Tenacity and a strong spirit helped to survive the Great Depression
BY LILY KONGSLIEN
Special to the Star Journal
I was quite young when I began to notice my parents struggle to make a living from day to day. I was told that in the mid-twenties my father was interested in raising and breeding silver foxes (and history now tells me that that was an era of many folk turning to raising mink and silver foxes, and that the climate in northern Wisconsin was perfect for such a venture). My father worked at the Carroll Fox Farm in the Lake Tomahawk Township, just north of McNaughton, and there he learned first-hand the intricacies of the daily care and breeding of the animals to produce silvery pelts which were in great demand at that time in history, especially in larger cities like New York. He then bought 10 pair of silver foxes and started his own business, which meant constructing the pens complete with nesting boxes in each pen.
As years went by, he would add to the number of foxes, keeping in mind the need for good animals that would produce good and valuable pelts. In my early childhood, I grew up helping in the fox yard, although I quickly found out that foxes, even the pups, did not become pets. After several successful years, the Depression loomed in the distance and we had a hard time buying the necessary food for them and ourselves. My father knew that, even though he hated to admit it, he could see no other way but to pelt all of them and get them to the market. Where he once received $500 for a beautiful silvered fur, he now was lucky to get perhaps $25. I remember the sadness in his face as he packed up and sent his final shipment of furs to the dealers in New York. Soon came the final job of taking down the pens, and salvaging the boards and the wire and nesting boxes that were bought by a fox rancher in the Wausau area who had a much larger operation and wasn’t affected by the Depression as heavily as we had been. But through it all, my father tried to be cheerful, taking any job available for a few dollars a day.
We continued to survive through those days of the Great Depression, however, as did all the rural families. The Civilian Conservation Corps was created by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1933, and in 1935 when my brother came to the age of 18 and could join the “tree army,” he left home. At the same time, I graduated from the eighth grade at our rural school and wanted to go to the high school in town. My brother would have $25 of his monthly pay sent home to our parents. That fall, I also left home to work in the city for my room and board so that I could continue my education. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it must have been difficult for my parents to see both of us, at such a young age, leave the nest and be out in life on our own; however, they never complained about how life was treating them and continued on with a smile.
Several years after the foxes were gone, and while my brother and I were at home, we saw the real strength of my father in adversity. We did not have much of a garage and my father began to create a foundation for a new garage so we all hauled rocks to help fill the foundation. He had it finished when he noticed that the foundation itself was sinking into the ground. It was about 15 yards from the bank of the Wisconsin River, and the sinking occurred because the strong river current had carried much of the underground soil downstream and had actually carved a cave under the riverbank. My brother and I felt terrible because we had worked so hard to haul the rocks in order to help our father, but again my father was not to be daunted. He picked a site further inland and began setting up a new foundation and we hauled many more stones until we had finally built the garage he anticipated. He had broken up what he could salvage from the first foundation and even reused many of the stones.
That was not the end of his disappointments, however, as in the summer of 1935, we experienced some of the most dangerous thunder and lightning storms and our newly built barn, which had replaced our older barn with a modern structure, was struck by lightning and completely destroyed. We had just finished building it in July, but didn’t have the money for the insurance right then. The barn had a waste system that could be flushed outside, and there were new, shiny stanchions for around the cows’ necks to keep them in their stalls. The night of the storm, our cows were in the hardwood area and were unharmed, but when winter came we had no place to keep them and therefore, had to butcher them.
We no longer had a farm, but it paved the way for them to sell the farm and move, as they were getting older. It was purchased and turned into a beautiful resort, as the location so close to the Wisconsin River was perfect for a resort. It has since provided a nice vacation spot for many families. I believe both my father and mother were sad to leave the farm, but they didn’t move too far away, just up north on Highway 47 and over the hill beyond the Chicago Northwestern tracks and the depot, store and post office.
At their new place, my father was still adventuresome, for now he could spend more time with his taxidermy work. He never complained through all of his disappointments and always thought of himself as a lucky man. I learned a lot from him and he was an inspiration to his family and friends. There were many folk during the Depression who were as strong and determined to make the best of life as it was handed to them. He, and many others like him, gave us a good foundation for life with its disappointments and happy times…and that foundation will not crumble.