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Growing Up in Auburn: The Great Depression Hits Home

HistoryLink.org Essay 2128 : Printer-Friendly Format

Joseph Koch (1920-2000) was a longtime resident of Auburn, a small town located in south King County only a few miles from the Pierce County border. From the time of his retirement in 1962, Joe was one of Auburn's most active local historians. This interview was conducted in Auburn by HistoryLink.org's Heather MacIntosh in January 2000. In it, he shared his memories of Auburn during the Great Depression, as well as memories of the impact of World War II on the area's Japanese farmers. 

The Fun Side of the Tracks

"I was born in Tacoma, in December of 1920. Soon after, we moved to Auburn. I lived at 304 3rd Street SE ... it was exciting. We lived alongside the tracks. There were four railroads through Auburn, 200 trains a day, half on the Northern Pacific tracks which included the Great Northern. These came from over the mountains or from down south. You could tell what the weather was like in the winter time on the other side of the mountains because the trains would come covered with snow. There were circus trains and stock trains. My wife lived in Auburn during the war, and she said there were all sorts of hospital trains and flat cars loaded with tanks and all kinds of war equipment.

"The Depression made living by the tracks exciting, The crash came and then the hobos came, not tramps, but people looking for work. Two or three hundred people on each train, going north, going south, going east. And you could never leave your laundry out at night, or it would have been gone by morning.

Getting By on Less

"My dad worked at Auburn Pottery. It closed down in 1932, and things were pretty damn tough. My mother had to go to work for the rich people in Broadmoor. She was a cook, and then she ended up cooking at the Gowman Hotel. She lived in their house and only came home on Thursdays and Sundays. Always had a basket of goodies. Years later I gave a historical talk in North Seattle and some lady was there who was raised in Broadmoor. She said she hated living there. I guess some of us were fighting to get in, and some of us were fighting to get out.

"During the Depression the only people who had money in town were the people that worked for the Government, meaning school teachers, because the Government was the second largest employer. The other one was the railroad yards, and even they had it tough. The long time employees were cut back to two or three days a week.

Saying Goodbye to Japanese Farmers

"We had a lot of Japanese farmers around here so most of us kids and some of the adults worked for the Japanese in the summertime. Picking and harvesting. Some of them owned their farms but most of them leased their land. You see there was an anti-oriental exclusion act of 1921.

[Editor's Note: Washington state legislators passed the Alien Land Law in 1921, restricting property ownership. Washington's 1889 constitution had banned the sale of land to "aliens ineligible in citizenship." Asians were the only immigrants ineligible to become naturalized U.S. citizens. The new law extended the restrictions to cover leasing or renting land and renewing old leases. Issei (first generation) farmers got around the law by making arrangements with white farmers, who would technically own the land and employ the Japanese as "managers." Issei also bought land in the names of their children, who were American citizens by virtue of being born in the U.S., or other older Nisei, but that loophole was closed by a 1923 amendment to the land law.]

"You see they couldn't buy land because they were aliens but their kids could if they ever got enough money together ... but they all got kicked out of here during the war. I talked to Tom Hikida after the war and asked how many came back at the war's end. He said about 10 percent. Most of them didn't want anything to do with these people around here who didn't like them. So they moved to the Midwest, but a lot of them came back here to visit and we're all friends again."

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Related Topics: Agriculture | Asian & Pacific Islander Americans |

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Northern Pacific Depot, Auburn, 1920s

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