Hard times in Mecca, Ind.: Depression-era family stories 

Everyone owns a piece of history in family stories. My story is not that different than many folks'. But I treasure it still, when I think about hard times, hanging in there and riding out a life spent check to check.

In many ways, the working poor are more isolated now than in past economic depressions, because there aren't, in too many cases, the tough, multigenerational family bonds that helped balm wounds in the 1930s.

Six or seven years ago, I wrote a column about my grandmonther. A portion of it is reprinted here as a tribute to her as we enter the holiday season and her 91st Christmas on this ever-changing planet of ours.

My grandmother, Harriet Irene Bradburn Burton Alexander, was born on June 5, 1919, and got married to Fred Burton, my grandfather, in 1935.

He was 15 years older than his 16-year-old bride. My mother, Sue Etta Hammer, was born on June 26, 1936, in the beautiful town of Mecca, Ind., located outside of Rockville on the far western edge of the state.

The young family lived in the home of Grandma McCool, Fred's grandmother. The home, not much more than a shack, really, sat about 500 yards away from a large, very steep hill. Their only source of water was a pump that sat at the top of that hill.

Every time they needed water, it was a long trudge up the hill to fill up two buckets and bring them back down. Water for washing. Water for dishes. Water for cooking. Water for baths.

The stove burned wood and coal, but there was a free source of coal at a nearby location. Fred and one of his friends would go scrape some off the side of a stripped piece of land and beat the system that way.

Store-bought coal was just too expensive.

Fred had just finished up doing some work for the WPA and CCC when he met Irene and married her and moved in with Grandma McCool. When Sue was born, Grandma McCool would watch her while Irene went up the hill for water, three or four times a day.

It was a long, difficult climb even in good weather. When it snowed, it was almost an impossible task.

Grandma McCool passed away from rheumatism when Sue was 3 or 4. After that, Sue would have to accompany her mother on the many trips up the hill. There was a poker den in town, the "card house," and Fred liked to go there and play cards for money.

Unfortunately for Irene, Fred would almost never bring a bucket of water back with him when he returned from the card house. He'd always "forget" to take an empty bucket with him.

Electricity came to Mecca around the time Sue was born, but it took forever for the electric company to build a pole and run a line down the hill. So the 20th century didn't come to rural Indiana until the late 1930s, and then only because Franklin Roosevelt ordered it.

And once they got electricity at Grandma McCool's house, it was just lights. No electric stove and especially no electric water pump.

"We had a well but there wasn't any water in it," my grandmother says.

When Sue was 5 or 6, Fred landed a job with the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and the family moved to Indianapolis. It was wartime and jobs were available again. "We had it made after that," my grandmother says.

The family never went hungry, she says, but there sure wasn't any room for any luxuries.

"You didn't have a pot to piss in," I told my grandmother.

"We didn't even have a window to throw it out of," she said.

We laughed. I love my grandmother so much.


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