The Great Depression

Mary, my back is against the wall!

...Feast to Famine, the Great Depression brings the Driscolls to Melrose. 

by Mary Driscoll, matriarch of the Melrose Driscolls.

The Depression was responsible for the Driscoll Family coming to Melrose in a most roundabout fashion. They went from Springfield, Mass., to California in 1929, by way of the Panama Canal aboard a cruise ship, then returned East in 1933, settling in Melrose. In the next 27 years, nine of the ten children graduated from Melrose High School. Mary E. Driscoll, the mother, typed a 38-page, double-spaced letter to her children, succinctly detailing the family history from the time she met husband-to-be Frank to the birth of her last child. What follows is an unedited excerpt from that letter (except for a few minor transition adjustments) regarding the trip West, life in the lap of luxury in Hollywood, hitting bottom and driving back across the country with seven children and two adults in one car. She writes the letter in the third person, referring to herself as Mary and her husband as Frank, even though he was only known to the children as Dad. (JSD)

Several months before Jean was born, Mary and Frank made several trips to New York where his partner Charles Hosley had an office. One of the trips was at the invitation of Ed Sweeney and he gave us tickets for the ball game, and Babe Ruth made a home run that day, so it was a great thrill. Also that evening he took us to the Ziegfield Follies which was so popular at that time.

Mary and Frank often went to Boston before and after Jean was born, and it was then Frank decided to look up his old grammar school chum from Holyoke and found him living in Melrose, so it was enjoyable for Mary to meet him (a dentist now) and his wife Lill and two children, Shirley and Bobby Widdowson. They also came to Springfield to visit us many times and we often stayed over night with them and they would call friends to come over and spend the evening and that was how we met many wonderful friends in Melrose too numerous to mention. But it was such a happy time.

Mary's sister Betty Barry lived in Los Angeles at that time, having gone there soon after her husband had been released from the sanatorium for tuberculosis which he had contracted in World War I in Germany. Betty wrote about the warm climate there and that she dried her hair out in the sun in January and February, and Mary happened to say to Frank, "How wonderful it would be to live there." So Frank said, "Why not? It would be so much easier than buying winter clothes and fuel in the East."

From then on Frank became enthused about starting his silverware business in California and started making plans for his partner in the East to buy his shares. By this time Mary was having her doubts about taking on such a big undertaking as well as leaving her sisters Annie and Bea and brothers Bill and Steve and Frank's sisters Nellie and Nonie. On the other hand Mary had never stopped missing her sister Betty who was a year and a half older. She and Mary were always so very close.

When her husband Fred was in the sanitarium near Boston, Betty came and lived with us and took a job in a big store in Boston so that she would be close enough to visit Fred on weekends as we lived in Mattapan.


There was a great deal to be done to get ready for the trip such as renting the house, selling the furniture, buying clothes for the six children we had then for use on the boat for two weeks as Frank decided that would be the best way to travel. He ordered six big wooden boxes for personal belongings that we decided to take with us. Also we decided to send our Easy washing machine separately. We gave the children's tricycles and toys to our friends' families.

It was a beautiful day Sept. 21, 1929 when we sailed on the "California", and many friends and relatives from New York came to see the Driscolls off. After the first meal on board, most of the children were seasick, and many of the passengers helped Mary take care of them. There were several nurses on hand also. The next morning the children were ready for anything.

We made quite a sensation on the ship with our large family, and Mary couldn't tell if our waiter was happy to serve so many or not. But Frank soon took care of that by giving him a big tip the first day, so he was all smiles after that and couldn't do enough for us.

There was a swimming pool on the boat, and various activities going on all the time for young and old alike. Just before dinnertime, at that most peaceful time of the day, Mary would take baby Jean in her lap and just thank God for all His blessings.

The first stop was at Havana, for the passengers could get off and sight see. We left Jean on the boat with a nurse, and Frank hired a guide to drive us all around Havana. The buildings were beautiful. He also took us to see the catacombs and the Beer Garden where the beer seemed to come from the ground through long faucets-and it was free. When our guide brought us back to the boat, he presented Mary with a dozen red roses. Everyone we met was congenial.

It was very interesting going through the Panama Canal Locks. We spent most of a day admiring that great engineering feat. We didn't even get off the boat at Panama. The heat was terrific.

The boat docked at San Pedro, California, on Oct. 5, 1929, and, as Frank wouldn't be able to get the Chrysler out of storage on the ship for a few days, he called a taxi to take us to Hollywood where Betty and Fred were waiting for us with a good meal.

The first few weeks in Hollywood were hectic as there were so many things to be attended to. It was difficult getting along without the washing machine which wouldn't arrive for a couple weeks.

Frank decided to get an office in Los Angeles right away so that he could get started in his silverware business. The weather was just beautiful and, even though it might be hot during the day, it would start to cool off at 4 p.m., and we always needed a blanket at night.


This was the year of the stock market crash when the country was so stunned (1929) when many banks had to close and many wealthy people and corporations lost fortunes, and there were very many suicides. Herbert Hoover was the President at the time.

Frank opened his office in Los Angeles and had salesmen working in the surrounding cities for him much as he conducted his business in the East, and, of course, Mary was more than busy with 6 children and no help but oh! so happy.

Frank then started looking at houses to buy. He liked Glendale best so he decided on a brand new home there. It was a beautiful Spanish type house at 1230 North Isabel St., Glendale, California. We were very fortunate to have good neighbors. The Rammelkamps were a wonderful family right in the next house to us.

It was all so wonderful as we met so many friends in the new parish, and they couldn't do enough for us: the Brandons, the Nales, the Tuttles etc., also Mrs. Compson who was the mother of a motion picture star. Mary joined their bridge group and was glad she had learned to play bridge in the East.

Our first Christmas, 1929, in our new home in Glendale was so different from the snow and the cold in the East, and everyone just loved it. We had the turkey dinner and tree, and they really went way out there decorating. Frank's business was going pretty well although there was beginning to creep in all over the country the fear of the depression after the stock market crash.

Frank and Mary became very close to Mrs. Compson as she was very active in church affairs also and one night she invited us for dinner and said her daughter, Betty, who was just divorced from a famous director, would be there. We had delightful time, and Betty was beautiful and charming. She invited us for dinner at her new home in Hollywood and sent her chauffeur in a big limousine to take us. Her home was like something I had never seen (living room furnished in gold). Also the dinner was delicious as well as the champagne, and it seemed so elegant to be served by a butler - somehow different than being served by a waiter. After all the champagne the men enjoyed, Betty was wise to have her chauffeur take us home.

Prohibition was in effect at this time but it was no problem as, when we were having guests, Frank would just phone his bootlegger, and he delivered his order.


In July, 1930, Mary was having pains in her stomach. When the doctor came, he said she would have to go to the hospital right away as she had a tubular pregnancy, and with that Frank fell into a dead faint, and the doctor had to revive him. All Mary could do was lie there with the most terrible pain as it took him quite a while to bring Frank around. The doctor had to ask him if he wanted the tube that would be left cut off and Frank said no as it was against our religion, so then the doctor called the ambulance and the Father came and gave Mary the last rites and said he would have the congregation pray for her.

For a few days, Mary was between life and death and was only existing on intravenous feeding and had private nurses around the clock. Frank was always by her side, and in the fog she would open her eyes at times and he would have both her hands in his. He kept saying, "Don't leave me, Mary". The doctor was getting desperate as Mary couldn't keep anything at all on her stomach, and he told Frank the only thing to save her was champagne. As it was Prohibition, he had no way of getting it, so he phoned Betty Compson as a last resort, and she sent the champagne to the hospital. It was almost a miracle the way it worked so quickly. The treatment made quite a sensation around the hospital, and the nurses kidded Mary about having chilled champagne on the table beside her.

Business wasn't going too well for Frank at this time on account of the depression, and it was difficult for him at times to make the payments on the furniture. A few weeks before Mary was able to get around, she was sitting in bed reading, and the maid said there were two men and a woman to see her, so she said it was all right to send them up to her room. Mary was taken by surprise when they told her they had come to repossess the furniture, but couldn't take action then with her in the bed and would get in touch with Frank. When Mary told Frank about it that night, he said not to worry about it and he would take care of it.

A couple of weeks after that Mary was up and answered the phone, and the woman said they were coming to repossess the furniture right away--and they did. It wasn't long after this incident that Frank came home from work early and said to Mary, "My back is right up against a stone wall". This time Mary told Frank not to worry as we could always sell the house and, if he couldn't keep up the business, he could always find a job as he was a wonderful salesman. Before we had a chance to sell the house, the bank foreclosed so we weren't even able to get any money out of it.

Frank found a large English type house on Spencer St. in Glendale late in 1930, and it was quite unique. Although the rent was high, he decided to take it as it wasn't such a drastic "come down" from our own home. It had a doll house in the back (which the girls loved), also lemon and fig trees, and the fresh figs were just luscious. Of course, Jimmy had to climb one of the trees which he fell from and broke his collarbone.


Soon after, Frank had to give up his office and look for another job. In the process he met Paul Walters whose company sold silverware. For four or five months business was pretty good, and Frank made enough on commissions to live on. Gradually, however, sales began to drop off as the depression was really being felt. Even some of our well-to-do friends were beginning to feel the pinch and cut down every way possible on expenses, even going so far as to have their phones removed. Of course, Mary couldn't give up the phone, needed so often for emergency calls to the doctor and, by this time anyway, she was expecting another.

With another increase in family due in December,1931, Mary answered all the ads for houses to let and finally found one with very reasonable rent. Mary didn't mention all the children they had as the house was plenty large. By this time, Frank decided to work for the Equitable Life Insurance. He did quite well at this, selling annuities. He also sold home-loan policies where, if the husband died, the house would be free and clear to the widow. A friend of ours had a truck and got other friends to help move us. During the process Mary stayed with Mrs. Compson and rested on her canopied bed and it was so luxurious she felt like a queen.

Elizabeth Mary was born on Christmas Day, 1931. In those days it cost $50 for ten days in the hospital in a four-patient ward.

Dad Driscoll took this family picture in Glendale, shortly before the cross-country automobile journey back to Massachusetts.

As it wasn't either Frank's or Mary's nature to let troubles get them down, they continued to play bridge and got great enjoyment out of their children. Many times when Frank would make a big sale, he would bring home cold cuts, salads and all sorts of goodies for the children. We were fortunate to get a mother's helper for $2 a week with room and board. She said she was so glad to come she would work for nothing. That's how tough things were.

Before the baby was expected in April, 1933, Frank discussed with Mary the advisability of going back East and working for his old partner. Mary told Frank to write to him and ask his opinion. Baby Patricia Louise was born April 21, 1933. At about that time we heard from Mr. Hosley who said he would be delighted to have Frank and would send us the money to finance our trip. There was so much to do to get ready to leave as we had to sell our furniture but would send the washing machine on. We sold most of the furniture to friends or gave it away, and the only one who actually paid us was my sister as she had bought Kay's pretty bedroom set so that shows how rough it was for everyone.


Frank was fortunate enough to buy a seven-passenger Packard for $100. When Frank had all the final arrangements made for the trip, he sensed Mary was a little overwhelmed, and he said to her, "Let's just consider each day as a picnic". That was just what they did, and every day was even more than a picnic on the 12-day trip.

Frank and Mary and the seven children left Glendale at 1 p.m. on Monday June 19, 1933. Mary sat in the front seat with map in hand, and Betty sat in a car seat between her and dad. There were two middle seats which could fold (for Eileen, Jean, Jimmy and Bobby) and then in the back seat was 2-month-old Patty in the bassinet.

This is the used 7-passenger Packard that took the Driscolls 3000 miles across the country, from Glendale, California to Holyoke, Massachusetts beginning on June 19, 1933. It became a 9-passenger car to carry the nine Driscolls: Mom and Dad and children Mary (12); Eileen (10); Jim (8); Bob (6); Jean (4); Betty (1 1/2); and Patty (2 months)

Our first stop was to the beautiful new monastery (in Sierra Madre) where the Passionist Fathers came out and gave their blessing-also some nice cold lemonade.. From there we went on to Barstow to spend the night there in a cabin which cost $1. As Mary was nursing the baby as well as giving her bottles, she arose at 4 a.m. the next morning to make the bottles and cook breakfast so we could get started at 6 a.m. We arrived at Needles at 10:20 A M and fed the baby at a rest place and had sandwiches for the children as well as cookies, etc., our friends had given us. There was a lot of climbing after leaving Riverview for Peach Springs and we arrived at 5:45 p.m., tired but so thankful to have passed through the desert safely and really not minding the heat that much. The baby slept all the time except for feedings. We could only get a single cabin at the Springs and two cots, so Jim and dad slept in car and Betty in the folding buggy. It cost $1.75 for cabin and cots.

Each day, as soon as we were moving, we recited the Rosary. The third day we got started a little late at 9 a.m., and it became quite hot but nothing like the desert. We stopped at Flagstaff for lunch and sent a telegram to Hosley and cards to relatives and friends. Also had to have a trailer wheel tightened and tire repaired; also a flat on the car and the Lord was so good to us as it happened just in front of a repair place.

The children were enjoying the trip very much and found it very interesting. Saw crater from volcano between Winslow and Flagstaff, Arizona, also copper and gold mines, caves including Apache Indian caves and cliff dwellers and Indian Zoo with mountain lions. The children were delighted to see the Indians and especially seeing the squaws walking along with the papoose on their backs.

By the fourth day a schedule was pretty well set - Frank and Mary were up at 4:30 a.m., and she'd make baby's formula for the day which consisted of canned milk, Karo and water, also bathe the baby and get clothes ready for all the children for the day - she washed the diapers at night so they were ready to fold in the morning. Dad would get the breakfast and, after, dishes and pans had to be washed and dried and put back in trailer - we usually left about 7:30 a.m. so could get a lot of driving done before it got too hot--planned on driving about 300 miles a day. For lunch, dad would buy bread and something for sandwiches and eat by the side of the road. Often Jean would say "Gee isn't this trip fun."

After saying Rosary first thing, there were plenty of games to be played, also jokes, riddles and singing. After lunch Betty would put her head in Mary's lap and fall asleep, and, when it got to be about 4, Jean would start looking for cabins where we could spend the night. We liked to get ones with showers, and Jean would often drag Betty into the shower with her and then they had plenty of time for play and exercise while dad was preparing meal and mom was feeding and bathing baby and washing the diapers. There were a few packages of paper diapers brought for emergency. It also gave Jimmy and Bobby a chance to play ball, and Mary and Eileen often helped with work and would bring in food from car--also pans and dishes from the trailer in case they weren't supplied in cabins.

Each day was exciting going through the different cities and state. Miles and miles were traveled without a single building seen, and the roads were pretty bad also. It was so lucky that the car kept going as there wasn't anyone else on the road where help could be obtained. We saw the Painted Desert a short run from Holbrook, Ariz. and it was just beautiful. Passed through Novajo and saw the huts with Novajo weavers coming from work. At the Petrified Forest we saw specimens from that forest which had turned to stone. From New Mexico found the roads very poor to Albuquerque and had trouble with trailer turning to side; it held the family up quite a bit and, while it was left to be repaired, had dinner at a cafe as everyone was very tired. Started off again after repairs and were rewarded by finding very modern cabins with tile kitchen and bath. It was called King's Rest and cost $2 so all had a good sleep and didn't awaken until 5 a.m.

From there went on to Sante Fe, N. M., a quaint old city, and visited curio shop there; also noted the girls in costume selling articles on street; also there were Indians walking around. After leaving there, stopped at Las Vegas for lunch. Next place we passed through was Raton and there was a great climb through pass on way to Trinidad - the scenery was beautiful. Went on to LaJunita and from there to Garden City, Kansas. It was very hot and close in Kansas, and the drive through the wheat fields was almost suffocating. Went on to Wess Key auto camp, Pendleton, Mo., and the air was bracing there and it seemed so good after terrific heat.

Drove through St. Louis, Mo. and entered state of Illinois and crossed first toll bridge between Missouri and Illinois over Mississippi River - entered state of Indiana and stayed at Brazil cabins - then on to Rome, Ohio, just outside Columbus, Ohio, and stayed at very nice large camp $2.25 for all.

Passed through Columbus, Ohio, driving over Sciota river a very hilly and winding road and arrived at Wheeling, West Virginia, and then on to Pennsylvania and the coal mines and went over the Monongenelia river, and it was good to have it cooler after the rains. Next was the state of Maryland, and through Allegheny Mountains it was some climb, also descent - stayed at cabin on top of Cumberland mountain that night and it was 2950 feet above sea level and the view was tremendous and a little overwhelming. It was getting near the end of trip and children remarked, "Just one night more to look for cabins". Drove through Fredrickstown, Md., the birthplace of Barbara Fritchie and saw her home; also the burial ground of Francis Scott Key. Arrived in Delaware at 4:45 p.m. and decided to take ferry at New Castle at 5:20 p.m. to avoid heavy traffic in Philadelphia. Arriving at New Jersey at 5:35 p.m. we encountered pouring rain and an electrical storm, and it took a long time before we finally found lodging at Stevens, N. J. but had to pay $4, and it was well worth it.

Left Stevens at 9:30 a.m. and took Yonkers Ferry to N.Y. The traffic was awful from Yonkers but finally arrived in the state of Connecticut at 3:45 p.m.

Arrangements had been made with the different relatives for places to stay. Frank and Mary were going to stay with aunts Nellie and Nonie in Holyoke, so they drove right there. Everyone came to Holyoke to pick up the different children and it was wonderful to see them all again - Kay also came to see us as she was in training at Mercy hospital in Springfield and that made the reunion complete. It was a good feeling to be safely back East, and we thanked God.


The next day Frank went to the Springfield office so he could get started right away. It was good to be living normally again and to be visited by friends and relatives - even the Widdowsons came from Melrose to visit and stayed at a Springfield hotel for that Thanksgiving weekend, 1933. Mary had just finished making four pies and stuffing the turkey, and they got a kick out of it and enjoyed seeing the children.

Frank's business was going well as he was such a good salesman but, as it was commission, some weeks were good and some bad. There were terrific expenses with such high rent and raising a large family, and it was on June 1934 the bank sent a notice that our house would have to be vacated in three days.

It was about this time Mr. Hosley was asking Frank to come to Boston to work so Frank decided immediately and drove to Melrose to meet his old friend, Dr. Widdowson, so he could help him find a house which he did at 12 Hillside. It was available right away so Frank got the movers from Springfield, so we were out of the other house on time. Frank started work right away and conceived a new idea of having an eight-piece place setting instead of the twelve-piece silver place setting.

Baby John Stephen was born August 31, 1934 at 5 a.m., and the family were all delighted to hear it was a boy after the tubular pregnancy operation. Dr. Linn in Glendale said it was unlikely there would be any more babies. Dr. Murphy in Melrose didn't agree with that. Tears of relief and joy filled Frank's eyes when he came to see her at 6 a.m., as it was a long delivery.

School was starting soon after that so arrangements, had to be made. Mary was to enter Melrose High School and Eileen to the Calvin Coolidge School and Jim, Bob, and Jean were to go to St. Mary's parochial school so that left three little ones at home. The children soon had many playmates and Shirley Widdowson became Eileen's closest chum. Frank joined the choir and all was well for awhile.

Mary decided to have the boys join the Y.M.C.A. where they would have supervised recreation. Our pastor, Fr. Bonner didn't approve of Catholic children joining the Y and even talked about it on the altar, but mother couldn't agree, and the boys joined and it was the greatest thing that ever happened. There were bars to climb, swimming and all kinds of games. Dad had been teaching the boys to box and after a year or so, the boys put on an exhibition for Parents' Night.

It was very enjoyable living in Melrose as there were so many friends met through the Widdowsons and they joined bridge club playing on Saturday night every two weeks. Thus the first Christmas was happy surrounded by friends and it helped so much not to be a lonesome family.

Click here to see the 1990s Driscoll family.
September 13, 1998

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