Richard Bostwick Reminiscences
Cab Driving Stories
Welfare Office Stories
I know everyone has heard of the great depression of the 1930's. If you are near my age, you no doubt can recall those years yourself, but if you are a lot younger, your folks perhaps have told you all about the unemployment and poverty that was so prevalent during that period. Be that as it may, I am going to jot down a few of my memories of those trying times.
At the beginning of the depression, there were no federal or local programs to assist the multitude of those who would be out of work and in need of help. Prior to the depression, everyone took care of their own. There were not even nursing homes as there are today. Only the county poor farm, which was located just beyond the city limits. That institution cared for the old and infirm who had no relatives or means to care for themselves.
Being out of work in those days was rough, just like it is today, yet it didn't seem as bad because everyone was out of work-your friends, neighbors, and even perhaps your former employer. The only people employed during that period were policemen, firemen, railroad employees, and other essential personnel. What firms or businesses that had not gone broke were operating with skeleton crews. Single men were working on farms for their room and board. Wages for common laborers was $0.10 per hour. The minimum wage was unheard of at that time.
Due to most everyone being out of work and in need of help, it was necessary that the county commissioners create the Department of Public Assistance, better known as the relief office.
The nationwide demand for trained social workers was so great there was nowheres near the number available to meet the demand, so the commissioners staffed this new agency with their wives, friends and relatives. They then appointed as the head of this department a Mrs. Kennedy, who was the wife of a small-time local contractor.
Now Mrs. Kennedy's husband often worked as a superintendent or foreman for a larger contracting firm, which did practically all of the county's construction work. Through the above connection, I assumed as how Mrs. Kennedy received her appointment. How she received her appointment was none of my concern. I couldn't care less.
Being unemployed, married, and with a family to support, I was compelled like all the rest to rely on what assistance I could obtain from the county welfare department. As I stated, I was not concerned about how Mrs. Kennedy got her appointment, but what did concern me was the fact that Mrs. Kennedy, for some unknown reason, took a very decided dislike of me.
I was never able to determine why she hated me as she did. I had never known her or her husband before and to the best of my knowledge, I had never offended her in any way. To show you what I mean by her dislike of me, one day I entered her office, she glared at me and said, “Mr. Bostwick, I don't know what it is about you, but every time I lay eyes on you it makes my blood boil.” Maybe she didn't know why she disliked me as she did, but she sure proved it in many, many ways. During the ensuing year, she sure made life hell for me in more ways than one.
On many occasions, my monthly supply of wood would consist of large pieces, full of knots and almost impossible to split. Friends of mine that I sometimes compared with were receiving nice straight-grained wood. At other times, my grocery voucher would be anywhere from two to four days late. She would refuse me clothing vouchers that most all others were receiving. Those and many other acts of harassment were sent my way.
Yes, this situation all added to my misery, but I was young, healthy, and was able to cope with it. I would not give her the satisfaction of knowing just how much discomfort she was causing me. There was nothing I could do about it, so I took it all in stride knowing that someday things were bound to change.
Soon the situation did change. During the early spring, with the help of a federal grant, a contract was let by the county commissioners for the paving of a nine-mile stretch of rural highway. This paving was to be laid between a neighboring town, which was 12 miles west of our town, to a point 9 miles farther west. This was the first rural highway to be paved in our county.
Of course the commissioners' favorite contractor was awarded the contract, and he in turn appointed Mrs. Kennedy's husband as superintendent of the project. Everyone was excited about the prospect of all the new jobs this project was expected to create.
There was not the modern methods then as there are today for paving roads. There was no ready mix concrete as there is today. The method then was to set up a large hopper on a spur of the railroad, into which carloads of crushed rock, cement, and gravel would be dumped. This was known as ‘dry mix.' This hopper and the headquarters of the project were located in the neighboring town. A fleet of large dump trucks would haul this dry mix from the hopper 9 miles west to the far end of the strip to be paved, where the mixing machine was located. By adding water, the mixing machine converted the dry mix into concrete, then spread it between steel curbings which formed the edge of the pavement. All of the employees who were to be hired on this project-which consisted of truck drivers, laborers, inspectors, checkers and what have you-were to be hired from the relief rolls as stipulated in the contract. This meant that Mrs. Kennedy would do all of the dispatching of manpower to the job.
I was looking forward to obtaining private employment so as to have some money that would enable me to buy some of the little niceties that we had done without for so long. As this project was about to get started, I went down to Mrs. Kennedy's office in the hopes of being dispatched to work. I was hoping to be dispatched as a truck driver, at which I was most experienced. As I entered Mrs. Kennedy's office, she greeted me with, “I've been waiting for you.” She then handed me a dispatch and told me to be sure and report to her husband, and then added, “I have told him all about you and believe me, it's going to be a pick and shovel for you.”
After I informed her I was not afraid of a pick and shovel, I proceeded to hitch a ride on one of the supply trucks going out to the project. Upon arriving in the small town where the headquarters were located, I started looking around for the construction shack. It was at that time I met a friend of mine who informed me that early that same morning an out-of-town trucking contractor had arrived in town and was going to hire drivers to man the 10 big new Mack trucks he had brought with him. Needless to say, I rushed down to the other end of town where he had made camp, and I arrived just as he was in the process of selecting a crew. There was a crowd around him, all clamoring for a chance to take the qualifying test.
The test consisted of driving one of his trucks down the street for a couple of blocks, turning around and returning while the contractor or boss looked on. As each driver returned, he was told he would or would not do. Those chosen were told to be to work in the morning.
I finally got my chance to take the test, and upon returning was given the good news to report for work in the morning. This meant an awful lot to me, as now I would no longer be under the domineering authority of Mrs. Kennedy or her husband. Mrs. Kennedy later asked me why I had not reported to her husband as she had ordered me to. I replied that as long as I was working, that was all that mattered. She could not argue with that.
These 10 new trucks were to supplement the local contractor's fleet of trucks, which consisted of a bunch of old, beat up Internationals which had seen their best years long ago. The working conditions under my new employer were so much better than the local contractor had to offer- there was no comparison. My employer was paying .40 cents an hour for experienced drivers, while the local firm was paying only .30 cents. There was much more advantage in working for this out-of-town firm than just the better pay scale and the pleasure of having a new, modern truck to drive. One of the main advantages was that the local contractor was working his drivers on what was known as ‘mixer time'. This means that whenever the mixer broke down, all wages paid by the local firm automatically stopped until the mixer started up again. The mixer being as ‘junky' as the rest of his equipment, this happened often.
It was 9 miles from the hopper where we loaded the dry mix out to the mixer. Often a driver would dump his load into the mixer, start back to the hopper, get another load, and upon arriving at the mixer, find out it had broken down soon after he left and still had not resumed running. This meant he had made a round trip on his own time. Due to this fact, it was often a short days pay for these other drivers. Not so with my employer. He paid you for every hour you were on the job, regardless of the mixer breakdowns.
Payday was every two weeks, and little did the men realize or expect the big disappointment that awaited them on their first payday. In those days, you went for weeks without having one red cent to call your own, so as pay day drew near everyone was looking forward to having a few dollars to spend as he saw fit. But low and behold! When payday did arrive, each employee of the local firm was paid off with a receipt showing his salary had been turned over to the county treasurer to be applied for past assistance.
I suppose you wonder why there was no riot. Well I'll tell you why. These men all had wives and families to support, and there was just no other honest way of providing for them. You would have had to be there in order to realize the seriousness of the conditions. There was just no other work to be had, and if you were not eligible for county assistance, you were in very deep trouble. Some of the men stayed off the job for a few days but after realizing the needs of their families, they returned to work. If they had not been willing to work under these conditions, they would not have received any assistance whatsoever. This was a simple form of slavery, as bad as any that had ever existed in the pre Civil War days.
The men continued working, and each payday their salary would be turned back to the county treasurer to be applied on their indebtedness to the county for the past assistance. In the mean time, they continued to receive vouchers for their present needs. I think it would have been much better if they had been paid their salaries and allowed to support themselves with it. This would have helped their morale and given them some self respect.
In those days, labor unions in that part of the country were weak or non-existent. There were no federal laws such as the National Fair Labor Standards Act, Minimum Wage Act, Wagner Act, wage and hour laws, National Labor Relations Board or any of the other protective laws for working men and women that we have today. It was due to such unfair practices by employers that brought about the enactment of the above labor laws and formation and strengthening of our present day labor unions.
These conditions continued for the next several months, and the county's welfare rolls were increasing by leaps and bounds. When the paving project was completed, and with no other employment available, I was forced again to rely on the county welfare.
Continue to part 2
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