, Newburyport, MA

July 6, 2013

Lagoulis: An era of barely getting by

John Lagoulis
Newburyport Daily News

---- — During the Great Depression, which started in 1929 and continued for too many years, I recall how some people did creative things to survive. The Depression affected almost everybody and every industry and every type of work.

My dear readers, many individuals unknowingly became victims of those creative survival methods. Here, I will give you one of many personal examples.

One particular business which still stands out in my mind was that of the bicycling business. There were few cars on the roads in those days, however bicycles were aplenty. The high school at that time had double sessions and was running a morning session and an afternoon session. There were quite a few students on the roads riding bicycles to and from school. Also, many people, who had jobs, would go to work on a bicycle. It was common to see an adult on a bike with a lunch box hanging from the handlebars while bicycling to work.

Prior to the Depression, bicycles were a thriving industry. It was the choice of local transportation. When the Depression hit, it affected the bicycling industry as well as any others. The small bicycle businessmen tried desperately to hang on and continue their bicycle business, but to no avail.

People who were not fortunate enough to own a bicycle, could always rent a bike. Bicycle rentals were very popular prior to the Depression. During the Depression business had gone down and the bicycle stores and shops were desperately hanging on to survive the downturn, however to no avail.

I specifically took interest in the bicycles because I didn’t own a bike, but I always rented one when I needed it. You could go down to a bicycle shop and rent a bike for the day. One shop in particular was located on Merrimac Street in Market Square – known as Guernsey’s which was always a fine bicycle company. They were hard hit, and were desperately holding on to survive the Depression.

In prior times in order to get a bike I would have to give them a dollar for a half day bike rental, but during the Depression they wanted only 40 cents for a day. They had difficulty renting their bikes because people were economizing and had taken to walking. I’d also noticed the quality of their service was not what it once was – service had become quite poor. They also were economizing in their own ways to save money. Unfortunately, that affected me and others who rented.

We were denied the bicycle service and satisfaction we had been getting before. It was noticeable one way or another to the customer. For instance, in my case, I had several unfortunate things occur. The first one was that they were using worn tires that did not hold air properly. A diminished amount of air was in the tires making it difficult and dangerous to ride a bike. The renter, like me, would not immediately notice the difference.

So, one day, when I was riding my rented bike on Pleasant Street, I was pumping harder than usual, pumping much harder than usual when I’d gotten as far as the Central Church on Pleasant Street, where my bicycle tire got caught in the trolley car track. It caused me to leave the bicycle seat and fly whole-body up and over the handlebars! I had been going fast, pumping much harder than I usually had to, and I flew 10 feet into the air, like a bird with my arms spread out like wings while the bike stayed upright on the tracks!

When my body slammed against the cobblestones, I had the air knocked out of me. I was semi-unconscious and was having difficulty breathing when kind Mr. and Mrs. John and Lula Pappas came running out of their Pleasant Street grocery store to pick me up.

By the way, those nasty trolley car tracks are still there, buried years ago under the pavement along Pleasant Street – the tracks there were never pulled up as they should have been. I watched as they paved over them years ago. Each time I ride over them today, I recall that accident I had with the defective bicycle.

John Lagoulis, now in his 94th year, is a columnist for the Daily News, who writes about life in Newburyport the way he lived it during the early 1900’s. John has authored two books titled, Newburyport: As I Lived It! The Trials & Tribulations of a Young Wharf Rat during the Early 1900’s in Massachusetts ~ a legacy ~, which are available in local shops. He can be reached by e-mail: or