. (l-r) father Edgar, grandma Ethel, uncle Bob, uncle Stan and grandpa Robert. Bottom-left: The three Freeland boys on the farm in Crystola, Colorado. Bottom-middle: Grandpa's copper candy kettle filled with Christmas decorations on our fireplace. Bottom-right: Edgar, brother Dave, Bob and Stan with grandpa's business sign.