When Times Were Hard, and Yet Somehow Better

Poignant memories abound at talk on Depression years

    Reflections on life in East Hampton during the Great Depression brought a lively blend of nostalgia, laughter, and melancholy to Clinton Academy Friday night.
    The second winter lecture in the East Hampton Historical Society’s 2013 series “Changing Times: Epics and Events That Shaped East Hampton,” the round-table discussion featured four local residents, each of whom offered vivid recollections of occurrences, large and small, that shaped their perspective of the Depression. Donald Halsey, Robert Stone, Norton (Bucket) Daniels, and Mary Curles told the moderator, Hugh King, and a capacity audience about the hardships they and those around them endured, in the process illustrating the characteristic charm and grace of the era.
    “I remember so many guys out of work,” said Mr. Halsey, whose father owned an automobile garage and dealership on Newtown Lane and maintained his staff of 14 throughout the Depression. “Every once in a while, some poor guy would come with some sad story, and my father would give him a job, maybe just for a day. Some guys made 25 cents an hour, 15 cents an hour, just to get work. You can’t feed many people on 10 dollars a week.”
    Given his father’s established business, Mr. Halsey considered himself fortunate, in light of the scarcity around him. “I really had it pretty good, when I hear so many other stories,” he said. In the early 1930s, he said, the American Legion held meetings on the second floor of his father’s garage, which had a kitchen. “They would make coffee and serve doughnuts to people who were out of work,” he said. “I remember seeing at least a dozen guys there some mornings. For all I know, that’s all they had to eat for the day.”
    “Like Donald said, we weren’t as bad off as a lot of people,” said Mr. Stone. “We raised our own chickens and ducks, had a big vegetable garden, and we all canned food for the winter. In the fall, after the farmers got done digging their potatoes, everybody would be out there picking up the leftover potatoes. We’d have enough to last all winter.”
    “The children who lived in the village dressed a lot better than we did,” recalled Ms. Curles, who said she grew up in Amagansett’s “Little Italy,” between Bunker Hill Road and Cranberry Hole Road. “We didn’t have money to buy better clothes like the people upstreet.”
    She remembered the embarrassment of lunchtime in school, being the only student packing homemade bread. “All the other children had store bread. I would try to hide,” she said. “The men had no money for cigarettes. They would walk along the roadside and pick up cigarette butts and then roll their own.”
    Fortunately for East Hampton’s residents, nature’s bounty provided sustenance through the leanest times. “We always had plenty of clams, oysters, fish at Three Mile Harbor. A lot of people ate more fish than they would have liked,” Mr. Stone said, remembering one night when his father returned from work. “My mother put a plate in front of him. He said, ‘Fish again? I’ve been eating so much clams and fish, my stomach is starting to rise and fall with the tide,’ ” he recalled, to laughter.
    “We lived off the fat of the land,” said Ms. Curles. “My father would raise pigs and chickens, and had a great big garden of tomatoes, peppers, beans, and so on, which we also canned for winter use.”
    As a youth, said Mr. Stone, “you’d take any job you could find. We used to pick strawberries, get 3 cents a quart. Sometimes you’d work around the farm, hauling corn, get 75 cents, maybe a dollar a day.”
    On cold nights in the winter, said Ms. Curles, “we would all go to the ocean for frost fish. The water would be so cold that the fish” — whiting — “would be stunned, they just washed ashore and we picked them up.” At Atlantic Avenue Beach, her father would gather fish heads discarded by fishermen after they’d haul in nets filled with cod. “He would end up with a platter of nice white fish meat,” she said.
    There were many cold winter nights. “I never witnessed such a cold, cold winter in my life as that 1933-34 winter,” Mr. Daniels said. “It was so cold, Gardiner’s Bay was frozen.” He recalled seeing Springs residents walking to, and back from, Gardiner’s Island. “It was reported that in Montauk it was 26 degrees below zero,” he said.
    In the autumn, he said, property owners in Northwest allowed anyone to fell trees. “That’s how we got wood for our stoves for wintertime. I used a two-man saw and also an ax, so I got well conditioned, physically.”
    Not everyone was affected by the Depression, however, and East Hampton residents found work in services for the town’s summer visitors. Many chauffeurs came with their employers from New York City, said Mr. Halsey, but many local men became “summer chauffeurs” as well. “Sometimes the garage was open all night,” he said. “Chauffeurs would wash the cars at night and be ready to go in the morning.”
    Mr. Daniels’s father worked as a caretaker and a bayman. At 14, he said, “I had to do something to earn my clothing for school, so I went caddying at the Maidstone Club.” Caddies were paid $1.25 per round if members decided they were worth the 25-cent tip, he said, and some were generous and paid more. “Others would ask if you were a ‘B’ caddy so they would only give you a dollar.” His parents never paid for his clothing again, he said.
    Why is his nickname Bucket, Mr. King asked. “ ‘Bucket’ came from caddying,” Mr. Daniels answered. “I was talking to somebody, and he called me ‘Bucket.’ I don’t understand to this day why.”
    Mr. Stone’s mother, and some of her friends, opened summer houses for their owners in the spring and closed them in the fall, he said.
    Ms. Curles, whose father shoveled coal for the Long Island Rail Road for “a couple of dollars a day,” used to pick blueberries near the Devon colony, she said, “and then go up to the houses and sell them.”
    Mr. Daniels remembered a thriving Montauk in the waning days of Prohibition. Bill McCoy — “the Real McCoy” — was legendary for smuggling liquor via “Rum Row,” off Long Island, he recalled. “He only sold good stuff,” said Mr. Daniels. “It was strange, because the rest of the country was hurting very badly.”
    Amid tales of peddling berries and shellfish, foraging for coal, and bartering to pay debts, attendees of the lecture were briefly transported to a kinder, simpler time. During the Depression, Ms. Curles said, “there wasn’t much work but there was a lot of family life. We were all in the same boat, everyone shared what they had and helped each other.”
    “All in all,” said Mr. Stone, “we did pretty good. I don’t remember anyone going hungry out here.”