Howard Rees - effect of the 1929 Crash on Frostburg
Howard Rees: I guess one of the most impressive events of my life came the day the banks closed. And I can still remember standing out in front of our house as word got around town that the banks had closed. And everything the people had was wiped out. The coal miners, many of them had worked for one dollar a day, everything was gone.
But they didn't believe it, that it was true, so they all got dressed up in their Sunday best and all walked top-town to see the notice outside the bank, "This bank is closed." And they knew then that they were wiped out. And I can see those people coming down Main Street with their heads bowed, knowing that after all those years, there was nothing in their savings account.
My Uncle Tom, he came up, he didn't come in the house as he usually did. When he came in the house, he'd usually start singing "Land of My Fathers" in Welsh and my mother would be in the kitchen, she'd straighten her apron and put her hands to her hair to make sure it was right, and then she'd go to meet him and then she would join in the verse that he was starting as they walked into the hall. 'Cause we had a long hallway from the kitchen to the front door and then they would be singing together, of course, with tears streaming down their faces as they were singing "Land of My Fathers" in Welsh.
But I say again, ordinarily my Uncle Tom would have stopped in the house before he went to top-town, but he was on the way to the bank and he heard that he was wiped out, too. And he was a man in his late 60's. So I hated to see him walk back because I knew it was true. I-I-I just hated to see him in this state of mind, knowing that everything he had worked for was gone. So I didn't go to the door to meet him. Ordinarily, if I knew he was around I would go to the door because I loved him so much.
Suddenly, I heard this voice, and he was singing "Land of My Fathers" at the front door, and my mother, of course, was in the kitchen. She was going on ...she was down, too, because she knew everybody in town was wiped out who had any money in the bank. And she joined in and her tears were coming, and his tears were coming, and he called out, "Lizzy bach, Lizzy bach," Little Lizzy in Welsh, and "Oh," she said, "Tom," not Tom, "Tom, I am so sorry everything is gone."
"Oh, Lizzy, don't talk like that. No, indeed, I paid my taxes over a month ago and I owe nothing. I'm a very fortunate man. Everything is going to be alright. Now don't have those tears." So he broke into another song. And that was all. Everything gone. But that man was not dismayed or depressed or cursing his luck but just grateful he'd paid his taxes and he owed nothing.
Now, he was fortunate because he still had some houses so he wasn't, but all his money was gone. But I've thought many times whenever things were pretty blue for me, when my cash flow was pretty low and I was wondering how in the world I'm going to pay that tuition, how in the world I'm going to eat 'cause I remember not eating for three days one time. I thought of Uncle Tom. And I thought if it didn't bother him, it's not going to bother me. And I refused to surrender my spirits just because things weren't going right. So long after he was dead, I was still living on the values that he gave to me. And that was the basis of the man's faith. That was his life.
ERG: Did the mines close with the Crash of 1929?
HR: Oh, everything closed.
ERG: There was nothing going on?
HR: There was nothing.
ERG: How did people get by in Frostburg?
HR: Honey, you know I've asked myself that question 5,000 times, how in the world. Well, of course, people had gardens and people shared. People shared. I know in my father's books, there were about $50,000 in bills that were owed to him. People couldn't pay.
ERG: That's a lot of money by the old standard.
HR: That's a lot of money. Or people who in normal times, when there was no work there in the mines, what did they do? I've asked my — I've thought of —I've laid awake here at night thinking about widows or single women — what in the world, where did they eat?
I knew, for instance, we knew there were many people who never saw butter. They used lard. They would take that white stuff, put it on their bread, and that's what they had. I had a cousin there that ate tomatoes all summer long, with a few potatoes. Never had meat. But if that garden failed, there goes your social security. That's what they lived off of. And cabbage—oh, cabbage was just so plentiful. It kept families alive.
And oh, Elizabeth, I've thought of the people who came to our door there, my mother fixing free sandwiches for people. 'Cause even though my father was--everything was gone in terms of the bank account, we still had a business we could keep going. Although quite limited, we could build back up. We had something to work on.
Howard Rees and Elizabeth Rees Gilbert
Elizabeth Rees Gilbert
The photograph of the Consolidation Coal office in Frostburg. It is from the collection in the George's Creek Library.
Garrett College, McHenry.
Coal miners--Maryland--History; Coal miners--West Virginia--History; Garrett County (Md.)--History; Allegany County (Md.)--History.
Western Maryland, 1930-1980