Life in Deseronto in the 1930s


Life in Deseronto in the 1930s


A series of six emails written in 1999 by Mary Hawley MacDonald Selby (1916-2009) to her granddaughter. The emails describe day-to-day life in the town for the Hawley family, who had trouble finding work during the Great Depression. Mary's brothers, Rocky and Howard, went on to found the Hawley Brothers furniture factory in Main Street, which was in operation until their retirement.

Mary's parents were George Hawley (b.1875) and Olive, née Delmage (b.1877). Their eldest son, Howard, was born in 1908.


Mary Hawley MacDonald Selby (1916-2009)




Ray MacDonald (Mary's son)






January 2, 1999

Subject: Great Depression 1930's

Interview with Mary Selby Born 1916

I was born December 1916, and the Great Depression was triggered by the stock market crash of 1929. That made me about 12 or 13years old. I do not know the reason for the Stock crash because at that age I was still in public school and knew nothing about economic conditions. We lived in a suburb of Toronto, Birchcliff and my father had had a stroke and my brother Howard was driving truck in his place for the township. After the stock market crash jobs were almost non existant, and preference was given to married men with families. Howard was single and because my father was unable to work his job was filled by another married man. The family {not me) decided that we could not live in Toronto without work and we decided to come to Deseronto that had a vegetable canning factory and at least in summer there would be work, and perhaps one could save enough for food in the coming winter. We moved in 1930 November. We paid $750.00 for a two story house, with four bedrooms, no bath rom in those days,and an "outhouse" in lieu of. We had $ 40.00 for the rest of the winter. I was 13, Rocky was 16and Howard was nearly 21. He was the man of the family, as my father was still recovering from his stroke. We had to devise a way to make money for food. That was primary. We may not have had money but we had PRIDE -GOOD MORAL VALUES - INGENUITY - AMBITION - FAITH - and a good old fashioned KNOW HOW that served to get us over many a hurdle, and none of us were afraid of hard work, only there was none to be found for hire. You just had to plan what to work at to get a few cents to buy FOOD!

I was attending Grade 8 and my two brothers had to figure out how to find work for money. There was no work so they had to make their own. I will give you the headings of what they chose. FISHING in the bay of Quinte. TRAPPING in the Napanee river TRAPPING in the countryside GATHERING FOOD in the country bushes, berries and apples and wild fruit BUILDING a barn bridge I BUYING AND SELLING stove wood FOOD CANNING FACTORY hour labour and contract labour SAWING 8ft logs into 1 ft stove wood Finally building a wood working shop to manufacture fish boxes for transporting fish to market and finally to manufacture furniture years later. Rocky even enlisted in the navy to defend against Hitler and to send home a few dollars to his mother and the family. He enlisted in 1939.

Written January 5, 1999

January 7, 1999

Subject: Great Depression

By Mary Selby Jan 1999

We were always taught by our parents that it was not right to be PROUD but that each person should have PRIDE about our actions and achievements, and in our relations with friends and family and even strangers who might cross our paths and need help in any manner. When we found ourselves practically penniless in November 1930 I am sure the adults in the family used the benchmarks of pride to guide their decisions in the years ahead. I did not have the decision making role as I was only 13 yrs old but I did have that sense of pride too in my own way.

Having little or no money we could have qualified for welfare $2.50 per person per week but we had too much pride and the decision was made that we could do it for ourselves. Rocky and Howard, my brothers had two guns, a 22 rifle and single shell shot gun. I do not remember all the details but I am sure that the first winter they hunted for rabbits, caught fish through the ice in the Bay of Quinte. We had an old car and gasoline was 20 cents a gallon. I am telling you this because one can then see how far a dollar earned could go. We had good MORAL VALUES instilled into us by our strictly religious parents, Having these values we were honest in all our dealings and stealing anything was not even an option. Most of the people at that time was very honest too, and we never locked our doors night or day. We needed wood for heat and we had closed up our 8 room house and lived in one room that had a wood heater. This was kept burning during the day (most of the time) and let out at night to conserve fuel. We never had heat of any kind in our bedrooms. Boy was it cold, we used wine bottles with screw tops as hot water bottles to heat our beds before running and jumping in. When the boys were hunting they gathered bits of dead wood along the road and in the woods and brought it home. Every time the old car was taken on the road it had to do many things to justify the gasoline usage. It never really went very far. We never picked anything up off of private land. We had enough money for bread 5 cents a loaf, and a weekly quart of milk 5 cents, and I think my Aunt Julia File gave us a bag of potatoes, and then there was rolled oates that was very cheap. Porridge in the morning without little or no milk and fried porridge for supper. The biggest problem that remained was we did not have a way to earn money. This is where ingenuity must have come into force. I think that in the fall of 1931 that Rocky got a job helping a fisherman lift fish nets. He got some money for that probably a $1.00 for lifting nets early in the morning and setting them in the afternoon. He would also get some fish and we would keep it frozen in a box on the roof of shed to be used later in the winter.

He also had to help repair and weave nets for that wage. Rocky had a friend Clarence, nicknamed "Sixty" and in the spring of 1932 they borrowed (probably) some traps and they would trap muskrats and skin and stretch the pelts and sell they to buyers for $1.00 or 1.50 which they divided. All money was put in our cash fund at home and was not spent without a family consent. To show you how far money went then here is a story about Howard. One Saturday we had no money and needed food. In desperation Howard went down by the bay shore where there was a saw mill. The famers used to drive their logs across the Bay of Quinte in the winter to have them sawed into logs for their own use or sale to bring in money. They were driven across the bay by horse drawn sleighs. The horses were skittish when the big saws bit into the logs and Howard stepped up and held their heads. When the logs were cut into lumber the man gave him a quarter (25 cents) Howard came home happy as could be. We bought a pound of hamburg, 12 cents, a loaf of bread 5 cents,and a quart of milk 5 cents ( we had 3 cents left over and it went into the kitty) That fed the five of us for the week end. Mother boiled the hamburg in a lot of water, Thickened it with flour and made gravy, and we had it on the bread for meals on that particular week end

Mary Selby
January 16, 1999

Subject: Great Depression 1930's #3

By Mary Selby January 16,1999

In 1931 finding a job was still impossible. When we lived in Toronto Howard owned a motorcycle with sidecar, and he brought it to Deseronto with him. The boys used the motorcycle rather than the car when ever possible to save on gasoline. Sometime in the spring or summer of that year Uncle John File gave the boys and Dad a job of building a new barn bridge. The trees were cut in the wood of Johns farm and were dragged up to the barn from the woods either the winter before or that spring. Probably in the winter because a sled would have been a better way. The logs were used as the timbers and then when there were stubs of the branches sticking out or where they needed a flat surface to lay cross bars the boys would use an adds axe to chop them off The boys and dad received a dollar a day each for their work plus Aunt Julia always provided meal at noon. They used the motorcycle for transportation, Howard drove, Rocky on the back and Dad in the side car. I do not recall how long it took them but Dad accidentally cut the tendon in his right heel. The Doctor in Deseronto stitched the gash up and Dad was on crutches for a long time and when he got so he could walk the injured leg had drawn up and he was unable to do so. He was partially crippled the rest of his life. 1931 was the year that I started High School and my books cost $5.00 and Howard paid for them a dollar a week for 5 weeks. It was probably money that they had earned building the barn bridge. Howard and Rocky had an uncanny way of "if you don't have or cannot buy what you need" you improvise, substitute or invent. Everyone at that time burned coal or wood for heating (word lightly used) very little heat was produced from those old heaters, and so they thought they would build a tractor trailer truck to draw 8 foot poles from Forest Mills to Deseronto. They took an old "Gray Dort" car and cut through the body just back of the front seat. The back half of the body they removed from the car frame and voila they had the beginning of a tractor cab. They moved the back half of the body forward and completed the truck cab. They got another old wreck and stripped the body off completely and then they built a frame that would contain a load of 8foot poles to be cut and sold to anyone wishing to buy fire wood. Believe me there was not much profit in the business but it kept body and soul together. I am not sure of the time lines. I do remember mother and I went out in the back yard and picked up the pieces of bark for our fire. Howard made a press and pressed sawdust like a huge sandwich and the bread part was scrapwood and the filling was Sawdust. It was wired about with fence wire and it burned , not very well but if it was poked enough it managed to heat and burn slowly.

Mary Selby
January 24, 1999

Subject: Great Depression 1930 #4

By Mary Selby January 24,1999

FOOD From 1930 to 1934 things were not very bright. I contributed my first earning to the family budget in 1932. I picked strawberries for 1 1/2 cents a quart. It was not a great deal of money but a lot of sore muscles and knees. I think it was for period of two weeks in the year. There was no thing as "Pick your own" The grower paid pickers and then peddled the berries to the homes, or sold them to the local stores. We also foraged for food in the countryside. We picked wild raspberries, and believe me that is the most depressing work.

We picked in empty honey pails and the wild raspberries are a soft-fruit and it would pack down easily. It seemed like hours before you would see the pail start to fill up. And those thorns. Wow were they sharp and we came home scratched from Here to There. We packed up in the old truck with a blanket each and some bread and a bit of Bacon ends (jowls) and away we went to the Mountains near Kaladar to pick blueberries. We took blankets because we stayed over night to save gasoline driving back and forth for two days. The dew at night sure "wet" us down as we had no canvas for cover and we slept in the back of the truck. We also picked any apples from wild apple trees. Sometimes when Choke Cherries were in season, I forget when we would gather them Mother made Apple Choke Cherry Jam. Sometimes it got boiled too long and it would be more like taffy than jam and it would roll up a slice of bread like a weiner. There was no thing like Pectin for jam. The apples had their own pectin. Mother canned the berries in hot water to preserve them. She is the only person I ever heard that could get the sealers air tight and they would then keep in a water preservation. Yes you can eat fruit when it is not sweetened, if you are hungry enough. That is how we prepared for the coming winters each year. One two day period we picked 72 quarts of blueberries. This page is about food. We fished by line in the Bay of Quinte. Rocky went Duck hunting in the fall, and mother saved the feathers for a new pillow. We had Duck quite often during the season. In the fall Rocky helped lift fish nets and we had a large box of fish frozen up on the back roof. In the Thirties it was a very cold time and it never thawed from December till the end of March. Mother always had a pillow case with dried apples in it. She never missed an opportunity to harvest apples from the ground. She would never pick them off the tree. She only took what would be discarded because she would not think of taking what was not hers. I do not know how my mother faced each day with scarcely anything to feed the family. As the "thirties" moved forward we were able to get a bit more money but for ten years we never had enough to eat. Believe it or not the actual memory of being hungry has never been retained as such. We probably felt it at the time but I cannot recall that feeling. There was a butter factory just a block from our house and we could get buttermilk just for going and getting it. We usually had a ten pound honey pail full of it each day. Mother made biscuits, and she could really make them. They also curdled it and made kind of a cottage cheese they called "Buttermilk Pop" To this day I cannot tolerate sour milk, sour cream or buttermilk. I believe Rocky found a pair of tame rabbits that had been let loose in the woods some where and he brought them home and he made a large cage for them, He started to raise them for meat. Now I am feeling like a cannibal. Never entered my mind at that time. Oh yes we picked up nuts under every hickory tree or black walnut tree we came across. I can still see my mother cracking them and picking out the kernels for a cake at Christmas time. She was surley an Earth Angel.

Mary Selby
January 25, 1999

Subject: Great Depression #5

By Mary Selby January 25,1999

CLOTHING We never bought new clothes, we wore whatever was given to us in other words "hand me downs". Shoes did not always fit and were worn past "outgrown". My feet to this day will verify this. When the soles of shoes were worn through Howard would repair them from old shoes. He then learned how to skin the tread from old Tires to make new soles. The men of the family had one decent pair of trousers and a button up sweater to wear for good and hand me downs for work pants. Never had a suit for over ten years. From l930 to 1939 my Aunts sent their outdated clothes to Mother and I, and we tried to update them to wear. In my first year at high school they sent me a new dress, and I wore it all winter. Each week end it was washed and pressed for the next week. Always had to take it off after School to save it. The next winter I had grown and we Cut it down and made a jumper out of it because I had outgrown it. Did not have any blouses to wear and my mother went into her old trunk and dug out blouses that she had saved for years. They were too small for me and the waist line was up under my breasts but we did not have a gym at our school and so no one knew what I was wearing. The collars and sleeves made the jumper look pretty good. I wore that all the second winter. I know this sounds like a tale but it is still etched in my memory.

In 1934 or 1935 Howard tendered on a rural mail route. The lowest bidder got the contract. Just how low can you go? He got the contract at $40 to $45 a month. The mail route was at least 18 miles long. Gasoline was between 15 to 20 cents a gallon so there was a profit of about $20 to $25 a month. It was on the rural route I learned to drive. My first attempt was pathetic. All cars were hand gearshift, Low, Second, and High, and of course reverse. I backed down a hill in reverse instead of going up in second. I ran down a mail box when turning in to it, and right there I decided to quit. With determination, understanding and good humour my father said "no". If the mail boxes hold out we will come back later and put them up again. As a result I have driven all my life with only one mishap.

We always clung together and always helped and encouraged one another. When things were the darkest we never lost Faith and heavens knows it took Courage to face each day, Love kept us going when there was little else. We never know how strong we can be until we are pushed to the edge of life and for that ten years it took the strength of a bull, courage of a lion, fortitude, and family love to help us until a time of prosperity started to open up.

As I had mentioned earlier, my father was a partial cripple and his one leg was not straight. He could not walk without crutches. He and Howard had many talks about his not being able to get about and Howard said he thought he could remodel a boot that Dad could wear so he could walk. He had a metal sole plate made at the blacksmith's and with his good old "skin the tire" routine he stuck a rubber sole to the steel sole. There were two Pillers that had a plate attached at the top that were screwed into the sole of an ordinary boot like the pillers attached to the sole. One was about five inches long at the heel, and the one at the front was about an inch high. Each of the pillers had a round plate attached and it was screwed to the sole of an ordinary boot. After many adjustments, my father could lace on the boot and it made his bent leg equal in length and he could hobble at first, and then walk quite well the rest of his life.

Mary Selby
January 27, 1999

Subject: Great Depression #6

By Mary Selby January 27,1999

From approximately 1934 to 1939 We plugged along working at what would bring in a dollar or two to fund our money jar that would assure that we had some food. In 1939 our country became involved in World War 2. Men enlisted in the forces, Air Force, Army or Navy. Rockey enlisted in the Navy in 1939 and served till 1944. Howard stayed at home because he was the sole support of the family. Dad was still unable to earn a living and mother was not well.

Rocky assigned 5 days pay to my mother and she received a partial allowance from the Government. I think Rocky got $3.00 a day wages and mothers allowance made it up to about $28.00 to $30.00 a month. She saved Rockys wage share for him to have when he returned home, and she used the allowance she got to buy food and help Howard build a new shop instead of the old shed he was working in. By this time Howard had purchased, (used) a wood planer, and another saw and he was able to do some custom woodworking. He made a few dollars each day and he bought lumber and he and Dad started to build a new shop Dad rented a vacant lot several blocks from our house and he hired a horse and plough and he put in a garden and so we began to have a better diet.

We still gathered fruit and berries from the countryside and in the summer there were places where you could gather tomatoes in the field after the canning factory closed. Mother was always busy like the squirrels gathering and storing food up for the coming winter. By 1939 I was able to get some clerical work, I had taught myself to touch type from an instruction book and occasionally I got work. One job was keeping a ledger for our family Doctor, and doing his month end accounts. From 1939 to 1944 we all did what we could to keep going and help Howard establish his woodworking business.

Rocky came home in 1944 and he and Howard worked at the new factory in our back yard until the business outgrew the building space and then he and Rocky bought some property at the east side of Town and they build a house for Rocky and a larger Woodworking shop. They finally entered the business of making furniture. This they carried on until they retired. The 1940'swere the years that the country came out of the severe recession and people were able to find employment and life moved on into the 1950's.

The Depression years were testing years of Courage, Fortitude, Ingenuity, Determination, Love for each other, and of strength supplied by the Christian Faith of our parents, handed down to each of us. In all our struggles, we were able to help each other to face each day. God asks us to face only one day at a time, -today-, and when today is past, tomorrow becomes today.