In February 2013 the Garfield County Libraries will be hosting the Big Read Program featuring John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath in which Steinbeck describes the hard times of the 1920s and '30s.
As part of the program, the Immigrant Stories Project and the Post Independent are partnering with the libraries to collect local stories of that time. Maryhannah Hansen Throm's story is a product of that effort. To learn more about Phrom and other storytellers, visit www.gcpld.org.
Maryhannah Hansen Throm: My mother's family came from England on the Mayflower, or about that time. They settled in New York State. My mom's parents came out here for my grandmother's health. They thought she might have TB. Grandpa came first and Grandma followed and when they got settled they sent for my mother and her sister. My mother was 12 at the time.
My dad's family came from Norway into Wisconsin. Granddad came out from Wisconsin when he was 16 and worked in the mines at Cripple Creek. He made enough to homestead on Divide Creek in 1905 and build a nice house. My dad was 10.
I was born on my parents' ranch in January of 1927. The doctor came out from town and went rabbit hunting while my mother got around to the final hours.
Gallacher: Was life in western Colorado difficult for your folks at that time?
Throm: By today's standards you would have to say it was. They didn't have much and they worked very hard.
My mom and dad got married in 1919. Mom was 19 and Dad was 24. In 1926, they bought 160 acres two miles up the road from my grandparents. Our house wasn't in very good shape. Mom said when she mopped the floors in the winter the water would freeze. There wasn't a complete window in the house.
She had three little boys when they moved in. They were 2, 4 and 6. I came along a year later. Eventually there were five of us kids and mom and dad living in that house with an outside john.
One of the things I remember about those winters is that I was always cold. When we got up in the morning the water was frozen in the teakettle on the stove. It was a tough life. We worked hard, but we always had food because the folks raised their own. We always had a big garden and mom and I canned lots of stuff.
Dad raised cattle and summered them in the mountains nearby. There wasn't any money but you didn't need as much either. Everybody worked. I went to work in the field as a soon as I was old enough. We didn't have a tractor. We had horses. I worked a team, raking hay. We raised hay, grain and potatoes.
We had a big orchard and lots of apples. But I don't think my dad picked an apple in his life. He always got the neighbors to come pick on shares. They picked a bushel for themselves and one for us.
My dad always had a hired man that helped him during the summer. The hired man stayed in the bunkhouse and the only thing he got was a bed to sleep in, food and enough money to buy tobacco if he smoked. There were no jobs for those people. They would just show up looking for any kind of work that we might have.
Gallacher: Were there a lot of homeless people passing through?
Throm: They came over on the Collbran road in the summer. They weren't allowed to come in the house but they always got something to eat. Sometimes dad would let them sleep in the barn.
Friends from town came to visit, but some of them came because they knew they would get a good meal. Dad would butcher a pig and take half of it to town and trade it for sugar, coffee and cigarettes, and he would put the other half in brine down in the dugout under the house.
The cash crops were cream and eggs. Dad would skim the cream off of the milk from our six cows and mom would gather the eggs from our hens. That's the way they kept their grocery bill paid up.
Dad would bring a load of grain to the mill that was down on Second Street in Rifle and trade his wheat for a bag of flour. Money just didn't exist.
At Christmas time we didn't get toys, we got clothes and a toothbrush. Can you imagine giving a kid a toothbrush as a Christmas present today?
Growing up I had one pair of shoes at a time. When school started in the fall, I got two new homemade outfits, a new pair of shoes, a Big Chief tablet and two pencils. And as kids grow, about Christmas time the clothes and shoes were too small and the Big Chief was used up, so we would get new clothes and shoes that would last us 'til summer. I went barefoot most of the summer.
Around Christmas, we had sleigh-riding parties that would go into the evening.
There was one hill out there on Divide Creek that was pretty steep and close to the road and everybody gathered there with their sleds and their skis and a saddle horse or two because they were the ski tow. We would sleigh ride all afternoon, and build a big bonfire when it started to get cold and dark. There would be 20 or 30 people out there having a good old time.
Gallacher: What would the horses do?
Throm: Each horse had a rope, and the rider would throw you the rope and pull you up the hill or across the field. Most of the sleds were homemade. Ours were, dad made them for us.
I do remember one Christmas, I was 7 and my brother was 10. Mom and dad bought us a sled, a real live sled with a guide on it. It was a Radio Flyer and we named it Charlie. Charlie was the fastest sled on the hill. We had to share it and we did pretty well.
That was 1934 and money was still very tight. Mom and Dad had to go without tobacco to save the money. I think it cost $3. We had that sled for years. When a sled runner would break, Dad would fire up the forge and splice the break.
Gallacher: You had to be able to fix about anything back then.
Throm: Yes, one of my favorite places to play was in dad's shop. He had a big old forge and he would build a fire and shape horseshoes or build parts for broken farm equipment. You couldn't afford to just go get a part like you can now.
Another thing that we couldn't afford was candy. We made our own. Mother would make honey taffy. Dad and mom let the local beekeeper set up his hives near our apple orchard, and every fall the beekeeper gave us five gallons of honey. People didn't deal in money. They traded for things.
We would make honey taffy and pull it. By the time we kids got finished pulling the taffy, I don't know if it was fit to eat or not. We had our hands all over it. Sometimes I think about sanitation back then and I wonder why I'm not dead. We didn't worry too much about germs. I think we developed a pretty strong immune system that served us well.
Gallacher: Well, you were surrounded by animals and birds.
Throm: And an outside john. Whoever heard of washing your hands after going to the john? There wasn't any water. We would have had to pump it out of the cistern and take it inside to heat it up. We weren't going to do that. Mother would have yelled at us for tracking up the floor with our muddy feet. It was a whole different way of doing things.
We played cards and checkers and dominoes and it didn't cost any money. We had country dances on a Saturday night at the schoolhouse in Dry Hollow or Fairview. Everybody went. Kids danced, or tried to and got in everybody's way. We all piled our coats in the corner and the little ones would curl up and go to sleep there when they got tired.
The kids went everywhere. There wasn't any money to pay a babysitter. It was unheard of to have somebody come and stay with your kids. The dances would last 'til 2 or 3 in the morning and we'd go home and sack out for a few hours before getting up for chores.
Back then we got together as a community. We had softball games at our place because we had a big flat field. The whole community would come.
Gallacher: Could anybody join in and play?
Throm: Anybody, men, women and kids. Kids got four strikes. The only person who had a mitt was the catcher. After the game we would have a neighborhood picnic.
Gallacher: You came together around fun. Did you do the same around work?
Throm: Absolutely! There was one guy in the area who had a threshing machine and he would go from farm to farm at harvest time. I can remember when he came to our house all of the neighbor women would get together to cook a big lunch for the men as they helped us harvest our grain.
It was hard work, but it was great fun as well. When we were done at our house, we followed the thresher to the neighbors.
We worked together, we played together and we grieved together. There was a closeness in that Divide Creek community that came out of that time that is still present today. I think it had something to do with the fact that none of us had a nickel, and so we depended on one another to make our own fun and do things together. We didn't have a lot of money or a lot of things, but we had each other.
It was a whole different culture then. Even today when one of the old timers passes away, people come from all over to pay their respects. We were and still are family. The only sense I get of that support and unity today is in my church.