|Living Through the Great Depression
|Having been born just after the Great Depression ended, I didn’t personally experience what those times were like. Reading about those days, or hearing someone tell about it, in no way compares to first hand experiences. Recently I sat down with Lyda Speck, and even though she was a little reluctant to recall some memories she doesn’t particularly enjoy thinking about, she agreed to share a few of her experiences as a child growing up during the 1920's.|
Memories of life during the depression years are not what Lyda Speck considers especially happy ones.
Lyda is one of four children, two brothers, Ira and Ray, and one sister, Pauline (called Polly), whose parents were Floyd Speck and wife Narcis (Allred) Speck. Their father was one of thirteen children whose home was in the Three Forks community of Overton County. Their mother grew up in Allred.
The day the first automobile came to the Allred area, Lyda was around seven years old. Word came from the Nettlecarrier community that some men were coming up from Livingston in a T Model Ford, and after getting this message, folks gathered to watch and wait for just a glimpse of this first time occurrence. Some waited for at least two hours before the car carrying four men arrived. The rough and rocky road ended not far from where the Speck family gathered to watch. It was told that during the trip, the number of flat tires the men experienced while driving from Livingston was more than just a few.
Floyd Speck made a living in the lumber business, having gotten his start by working for a lumber company out of Davidson County that came to that area with a band saw mill to cut a large tract of virgin timber near where he lived. He and a brother-in-law later went into business together and operated the Speck and Smith Lumber Company. One of the locations they had a mill set up was known as the "Horse Pound," and was so remote, housing, a commissary, and even a building where children could go to school was built for the families and employees of the mill. The owners and employees completed that job, and moved out in the spring of 1921.
Property once owned by Governor A.H. Roberts on what is now known as University Street was purchased by Floyd Speck, and eventually, he built two homes there. The first home was built for and bought by Horace Speck and wife Julie. That house is owned today by Marla Kay Etheredge. The second home was for his family and is owned today by Danny and Gail Jowers. When the property was bought from Governor Roberts, the portion Floyd Speck purchased also included an outhouse the Roberts family used. Not only was that outhouse a two seater, it also had a front porch, something that was quite out of the ordinary. The Floyd Speck house was under construction, but the inside unfinished, when the family moved there from Allred in 1923 so the children could enter school the next term. For the first time, Mr. Speck had to leave his family in town and return to his trade to relocate a sawmill and cut another tract of timber. That finished, the first signs of the depression showed up in the lumber business when the price of lumber plummeted and demand dropped. Mr. Speck had closed the mill down and returned home, leaving a lumber yard stacked full of drying lumber. A former employee rode a horse to town one morning with the devastating news that the sawmill and all the timber had burned to the ground the night before. Mr. Speck was never able to recover from this loss.
After graduating as valedictorian of Livingston Academy’s class of 1932, Lyda went on to college. Milligan College offered academic scholarships covering one-half of all expenses for the first three years of college. That offer was extended to all valedictorians throughout the state of Tennessee. Lyda had to borrow the other half, which amounted to $850.00 for those three years. She then got her first job teaching at the grammar school in Livingston. During her two and one-half years of teaching there, the first lunchroom was started. Plate lunches could be bought by students for five cents, but most students did not have that nickel. Some students could walk home for lunch, others brought lunch with them, and some just said they were not hungry.
According to Lyda, those who grew up when she did were known as "The Lost Generation." Because of the Great Depression, there were no jobs for anyone, nothing to look forward to, not even any hope that things would get better anytime soon. No entertainment was available for young people, and very little dating took place because there was no money nor was there anyplace to go. The closest thing to going out for an evening in Livingston was buying a hamburger, coke, and a package of chewing gum for the cost of .25 cents per couple. Young men who left this area to look for work found it wasn’t any different up north or out west. Some young men in Lyda’s class who left here ended up going door to door asking for food. Some even went to small town jails and asked for permission to sleep in a jail cell for a night or two, especially on rainy nights or if a hay stack wasn’t available. Eventually, the first public works jobs came along with the commencement of the Civilian Conservation Corps or CCC program. Those men who were able to get work through this program were paid $30.00 a month, $20 of which was sent home to their families, leaving $10.00 for the individual employee. Clothes, shoes, and meals were furnished. The WPA (Works Progress Administration) was the next government program that also provided employment for a number of men in this area. Commodities Day provided surplus food to families, and often included food that was unfamiliar to this area such as grapefruit. Many people who got this fruit for the first time thought it was a type of orange, but wouldn’t eat it after tasting how sour it was. Butter was sometimes provided, but was often sold to neighbors who could afford to buy it at half price. Many were too proud to accept these handouts.
Lyda realized her only way out of these hard times would be to get a good education, and that’s what she set out to do. When she was a student at Livingston Academy, one of her classes required the use of a fountain pen. The one she got for that class sold for $3.75. It was a Schaffer brand, one that she kept on a chain around her neck. She said that pen was very precious to her, knowing that if she lost it, she would have a very hard time replacing it. That same pen was used all through high school and during her three years of college. Today, that pen can be found in her cedar chest, and is one example of how those who grew during the depression were, in Lyda’s words, "marked for life." "We did not waste anything," she said.
About this time, Lyda saw a notice in the lobby of the post office advertising a civil service job as a rural mail carrier. She read over the requirements, and even though the fact that a woman was yet to be hired in the entire State of Tennessee for a rural route, she decided to be present and take the test on the day it was to be given. When that day came, around fifty men showed up to take the test. She was the only woman. Three men were in charge of giving the test. The test participants were seated far enough apart to prevent cheating, and while the exam was being given, one man walked up and down the aisles. He must have been secretly rooting for the one female applicant who came to take the test, because each time he passed by where she was sitting, without saying a word, he laid a four leaf clover on the edge of the desk where she was sitting. Lyda told me she had no idea where he came up with so many of four leaf clovers, but this wish of good luck continued throughout the test. Sure enough, of all those taking the test that day, the results showed Lyda made the highest score. She and two men who placed second and third were the ones who would be considered for the position. The final decision was up to Albert Gore, Sr., who gave the job to Lyda. She was the first woman in the state of Tennessee to obtain a job as a rural mail carrier. After word got out that a woman got the job, bets were made all over town that she would never last, and if she did, it wouldn’t be for more than thirty days. May 5, 1941 was not only her first day on the job, but according to Lyda, that was also the date the depression ended for her. For the next 33 years, she carried the mail. During those 33 years, Lyda took a leave of absence as a volunteer in the U.S. Army, but that’s a story Lyda believes enough has been written about.
After selling their home on University Street to Alphus Bussell in 1939, Lyda’s parents rented several homes around town. They didn’t own another home until Lyda and her father bought property on Daugherty Street, and built a home there in the late 1940's. She worked along side her father every step of the way in the construction of the home, and said that his work habits wouldn’t allow him to do anything half way when it came to how the house was built. But they had an agreement. There would be no debt. The house would be built and paid for as they went along. Two years later, the home was completed. Lyda and her parents moved in on July 4, 1949.
Mr. Floyd Speck passed away in April, 1952, at the age of 71 years. Mrs. Speck was 87 years old when she died in April of 1973. Lyda has been retired since 1974. She has been a lifetime member of First Baptist Church in Livingston where she has always been actively involved in church life.
I believe Lyda’s life is a great example of what strength, determination and the will to overcome can do. There were many obstacles along her journey, but she persevered. She expressed concern to me that today’s economic situation looks all too familiar and worries that history might again repeat itself. I’m sure there are many others who would agree this may happen, but does it really have to be this way? I’ll end with a quote from George Bernard Shaw that says: "If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must man be of learning from experience."