Minnesota's Greatest Generation

Mary Joy Dean Breton: A New Start

Mary Joy Breton was born in Minneapolis, in the home she would later watch slip away from her family's grasp during the Great Depression. In a series of stories contributed to the Minnesota's Greatest Generation Share Your Story , Mary Joy shared her childhood experiences.

Story Excerpts

"I'm bid 900 dollars, now do I hear 950? Will ya give me 50? Nine-fifty, nine fifty? I hear 950, now 975, will ya give me 975, now 975?"

On the scorching August day our house at 3701 24th Avenue South in Minneapolis was sold at auction. I huddled half way up the stairs of our two-story bungalow waiting for a glimpse of the bird that lived in the cuckoo clock hanging on the wall above the landing. Part of my father's nightly routine, after emptying the drip-pan under the ice box, was winding the cuckoo clock by raising with pull chains the pine-cone-shaped weights up to the cuckoo's house.

As I watched and fantasized about the cuckoo bird - I liked to pretend it was alive - and listened to the auctioneer's chant to the crowd on the front lawn, I could sense a huge change about to take place in my life. I didn't know what was going to happen to us. The uncertainty scared me. Clutching my skirt to my face, I swabbed away the sweat and tears and masked my nose against the stench of cigar smoke. I was eight years old. It was 1932.

Losing a Home, Gaining a New One

Ms. Breton's father, William James Dean, had emigrated from England in 1921 and was engaged in the paperhanging and painting trade.

Soon after the October 29, 1929 stock market crash, my father lost his steady job at the Andrews Hotel in Minneapolis. Redecorating had become an expendable luxury. So now, having exhausted our savings and unable to make the mortgage and tax payments on our home, unable even to find a buyer, we were forced to auction not only our house but all our furniture as well. "SOLD for $1,000!" the auctioneer roared.

Early the following spring, 1933, my parents bought one acre for $450 from dairy farmer Willard Anderson in rural Eden Prairie Township, then just an isolated sleepy settlement, population only 1,000. Our acre was on Highway 169 across the road from a huge Sherwin Williams billboard picturing paint flowing over and enveloping the Earth.

Our one-acre plot in Eden Prairie had already been planted with oats. My mother surveyed the scene. "We'll grow our food right here." But it looked impossible to me. And I wondered where we would live. Even so, the prospects of a challenging new life experience somehow energized me and lifted my spirits.

Challenges of Life in Our New Home

During our first winter in the unfinished one-room dwelling, nothing but tarpaper and thin insulation bats between the two-by-four studs sheltered us from the Minnesota cold. Sometimes snow blew in through the wall cracks onto our beds. Several of us slept on Army cots lined up along the walls. But there weren't enough cots for everyone. A large blanket chest served as one additional bed, and my younger brother, John, slept in a contraption we christened "The Chariot" comprised of an old upholstered chair and a footstool bridged by a board. We curled up in our beds under olive drab woolen Army blankets given to us by a relative, my great uncle, Colonel Sanford Parker, who had been in the Spanish-American War.

We had one closet for the six of us, no electricity or running water, no indoor toilet. If it was too cold to go out to the privy at night, we used a "slop jar." My father had the unpleasant chore of emptying the slop jar each morning. A pot-bellied, wood-burning stove provided our only heat. Even when the stove looked red hot as we hovered around it, our backs were freezing. I used my nightgown as a tent under which I tried to dress and undress in a bit of privacy, shivering all the while.

Help from Aunt Rachel

One family member in particular proved a real blessing to the Dean family: Mary Joy's Aunt Rachel.

When our food supply approached exhaustion in November, potatoes became the mainstay of our diet. Often I was still hungry after a meal, but none of us dared ask for seconds. Had it not been for Aunt Rachel, we could have come near starvation that first winter.

Once a week, Aunt Rachel, my mother's plump, younger sister - a spinster, who worked at the First National Bank in Minneapolis - gave us a box of groceries. And frequently she invited us to her apartment at 2519 Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis for a chicken or roast beef dinner on Sundays after church. She was the only member of our extended family with a steady job.

Making Food Last

The family had its own ways of making food stretch during the leanest years of the Depression.

Bill, then thirteen years old, helped put food on our table by hunting rabbits and pheasants. He wasn't always successful, however. My mother stretched food with bread, cracker and rice fillers: scalloped tomatoes, scalloped canned salmon, scalloped potatoes, scalloped anything. Sometimes our meal consisted of bread and gravy. My mother baked our bread. Recalling the aroma of fresh-baked bread on arriving home from school inspired me to make bread every week during the growing-up years of my own three children.

Depending on the Kindness of Others

During the winter of 1933, the family unexpectedly found another source of help. Strangers, stranded in a blizzard, were rescued by Mr. Dean, and repaid the family's kindness in their own special way.

Just before Thanksgiving and again before Christmas, Mr. Schultz appeared at our door with huge boxes of food - meat and canned vegetables, fresh fruit and even boxes of candy. It turned out he and his wife owned a grocery store in Mankato, Minnesota and, at the time of the auto mishap, had been en route to Minneapolis to purchase stock for their store. We four children had gorgeous fresh oranges in our Christmas stockings that year, plus peanuts in the shell and chocolate candy. While our situation gradually improved in the years following 1933, our holiday dinners that winter tasted more delicious to me than any since. The Schultzes remained longtime close family friends.



Breton, Mary Joy Dean, Surviving the Great Depression - Our Plunge Into Poverty. Minnesota Historical Society: Share Your Story, M.J. Breton, 2006.

Breton, Mary Joy Dean, Blizzard Blessings. Minnesota Historical Society: Share Your Story, M.J. Breton, 2006.