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COLUMNIST: Little known facts of our Great Depression

By Jerry Moriarty

Guest contributor

Many previous unknown or little known facts are resurfacing about the Great U.S. Depression because of our modern day economic troubles. So let's look back.

As a kid in La Crosse, WI in the early 1930's of the Great Depression, I often sat on our limestone curb along the arterial highway which at that time ran from the "wagon" bridge over the Mississippi to points east in Wisconsin.

I and an occasional casual buddy sat there for hours to watch scores of unemployed men parade glumly along the street, some discarding their shirts to expose their lean, emaciated torsos because of their sparse diets.

Even though our family suffered through the depression as our neighbors did, my kindly mother did what she could; I am sure that these hoboes, as they were called, had marked our curbstone indicating our house was an easy touch for food.

We had a tiny back porch and daily men shuffled along our back sidewalk to enjoy a meal, often an egg and toast.

As an altar boy, I and another buddy on Sundays were given change by the priest to buy a newspaper. The store was located next to Riverside Park and we would stroll over there to see scores of transients sleeping in long rows along the river.

La Crosse is at the confluence of three rivers, the mighty Mississippi, the Black, and La Crosse. Each had a hobo jungle, where the men (we never saw women) fried sandwiches, drank coffee (or alcoholic substitutes) and tried to sleep.

It was an indelible sight that remains to this date, getting closer to 90 years later.

Despite the intense poverty, a government spokesman proudly kept announcing nationally over radio and in newspapers that these impoverished men did not join the communist party.

How wrong he was as I point out these and other brutal facts, most of which are little known even today by the American public.

Most of these sad unpleasantries were hidden in my forgiving mind until I courted a girl in northern Minnesota and met a few natives of Finland who confirmed a little of communist activity there years ago.

Finland, the nation, was attacked by Russia, but my Finnish patriots in Minnesota downplayed the significance by emphasizing that the blacks had won and the reds had lost and that was all that now was important, even though this was one of the few losses by the communists at that time.

All this information was buried mentally until I was told that a communist flag had been flown on a building not far from New York Mills. And I learned there also was a Finnish grave marker in the area with the communist slogan etched on the tombstone. I learned this to be true when Louis Hoglund, publisher of the East Otter Tail Focus in Perham, located a clipping of the gravestone in an old area newspaper for me.

My wife and I settled on Little Pine Lake near Perham within a score of miles from this activity. Finns had come to the United States before and after the battles in Finland with the reds in Russia. Many settled in northern Minnesota because of farming and mining.

Here are some little known and surprising points to be considered:

1. Many miners from northern states and unemployed from Detroit, Pittsburgh and even Los Angeles became citizens of Russia.

2. Henry Ford shipped a hundred Fords to communist Russia for final assembly there. Most still find this hard to believe.

3. Russia under Stalin sent steamships to New York to transport Americans, often entire families, to Russia, where U.S. passports were exchanged for Russian. Some estimates claim thousands of Americans fled our country.

4. Disgruntled at learning years later that some Americans wanted to return to the U.S. to see family and friends or even relocate, Russia confiscated their American passports. If Americans still were unhappy, many were shipped to terrible labor camps as slave labor and many just disappeared. You can speculate on where and how.

Probably the biggest surprise to Americans is that so many became Russian citizens in those first five years abroad. But with no American passports they had no choice.

Stalin was a shrewd leader of communist Russia, which he called Utopia. He said Russia escaped ravages of the depression and it rightly deserved to be called Utopia.

Stalin, claiming no unemployment there, offered steady work to Americans, although probably with lesser pay than in the U.S., but he also offered housing and an allowance, quite attractive to some Americans who had lost faith in the U.S. economy.

The Russian dream lasted three to four years for most Americans who had gone to Russia.

Baseball was an unknown sport to Russians, so some Americans sent equipment to Russia so they could be introduced to the sport. A diamond was constructed in Gorky Park and the sport attracted large crowds often until 4 a.m. when vodka flowed freely. When I visited Russia a few years ago, the competent guide mentioned the park, but nothing about its history.

Most Americans with whom I have talked are amazed that Henry Ford tried to have Ford automobiles manufactured in Russia. Well, Ford was always fearful that his auto workers in Detroit would strike and ruin his auto industry. Despite having some of his auto workers go to Russia, only a few of the Russians had the skills needed. Many critical pieces of equipment were not installed properly and the Ford experiment died shortly.

The early auto workers and baseball players began to get restless and many tried to return to the states. Most of the others were discredited and many gradually disappeared, some to labor camps and others to who knows where.

One worker described how he visited a uranium mine near the Japanese border and saw workers with blood running out of their eyes and noses because of the uranium. Many lives were lost.

Some officials in the U.S. administration, but not all, repeatedly tried to force Russians to relinquish passports taken from Americans, but with no success. In fact, years later President George H. Bush promised to force out this information, but the Russians never wavered. They made it hopeless to try. And American administrations never learned about the missing passports or if bodies of missing Americans are buried under Russian soil.

But they did learn they faced a formidable opponent both during and after the depression.