Excerpt from “A Mother’s Diary 1936”
Editor's note: This introduction to the Depression-era diary of Kate Crockett Cooley was written by her son Robert more than twenty years ago. Bob is now 93 and lives in Taos, New Mexico. He is an accomplished painter who enjoys sailing and traveling. When he and I began corresponding, in 2017, he had just returned from Namibia. —Sara Tucker
By Robert Cooley
I recently acquired, and have been reading for the first time, a diary which my mother kept from 1936 to 1940. We were living on a small farm in Vermont at that time and although I was only a child I remember many of the events she describes.
It was a very different world then, perhaps more so in rural Vermont than in the rest of the country. It was the middle of the Depression, a difficult time for everyone and especially so for Mother, with two small children, a husband without a steady job, and living in a community which was somewhat foreign to her. Reading her diary and remembering those days I realize what a strong and resourceful woman she was.
My mother had been born Kate Crockett, in East Tennessee. I know from early photographs that she was pretty, a southern country girl who had met and married my father, Sumner Cooley, while on a trip to visit her married sister, Mae, in Florida. At that time, in the midtwenties, Sumner, who had been born and raised in Vermont, was building houses in central Florida and doing well at it. There was a land boom, and he and a partner were taking advantage of it, putting up small stucco houses and selling them at a profit. Unfortunately, like many booms, it was followed by a bust. By 1927, the year that I was born, the housing market in Florida had collapsed, and soon after, Sumner moved his wife and their two young sons back to Vermont. Everything was packed into the big touring car and they headed north.
It must have been a shock to Mother. New Englanders are apt to be an insular group, not welcoming to outsiders, and her southern-mountain accent would have immediately set her apart from the slow-talking Vermonters. Indeed, my father and his parents were probably the only Yankees that she had ever met. Her standard of living had also taken a drastic turn for the worst. She had married a successful contractor in Florida; now she found herself with an unemployed carpenter in Vermont. Additionally, she had never known truly cold weather, and the Vermont winters could be brutal.
Sumner’s father, William, had retired from farming, and he and my grandmother, Anna, were living in a two-story house in the central Vermont town of Randolph. Our economic situation dictated the living arrangements, and we moved in upstairs from them. I’m sure that there was friction; even as a child I sensed it. My grandparents were not a warm couple. Typical Vermonters, they had both been brought up on farms, and the simple, austere life had molded them. In their survivor’s world, emotions were seldom expressed. Indeed, I don’t ever recall seeing my grandfather laugh; a smile was the most one could expect from him.
William was a tall, stern man with a rather brusque, formal manner and a reputation for frugality. (When he died in his eighties he was buried in the suit in which he had been married. I’m sure he had anticipated doing so.) My mother was of a more generous, outgoing nature, and she and Father Cooley, as she referred to him in the diary, were never close. She had a much better rapport with my grandmother.
Anna, though reserved, was a bright, well read, independent woman who had been active in women’s sufferage causes. I remember her as being constantly busy, a knitter of mittens and sweaters for her numerous grandchildren and a visitor and a reader to shut-ins. During the years of the diary she had graying hair which she pulled back severely in a bun, and strangely, a small black mustache which she kept nearly trimmed. She lived to be 105 and was sharp and alert until the end.
Although neither of my grandparents were very affectionate people I remember feeling much closer to Anna than to William. I was always a bit afraid and in awe of him, and I believe that Mother had similar feelings. At some point the frictions and petty differences forced a move. I vaguely recall that we lived in an apartment across town for a while and then later moved back in with my grandparents. I’m sure the move back was not completely voluntary but was made for financial reasons. Kate would have much preferred not living with her in-laws, but like his father, Sumner was concerned about the money. Frugality won out.
Then, in 1933, my father found a small rundown farmhouse with about two acres of land on the edge of Randolph Center, a hilltop village some three miles from Randolph. It was for sale and affordable, and somehow he was able to secure a loan and buy it.
I remember our moving day vividly. My uncle Harry, Sumner's older brother, came down from his farm with a team of horses and a hay wagon. My older brother Bill and I were allowed to ride on the wagon along with most of our furniture as we made the long, slow trek to the new homestead. Kate and Sumner drove up in the old Essex with the rest of our things. It was the summer of my sixth year.
When Mother started keeping the diary in 1936 we had lived in the house for three years. Kate was thirty-seven and very busy, taking care of my brother and me, tending a cow and a flock of chickens, coping with two woodstoves for cooking and for heat, and working in the orchard and vegetable garden, from which she canned much of the food we ate. Father worked sporadically as a carpenter and cabinetmaker, but jobs were scarce and not always of long duration. In addition, at times he was unable to work due to poor health. Sumner’s foot and back problems are a recurring diary entry. Whenever there was no work at either of the two furniture factories in Randolph or no remodeling jobs for neighbors, he helped out on his brother Harry's farm or kept busy repairing and restoring the more than one-hundred-year-old house to which we had moved.
It was a small house with small rooms. There were two bedrooms upstairs and one, used as a guest room, downstairs. A living room, dining room, and kitchen were also on the ground floor, and the kitchen connected to a large woodshed. There was also a long, narrow screened-in porch in the rear and a small open front porch. Down a narrow stairway there was a basement root cellar with rough, unmortared stone walls and a dirt floor. Behind the house was an orchard with many apple and a few plum and cherry trees. There was also a large garden and a fenced chicken pen area. A small two-story barn sat at the edge of the property. It was slowly converted into chicken coops over the years we lived there.
There had been no bathroom when we first moved into the house; that had been the first project. A flush toilet and a septic tank had replaced the old outhouse, and a claw-footed bathtub and a sink came sometime later. They were installed in a large pantry which adjoined the kitchen. The barn had a two-hole privy in a back room which continued to see some use, especially in the dry summer months when drought made water for toilet flushing scarce. Our water came from a spring about half a mile away and was pumped to the house by a primitive water-powered device which didn't work well when the water level in the spring was low.
Making the house livable was an ongoing project. Father borrowed construction jacks to lift the sagging beams while he shored them up in an only partially successful attempt to level the floors. He patched cracks in the stone foundation and replaced missing clapboard siding. He nailed thick, felt weather stripping around the doors, and in the fall we piled burlap sacks full of dry leaves around the base of the house to keep the cold winter wind out. He was constantly replacing shingles, trying to stop the multiple leaks in the roof. I recall the imaginary landscapes and strange creatures that I conjured up from the swirling brown water stains on my bedroom ceiling. They were constantly changing. He never completely solved the problem.
As the youngest child, I was somewhat insulated from the hardships of those years. Looking back, I realize what a difficult time it was for my parents. It seemed that the summers were spent in a constant struggle to prepare for winter. Then, in winter, they were mainly occupied with surviving, staying warm, and hoping for an occasional nice day. I quote from Mother's first brief diary entry:
Jan. 1, 1936. Lovely mild day. First morning above zero in 14 days. Had my 37th birthday yesterday. Called on Smalls with Bertha Jones this PM.
Next: January entries—skiing, visiting the neighbors (including Harry and Gertrude Cooley; and the Lamb farm, where Elizabeth Cutting and her daughter Anne lived), and trying to stay warm.