Minnesota's Greatest Generation

Robert D. Hill: Going Hungry

Not all families were able to cooperate with one another during the depression the way the Sanchelli and Dean families did. Robert D. Hill, writing about his childhood experiences growing up in Albert Lea, Minnesota, remembered a cold family atmosphere where money wasn’t the only commodity in short supply.

Memoir Excerpts

Unhappy Life at Home

My home life was, I suspect, somewhat normal for the times and considering the low economic status of the family. Dad was never close to us children. He never talked to us as a father or played with us. He was always distant & considered us somewhat as competition for food at the table and attention from friends and relatives. I don't recall receiving from dad any advice about life or grades in school or anything of significance. He never talked with us about anything. Mother never did either for that matter.

The severe financial strain placed tremendous stress on family members, which created tension and hostility, making home life even more difficult for children who perhaps did not understand the reasons behind the problems.

My parents were often quarrelling. Several occasions mother or someone called the County sheriff who would come & settle things down. Mother asked me several times to protect her from dad but being small for my age I didn’t know how I would do it if dad tried to harm her. I never observed any outward signs of affection between my parents. The only time they seemed to get along is when playing cards with friends. We never did anything as a family.

Making Do With What We Had

With both parents working in a desperate attempt to make ends meet, resourcefulness was necessary to the Hill family's survival.

My mother was manager of the family finances and the one that you asked if you wanted anything. She worked outside the house nearly all my growing up years. She worked first as a house cleaner for Mrs. John Hayek. (Mr. Hayek was mayor of Albert Lea for a number of years.) I recall she would bring home old ties & socks. The socks she shortened by cutting off the toe straight across. One time in school, possibly the fourth grade, we had to be weighed and the teacher told us to take off our shoes. Knowing my socks were cut off square I removed them & went up to the front of the room to be weighed bare foot. I received quite a laugh & comments from the class about my bare feet. Another time in that same class I recall coming to class one cold winter morning wearing only a thin colored undershirt under my outer coat. I was quite surprised when I removed my coat & found I had not put on a shirt before leaving home. I remembered I had put on my coat after getting out of bed because it was cold in the house & never took it off again before leaving for school.

Later Mother worked for Johnson Laundry Company in the fur department. She sewed linings and did other sewing. She also made curtains.

Going to School Hungry

It wasn't unusual for children in the great depression to go hungry, often missing one or more meals each day. Robert Hill recalled that hunger in the days before the school lunch program.

When living on 2d Ave and going to high school. Mother never made me breakfast. She had already left for work when I woke up. I would lay in bed until 6-7 minutes before school was due to start then get up, dress quickly, and run the 4-5 blocks to school. I never was late I recall. During lunch break I would come home and scavenger around the kitchen for something to eat. On rare occasions Mother would make something in the crock pot for me to eat (mostly beans). Nearly always I returned to school without eating anything. I don't recall having much to eat during the evening meal either so consequently my growing body did not receive the necessary amount of nutrition to grow adequately. I was always the smallest one in my classes and underweight.

Read Full Memoir



Hill, Robert Darwin, Reminiscences and Genealogical Charts, 1974-1997. Minnesota Historical Society Manuscript Collection, 2006.