Minnesota's Greatest Generation

Michael T. Sanchelli: One Man's Junk

Michael T. Sanchelli of St. Paul learned some early business lessons as a boy during the Great Depression, and found himself competing against grown men with families to support for jobs. He wrote of his experiences in his memoir, "22 No. Phalen - The Depression Years."

Memoir Excerpt

Selling Newspapers for a Penny Profit

I was 14 when the depression hit. I tried selling papers downtown. My mother gave me a dime to get started. This is the way it went: you bought the daily paper from the St Paul Dispatch or the St Paul Daily News for 1 cent per copy. Then you go on to a corner downtown and sell the paper for two cents, a penny profit. That was easier said than done. The corner I was assigned ten person went by all morning and I only sold one paper. The good corners like 7th and Wabasha, 7th and Robert and all the good buildings like the Great Northern building and places that had people working in them were taken. You had to know the president of the newspaper company to get one of those prime places.

Collecting Junk

We tried junking. Junking is going round to places where people dumped things that they didn't want in places that were being filled in. The upper rim of Swede Hollow had a lot of dumps. The bluff side was a good place for the people that lived up on the rim of the Hollow. It was sort of their back yard. We also made the alleys of the east side that had rubbish collectors. If we were lucky we would pick up the old aluminum pots and pans, old pewter, copper and sometimes rags, some were good enough to wear. There were a lot of grown men with families also junking. Competition was tough. All the big dumps had a self tender.

I thought the binder dump at the 6th St. bridge near the bluff was ours until one day we met up with a man we had never seen there before. He was a big guy with a wooden peg for the left leg, he wore a large brim brown hat, was armed with a pitchfork and a slingshot and had a big walrus mustache, and looked mean. "This is my dump. I don't want you kids taking anything from here unless I say so," he said. We got acquainted with him and he told us that he lost his leg whaling. Catching whales was still big business then so we didn't question the story. Once in a while we would try to sneak up on him and take some stuff from the dump, but that was too dangerous. He would shoot at us with the slingshot with iron nuts for shot. If you got hit on the head with one of those you would be in bad shape. Luckily, nobody was hit on the head. We even tried getting down there real early in the morning, but the old whaler was already there...

Work Took the Place of School

The thought of ever going back to school was out of the question now. Nobody would ever hire my father; he was on medication for the rest of his life, even then he still had some [epileptic] attacks...The government started another work program, P.W.A. , same type of work only under different letters. There were other work programs also. I even worked at Como Zoo; that was a job I really liked. I was there almost a year. Another project was shoveling the city skating rinks; it wasn't too bad. We got 16 dollars a week and my mother could make 16 dollars go a long way. It was about 1932 and Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president. Things were going to change, that's what everybody said anyway.

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Sanchelli, Michael T., Reminiscences, 1991-1993. Minnesota Historical Society Manuscripts Collection, 2006.