The times have changed: growing up in the Depression

Shirley Robertson, recalling the days of her youth.

Shirley Robertson, recalling the days of her youth.

The times have definitely changed. Many people have heard their baby boomer parents talking about how they had it growing up: You know they had to walk 20 km to school, in three feet of snow, uphill, both ways. Who can feel that sorry for them? In the ’50s and ’60s they had TVs, Mr. Potato Head, Barbie and instant ramen noodles.

Their parents on the other hand, grew up in the Dirty Thirties. Now that is worth talking about. I sat down with Shirley Robertson, a first generation Canadian, born on a small farm in Saskatchewan in 1930.

What was an average day for you growing up?

We had a school route and my dad would pick up two other families along the way. In the winter, it would be a horse and sleigh. We called it a van because it had seats along the side and a little stove close to where my dad would sit, so he could keep it going. In the summer before school, my sisters (Robertson was the third oldest of four daughters) and we would take the cows out to graze. Another family picked us up in their car and drove us the six miles to school. Our school had three rooms, with four grades in each room. After school in the summer, my sisters and I had more chores. Betty and I would normally take care of the cows. We didn’t have a lot of pasture, so they would be tethered about 50 feet out. We would bring them back to the well and to give them a drink and milk them then.

What was it like growing up in the depression?

Even though it was the depression, we never really knew it because we lived on a farm and we grew all our own food. I never went hungry. We never knew we were poor, even though our clothes were made out of flour sacks, because everyone was the same. The sacks would say Rogers Sugar and you would wash them and then leave them out in the sun to bleach the printing out. Everyone wore the same thing, so you didn’t stand out.

What was Christmas like?

At Christmas time we still had no money. Our relatives from a small village nearby would send us presents and my sisters and I would get about three each. I remember one time I was thrilled to death, I got a necklace and a bracelet! It was a very special Christmas and it would have only cost about 29 cents back then.

You were around nine or 10 when the war (World War II) started, what was that like?

I remember every day after dinner we could sit by the ratio for the eight o’clock news for updates. Where I lived a few men went off, but many were too old, like my dad and he stayed to farm.

We all started dancing around the kitchen signing the war is over, the war is over!

How did you find out the war was over?

My parents went into town and my dad didn’t like us to listen to the radio because it ran on a battery, which was expensive. After they would leave, we would always turn it on and listen to the hit parade, which played the top songs every week. It suddenly was interrupted and a voice came on saying, “We interrupt this broadcast, THE WAR IS OVER! THE WAR IS OVER!” We all started dancing around the kitchen, singing “the war is over, the war is over!” We saw my parents coming in a distance and we ran over jumping up and down telling them what we had heard, and they said that they had heard in town. Everyone was so relieved.

What is one of the oddest things you had to do?  

On our farm, we had no drinking water fit for human consumption. My dad had six wells dug up searching, sometimes going down 60-70 feet, but we could not find any water. We would have to go with three large barrels every week to our neighbour’s to get water from their well. We would transport the barrels on a stone boat; a sleigh on wooden runners that would run along the ground. By the time we got home, the barrels would be half full from all the sloshing. We did that routine my whole life on the farm.

What was your birthdays like?

My birthday is in April and my mom would make the cake beforehand and keep it hidden. She put the cake in the cupboard to hide it from us until our birthday arrived, but our kitchen had leaks. Whenever it rained and I remember often, I would see my cake all soggy and wet, but what could she do? No presents either, but like I said, I never felt like I was going without anything.

Andrea Ross

Often when I see people I wonder what there story is; what adventures they've been on and what heartaches have made them who they are. I find people fascinating because everyone is so unique and complex, making their stories individually special. I am also passionate about leadership and business. One day I hope to be able to help owners grow their business though effective and strategic business practices. Whether it be business, people or history, I want to learn about it.

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