Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Depression Days in Puyallup

Depression Days in Puyallup
By Hans Zeiger
(A version of this story appeared in the Puyallup Herald on Feb. 4, 2009)

The stock market crashed the year after Ezra Meeker died. He had watched Puyallup grow from a camp in a thick forest to a prosperous, growing town. He, more than anyone else, was to credit for Puyallup’s success. But in his later years his mind turned from the blessings of growth back to the changeless values of the place he loved. He hoped that the younger generations would remember the hardships and hopes of the pioneers.

Sure enough, the Depression generation in Puyallup came to know difficulties and dreams, but it was because they experienced those things for themselves.

In 1937, a Swedish carpenter named Nicholas Hogman of Sangamon County, Illinois sold almost everything he owned, purchased a truck, and built benches in the bed and a canopy over the top. His wife Mary sat in the back in a rocking chair, surrounded by seven of their children, as two more sat in the cab with Nicholas. Their 18-year old son, who had never driven a truck before, took the wheel all the way to Issaquah. The price-tag on the weeklong road-trip, truck included: $75.

Relatives in Issaquah advised the Hogmans to seek work in the berry fields of Puyallup. So the family spent the summer of 1937 picking berries. Soon Nicholas found work for a cherry farm in Sumner and bought a little house on 23rd Avenue Northeast. Somehow they made ends meet. “We could make $50 a season picking berries,” recalls Manford Hogman. “And that would buy us all of our school clothes and supplies and everything we needed.”

The Hogmans understood the word “need.” So did the Stempczynski family. A few years ago, when Eleanor Stempczynski Brecht saw limousines pulling up for Aylen’s Ninth Grade Dance, she had to chuckle.

In all of 1935, Stanley Stempczynski made $80 from his Riverside berry, rabbit, and chicken farm. With his daughter graduating from Puyallup High School in June, Stanley stretched his money to ensure that she could celebrate in style. “We had a dress-up day on the last day of school,” Eleanor recalls. “The girls got dressed up in new outfits. Mamma took me into Tacoma to get a suit. She didn’t have enough money for shoes, so she had to borrow $5 from my sister.”

Not everyone in the Class of 1935 was so fortunate. Eleanor’s cousin was among those who couldn’t pull together the funds for dress-up day. She stayed home. “Those are the kinds of things that hurt your feelings when you couldn’t do the things that others did,” said Eleanor.

“We didn’t get to play much,” said Eleanor’s younger cousin Stanley Stemp, who managed to play basketball at school as long as he was back on the farm doing chores before his father. “We came home and had duties to do: clean the pig pens every Saturday, every night clean the cow and horse stalls, when you’re done with the chicken stalls pick up the eggs.

“Every night you had to chop old cedar berry poles for kindling. If in the middle of the night dad didn’t find it there he’d wake you up to go get it. It was hard to learn, but that’s how you learned.”

In the Depression days people felt a sense of responsibility, the realization that a mother and father, a grandparent or a grandchild, a daughter and son depended on you. It shaped the character of a generation. Describing his high school classmates, Hogman recalls, “The guys weren’t rowdies in those days like they are today. If they had anything, they had to work for it. The kids all had to work. Everybody who had more than a city lot had raspberries and blackberries growing on it.”

It was long before the age of iPods and cell phones. But according to Eleanor, “There were a lot of advantages about that era—not as many things to amuse themselves with—but they learned how to work.”

They also learned how to give. When the occasional hungry Tacoman showed up on their back porch, the Stempczynskis always had chicken from the farm to give away. Then there was Marty Martinson of Queen City Grocery downtown, who spent his lunch hours delivering groceries to elderly shut-ins. And there were extraordinary teachers, like Mr. Matthews with his old-fashioned clothes, and Mr. Starbird with his passion for history, who inspired the students of Puyallup High School to dream of a better future.

But for all the impoverishments of the age, the people of Puyallup were rich in a way that few other people have ever been. Amid work, people found time to celebrate the passages of life. It was in 1933 that the Daffodil Festival began. The berries followed the daffodils, and the rain watered the rich soil and muddied Viking Field before the rivalry with Sumner, and then there was the Fair.

And in the memories of Puyallup’s oldest members, the great thing about the place where they grew up was that they belonged there, and the place belonged to them. The town offered a sense of place to anyone who was born there or moved there on the condition that they could give back something to their neighbors when they were able.

Indeed, the generation of Puyallupans that grew up during the Depression has given us more than any other. We owe them our thanks.

Hans Zeiger lives in Puyallup. If you have stories about the Depression, contact Hans at 253-905-8160 or