My Recent Buy–Or in This Case, My Recent Find: Joseph Noel Interview, 1938

Sometimes, what you buy just leaves you scratching your head and wondering. The photos below and the accompanying story are such an item. Instead of shopping for new inventory, I sometimes wander to one of my storage areas and pull out something “new” that I have forgotten about to sell. I have found, however, that this can sometimes be just as distressing as buying something else to store, but that’s another story!  

I have long forgotten where I bought this particular lot, but I recalled that there were a lot of nice photos sitting in this 1930’s Kodak film box. I went into the basement, grabbed the box, and opened it with a smile. There were groups of photos that a reporter had taken 80 years ago and their accompanying news copy from Massachusetts.

While there were numerous groupings, this one group in particular grabbed my attention. It was the story of an immigrant to the US in the Great Depression. Apparently, he lost his gas station and home to the bank in a repossession for failure to make his payments. He was subsequently given a one room public assistance house and opened a garden and vegetable stand for money. While selling everything from walnuts to rhubarb and posting signs on the property to sell his fruits, he was also advertising for new business partners to invest in a new filling station.

I could only smile with the fellow’s ingenuity and poor spelling! A “new” American, down on his luck but high on his optimism. I wondered if this article had ever been published or this man ever found his loan 80 years ago. A lot of questions and very few answers. It was also fun “shopping” in my basement and “finding” something new.  Now let me introduce you to Joseph Noel…

August 4, 1938

For Immediate release

“Nobody,” says Joseph Noel, “have ze hard luck lak I have…” .  Joseph, 61 year old Salisbury, Mass., reliefer and truck farmer, is willing to stack himself against all comers as New England’s Hard Luck Man “nomnaire wan.”

joseph noel

Joseph Noel, 61 year old Salisbury, Mass. reliefer and truck farmer.

Life has packed all its hard knocks into one glove and socked him with it hard and often, but he hasn’t taken the count yet.  Rolling along Route 1 near the New Hampshire line you will spot Joseph’s plea to the world that passes his poor fruit stand.  In painfully printed, curlicued letters, a huge sign announces:


Joseph pictured with his hand-made signs.


Joseph is not so strong on English, but he puts faith in his signs. He’ll tell you all about it; it isn’t often he gets the chance to talk to somebody, living all alone with just a kitten, his signs and his rhubarb.  His speech is good French with more than a dash of Canuck- one part Canadian, one part toothlessness. Joseph has no money to buy store teeth. But that isn’t all he has to worry about…

He has been in this country since the turn of the century. Bit by bit he bought land on the roadside until he had more than a thousand feet frontage.“Zen,” he says, “ze trouble, she begin. 1929, my wife, she die. My teeth, I lose.”  From then on, things went from bad to worse. His filling station, his open-air market, failed to prosper, until just a year ago, they foreclosed on his farm. The house he built himself, the barn, the shed, everything went. Shortly after that, his two horses died.

The town pays $7 weekly to put a roof over his head. He lives alone- in squalor, except for a spray of roses climbing over the outside of his cottage. He has arthritis, neuralgia, rheumatism- all of them. His clothes? Relief hand-me-downs. He’s a little man, half a foot over five, weighs about 125.

joseph cottage

Joseph outside his cottage.  Notice the spray of roses climbing over the front of his home.

And he’s not mad at anybody.  Not even at the people who think he is “nuts, wiz my signs.”  He’s friendly to you when you stop to talk to him, even if you don’t buy any rhubarb. He peers at you intently as he talks, under a broad-brimmed beret he concocted from one of his wife’s hats, to shadow the sun from his eyes. They’re the kind of eyes, weathered blue ones, that look through you and past you while they’re looking at you.

What is he looking at? The past- the future- the dreams he tells you he dreams?   “In 1928,” he tells you, taking from his toothless mouth the pipe that he has taped so he can hold it, “I ‘ave dreams. About rats… leetle rats, they eat beeg rats. ‘Trouble,’ says Noel, “and trouble come…”

Now Noel needs $4,500, he says, “to feex up, open anoozer gas station, buy back farm.” He thinks he can earn almost $4,000 a year on Route 1, where cars roar by between city and seashore.  “Zey pass,” he says, looking at you with that through-and-through gaze, “and zey sink my sign ees some crank. But some day somebody come by, see my sign, and help me.”

But not the government, says Joseph. Not after “ze mortage affair.”  “Ze devil, she squeeze ze heart of ze goverrr’ment. Soon God get angry- zere come ze beeg crash…”

And when it comes, Joseph Noel will take it with the same quiet faith that has kept him siggin gby the side of the Salisbury road, waiting for “MONEY FOR BUY MY HOME BACK.”

(Visited 286 times, 1 visits today)