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Growing up during the Great Depression

Kelly recalls life on the farm during time of economic turmoil

There aren’t many of us “old timers” still hanging around from my generation. I am currently 91, widowed and living alone in Morris, but I pass the time reminiscing about events in my life that remain as vivid as if they happened recently.

But for starts, I need to lay the groundwork for a lead-in to the Great Depression. I’m a Texan, born Feb. 21, 1922, in San Antionio’s Nix Hospital, three blocks from the Alamo, to parents Benjamin F. Kelly and Irene Adair Kelly.

I was named after my dad with a Jr. tacked on the end. Soon after my 1st birthday, my Mother Irene died from pneumonia at age 26. Dad, a disabled veteran from WWI, couldn’t properly care for me at 13 months of age. So the Adairs, my maternal grandparents, gladly agreed to take and raise me on their farm down on the Gulf Coast, near the little town of Austwell, on San Antonio Bay.

No sooner had we (my Adair grandparents and me) arrived back on the farm that everyone came down sick except me. I was farmed out to the Kinslers in town to care for me until the emergency was over. My mother died March 8, the Adairs had come up to S.A. to help dad out with funeral arrangements and other matters, and care for me in this emergency.

Next to die was Ernest at 16 (Adairs’ youngest son), followed by Grandpa Adair at 57 near the end of the month. Three Adair deaths, all in March 1923, and all from pneumonia. Henceforth, Grandma Adair will be referred to as “Mama” since she raised me the same way she raised my mother and her other children.

Now that Mama was a widow at 52, she had a farm to run and me to raise. She got Albert (her remaining son) out of college in Austin to come home and run the farm at age 23. There were three Adair daughters, Mary, Irene (my mother) and Elizabeth (Liz), all of whom were school teachers. Mary taught me in first grade, skipped me to third grade, then Liz had me in fifth and 6th grades in Austwell Public School.

Fast forward to Oct. 24, 1929. It was a Thursday, later called “Black Thursday.” On the farm, the only communication we had with the outside world was by newspaper, the San Antonio Express, that always arrived a day late.

I don’t know how we found out, but Wall Street had crashed in New York City and our nation’s economy suddenly plummeted, heralding the start of the Great Depression that would continue over the years until a Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, with the Pearl Harbor incident.

I would have been 7 years old and in third grade with Miss Knoweles trying to teach me short and long division in arithmetic. In schools back then, there were no preschool or kindergarten; you started school in first grade at age 6 and proceeded through the grammar school graded into high school that usually consisted of four grades. Except that our Austwell Public School only had 11 grades, and I graduated high school at 16 in 1938, instead of the normal 18.

With the Depression in full swing, at first I didn’t realize the gravity of the situation because I was still too young for responsibilities, but I remember hearing Mama and Albert worrying about money for different things many times. I knew times were hard and I never asked for anything.

Whatever they bought me, I cherished. I know I was loved as a family member and I was a happy kid growing up. And I learned so much more on the farm than I would have growing up in San Antonio. Besides, farmers never worried where their next meal was coming from.

We grew or raised 90 percent of our food for the table. We had chickens for eggs and meat, dairy cows for milk products and meat, hogs for pork meats and products, but we had to buy flour, sugar, spices, etc., from a store on credit until our crops were harvested and sold.

In the early years, we only crop farmed cotton, corn, cane, hay and a truck item like cabbage, onions, peanuts as cash crops. But we couldn’t depend on a successful crop because of Mother Nature. I remember several years when tropical storms struck at harvest time and ravished the fields for a total loss of income.

We were losing our shirts, we needed a more dependable source of income, and Albert was innovative. Add dairy farming. But that required an investment that necessitated mortgaging the farm.

He finally found a bank that would grant a loan, purchased 20 head of Jersey milk cows, a registered Jersey bull, built a dairy barn and a feed storage barn. By now, I was old enough to take on farm chores. We sold all but two mules and switched to tractor power in the fields.

Our crop mix changed, we raised more feed stuff for our cattle, but continued with corn as a cash crop. Dairy farming improved our cash flow, was more dependable, but also more work intensive.

Since we were the only dairy farm in our area, our market was the townspeople in Austwell, a very small town of around 230 population, probably a third of which were customers. For a couple of years, Mama would wake Albert and me up at 5 a.m. daily, 7 days a week, we’d dress and go to the dairy barn.

None of us farmers had electricity available. Even if we had, we couldn’t afford it. Same goes for telephone and natural gas (LP didn’t exist yet). Nor did we have RFD mail service. Our P.O. Box 56 was in the post office in town. I still remember the combination.

Without electricity, we had kerosene chimney lamps for light in the house, and barn lanterns for other buildings. Mama cooked on a six-burner kerosene Perfection wick burner stove with a broken oven heat indicator. That didn’t matter. She judged heat with her hand.

The milking routine went like this. Albert would prepare feed in each stall a cow would occupy. I would proceed to the pasture, drive the cows into the cow lot, then sort out the milkers and herd them into the barn. There they were secured in assigned stalls by stanchions, udders washed, and milked by hand.

I did 6, Albert did 6. We did this twice daily. All dairy cows have to be milked twice a day in season.

Failure to do so results in a very sick cow. Each cow’s milk production was weighed and records kept. Milk was run over a water cooler to dispel animal heat, then I took it into Mama, where she bottled and capped the orders and got it ready for delivery.

After cleaning up the barn and sending the cows back to pasture, we ate breakfast. Then we loaded the truck, Albert and I headed to town in our ’29 Model A Ford pickup. I rode the running board, delivered the orders onto the front porch, picked up the empties and moved on to the next customer. We also sold eggs, butter and cream. The milk was raw, not pasteurized or homogenized, but fresh straight from the cow.

Allowed to stand for a couple hours, cream would rise to the top in the bottle. The compression pull-tab cardboard cap was the only disposable. Glass bottles were reused continuously. We delivered in town over two years until a new ice cream company opened in Victoria.

It was more profitable selling in bulk, so we switched over. But I had graduated high school and was going off to college, thanks to dad’s thoughtfulness of providing for my formal educaton, so I’d be away for school terms.

I don’t remember much of what happened on the farm except Albert met and married an English teacher who taught in town. They moved to Round Rock a year or so later, Mama first rented the farm to Tom Jackson after going to live with Aunt Mary in town, but later selling it to C. Coward, who operated a butcher shop-grocery and ice house.

But my roots are firmly embedded in that farm I left at 19 to go into the military in WWII.


Local veteran Benjamin Kelly has agreed to be an occasional contributor to the Morris Daily Herald with thoughts, recollections and reactions to events during his 91 years of life.

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