Gaye LeBaron: Depression-era Thanksgiving feast in Humboldt was ‘the real thing’
There is a theory, tested by time, suggesting that when it comes to traditional holidays, all columnists have just one good story in them, no matter how long their tenure and how hard they try.
I’ve written a lot of Christmas and Thanksgiving columns since I first put pen to paper, metaphorically of course, in 1959.
As I look back, some were OK — just OK. Others made little or no sense. But there is one, written in 1977, I have come back to, probably a half-dozen times, in the four decades since it first appeared. I am convinced, more with each late November deadline, that I simply don’t have anything better to say.
HOLIDAYS are a proper vehicle for nostalgia, and I want to tell you about a Thanksgiving I don’t remember. It’s one of those family stories that has been told and retold so often you could swear you were part of it. You know what I mean?
It was during the Depression. Actually, I have that same feeling about the whole Depression experience. I wasn’t actively involved, but I’ve heard it all so often I have lived through it vicariously. This is the second-best way to learn history. No, maybe it’s the first best.
BUT I WAS GOING to tell you about this Depression Thanksgiving. It was in 1936. We lived in rural Humboldt County. I was a year old. My mother and father and older brother and sister had left Sacramento for Humboldt seven years earlier, partially because of my father’s health and partly for the same sort of reasons that send young families back to the land now. Without the pot growing, of course.
The Depression was easier on country people. The lumber industry went on and while people worked three days a week for 35 cents an hour, they had work. And they all had a little acreage and grew their own food. And they fished and hunted. And shared with others. Somebody was always turning up on your doorstep with a whole salmon or a basket of tomatoes or a piece of venison.
People didn’t just help their friends, either. It’s a lesson for us in these days of dark suspicions that strangers were treated like your cousins next door. The Redwood Highway was full of migrants from the economic desolation of the cities — the Grapes of Wrath they called them after John Steinbeck wrote his heartbreaker about the Dust Bowl refugees.
There were people in broken-down, haywire pickups with everything they owned piled in back. Going anywhere and nowhere. Just going. There were people walking, walking up from San Francisco, 250 miles, doing what they could to eat along the way.
There was one fellow, Tom, who walked into Redcrest, the little town where we lived. He asked our neighbors for some work to earn a meal. They were retired and had no work to offer — until they found out that Tom played pinochle. They offered him 50 cents a day for some light yard work and a few hands of cutthroat. He intended to stay two days. He stayed six weeks, playing three-handed pinochle and eating like a king.
And we mustn’t forget the bootlegging. They had their share of backyard stills in Humboldt County and a gallon of quality homemade hooch sold for $1 on a Saturday night — or traded for a good amount of fresh killed deer and homegrown vegetables.