Newark Memories During the Great Depression

by Rich & Karin Hoffmann


These memories do not belong to me - they are my mother's. I have heard her stories so many times, as a child requesting that she tell them over and over, until now they live on in my own head. My mother was born in 1931, the third of six children, and lived in a run down cold water flat on Emmet Street. The family was very poor, and struggled to stay together. Many times there was no food at all to eat, never any new clothes, no heat in the winter. But her childhood was certainly colorful, and very interesting to a girl of my generation. These are some of the things she told me about:

There was, of course, the ice man, who would bring his ice on the back of a horse drawn wagon, the animal's hooves and the wagon wheels making quite a racket on the then cobblestone streets. My mother and her five brothers once came upon an old discarded pair of roller skates and tried to skate on that street - very difficult with all the stones! From time to time, another man would come down the street, this one hawking rags for sale, and his raucous call of, "Raaaaaaags!" was crooned with such an utterly creepy tone, that all the children in the neighborhood would run and hide whenever they heard him coming. There were other door-to-door salesmen, too, but my grandmother didn't have any money for them.

My mother actually grew up across the street from Sharpe James, the former mayor of Newark. She always said that as a little boy, he was very outspoken and feisty. She also always said that Mrs. James, Sharpe's mother, was a good and strong woman.

One of my mother's brothers was always bring all sorts of stray animals into the house, some of the domesticated variety, some not. Among the typical parade of dogs and cats that one might expect, he once brought home a wild goose that he had wrestled all the way home from a local park.

My mother and her brothers attended St. Columba grammar school. My mother was so smart and such a good student that she went on full scholarship. She used to tell us about having to walk past a tanning factory on the way to school, and reported that the stench from this place was incredibly bad. The kids would run at top speed every day to get past it as fast as they could. The school was strict, and the nuns took no nonsense from any student. My mother was very well behaved, but routinely observed all manner of corporal punishment being heaped upon her fellow pupils. Students were reprimanded for all kinds of transgressions, from tardiness to bad posture. My mother always felt that the nuns had a soft spot for her, though, and treated her with kindness.

One Thanksgiving, my grandmother had absolutely no money for the dinner. She was weeping in the bedroom over it, when suddenly the doorbell rang. My mother opened the door, and there stood two women from St. Columba, each holding a big basket overflowing with everything one would need to make a huge and glorious Thanksgiving feast. They said that my mother had won the food baskets in a drawing she had entered at school. My mother knew that she had never entered any such drawing, but she didn't tell my grandmother, because she wanted to protect her pride.

There was a family on the other side of Emmet Street whose children had no common sense. One of the boys once almost blew up his head by dropping a lit match into a barrel of kerosene to see how much was in it. This same child ripped the lips clean off his face by putting them on a frozen iron porch railing, and then yanking them off. My mother still recalls the image of the bloodied lips stuck to the cold metal. The boy's sister broke her arm one day climbing over the school fence as a short cut because she was late to school. Some time later, she broke the same arm again doing exactly the same thing.

There are many more stories, of course, but this is enough for now. When I was growing up as a girl in the early 1970's, one of my favorite after school television shows was called "Our Gang," and also "The Little Rascals." I always imagined my mother as a girl growing up in Newark in the 1930's fitting in with these ragamuffin children quite well, from their odd poor clothing, to the nutty adventures they had, with the nostalgic music soundtrack that played right along. These memory stories are precious.


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