John Wolfe was 5 years old, riding in the front seat of the family car with his sister, his mother at the wheel. All of a sudden, a runaway trolley car from the Spring Grove-to-Hanover line barreled toward them.
His mother’s instincts kicked in. She instructed him to jump into the backseat.
He did—and it likely saved his life. Tragically, his mother was killed upon impact, and his sister died days later.
“I go to bed with that memory every night,” said Wolfe of York, now 94. “I tried to live a life my mother would be proud of.”
To Wolfe, that accident, in 1930, is synonymous with the country’s spiral into the Great Depression.
“My dad and I moved in with my grandmother—we had nine people in the same house, on West Market Street in York,” he recalled. “It was a little crowded.”
The fact that his father was a Packard mechanic meant he was employed despite the Depression.
“All the lawyers and doctors in York drove Packards,” said Wolfe. “In effect, all three adults in our household pooled their money together so that we could survive.”
In the midst of today’s COVID-19 pandemic, record unemployment figures, and economic uncertainties, are there comparisons to the Depression era?
“The Great Depression was the only time in the last century we’ve experienced a huge economic downturn,” said Scott Hancock, chair of Gettysburg College’s history department.
We spoke just as a record-breaking 3.3 million Americans filed for unemployment in late March.
“That 3.3 million figure is Depression-era type numbers, though the difference is the incredible jump—it appears unemployment claims jumped by about 3 million in one week,” Hancock said. “Nothing that sudden has ever happened before. So, even though comparisons with the Great Depression are in some ways limited, I think that kind of one-week jump in unemployment also shows we are in uncharted waters.”
He’s quick to point out that he’s a historian—not an economist—but he makes a few observations.
“Part of what leads to the Depression is poor business practices—a lot of economic growth in the ‘20s was built on credit, which is what we saw in 2008—really shaky,” Hancock said. “The question I would be asking: Is our economic growth from 2008 to now built on things that are more stable than the early ‘90s into 2000s? If so, maybe the economy will recover from the hit we’re about to take.”
Hancock points to the Depression’s effects on society. It was a time when America’s middle class developed a stronger empathy for the poor.
“It’s an odd side effect of the Great Depression, and it will be interesting to see whether that happens today [as a result of the pandemic],” said Hancock. “I was glad to see that Harrisburg has halted evictions—a judge here in Adams County did likewise. So, at least there’s some humanity being demonstrated by our political and judicial leaders. I hope that continues to grow.”
Bill Blando, 85, of New Cumberland, remembers the tight-knit community bonds that evolved from the Depression era in his Lower East Side, New York neighborhood.
“There would be rent parties,” Blando recalled. “Neighbors would gather together, play the accordion, and contribute food and treats. People would drop money into a pot, and it would be enough to help that neighbor pay their rent.”
He also has a standout memory of a time when no neighbors lent a hand.
It was around 1940. His father needed $14 to pay the monthly furniture bill from Hecht’s Department Store. He was $7 short.
“The sheriff came and hauled all of our furniture down from the fifth floor where we lived. My mother was devastated. She was crying in the street,” Blando said. “Everything sat on the curb, including a little pedal car of mine. But there were a couple things the sheriff allowed us to keep—my sister’s crib and a youth bed for me.”
Blando was 5 years old, and the memory is still imprinted in his mind. He can visualize and describe the scene.
“My dad subsequently got a job with the WPA [Works Progress Administration], building sidewalks,” he said. “We were able to buy some basic furniture after that.”
Blando’s father, Nunzio, had the mentality of a survivor. In fact, he survived the 1918 flu pandemic, considered by the Centers for Disease Control to be the most severe pandemic in modern history.
“He was 7 to 8 years old,” Blando said. “His mother and two aunts took care of him, wrapping him up in blankets, applying hot rags so that he would sweat it out, for two, three, four days. Somebody went over to the local church and summoned the priest to administer last rites, and my aunts shooed him out. He lived for the next 70 years.”
The current COVID-19 sheltering-in-place reminds Marge Farrell of her childhood, when she had the chicken pox and was quarantined. She heard family stories about her mother and brother who battled diphtheria before she was born. Her father was quarantined with them until they recovered.
Farrell, of York, was born in 1928 and will turn 92 this month. The stock market crash on October 29, 1929, plunged the country into the Depression when she was just a year old.
“I grew up in the coal region, in Mt. Carmel, where it was depressed most of the time,” Farrell said. “I still had a very happy childhood. I knew we didn’t have much money, but I didn’t really know anybody that did, so I didn’t know any different.”
Thinking back on that time, she said there was a paradox at play.
“During the Depression, we weren’t necessarily confined to our homes,” she said. “You just didn’t have the money to go anywhere.”
Indeed, traffic deaths dropped during the Depression because people weren’t driving as much. Other silver linings during this time included the birth of popular board games like Monopoly and Scrabble, radio shows and kitchen gardens. Hollywood transitioned from silent films into classic movies like 1939’s “The Wizard of Oz” and “Gone with the Wind.”
Hollywood, however, isn’t writing the script for today’s pandemic.
“My family would tell you I like to avoid happy endings,” said Hancock. “There’s a part of me that loves that about Americans. That American optimism is a stereotype, but the academic in me sees the problems in that. It papers over some brutal reality.”
“Not to minimize the coronavirus—it’s life threatening—but I hope what can come out of it is more of a desire to address the inequity [in society], because this is going to affect more of the people who have the least ability to deal with it,” Hancock predicted.
Our communities, as well as government agencies, will play starring roles in the pandemic’s solutions.
“This is having a real tangible effect, and like the Depression, it can create networks of community where people can figure out ways to help each other,” Hancock said. “That’s not the cure-all. We need the government to play a role, too. Dealing with this will hopefully force us to figure out ways to make society a bit more equitable.”
Sidebar 1: Words of Wisdom
All of the older folks interviewed for this story offered advice, gleaned from their life experiences, on how to survive challenging times such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
John Wolfe said the secret to weathering life’s storms is “staying busy.” He was working on a 1,000-piece puzzle featuring 37 different World War II airplanes, a gift from his granddaughter, when I spoke to him.
“It might take me a month or two,” he said.
But he knows a thing or two about tests of time. During his lifetime, he built 14 grandfather clocks. He also wrote a book about the history of the York Airport, where he devoted nearly his entire career as an airplane mechanic and co-pilot. Over the years, he also authored books on West Manchester Township’s 200th anniversary and his church’s 250th anniversary.
Marge Farrell said the two most important things that have helped her through life’s ups and downs are patience and faith.
“I don’t know how people get through without it,” she said.
And when I spoke to Bill Blando, he mentioned he’d be calling the daughter of one of his neighbors next. She had tested positive for COVID-19. All of his neighbors were regularly checking in on each other.
Blando, a retired newspaper reporter, summarized today’s pandemic with the long view of a lifetime of journalism.
“There will be a time when we look back on this,” he said. “We will remember these times for the rest of our lives—even our Pennsylvanians who are mostly German and so stoic but kindhearted to help their neighbors.”
Sidebar 2: Family Soundtracks
If you’ve been fortunate enough to spend time with your grandparents or great-grandparents, you’ve probably heard some great family stories. And chances are, many of those stories are about survival, especially of hard times like the Great Depression, much like the ones included here.
A Depression-era story was passed down in my family, as well, with the proof standing in my home office, within sight as I write this very story. It’s a mahogany piano my first generation American great-grandfather Paul called his “Depression piano.”
Paul, a musician like his father before him in Czechoslovakia, owned a baby grand piano prior to the Depression. But he swapped it for a player piano when the Depression hit to keep family and friends’ spirits up, buoyed by its entertaining rolls of music happily spinning out tunes. Music can soothe the soul through troubled times, and the player piano worked its magic—like a giant music box, the rolls of music programmed the keys to magically play.
My great-grandfather always intended to return the “Depression piano” for his beloved baby grand once the Depression lifted. But the player piano became beloved too, and like a good story, was passed down to my mother, and then to me.