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Carmen Carter Remembers Turkey Farming

Carmen Carter Remembers Turkey Farming


By: Carmen Carter

Date: January 1, 1982

Source: Zaslow, Jeffrey. "Carmen Carter Remembers Turkey Farming." Michigan History Magazine. 66 (1982).

About the Author: Carmen Carter was a wife and mother during the Great Depression of the 1930s. She and her family survived by bartering, buying and selling, and making do with less.


The Great Depression of the 1930s marked the lowest point for the American economy. While an open market economy invariably expands and contracts over time, no recession before or after the Great Depression has approached the scale of this painful era in American life. From 1929 to 1932, the average American's income fell by forty percent, and families that had been contemplating a bright future were suddenly facing potential disaster. Banks failed, wiping out family savings, and unemployment soared to twenty-five percent, leaving many homes without an income. In an era before most government aid programs or bank insurance, many families found themselves facing the real possibility of starvation.

The causes of the Depression are fairly well understood, and most economists assume the massive crash resulted from a series of poorly timed events that converged to decimate the U.S. economy. The stage for the collapse was set in the 1920s, which brought a massive economic boom in the United States. The soaring stock market in particular was a source of fascination to Americans of all walks of life, who found that they could borrow money "on margin" to invest in stocks. In this way, a small investment could quickly multiply, and stock prices soon reached levels which defied any realistic assessment of what the underlying companies were worth.

With so many Americans borrowing to invest in the markets, the Federal Reserve foresaw a potential recession if stocks declined. To prevent this possibility the agency began raising interest rates in 1928, but in 1929 the stock market crashed, cutting the market value of American business by 10% in a single day. In response many firms and individuals cut back on spending plans, setting the stage for a rapid decline in the size and prosperity of the U.S. economy.

The following years brought more bad news, as more banks failed and the economy continued to contract. As prices plummeted, businesses continued to cut back, firing workers and shutting down production. Soon the decline entered a vicious cycle which would continue for much of the decade.


In 1929 Orlo and I had been married two years and had a year old son, Douglas. We were just nicely getting started in the turkey raising business on his parents' farm near Bridgeton. We had about a thousand young turkeys that spring and we bought feed on credit during the growing season and paid for it when we sold the turkeys at Thanksgiving time.

But that year was different. The newspapers were full of news about bank closing, businesses failing, and people out of work. There was just no money and we could not sell the turkeys. So we were in debt with no way out.

But when we read about the bread lines and soup kitchens in the cities, we felt we were lucky because we raised our own food. Our house was rent free, just keep it in repair. Our fuel, which was wood, was free for the cutting. Then our second child, Iris, was born and our biggest expense was doctor bills. However, this too was solved when our doctor agreed to take turkeys and garden produce for pay.

About that time my husband and a friend started operating a crate and box factory near Maple Island. After expenses they were each making about a dollar a day. Food was cheap. Coffee was 19 cents a pound, butter 20 cents, bacon the same, with a five pound bag of sugar or flour about 25 cents.

Gasoline was five gallons for a dollar so for recreation we would get into our 1926 Overland Whippet and go for long rides. We also had an Atwater Kent radio we could listen to when we could buy batteries for it.

I had always liked to write poetry so I decided to submit some to Grit, a weekly newspaper. I was delighted when they accepted them and paid me $2 each for them. That money bought a large bag of groceries at that time. I continued to write for Grit for several years.

Orlo finally got a job as a mechanic at a garage in Grant. He earned $15 a week and for us the Depression was over. But it taught us to really appreciate what we had.


Families in the Great Depression often found themselves pulling together to survive. Fathers took whatever work they could find, and businessmen frequently found themselves grateful for low-paying work as manual laborers. Mothers also took in odd jobs when they could, though with so little cash in the economy few people could afford to pay for anything. The children of the era grew up in a world of need, and many of them grew up to be habitual savers.

Family entertainment during the Depression typically consisted of whatever diversion could be found. The Depression coincided closely with the popularization of the radio; by 1935 two-thirds of American homes had a radio in the house, and many Depression-era families spent their evenings at home listening to free entertainment. Serials such as Little Orphan Annie and The Shadow brought listeners back week after week, and as the economic slump lingered President Roosevelt took to the airwaves, addressing the nation in a series of Fireside Chats that lasted through World War II.

Americans had little recovery time after the depression ended; World War II followed close on the heels of the downturn, simultaneously reviving the U.S. economy and throwing America into the bloodiest conflict in history. By the time the war ended the economy was booming and the United States had emerged as the world's most powerful nation.

In the years since the Depression, numerous safeguards have been created to prevent a repeat of the economic tumble of 1929. Banking regulations have been tightened, and bank deposits are now federally insured, protecting depositors in the event of bank failure. Stock purchases are also more tightly regulated, and buyers must invest a minimum of 50%, rather than borrowing up to 90% as they once could. The Federal Reserve also acts much more quickly now to guarantee liquidity in the money supply during crises, such as in the days following the 2001 terrorist attacks. The vastly increased size of the U.S. economy also helps provide economic stability, making another catastrophic depression far less likely.



Freedman, Russell. Children of the Great Depression. New York: Clarion Books, 2005.

Kyvig, David E. Daily Life in the United States, 1920–1940: How Americans Lived during the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression. Chicago: Ivan Dee Publisher, 2004.

McElvaine, Robert S. The Great Depression: America 1929–1941. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1993.


Gillett, Rachel. "Music of the Great Depression." Journal of Popular Culture 39 (2006): 501-503.

Kimball, Richard. "The March of Spare Time: The Problem and Promise of Leisure in the Great Depresion." Journal of American History 9 (2006): 268-269.

Web sites

Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum. "Gallery Six: The Great Depression." 〈〉 (accessed July 11, 2006).

Public Broadcasting Service. "The Great Depression." 〈〉 (accessed July 11, 2006).

University of Wisconsin. "Crashing Hopes: The Great Depression." 〈!view〉 July 11, 2006).

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