The Great Depression

How Cork City Survived the Depression

...Random stories of how some people coped with difficult times

Virginia Hanley

I was born in 1927 so by the time I was 5 or 6 years old, the Great Depression had a definite influence on my life. We lived in the section of Melrose known as Cork City because the majority of the inhabitants came from County Cork in Ireland - or at least their parents or grandparents had. My father lost his job so for a few years we had a hard time of it. There was a government program called the Works Project Administration (WPA) that gave the unemployed men manual labor to do and paid them a few dollars a week. I know they built the wall around Wyoming Cemetery and there was always snow to be shoveled in winter.

I don't ever remember being hungry. We always had food on the table, just not very much of it. My mother and father both came from very large families who lived very close to us. Everyone had vegetable gardens and some people even had chickens. I had four unmarried aunts who were always good for a special treat - 10 cents for a Saturday movie, an ice cream cone on a hot day, a trip to the circus, or a parade in Boston.

We didn't pay much attention to clothes - after all, there were no malls!. Children's clothes were not a big ticket item in the stores. Clement's on Main Street had a very small children's department but most of the time we depended on the stores in Malden Square - Joslin's, Sparks and the Enterprise. I had one aunt who was a good seamstress and she could be depended on to make a dress for a special occasion or even a spring coat, if necessary. Every other family had the same arrangement - a family member who sewed and we had "store bought" outfits only occasionally. None of us were fashion plates but we didn't have to be.

One blessing the people in Cork City had was a small grocery store at the corner of Tappan and Sanford Streets. It was owned by an Irishman named Dennis Lucey, commonly known as Din. Anyone who needed food could go and shop at Din's store. There was no self-service although there were open boxes of fruits and vegetables on the floor and fully stocked shelves all around. Din stood behind the counter and you told him what you wanted. He would go and get the item and put it on the counter.

When you had finished ordering, Din would look over the items and in a funny, sing-song voice, add it all up in his head 18, 29, $1.35, 13, etc. Then he would take out a copy book - one like you used in school with a black and white spotted heavy cardboard cover - find your family's name in it and write down the amount you owed. Then he would write the amount on the side of the grocery bag so your mother would know how much she owed. Even if you had not paid for the food, Din would deliver it to your house. He had an old truck that he always drove in second gear. I don't know if he couldn't shift gears or just didn't bother to, after all his stops were pretty close together. But my dog hated the sound of that truck. As soon as he heard it turn the corner on Maple Street, he would be off the porch, chasing the truck and snapping at the wheels until it outraced him.

Shopping at Din's was all done very quietly and business-like. No one was ever embarrassed or shamed in front of other people. Whenever my mother could, she would send me down to Din's to pay off some of the debt. Most of the time it was a quarter, sometimes fifty cents. Eventually, as times got better (she went to work for the telephone company amd my oldest brother got a job as a pinboy in the bowling alley) she could pay $1.00 a week. I don't know how big the bill was but I do know it took years to pay off. My mother was very proud when she could make the final payment. And she made it herself so she could thank Din in person.

We knew we were poor but so was everyone else. In the days before gambling was socially acceptable, people could wager a small amount (or not so small sometimes) on what was called the "number" pool. After supper some of the boys would be sent down to Hinchey's Newspaper Store beside the railroad tracks on Wyoming Avenue with 2 cents in their pockets. They would wait for the train to come out from Boston with a certain edition of the Daily Record that had the racing results. Somehow word would have been passed, through the bookies, I suppose, as to which race track and which races had been chosen as the source for the winning number. There were 4 digits in the winning number. They were based on the parimutuel results on certain races chosen beforehand. For instance, from one track they would add up the payoffs on the 1st, 3rd, 5th, and 7th races. Then they would add up the results of the 1st, 2nd, 4th, and 5th race. The third figure would come from the total of the 3rd, 5th, 6th, and 7th race. The three totals would then be added together. The number for the day would be the three numbers to the right of the decimal point plus the fourth number would be the number to the left of the decimal point on the third line. NOTE: This is how I remember the payoff being made but that was 60 years ago and I was just a little kid eavesdropping on the grownups. If this is inaccurate, I hope someone (perhaps a retired bookie?) will correct me. Contact me at

One other memory I would like to share is the story of my Greataunt Margaret Sullivan. She came with all her brothers and sisters from Glengarriff in County Cork about 1895 as a girl of about 20. She found a job in Boston working in the kitchens of various restaurants and cafeterias. When I first knew her she was working in Thompson's Spa but when she lost that job, she went to work for Jordan Marsh as a "salad girl". I think she retired about 1945 and began collecting Social Security. She had probably been paying into it for about 10 years from a very low salary so her monthly check could not have been very large. Yet, every month she waited for the mailman and when he handed her that brown government envelope, she took it in her hand, kissed it three times and said "God bless Franklin D. Roosevelt." See how much you miss with direct deposit?
August 10, 1998

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