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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with George Esser, June-August 1990. Interview L-0035. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

The Depression teaches the value of government relief

Struggling through the Depression, Esser saw how important government relief programs could be to struggling Americans. His father did, too: a Republican, he voted for Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with George Esser, June-August 1990. Interview L-0035. 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

GEORGE ESSER:
My birthday is August 6, 1921. They were married in 1920. Then the second, my brother, was born on December 28, 1922.
FRANCES WEAVER:
And his name is Cary.
GEORGE ESSER:
He was first named Jefferson Randolph Esser after his grandfather, and five days later my mother died from pneumonia, and so they added the Cary. So it's Jefferson Randolph Cary Esser. This has always been a problem for him, and when he went in the Army, you know, they don't accept the third name. So it was Jefferson R. Esser, and everybody except me and my wife know him as Jeff [Laughter] . And I must say that his wife is very understanding about it. But anyhow, there my father was, well…
FRANCES WEAVER:
Two babies.
GEORGE ESSER:
Actually three weeks later his only male first cousin, who was staying with his father right in the house right behind, got pneumonia and died. And so my grandfather decided it was a good time to take my grandmother to Florida to forget all of this strain, and she died of a heart attack in the St. Petersburg Hotel. So my father had two young boys. So he wrote Martha.
FRANCES WEAVER:
The sister?
GEORGE ESSER:
The sister, and said would you come take care of the boys?
FRANCES WEAVER:
Where was she at this time?
GEORGE ESSER:
She was a teacher in Roanoke. So she wrote a first cousin that we knew and in whom she had a lot of confidence, and said, "Would it be proper?" I've got the answer. And he said, "By all means. You've got to see that those children are raised." [Laughter]
FRANCES WEAVER:
Those little nephews are raised, yes.
GEORGE ESSER:
So she came to Norton and moved in. Actually for a year and a half there was a full-time nurse for my brother, but after that…. From my earliest recollection, why, she was there. I've later discovered, she later told me that he asked her to marry him in 1928. I'm citing this because I think it gives an insight into me, and she said she would do it until he was—that was after he had gone bankrupt. And she said that she would marry him after he'd gotten on his feet economically, because she had been through so much poverty. I mean, Episcopal ministers, particularly in rural churches, didn't get much.
FRANCES WEAVER:
Oh no.
GEORGE ESSER:
And certainly in the form of dollars. And she was very sensitive through out her life to…. There was a time in the early '30s in the depths of the Depression when my father broke his leg, was in the hospital, and he had no job. And the only income we had was a monthly annuity that a distant relative of mine, the daughter of my great-grandfather's sister, who lived in Philadelphia, and I mean, they had plenty of money and the Civil War had not wiped them out. She left an annuity to my grandfather which continued through my mother's life. At best, it was $50.00 a month. During the Depression it was something like $37.50. But for a couple of years that was the only income we had. So I, you know, remember moving out of our house. We camped out in the bit house until the big house was sold. And my father was in the hospital with a broken leg, and we had to move from the big house into a small house that Martha—"Mash," I called her—had discovered and rented. She was responsible for moving everything, for storing the furniture, and this old aunt of my father's, who was then about seventy-five and was no help at all—I mean, she wanted to help but she just couldn't help—was there. And she eventually went with my father's sister for three years and came back. It was tough.
FRANCES WEAVER:
It was very tough.
GEORGE ESSER:
I don't know. I was never a very entrepreneurial person. If a job came my way, I was glad to have it, but I was not good at creating jobs. And I was not good at, you know, I tried delivering papers and things like that and it was not very good for me. But I was sensitive to the meaning of what a penny meant and what a nickel meant. I suppose that Mash's standards and my father's difficulties made quite an impression on me. Also I think that Mash always felt that I was influenced, in part at least, by my grandfather's, the Episcopal minister's, example. Remember now, I grew up in a Republican family.
FRANCES WEAVER:
I hadn't realized that.
GEORGE ESSER:
My father did vote for Franklin Delanor Rooseveit in 1932.
FRANCES WEAVER:
Then did he switch in '36?
GEORGE ESSER:
Yeah, and he voted for Coolidge and Hoover in '28. It was perfectly natural. They were a Republican family. So when I went, high school was a breeze for me. Mash and my father always wanted me to go to VES but we didn't have enough money for that. Now, beginning, let's see, my father in 1933 got a job with the Relief Administration. He did, and I was old enough to see what that meant to people.