Wednesday, February 19, 2020

52 Ancestors - PROSPERITY: Surviving the Great Depression

The Great Depression as presented in my high school American History class left me picturing the world in grey. I thought EVERYBODY stood in soup lines. I thought EVERYBODY was out of work. I thought the sun never shone.
Mary Eleanor Davis at the Davis home Shenandoah VA
About 1933 - My mother Mary Eleanor Davis at the home of her grandparents
Walter and Mary Frances Davis
Across the street is her house, built by her father and grandfather.
Visible between the bushes is the Davis Store, corner of Sixth St and Pennsylvania Ave
As a child my mother had clothes and shoes unlike one of her good friends who would arrive at school barefooted. Momma also took lessons in piano and tap. That sounds like a luxury to me.

What did the Davis family do differently that allowed them to be witnesses to the effects of the Depression rather than victims? Maybe it was because they were self-starters.

My great-grandfather Walter B. Davis (1867-1934) spent most of his adult years as a carpenter like his father. He operated a planing mill and also built numerous houses throughout the town of Shenandoah in Page County, Virginia.
Davis Store Shenandoah, VA
Davis Store Shenandoah, VA 1920s
As early as 1920 he was the owner of Davis and Sons Groceries at the corner of Sixth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, just across the street from where he lived. At various times my grandfather Orvin and his brother Millard were the “Sons” in that business, managing things while Walter continued building houses.

My grandfather might have been an official manager or owner, but he did not actually work there. Orvin instead had a garage where he serviced and repaired cars. Running the store was my grandmother’s job.
Lucille Davis at the Davis Store Shenandoah, VA
My grandmother Lucille Davis behind the counter
I imagine that even when few were building houses, the townspeople of Shenandoah were still patronizing the grocery store. They could count on the Davis Store for staples like coffee, sugar, bread, peanut butter, soap, salt, matches, oatmeal, and potatoes. They could also buy thread, oil, chicken feed, and cigarettes.
Receipts from the Davis Store
Yet shopping for necessities was not easy for everyone. Among the memorabilia that my family preserved for over 90 years is a small stack of receipts paper-clipped together. The receipts came from a family who bought on credit and paid down a little here and there with cash. Sometimes the bill was paid by hauling goods.

The ring made from assorted diamonds left at the Davis Store

Some people left diamond rings at the store in exchange for goods. Sadly, the owners never came back for them. The rings were still in a drawer of my grandmother’s dresser when she died in 1990. My mother had a new ring made from the assorted stones.

Whenever I wear the ring, I can’t help wondering who gave up her wedding ring to feed her family.

Amy Johnson Crow continues to challenge genealogy bloggers and non-bloggers alike to think about our ancestors and share a story or photo about them. The challenge is52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks.

© 2020, Wendy Mathias. All rights reserved.


  1. That is a beautiful ring made from the stones. I too wonder who would have left their ring there and why didn't they reclaim it by maybe paying off the debt? Maybe they relocated to another place?


  2. Self-starters and generous folks to allow debt during a time when hard cash might have been scarce. Great blog post!

  3. Those receipts are amazing! It's sad to think that a woman gave up her ring to feed her family but neat that the ring reminds one of their sacrifice. That would be a neat thing to show young people studying the depression in history class.

  4. Great post! It showed a different look at such a bleak time.

  5. My mother was fortunate too during the Great Depression. Her father had steady work for Phillips Petroleum in KS and they lived in company housing.

  6. Thanks so much for sharing this. We live in the little house across the street that would have been next to the store. This is so cool to see the history.

  7. My husband's family used to own a laudrey and dry cleaners. Many tablecloths and sweaters were left unclaimed but never a diamond ring!