The 'Greatest Generation' comes to Park City Museum
Park City • They call them the Greatest Generation. They suffered through the Great Depression, fought World War II and became the upwardly mobile middle class of the post-war era.
They're our parents and our grandparents. And they lived in a world far different from that of the United States circa 2010.
Utahns can look back into the 1930s, '40s and '50s and get a taste of an American landscape and its people through those formative decades in "Our Lives, Our Stories: America's Greatest Generation." The exhibit was developed by the Minnesota Historical Society through a special initiative of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and opens nationwide at the Park City Museum on Saturday. It runs through March 16.
"The exhibit is an interesting discussion about why it is called the Greatest Generation," said museum director Sandra Morrison. "And it includes a lot of personal stories."
Project curator Brian Horrigan sought to tell the history of those times through the people who lived them. One of them is Samuel L. Hynes, who was born in 1924 and flew more than 100 missions over the Pacific in World War II.
"Greatest Generation? I'm inclined to say it was history that was great, and that drew us into it and maybe elevated us somehow while we [were] involved in it," says a quote from Hynes included in the exhibit.
The installation contains still photos as well as interactive elements. Visitors can watch black and white television programing from the 1950s, plop down on a malt shop counter stool and listen to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declare war on Japan, or hear from everyday folks whose lives were upended by the tumultuous times.
It features a 1950s "modern" kitchen with replicas of the first TV dinners. There's also a board game created for the exhibit that highlights the food rationing of the 1930s.
During the depths of the Depression, 28 percent of households didn't have a single wage-earner. Roosevelt characterized them as "ill-housed, ill-clad and ill-nourished."
Virginia Cloth of Cleveland, Ohio, is another voice included in the project. "At one time, out of the entire family, my mother was the only one working, and she supported the entire family on $10 a week."
Among the programs aimed at lifting Americans from the economic catastrophe was the Civilian Conservation Corps, which employed young men to build trails, roads and dams, among other things. It readied many of them for military service as the Depression gave way to war.
Seven in 10 eligible American men served in the military during World War II, according to the installation. That meant 6 million American women had to go to work.
The war was a springboard for the women's movement as well as the civil rights movement, Morrison noted. "It changed society. Some of those women loved having jobs and the independence it brought them."
When soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen returned, the G.I. Bill enabled millions of them to attend college or get technical training. That was before desegregation, meaning most African-American veterans could seek education only at black schools.
Black or white, most veterans married and began having babies, leading to the "baby boom" that peaked in 1957 when 4 million kids were born in this country. And those young families were buying cars. In 1948, 54 percent of American families owned a car. By 1960 that number was 77 percent, according to the exhibit.
But not all Americans could attain the "American Dream," according to Naomi Craig, another voice in this history.
"When my husband came home, we couldn't get a mortgage," she recalled. "When they asked me on the telephone, 'Would you like to see a house?' I would say, 'Well, certainly.' And I would go there, and his face would fall because I am a black woman."
Nelson Perry served in the all-black 93rd Infantry Division and later became a civil rights activist.
"We made it through the Depression, we came through World War II and we did something no other generation has done," he said. "It's easy to say that. But we also didn't do other things that could have been done in this generation."
"Our Lives, Our Stories, America's Greatest Generation"
P Where • Park City Museum, 528 Main St.
When • Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 6 p.m.; through March 16. Closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.
Admission • $10; $8 seniors 65 and over, students and military; $5 children 7-17.
Curator's presentation • Brian Horrigan will talk about the stories behind the exhibit on Saturday, 2 p.m., at the Kimball Arts Center, 638 Park Ave. Admission is free.