Life of a Gardener in 1934 - A Memoir

46 comments by Luke Marion

A memoir as written by Clyde Finch,

It was August, in the year 1934, The Great Depression had hit hard, and times were tough for everyone, but I found solace in the soil and the satisfaction of growing my own food. August was the hottest month, and it was particularly hot and dry. Not as dry as Oklahoma, but dry enough to the point water was being rationed as to not run the well dry. The well we lived on was a bit more fortunate due to the low elevation. We received about 4 gallons of water per hour from the well. Plenty enough to satisfy our needs, but not enough to take for granted.

We lived in a small farming community on the outskirts of town, in Greenfield Indiana. I found it to be particularly challenging to make ends meet, just due to the lack of work, and the time it took to get into the city. But our local farmers co-op assisted in providing some seed to grow our garden and fill it with the staples our family loved to eat. I learned through my father how to save seeds, and we were all encouraged to save seeds to ensure enough supply for anyone who needed some. I wasn't great, but one doesn't get great overnight. 

I woke up early every morning, before the sun had even risen, to tend to the chickens, the one cow which gave us milk and butter, and my garden. I was very fond of my garden, and truth be told I enjoyed it more than other farm chores because it was calm, the smell was rich, and the sun wasn't hot. I worked tirelessly, planting, weeding, and harvesting. I had a wide variety of vegetables growing, from tomatoes and cucumbers to peppers and squash. I also had a small plot of corn, which I was particularly proud of. Our neighbor Jane Sutherland would sit on her porch and say, "I think your corn grew another inch last night!" which I believe it did. My secret was using the chicken droppings from the coop. They were free and the plants seemed to spring out of the ground whenever I used them. She was keen to give me compliments, since she knew I would bring her some zucchini in exchange for a small tray of her famous crinkle cookies. 

Despite the struggles of the times, my garden flourished. I was able to feed not only myself but also my family and even some of my neighbors. It was a small thing, but it brought me a sense of purpose and pride. My entire family would join me in canning the harvest when it came time. Canning tomatoes was an especially memorable time. Myself as well as my wife and 4 kids would sit around peeling tomatoes all morning. By noon, we would add all the tomatoes to a big pot, place it over the stove, and let it simmer for hours. Once the tomatoes had simmered, Dorothy my wife, would add 1 teaspoon of vinegar to every quart of tomatoes. It was hard to come by lemons so we used vinegar instead. Then we would jar them up and place them in a hot water bath to seal properly. 

Speaking of vinegar, if I may digress for a moment. Was used to make one of our kid's favorite summertime recipes. Vinegar lemonade. We would mix 1/4 cup white vinegar with a 2 tablespoons or three if we were splurging with sugar. We added that to a pitcher of cold water and what a treat. There wasn't anything I savoured more than to come in from working the field all day than a glass of vinegar lemonade. Continuing on. 

I also found a sense of community in the other gardeners in my area. We would often share tips and tricks, and even trade seeds and seedlings. It was a tight-knit community and we all looked out for each other. We would meet in the small church in town to share each other's seeds and harvest. I saved mustard seeds, tomato seed, and August was too early to bring my town famous butternut squash seeds, but they would be ready in late October after a killing frost. The seeds I would bring would be traded for canned goods, as well as other seeds I was unable to save. There was a gentleman by the name of Clark Holmst who would bring fresh apples, the most crisp and sweet apples you have ever tasted, and he would trade me 5 apples for 20 tomato seeds. 

I fervently believe it was community that helped pull us through the hard times. The hard times shaped us, but didn't define us. We built many great memories. Sometimes I almost miss those days. They were simple, had their trials, but the simple things seemed so valuable back then. 


  • Terry Chapman

    I interviewed my mother-in-law once for a college class. She was a young child during The Great Depression. She tolde, “If we didn’t grow it, we didn’t eat it.” She became a master gardener as an adult and gardenwd until she was in her 80’s. She preserved thousands of jars of food for her family and gave away bushels of fresh produce.

  • Harriette Jensen

    My grandather grew aa victory garden behind our house during WWII. Food of all kinds was rationed, but you could grow as much as you wanted. Grandpa also rased rabbits and chickens. I grew my first tomatoes after watching grandpa. I’ve been gardening ever since. I have moved around a lot during my life, but I always have some kind of garden, even when I lived in an apartment.

  • Lydia

    My parents were on two sides od the WWII . One a german Fräulein and one a polish captured youngster of 21 years old. They struggled after 4he war ,m 9 mouth to feed and finalky they got a small house with a garden in a big city in Nordrhein-Westfalen. We had chickens and geese and strawberrìes ,beans,rhubarb,peas… I really had fond memories of these times but later a garden had to look orderly and full of shrubs and flowers. Now I still live in the same city and now my front yard is full of crops come spring. Yes I love flowets but I like a plentifull garden too. And I garden in memory of my parents. Love to all of you Lydia

  • Leanne

    Luke thank you for posting this! Definitely a reminder of a long long ago era but certainly not forgotten. I knew my great grandparents and they had an enormous garden that fed so many people. My grandma always had vegetables growing in her small backyard in town and she had a cold cellar in the basement where she stored all her preserves, canned goods and squashes. She gardened every year and used to show me everything about it when I was little. My grandparents lived through the depression and were very frugal with their money and shared everything. If you went home hungry from their house it was because of your own refusal to eat because their was always a lot of variety of foods and plenty for everyone. Baking was a special skill especially pastries and special treats, which my grandma excelled at. We always loved going to Grandma’s house. Her homemade foods were so incredibly good and so much better then “restaurant “ food. This “fast food” of today would be frowned upon im sure as it lacks nutrition. Grandma knew the importance of nutrient dense food although to her that was just food from her garden. Today living in a loft apartment on the 34th & 35th floors in the heart of downtown Toronto, Ontario, Canada, I’m happy to share that with Migardener seeds I’m able to carry on some of my grandma’s gardening although I don’t have a balcony I do all of my growing indoors with grow lights and lots of natural sunlight through the windows and using hydroponics. Yes I grow cucumbers, tomatoes, the sweetest lunch box size red and orange peppers you’ve ever tasted, roma and cherry tomatoes, zucchini, sweet banana peppers, broccoli and spaghetti squash! (I’ve repeatedly tried strawberries but they still haven’t been very successful but I keep trying). I grow more lettuces and tat-soi then we can possibly eat. I’ve also grown carrots, beats and radishes, I share all of my harvests with family and friends and the terrific thing is I can grow 365 days a year with no weeding required and no pest pressures! It’s been an absolutely incredible experience! I grow a lot of things at one time but not everything I listed was grown at the same time. I focus usually on keeping lettuce and leafy greens and herbs continually growing
    and then I will pick another two or three plants that require their own tote and space, like a sweet pepper plant and a broccoli plant and a 5gallon bucket with a strainer and coco peat growing carrots. It’s absolutely incredible the veggies you can grow if you just give it a try! I used to be intimidated by the word “nutrients” because it was new and not something grandma ever called her fertilizer that she used for her veggies. But after a lot of research and understanding I now know that is all it really is, food for the plants to grow and thrive. I started out with a plant food specific for those expensive brand name hydroponics containers which I would never spend money on! If your container came from something that had food in it to begin with then it’s good to use. Or if it’s glass it’s perfect you just need to use foil or cardboard or something to prevent sun from hitting the water where the plant is growing otherwise algae will grow which doesn’t hurt you it’s just gross and it will use the nutrients before your plant has a chance to use them. So don’t be afraid of trying to grow indoors. I couldn’t keep a plant alive before I learned about hydroponic because I would always water too much or too little but with hydroponics they don’t need close attention unless your container doesn’t hold much water. Growing indoors requires a small amount of time because there is no weeding and no pest pressures that I’ve encountered. You only need to grow what your family can consume and you can do a rotational way of growing to ensure you always have some fresh veg available all the time. You can peak at the height of freshness and no need to store in the fridge for a week! It’s incredible and I urge all retired folks to just try it! It’s sooo much to grow year round indoors and as long as you have warm white grow lights it will be sunny enough even in the winter months in Canada! I absolutely love my hydroponics garden and it really is feeding us and soooo many others! Please try it and email me if you need any help, I’m also known as the armchairgardener on Facebook I have loads of postings of my experiences and pictures.

  • Nancy

    Great story, thanks for the reminders and examples of ways folks figure out to get by in tough times. To Patricia, who has space and interest but not the energy to garden, think about looking for a family or someone to cooperate with who has interest and energy but no space for a garden. You could offer it to folks you know, or put up a sign or note on a local bulletin board. Best wishes for a bountiful garden in your future.

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