An old Chinese proverb states, "One generation plants the trees; another gets the shade."
In 1991, I had the good fortune to participate in interviews with several lifelong Syosset residents who had lived through the Great Depression of the 1930s, a crisis which, by most standards, dwarfs our present-day economic calamity. Last week, as I took an evening walk past empty restaurants and vacant storefronts in downtown Syosset, these interviews again flashed through my mind. When I returned home, I dusted off the box of interview tapes and began listening for stories about the Depression years, hoping there might be some inspiration somewhere in those hours of conversation. What I found were not only tales of great personal strength, but of a community that banded together to overcome an enormous challenge and build a solid foundation for future generations.
The children, farmers, laborers, and estate owners of 1930s Syosset made it through a decade of crippling economic hardship by looking out for one another in extraordinary ways: The wealthy reserved the best jobs on their estates for local workers; local shop owners extended unconditional credit when a customer's need outweighed his means; and struggling farmers willingly shared their surplus crops with anyone who appeared hungry.
Syosset in the late 1920s comprised a diverse cross-section of economic factions. On one side, there were the unimaginably wealthy, the industrial and financial tycoons who had built or inherited hundred-room estates along Muttontown, Split Rock, and Berry Hill roads during the peak of the industrial revolution. Then there were the farmers, some of whom were descendents of Syosset's original settlers, and many of whom quietly resented the estate owners for supplanting acres of perfectly good farmland with grass and concrete. Finally, there was some semblance of a middle class, whose livelihood depended on servicing the estates and farms. Some worked on the estates as kitchen staff, landscapers, chauffeurs, or personal servants in exchange for a salary and/or free housing and food. Others ran shops in the downtown area, fiercely competing for the business of local farmers and those who made buying decisions for the estate owners.
In actuality, when the stockmarket crash of 1929 triggered what we now call the Great Depression, day-to-day life in Syosset was not immediately affected. Although many of the estate owners watched their family fortunes dwindle by staggering percentages, the hardships they suffered were not life-shattering. And for the time being, as long as the estate owners were reasonably solvent, Syosset's farmers, shop owners, and laborers had a somewhat stable life support system.
U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, Andrew W. Mellon, the owner of a sprawling estate on Southwoods Road, offered reassurance of this stability when he confidently advised that "there is no cause to worry. The high tide of prosperity will continue!" Unfortunately, Mellon's assertion was incorrect. Within a short time, thousands of families in New York City and other parts of our area were cast into poverty as businesses closed their doors without warning, unemployment soared toward 25 percent, and savings accounts disappeared with the twist of a padlock key.
Suddenly, Syosset farmers who had enjoyed a profitable decade peddling their produce in Manhattan during the Roaring Twenties found themselves dumping truckloads of rotting, unsold vegetables off the 59th Street Bridge on their way home. In the words of one Syosset farmer, "It was rrrough in the '30s!" One farmer's son describes the grueling ordeal of waking up at 3 a.m. each morning to load his father's truck with corn, cabbage, cucumbers, potatoes, and anything that might yield a few cents at the downtown Manhattan farmers' market. After a two-hour trek along Northern Boulevard, father and son would spend the entire day hawking their goods, desperately trying to sell anything at any price, only to return home having earned barely enough to fuel their truck for the next day's journey.
Eventually, some farmers swallowed their pride and went to work on local estates, sometimes running small farms set up by estate owners as tax shelters. This was generally a win-win arrangement, as the farmer was now able to support his family and the estate owner could demonstrate for the taxman that there was a working farm on his property.
One advantage farmers had over residents in other trades was that they generally did not have to worry about how to feed their families. Everything they needed for sustenance - produce, fowl, dairy, and well water - was typically either just outside the door or easy enough to barter from another farmer. Children of this era recall, often with guilt, how they became adept at stealing food from local farms. Old-time Syosset farmers found these admissions somewhat humorous, as they recalled being perfectly willing to share their harvests with any neighbor who needed food.
The farmers' inability to pay field workers meant that an additional burden fell on their wives and children. One Depression-era child recounts how he would wake up at dawn each day and pick string beans in his father's field for two to three hours before heading off to school, sometimes in his dirt-stained trousers. After school, he would head back to the field to work several more hours until dinner time. Even homework took a back seat to helping maintain the family potato and corn fields, as the latter appeared to be the only chance of survival going forward.
Downtown shop owners suffered a fate similar to that of the farmers, as demand for their wares ultimately waned. As a result, competition for the business of the estates intensified. The son of a 1930s Syosset storekeeper recalls being coached by his father to "step up the charm" whenever an estate servant entered the shop in an effort to guarantee that customer's continued business. Another former merchant confides that some Syosset store owners were coerced into paying kickbacks to estate servants for the favor of their patronage. Still others recall that some Syosset businesses survived only by returning to the "barter system" of earlier times.
Had it not been for the construction of what was then considered a state-of-the-art school on Split Rock Road in the mid-1920s, it is unlikely that the children of farmers, the children of estate workers, and the children of estate owners would have had many occasions to intermingle. At the Split Rock School, it was not uncommon to see the child of a steel magnate giggling hysterically on a teeter-totter with the child of the local blacksmith. Although there was certainly some teasing and taunting between children of contrasting economic backgrounds, most Syosset Depression-era children recall that there was always an underlying sense of camaraderie, regardless of whose parents were extremely wealthy and whose could barely afford the cow manure to keep their fields productive.
The matriarch of the Sparks family, whose palatial estate sat opposite a thickly forested area behind the Split Rock School, was particularly generous with the less fortunate children. Once a week, she would donate a sack of ground flour to the school, whose principal would invite parents to send their children to class with an empty sock or a small bag to fill. While some recall being overwhelmed by the temptation to have "flour sock fights" on the walk home, all understood the critical connection between bringing the flour home and having bread to eat for the next few days. Quite often, bread (sometimes smeared with ketchup or a drop of olive oil) was the only food a child could expect to eat for weeks at a time.
Clothing was another issue for many children. Parents generally managed to scrape up enough money to buy their children one or two new dresses or pairs of slacks that had to last an entire school year. Depression-era schoolchildren vividly recall the "swooshing" sound of brand new corduroy pants echoing through the hallways during the first days of school. After a few months of wear, the racket subsided and, by midyear, the trousers had typically been patched at the knees several times. Likewise, parents constantly repaired their children's shoes, often by sealing holes with ovals cut from corrugated cardboard boxes.
Of course, working class children who mixed with the offspring of estate owners could count on occasional hand-me-downs from their more privileged little buddies, and would often enjoy other benefits as well. A clever enough child could find his way into a social gathering on the estate of his wealthy friend's parents and indulge in exotic food and ice cream all day long. If he became familiar enough to the estate owners, the payoff might include free warm meals in the servants' quarters, horseback riding lessons, or a job on the estate.
Ironically, the home life that Syosset children experienced during the Great Depression seems somewhat enviable today. Family was, without question, a top priority for both parents and children. Board games, card games, marbles, and jigsaw puzzles provided families with frequent opportunities to come together and discuss the issues of the day. Through these frank discussions, children gained an understanding of the economic crisis and the importance of "pitching in" to keep the family afloat.
When there was time for outdoor recreation, children whizzed around Syosset on bicycles and scooters that were sometimes fashioned out of old farm equipment parts. If they happened to catch one of the farmers in a good mood, he might treat them to a hayride or let them operate a tractor. Occasionally, the children of farmers could convince their folks to let them drag a phonograph player outside for an old-fashioned barn dance. Overall, Syosset kids managed to make the best of one of the darkest hours in recent history.
Adults also managed to find some relief from the stress of the economic crisis, although this sometimes meant breaking the law. Despite the National Prohibition Act, which banned the sale of alcoholic beverages in the United States between 1920 and 1933, illegal saloons, known as "speakeasies," sprang up in cities and towns everywhere. One such establishment was tucked inside the old Spreer's Hotel on Jackson Avenue, where farmers and estate workers could sneak a few drinks for pennies apiece on the conditions that they did not "squeal" and were always prepared to run out the back door if police raided the building. During this era, many Syosset townspeople still traveled locally on horseback, particularly when they visited the local speakeasy. One child of the 1930s recalls that if a speakeasy patron became intoxicated, his buddies would hoist him onto the saddle of his trusted stallion, which would then guide its owner safely home.
Relief for struggling Syosset families eventually came in the form of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration, a program initiated in 1935 to put Americans back to work at municipal construction jobs. For the next several years, unemployed Syosset residents were able to secure jobs building the sidewalks and roads that crisscross our hamlet today.
Ultimately, it took a major world war to finally lift Syosset and the rest of the country out of the economic crisis of the 1930s, but not before the Great Depression depleted many Syosset family fortunes, some of which had taken centuries to build. By the time the economy showed its earliest signs of recovery in the mid-1930s, the estate owners had begun to downsize, and by the height of World War II, many were gladly selling off their rambling acres to developers. Some of the estate workers were given modest homes as parting gifts from their employers, while others took jobs with new defense factories that were opening in town and in the surrounding area. Many farmers, lured by higher wages and the promise of a better night's sleep, abandoned their farms and joined their neighbors on the defense production lines. After the war, almost all of Syosset's remaining farmers sold off their properties to real estate developers and, in some cases, deposited the proceeds into trust funds from which their children and grandchildren are still drawing today.
In the end, Syosset emerged even stronger than it had been in the Roaring Twenties. Its Depression-era children grew up to become the parents of doctors, lawyers, politicians, and successful entrepreneurs. Having weathered an economic collapse many times worse than the one we are experiencing today, they carried with them an unyielding spirit of survival, a strong commitment to community, and a refreshingly down-to-earth attitude about what is really important in life. Some are still active in Syosset, trying to keep neighborhood pride alive and constantly reminding us that although money and possessions can disappear in an instant, a strong community can endure even the most formidable challenges.
One generation plants the trees; another gets the shade. Like many of my Syosset friends and neighbors, I, too, am heavy-hearted these days. Yet, having crossed paths with these children of the Great Depression, I am encouraged by their stories. Perhaps, by maintaining our sense of community, we can survive the most formidable crisis of our time and plant the trees that will shade many future generations.
Tom Montalbano is the author of Syosset, the first of two pictorial Syosset histories in Arcadia Publishing's "Images of America" series, as well as Steel Rails Through the Pines, a comprehensive history of Syosset's LIRR station that is available as a free pdf download at www.geocities.com/syossetstation.