Bob Tschida Remembers Tacoma's Gunnysack Kids

  • By Bob Tschida
  • Posted 9/08/2003
  • Essay 5545

This piece by Bob Tschida, describing how he and his friends "would always have a gunnysack tucked over our belts" as they roamed Tacoma, first appeared in the Tacoma Historical Society's City of Destiny Newsletter, Winter 2003. Born in Tacoma on June 12, 1924, Bob Tschida is known among local history buffs as "Mr. Tacoma." He is a charter member of the Tacoma Historical Society, which presented him its Murray Morgan Award in 1999.

In the late 1930s when I and my friends from our Tacoma neighborhood would venture toward town, we would always have a gunnysack tucked over our belts. That way we would not lose it or have to carry it in our hands. The purpose of the gunnysack was to make our forays pay off in more than one way. We had to be self-sufficient and self-reliant in those days. There was no such thing as asking your folks for small change. They didn't have any spare nickels or dimes. And carrying a lunch was out of the question. We were on our own and we accepted that fact.

We always took different routes to town or to the waterfront or the Puyallup Avenue area. We never made any special plans to go here or there; we just went. Sure, we all had more chores to do at home, but during summers we had more free time to roam. We pretty much knew when drivers of small trucks would return to their companies so we would go there and ask if they had any old cookies or damaged ice cream bars. When we were on our way in the mornings we always felt it was our job to watch any major activity -- a street being paved with concrete, maybe a city line crew putting up a pole, or a steam shovel scooping up dirt to be loaded into a dump truck, or anything else that caught our attention.

At times we would stop in at a cannery on Puyallup Avenue to watch the women on the assembly lines put up peaches, pears, apples or whatever was being canned that day. The cannery was always good for some peeled apples or tomatoes; these snacks took care of our immediate hunger pangs. This plant was located on Puyallup Avenue and East "F" Street.

We would head over to Tacoma Box Company to watch operations there, and maybe we would venture out to the Puyallup River and see what was going on. Of course we always had to wander in and around Hollywood on the Tideflats. All manner of shacks and lean-tos were built there. Some were well-built and had little gardens and plants growing out of tubs and planters. This was a way of life for so many unemployed during the Depression days. Truly this was quite an eye-opener for us kids. People living like that made a deep impression on us. As the day wore on it might be time to head back home, but first we stopped at Medosweet Dairy on South 25th and Pacific Avenue. We would watch the delivery driver unloading empty bottles and cans, and when he was almost through we would ask if there were any old crushed Almond-Roca ice cream bars. If we were lucky the driver would have a carton or two of damaged bars that were unsalable.

Maybe we would end up with two or three ice cream bars apiece, and we would appease our hunger pangs once again. With new vigor and energy we would go up the 25th Street hill, turn left onto the railroad tracks and walk up to Tacoma Ice & Storage Co. This plant was located at South 27th and Holgate Street. There the workers would be directing the large cakes of ice down the opening at either end of a refrigerated boxcar.

Naturally we had our gunnysacks in our hands, and the icehouse workers knew what we were there for. Sooner or later they would chip out large pieces of ice that somehow or other would fall off the top of the boxcar. So we just naturally placed the chunks of ice in our gunnysacks and slung them over our shoulders. We would wave to the icehouse guys and they would wave back. We lived only two or three blocks from the icehouse. So we supplied our families with ice for their iceboxes.

We earned the name of "the gunnysack kids" at various places where we would stop to see if there was any loot we could haul off for free. Usually as we approached places we could hear the workers say: "Here come those gunnysack kids." Some of the workers we knew by name. We would avoid going to certain places every now and then to keep from pestering them with too many visits.

One of our favorite stops was the small meatpacking plant on Commerce Street between South 13th and 15th streets on the west side of Commerce. Another packing plant was Swift's, located in the small triangular piece of property bordering the main prairie line of the Northern Pacific Railroad and bordering South 19th Street and Commerce Street. There were spur tracks on Commerce Street where refrigerated boxcars brought in halves of beef and hogs to be unloaded and cut up for local markets. These small packing houses always had their own smoke rooms where hams, bacon, and sausages were cured. Boy oh boy, how we enjoyed wieners, pieces of sausage and at times pieces of ham that some of the workers would slip us. And wow, pickled pigs feet were a treat. Of course, we had to wrap them in newspaper as they were juicy.

At the National Biscuit Company loading docks on Commerce between South 17th and 19th, we sometimes hit the jackpot. We learned that cookies and crackers can't take too much knocking around and some cartons get damaged. So they were unsalable, and we would get the spoils of dozens and dozens of cookies. Our gunnysacks were full and our stomachs as well. When we hit the bonanza they called us over as they had to get rid of broken boxes of the goodies. We didn't even have to ask. This made it extra easy on us. Our neighborhood families shared in the booty. I could not eat fig bars but enjoyed all the other various cookies. We were well received in our neighborhood because in those days everyone shared what they had. We didn't have much but we had each other.

Another small packing plant was Hormel's, located on the northeast corner of South 16th and "D" Street in a three-story brick building. Oh yes, we gunnysack kids knew each and every place where food was the main business.

Usually when it was time to head back home we would walk up the railroad tracks, and if it was a hot day we made a beeline to the Heidelberg Brewery located on "C" Street between South 21st and 23rd streets. The tracks were actually the back of the brewery, where some doors were open, and we would see Alex, one of the brewery workers. He was always good for a large quaff of beer or a mug. We took turns slaking our thirst, and he always said, "That's enough, boys, and be on your way before the foreman comes by."

Farther south by the tracks on the south side of the old Snoqualmie powerhouse was Griffin Fuel Company, the narrow complex of buildings and bunkers extending to South 21st Street. Any coal briquettes that fell down from the bunker were considered free for the collecting. So we loaded up what we could carry in our gunnysacks, and on we went up the tracks to our homes. Once more we made a contribution to our family stoves for the winter months.

During the years of 1937, '38 and '39 we "gunnysack kids" made many jaunts around the industrial areas of Tacoma and downtown, usually south of 13th Street. We knew every building, every street, all the shortcuts, all the alleys. One might say we knew the whole hillside from "K" Street all the way down to East D Street.

We knew every nook and cranny. How many can say they have seen the deep ravine in Galliher's Gulch extending from "C Street" to the Tacoma Avenue Bridge and also adjoining Wakefield Drive? During the Depression it was home to dozens of down-and-outers who built dozens of little shacks to live in. Years later the deep hole was filled in. (A year ago the Tacoma Rescue Mission had a new complex built atop the filled-in hole.)

Obtaining gunnysacks was no problem. Stores practically gave them away to keep them from piling up and taking up needed space. Potatoes, onions, carrots, corn, and other products were shipped in gunnysacks. When we were "junking" -- the term we used when we gathered up old rags, copper wiring, bottles, etc., anything that was salable -- we placed them in our gunnysacks.

If in our wanderings we saw a City Light crew working on poles we would check the jobs out. Usually we would ask the "puncher" or foreman when they would be done. Most likely they would say today or maybe in two days. So at the appointed time we would come back and wait for the line crew to depart. Like vultures we would look around the ground for pieces of copper wiring, and into the gunnysacks they would go.

When we got home we would build a bonfire in a vacant lot and dump all the wiring into the fire. In time all the insulation would burn off, and we would crunch the copper into piles to sell. At times I wondered if the line crews knew we were trying to make a few dollars and intentionally left extra pieces of wire around for us.

We always gave what money we made to our families. There was no question about it -- you just did your part in helping out your family. There wasn't any thought that this was my money. In the Depression years kids brought anything they earned to the family. That's the way it was for the unemployed families. You shared what you had.

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You