10 Survival Lessons From the Great Depression

Transcript of Self-Sufficient Life, episode 26

So, we all grew up reading and hearing about The Great Depression, right?

That time in American history when times were tough, everyone was thrown out of work, food was scarce.

On top of that we had the Dust Bowl with infertile land and tremendous storms of dust blanketing the heartland of the country.

And, of course, virtually no one had money.

Sounds like a made-for-TV nightmare that’s almost beyond belief.

But—as terrible as that time was, was it really terrible for everyone?

I ask, because sometimes the impact of events is often exaggerated when recalled, whether it be a personal or societal event.

And, even if it is horrific, what percentage of the population is it horrific for?

Just a few years ago, from 2007-2009, we had what we’re now calling the Great Recession.

That’s when the 8 trillion dollar housing bubble burst.

It led to a big reduction in jobs and consumer spending but, to be honest, I didn’t have much of an impact on my family.

We were farming at the time, selling pasture based meats direct to consumers who still were hungry and could afford to eat.

And, the truth is, while many people lost paper money during those years, the unemployment rate peaked at under 11%, meaning that over 88% of people could find jobs.

It’s true that perhaps maybe not the jobs they wanted, and it may also be true that the real unemployment rate was considerably higher, when you factor in people who gave up looking.

But the point I’m making is that it’s often a common misconception that times are harder than they actually were.

I found that to be the case for The Great Depression when I listened to the audiobook, Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression.

In it, author Mildred Armstrong Kalish recounts her childhood fondly as she retells many stories of what it was like to live through hard times.

Funny thing though; like many who lived pretty self-sufficient lifestyles, she wasn’t aware that there were hard times.

Here…listen to a 60 second clip of the book from Audible.

You can get that audio book for free from Audible.

Just go to audiobytim.com and select Little Heathens as your free book.

Of course now, those who lived in the cities and depended on paychecks fared far worse than Mildred’s family.

And, while a small number of people remained wealthy, being able to provide for oneself made the family much better off since stocks and bonds became worth far less and money was very tight.

As a modern homesteader, I’ve thought a lot about those times and what I’ve heard over the years from grandparents and others who endured them.

Now, well over a decade after Liz and I left the rat race for a more self-reliant lifestyle, I’m able to clearly see the rules that will allow us to thrive in GOOD times or in BAD times.

I’ve distilled this list down to 10 Survival Lessons from the Great Depression.

And here’s a shock if you’re a prepper…guns and ammo aren’t on the list.

Regardless of whether good times or very bad economic times lie ahead, you’ll get through just fine if you follow these 10 rules NOW as well as later.

Okay, here we go.

1. Be Frugal – During the Great Depression (and prior), being frugal was considered a virtue…something to be proud of. Imagine that!

Now, compare that with the connotation frequently assigned today, when it is suggested by many that one is stingy or cheap.

That’s a ridiculous definition and is the result of living in a society where marketers admonish consumers to spend ever more money in an effort to keep up with the (perpetually out of reach) Jones’s.

The path to freedom and wealth is to make the most of what you have and live below your means.

If you have children, show them now how to do the same.

Practice budgeting yourself, teach them to do the same and lead by example.

2. Stay Debt Free – In the Great Depression era the motto was no cash, no purchase.

Many of us have heard the stories of how our grandparents abhorred debt and refused to use it, other than perhaps for a mortgage.

If you have credit cards, cut them up and pay them off.

And all these nonsense Credit Karma and other commercials?

I mean, who cares what your FICO score is anyway?

That’s only a tool so that you can get more credit.

I mean, the first credit card, Diner’s Club, didn’t even exist before 1949.

Sure, that was before most of us were born, but that’s still only just over 60 years ago.

For the rest of history we made due without credit…and debt.

Now it consumes so many of us as we finance what we haven’t saved enough to purchase.

But those who rode most comfortably through The Great Depression did so without worrying that their house or other possessions would be taken away.

Now, if you’re struggling with debt, learn from others who have clawed their way out of the debt pit.

Many of the homesteaders I interviewed in How to Make Money Homesteading reported great success using Dave Ramsey’s methods to pay down the debt they owed.

Perhaps that approach can help you as well.

Regardless, never borrow money without clearly understanding how you will pay it back.  

DEBT IS NOT AN OPTION if you want to live a FREE and SELF-SUFFICIENT life.

As long as you have debt, you’ll be a slave to the debt.

3. Seek Simple Pleasures – The Great Depression was an economic collapse to be sure, but children still played outside.

Stickball, baseball, hopscotch, fishing, jump rope, soapbox derbies, dance contests, building playhouses and forts were the norm.

Or just swinging on an old-fashioned tree swing.

The cost for these pastimes? Zilch.

For adults and rainy days there were cards, board games, puzzles, fishing, horseshoes, discussions about politics or philosophy, playing instruments, telling/sharing stories and simply talking.

No, not texting or SnapChatting, but real honest to goodness talking.

If you’re more of an introvert you can just practice keeping a diary.

It will clarify your thoughts and, perhaps, create a family treasure.

What we all need to remember is this: Life itself is simple. Don’t complicate it.

It’s why we love watching livestock and nature so closely.

The cows know how to keep life simple.

As you’ve probably heard me say many times, one of my family’s favorite pastimes on the farm today is simply taking a pasture walk or a walk through the woods on our homestead.

This could have been as enjoyable a leisure activity 200 years ago as it is today.

Of course, we also practice identifying wild edibles, animal tracks, tree and plant species and feel like we’ll never learn as much as we’d like.

When we walk with our young daughter, we pretend to see fairies on the plants and come up with other fantasies to pass the time.

Just unleash your imagination and teach children to do the same. Better yet, just watch and learn from them.

Don’t let television or the latest iDevice think for them and tell them what to play/enjoy.

Of course many of these simple pleasures require you to know your friends and neighbors, which brings me to the next rule.

4. Nurture Relationships –  As you’ll learn in the Little Heathens book, the folks who thrived during the Great Depression depended on family and friends, and were able to be depended on themselves.

This is a real dilemma in today’s society, where virtually none of us really know our neighbors or have deep friendships.

Total self-sufficiency is, of course, a myth, as you’ll always need to rely on someone (doctors, tool/car manufacturers, etc.) and the first persons you should rely on should, ideally, be your neighbors.

And you should be there for them as well.

Do you know your neighbors well? What country skills do they possess that you need?

How can you help them?

Do you each have gardens? If so, plan together and grow different crops that you can share.

You want to establish these bonds before times get tough, not when an economic collapse makes everyone desperate.

And if you’re a bit shy, here’s a great way to meet your neighbors: bake a homemade cake or pie and take it to them.

It worked in the Great Depression and it will just as well work today.

5. Don’t Treat Soil like Dirt – As if the economic impact of the Great Depression wasn’t enough, the Dust Bowl of the 1930s created not only unimaginable human suffering, but also blew away more than 75% of the topsoil in some regions!

That’s the rich stuff in the top few inches of the soil where all the organic matter and micronutrients are.

You know…the stuff we need to grow food!

The Dust Bowl occurred as a result of a profound lack of understanding of prairie ecology and followed deep plowing of the plains that was made convenient with new farming technologies.

For years the dust blew, the drought persisted and skies were sometimes blackened as far away as New York city.

If you’re a farmer, you can do your part to respect the topsoil and build organic matter.

If you’re not a farmer you can still support sustainable farmers as well as growing your own garden, building healthy soil, composting and capturing rainwater for your garden.

Respecting the soil and supporting farmers who do is how you can help ensure we have a lasting supply of food.

It’s pretty hard to be self-sufficient without it.

Just do as they did during the Great Depression and don’t waste it!

So there are your first five survival lessons from the great depression.

Be frugal, avoid debt, seek simple pleasures, nurture relationships and respect the soil.

Okay, let’s continue with the list.

6. Respect Food – Here’s a challenge for you…go one month without throwing ANY food away.

Wasting food is the luxury of a lazy, entitled society, and is certainly something that one couldn’t afford during the Great Depression.

Take steps to move toward cooking from scratch and become your own food source to the extent possible.

If you live in an apartment or in a small parcel, you may still be able to have small livestock (chickens, rabbits) and a patio garden.

Just maximize your space and grow what you can.

Don’t plant anything non-edible until you’re growing enough plants and animals to easily meet your nutritional requirements.

The suburban streets are lined with non-edible Bradford pear trees that do nothing but produce white flowers in the spring.

A better choice would have been pear trees that produce an actual pear.

Only in an entitled society do we actually breed the fruit out of the tree!

pressure cannerIf you have some land then you have plenty of options. Raise larger livestock, but not what your neighbor is raising so you can trade (see #4).

Have a large (year-round) garden and preserve your own food.

We a this 21 1/2 quart pressure canner and love it!

Regardless of whether you live in the city or on a farm you can learn to identify wild edibles at various times throughout year.

I posted a pic on my FB page the other day of my wife teaching my 4-year old daughter how to forage chickweed.

I’ve also taught my daughter to recognize wild onions by sight and smell and how they can be used to replace chives.

Part of respecting food is recognizing it when it’s at your foot, and free for the taking.

You too can practice these skills wherever you are.

Ever seen a dandelion growing?

Yep, it’s food.

And, if you’re looking for protein you can hunt on your land or in a wildlife management area.

If you don’t know how to hunt, have a friend or neighbor take you (again, see #4, nurturing relationships).  

While you’re at, go beyond hunting and learn to fish and trap animals.

While we’re on the subject of respecting food, make every effort to avoid convenience foods.

Also, if you’re a parent place close attention to what you are teaching your children about food as a result of your habits.

Do you throw food out?

Do you cook and dine as a family, or do you eat fast/convenience foods on the go?

What lessons will they take into adulthood?

If you have leftovers then take them to work for lunch.

Just ignore the stares from coworkers if it bothers you.

Learn to make your own cheese, your own beer or root beer, your own wine, grind your own wheat and bake your own bread.

If you haven’t done this you can’t imagine how proud you’re going to feel when you make your own bacon or your first wheel of cheese.

It’s a great sense of accomplishment today, but something pretty much everyone could do back in the great depression.

You don’t have to do this all the time…it’s perfectly fine to buy some items if you have the money and want to save time.

The point is to have the skill to do all these things and to practice them.

Only then can you live a self-sufficient lifestyle.

7. Be Your Own Doctor – We view health and doctors differently today than our ancestors did 100 years ago.

Back then, they took responsibility for their health (as they did with most aspects of their lives). Today, get a sniffle and go grab a pill…or a prescription.

Being able to afford a visit to the doctor was an extreme luxury for most people in the 1930s and before, so they knew how to take care of themselves.

You can do the same thing today.

Of course, it starts with (sorry) getting and staying fit.

If you have a gut, lose it. Cost? Zilch, once again, and you’ll both feel better and be healthier.

Don’t waste money on fancy exercise equipment.

Go for long walks, lift bags of feed, do some yoga and, if you want to pump up that chest, do some push-ups.

Make a concerted effort to eat healthy (real) foods.

Since we’re discussing the Great Depression, try to eat only foods they would have recognized in the 1930s.

Here’s a hint…it wouldn’t include hamburger’s helper.

Start by putting a chicken in your own Dutch oven and cooking it yourself, preferably one that you harvested or bought from a local, hardworking farmer.

Add some fresh (organic) vegetables, bake some biscuits, serve with some ice water or tea, turn off the television and you’re all set for a family dinner.

Now, what are you going to talk about?

Likewise, going to the dentist was reserved for real emergencies.

Many of you may be too young to remember someone in the family tying one end of a string around a youngin’s tooth and the other to a door knob, then slamming the door to extract the tooth, but I’m not.

Do what you can on your own and save the doctors, lawyers and others for when you REALLY need them.

8. Do It Yourself – The good news is that many of us are already somewhat proficient in this area.

The bad news is we all pale in comparison to our ancestors.

Sure, we can use computers better than they could (obviously), but can we do the other things they could with ease?

I mean, things like

  • sewing/knitting
  • cooking (anything) from scratch,
  • sharpening or making tools,
  • fixing plumbing,
  • gardening,
  • butchering and meat curing,
  • cheese making,
  • recognizing wild edibles in their area,
  • canning/food preserving,
  • wine and alcohol making,
  • car and tractor repair,
  • woodworking,
  • masonry/stone work,
  • carpentry,
  • small engine repair.

These are wonderful skills to have and to teach your children.

Today, most people don’t have 80% of these, opting instead to rely on a YouTube video if they need to learn something.

But what happens if the grid goes down and YouTube isn’t available?

In that case you better have some great physical books on hand to reference, such as the wonderful resource, the Encyclopedia of Country Living.

Take an inventory of the skills you have and set a goal to add one or more per year.

Then learn, practice and perfect.

9. Reuse. Those who survived the Great Depression became well known for saving and not wasting.

Their trash barrels were small and even a family of six may have only produced one small three foot high barrel of trash per week.

Now is the time to develop great habits for repurposing and reusing pretty much everything.

Make a sincere effort to reduce trash yourself. Here’s something that can help you.

Pretend that there is no trash collection…no trash dump.

Instead, you are entitled to purchase and consume but you are responsible for your own trash.

That means reusing or burning your own trash.

It means eating all your food and composting as needed.

Here are some more ways you can reuse:

  • before you buy something think of how you can reuse the packaging,
  • donate clothes to Goodwill,
  • shop at Goodwill if you have to shop…just don’t repurchase the clothing you donated :-),
  • or, if you are close to neighbors and family, hand down clothes (and accept hand downs),
  • cut old towels into washcloths,
  • cut bread bags in half to make sandwich wraps,
  • plan meals so that there are either no leftovers or leftovers are planned for lunch,
  • or use leftovers to make soup/stew
  • keep the elastics, buttons, etc.

If you throw something away, you probably made a bad (wasteful) purchase.

The old saying still applies today: Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.

10. Minimalize – One of the more popular book categories on Amazon in recent years has been books about minimalizing.

Think about it…what do you really need anyway?

accidental farmers audibleThis flies smack in the face of normal capitalistic thinking, of course, but the aim is to be self-sufficient and not to buy everything that’s advertised.

It makes sense that if you need very little then it will be easier to maintain that lifestyle than if you need a lot.

As I wrote in my first book, The Accidental Farmers, my wife and I transitioned from a lifestyle of consumption, where we bought most of what we wanted, to our current lifestyle of production, where we produce most of what we need.

In addition to becoming far more self-reliant, that change in perspective brought an added benefit; it costs far less to enjoy our minimal-stress lifestyle today than it did our high-stress lifestyle then.

We still have a ways to go to achieve the simple standard of living we aspire towards, but we have been working hard to get there.

Perhaps you can embrace a similar philosophy?

While we’re all in different situations, each of us can embrace these 10 rules to some degree. If you can follow them, you’ll enjoy a self-sufficient lifestyle if an economic collapse arises, and especially if it doesn’t.

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