I knew my Grandma Hazel Mickelsen Ganus well. She died in 1987, the day before our third child was born. I was fortunate enough to know her during my childhood, throughout my teen years and into my adult life. Even though we lived several states away, every summer we made the trek across the country to visit our family in Colorado. We had family dinners at her house and I often spent the night there. Although she did not like to travel, I remember several visits that she made to our home.
I say I knew her well, but in reading her life history I realize that although our lives overlapped, there was so much that I didn’t know about her at the time. Thankfully she did record some of her experiences in a life history and from that I have a few glimpses into her world, but oh how I wish that I had heard the stories straight from mouth.
I’ve heard people talk about the Great Depression and what it was like but I think for those of us who have lived in a world with so many comforts, it is hard to imagine how bad things really were for so many. My grandparent’s life was deeply impacted by those hard years. While many of my grandparent’s siblings remained in Colorado and Oklahoma and continued to farm during the difficult Depression Era, Grandpa Heber Monroe Ganus and Grandma Hazel bundled up their kids and followed Heiselt Construction on various projects throughout Utah and California.
One of the projects took Grandma and Grandpa Ganus to Northern California where Grandpa worked to help clear forest land for a railroad track that would run from Keddy, California to Klamath Falls, Oregon. During that time they lived in a small camp a short distance from Lake Almanor. There, Grandpa gratefully worked when so many were without work. In her history, Grandma shared some of her observation of things they saw during those years.
Speaking of their time there in the camp near Almanor Lake, she said:
“This was during the depression and so many people were out of work, we could see men walking along the highway with packs on their backs, any time of the day looking for work. Mr. Heiselt was very good to feed them that came asking for food.
“Some of the men got to coming to our house asking for food. I always gave them something to eat. We felt sorry for them. These people were called bindelstiffs.
“The railroads allowed people to ride free. Many days we would see big long freight trains go by with people riding all over them, some on the flat cars, some on box cars, some in gondolas, and one time we even saw a woman with a baby riding on top of a boxcar.
“One night three men came to our place asking for something to eat. I gave them some potatoes, a can of corn, bread and some coffee. They seemed real glad to get them. But they went just a little way from the house, where there was a place someone else had fixed to cook on. They built a fire and cooked their supper, then laid down in their sleeping bags around the fire to sleep.
“I was so nervous and frightened I didn’t sleep any all night. In fact, I sat by a window where I could see what was going on. Heber wanted me to go to bed, saying they wouldn’t harm us, but I just couldn’t. Goodness knows I don’t know how we could have protected ourselves from them if they had, for we didn’t even have any kind of a gun or even a dog. I was so glad when morning came and they were gone. The ground was covered with snow, too.
“The majority of this kind of people were good, just out of work and looking for a job of some kind. There were eight or ten companies working on this job, and they probably hit all of them for work.”
The thought of large groups of people riding on top of trains and men walking along the road looking for work is heartbreaking. Grandma indicated that they called the people bindlestiffs, a word I had never heard before, so I looked it up and learned that according to Merriam-Webster, bindlestiff refers to a “hobo: especially one who carries his clothes or bedding in a bundle.”
It was not an easy time to support a family, nor was Grandpa’s work easy to do, but for a time, he had work when many were unemployed. At first, Grandpa was paid and they had hope things would work out. But in the end, Heiselt began to have financial trouble, workers went unpaid and word spread that Heiselt’s machinery was heavily mortgaged and that the company was in serious financial trouble. Sadly my grandparents realized that they would never see the $2,000 owed to them, so they packed up their kids and what little they had and returned to Colorado.
Copyright © Michelle G. Taggart 2016, All rights reserved