Two things Grandma Luehr knew how to do: tell stories and cook. My childhood memories are full of bread, kuchen, pies and caramel. For many years when I was in high school and college she sold her baked goods through the neighborhood grocery store, Wolf’s Grocery. She made enough money to stay in the house and lead a comfortable life.
A family favorite every Christmas was Grandma’s caramel. Everything about that caramel was perfect. The gentle aroma of cooking cream and sugar. The buttery feel of the waxed paper wrappers. The perfect “bite.” Her caramel was never too hard, and never too soft. We’d hold the candy to the roof of our mouth with our tongue, letting it slowly melt into delicious sweetness.
Judy and I have picked up a couple of recipes from Grandma Luehr, and the caramel recipe is my favorite. After Fanny died, Judy would make caramel every Christmas, delighting everyone who came to visit, especially my brothers. One year the recipe failed. The caramel was grainy. The texture was all wrong. We threw out the batch, knowing that we had done something wrong. The recipe requires patience and precision. The next batch was OK. Then we had the same problem the following year. Twice.
After a couple of years experimenting we discovered that the dairy industry had introduced a new product. Ultra-pasteurized whipping cream. The new cream did not work for caramel. We had to carefully look for old-fashioned heavy whipping cream, which worked perfectly. We still enjoy Grandma’s caramel every year.
Grandma knew how to run a business: Focus on good product. She never made a pile of money, but her customers and children enjoyed the fruits of her labor.
The stories of the depression are probably not exaggerated, but somehow I always felt secure. We got to school, were never hungry, and always had clothes to wear and fuel to keep us warm. We did not feel deprived because others we knew had even less than we had.
The “dust bowl” was very real. I remember walking home from school through the dust blowing off a bare field so thick it was like being in a black fog. It blew into the houses through every tiny crack. Fence rows were buried by it; and where it was really bad, no vegetation remained on the fields.
These were the days of the hobos, also called by other names. Many unemployed men traveled by “rail” looking for work, (“rail” meaning that they caught illegal rides on freight trains) and they even came to farm areas looking for a meal or a few hours or days of work. Occasionally one would stop by, apparently walking from the main rail line to the south, to the branch line to the north — maybe 18 or 20 miles. Mama would give them a meal and require them to eat it outdoors.
Others tried to make a living selling door to door (farm to farm) everything from magazine subscriptions to washing machines. I believe our family acquired both our Maytag gasoline-powered washing machine and an Elgin sewing machine from traveling salesmen. The magazine salesman were the most frequent callers. They did all they could to make a sale, and often would take produce or chickens rather than cash. We would see them coming down the road, a crate of chickens tied to an ancient car or small truck. You could buy a renewal to your subscription to the Dakota Farmer for the price of a couple of old hens. I remember one salesman who had suitcases of fabric yardage, which he was selling cheap. My mother bought some, including a beautiful piece of light blue silk which she had for a several years before hiring a dressmaker to sew it. She always figured it was “hot” goods.
Our family effort to make a few dollars during the 30’s was the candy business. Mama had acquired some candy recipes by having enrolled in a correspondence course in candy making. The school soon went out of business, but they did send the rest of the course material. They were very good recipes as most of the family knows from having tasted the caramels which some of us still make. It is now difficult to believe that we sold it for 18 cents per pound. One batch made 6 pounds and took 2 to 3 hours to cook. The ingredients must have been cheap because even at that price it yielded a profit.
The biggest season, we made nearly 300 pounds. Mama cooked it, I did a lot of the cutting and wrapping, box making and box packing. And Papa did a lot of the selling. And we all did a lot of eating—someone had to take care of cleaning out the kettle, and eating all the imperfect pieces.