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Texas | Columns

Surviving
the Great Depression

by Barbara Duvall Wesolek
Barbara Duvall Wesolek

James Forrest Bonham, my grandfather, owned an American Texaco gasoline service station on Staples Street in Corpus Christi in the 1920s and 1930s.. He and two brothers also each owned a Bonham's grocery store in Corpus.

They all worked long, hard hours and survived through the Great Depression, but not without difficulties as customers could not always pay. Many citizens who couldn't pay their bills just up and left, headed west in hopes of finding work.

Grandfather Bonham told me stories about Depression hardships that I never forgot. The Depression was a terrible time few of us can even imagine now, at least not yet.

Millions of people became unemployed and lost their homes. They became transients seeking any work they could find. Millions stood in bread and soup lines to keep from starving in those crushing times of economic failure. Grandfather said the cause was greed, too much money was held in the hands of the big rich who didn't care about the working people.

Corpus Christi TX - American Texaco Station 1930s
The American Texaco Station
Click on image to enlarge
Courtesy Barbara Duvall Wesolek
One Saturday in the early 1930s, a man my grandfather had only seen around in Corpus, not a customer, drove into the station and asked to buy a tire. My grandfather advised the man he needed all four tires as his were dangerously worn out. The man said he knew it, but he only had money for one tire at that time. So my grandfather sold him the tire on credit, as was the custom back them. Accounts were settled as agreed, usually the first of the month.

He never heard from the man again. Instead, he soon learned the man had gone that Saturday to all four of the gas stations that sold tires in Corpus and had bought one tire at each store. Then he left for California on his four new tires, hoping to find a new life and work he could not find in Corpus.

My grandfather was not upset about this, although it was a loss for him and his family. Instead, he finished the story by saying the man was a mighty considerate fellow to take the time to go to all four places to buy a tire so no one station owner had to take the loss for all four tires.

As for the grocery stores, some of his customers could not pay either so he carried their accounts, meaning they could pay when they got the money. Otherwise, they wouldn't have enough food to eat, he said. He couldn't let them starve. Back then you looked out for your neighbors and everyone was deep in the Depression together.
Corpus Christi TX - American Texaco Station 1930s
Click on image to enlarge
Courtesy Barbara Duvall Wesolek

I asked him if they paid after the Depression was over or when they got a job. He said, "Not a one!" He said that after many months or a couple of years of not paying, when they got a job they not only didn't pay, many went to his competitors instead. He said he thought it was because they were too embarrassed to come back. He didn't ask for the money they owed him.

Although my grandfather was a hard worker, he didn't hold grudges or worry about any money lost to people who needed help. I think that may be partly why he lived to be 94 years old, he had a good heart and an open hand for everyone. Needless to say, his reputation in Corpus was the best. He was respected by all who knew him, as were his two Bonham brothers.

When I lived in Corpus in the 1970s, I met several people who upon learning he was my grandfather, told me their family would not have made it through the Depression if it had not been for him. By then, only his brother, Otha Bonham, still owned a Bonham grocery store in Corpus. Otha enjoyed the same respect as Forrest Bonham, as well as the financial success that came after the Depression for many who had managed to survive the hard times.


Barbara Duvall Wesolek
December 30, 2016 column
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