Looking Back: Growing up as a child of the Great Depression

On the farm in 1934: Walt Jr., Betty Lou and Bob Deebach.

Having been born in January of 1927, over 90 years ago, I am definitely a child of the Great Depression. What follows are some of my own memories of that never-to-be-forgotten decade—the 1930s.

I was 2 years old in 1929 when this country’s economy collapsed. Banks and businesses closed their doors. Once-wealthy men who were now left with nothing took what they must have thought was the easy way out. They committed suicide. Family breadwinners stood in lines to find any kind of employment. Doctors, lawyers, college professors, bank presidents, engineers or laborers, it didn’t matter. As they joined the long lines looking for help, they were all equal. “Brother, can you spare a dime” became a popular phrase. President Herbert Hoover’s name became a reminder of the communities of shacks that sprang up in our cities — including Seattle. Named Hoovervilles, these makeshift communities erected by the poor and homeless were symbols of failed leadership.

Leaving families behind, thousands of men rode the rails from town to town and state to state looking for some way to earn a bit of money to send home to their families; or sometimes just for their own survival. Many family bread-winners never returned to their homes again — some no doubt by choice and others from unexpected bad happenings.

Parents found they could no longer feed and clothe their own children. Jimmy, a desperate 12-year-old Texas boy, put an ad in the Houston Chronicle pleading for someone to adopt him. Jimmy was one of the lucky ones; his plea was answered and he was legally adopted into a stable family. Jimmy’s clever initiative gave him a family — a father, a mother and two older siblings. He survived to live a long and successful life.

With over 25 percent of the work force unemployed, the year 1933 ushered in a time of deep despair. As a result, that year was the catalyst to bring about a new kind of government and a different kind of leader for America — Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The Roosevelt years brought the federal government into our lives in a manner we had never experienced before. Coming of age during the Roosevelt administration were the acronyms for government programs and departments, as well as our welfare system, and even our Social Security program. Many of these programs are still with us today as reminders of a once-depressed country. For those of us who lived through those years, I am sure we will always have memories of the despair and the actions by our leaders to stabilize a country mired in poverty and hopelessness.

My father, having served in the Army in France during WWI, came back from war to attend art school in Chicago and Seattle. His plans were to become a commercial artist. In 1930, my father was employed at this trade in downtown Seattle for MacDougall-Southwick, a popular department store of that time which was located at 2nd and Pike. The 1930 census lists our family — my father Walter Deebach, my mother Marie, and my two older brothers—Walter Jr. and Robert. Also, there I was, 3 years old.

My father’s work in his chosen field was not a wise one during hard times, and he soon joined the unemployed line. Our family was lucky in one way. We had a cushion that many did not have. Due to his service in WWI, my father received a monthly disability check of $50 — what seemed a fortune in those lean years. With that money and his part-time work as a clerk at a market where Pike Place Market stands today, we were able to survive for a time. However, in 1933, when I was 6 years old, my parents decided they needed a major life change.

We moved from this Seattle home to an isolated chicken farm in 1933.

At the market, my father met a representative for a food distribution company. His name was Herman Wickers and in 1933, Mr. Wickers had purchased a grocery store in the community of Alderwood Manor, 15 miles north of Seattle. It was through this encounter in 1933 that my parents learned about the farms available at Puget Mill Company’s planned community of Alderwood Manor. My father and mother evidently thought this was a good opportunity, and we became the owners of a 10-acre chicken farm on Manor Way in what was pretty much the wilderness part of Alderwood Manor — about four miles north of Herman Wickers’ grocery store. What a bargain that was: For $10 down and $10 a month, we moved to an established, although long-deserted, farm. The land was covered with a lot of stumps and tree snags left over from the logging days. The so-called working farm was actually ugly, certainly not one of the pretty little farms often pictured in story books. However, there was an orchard with apple, plum, cherry and pear trees, as well as a couple of filbert trees. There was a chicken house, a bubbling spring and an artesian well. There was also an overgrown long-unattended garden spot, as well as a root cellar near the house. That root cellar proved a treasure for preserving our winter supply of food.

These homes were advertised as Puget Mill Ranchettes.   However, this house was very rustic and there was no indoor plumbing — also we had no electricity. Actually, I have always thought of that particular house as a “Shackette.”  Our late-floor model Philco radio sat silently in the corner and our fancy up-to-date Electrolux vacuum cleaner was unused until the electric power lines finally reached our far-out stump farm. That welcome event finally happened through one of President Roosevelt’s new bureaucracies — the REA (Rural Electrification Administration). This electrification project not only introduced electricity to the country’s many rural farms, it put men to work.

Our chicken house became home to about 130 chickens. We evidently had good laying hens as we had plenty of eggs for the family, as well as many to sell.

We had some goats — one a mean-tempered Billy goat. We learned to drink and even appreciate goat milk from our three Nanny goats. However, we soon found that you should never turn your back on Mr. Billy Goat Gruff. He never gave a really hard push to the posterior region, but Old Billy definitely let you know who he considered to be the boss. Also, there was another lesson to be learned from the goats.  On wash day, my mother’s newly washed laundry, with the help of pulleys, hung high in the air — far out of reach of these strange animals who enjoyed chewing on just about any item within their reach. Having come from the big city of Seattle, we were learning to be farmers in the countryside of Alderwood Manor. As a special note, it would be many years before we would call it Lynnwood.

Today, the Wickers’ grocery store building has been relocated to become part of the historic display at Heritage Park in Lynnwood. However, in 1933 the store was located on North Trunk Road West— today’s 196th Street at 37th in Lynnwood. My father began working at Herman Wickers’ store in 1933 and delivering groceries for him. In addition, by bartering his artistic skills in painting the signage for the store, my father was rewarded with very welcome grocery items we could not grow on our farm. My father’s “barter-exchange” plan worked with many other local businesses as well.

In September of 1933, my two brothers and I became students at Alderwood Manor Grade School. For me, I entered first grade. That first year we had to walk to Highway 99, about a mile, to catch the bus, but the next year it stopped right in front of our house.

In May of 1934 we had a new addition to the family—my brother Tom was born. In December of 1935 my only sister, Sally, joined us. The walls of our “Shackette” were beginning to bulge.

This photo was taken during a Sunday family picnic on the Alderwood Manor farm in summer 1935.

When President Roosevelt began his many programs for putting people to work, these programs usually involved the type of work a person had been trained for. In Alderwood Manor in 1935, when it was decided road signs were needed, my father was assigned to paint the first road signs for Alderwood Manor. I can still picture him with his many different brushes and paint jars, working on our large kitchen table, busily painting the rectangular signs white and then carefully, the names in black. I noted that the majority of the roads seemed to be named for trees.

Four years after we moved to Alderwood Manor, in the spring of 1937, I completed the fourth grade. Everything seemed to be going well. We were looking forward to another summer on the farm, and as for us kids we were anxious to spend some time at our favorite swimming holes. Instead, our family had to face another challenge. My father had a serious medical problem — he was scheduled to go to the VA hospital in Portland, Oregon for an operation.  My mother was again “expecting,” and she did not drive. We would not be able to stay on our remote farm. There was no choice except to let the land and our home go back to Puget Mill Company. All the plans for the building of a new house and a productive garden that summer were for naught.

My parents rented a house from the Brackett family in downtown Edmonds — on the northwest corner of 4th and Daley — right across the street from what was then red brick Edmonds High School. With the help of some good friends, we moved to our new home and my father went to the hospital in Portland for an operation.

That was a really tough time for our family. Not just the worry about our father’s health, but also the fact that our steady income, his wartime disability pension, had been cancelled. We learned that while he was in the VA Hospital, the pension money would not be available to the family. Mom had enough for our rent, but little money was left for groceries. This was the first time during the Great Depression we had to take advantage of welfare. Even though my mother was only one of many waiting in line for basic food items, she was always embarrassed. It was a time in her life she never forgot.

I was enrolled in the fifth grade at Edmonds Grade School in September of 1937. The aim of the WPA, one of President Roosevelt’s programs, was to see that each school child had a good breakfast and lunch. In Edmonds, these meals were served in the clubhouse at the playfield south of the high school on Sixth Street. The playfield with its tennis courts, clubhouse and bleachers was newly built with funds also from the WPA. My brothers and I were part of a large group of children assigned to receive breakfast and lunch each school day. Those lines were long and we patiently waited with many of our classmates for our meals.

My father came home from the Portland hospital, and once again we had an income. The senior Dr. Harry Kretzler was on hand as Don, my youngest brother, was born at our Edmonds home in September of 1937.

The house in downtown Edmonds had only been a temporary rental and we soon moved. Our new home was located on the southwest corner of today’s 212th Street and Highway 99 at Seattle Heights. The land where our old residence was located is now occupied by Magic Toyota and is part of incorporated Edmonds. For us this was a handy spot — we were right across the street from Middleton’s Grocery Store, which was also the school bus stop for those of us who attended school in downtown Edmonds. When they were of school age, my younger siblings were assigned to attend the Esperance Grade School.

The year was now 1938, and once again our lives had changed — we had stability during the last few years of the Great Depression. Our dependency on welfare was thankfully a short one. My father was assigned to undergo training at the new field office of the FBI in Seattle. He was sent there to learn the fledgling law enforcement procedure of identification through the use of finger prints. He then became a Deputy Sheriff for Snohomish County, and the sheriff’s office first Identification Officer. With the many members of the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office of today, it is hard to imagine in those days there were only 11 male officers and one woman deputy to cover the entire unincorporated area of Snohomish County. The deputies didn’t wear uniforms and the only cars provided were ones confiscated from raids on criminal activities. Mostly, the deputies drove their own vehicles. The deputies wore business suits with their guns in holsters under the jacket.

Looking back to those times, the Great Depression was certainly not easy for my parents, but they made sure that our family weathered the tough years, and we stayed together. In 1940, the federal census listed our entire family. My father Walter Deebach (occupation: Snohomish County Deputy Sheriff), my mother Marie, my older brothers Walter Jr. and Robert, me (age 13); brother Tom, sister Sally and brother Don. Of six children in our family, just three of us are left today. By many years, I am the oldest. My sister Sally and youngest brother Don also survive.

During 2003, 66 years after our family moved to Edmonds from Alderwood Manor, I moved back to live in what is now Lynnwood. In fact, I live on 36th Avenue West, the same road our school bus traveled to its final destination — Alderwood Manor Grade School. During the early days the road was a very narrow two-lane dirt road and was called North Trunk North. I now live just a few blocks from where, as a little 6-year-old, I began my school years. Everything is much changed, but my memories of the past and what seemed to be a good life during a tumultuous time remain.

One of the family pictures shown here was from the summer 1934 on our farm in Alderwood Manor—my oldest brother Walter Jr. (1923-2003) is on the left; then me at age 7; and my brother Robert (1925-2017) is on the right and standing tall.

The other family picture was taken during the summer of 1935. It was a Sunday family picnic on the Alderwood Manor farm. What else would be served but fried chicken? The older man and woman are my uncle and aunt, and others are cousins. They are all from Seattle and enjoyed spending Sundays in the summer on our farm in the country. I am the third person in the front row (looking down at my young cousin). My older brothers Robert and Walt Jr. are next to me. My father has my little brother Tom on his shoulder, and my mother (also looking downward) almost didn’t get in the picture.

These two photos are a sad reminder to me that I am the only survivor from these pictures. We lost our little brother Tom in an unexpected household accident in 2013, and my brother Robert left us this summer.

By Betty Lou Gaeng

Betty Lou Gaeng is a long-time resident of Lynnwood and Edmonds, coming to the area in 1933. She researches and writes about the history and the people of both early-day Lynnwood and Edmonds.

  1. I hope this is the first chapter of the Betty Lou biography because I’m excited to read about your experiences in the 40s, 50s, 60s and so on. Such a powerful piece and so insightful about our community’s history. I’m sorry for your losses but thank you for sharing your history and family memories. A wonderful read!

  2. Thank you for sharing, Betty Lou. Outstanding local history; so important to have folks like you preserve your memories of childhood.

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