The Crisis That Brought Them Closer
For Sam Stone, the real and final break with the past did not come until 7:45 Sunday evening, March 14, 1926. That was when his father, Jacob Finkelstein, died at Montefiore Hospital in Pittsburgh’s predominately Jewish Hill District. The cause of death was a cerebral hemorrhage. He was sixty-five and determined to the end to honor the old ways. He died as “Finkelstein,” not “Stone,” and in the medical care of Jacob Grekin, a Russian Jewish doctor who emigrated the same year Jacob did—1902—and whose native tongue, like Jacob’s, was Yiddish. He was laid to rest in the New Light Cemetery in Millvale, just outside Pittsburgh, across the Allegheny River.
His obituary in Pittsburgh’s Jewish Criterion lists his surviving children. The sons are named “Samuel J., Max, David and Albert Finkelstein, all of Canton, Ohio and one brother.” Restoring the name Finkelstein to the sons, albeit in an obituary, was perhaps a last nod and concession to the old man, for by then all four sons had long since adopted the name Stone. If the boys had come to despise the baggage that went with their birth name, their father reviled its bastardization.
But, in one final act of defiance, my grandfather signed his father’s death certificate “Sam J. Stone,” not “Sam J. Finkelstein.”
Eighty-three years later, in May 2009, I went in search of the cemetery of Sam Stone’s parents, Jacob and Hilda. I found their graves just below the summit of a steep hill in the crowded New Light Cemetery, just outside Pittsburgh. In death, as in life, the American experience seemed to have touched them little. There is no “Stone” buried here, only “Finkelstein.” Jacob’s stone is a pillar of granite with an acorn for a crown. The acorn symbolizes birth, strength, and fertility. On the stone is written, in Hebrew, “Yakov ben Moshe Shmuel Finkelstein” and the dates of his birth and death. The Hebrew side of the stone has been worn down by the wind and is hard to read. The English, on the back side, shielded from the elements, is clear:
March 14, 1926
The word Father at the base makes me uncomfortable, knowing what I know of him. Still, as is the Jewish custom, I placed two pebbles on the marker, one in Sam’s name and one in my own. Sam’s mother’s orthodoxy, which had smothered my grandfather in life, continued in death. Hilda died on September 17, 1939, and, in accordance with Orthodox tenets, was buried in a casket free of all metal (“earth to earth”). Her grave is not beside Jacob, nor at his feet, but catty-corner. She is buried between one Sophie Klapper and one Bessie Mandelbaum. The undertaker suggested that some Orthodox women would not risk being laid to rest beside another man, and so preferred to be placed between two women, even if not contiguous with her husband’s grave. (Her death certificate lists her maiden name as “Bacall,” and so it seems plausible that what Sam once told me was true, that he was related to the actress Lauren Bacall, whose mother was born in Romania and was Jewish.)
Hilda Stone’s obituary was itself, at best, a half-truth. It said she “was a native of Rumania and had lived in this country 50 years.” That would have meant she came to America in 1889—fourteen years earlier than her arrival as recorded by passenger lists. Doubtless it was Sam who placed the obituary in the newspaper, and, in fabricating the date, avoided any public inconsistencies with his own fictionalized account of being born in America.
JACOB HAD BEEN more than Sam’s father (or less, if affection is a requisite of fatherhood). He had been a living symbol of the duress of the past. Sam had not one picture of him. His father’s passing brought a change over Sam, who was then thirty-eight, single, successful, and something of a playboy. After that, he seemed to take stock of himself. The succession of sleek convertibles, women, and trips abroad had not filled the void within.
Not long after Jacob Finkelstein died, Sam found himself at a dance in Canton. He noticed a shy, dark-haired girl sitting in the dim light of the dance hall. He walked over and introduced himself. Her name was Minna Cecilia Adolph. He asked if she would care to join him on the dance floor. She accepted, but was a little tentative in her steps, having removed her glasses before the dance. They danced through the evening, said their good-byes, and parted. Sam came away with the address of the law office where she worked.
The next day, Minna Adolph, then a stenographer for Judge Harvey Francis Ake, was at her desk when an elderly gentleman—elderly at least by her standards—approached and greeted her warmly. Minna had no idea who he was. “Sam Stone,” he said, his ego deflated to have been so quickly forgotten. But now, in the full light of day, nineteen-year-old Minna had her glasses on. She eyed the fatherly figure before her. He was, by his own count, thirty-five. (Actually, he was at least thirty-eight, and quite possible forty—twice her age.) Even the twenty years that separated them did not do justice to the experiential divide between them. He stood all of five feet five, his hair thinning, his face far older than she had imagined it. He invited her to dinner. Only reluctantly did she accept.
Before long, they were courting. But Minna was of a different social stratum than Sam was accustomed to, and his wily ways of winning women lacked a certain refinement. The last week of July 1926, Minna Adolph splurged and treated herself to a stay at the Chautauqua Institution in New York, drawn by its music, arts, and literary salons. When she checked into her room there was a new set of golf clubs waiting for her and a note from Sam. She was thrilled, but her parents were less so. She was ordered to promptly—but graciously—return the gift. It was deemed inappropriate. Minna’s parents, Al and Rosa Adolph, had something better in mind for their only child, someone with less wear and fewer rough edges.
But something about Sam’s wild side appealed to Minna. On their first date, he had been pulled over for speeding. Minna liked that.
Sam, though more worldly, was insecure in Minna’s company, and keenly aware of his lack of education. To him she seemed a nearly unattainable prize. She was everything he was not. On August 5, 1926, Minna received a letter from him. The postmark was from the Ambassador Hotel in Atlantic City, New Jersey. It began:
I can write a book filled to capacity with reasonable explanations “why the delayed writing” but the fact will remain unchanged so please excuse me. I promise it will not happen again.
Do you remember the first night I met you—and do you recall one of my remarks that I was semi-interesting ; so again I will say: I am not a waste of English and many a time I possess wonderfull thoughts but no ability to express them . . . so this is my predicament . . . wonderful thoughts, unsurpassed sentiments . . . but no command of English to convey them.
. . . It is 3:30 AM. I have just returned from a local time killing event; a dance at the Ritz . . . and early morning lunch served a la Grabo [sic] a wild ride out in the country and here I am writing to Minna: So you see no matter of time or circumstances, I am always thinking of you and I shall continue to do so. . . . I look forward to hearing from you soon . . . until then I miss you beyond words. Yours, Sam
If the letter was a testament to his deep feelings for her, it was also a measure of his insecurity and the ends to which he would go to conceal his inadequacies. It is almost certain that Sam did not write the letter. They may be his words, but they are not written in his hand.
The cursive strokes are elegant and the words almost free of spelling errors. Sam could not write cursively and his spelling was atrocious. But he did not yet feel confident enough with her to risk revealing how little education he had.
In Minna, he had more than met his match. From the beginning, she could see his foibles and his roguish ways, but they only made her feel that much more alive.
Minna and Sam became a pair, though a more unlikely pair would have been hard to find. Minna was a bookish virgin, he far from it. She had skipped the second, fifth, and seventh grades and graduated from high school in 1923 with the highest honors, at fifteen, the youngest graduate in McKinley High’s history. Her picture was featured on the front page of the Canton Repository under the headline, MCKINLEY HIGH GIRL HAS UNUSUAL SCHOOL RECORD. “Although still a little girl in years and in many of her mannerisms,” the article began, “Miss Minna Adolph, 15 years-old . . . finds real fun in solving problems in higher mathematics and conquers experiments in chemistry with the ease of professionals.”
She matriculated with a 99 percent average, was so smart that she was never asked to take an exam (according to the Repository), had more credits than she knew what to do with, and in her spare time had been active in half a dozen clubs, excelling in debate, while working part-time. She was also an able golfer, a talented tennis player, and an intellectual who liked nothing better than to debate the affairs of the day, from civil rights to the place of women in society.
All of this was new for Sam, and thrilling. He was shrewd and intuitive—no one doubted that—but had little formal education. He tried mightily to smooth out his rough edges, not yet sensing that they were a part of his appeal.
Minna came from a fine family, German Jews with deep roots in America. In 1861, her grandfather Isaac had enlisted in Company D of the 5th Pennsylvania Regiment in the Civil War, and had left the Army of the Republic in 1864 as a captain. Her father, Elias, or “Al,” was a tall, broad-shouldered figure who had served in the Spanish-American War as a private in the 28th Company, United States Coast Artillery, and had returned from the Philippines with a case of malaria that would dog him to his final days. While Sam’s father rolled cigars in Pittsburgh’s Jewish ghetto, in nearby Jeannette, Pennsylvania, Minna’s father, Al, and mother, Rosa, ran a hotel, overseeing a staff of cooks, clerks, and chambermaids.
In 1912 the Adolph family settled in Canton, where they were soon accepted well beyond the confines of their faith. Al Adolph would hunt with Ed Bender, founder of Bender’s restaurant. Al Adolph had been a liquor salesman and later sold cigars, something Sam would just have to get over. (Al Adolph probably would have agreed that tobacco was cursed after his dentist discovered cancer in his mouth.)
The Adolphs were a family of considerable class but modest means. Disabled by malaria, Al Adolph in 1933—the year of B. Virdot’s gift—was living on a meager sixty dollars a month from his military pension. But Minna had been raised properly; she carried herself with squared shoulders and head erect, her words enunciated clearly, her command of the language dazzling. She knew where the salad fork went—and how to tackle an artichoke. She aspired to be a lawyer, and was already clerking for one of the city’s most esteemed attorneys. She had turned down a college scholarship to help support her parents.
Sam was an immigrant, untutored and determined to conceal his foreign birth. In Minna Adolph, he found social acceptance, legitimacy, and the kind of love that had long eluded him. She was the door to a whole new life, someone who could introduce him to all that he had missed. She was a prize, someone to tutor him and fill in the massive gaps in his education, someone of such dignity and intellect that some of it was bound to rub off on him. His own mother had married beneath her, to the consternation of the family. A union such as that between Sam Stone and Minna Adolph signaled to the world that Sam Stone had risen beyond all expectation, that he possessed not only property but something even more elusive—class.
In the Canton of that day, it was rare that one would cross a social divide as wide as the one that separated Sam and Minna. Class lines were well marked and, more often than not, respected. In Canton, they were defined less by wealth than by the intangibles of culture, manners, and breeding. The chasm that separated Minna and Sam by education and age further complicated matters. It was a crushing disappointment to Minna’s parents, who had hoped for someone more refined, and it raised eyebrows in social circles where this parvenu was viewed with suspicion. But these very differences made for a mutual fascination that fueled their attraction to each other, and what Sam lacked in polish he more than made up for in charm.
They were married on April 24, 1927—not in a temple, but in the backyard of the Adolphs’ modest home on Canton’s Oxford Street. Even on the marriage license, Sam once more attempted to distance himself from his past, swearing that he was born in Pittsburgh, and fudging his birth date by four years, claiming to be thirty-five, not thirty-nine.
Sam’s father, Jacob, was now dead, and a new life lay before him. None of his six siblings was invited to the wedding, though some lived just minutes away. Sam feared they might embarrass him with their crude comments and common manners or inadvertently reveal too much about his own past. But if Sam thought he was free of the Old World, he was mistaken. His mother refused to attend the wedding. Minna was a Reform Jew who did not speak Yiddish, did not keep kosher, and did not observe the Sabbath. In Hilda’s eyes, it was worse than if her firstborn son had married a gentile. Minna was not allowed to set foot in Hilda’s home. It was not until more than a year later, after the birth of their first child, a daughter named Virginia—my mother—that the two actually met. It would remain a frosty relationship. Minna, who rarely said an unkind word of anyone, would tell me years later that Sam’s mother was a captive of her faith and Old World superstitions. Her mother-in-law, she said, was “dumb.”
It is almost certain that in 1933, six years into their marriage, Minna played a key role in the administration if not the conception of B. Virdot’s gift. It is her signature on each check that went out that Christmas. She was a woman of conscience, a social activist whose heart went out to the needy, and she was a skillful organizer. Many of the documents associated with the B. Virdot gifts—the ledgers, the retention of canceled checks, the very preservation of those records—bear her imprint.
She saw Christmas as a secular holiday, a celebration of giving and sharing in which she took great delight. She was proud of being Jewish but wholly ecumenical in outlook. The notion of Jews as “the Chosen People” made her squirm. All faiths, she would say, were “Chosen.” She was president of the temple and temple sisterhood but was equally comfortable trimming the towering Christmas tree that Sam dragged into the house each year. The tree was clearly visible to every passerby, Jew and Gentile alike. Lighting the Chanukah candles paled by comparison.
Sam was beyond Reform. The old ways reminded him of the orthodoxy in which he was raised. He openly rebelled against them. He rarely went to temple, thought nothing of working on the Sabbath, and even went to the office on the holiest of Jewish holidays, Yom Kippur. He was not ashamed of being Jewish, but he drew a line between faith and practice, the latter being inextricably linked to bitter memories of Romanian and parental oppression.
It is easy to imagine how Minna’s upbringing would have brought her to Sam’s side in devising the B. Virdot gift. In her high school autograph book classmates and friends inscribed notes. But the first entry is from her mother, dated January 21, 1923:
Question not but live and labor
Till your goal be won
Helping every feeble neighbor
Seeking help from none.
Life is mostly froth and bubble,
Two things stand like stone,
Kindness in another’s trouble,
Courage in your own.
YOUR DEVOTED MOTHER
MINNA , AN ONLY child, had come from a tightly knit family, held together by love and common respect. Sam’s family had been held together by the brute strength of his father’s will. But by the week of Christmas 1933, Sam and Minna had created their own family with three daughters, Virginia, five years old; Dorothy, four; and Barbara, one. That week, as Sam and Minna Stone prepared for their own holidays, they also oversaw the gifts that were to go out under the name “B. Virdot.” That Christmas, above all others, they must have been mindful of the misery all around them. Even in their neighborhood of relative privilege, there were homes vacated under duress, family businesses failing, and worry on the faces of neighbors like George Plover, a Hoover executive who watched as the company’s sales plummeted and workers were furloughed en masse.
“As Good as the Best”
As the letters addressed to B. Virdot began to pour into the post office, it was clear to Sam and to Minna just how fortunate they were. Christmas 1933 put enormous strains on families. But, as is often the case in crises, those very strains, for some, helped define and clarify the importance of family. Mothers and fathers who had little for themselves wrote to B. Virdot hoping that they might have something to give their children for Christmas. So it was with Mattie Richards, wife of Joseph Richards.
Kind Sir, am writing to you in regards to your statement i read in the paper. i did not know if it would be alright or not but here is the true facts of our circumstance. you are welcome to come visit our home. i live in an apartment of 3 rooms- 917 4st SW but we each furnish our own coal, lights, gas. my husband is working a little but it does not mean a thing in the way of Xmas. He only makes 37 cents an hour just part time. we have 3 little children, 2 undernourished, the baby has been sick every since she was 3 weeks old. we lost 2 little boys one 11 years old, one 7 months. we are just simply up against it in plain words for clothes and anything in the way of Xmas. he only makes $12-14 a week when our rent gas coal and just the cheapest of food is bought we have nothing left. if you care to take this letter in consideration I am sure it will be apperecated i don’t care for myself but i would love to see the children made Happy at Xmas for we have had so much bad luck. last year they had no Xmas- the oldest Mary 8 years Betty 5 years. Emma 21 months they each wrote a letter to Santa Claus and are expecting a great time a Xmas but i am afraid they will be dissipointed unless someone is kind enough to take them on thair heart I have never ask any one or told them our needs for i did not think it would do any good. i can not write very good but mayby you can read it. if you care to come to the house i can talk better than i can write.
May the Lord Bless you.
And prosper you, in every thing you undertake. Wishing you a Mery Xmas a Happy and proserous new year.
MRS. J. RICHARDS
917 4TH ST. SW
NORTH SIDE APT
At the time she wrote the letter, Mattie Richards was thirty. She was part Native American, a descendant of the Wyandot, or Huron, tribe, as it is sometimes called. Mattie Wogan had married Joseph “Joe” Richards when she was twenty-one. His parents were Welsh immigrants. His father was a miner. They had settled in Glouster, the coal country of southern Ohio. By six, little Joe Richards was himself working full-time in the mines, carrying the tools and fetching water for the miners. He had no education and could write and recognize only his own name. Mattie went as far as elementary school. “Since my father was totally uneducated,” said Kenneth Richards, “my mother had to explain a lot of things but my father never took that as debasing—he understood she was trying to help him.”
They were a couple of few words and were not given to displays of affection. But the children knew how they felt about each other and about them. They were the centers of their hardscrabble lives. “He believed in taking care of his own and he did it with the sweat of his brow and the muscles in his back,” recalls his son Kenneth. “Family was everything. It was their life. My parents had a lot of love to give. They showed it by what they did.”
At mealtime, the children ate first. After they were put to bed, Joe and Mattie would eat whatever was left, whatever they could find. Joe was a hunter and would sometimes return with a rabbit or pheasant for supper. Daughter Beverly wore gaily decorated print dresses her mother had made for her from the feed sacks of the pigs and chickens they kept. “Daddy built us a house,” says Beverly. “We lived in the garage until the basement was built, then we moved into the basement until the house was built.” The house in East Canton still stands. The Richardses had an acre that they planted. Joe butchered the pigs, Mattie canned the fruits and vegetables. Nothing was wasted.
The Richardses were a deeply religious family, Pentecostals who read the Bible and gave thanks for whatever they had. Whatever they lacked they could live without. Joe and Mattie were determined not to let the hardships cloud their children’s lives. “My mother was very religious and spared us from most things,” says Beverly. “She didn’t want us to know how bad things were.”
The Richardses were strict, but on Friday nights the children were permitted to read and swap comic books with the other children in the neighborhood. Kenneth was allowed to hunt, but had to conserve on shells, and if he missed, his father put the gun up for a week. “I taught you better than that,” Joe Richards would say. And he did. Kenneth would later become a crack shot as a sniper in Special Forces. (Kenneth retired in 2003 after forty-one years as a long-haul trucker carrying Canton’s steel across the country.)
But there was no hiding the heartache in the Richards family. Joe Richards’s namesake, Joseph Richards Jr., was born in October 1927. Seven months later he died of acute gastroenteritis. In September 1932, a year before Mattie wrote her letter to Mr. B. Virdot, they lost son Donald Dale Richards, a student at Canton’s Wells Elementary School. He was eleven. He had long suffered from rheumatic heart disease and ultimately fell to septicemia. And then there was the reference in the letter to the baby who had been sick ever since she was three weeks old. That was Erma June Richards, born on March 16, 1932. Less than fourteen months after writing the letter, on February 16, 1935, Erma too died. The cause: bronchopneumonia. She was two years and eleven months old.
During the Depression, Joe Richards took work wherever he could find it. If that meant filling up buckets of glass on the railroad track, so be it. He never complained. In the years after, he drove a forklift at Republic Steel and, to supplement their income, held a second job in a junkyard and worked weekends. Mattie too would work, at Republic Steel’s roundhouse and at the Fame Penn Laundry. But though their work was menial and their education limited, the Richardses always held their heads high. “We are as good as the best and better than the rest,” Joe Richards would tell his children.
But the years exacted a toll on Joe and Mattie Richards. They looked much older than their ages. Their son Kenneth was somewhat uncomfortable having his friends meet them. “At first I would disassociate myself from them,” he recalls. “I would tell my friends my parents were killed in a car accident and that I was being raised by my grandparents.”
But as the years passed, Kenneth came to respect his parents, who they were and what sacrifices they had made on behalf of the family. “Listening at the crack of the door, I learned a lot about them and I learned to understand them,” he says. “The first part of my life I always feared I’d grow up to be like my dad, and the second part, I knew I could never be like him, not the man he was. You would have had to know him to appreciate him.”
Decades later, as an adult, son Kenneth accompanied his mother to Forest Hill Cemetery to help her find the graves of her little ones, those who had died in childhood. She carried a pad of paper and a pencil with notes to help her find the graves. Hours passed and she had been able to find only two of them. Mattie told her son she had to rest. She sat down under a tree and sobbed. “It was the most emotion I ever saw from her,” says Kenneth. Eventually they found the third grave. “She never mentioned that again. She knew where her children were. She was at peace.”
Joe Richards died in 1982 at the age of eighty-four. Mattie died at home twelve years later. She was ninety-one. They are buried where their little ones are buried, in Forest Hill Cemetery.
To their living children, they didn’t leave much in the way of material possessions. But what they hoped to pass along they did. “I think we got their strength, their determination,” says their daughter Beverly. “They just never gave up.”
That indomitability and self-sacrifice became the hallmarks of that generation. The Richardses were hardly alone in placing family above self. It is one of the grace notes of the Depression that the worse things got, the less some people worried about themselves and the more they fretted for their loved ones. Many of those who appealed to B. Virdot that week of Christmas 1933 made their pleas on behalf of others who were too proud to do so for themselves. And so it fell to loved ones to make the appeals for them.
Among the many who asked for nothing for themselves was Ruby Blythe. Her letter on behalf of a “veary Dear friend” was simple and to the point:
DEC. 18TH 33
Read your announcement in this evenings Repository, saying you would help for the answering of the announcement. Now I am not asking for myself even though I want to have a happy Christmas myself. But I have a veary Dear friend that can’t afford to get a paper to even see your add. As she never gets a paper unless we take her them.
This family lived in town 1 year ago but Mr. Long got layed off where he was making a small income at the Kholers Shovel shop on East Tusc. He is 52 yrs. of age or somewhere near that, if not over. Well they would not take him on at another shop on account of his age anyhow.
So things got worse than ever for them. They had to coax for a little off of his boss that layed him off. They were good friends before he went to work there. You might know this boss at Kholer’s Shovel Factory, Paul Holms. Well, this Mrs. Long’s father gave Mrs. Long enough to move out on a small farm, but after they did move, they never got enough to plant gardens. They have a daughter living in Akron Ohio that helped them a little, kept them in eats, only just plain stuff. But guess she is getting low on money too. And he has tried to work a little on farms but only takes eats. They need clothes to send their 3 children to school. I got a letter a few days ago from Mrs. Long saying she’d be lucky to have bread for her Christmas dinner. Now it will be nice of someone to help them and if you can send them a little I know they will be glad and will feel like carring on. Mrs. Long never has had a very happy Christmas since I met her 18 yrs. ago. They have tried hard to save, but what little he did save was lost in the American Exchange Bank. They put it in the bank instead of having nice things like most people want, but they knew they were getting old. And their three children needed the savings after they were gone. But it done either of them any good, as they never got any of it yet. I hope my writing you will let you know your money will be needed for them. I cannot help as I just can get what clothes I need and eats myself. Mr. Blythe is working.
But he don’t only make veary little and if you will help this family which I hope I have plainly told you of it will make me as happy if I got it myself. As I always share what I can and whenever I can with them and others, but as I am poor myself I can’t help them much.
I hope this help out of the city will not make any difference. This family lives just a small ways out of Middle Branch, Ohio.
MRS. RUBY BLYTHE
2104 EAST TUSC. CANTON, O.
Just mail the money to address on opposite side. Address of folks in need—
MR. MRS. DAVID LONG
MIDDLE BRANCH OHIO
Days later, Mr. B. Virdot sent a check for five dollars to the Long family.
But there was something Ruby Blythe neglected to mention in her letter to Mr. B. Virdot: Mr. and Mrs. Long—her “very good friends”—were in fact her mother and father, David and Nellie Long. Everything else Ruby Blythe said of them was true. They were indeed hurting and the Blythes were in no position to help. The Longs had raised eleven children and three of them were still at home. Why Ruby Blythe concealed the truth of her relationship to her own parents is not clear. Perhaps she feared that Mr. B. Virdot would expect family to take care of family and not seek outside help. That was a common enough presumption during the Depression. There was also the very real possibility that had the Longs known that their daughter played a role in securing the gift, they would not have accepted it, any more than if they had written to B. Virdot themselves. As it was, it appears that they never did learn of their daughter’s appeal on their behalf.
Just as their daughter Ruby Blythe had said, David and Nellie Long had moved out of Canton to a farm outside of town. Their home had neither indoor plumbing nor electricity. Grandpa Long, as he was known to the children, plowed the field using a Model A Ford. He read by kerosene lamp. The path to the outhouse was made of rubber—a worn-out belt from a grain elevator. The sole source of water was a hand pump and the cold water that issued forth flowed into a trough that served as the Longs’ refrigerator. Long’s grandson Richard will never forget that pump. While playing tag with his cousin, he rounded the corner a little too close, grabbed the pump handle to steady himself, and it broke off in his hand. He was ten or eleven years old. For that his father, Clarence, took the strop to him. “I couldn’t sit down for a while,” recalls Richard.
The pump had to be fixed if Grandpa Long were to have water. So Clarence Blythe and his son Richard drove into town and loaded a small forge onto their car and returned to the farm, where they melted a brass coat hanger and used it to reattach the pump handle. During the Depression, there was little money for others to provide a fix. You did it yourself, or you did without.
But for the Long family and the Blythes as well, the Great Depression did not come to a neat end with the New Deal, or even with World War II. As it was with many families, the Longs and Blythes would know nothing else but hardship for at least another generation. Those who toiled in the shadow of that Depression were barely aware that there was another way to live because despite the emerging prosperity for many, little had changed for them. David Long’s farm never did get electricity, not even in the 1950s.
In 1944, his daughter Ruby and son-in-law Clarence, together with their four sons, moved to a tiny farm outside Canton. Son Richard was six. Among his jobs, Clarence Blythe drove a truck and hauled coal to the Firestone plant. Their humble frame house was constructed of wood planks scavenged from homes that had burned down, and the boards still showed the char marks of their earlier use. The kitchen, such as it was, was in the basement on wooden boards that rested atop a clay floor. It was there that water drawn from a well was set in a big galvanized washtub to heat for baths. “That was Saturdays only,” recalls Richard. “The rest of the time you sponged off or just stank.”
Nor was a bath anything to look forward to. This was coal country, and the water from the well was yellow and smelled of sulfur. It made all their clothes smell of sulfur and turned them yellow. Years later, when things were better, the family put in a concrete basement and dug a well four hundred feet deep to get to the good water.
This was the house in East Canton that the Blythe family called home for fifty years. And for all its shortcomings, it was indeed a home, a place where family counted for much and comforts were neither missed nor coveted. It is strange to hear the Longs’ grandson say of the Depression, “I have no knowledge of what they went through,” given that his own early years were little different.
As with many families of that day, children looked after their parents. Two years after she wrote to Mr. B. Virdot, Ruby’s mother, Nellie, died. When Grandpa Long became a widower unable to care for himself, he moved into a trailer in the rear of Ruby’s home. David Long died on September 15, 1968. He was eighty-five, and, as his obituary in the Repository noted, he left behind, in addition to his three surviving daughters and six sons, some twenty-six grandchildren, forty great-grandchildren, and one great-great-grandchild. When, as a widow, Ruby could no longer care for herself, she moved in with her son Richard. Ruby Blythe passed away on February 5, 1997, in Florida at age eighty-seven.
If there was love in the Long house, there was also some conflict. During the Depression, David Long’s son Melvin left home at age ten and found himself living the life of a hobo, riding the rails and sharing the fires and stews of other men in search of a job, food, and adventure. At twenty-one, he found that adventure for a time out West, working in 1933 on a bridge that was to span a scenic bay. The Golden Gate Bridge, it was called. Later Melvin Long returned to Canton, settled down, and worked for Hercules Motors and Timken. His son Marvin would work in the junk business and for car dealerships.
Marvin’s thirty-seven-year-old son, Jason—great-grandson of David Long—grew up hearing little of the Great Depression, and he failed to heed his father’s words “Neither a borrower nor a lender be.” He spent ten years in customer relations with Chase Manhattan in the credit card division. That job and his own credit problems gave him a sobering insight into the American character and what he believes led the nation into the recession of 2008 and 2009. “Greed got us here,” he says. “Nobody ever wants to say no. Basically ‘no’ is not even in the culture. The hole in the heart will never be filled no matter how much crap you have.” In the difficult months that followed, as the Great Recession claimed more jobs, upended retirement plans, and altered the economic landscape, many Americans said they were reviewing their priorities and finding that materialism no longer held so central a place in their lives. As Jason Long had suggested, self-restraint and discipline were slowly making a comeback, both in his own life and in that of the nation.
Ruby Blythe’s son Richard and his wife raised two boys and a daughter. Richard made a decent living, working for the Marriott Corporation and managing a Big Boy restaurant. “You always want your kids to have it better than you do,” he says. “Some of us made it . . . you still got to watch your pennies—you don’t know what’s down the road.”
Today, Richard Blythe lives in Lakeland, Florida. He and his wife, Sandra, retired in 2003 and traveled the country in a motor home. She died in January 2009. But Richard’s life bears little resemblance to his poverty-stricken childhood. He lives beside an orange grove, and has a private swimming pool and a Jacuzzi, a far cry from the outhouse and sulfurous bath he knew as a boy.
Still, there is something to remind him of that earlier life. In the 1980s, he returned repeatedly to walk the land that was his grandfather’s farm. He was searching for something in particular—that old pump, the one whose handle had cost him so dearly. He found it in a field and paid twenty dollars to the Mennonite farmer who now owns the property. It was a large ungainly pump, but he loaded it into his car and drove it off. Later, he converted it into a lamp for his home in Canton. And when he moved to Florida, he took it with him. Today, once again, water courses through that old pump, only now it has been made into a fountain in his garden of bromeliads and spider lilies. For my grandfather, it was the sculpture of the Jumper that linked him to his dark past. For Richard Blythe, it was a pump. For Lheeta Carlin Talbott, it was a mirror that was hidden from the repo men. Hard as their early lives had been, they each held on to some token of their past, a tribute perhaps to sacrifices made, or a reminder not to take anything for granted.
The Blythes were not alone in appealing to B. Virdot for help for other family members in distress. Though she had little herself, Maude Burnbrier did just that:
I wonder if in your endeavor to help someone in need, that you would consider an out of town party? This family lives in Kentucky, and is oh so desperately in need. I have always sent them a box on Xmas, but now, since I myself have such depleted funds that I scarcely know how to turn I will not be able to send them even a small gift. They have not always been this way. Only the last two or three years, but this is the very worst winter of their lives. The father is a splendid salesman,—one out of the ordinary,—but because of such depressing times has been out of work only at intervals. He came of a prosperous southern family, pioneer Georgia Planters. The wife, the sweetest dearest saint like woman whose whole heart is given to her family and religious work. Five lovely children ages,—16 -13- twins 6 -3. Proud, well educated and refined hers has been a hard lot. A ten dollar gift would mean so much. W. L. Brigham is the name, but please if you feel like you can, make it to Mrs. Mary E. Brigham. I wish I could tell you what it would mean to her and those adorable children. She is my sister. Her prayers will certainly call down an unusual blessing upon you, and I myself will thank you. I know God does not overlook such kindness as yours,—its of the heart, and it makes me feel so good to know so many people will be made happy by you. Would to God I could do likewise.
(MRS.) MAUDE BURNBRIER
3207 6TH ST. S.W.
Mrs. Brigham is well known among the members of Dueber Ave. Church, having lived here [Canton] seven years ago. The address is London, Ky. Box 108.
Maude Burnbrier was then forty-one, the wife of Carl Joseph Burnbrier, a plumber, and parents of three children. Maude and Mary, on whose behalf the letter was written, were not only sisters but inseparable friends. Mary was the older by three years. They had grown up in rural London, Kentucky, where the family had a farm—no indoor plumbing, no electricity. At fifteen, their mother, Sallie, had married a twenty-seven-year-old English immigrant whose visit to America was meant to have been only a brief apprenticeship as a stonecutter, but he fell in love and stayed. His name was Thomas Dennison, a devout believer and much in demand for the delicate angels and lambs he carved to adorn gravestones. He hand-cut the stone pillars that to this day mark the entrance to London, Kentucky. The Dennison home put a premium on education, and the girls, Mary and Maude, were raised to value both reading and the Christian spirit of giving to others in need.
Maude had been named after the John Greenleaf Whittier poem “Maud Muller,” which begins:
Maud Muller on a summer’s day
Raked the meadow sweet with hay.
Beneath her torn hat glowed the wealth
Of simple beauty and rustic health.
It was as good a description as any of the girls’ rural upbringing. Together, they attended a private Methodist preparatory institution in their hometown, a school that took in children from Kentucky’s backwoods and mountains and turned out more than its share of preachers, missionaries, teachers, and lawyers. When daughter Mary was young she contracted diphtheria. The fever turned her hair white. Sister Maude married an Ohio man who worked with his hands, Carl Joseph “Joe” Burnbrier. He was short, bald, incapable of sitting still, and rarely without a stogie. He tended twin boilers as the maintenance man at Canton’s cavernous Masonic Temple. Maude and Joe’s daughter Virginia learned to ride her bike in the dining room of the Masonic Temple. When people asked him how old his daughter was he would answer, “She was born the year before The Crash.” From the way it was said and how it was received, little Virginia Burnbrier assumed it had been a spectacular auto accident.
In 1916, Mary married William Lewis Brigham, a portly figure of distinguished lineage—“a Southern gentleman” by all accounts—whose prospects for a comfortable life seemed assured. He was known as “Lewis.” A photo from the year they were married features Mary sitting on a porch in Georgia holding the top to a shipping barrel that contained her wedding china, newly arrived by boat on the Savannah River at Brigham’s Landing. Lewis Brigham was five years her junior, polished and, to some in blue-collar Canton, a little taken with himself. There’s a story that when he was driving through a small town he was stopped by a policeman and issued a ticket for speeding. Brigham told the judge he would be happy to pay not merely for the one ticket but for two, as he planned to speed through town again on his return in a few hours.
He could trace his roots back to the Brighams of New England two centuries earlier. Before the Civil War, his grandfather William Brigham had purchased a plantation named “Stanley,” and throughout his life Lewis Brigham proudly spoke of how high the cotton grew there. There’s a picture of him at about age fourteen in a buggy with a team of horses. His daughter holds a mental picture of him as a man in a white suit on a horse. The book Men of Mark in Georgia devotes a chapter to one of his distinguished forebears.
Brigham’s father, Charles, was a flamboyant man who also owned a three-story department store that had everything the people of Girard could imagine. When there were sales, the local paper reported, he would stand on the balcony tossing coins to the crowds below. But it was the land that Lewis Brigham knew to be his birthright that figured into all his calculations of the years ahead.
But if on paper his prospects seemed enviable, his reality was not. He was two when his mother, Ada Mariah, then twenty-four, died of an unidentified disease, leaving him in the care of a governess, and later, a no-nonsense boarding school. “I think there was always a longing there,” said Brigham’s daughter Doris. He was nine when his sister Sarah died of disease. His father’s marriage to a “Miss Minnie” further confounded his destiny. His father died a gruesome death. It began with the removal of a corn from his toe and progressed to gangrene, which led to the amputation of his leg and, finally, his death in 1915, when Brigham was twenty. After that, the farm and its future rested exclusively in the hands of Miss Minnie, Lewis Brigham’s stepmother, and she had little use for him.
A year later, in 1916, Lewis Brigham married Mary Dennison—sister of Maude Burnbrier, who wrote the letter to Mr. B. Virdot.
For Lewis Brigham, ownership of the plantation hung like a mirage on the horizon, but until the plantation was his, he had to find work elsewhere. By 1926 he was as far from his Georgia dreams as was humanly possible—in a gritty Canton, Ohio, steel mill. There a crane loaded with steel somehow ran amok and pinned him against the wall, crushing his ribs. Lewis Brigham’s tenure at the mill was just a few days shy of the time needed to be eligible for benefits. He would spend a long and painful period in bed convalescing, his prospects spiraling downward.
Then, on May 11, 1927, Mary and Maude’s father, Thomas Dennison, died of “apoplexy.” Lewis Brigham’s wife, Mary, was pregnant. She was huge and feeling sick. Still coping with Lewis’s injuries and struggling financially, the Brigham family retreated from Canton and moved to London, Kentucky, where Mary’s widowed mother lived and where they could try to piece their lives together. In June of that year, twins Doris Jean and Kathleen were born to Mary. Then came the Depression.
Maude would come to the aid of her sister, Mary, and her husband, Lewis, the scion of Southern privilege. In the letter to B. Virdot, Maude spoke of the boxes she would routinely send to the Brigham family. Maude’s daughter, Virginia, still remembers those boxes. “My mother would say ‘Aunt Mary needs help’ whenever she was getting a box ready. ‘The girls need clothes,’ ” she would say, referring to the Brighams’ twins, who were a year older than Maude’s daughter, Virginia. Maude Burnbrier would then go through Virginia’s clothes. “I was kind of chubby,” says Virginia, “and if anything was the least bit tight it went into the box. One year she put in a dress I liked and I saw it and cried and she said, ‘Shame on you, I can make you another.’ ”
Maude’s caring went beyond family. When homeless and hungry strangers showed up at her back door, she shared with them food from her table, recalls Virginia. “I remember she had cornbread and it was hot out of the oven and this gentleman couldn’t believe he was having hot buttered cornbread.”
Joe Burnbrier too cared about others. Each day he would look in on an old man, an invalid unable to raise himself out of bed.
The Burnbriers were people of faith, and at least once it seemed that Providence repaid them for their kindness. In 1933, the year the B. Virdot letter was written, their decrepit icebox (a box that literally held ice) sprung one leak after another. “Joe,” Maude Burnbrier implored her husband, “you’ve got to do something with this icebox. It’s leaking again.” Time and again, he would tack a sheet of tin to the box, but not long after, a rivulet of water would snake its way across the floor.
“I can remember my dad sighing,” recalls Virginia. But there was no money for a new icebox. Then one day a delivery truck pulled up to the Burnbrier house and workmen unloaded a dazzling new GE refrigerator with a circular motor on the top. “I can remember my mother screaming and starting to cry that they had a real refrigerator,” says Virginia. Her father, Joe, had won the appliance in a drawing at the local Kroger grocery store.
But for Lewis and Mary Brigham, the Hard Times continued. “My mother named me ‘Bill’ because I arrived on the first of the month,” their son would laugh. It was years before the Brighams got on their feet. But if Mary was disappointed in her man or the road chosen for them, she never let on. “Mama was never one to put Daddy down for anything,” says daughter Doris, the surviving twin. “He worked so hard. My mother always held Daddy up to the children. She could serve grits and a fried egg for an evening meal with as much grace and glory as if it had been a banquet, whatever it was. And it was never discussed as being enough. I wondered how she did it.”
Throughout the Depression, Lewis Brigham was on the road, selling insurance, venturing into mountain hollows seen by few salesmen. Three years running, he was named the state’s outstanding insurance salesman. But there were times when Brigham had to accept vegetables in lieu of cash for insurance, and when the family would dine on green beans and potatoes for the week. “Whatever we had, we ate, and nobody felt sorry for anybody,” said Doris. “They did not sit and pick at what had happened in their lives—the bad part. We never knew the bad part. I just thought everything was perfect as a little girl. I didn’t realize we were in hard times.”
There was one Christmas that stood out. Doris remembers it because it was when she got long stockings and a dollar doll—a fat little baby—and her older sister Caroline made the clothes for it. That, she now believes, was 1933, the Christmas the family received B. Virdot’s gift.
By all accounts, Lewis Brigham was a man of good heart, a keen sense of humor, and a willingness to follow the work wherever it took him. In the years after the first bout of Hard Times, he was known by his three-piece suit, his felt hat, and his Dutch Masters cigars—but not for his luck.
On October 31, 1936, three years after his sister-in-law Maude wrote her letter to Mr. B. Virdot, William Lewis Brigham was driving through south Georgia between sales calls. A man beside the road flagged him down asking for a ride. Brigham could not bring himself to pass a fellow traveler.
“Where you goin’?” Brigham asked.
“Anywhere I want,” said the man, brandishing a pistol in Brigham’s face. From out of nowhere, two other men jumped into the car—escapees from a prison road gang in Treutlen, Georgia. Brigham had been kidnapped. For the next eighty-six miles they held a gun to his head and ordered him to make for the Florida line. He knew they had no intention of letting him go, at least not alive. When he entered Waycross, Georgia, he opened the door and jumped, rolling to freedom behind a pyramid of oil cans stacked in front of a filling station. The convicts got off two shots, but Brigham was unharmed—except for the bruises that came from tumbling onto the pavement.
Some months later, after the prisoners had been caught, Brigham visited them in jail. He wanted to know what had happened to his summer and winter clothes, his keepsakes, and, most of all, the family Bible he had had since he was a boy. All that had been in the car. The convicts just laughed at him.
After that, Brigham seldom went anywhere without a Smith & Wesson .38. He kept it in the glove compartment and dropped it into his valise before entering the hotel each night.
By 1950, the family was living in Girard, Georgia, in a frame house with a front yard and a picket fence—no plantation, to be sure, but a long way from the depths of the Depression. The plantation was still in the hands of his stepmother, Miss Minnie, but he was determined to prove to her that he was worthy of his birthright, that the farm should be his. For three years he tirelessly worked that land, oversaw its operations, and tended to whatever needed tending. And for three years, she paid him nothing. Miss Minnie died in 1953, but Brigham had already resolved to move on with his life. The plantation would pass to her blood kin. Brigham retained an attorney, but, as he confided in his grandson, he knew the farm was lost to him forever.
Lewis Brigham and wife, Mary; daughter, Caroline, recently widowed; and two sons moved to Roswell, New Mexico. Lewis Brigham was now a paint salesman in charge of an expansive western sales territory. Among the brands of paint he sold was one labeled “Plantation.”
Brigham had developed a bad heart, and the frequent changes in altitude aggravated his condition. He had his fifteen-year-old grandson, Brigham “Brig” Knight, drive for him. Brig did not yet have a license, so Brigham propped him up on a pillow and set a man’s hat on his head to make him look more mature behind the wheel of his huge black 1958 Buick Roadmaster. Wherever Lewis Brigham went, so too did the oxygen tank and the Smith & Wesson.
Over time Brigham and a partner built up a formidable business—the Southland Paint Company. Its products were sold in twenty states and afforded the Brighams a measure of comfort. But by then the demands of life on the road were taking their toll.
“He wanted to keep working,” grandson Brig recalls. But all hint of smugness was long gone. “He was a little cocky, but I think he had it all rather cruelly taken out of him,” says Brig. “I don’t think he had it coming.” His wife at one time had every reason to expect a more gentrified life, but both Mary and Lewis Brigham adapted over time. “Nobody was going around licking their wounds or feeling sorry for themselves,” says grandson Brig. “But there was always a sense our economic situation was temporary. It was as though we were the same as the people that had money but we temporarily didn’t have it—but we would have it again. Lewis always carried himself and looked like a man of means—he might not have had two pennies to rub together in his pocket.”
Mary Brigham died in 1960. Then, late Sunday afternoon of March 2, 1964, Lewis Brigham sat in a rocking chair in the living room of his daughter’s Roswell, New Mexico, house, let out a groan, and died.
The Brigham children referred to in the letter to B. Virdot would go on to live lives of public service and faith, guided by lessons learned during the Depression. Son William Lewis Brigham—“Bill,” as he was known, and thirteen when the letter was written—became a decorated paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne in World War II. During the invasion of Normandy in June 1944, he helped liberate the town of Sainte-Mère-Eglise, one of the war’s most celebrated battles. He earned a Purple Heart in France when a bomb went off near him, damaging his aorta. Ten years later he dropped dead of a heart attack at age thirty-four.
But even after three-quarters of a century, the Depression is neither remote nor abstract for the descendants of the Brigham and Burnbrier families, linked by blood and love and hardship. Sixty-eight-year-old Thomas Burnbrier, grandson of Maude, still remembers the Depression-era lessons passed down to him by example. He remembers his grandmother saving rubber bands on the doorknobs, and his grandfather removing the screws before discarding scraps of wood. That too is a legacy of the Great Depression.
“I am still one of those guys,” he says, “who goes room to room and turns the lights out. I learned to make do with what I have. I have never forgotten. That’s how I was raised.” But Thomas Burnbrier can afford to leave the lights on if he so chooses. A former financial planner and broker, he employed some forty workers in his insurance business before selling it to Wells Fargo and retiring in 1997 at fifty-seven. “I did very well,” he says. Thomas Burnbrier says there was no secret to how his grandparents survived the Great Depression. “They just outlasted it.”
Carl Joseph Burnbrier died on January 31, 1958. A year later, on May 4, 1959, Maude Burnbrier died.
William Lewis and Mary Brigham are buried side by side in the Georgia soil he so loved, at the Bethany United Methodist Church Cemetery, a couple of miles down the road from his ancestral farm, Stanley—as close he would ever get to returning to it. The plantation has long since been divided up and sold off. Lewis Brigham’s lone surviving child, the twin Doris Jean, finds it difficult to speak of what has become of that cherished tract of Georgia soil. A part of it is now a row of apartments, low-income government housing. Once called “the plantation,” it is now known locally as “the projects.”
The bond between sisters Maude and Mary had moved the Burnbriers to help the Brigham family that Christmas of 1933. Others were moved by parental instinct to write to B. Virdot. And in at least one case, it appears that only that single-minded determination to provide for the children rescued the parent, pulling him back from the abyss of depression and self-pity.
John Gissiner wrote his letter on December 18, 1933, from his home at 816 Marion Avenue Southeast. Gissiner enjoyed a reputation as an honest and generous man. He had put on the roofs of many of Canton’s public schools and until the Depression had prospered. Coming from humble roots in rural Tennessee, he had made something of himself. But as his letter makes clear, he was now a triple casualty of the Depression, losing his money, his wife, and, for a time, his mind.
MR. B. VIRDOT
Dear Sir, having read of your wonderful way of spreading Christmas cheer and after a short outline of my misfortune if you feel as though I am worthy of your help no one would appreciate it more than myself and may god bless you in your endeavors to make others happy. Oct -11 -1931 I had a nervous breakdown from over work. Although I blame no one but myself having had many reverses in business. November 10-1931 while I was in Massillon hospital my wife died. I was only in that hospital two months but shortly after being away I began to hemorrhage so I went to Molly Stark San [Sanitarium]—I have come back home but am not able to take care of my business in my line which is sheet metal work. I have two small sons, one thirteen &, one eight. I am trying to keep them in school. At present we are keeping a bachelors hall and trying to keep the home fires burning. You are at liberty to look up my past record. I am a member of Dueber Ave—M.E. Church and the faithful Man Bible Class. Have been having lived in Canton for the past twenty two years and have always payed my debts & have not and enemy. Never played the stock market. Not a drinking man. Just another victim with to much real estate dealing and uncollectibal book accounts. Hoping this letter meets with favor. And wishing you a Merry Xmas & a prospris new Years.
J. S. GISSINER
John S. Gissiner and his wife, Evelyn, were the parents of one daughter and four sons, the youngest then but three years old. John was a small man, starting to lose his hair. He wore glasses and spoke softly, never raising his voice and never swearing. They were both homebodies—“gentle and meek” is how their ninety-seven-year-old former daughter-in-law Betty remembers them.
Gissiner had no history of mental illness or emotional imbalance. One day he just snapped. He leaned against his bedroom wall and refused to let his wife enter. From there, he was taken to a mental hospital. What set him off, recalls Betty, was a trip to the Dime Savings Bank on Walnut and East Tuscarawas. In that bank, Gissiner had his account, representing years of roofing and tin work. It was an opulent structure with Italian marble floors inlaid with green and gold. Its doors first opened in January 1895, and its motto, “Safety for Canton Savers,” had persuaded many to entrust the bank with their life’s savings. A 1928 county history notes, “It’s like a government bond—it assures the highest degree of security for their many patrons. Experienced management and conservative loaning policy are major safeguards for the funds entrusted to The Dime Savings Bank.”
But when Gissiner arrived at the bank, standing beside its Doric columns, he discovered that, without any warning, it had simply closed and locked its doors. Betty remembers Gissiner’s shock. Her own father made the same grim discovery that day at the doors of the Dime Savings Bank. On October 5, 1931, the story made the front page of the Canton Repository. The headline said it all: DIRECTORS PLACE DIME SAVINGS BANK IN HANDS OF STATE: ACTION TAKEN FOR PROTECTION OF DEPOSITORS. Just six days later, John Gissiner had his nervous breakdown. Across the nation, it was no better. In the first two months of 1933, 4,004 banks closed their doors. By then, Gissiner was one of millions of Americans who had lost their savings.
While Gissiner was in a mental ward, tragedy struck again. His daughter-in-law Betty was in the living room with Gissiner’s four sons and forty-eight-year-old wife, Evelyn, who was sitting in a chair. One minute she was knitting and talking, and the next, she was dead. Now her husband, still hospitalized with a breakdown and mourning the loss of his life’s savings, had to be told that he had also lost his wife.
But John Gissiner could not let himself unravel. He had his three-year-old son, Merle, to think of, and the other boys. As soon as he returned from the hospital, he set about preparing meals for his sons. As a single parent, his new duties taxed him, but also perhaps rescued him from plunging into depression. From the endorsement on the back of the check, it appears that he used the B. Virdot gift to pay off the Canton Pure Milk Company.
For all his own worries, he never ceased to extend a hand to others. His son Karl’s family was invited to move into the other half of Gissiner’s duplex, rent-free. Later, when his son’s father-in-law lost his job, that family too moved into the duplex, again, rent-free. Gissiner had long made a living putting roofs over people’s heads, and now, in the worst of times, he had put a roof over the heads of his extended family.
Gissiner was also a peaceful man. Throughout the thirties he struggled to keep his roofing business going, but the advent of war brought other opportunities. He was offered a job with DuPont working on the construction of a munitions plant. He declined, apparently uncomfortable with the idea of contributing to the armaments industry. Instead, he and his son Karl went to work on a massive new construction project in Tennessee, Gissiner’s native state. Gissiner worked on the air-conditioning system. Then, one day, Karl returned to Canton and told his wife, Betty, that he had been given the month off, that he had been exposed to some toxic fumes or substance and had been advised to rest and make sure he was okay. Not even he knew the purpose of the facility he was working on, though he knew its location—Oak Ridge. Only after the war did Gissiner learn that the facility, called the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, made the enriched uranium that powered the atomic bomb that leveled Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. So much for Gissiner’s reservations about working with munitions.
Years later Gissiner and his sons moved to Florida. There, at age ninety, John Gissiner died. He is buried in Canton’s West Lawn Cemetery—not far from the grave of his long ago benefactor, Sam Stone.
There was a certain paradox to the lesson of John Gissiner’s life and that of his family. He worked so hard it nearly killed him. But it was hard work that pulled his daughter-in-law Betty through those most difficult years. All around her others were laid off, but she had made herself indispensable. There was also some luck involved. At Stark Dry Goods, she worked from eight to six, six days a week. Her salary: eight dollars a week. “I was the only one they kept,” she said. Later she went into real estate and excelled as a salesperson.
Even John Gissiner’s great-grandchildren got the message about taking pride in one’s work. Among them is his fifty-four-year-old great-grandson Jeffrey Gissiner, who today is senior vice president of Key Bank, the successor to the George D. Harter Bank, located where it was when my grandfather opened the account in the name of B. Virdot that week before Christmas, 1933.
The Harter Bank had been closed from October 1931 until August 24, 1932. On that day, aided by the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, the bank began releasing some $750,000 to fourteen thousand depositors. The money went first to children with school savings accounts, holders of Christmas savings accounts, and account holders of less than fifty dollars each. Checking accounts were limited to a 10 percent withdrawal. The rest would have to make do for the time with certificates pledging to honor 85 percent of account values at some future date.
That was then. Today, with a staff of 120 people reporting to him, Jeffrey Gissiner heads the Direct Loan Center, overseeing all lending to consumers. In December 2008, Key Bank asked for and received some $2.5 billion from the Troubled Assets Recovery Program, or TARP, one of many banks around the nation intent upon not letting history repeat itself.
GRIM AS THE Great Depression was, Gissiner’s indefatigable daughter-in-law, Betty, was determined not to let it get her down. Through the entirety of the Hard Times, she not only held on to her job but also enjoyed herself. She knew Marjorie Gray, the lovely daughter of “Gray the Painter.” They were classmates at McKinley High. More than that, Betty wooed Marjorie’s boyfriend away from her. She was tall with dark hair, high cheekbones, and a knack for finding a good time even in the worst of times.
In 1933, the year her father-in-law wrote to Mr. B. Virdot, Betty was twenty-one. She and her husband, Karl, refused to surrender themselves to the economic pall. They were young and full of life, the Depression be damned. On weekends, she and Karl and a merry band of friends took the trolley to Canton’s Meyers Lake Park with its celebrated Moonlight Ballroom and rides. Laffing Sal was one of the park’s star attractions, a ride in the dark where lovers cuddled in two-seated cars and stole kisses as it careened around one steep curve after another, all to the ceaseless cackling of a woman’s laugh.
Misery and entertainment converged on the floor of the park’s Moonlight Ballroom, where those whose backs were against the wall competed in the notorious marathon dance, a dance-till-you-drop elimination in which the last couples standing won cash prizes. The marathon of 1933 began on June 7 with seventy-seven couples. The jobless, teenagers out of school and unable to find work, and professional marathoners all took to the floor that day in the midst of a record heat wave. They were given five-minute breaks every fifteen minutes, twenty-four hours a day. For the surviving three couples, the purse was a kingly fourteen hundred dollars. Spectators paid ten cents during the day, thirty cents in the evening, and forty cents on weekends to watch the ordeal.
Betty Gissiner, her husband, and their friends would show up around midnight and stay until three in the morning, taking a forty-cent seat in the spectators’ gallery. “Those dancers would just sort of hang on to each other, their heads on each other’s shoulders, and stumble around, and we would sit there like fools and watch them. It was a crazy time,” she remembers. Crazy, indeed. The ordeal went on for 3,450 hours—some 144 days. It was hailed as a world record.
In the end, three couples were left standing, and after they were declared winners, they collapsed from exhaustion within minutes of one another. Canton’s mayor, James Seccombe, handed out the prize money. First place went to Bob “Popeye” Everhard and his partner, Betty Lee Doria. It was to be the last marathon dance held in the Moonlight Ballroom. Conscience and concern for the dancers ended it, a pitiable benchmark of desperation during the Great Depression.
The marathon said something of the Depression that few wished to acknowledge: that if the Hard Times produced countless examples of selflessness and compassion, like those of Mattie and Joseph Richards, or Maude Burnbrier and Mary Brigham, they also gave rise to a passivity in which the eye became increasingly accustomed to the sight of human suffering and the heart grew calloused to the anguish all around it. In a city like Canton—and there were many Cantons, factory towns where industries limped along—want became the norm, and while few were indifferent, many became inured to the pain of others and resigned to their own. In each there was a measure of altruism and courage, and in each, frustration, melancholy, and resentment.
It was not coincidental that the sight of couples too exhausted to hold their heads up was transformed into a spectator sport. The marathon competitions reflected both the best and the worst of that era—the stamina and the resignation, the cooperation and the growing isolation. Hour after hour, day after day, those on the dance floor came to represent the anguish of ordinary individuals and families propping one another up, incapable of going on and unable to quit. The marathon turned misery into entertainment and rewarded the few survivors with a handsome prize, demonstrating what one and all already feared—that the sacrifices of the rest had all been for naught. Those who paid to watch fastened their hopes onto one couple or another, cheering them on as they would have had others cheer them on. It was the truest rendering of the times in which they lived, and the cruelty of the event was not so much witnessed as experienced. Those out on the ballroom floor were proxies for a town and a nation so down on its luck that even the romance of music and dance could be transformed into a trial of will. Perhaps the marathon was banned not only because of its inhumanity to the dancers but because of the toll it took on those who watched them.