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The Woman With the Well – How Nellie Survived the Great Depression

Nellie was left with three children when her husband died. It was 1931, 2 years into the Great Depression. She lived in rural Ohio and didn’t have a highschool education. Nellie was in a real bad spot. Jobs were scarce and she didn’t have the education, strength, or equal opportunity to complete with men for the few jobs that were available. Moreover, there was a drought in her region.

But Nellie had two things — courage and the deepest well in the area. So, she started taking in washing. She washed for the people who didn’t have the time or know-how to do their own washing, and she washed for the people who couldn’t spare the water to wash their own things.

She put her children to work, washing, ironing, doing what they could to support the family. The oldest was my 10-year-old grandmother. Even today, she says she can iron anything you give her.

When the government began a roadwork project by her house, Nellie discovered another opportunity. Her well still had water, water which the construction workers needed for their horses. She was concerned about her well’s capacity, but a neighbor confirmed that the well hadn’t run dry during the last big drought, despite being used heavily.

So, Nellie set up a watering station. People paid $0.50 to water two horses and had to refill the trough when they were done. That way, she didn’t have to spend her entire day minding the well and didn’t exhaust herself (or her children) pumping water.

Every night, she prayed that the well would not run dry. And it never did.

In the end, Nellie made a number of contacts by being the woman with the well. Later on, she ran for County Recorder and won the vote. She served in that position and supported her family for many years, until after the children were grown up and have moved out.

I’d heard parts of the story before, but my grandmother told it to me again last weekend. This time, she laid emphasis on what she sees as the moral of the story. Sometimes you don’t know how valuable a resource is until it becomes scarce. When it does, you should make the most of it because you never know where it’ll lead.

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Christine September 9, 2009 at 8:20 am

She can iron anything you give her — but she won’t!
.-= Christine´s last blog ..Just Phuling Around =-.

Pippa September 9, 2009 at 9:03 am

What a great story and a great moral to boot!
.-= Pippa´s last blog ..Wordless Wednesday – One year changes Everything! =-.

Ron September 9, 2009 at 9:53 am

Very cool story! It’s interesting how we make do with what we have and the most industrious among us make money from it as well.
.-= Ron´s last blog ..Congratulations to Meg – Winner of In Cheap We Trust! =-.

Emily @ Under$1000PerMonth September 9, 2009 at 11:01 am

What a great story. It makes me wonder what such an entrepreneurial woman would do without a well.
.-= Emily @ Under$1000PerMonth´s last blog ..Car Repairs and Marriage Advice =-.

Beth September 10, 2009 at 6:20 pm

That was a great story, with a great message.

Patrick September 10, 2009 at 10:48 pm

Very cool story. My grandparents have shared a few stories about the depression, but more importantly, have passed on the values of hard work, saving, frugality, and thriftiness.
.-= Patrick´s last blog ..Where to Open a Roth IRA Account =-.

Shannon September 12, 2009 at 12:33 pm

My mother has shared these stories. Despite having a father willing to do any work he could find they went to bed hungry on many occasions. That just breaks my heart. She lived in the west during the depression and I think it was harder in some of those areas. Others I know who lived in the south and on farms at least had food. I can’t imagine my grandparent’s pain at putting six kids to bed hungry. May we be 1/10 as strong as those who lived during that time.

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