My mother wrote the following story about my grandmother, Lizzie Jim Sanders. It was published in the local paper of Hickman County, TN. Little Lot (in Hickman County) is the name of the town where my grandmother grew up. It's about 40 miles south of Nashville, in a very rural part of Tennessee.
From Little Lot to the Great Depression
Lizzie Jim Sanders graduated from Little Lot School in 1922, and with her diploma in hand, headed for Nashville. She took her extra homemade dress in a sack, along with a little “egg money” from her mother. Her cousin, Dewey Keys, had gone to Nashville a year or two before her. He came back to marry Rose Fitts, and they had a home in Nashville where Lizzie could stay. Rose even had a job lined up for her.
First, Lizzie changed her name to Elizabeth. It sounded more like a “city” name. Then she went with Rose to Federal Can Company, where she got a job running a machine that made cans for Maxwell House coffee and King Leo Peppermint candy. The owners treated the employees well, and the workers were friendly. Elizabeth felt at home in her new job. And it paid “by the piece”, so the faster she worked, the more money she made.
She lived just a short walk across the bridge over the Cumberland River from downtown Nashville. There were more stores than she had ever seen. Soon she was
spending most of her paycheck in those stores. She had never had a “store bought” dress. Now she had a closet full of them. She bought coats with fur collars, shoes with silver buckles on them, and every Saturday she had her blonde hair shampooed and set with curls and waves.
Elizabeth met Robert Farmer, who also worked at the factory. They were married in 1926. They rented a room from Dewey and Rose, who had turned their home into a rooming house. Soon, they moved into a rented house of their own.
Work at the factory began to slow down. To keep from laying off anyone, the owners cut everyone’s hours. Some weeks they would work three days, some they would work two days, and then sometimes there would not be enough work for even one day for everyone.
The owners began to serve a lunch of white beans and cornbread to the workers every day. It saved the workers a few precious cents. Some people could not get by on the smaller salary, and lost their houses or apartments. Often they came to stay with Elizabeth and Robert until they could find a way to get back to their hometown. One by one their friends had to leave Nashville and go back home. There were just not enough jobs available.
Hickman County was close enough that Elizabeth and Robert could make a trip back there on the weekend and bring back food. In the summer, there were vegetables from the large garden, fruit from the fruit trees and eggs aplenty from the many hens. In the winter there were canned berries and fruit, and smoked meat from the hogs they killed. And they ate plenty of catfish from the Duck River, and fried chicken, rabbit and squirrel.
Their friends begged to go “home” with them, and thought the large farm on Duck River where Mr. Sanders worked was like paradise. They could catch fish in the river, hunt rabbits and squirrels, and eat food prepared by Elizabeth’s mother. It was difficult to get in the car and go back to the real world where work was harder and harder to get, and bills stacked up, and broken things did not get fixed because of lack of money.
Difficult times make people do desperate things. A number of people found a way out by jumping off one of the bridges in Nashville that crossed the Cumberland River. One day, as Elizabeth walked across the bridge closest to where they lived, a man came running past her and leaped over the rail into the river to his death.
Daily, people knocked on the kitchen door, asking for a sandwich to eat, and offering to do a little work for it. The summer heat was oppressive, and many people took their blankets and slept in the parks.
Eventually, the factory could not meet expenses. The owners sold it to a larger company, and as the hard times began to end, the new owners announced that they were moving to Memphis, and anyone who wanted to transfer would have a job waiting in Memphis.
In 1933, Elizabeth and Robert and most of the workers who were still employed packed up their belongings and headed for Memphis. Once again, Elizabeth had a relative there who let them spend one night – but only one – and helped them find a room to rent.
With the larger company, and better times, work picked up. Hard times teach hard lessons. There were no more coats with fur collars. There were no fancy shoes with silver buckles. And dresses went back to being well made, but home made. Remembering how it was with no money, Elizabeth and Robert made sure to save a small portion of each paycheck.
They never used the word “Depression”. They were too busy living it to give it a name. They were fortunate that they were not in debt, and they had Hickman County to feed them. Even today, at 103 years, Elizabeth is very careful with every penny she has, with one exception. She decided many years ago that the beauty shop is definitely a necessity, not a luxury.