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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Leslie Thorbs, May 30, 2001. Interview K-0589. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Living in poverty as a tenant farm family

Thorbs describes the difficulties his family faced making ends meet during the 1930s. Thorbs first began to work on local farms at the age of eight in order to help supplement the family income, but emphasizes his low wages and the tumultuous economic circumstances of tenant farming. Because of their low socioeconomic status, Thorbs's family managed to survive by raising their own food and improvising, such as making mattresses out of corn shucks. Nevertheless, Thorbs emphasizes that he grew up "on the rough side of the mountain" and that he knew "hard times."

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Leslie Thorbs, May 30, 2001. Interview K-0589. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

LEDA HARTMAN:
Wow. When was that? Like in the '30s?
LESLIE THORBS:
That was back here in about '35 and '34ߞback along then, because I started priming tobacco when I was about eight years old. Back then, I was working. I was getting fifty cents a day and we would go out on Saturday and pick cotton on Saturdays and cotton was forty cents a hundred. My mama and daddy give us what we made on Saturdays. I picked fifty pounds of cotton on Saturday. That wasn't but twenty cents. Oh Lord, child, there have been some days back that I can call. I'm telling you the truth. Yes sir. That's right. Then cotton might go on up a little bit, go on up a little bit until it got up to two dollars a hundred.
LEDA HARTMAN:
Now when the government put in price supports for tobacco, did that help your family?
LESLIE THORBS:
Well, not too much. It didn't really help too much.
LEDA HARTMAN:
It didn't make a different to you too much? By then you were sort of out of farming anyway.
LESLIE THORBS:
Right. Right.
LEDA HARTMAN:
Oh I see. I see.
LESLIE THORBS:
I farmed some years we didn't even clear five hundred dollars the whole year.
LEDA HARTMAN:
So how did you live?
LESLIE THORBS:
I tell you what, off of roasted ear of corn and Irish potatoes, sweet potatoes such little things like that. That's the truth.
LEDA HARTMAN:
That's what you'd eat?
LESLIE THORBS:
Yeah.
LEDA HARTMAN:
Just what you'd raise?
LESLIE THORBS:
Yes, sir. I know my mama would get out in the evening and cut a wash pot full of corn and put it in the wash pot and cook it, and that's what we had for supper. People don't even realize now a days, they don't even know what it's all about. That's right. I came up on the rough side of the mountain. I know how it is. I know hard times. I tell you I really, we came up, we had it hard when we came up. Really, when we came up it wasn't such thing as you could go to the furniture store and buy mattresses and stuff like that. We'd go out in the field and get this here clean hay grass and my mama would sew a mattress, and that's what we would lay on. People wouldn't even believe that now.
BETTY HOWES:
I do.
LESLIE THORBS:
I'm serous. That's the truth.
BETTY HOWES:
Corn shuck mattresses.
LESLIE THORBS:
Yes sir. You tell children things like that now. They don't know what it's all about.
LEDA HARTMAN:
No, I think a lot of them don't.
LESLIE THORBS:
I know they don't because you don't even know anything about that.
LEDA HARTMAN:
Did you, when you were coming up like that, did y'all realize that you were poor or was it just the way everybody was so you didn't realize it?
LESLIE THORBS:
We realized we were poor. We weren't the only ones that were poor. I mean, there were a lot of people.
LEDA HARTMAN:
Everybody was kind of in the same boat.
LESLIE THORBS:
Yeah. There you go. There you go. That's just the way it was. That's the way it was.
LEDA HARTMAN:
I'm sorry.
LESLIE THORBS:
Uh uh. Go ahead on.
LEDA HARTMAN:
So, like all your neighbors who were around and so on, did people help each other like if someone was in trouble or if someone was sick?
LESLIE THORBS:
Well, back along then they did. Back along then they did help them a whole lot more than they help them now.
LEDA HARTMAN:
Because everybody was poor so they had toߞ?
LESLIE THORBS:
I think that's what it must've been. That's just the way it is.
LEDA HARTMAN:
So what was it like? How would people help each other make it through?
LESLIE THORBS:
Well, I'll tell you, just like if you didn't have, somebody else had. It was like somebody else didn't have, you would have and they would just try to help the people like that there. I know my mamaߞback along in them days like we had thereߞshe'd get out and kill chickens and preachers would come to the house. All we would get [was] the chicken feet, the neck and the head.
LEDA HARTMAN:
What would the preacher get?
LESLIE THORBS:
The preacher got the legs, the back and the thigh. The preachers got that, and that's all we got. That's right. You tell somebody about eating a chicken head or chicken feet or something like that there.
LEDA HARTMAN:
Does that make you mad?
LESLIE THORBS:
Well, we couldn't do any better. We really couldn't do any better along then. We'd get word with the preachers or get word with our mama, we couldn't get nothing but the chicken feet and stuff, but what happened back along then, there wasn't anything we could do about it.