A few years ago, every Twin Cities rambler with a roof was worth a small fortune. Home values were so high that many folks sought to cash in with second and third mortgages. The economy was strong and growing at a brisk clip.

But now the party is winding down, and a nasty economic hangover appears to be setting in. Home values in Minneapolis dropped 6.1 percent last year, and the city's property tax base has shrunk for the first time since the mid-1990s. Minnesota lost 23,000 jobs in the last six months of 2007.

That's not to mention rising food prices, and the $3.29 per gallon of gas punch to your wallet's solar plexus. If you're trying to help a son or daughter through college, you know that tuition and fees at public and private universities rose at double the inflation rate in 2007.

Minnesotans are facing real economic challenges, and there's some justification for both private and government efforts to soften the sharp edges.

But before we declare an economic emergency and demand a "New Deal" for the new millennium, let's remember a classic American resource that was in ample supply 75 years ago, when unemployment was not 5.1 percent, but 25 percent.

Back then, only about 44 percent of folks owned their homes, compared to two-thirds in 2000. Financing college usually wasn't a pressing problem, because college was beyond the reach of all but a fortunate few.

If you know people who grew up in the Great Depression and started adult life in the 1940s, you've heard about this resource. It was an attitude, a set of expectations -- the "glass half full" view of life.

I learned something about it from a practical joker and his wife -- John and Jeanne Kersten of Fairfield, Calif., my mom and dad.

One story says it all. After they got engaged in 1949, my dad sent my mom a photo of what he said was the starter home he had purchased for them in Topeka, Kan. In actuality, it wasn't a house, but a broken-down garage in dire need of paint and shingles.

My mother didn't get the joke. Instead, she was thrilled, and made the rounds of family and friends to show off the photo. "I was proud that this would be our first home," she said. "I didn't expect to own a home because my parents never had. I was so pleased that John had bought a place." She was amazed when my dad laughed and informed her that the photo was a joke.

My parents' first house was not a garage, but an 850-square-foot bungalow. In 1952, they moved up to a 960-square-foot, three-bedroom home in Fort Dodge, Iowa. Within several years, they had five children there, with a bunk bed and a crib in one bedroom, and two cribs in another.

My dad drove my parents' Dodge to work. "We never dreamed we'd own a second car," my mother said. But in 1953, they scraped together the cash for another vehicle -- a pre-war Ford on its last legs. "We parked it on the street, where the milkman could give me a push if I needed it," she said.

Life was good, my folks tell me, despite their shoestring budget. My mother, in particular, never thought of complaining. Why should she, when her life was so much easier than her own parents' had been?

In 1899, her dad, Ray Montgomery, had lost his father at age 14 in a railroad accident. As a result, he had to quit school in eighth grade and take his mother and siblings to the high desert of Colorado to homestead. There, his little sisters had to carry water half a mile to their sod house, and four of his siblings died of ailments such as influenza and scarlet fever before they reached adulthood.

College? As a young man, he never dreamed of it. After retiring at age 65, he finally enrolled at a university and graduated at 69.

Minnesotans with memories such as these remind us that hardship is relative. After all our struggles are tallied up, we still enjoy a prosperity that would dazzle those who came before us.

Above all, we're reminded that our greatest resource is a "glass half full" perspective that says that a garage is a mansion.

Katherine Kersten • kkersten@startribune.com Join the conversation at my blog, Think Again, which can be found at www.startribune.com/thinkagain.