The USA in 1940: The Nelsons of River Falls

Yesterday I took a look at the 1940 Census records of my Grandpa Peterson and his family, noting that they were relatively more comfortable than the family Grandpa married into in 1946: the Nelsons of River Falls, Wisconsin.

The Nelsons in 1940
My grandmother (Hildur Nelson), on the last line – U.S. Census

My grandmother, Hildur, was fourteen at the time of the census, the third of four daughters for Hjalmar and Mabel Nelson of River Falls. (There wasn’t enough room on the screen to capture the lines for youngest sister Ruth, nor brothers Paul and Bernard.) Years later she wrote the family history from which I’ve borrowed details to embellish this post and yesterday’s.

The year of this census is not covered by her narrative, but it’s clear that the Nelsons were hit hard by the Great Depression: “Survival during these years depended on hard work and lowered expectations,” Grandma Peterson recalled in her book. “Everyone in the family worked together for the good of the whole, and boredom was a word not found in farm vocabularies. It probably would have been considered sinful if it had been.”

By the time the census-taker arrived in 1940, the Nelsons had long since left the farm in Maiden Rock, Wisconsin where my grandmother was born, moving first to the (relatively) big city of St. Paul, Minnesota, and eventually settling in the small Wisconsin town of River Falls (1940 population: just over 2,800 in the town proper, another 900 on the outskirts), in part to take advantage of the town’s schools, staffed by graduates of a teachers college that’s now a campus in the University of Wisconsin system.

According to the census, the family of eight paid $20 a month in rent (about $325 in today’s dollars). While this does not exactly suggest prosperity — and Hjalmar was able to find work at the college and the town’s creamery, others on the same page of the schedule (so likely in their neighborhood) paid less than half as much.

The Nelsons - rental detail
Line on the 1940 census schedule for River Falls indicating my great-grandfather’s housing status and amount of rent paid – U.S. Census

But in 1940 Hjalmar is listed as being “Unable to work,” and he reported no wages or salary. (Nor did the other members of the family.) A heavy smoker, he had begun to experience heart problems and emphysema in the 1930s, ailments that would bring about his death ten years later, at the age of 60. The census schedule notes that my great-grandmother actually answered the enumerator’s questions. It fits with her personality (in the family history, her daughter makes clear that Mabel was the organized member of the partnership), but it is all too easy to imagine Hjalmar simply not wanting to tell a stranger about his unemployment, financial status, or other private concerns.

Discussing her father a few years after the census, near the end of his life, Grandma paints a bittersweet picture of a man who aged too quickly:

Life’s disappointments weighed heavily on him as he thought of lost loved ones, the struggles of the depression years, the war, and Bernard’s future. [His youngest son, born with Down syndrome] His solace was often found in music when he would sit at the piano and play and sing the comforting hymns of his faith. Mauritz [his brother] would come to visit, bringing his violin to play nostalgic tunes. Hjalmar’s hearty laugh was gone, but his warmth remained, and he would take his pipe out of his mouth, and enfold us in a hug whenever we children came to visit.

Tomorrow we’ll encounter my father’s side of the family: also the children and grandchildren of northern European immigrants living in Wisconsin, but inhabiting vastly more affluent circumstances.

<<Read the first post in this series          Read the final post in this series>>


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