Being A Widow in 1921
In most cases for widows, the first source of support came from the immediate family, which tended to live in proximately su to each other. In those days, family units could have six, eight, ten, or more children. That created a double-edged sword for parents, initially more mouths to feed but ultimately more hands. Grandparents played a key role in supporting new generations.
Illness and injury on farms were quite common, often fatal. Care and support would often come from several generations and families. This was a critical necessity with the greater distances between houses and limited transportation. This was the most common and productive support system of the time.
At that time, widows usually could rely on a families the genuine love and compassion. Having married against both families wishes, however, Alice being protestant and William catholic, they were left to fend for themselves.
The farm they lived on was owned by William Steele’s father and, if not for a signed lease, would have been immediately confiscated. As it was, the couple were left to manage the property, crops, and animals without familial assistance. This ultimately contributed greatly to my grandfather’s premature death at 32. Shortly after grandpa’s death, his family was evicted from the farm.
Without the traditional support of two large families, Alice moved into the nearest town, Woodward. There the other primary sources of support in the era played a key role in the survival of her and four children under seven – church, community, and business.
My grandmother hoped to generate a modest income through baking, washing, cleaning, and sewing for the community. She was immediately befriended by a couple who ran the local mercantile. The proprietors quickly saw the potential sales from grandma’s incredible baked goods, especially her cinnamon rolls.
Over the rest of the decade, the relationship with this couple and the Steele clan grew into a surrogate family of sorts. At the same time, the local Methodist church rose about the negative reaction of some members. The Minister and majority of the congregations welcomed the five with open arms. Grandma’s baking for the frequent potlucks likely played a part in this.
While the mercantile provided material support, the church offered spiritual sustenance. For the children, church and school provided friends that would last a lifetime. Unlike it seems today, the community was close knit and overlapped on nearly all issues. Everything and everyone seemed to touch all in a harmonious way. Conflicts were minimal, there was little time for that, with mutual reliance the focus.
Back then there was no social services, no social security; few, if any, publicly funded agencies to transfer the burden. The situation today is much different. Large families are nearly a thing of the past. Federal, state and, local governments and non-profits, are available to provide everything from food stamps the housing. Taxes and charitable donations now fund such services often with no idea where the monies go.
Though it is wonderful that there are programs available, I have a tinge of sadness at the loss of the direct connection between the persons in need and those filling those needs. The personal connection certainly diminishes the ability to connect the stories between giver and recipient. I can’t help but think the old method, with its hands-on ways, helped those in need not only over rough times but also instilled a strong incentive toward self-reliance and playing it forward.