Alberta Christina Lyste was born in Maple Grove Township, Barron County, WI, the first child of Thomas Lyste and Clarice Nelson. Clarice was only 16 years old. They were second generation Norwegians, both from farm families.
For the first 9 years of her life, things were good. Lawrence, Archie, Delbert and Donna were added to the family and Alberta remembers school and home being good.
Then in April of 1930, Thomas came down with a cold that turned to pneumonia, and in just a few days he died. These were the days before good medicines were available, and pneumonia was often fatal.
The economy had turned bad in 1929 with the start of the Great Depression—jobs were hard to find, farm products sold for very little and times were hard. When Tom died, Clarice, then 25 years old had to move the family from the big house on the rented farm to the old house, now a small granary.
With a new baby and 4 other children, Clarice wasn’t able have a job, and so the family had to go on County Assistance of $30 per month. After paying the rent for the granary, there was not enough money to live on. Although they got a little help from relatives and neighbors, by November they were almost always short of food.
The relatives and neighbors did not seem to like Clarice and took it out on the whole family. Clarice had been 25 years younger than her husband.
Then at the beginning of December, after a meal of soup made from potato peelings off of the neighbors scrap pile, according to Archie,
Clarice was at the end of her wits. She told the children, to take care of each other and she would try to find something to help them do better. She left, walking away, never to return.
As the oldest, Alberta, age 9, had to take charge. She was used to taking care of her younger brothers and the new baby, so she knew what to do—but what could they eat?
She sent Lawrence to the neighbors with a pail to get some milk for the baby. He came back crying because he spilled the milk. Alberta insisted he go and try again or the baby would die (Mom and Lawrence knew what this meant, as one of Tom and Clarice’s babies had died and they remembered her being buried on the farm next to Dorrity Creek). This time he was successful.
She went to the neighbors and begged for food, but didn’t tell them her mother had left them alone. Her mother had told her if people found out, the family would be broken up and the kids given to other people.
For two weeks, Alberta managed to keep the secret and keep the family together, and somehow got enough food to keep them from starving, expecting her mother to return anytime. But she didn't come back.
Finally, the school teacher worried why Alberta was not coming to school. Alberta loved school and had awards for perfect attendance, so something must be wrong.
“My mother hasn’t been home for 2 weeks,” sobbed Alberta as the Barron County Sheriff interviewed her and checked out the living conditions, baby and small children with Alberta responsible for all of them.