[Transcript of interview with Doris Witt, recorded as part of the Springfield-Greene County Library District's 2010 Big Read. For more information contact the Library at 417-883-5366 or visit us on the web.]

Recorded as part of the Springfield-Greene County Library District's 2010 Big Read. The name of our presenter today is Doris Witt, and Mrs. Witt, tell us about your impressions of the Depression era.

April 18th, 1937 my brother's third birthday, four months and two days after my ninth, Daddy lay on a studio couch in the living room. I had never seen him lay down in the daytime. Something was wrong. Ordinarily he was in constant motion except at the picture show or sitting, one leg hung over the big upholstered arm of an easy chair that matched our davenport, perusing his motor boating magazines or traveling with maps while listening to some classical music on the Philco table radio at his side. Mother said he didn't feel well. That Sunday I had no idea he was utterly exhausted.

He worked for his brother, and his brother-in-law who had wanted him to buy into their business where he managed the office and bore responsibility for operation of the mill where men manufactured custom sash and doors, supervised by the foreman, a more distant in-law. When any of the big machines broke down Daddy, an accomplished mechanic, went back Saturday or Sunday afternoon to repair it. Instead of investing in their thriving business, Daddy started his own sideline he called Empire Tool and Supply Company in 1936, the height of the Great Depression. We didn't think it was so great at the time. At first he warehoused a large selection of Red Devil hand tools, small sander belts, spools of electrical wire, sockets, switches, boxes of nails, screws, bolts, and other goods neatly on shelves he built in our basement. He worked the customary five and a half days at the sash and door house making his own sales calls and deliveries before work, and during his lunch hour when he bolted a milk shake for sustenance.

It was hard to think of Daddy bolting anything. At table he ate slowly and methodically using his plate for only meat and potatoes with side dishes for vegetables and salad, a bread and butter plate on which he substituted jelly because he disliked butter. After office hours, the office closed, Daddy loaded his car with next day's deliveries. Arriving home he doffed his suit coat but not the vest, which he wore all evening at home. Despite Daddy's heavy workload we maintained a normal social life. He donned the suit coat again even if we formally walked downtown turning back at Jefferson without reaching the square. My brother and I loved to run atop the many retaining walls on Walnut Street. When dessert was not served at home we walked on Elm Street, stopping at Stewart's ice cream parlor on Jefferson where Elm ended to choose a homemade cake cone filled with one of their delectable flavors of ice cream.

Other evenings our parents went out to play cards with friends or to see a picture show. Before they left Daddy always shaved his heavy black beard concealing the remaining dark color with powder just as he did every morning. Because I was always in bed asleep, I never heard Daddy hunt and peck with two fingers typing invoices for next day's deliveries or orders to replenish his inventory. He did that and his book work until midnight or later, and was delivering goods by seven the next morning. It all caught up with him that Sunday. The doctor came Monday and Daddy didn't go to work that day or the next four.

We lived in one of five Cape Cod style houses on a section of McCann Avenue that dead ended at a defunct orchard a block south of Harrison Street, then paved with a mixture of sort of smooth river rock and flint shards, hazardous to automobile tires susceptible to puncture. I walked the two and a half blocks through the orchard to Madison Street and across to the boulevard where the northeast corner of State Teachers College campus met the intersection. I attended Greenwood in a building now called Hill Hall on that 38 acre nucleus of Missouri State University's present sprawling campus. The two-lane boulevard was named National because after crossing the city limits as Sunshine Street it turned east then south to the gates of National Cemetery.

I returned home for lunch often riding part way with a friend whose mother picked us up on the boulevard in their big black 1920's Buick. We exited the east door of our building took a walk to the street and scrambled up onto the high running board, unlike that of our sleek 1936 Oldsmobile, and on up into the roomy backseat. No street barrier prevented a turn east on Belmont then another north on Kickapoo to drop me at Monroe where I could cut through the neighbors' yards to my house. So it was that I arrived home on Friday to find Mother not in the kitchen, and my brother nowhere in sight.

I supposed they'd been detained on a last minute errand and would arrive momentarily, but ran up the stairs and through the hall to my parent's bedroom to ask Daddy. I was stunned by the sight of the unmade bed, covers thrown back and Daddy gone. I knew he was too sick to go anywhere alone. Had he died? Surely not my beloved daddy who set up a card table for me by his basement workbench and taught me to use small-scale real tools to work at his side.

I dashed downstairs and outdoors to ask the neighbor who was usually home. Her husband, a retired farmer, gardened the three vacant lots north of their house selling fresh produce in the neighborhood. When I helped or kept him company he rewarded me with a dinner mess of whatever vegetable he was harvesting. She invited me to sample freshly baked cookies, hot from the oven at tea, only I had milk or lemonade. She would know what had happened. We met in the street because she had seen me arrive, hastened to relieve my mind.

Daddy had been taken to the hospital with pneumonia, she said, and my aunt, daddy's sister-in-law, was to pick me up at school. As we stood in the street my aunt drove up anxious over having missed me. Naturally she had parked in the front U drive watching for me to come through the front doors never dreaming I would exit elsewhere. On the way to their house she told me my brother was staying with a family that usually babysat with us. She gave me lunch and said I'd be staying with her and my uncle while Daddy was hospitalized so I would return there after school.

Their large half-timbered Tudor English style house on Delmar Street just east of a small grove of trees at the northeast corner with the boulevard was closer to school than ours. The grove has since been displaced by a playground south of University Heights Baptist Church and their lovely home razed by the church. Accustomed to sleeping alone in my own room I felt lost in their big guest room where I stayed three weeks. My cousin in high school was too old to share her room with a 5th grader and the two boys occupied another of the four bedrooms.

The doctor could not predict from one hour to the next whether Daddy would survive. All Daddy remembered of his harrowing two-week bout with pneumonia was hands unzipping his oxygen tent to feed and care for him. Mother remained at the hospital until Daddy's dismissal while my brother and I stayed where we were another week allowing Mother to develop a routine of care for Daddy before resuming ours. All that summer Daddy sat quietly in the big Adirondack chair he had built for himself along with matching ones for Mother and us children, baking in the sun to release congestion in his chest. He was too weak to do otherwise. We couldn't even take our usual long distance vacation trip and I didn't get to enjoy a week at Camp Shaweah with my Camp Fire friends. Part of Daddy's treatment had been taping his torso from armpits to waist. He said removing it was extremely painful. Had he been allergic to adhesive as Mother was, removal would have taken his skin too.

By the time he fell ill, Daddy had rented a warehouse on Phelps Street and given two jobless men work receiving shipments, stocking shelves, and waiting on customers while he was at the office. He had heard nothing from them since his illness and grew restless, wanting to check up. When he did he found an empty warehouse. The men he had helped sold him out to the bare walls, pocketed the money, and vanished without even locking the door behind them. He was devastated. He owed his suppliers for the missing merchandise and had only his salary from the sash and door house to support us and pay those unaccustomed debts.

When he advised his suppliers of the dilemma they considered his past prompt payments that earned discounts, agreed to continue supplying him accepting his good faith promise to repay gradually debt incurred by the theft while maintaining current payment for new purchases. Thank goodness he worked for relatives who continued to pay him during his recovery when all he could do from home was consult by telephone and approve papers carried to him from the office. People in business then were much more accommodating than they are now.

Milk producers struck late that summer discontinuing both home and store delivery. Although he needed milk more than my brother and I did, Daddy determined that we should have it. Barely strong enough to sit in the car he drove us all to the dairy, crossed the picket line and stopped at the loading dock. He politely told a dairyman he needed milk for his family and wanted to buy some. When the man refused, Daddy asked again more forcefully. His request denied once more, my mild mannered father said "I don't want to fight you for it but I will", a statement that shocked and frightened me. By then Daddy was trembling with fatigue. I guess the man realized how desperately Daddy needed help because he relented and we got our milk.

Mrs. Witt what a wonderful story. Thank you so much for being with us.

Yes,yes. I guess that one part kind of got me.

I know.

[Transcript of interview with Doris Witt, recorded as part of the Springfield-Greene County Library District's 2010 Big Read. For more information contact the Library at 417-883-5366 or visit us on the web.]