Richard Bostwick Reminiscences
Cab Driving Stories
Welfare Office Stories
W.P.A. workcrew clearing brush from the banks of the Red River Fargo, N.D., ca 1925 (2065.35.1)
Along with my other duties in the office, I was put in charge of recruiting and signing these boys up for camp for our county. After enrolling our quota of boys, it was up to the county to transport them to the induction center, which was the armory in a town 200 miles distant from our town. I was making preparations in getting all of the necessary papers in order when I was notified that the county's budget did not include enough money for transportation. With the consent of the county commissioners, I contacted the local Ford dealer and asked him if he would donate me the use of a large van that I might use to haul the boys to the induction center. When I suggested that he place a sign on each side of the truck reading, “This vehicle being donated by the ______ Motor Co. for the transporting of our boys to C.C.C. camp,” he readily agreed.
Now this being early spring, it was still quite cold out, so I next contacted one of the local furniture moving companies, talked the manager into loaning me a couple dozen of those large, quilted furniture pads. I figured the boys could roll up in them to keep warm on the 200-mile trip.
I had the boys gather at the relief office at 5:00 a.m. It was cold and still dark out. I loaded them all into the van, and after rolling up in the furniture pads, they were soon asleep. We arrived at the induction center before noon, and I was anxious to get my boys examined and accepted prior to mealtime. You see, as soon as they were accepted by the Army, they were then the responsibility of the Army, and it was up to the Army to feed them. The county had been able to supply me with only enough money for the necessary gasoline and my dinner.
All of my boys passed their examination and were accepted except two. This meant it would be up to me to supply them with their noon meal, which I would have to pay out of my allotted gasoline fund. This being the induction center for the entire state, each county representative had arrived with his county's quota of inductees, the combined total of which consisted of 200 boys.
An amusing incident took place as the boys were being given their examinations. The examination took place in the city armory. This consisted of the usual Army exam-all of the boys being lined up in several rows dressed only in their birthday suits, while the Army doctor looked them over. The entrance to the examining room was crowded by reporters, friends, and the curious. A local nosey female reporter elbowed her way in through the crowd to see what was going on. She took one look and quickly fled amidst all the laughter.
After the induction proceedings were over, I gassed up the van with what money I had left, hoping it would be enough gas to get us home. The two boys and my self were soon on our way. As luck would have it, we ran out of gas about 10 miles from home. After walking a couple of miles down the road, I came to a roadside gas station run by a little old grizzly man. I asked him if the county'' credit was good for a few gallons of gasoline. His reply was, “Not by a damn sight, I wouldn't give this county the time of day.” He then went on to tell me of the unsatisfactory treatment he had received at the hands of the county's welfare department a couple of years ago.
Having spent all of the money I had received for expenses, I was forced to spend what little change of my own that I had, which amounted to .67 for the needed gasoline. We finally got home, and I figured I had saved the county close to $150.00 in transportation. The next day I returned the truck and furniture pads to their owners and then went up to the office and made out a claim for my .67 and filed it with the county treasurer. The following week, I received a receipt in the mail showing that the county treasurer had applied the .67 on my unpaid personal property tax.
With times being as hard as they were, it was only natural that there would be an increase in crime. A good friend of mine, a fellow I had worked with and considered to be as honest as anyone I had ever known, became despondent. His despondency turned to desperation. One evening he went to a neighboring town and robbed a filling station. He was not apprehended. This venture was so successful, he tried it again. Again was once too many. He was caught and sentenced to a term in prison.
I was in a new supermarket one day-the first to be opened in our town-when four men came in. They each produced a gunnysack from beneath their coats and proceeded to fill them with groceries. The manager stood by wringing his hands and begging them not to break any of the furnishings. When they had filled their sacks, they hoisted them to their shoulders and walked out unmolested.
This was truly an act of desperation. Up until the advent of supermarkets, most all neighborhood grocery stores maintained charge accounts for their selected customers, and most all such stores also supplied delivery service. This allowed a customer to phone in their order and have it delivered to them.
Early one Saturday evening, a delivery truck for one of the stores that supplied this type of service left on its regular route. It was loaded with 45 or 50 grocery orders, each consisting of a family's weekly supply of groceries. At his first stop, the driver having delivered his first order, returned to the street to discover that someone had made off with his truck and its contents. The empty truck was found the next day at the edge of town.
Later on during the depression, I was transferred to supervise the state surplus commodity warehouse. My duties consisted of keeping accounts of all incoming and outgoing of commodities. With the help of two clerks, I also dispensed commodities to local clients who presented requisitions issued to them by the relief office. I remember one little, old, innocent looking lady who had raised her butter order from one pound to seven pounds, but failed to raise the number of dependents as shown on it, that would have qualified her for the greater amount. You see, every few months a federal agent would call on our office to check on any irregularities that might have occurred. In checking out the little old lady with the raised butter order, it was revealed that she a long criminal record and had spent nearly half of her life in prison on confidence and forgery charges. This did not disqualify her from receiving further assistance nor was there any penalty imposed upon her except to restrict her to one pound of butter.
Trucks from other counties would call at the warehouse each month to pick up their allotted quotas of oranges, potatoes, or anything else we might have on hand. These other counties would always send along sufficient help to load out their trucks.
Whenever we received carloads of commodities by rail, it would be up to our county to supply the transportation and manpower to truck them to our warehouse and deposit them either in bins or on shelves. In order to handle such a job, it would be necessary for me to call the relief office and they in turn would call a dozen or so relief clients and have them report to me for work. There would always be this same big, red haired fellow amongst those reporting to me. His name was Fred Mac_____. He was such a good worker, and due to his size and dependability, I always put him in charge as foreman of the crew, which gained him a few extras from the relief office.
He asked me if I would please call him for whenever I needed extra help, for he had a large family and needed all the extras he could get. Big Mac, as he became known, became almost a steady employee and acted as foreman on all of my unloading crews all that winter and on into the spring. The weather was improving and the snow was fast disappearing when one day Big Mac came to me and thanked me for having given him all of the work I had during the past months, but he was now taking himself off of the relief rolls, saying he had obtained private employment. I wished him well in his new endeavor and that was the last I ever saw of Big Mac.
The following summer, the Federal Government introduced another of President Roosevelt's new agencies-the W.P.A. (Works Progress Administration). Everyone who was on welfare and was able to work, including myself, was transferred to one of the many projects sponsored by this new agency. There were projects for the women, such as sewing rooms where they made dresses, quilts, and many other needlework objects for those who could not work. The men were assigned to the constructing of small bridges, park facilities, and many other worthwhile projects. Some of these can still be found today bearing the W.P.A. initials and the 1930 or 1931 date.
Mrs. Nelson was one of the caseworkers in the relief office. She was quite a large woman, a little post middle aged. She was a very aggressive and domineering person. I'll tell you of my encounter with her. It was during my tenure as supervisor of the states surplus commodity warehouse. This warehouse was a one-story masonry building that had originally been a public garage. It was ideal for our use as it had a large double garage door in the front. The trucks either receiving or delivering commodities would come through there. This building was usually pretty well filled with all kinds of goods, all the way from oranges to potatoes to apples.
Getting back to my encounter with Mrs. Nelson, she came into my office one day and asked me if she could store her car in our building each night as she lived nearby and it would save her storage charges. I told her she would have to get permission from Tom Hendricks as he was my boss and also in charge of the commodity program.
This she did, and the next day Tom called me and asked me if there was enough room for Mrs. N's car. I said at the present time there was. He then said as long as there was room in the building it was okay with him. I was not too much in favor of the arrangement for each morning after she left with her car there would be a big puddle of melted ice and snow that would have to be swept and cleaned up.
During this same time the relief department had leased a different mattress factory that had not been in operation for several years. The department resurrected a past employee who understood the restoring of old mattresses, and put him in charge of supervising and instructing a crew selected from the relief rolls to operate the plant. Any relief client could bring their old bumpy cotton mattress to this plant where it would be ripped open, it's innards would be corded, sterilized, and made into a real good mattress. The stripped ticking cover made them look as good as new.
Those new mattresses were to be stored and issued from our warehouse by voucher from the relief office. One cold afternoon the mattress factory called and informed me they were sending over 100of the finished products for me to store. I had just previously received a large shipment of sacks of potatoes and the only available room for these mattresses was in the forward part of our building where Mrs. Nelson stored her car.
Late that afternoon Mrs. Nelson drove up and blew her horn for the door to be raised. I went out and told her there wasn't any room for her car. She got out of her car and came in to see for herself. She then insisted I stack these mattresses clear to the roof so as to make room for the storage of her car. I forget just what the regulations were in regards to the stacking of these mattresses, but I believe it stipulated they were not to be stacked more than 15 or 20 high. This was to prevent the crushing of the ones on the bottom. Well, I refused to do as she insisted and after she accused me of deliberately filling up her parking place she drove off.
The next day Tom called me and said Mrs. Nelson had complained to him about me refusing to allow her to store her car in the warehouse. I told him there honestly hadn't been any room, he then told me to never mind her complaint as the warehouse was for the storage of surplus commodities and from now on no one was to use the building for any other purposes. Well from that day on Mrs. Nelson and I were not exactly friends.
Among the many families that Mrs. Nelson supervised was a couple that was past middle aged. He was a butcher by trade and the wife was a very good seamstress, so the husband was put in charge of the meat-canning project and the wife was assigned to the sewing room. Now Mrs. Nelson and this butcher did not get along at all. She being so domineering and he being inclined to be somewhat of a ‘good time Charlie.' Mrs. Nelson was forever giving him a bad time. One day the butcher's wife came home and mentioned to her husband that Mrs. Nelson had come up to the sewing room early that forenoon and taken her to her apartment and had her do a thorough housecleaning. The butcher's wife continued to do Mrs. Nelson's housework about every two or three day a week. During this time, the butcher's wife was being paid full time with federal W.P.A. funds.
It was not long until Mrs. Nelson got after the butcher's wife for some little infraction of the welfare rules and the butcher really told Mrs. Nelson off. He threatened to turn her in for utilizing the services of a federally paid employee for her own personal use. He never did turn her in, but Mrs. Nelson no longer had the wife do her housework. And, the butcher was never again reprimanded for any of his little escapades.
The same summer that the W.P.A. was created, the government started a survey to obtain information regarding the income and expenditures of all farm families in the United States. To obtain this information, a spot check was to be taken of 11 different counties throughout the nation. Our county was one of the 11 chosen. I was assigned to this project and put in charge of a 4-man crew to canvass our county for the required information. We traveled by auto from one end of the county to the other. I would drop off one of our crew at the first farm we came to and then drop another member off at the next farm, and so on down the road until each of us had a farmer to interview.
The interview usually took from one to two hours, sometimes longer. They consisted of filling out a lengthy schedule of several pages. It was rather complex. You had to list each and every item of income, such as the value placed on the eggs from the barnyard flock of chickens, to the value of the produce from the family garden, as well as the major field crops. You had to itemize all expenditures spent for seed, clothing, food, fuel, and machinery-everything. Some farmers were able to give you accurate account of these amounts due to good bookkeeping systems. They could even give you their increase in assets, such as value of newborn livestock. With other farmers, it was mostly a question of guesswork by the farmer. Most all farmers were very cooperative, and you were sometimes invited to partake of some very delicious home cooked meals.
Although this project was being financed by W.P.A. funds, we were all given identification cards signifying we were agents of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. I guess this was so we could get a little more readily acceptance by the farmers. One day I happened to call on a farmer up in the northwestern part of the county. I rapped on the door, and it was opened by a large, red haired man about 50 years old who looked rather familiar. I presented my I.D. card, we shook hands and he invited me in. When he told me his name, I knew who he reminded me of. I waited until the interview was over and my official business was completed. I then asked him if he had any relation in my town by the name of Fred Mac. He hesitated and then rather reluctantly admitted that Fred Mac was his brother. His reference to him was not very complimentary. With a little prompting, he finally went on to tell me that his brother had lived off of the county welfare all this past winter. During this time he had received his and his family's entire needs, consisting of their food, fuel, rent, clothing, and even their medical care-the whole works.
During the same period, Fred Mac had been employed by the local public utility company as a night fireman in their powerhouse at a salary of $110.00 a month. This was quite a bit above the average amount being paid during those times. No wonder he was always available during the daytime. Some caseworker surely failed in her investigating duties to have allowed such a hoax to have happened. One of the most discouraging things about helping someone in need is to find out they have lied to you and have used you.
One of the most gratifying things is to know that the help you have given a person was really needed and appreciated. But I suppose one should feel like Franklin D Roosevelt when he said in one of his “Fireside Chats,” “I have been criticized because it is said that 10% of those receiving assistance are frauds and chiselers and not in need of being helped. To this, I can only say I am very glad that 90% of those receiving help really need it.”
When I got back to town, I did not report the information I had received about Big Mac. I figured it was done and over with and there was no use in stirring up trouble. Shortly afterwards, I obtained private employment and rid myself of W.P.A. and all of the other assistance programs. Believe me, though, those programs were lifesavers to me and many thousands of others long, long ago.
My private employment was “pushing hack” (driving taxicab), but that's another story. Someday, maybe, I'll tell you all about that, too.
During the 30's, as though the depression was not enough, our part of the country was suffering from a severe drought. The fields and grasslands were all scorched, and there was a severe shortage of pasturage, which caused the starving of hundreds of heads of cattle. To relieve this situation, the government sent cattle buyers into the rural areas to buy up their cattle and ship most of them to more virulent areas. Some were given to various counties to supply their meat canning projects. Those cattle that were emancipated were to be shipped or processed into canned meat were shot and buried on the owner's farm. The owner would be paid for the cattle, even the ones that were destroyed. You know, just as there had always been dishonest people, there were some in those days, too. Every once in awhile you would hear of some government cattle buyer being arrested for buying non-existing cattle and pocketing the money for his own.