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Published: Sunday, 12/12/2010

Toledoans scraped by during Great Depression

Bob Sawyer shows off his model train set at his South Toledo home. He says his father went to Sears on Christmas Eve in 1931 to buy him his first train set, pieces of which are still in the Sawyer family. Bob Sawyer shows off his model train set at his South Toledo home. He says his father went to Sears on Christmas Eve in 1931 to buy him his first train set, pieces of which are still in the Sawyer family.
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Extra! Extra! Read all about it!"

By shouting these familiar words while peddling copies of The Blade during the Great Depression, young Bob Sawyer made enough money (up to $5.40 per week) to buy himself a new pair of pants, a sweater, and shoes for school each year.

The holidays in Toledo in the 1930s were "tight," Mr. Sawyer recalls, but he said most children he knew at the time didn't realize the severity of their parents' money problems.

"There really wasn't a whole lot of kids getting more than you did because we were all kind of poor," said Mr. Sawyer, 87, of Wildwood Road in Toledo.

As Americans struggle in the aftermath of the Great Recession of 2009, especially in Toledo, where unemployment continues to hover around 10 percent, families have no choice but to ring in the holidays with more than a hint of austerity. Joblessness, dwindling incomes, and home foreclosures are some of the factors making this a tough Christmas for thousands in Toledo.

But for residents such as Mr. Sawyer, a retiree and former owner of Toledo HVAC mechanical contractor the Hoffman & Harpst Company Inc., now is not the first time Toledo has celebrated the holidays in the midst of a harsh economy.

In 1930, when Mr. Sawyer was 7 years old and first began his job as a newsie for The Blade, the bank foreclosed on his family's house on Kensington Road in Toledo. His father had an auto repair garage off of Dorr Street, but after the stock market crashed in 1929, work slowly dried up.

The family of five struggled to get by in the early 1930s, but Mr. Sawyer said his family was more fortunate than many. He said several families on his paper route couldn't afford power at their homes — let alone the 12 cents per week for The Blade — and other families moved from house to house.

"We'd collect from our customers on Saturdays," Mr. Sawyer said. "I'd deliver the paper on Friday and when I'd come back on Saturday, the family had moved out. That happened often."

Bob Sawyer says holidays in Toledo were ‘tight' during the Great Depression. He began peddling The Blade in 1930, when he was 7 years old, to buy the clothes and shoes he needed for school each year. Bob Sawyer says holidays in Toledo were ‘tight' during the Great Depression. He began peddling The Blade in 1930, when he was 7 years old, to buy the clothes and shoes he needed for school each year.
THE BLADE/DAVE ZAPOTOSKY Enlarge | Buy This Photo

Mr. Sawyer said he peddled The Blade from 1930 to 1939, a time that spanned much of the Great Depression. One Christmas Eve, Mr. Sawyer's father had yet to buy anything for his children, and ended up splurging on a train set for $20 — pieces of which are still in the Sawyer family today.

Another Christmas — Mr. Sawyer couldn't recall the year — his present was a cap gun, holster, and belt with wooden bullets.

"The whole thing probably cost 89 cents," he said.

"That was my Christmas present, and then maybe in my stocking I had an orange, an apple, and maybe a couple caramels.

"Kids were not cognizant of family economic problems back then. On Christmas, we'd all go outside and play."

Mr. Sawyer, who has three children, six grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren, said the scope of the economic troubles facing Toledo was greater then than what the region is dealing with now. He said the present is "a turbulent time, but not the most dangerous" in American history.

When Mr. Sawyer thinks of Christmases past, he remembers making it home to Toledo on Christmas Eve, 1945.

An airplane mechanic for the U.S. Navy stationed on the island of Peleliu in the South Pacific during World War II, Mr. Sawyer arrived in San Diego four days before Christmas. Having spent Christmas in 1944 on Peleliu and remaining in the region through the war's end and beyond, Mr. Sawyer was fatigued but determined to make it back to Toledo in time for the holiday.

He took train rides from the West Coast to Chicago and had one final train to catch early Christmas Eve for Toledo. But the train he rode home collided with an automobile somewhere in Indiana, killing the driver of the car and delaying the trip.

Mr. Sawyer finally arrived at Union Station at 10 p.m., where his mother, father, brother, sister, and girlfriend were among those who had waited for hours.

As he recounted this story in his living room last week, The Blade asked him who was the girlfriend who was waiting for him that joyous Christmas Eve?

Pointing toward his driveway, Mr. Sawyer responded:

"That gal who just walked out the door."

He was speaking of his wife, Peggy, who is also 87 and has been married to Mr. Sawyer for 64 years.

She was going Christmas shopping.

Contact Joe Vardon at: jvardon@theblade.com or 419-724-6559.



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