A History of the Burns Family
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PART SIX: The Farm  

Chapter One: Secrets

Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio
Early Spring, 1932

1 - Secrets
2 - Twa Lochs
3 - The Lost Quarter
4 - Gramp's Pension
5 - Dark Day
6 - New Direction

More Information

It’s too rainy outside to play, and Bobby’s reading “Hahtibee the Elephant” again, one of his favorites of the many storybooks Ebba has given him. His stamp collection has been reorganized, and his piano pieces practiced. His eleventh birthday will soon be here, and yet he finds himself strangely unexcited, even a little uneasy. There’s something funny going on.[1]

Last night when Pop came home, even though it was dark and chilly outside, Mother went outside for another one of their quiet talks in the car. Both of them seem distracted these days, but no one’s saying why. Dave says he’s pretty sure it’s about money, especially after all the whispered fuss last year about the loans Pop made to Mother’s cousin Willoughby Smith, Willoughby Howe’s grandson, and to the Sedakers, relatives on the Stowe side.

Bobby had first noticed something was amiss at Christmastime, which had always been a thrilling holiday at the Burns house – with trees and lights and presents and pies and cookies and holiday carols. First Ebba came home in an unhappy mood, and could not be consoled. Mother said it was man trouble at the Lakeside Hospital where she works – some doctor named Pat.  

And then Don, usually a reliable source of fun, was quiet too, worried about finding a position in a church now that he’s graduated with his degree from Cal Christian. Temporary work at the Miller is not what he’s studied all those years to do, he says. Last night he was making noises about future studies at Transylvania University in Kentucky. [2] Kentucky! Might as well go back to California, Mother says, for all they'll see of him.

But Ebba and Don's moods weren't the worst thing. The worst thing was when Pop spilled the beans about Santa Claus, abruptly pulling the presents right out of the closet rather than putting them under the tree the night before. In that one terrible moment, Bobby felt the magic go out of his childhood. Even his marvelous new wading boots, the ones he’d picked out of the Sears & Roebuck catalog as his Christmas wish, seemed cursed. Right after the New Year, when he’d worn them on a fishing expedition with Pop to Willow Rock, they’d filled with water and he’d nearly been swept away in the bitterly cold Cuyahoga currents. He shudders to think he might have ended up like that girl from across the river, who’d drowned in that exact spot not long before.

Dave was the only one in good spirits at Christmas, because all he can think about these days is his Star-rebuilding project. The next-door neighbor, George Goldwood, had given Pop title to a 1926 Star Coach, which was banged up in an accident, and Dave has worked for weeks dismantling and then reassembling it in the front yard. The Star has a body by Fisher, made of wood clad with metal, and he’s repaired this as well as the engine block, valves, and gasket. His dream is to drive it all the way to Chicago, over 700 miles round trip, when the World’s Fair opens next year. Boob Clark has offered to go with him, which makes Ebba roll her eyes.

Even Mother, who can usually find something to smile about in the worst situations, seems more serious these days. Ebba says it’s probably because she’s worn out from trying to take care of too many people for too long – not only Pop and the children, but also Gramp and Gram, and until recently, Grandma Haugh and Aunt Minnie, too.  The two old ladies have gone to their reward, as Mother puts it, and so now there are at least enough beds without anyone having to sleep on the side porch. But there’s still so much housework to do, Ebba points out, enough to give anyone a reason to feel cross. Maybe that’s why Mother dreams of the day – “someday, when the clouds roll away,” as she likes to say – when they can retire to the farm and live off the “fat of the land.”

Mr. Smith, the choir director and Mrs. Strickler, the minister's wife

Dave says Mother’s also pretty peeved about what’s been going on at the church. Supposedly, Mrs. Strickler, the Reverend’s wife, is “carrying on with” – whatever that means – Mr. Smith, the choir director. It’s got something to do with kissing, although Dave says who would want to kiss old Mrs. Strickler anyhow, as ugly as she is. 

The interior of the Cuyahoga Falls Disciples of Christ Church

Also, Mother’s still steamed about the Klan. What did those white-sheeted fools mean coming into their church? Some people just laughed about the whole incident, but the Burns family walked out in protest. Bobby can’t see anything funny about the Klan – not after he saw them burn a cross one night on the vacant lot by the Mellingers. Even spookier, it was in the very same place where the lineman got electrocuted and fell to his death right before Bobby’s eyes!

Bobby knows it will all become clear in time. But until then, everyone is certainly acting very strange these days! Pop is taking them out to the farm more and more these days, so maybe they will move there one day soon. Bobby wouldn't mind!

Author’s Note

Auto sales plummeted 75% between 1929 and 1932, as families cut back on discretionary spending. Rubber sales were equally hard hit.  Between 1930 and 1933, B.F. Goodrich lost $24 million and its coveted place as a member of the Dow Jones Industrial Average. In 1932, industrial unemployment in Akron was 60 percent – the highest of any city in the United States. In the rubber industry alone, nearly five in ten workers lost their jobs.[3] 

This may be related to another chilling statistic of the time: Summit County had the largest Klan chapter of any county in the United States. When Goodrich announced layoffs in the spring of 1932, Guy was one of the unlucky ones. The news must have hit him especially hard, since letters from Ebba at the end of the previous summer had commented on an improving outlook for the family (“Sounds like things are finally on the up and up!”). With a contribution from Ebba, who was making a decent salary as a nurse at Lakeside Hospital, Guy and Ada had even been planning to replace the roof of the old barn down on the Ritter farm they’d bought.

But financial reality put paid to that dream and many others. At that time “you couldn’t buy a job,” Guy wrote in his later memoir notes, although he tried desperately to find one. He would have done most anything if it meant being able to support his family. But without any salary coming in, Guy and Ada’s financial resources began to evaporate with terrifying speed.

They had to do something dramatic before they went completely broke. The farm, purchased in August of 1930, increasingly looked like a place to start anew. 

Looking east across to the Ritter farmhouse across one of the two lakes on the property


[1] All details taken from contemporaneous correspondence and later recollections.

[2] Don did pursue a masters for a time at Transylvania University.

[3] From an online Akron history.