“Liberty Bell Cracked…Again”

Monday, February 26, 2018

Ellen Holmes Jackson was born in 1925 when the Great Depression had already hit American farms. Crop prices had plummeted 40 percent in 1920-1921. Much of the crop market loss came as World War I ended. Farmers had revved up their production, purchasing more land, all to feed war-torn Europe. But as recovery returned overseas, demand for American crops diminished. Farmers who had purchased more land began to default on bank loans. Then with the stock market crash of 1929, even domestic markets dried up. So, by the time Ellen was 5 years old, the Great Depression was in full assault.

Many, many years later as Ellen discussed the Depression, she realized how fortunate her family was to have endured those mean years by living on a farm. She was thankful her father had the foresight to turn to farming. For in 1926, when his Rock Barn Auto Garage on Main Street, in Slater, burned, he decided to try farming. He bought the Bob Long farm in the Van Meter area with help of the Federal Land Bank.

It was 1927 when her father took possession of the 480 acres. To plant and harvest his crops took himself and two tenant families. One fortunate part of living on a farm was the ability to produce life-supporting nutrition. They had milk and eggs, and in season, there were fresh vegetables to eat and preserve. They raised cattle and hogs, slaughtering two steers and six to 10 hogs each year. From this largess, her family and the tenants ate well. Ellen’s mother also made lye soap for all. She remembered the special care and creativity her mother put into that soap, adding colors, perfumes and designs to them.

Although they had eggs, milk and meat, there were some staples which needed to be purchased. They had to purchase coffee, flour, sugar and lye. Without flour and sugar, there could be no bread; lye was needed not only to make soap, but it was also needed to make hominy. Hominy was made from dried corn, of which they had abundance. Her mother soaked the corn in a solution of lye for a day and then rinsed it numerous times with well water. The result was a soft puffy grain which, when fried in butter, was quite tasty and provided another option for the table.

Coming up with money to purchase those staples was challenging. One day stood out in Ellen’s memory. Her mother was nearly out of her holy trinity — flour, sugar, coffee. Ellen’s father, his pockets empty and with no credit available, pondered the situation. The only cash on the place was in a little metal bank, a replica of the Liberty Bell, given to them when times were better, when they were valued bank customers. The little bell bank had been the ideal gift ... a delightful shiny one, with purpose, for their little daughter Ellen. Through the years, aunts, uncles and other family members had contributed loose change to Ellen’s bank. While not full, within it clinked a goodly sum. Unlike most children’s banks easily opened, a key was needed to unlock this one, and only the bank of its origin had the key. So, a trip to Slater was in order. Freeing the bank’s contents, they could easily purchase those sorely needed supplies.

Ellen, as the proud owner of the bell bank, traveled into town with her father. Ellen remembered they donned their heavy coats, as the day was bitterly cold. They putted along the rutty roads in their Model T, headed to Slater and the Slater Security Bank located on Maple Street, just east of Main Street.

They entered a nearly deserted bank, where they were heartily welcomed. Activity in banks by that time was practically nonexistent and within weeks the bank was nonexistent.

Ellen’s father approached the teller’s window, withdrew the bell bank from his overcoat and requested its key.

The teller said, “You know, if we open that bank, we are to keep the money in it.”

Suddenly Ellen found herself and her bank in motion. Her father clinched the bank and with one quick fluid movement stashed it under his coat. In another moment, they were making a run to their car. So fast, so fleetingly it happened; yet that place, those actions, remained vivid. Ellen took a breath and touched her heart at its retelling.

They made the trip back to the farm in record time with her father vowing to open that “blankety-blank” bank. He took it to his machine shop, put it bottom up into a big vise, grabbed a sledge hammer and began beating with a vengeance. After numerous pounds, the locked bottom cracked and broke into pieces, its precious contents freed. Ellen was so proud when that same day they returned to Slater and went directly to the grocery store.

This story, now revised, first appeared in the Marshall Writers’ Guild booklet, “The Great Depression: Bittersweet Day 1929-1939” (2010). Ellen Holmes (1925-2016) was a prolific poet, and storyteller and a member of the Guild.