This interview was conducted by Michael Wildman on March 23, 2006 in San Antonio, TX. as part of Palo Alto College’s History 1302 – Spring 2006 class.
Beth Mildred Forsen was born on August 23, 1930 to parents Gertrude and Thomas N. Brady. Beth was born in a house located in between the South Pacific and IGN railroads in San Antonio, Texas. (Today, there are only railroad tracks there.) She was raised in the south side of San Antonio, all in about a five mile radius of her current location near the intersection of Pleasanton Road and Military Drive. Beth’s mother had one child from a previous marriage. Then when Beth’s mom met her father, he already had eight children from a previous family. Then together they had four children and among them one was Beth. Beth graduated from South San Antonio High School in 1949, at the time it was located on Main Street.
She later continued her education at San Antonio College receiving an Associates of Arts degree in 1976. She was a Library Technician for the Harlandale School District for 25 years. Beth has two children, four grandchildren, and ten great-grandchildren. She is an Episcopalian. She is in the middle ecomnomic class. Her biggest hobby is genealogy and she also writes poetry. Beth is a neighbor who lives on my street and is the mom of my dad’s friend.
Where did you live during the depression?
I lived between the Southern Pacific and the IGN Railroads in South San Antonio.
What was it like living between the two railroads?
Well it was interesting because, because there was a hobo encampment near there and, the hobos would often come to our house and ask for food and my mother would always fix them food because we had our own animals, we had our own chickens so we always had eggs, we had our own hogs so we always had bacon, we always had sausage and we always had milk and butter, and so she gladly feed the hobos when they would come. Also an interesting aspect was the railroad crews that would come through to work on the railroad tracks, watching the Gandydancers singing the Gandydancer song, as they called it, as they straightened the tracks up they had one supervisor watching them, and the men would be counting a cadence as they would straighten the tracks out.
Describe a typical day at your school?
Well in the beginning in the mornings, Mr. Caroga would come in and build a fire in a large heater with wood or coal and that was what, it was a large heater and so it kept the whole room warm, and he’d have to come back during the day and put more fuel in there so that it would keep the classroom warm.
When we went to the playground all we had was seesaws and swings for physical education until we got to high school (correction) junior high level, and at that time if children were unruly a teacher could stand a child in the corner or they could even spank the child with no repercussions, they were allowed to do that. At lunch time some of the children brought their lunches, one way they carried their lunches was in an empty jelly can it was like a little bucket, and typically children would carry bologna, potted meat, or peanut butter sandwiches for lunch. Some students got to eat in the cafeteria for free because they had no money to buy food and a bowl of soup at that time was only one nickel.
One noticeable difference in school was the Anglo students were assigned to one specific teacher, the Spanish speaking Mexican students mostly in those days were assigned to a different teacher, they were segregated, to make… for the colored students as they were called in those days, the Afro-American children went to a different school altogether, they did not go to the school with the white children.
How would you get to school?
I walked to school it was at least a mile, and in those days it was safe for children to walk to school, I walked alone most of the time or with my some of my friends. Some of the students would walk as far as Somerset Road to South San or out Highway 81 to South San, it was called New Laredo Highway at that time, and some of them walked four or five miles I am sure to get to school, but we didn’t have to worry about anybody molesting us or bothering us in those days, we could walk freely.
Could you describe a typical day at home with your family?
In the mornings whoever got up first built a fire to keep the rest of the family warm in the winter time, and our breakfast was usually oatmeal or eggs, we had a bench much like a park bench and we had like a park table was the table that we used, we each had our chores doing the dishes, when we washed we had to wash with the rug board and we’d boil clothes in a pot, and then we would have to hang them up on a line to dry, and we had to keep the house clean, everybody had something to do. My sisters had to milk the cows, where I would be doing work in the house they would be doing the outside chores feeding the chickens, and doing that type of work outside, and I did cooking from about the time that I was nine years old. During the Depression years we didn’t have electricity so we used coal oil lamps, and that could be interesting too because when you started to blow them out, sometimes they’d catch fire and you’d have to put a towel or something over it immediately to smother the flame to cut off the oxygen to the flame. We had more responsibility than the average child would have had because our mother was ill at our very early age, so we had more work to do than the average child.
What kinds of foods would you have to eat?
Well we grew a lot of our own crops as many people did in those days; if a person had a piece of land they grew their own food. We had eight things that were in season and canned those things that we could, we canned for instance, corn, green beans, beets, and we bought fruits in season that could be canned, we also canned those. We killed our own hogs so we had our own pork, we had smoked sausage, we had a smokehouse to smoke sausage, and we salted down part of the pork so we had pinto beans a lot that was a staple for everyone. And I think that pretty much covers the food except that we bought, mother would make bread but if we bought a loaf of bread it was six cents a loaf. So that was pretty much, we made our own cottage cheese also we’d let the milk sour and then it would separate the whey and the curds, and then we’d tie it up in a bag and the whey would drip out and the curds would be left and we’d make our own cottage cheese. And that a was pretty popular thing with us, and we had chicken every Sunday. When the man ran for president and said a chicken in the pot we had it (laughs).
What types of things would you do for fun?
Well one thing children liked to do was go to movies it was only 10 cents in those days to go to a movie, and at the movie you’d see a featured film and a serial. At the serial each time the hero would be left in some dangerous position and you would just have to go back to see if he made it, if he and his horse made it across that crevasse or not, or if the train hit them or not, that type of thing which brought the children back every week. There was a hobby connected to the movies also, ice cream. Little ice cream cups had pictures of movie stars, and some people collected those little ice cream cups with all the featured movie stars, they were a nice collectible it was one of the first collectible things that I ever heard of. Another thing people liked to go swimming and Terrell Wells was the closet school, so many of us would walk many miles to go to Terrell Well’s swimming pool. Children used to go and visit each other, and they would play such things as jacks, hopscotch, jump rope, marbles, dominoes, some had scooters, some had yo yo’s, and then there was a top, a top had a little string, you’d put a little string around it and you would throw it and it would spin on a little nail like device and you would see who’s top would spin the longest or the farthest, and it was an amusement thing more than anything.
There were family dances in those days, and there would be a small band at the homes or a victrola to dance by, and the whole family would go to these family dances.
Did you have any neighbors that lived around you during the Depression?
Yes across the railroad tracks on the right side of the tracks was a couple who’s name was Kate and R. A. Williams, they were Afro-American couple. We went to some of their Juneteenth parties. We used to go to their house to listen to the Joe Louis fights and to the baseball games on their radio. They also took my brother to the baseball games. At the baseball games he had to sit on one side of row and they had to sit on the other side of the row because they were colored folks and he was Anglo. So if they went to the snack bar to buy anything they would bring it and hand it to him and they would have to go sit back on their own side, and I imagine people probably thought that she was his nanny where as actually they were host to him by taking him to the games.
One time when I was about five years old, I was ill, Kate (mentioned above) found out that I was ill and she made a dessert for me. She sent it to my house on a little saucer, and when I got well my mother told me I had to return the little saucer and thank Kate for the desert, and I started crying and mama said I had to take it back to her. So when I got to Kate’s house I started crying and she asked me what was wrong, and I told her that mama said I had to bring the little sauce-rack but that I thought that Kate had given it to me so she said “Honey, you just keep that little saucer”, and I still have that little saucer and I’ve had it for 70 years at a minimum.
At the time what kind of things were you afraid of?
Well when I was in elementary school, I don’t recall the date right now, but the New London School blew up killing and maiming many people, students and teachers, and even though we had coal or wood burning stoves I was always afraid the school might blow up so that was always on my mind when I was in elementary school.
If you or a family member might catch an illness or get sick, what kinds of medicines would you have to use?
One of the things that was used was a mustard poultice, as I recall it was made with dry mustard with lemon (corrects) with vinegar added, and made into a paste and put on a cloth and put on a chest and the back, and that was used for ammonia. Some of the names of other medicines was castoria, castor oil, Vick’s vapor rub, aspirin, Listerine, sugar and turpentine, and I don’t really recall what the sugar and turpentine time was for.
What kind of pets did you own and how would they be treated?
Well we had a little dog that followed my brother home one day, truthfully it followed my brother home, and he stayed with us many years before he finally just disappeared, but as long as we had that dog it never had fleas or ticks because the rail road had an oil pit where they drained oil and that dog would go into that pit and as a result never had any fleas or ticks. We also had a horse named Pinto that we liked to ride but it was as much of a pet as it was a horse to ride. Mother never would allow us to have cats, because when I was an infant there was a cat on, sitting on my chest. My mother thought as many people did in those days that a cat would take your breath away the baby’s breath away, so the whole thing is that that a baby is not strong enough to inhale and exhale enough to hold a cat, so actually the cat would be smothering the baby with his weight.
Did you have a radio?
My brother built a crystal radio set, they weren’t always dependable. It was like a TV without an antenna.
What would you listen to on the radio?
Well in those days we liked Lighter Crust Dough Boys and we listened to country and western music. And momma used to say when I was a little child if Kate Smith started singing I would turn the radio off. When I got older I learned to appreciate her beautiful voice.
What types of clothing and fabrics did you have, and how would you get them?
We purchased some of our materials, and we also made dresses, underclothes, shirts, skirts, and blouses from feed sacks and flour sacks. Some of our quilts were made from Bull Durham tobacco bags. When taken apart they were about six by three inches in size, they were dyed different colors for a pattern for the quilts.
What kinds of stores did you remember being around, and what kind of things might you by from the stores?
We had one variety store that had cloth material, sewing thread, needles and pins. They also had some clothes, if one did not find what they were looking for there; they had to go into the city.
There was a red and white grocery store, Mr. Hoffman’s grocery store and Car Loop grocery, where the street cars used to turn around and go back to the city. Grocery stores let people have credit to buy their groceries using only their signature as collateral. We had to go into the city to buy shoes and coats. For the prices on some of the things we used to buy, we could get a small loaf of bread for .05 or .06 cents, .12 cents for a large loaf of bread. Some bread was half and half, one half or one end would be white and the other half or other end would be wheat. Bottle soft drinks were only .05 cents, large candy bars were .05 cents, little cups of ice cream were .05 cents.
During the time of the depression what some of the most desirable items to you at that time?
A nice hat, a nice store bought dress, and pretty shoes to where to church and for special occasions.
It was desirable to have a car if one could afford it, it was desirable to have electricity, and if you had electricity it was desirable to have a refrigerator instead of having the iceman bring a 25 pound block of ice for the ice box. To have a telephone, which was really a luxury. The telephone we had access to was company owned and was located across the street and we had to answer it.
Was there anything that you didn’t like to do, or what was your least favorite thing that you would have to do?
Probably my least favorite thing was going to school. I just didn’t particularly like it I think partly because I never felt like I was in the “in crowd”, but my mother was ill and I had to miss a year of school to take care of her. She passed away in May, and I went to the school and asked the principal if I could start summer school that year, it was the first year they had summer school, and he said yes I could come back to school, and so I went on and graduated and I loved to go to school after that and made really good grades, and when I was 40 years of age I started to college (San Antonio College)
and got my associate degree. It took me about six years to get it because I had to work full time and go to school at night, but I really did love school in the end.
Before we end this interview is there anything that you would like to mention that I haven’t asked you yet?
Because of the time we grew up, during the Depression, people my age bracket usually do not want to go into debt. We believe that people should work and earn their own way. People don’t like going to nursing homes because of a conscious or unconscious feeling that it is like going to the poor house as older people had to do during the Depression.
The most important thing that I learned is that collecting history like this is really helpful in understanding more about the past. People are not around forever and most kind of fade away with time without ever leaving traces of the experiences that they’ve went through. You can always look in a textbook and get the overall idea of a time period, but what you will lack is the stories that go along with them and also a better understanding of the people of the time. Every person has been through something if they’re willing to share it. I’ve pretty much learned everything that you’re learning about this person from reading this interview, except maybe her name. Well some of the things I’ve never heard about I tried to look up links and find more information about them, also common sense and good judgment. The benefits that I saw learning about the past from this project were getting to hear stories and other interesting things of places that I may have never heard if I wouldn’t have done this. The drawback is that you have to take your interviewee’s word for it and from their memory, which over time can get altered some. Sometimes I can’t remember something I did a week ago. I think that doing an oral history project like this is a very effective way to learn about the past. I believe though that you should read textbook things from a legitimate source and get a good understanding of what it is your reading.
Then as a big time bonus oral history can show you even more things that you didn’t read about and plus I think it’s just a lot more fun to hear from first hand experience on the subject.
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