Saturday, November 21, 2009

Tales Told by AGH, Installment #4: Money and Miscellaneous

More of my grandfather Art Harrington's stories from Syracuse NY in the first two decades of the 20th century, as transcribed by his eldest daughter, Mary, when he was an old man.

1) Once when I was working for Dan Kelly we finished a job and he got paid for it -- five hundred dollars. He took it home and gave it to his wife. Of course, she wasn't going to keep it around, -- she was going to put it in the bank that afternoon. She stopped at Lacey's store -- it was like -- do you remember? -- Stone's? -- dry goods and women's stuff.

She laid her pocketbook on the counter while she was being waited on and looked over some stuff to pick out what she wanted. She was fussy.

When she went to pay for what she got, she opened her pocketbook, and the five hundred dollars was gone. Well, she near died right there!

They locked the door, and kept everybody in, and phoned the police. I don't suppose there were very many people in there. An inspector came over with two or three policewomen. I guess they didn't search everybody, but they questioned everybody, and searched some. They didn't find a thing.

When she got home, was she disgusted with herself! There was the roll of bills on the stand beside the telephone.

Sure. She called the store and told them about it.


2) I remember another time Dan got paid about noon. (Dan was a contractor and building mover.) It was a rainy day. That afternoon as we were riding along in the wagon, I looked down and saw something stuck on -- sort of clinging to one of the tires. It was one of those gold twenty dollar bills. I said "Oh! Oh!", and pointed to it. "My God!" said Dan, "I had three of those!" He felt in his pocket, and they weren't there. We went back where we'd been, and looked all the way but never found the other two.

A "gold twenty dollar bill," 1922. Paper money of this sort -- redeemable for an equivalent value of gold or silver coinage -- was common in early 20th-Century America. (In 1933 they were discontinued in favor of the current Federal Reserve notes, and from then until 1964 they were actually illegal to possess!)

3) Once working in the R.R. yard out in East Syracuse, I found a pocketbook that had nearly nine dollars in it. I thought I knew whose it was, -- it belonged to a big Irishman named Steve. I didn't say anything about it until quitting time that night. Then I asked "Did anybody lose anything?"

Steve said "I lost a pocketbook."

"Anything in it?"

"Oh, eight, nine dollars."

"Is this it?"

He nodded and took it and put it in his pocket, and said "You damn fool. Why didn't you keep it and buy beer?"

Another time he wanted me to have a beer with him. He'd already had a few, and I thought that would be a good way to get rid of him. So I went into ____________'s with him, and had a couple. When he reached in his pocket, he dropped a twenty dollar bill. I didn't know how much it was, but I put my foot on it until I got a chance to pick it up.

I didn't say anything about it, but a few days later he came and asked if I'd lend him a quarter.

"Is that all you want?" I said.

He said, "It's gotta be. I'm broke."

I fished out the twenty dollar bill and handed it to him.

"No. I don't want to borrow that much."

"GO on -- take it. It's yours."

Well, he wanted to know how that was, so I told him. Even then, he wanted me to take half.

(No, I didn't.)


4) A brakeman I know told me about an experience he had.

There was an old man out west somewhere who sold out his ranch, or whatever his business was, for $30,000, and started back for somewhere in New England. He had the money in thirty one-thousand dollar bills in a wallet -- like a book -- tucked in here [vest].

The train had something like a twenty-minute stop in Syracuse, and he got out to walk up and down the platform. While he was walking, he felt for his wallet and it was gone. He went back into the car, and searched from one end to the other. When he got to the other end, the brakeman saw him and said, "Did you lose something?"

"Did I! I've lost every cent I have in the world!" -- and he told the brakeman more about it.

"Is this it?" the brakeman asked, drawing out the wallet. It was. The old man opened it up, counted out the money, and pulled out one of the thousand dollar bills to give the brakeman. He didn't want to take it at first, but the old man said, "Take it! I'm not giving it to you to reward you for your honesty. I'm giving it to you to punish myself for my carelessness!"

Well, when he put it that way, I don't blame the brakeman for taking it.


5) Once when I was working for George Steele, we were using a wagon and one of the springs got broke. I told him about it several times, and he'd keep saying "All right, I'll get a new one." But he'd forget.

One day we finished a job on Tallman Street about noon, and our next job was over on the North Side.

We had a board standing on end to hold up that end of the seat, even [height] with the end that still had a spring. I turned the seat around so he'd be sitting on the end held up by the board. The rest of the gang just had a board laid across the box to sit on. We came down Onondaga St. to Clinton. I was driving. At that time, Clinton St. was paved with cobblestones.

I turned down Clinton. (Ordinarily I'd have gone on to Salina -- that was paved with asphalt the same as Onondaga.) I got the horses into a good trot.

When we got near Clancy's Hardware, George told me to pull up and stop. One of the men in the back got out and stretched his legs. He says, "I'd rather go to hell on foot than go to heaven with you driving!"

When George came out of Clancy's, he had two new springs.


6) When I was working down at Smith Typewriter, there was an old Dutchman working in the same room. One day when he didn't know it, one of the boys took all of his files into the plating room, and held them against the magnet in the generator. When he went to use them, they were magnetized, and all the filings clung onto them. He didn't know what to make of it. When he found out what happened, he shook his head and said, "I don't fool around like dat. I'm a married man."

One day some of the boys got fooling around with a ball of [metal filing] waste. It was about that big, and wadded pretty tight. They'd throw it and then turn right back to their work as if they didn't know anything about it.

When one of them threw it, it hit one of the sprinkler heads and knocked it off. The air coming out made quite a hiss. Dutchy looked around and said, "Vot's dat?" He was standing right under it. I said, "You'd better get out of there!", and he did, just before it let loose.

The repair room was right under us and they did some hurrying getting the stuff out of there. The water poured right down through. They never found out what set off that sprinkler.

(Another time, Harry Hammond got drenched by the sprinklers over a fire in the dust of a blower, while he was climbing up a ladder with a pail of water to throw on it.)


7) Working at Brown-Lipe-Chapin, when they installed two searchlights on top of the plant, they had to put up a permanent ladder to each one, for replacement work, etc. On a Saturday aforenoon, I was working with an air-drill, on a rope, drilling holes for bolts to put the ladder up the face of the new office building. It must have made an awful racket inside. You'd see a head stick out of one window and then another. Finally, H.W. Chapin stuck his head out and said, "How long are you going to be at that?"

"I haven't any idea. Probably a couple of hours if I don't strike any steel -- and if I do, there's no telling how long."

"It's an awful racket. You'll have to stop pretty soon, or I'll have to go home."

I laughed and said, "You might as well go home. You ain't doin' nothin' anyhow!"

Chapin grinned and said no more.

Henry Winfield Chapin -- the "Chapin" in Brown-Lipe-Chapin -- was a captain of industry in Syracuse during the early 20th Century. His companies manufactured gears and differentials for the young automobile industry. This cartoon is from Club Men in Caricature, a 1915 collection of ink portraits of 189 of Syracuse's most powerful men. (Cornell University Library.)


8) MEH: Once Dad, using a drill, cut through an electric conduit embedded in the concrete wall at Brown-Lipe-Chapin.

Chapin asked, "Didn't you know it was there?"

Dad:-- "Sure. I could see right through the concrete."

Chapin:-- "Well there are blueprints."

Dad:-- "Where?"

Chapin:-- "In the office."

Dad:-- "That's a good place for them!"

They got out the blueprints, before any more work was done on the job.

One of the most elegant structures in Syracuse's Oakwood Cemetery is this monument to Chapin and his wife, Marie, whose graves are incorporated in it. Art Harrington's monument is still being built, in a way. (Photograph copyright by Larry Hoyt from his blog NewFolkFotos.)


9) Once, at B.-L.-C. there was a quarter-ton chain-falls missing. There was quite a stink raised about that, until one day Lihou came into the room where the men were taking off their overalls, and washing up to go home. He asked if there wasn't anyone of them who knew where that chain-fall went.

Ran Waughter spoke up, "I don't know where it is now -- the last time I saw it, it was hanging in your garage."

Lihou turned and left, and he never mentioned the matter again. I don't think Ran had ever been near Lihou's garage, but he made a good guess.

Next: More short tales from AGH's memories.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Remembrances... Installment #10: Home Cobbling, Downtown, and First Bike from Hell


by Lynn Harrington
Part I: 1918 - 1927, concluded

19. Sewing, Shop Belts, and Shoe Leather

Keeping us children decently clothed was a continuing problem for our parents. Our poor Mother never lacked for work to keep her busy in the evening, after the supper dishes were done and arrangements for the next morning's breakfast made. That was when she would sit down with a lapful of clothes in need of mending. When I think back on those nights in the Cannon Street house, the picture that most often comes to mind is of her sitting there in the living room enveloped in the glow of the lamplight, darning socks or mending the worn-through knees or elbows of pants or shirts, or taking up the hem of a dress to help it along in its passage down the normal progression from an older girl to the next younger.

Dad's part in extending our clothing resources was concentrated mainly on keeping us boys shod. New shoes were expensive, and we somehow managed to wear a hole through a sole in a very short time. Dad's work as a millwright at the big Brown-Lipe-Chapin Gear factory often involved making repairs to the leather belts which were at that time the most common means of driving machines in factories. A good deal of heavy scrap leather accumulated in that work, and the management was quite willing to let the men take such scraps home if they wished.

Dad had, early on, acquired a few of the essential tools of the cobbler's trade. Among these was a set of metal lasts, pieces of iron one surface of which was flat and smooth, and so shaped as to fit snugly into a shoe of a given size. The opposite surface of the last was contoured in such a way that it would engage firmly on the top of a pedestal-like stand. Dad would select the last of the right size for the shoe that had need of a replacement sole. He would then trace the outline of the sole on a piece of the scrap leather. Seated by the pedestal-mounted shoe and last, he would use shoenails and his tackhammer to attach to the shoe the piece of scrap leather he had cut to the outline he had drawn. With his very sharp knife he would then trim the edge of the new sole until it was smooth and even.

The belting material came in various thicknesses, and he always used the same thickness on both of the shoes of a pair. If the leather was quite thick one resoling would usually last as long as the uppers. We boys were always hoping the belt leather would be thin, for then the shoes would be more nearly flexible. Thin leather, however, meant more work for Dad, for when the manufacturer' s original sole wore through in the middle, the shop-leather sole could be applied right over it. When that one wore through, it had to be removed before the second replacement could be put on. That involved a good deal of careful and difficult tack-pulling.

We were always glad to have our worn-through shoes repaired. We were apprehensive, however, about what our experience was going to be when we wore them to school. Most often no one noticed. But we were not always so lucky. All too frequently the shop sole, when bent to the degree required by the flexing of the newly-shod foot in walking, gave off a loud squeak. This was embarrassing in school, especially if we were called upon to go to the blackboard. A squeak which occurred while walking in a crowded hallway or along the sidewalk did not draw attention to us individually; the same noise as we walked alone in a quiet room brought titters from the class, and a blush to our cheeks.

The embarrassment was compounded when the two soles came from different leathers, one of which squeaked and the other didn't. For some reason, that skip-a­beat squeaking seemed to be more conspicuous, and more amusing to the class, than was the regular squeak with every step. But with wear the noise diminished, and in time our young classmates lost interest in the peculiar performance of our shoes.

20. Downtown Syracuse

During the first half of the 1920s the downtown section of the city was an exciting place to go. It was not a part of the city Jimmy or I would venture into alone. Sometimes one of the girls would take one or both of us there on a Saturday, just for the fun of showing us what a busy place it was. I can remember rare occasions when Dad took me downtown with him when he had some shopping to do or an errand to run. Those were great occasions, for he knew all about the city, and would talk about the sights we saw and the traffic that thronged the streets. I was especially fascinated by the street cars and trains. Dad had worked for a time as a streetcar motorman. The car lines all radiated out of downtown to the outlying neighborhoods. By reading the destination signs on the cars Dad could tell me just where each car went, the streets it followed, and the neighborhood it served.

For some reason, anything that rolled on iron wheels over steel rails intrigued me. This was especially true of the New York Central passenger trains, with their great chuffing steam engines and their long strings of cars. At that time the train station was situated downtown, and the tracks had not yet been elevated. The long trains rolled east and west in their slow passage right down the street in the center of the city. Traffic delays on the busy north-south streets were frequent and frustrating to pedestrians and all forms of traffic that had to wait for them. I enjoyed occasional visits to the station and its train shed where I could watch passengers boarding and leaving the cars, and baggage and express being put on and taken off the cars designed for that service. Watching the engineer using a long­spouted oil can to lubricate the side-rod driving mechanism of his locomotive as it stood panting at the head of the train was a special treat to me.

The New York Central's "Empire State Express" rolling through downtown Syracuse in the 1920's. (Postcard image from the collection of Michelle Stone on Genweb.)

Setting one of those long, heavy trains in motion required the skilled touch of a master engineer. One tug too far or too quick on the throttle would send the driving wheels spinning in a frenzy without moving the train. Sparks would fly and there would be a great roar form the exhaust stack of the engine. Then the throttle would have to be pushed back and a new, more gradual start attempted, with a further application of sand fed from a storage dome atop the boiler down the tubes to the rails, directly ahead of the driving wheels. Less experienced engineers would sometimes have to repeat this process two or three times, especially in getting a long string of heavy steel Pullman cars under way. The veteran engineers, especially those assigned to the crack trains such as the 20th Century Limited, the Commodore Vanderbilt or the Empire State Express, rarely spun out more than once in getting their great trains into motion.

When I first visited downtown, traffic at each major intersection was directed by a policeman. He stood in the center of the crossing, looking very natty in his blue uniform and white gloves, directing the traffic flow by hand signals accented by shrill blasts from his whistle. And then one Saturday, in which year I can't recall, Dad took us boys downtown to see the newly-installed automatic, electrically operated traffic signals. They were mounted on posts at curbside at each major intersection, showing in sequence and in uniformly controlled intervals the three standard light colors, red, yellow, and green. Only in later years came the more sophisticated signalling, such as selective delays for turns or for pedestrians only, or the showing of both yellow and green simultaneously as the green phase of the cycle neared its end, while the red shows continuously in the other direction. But the earliest important improvement in the system as first installed came quite soon. All of the signal posts operated simultaneously. For several seconds with the changing of the lights there rang at each signal pole a clamorous warning bell. This was not a gong, but a rapidly burring bell, like a greatly amplified doorbell. The clamor of all those bells ringing at the same time from every signal post in the downtown area was bad enough for the passing motorist; for those who worked downtown it was simply intolerable, and was soon discontinued.

Policemen patrolled afoot night and day in the downtown section. They had no radios for communication, but Dad told us of the method they had developed for summoning assistance from fellow officers on nearby beats. Each officer had a nightstick, a shiny black cylinder of very hard wood about two inches in diameter, formed to a smaller diameter near one end to serve as the grip-handle. A hole drilled through at the point where the diameter diminished allowed for the attachment of a leather thong which the officer could loop over his wrist. It was a treat to see how the policemen could stroll along, glancing watchfully about, and casually twirling the nightstick on its thong, so fast that it looked not like a stick but like a whirl of reflecting blackness. It was with his nightstick that the officer would signal for help in the quiet of the late night hours. They had all mastered the technique of beating a rapid drumming of the stick against the cement sidewalk, producing a loud, rapidfire, and pervasive sound that would carry for a long distance in all directions. Fellow officers would hear the signal, and move off on the run in the direction from which the sound came.

21. My First Bicycle

During the summer of the last full year of our residence on Cannon Street, in 1925, I reached the age of 10. A few of the boys my age in the neighborhood had bicycles, and I longed very deeply to have one of my own. But my parents had two very good reasons why I could not: First, because they didn't think I was old enough, and, second, because they couldn't afford it. I understood about the money, but felt sure I could ride a bicycle safely. I had already learned to ride well enough to keep a bike balanced, courtesy of a few boys who let me practice for short intervals on their bicycles. As the summer wore on I came to realize that they were tired of my pleading, and I gave up all hope. And then in late summer came my birthday, and with it, to my astonishment, a bicycle. Neither Mom nor Dad said anything about where it came from, or what it cost, but it clearly must have lain in storage somewhere for a very long time, since it was quite different from any of the bicycles I had ever seen.

The bike merits detailed description, partly because it was so important to me, and partly because an understanding of its construction and operation is necessary to visualization of the various experiences I encountered in operating it. The bicycles with which I was familiar were basically pretty much alike, with mudguards and handlebar grips and coaster brakes. My birthday bike had none of those things. It consisted of tires, wheels, frame, handlebar, chain, and a sort of improvised seat. The pedal arrangement was standard, with its cogged wheel which turned with the pedals and. by its chain connection with the rear wheel hub, propelled the bicycle. But the rear hub was not at all conventional. It housed no brake nor coaster mechanism at all. The result of this unorthodox setup was that the rear wheel, the chain, and the pedals all moved continuously whenever the bike was in motion.

The most important effect of this novel arrangement was that there was only one way of achieving any braking effect. This was to put all my weight on the foot that rested on the pedal moving through the upward half of its circular motion. When I wanted to stop I had to switch my weight back and forth repeat­edly from one foot to the other with every half-turn of the pedals. The rate of this weight-shifting and the consequent bobbing up and down was determined by the speed at which the bike was moving. At anything higher than a moderate rate this was very uncomfortable. Given my light weight, the retarding effect of bearing down on a rising pedal was minimal at best.

I loved the bicycle, and was thrilled when I rode it. Whenever a quick stop became necessary it was thrilling in quite a different way. I usually had two alternatives if evasive movement was out of the question: First choice was to steer into a bush or any shrubbery that was near enough at hand. I might get scratched up, but the bush would stop me less abruptly than a tree or a wall. The second choice was even less pleasant. That was to fling myself off the bike. That was painful, and didn't do the bike much good, either.

I learned several things early in my ownership of that machine. One was, don't go fast on purpose. Second, don't go fast unintentionally, which meant stay away from hills. Third, at anything more than a low speed, never take both feet off the pedals; getting them back on would be a problem. Probably most important, never give Jimmy or any other little kid a ride on the bar. Such rides were virtually certain to end in a spill, and a little boy who was pitched off my bicycle would scream like crazy, and I would have the wrath of his mother upon my head.

There came a day that fall when a big boy, one of our older cousins, was visiting with his parents at our house. He was much interested in the bicycle. When I told him about my braking problems he told me I just wasn't doing it right. What I should do, he said, was to push the sole of my right shoe against the tire of the front wheel, up near the fork. Then he hopped on and rode a little way up the sidewalk. Coming back he had it going at pretty good speed by the time he reached us boys, standing in front of the house. Then, following the instructions he had given me, he put the toe of his right shoe against the fork, then pressed the sole of the shoe down against the tire (no mudguards, remember) and stopped the bike quite smoothly. I was overjoyed, and immediately set out to try his technique. I was going along at a great rate when I reached the watching group, and then I removed my right foot from the pedal and pressed the toe of my sneaker hard against the front tire. I had no time immediately after for analysis of the results, but as he reminded me later (and as he obviously assumed even a dumb kid would have figured out) he had put the toe of his shoe against the base of the fork, just above the tire, before bear­ing down on the tire. Besides that, his shoe had a leather sole, which would not grab on the tire as my sneaker did. As a result of my ignorance of these little details, when I shoved the toe of my sneaker farther down than he had, I induced a quite spectacular result. Before I knew what was happening the tire drew the toe of my sneaker up and jammed it tightly into the space between the tire and the fork, stopping the wheel dead still. The immediate stoppage of the wheel didn't induce much of a skid. What with the speed of the bike and my light and forward-leaning weight, the direction of motion was simply transformed from linear to rotary. The bicycle and I swung a swift arc, pivoting around the axle of the front wheel and dumping me head first on the sidewalk. I saw a lot of stars, and discovered that I could scream even louder than the little kids could.

I had lost some skin from my nose and fore­head, and had quite a bump on my head. But the consensus of the adults who had been drawn out of the house by the excitement on the sidewalk was that, with a bit of rest and cleaning up, I would be all right. So Mama washed me up and put me to bed, keeping a cool, damp cloth on my forehead until I fell asleep.

By the next day I was only slightly the worse for wear. After a while I went out back of the house to see if my bike was all right. It wasn't there. Bob said Mom and Dad had a conversation about it the night before, and he had seen Dad pushing it along the sidewalk toward Colvin Street before I was up that morning.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Remembrances... Installment #9: Salesmanship, Workmanship, and the Fruits of Thievery

By Lynn Harrington
Part I: 1918 – 1927, continued

15. Liveries

One of the more prosperous families living near us on Cannon Street was the Nastasis. Of the family in general, I remember hardly anything. The one member I recall quite clearly is the father, Mr. Nicholas Nastasi. He was without question the most elegant gentleman in our neighborhood. We used to see him leaving for work in the morning and returning in the evening. He walked past our house on his way to and from the street car stop at Salina and Colvin. In the wintertime his black bowler hat would have been a prime target for a wayward boy with a snowball, but the dignity of his bearing and the impressiveness of his dress -- a splendid dark gray overcoat with its black velvet collar, his fine light gloves, and the black walking stick he carried --- were intimidating enough to prevent any such misconduct.

I remember wondering aloud one day, along about 1925 when automobiles were becoming increasingly common, why a man so rich as Mr. Nastasi didn't have one. "Oh, he could have one if he wanted to," my Dad said, "but he thinks automobiles are the work of the devil." He went on to explain that Mr. Nastasi owned a livery stable down near the Lackawanna train station. He had made a fortune renting horses and rigs to traveling salesmen ("drummers", they were called then) and others who had need of temporary private transportation. The rapidly growing availability of automobiles was relentlessly forcing liverymen out of business. Dad thought that Nick should have acquired a new car agency, but the man's pride and his anger at automobiles in general were too bitter to let him stoop to that, so his business was going to smash.

The Vanderbilt Hotel, Syracuse, early 1920's. Notice the mix of internal-combustion and horse-drawn vehicles on the streets.

Between our house and the University, on Raynor Avenue, was another livery stable and wagon rental business. The proprietor of that one, when we boys found it, had given up and sold his horses. In one of our rambles through the outlying neighborhood we came upon that abandoned enterprise, with its barn silent and empty of horses. We found a way in, and reveled in the excitement of exploring and playing about in the dim interior of that old barn, among the horse stalls and in the parts where wagons, draped with cobwebs and thick with dust, remained in storage. The more common gigs, single-seat buggies, and work wagons were parked in a large, fenced lot out back. But in the barn were the splendid coaches and carriages, some of the finest with glass-windowed passenger compartments and high outside bench seats front and rear, for the driver and his helper, and second-class passengers. These coaches yet retained the elegance of their upholstery and were fitted with fine lanterns and lamps; when we brushed off the accumulated dust we could see the gleam of the brass and nickel trim of those fixtures. Those beautiful upper-class coaches also had leaf springs, while their less imposing partners in the trade had either leather-strap suspensions or no springs at all. Passengers in the coaches had the luxury of riding on wheels bearing hard rubber tires, too, rather than the common iron bands that were the tires for the wheels of lesser vehicles.

16. Cloverine Salve and the BB Gun

It must have been during the winter of 1923, when I was eight, that I saw the advertisement. It was most likely in a copy of Boys' Life, a magazine I liked to read at the Beauchamp Branch Library, which stood then at the northeast corner of Colvin and Salina Streets. The ad was run by the company that marketed Cloverine Salve, an ointment that was guaranteed to end the discomfort of everything from burns to poison ivy. The promotion was aimed not so much at
users as at boys who were urged to sell the tins of Cloverine, to earn not cash but prizes, the value of which was determined by the number of tins sold. All a boy had to do was to have his parents send in an order for the number of tins the boy must sell to gain the prize of his choice. Of course the parents had to agree to send back any unsold tins along with payment for the portion of the order actually sold, whether or not the boy had achieved his goal.

The prize that caught my eye was one that I very much wanted, but knew in my heart that I would never have enough money to buy. It was a genuine 200-shot Daisy air rifle. I copied out the details and took the information home, hoping against hope that Mom and Dad would let me try. It took a lot of pleading, but at last they consented, upon my solemn promise that I would keep careful track of all my sales, and turn over to them promptly upon receipt the full payment for every tin I sold.

I was beside myself with delight. I was going to have a BB gun of my very own, and all I had to do to get it was sell two dozen tins of Cloverine Salve. Surely, that wouldn't be hard.

The wait for the arrival of the tins seemed endless, but at last the package arrived. And then it wasn't long before I found that the neighbors all seemed to have plenty of salve. In my enthusiasm, I told each prospect all about the dandy air rifle I was going to get. In the blackness of my disappointment I told Mama that nobody would buy my Cloverine. She said that maybe I wasn't trying in quite the right way, and suggested that I make believe I had come to her door, and say just what I had been saying to the customers. I did that, and she very quickly saw the problem.

In my eagerness to get the prize I was saying very little about the Cloverine, and a great deal about the gun I was going to get. Then she explained the point I had not thought of: Very few of the mothers or fathers were going to be enthusiastic about helping a little neighbor kid get an air rifle which could very well accidentally hurt their own children.

That lesson learned, I made up a spiel about how good the Cloverine was, and what a good buy at the price. Then I started to get an occasional sale, and my hopes rose again. Still, it was a slow, hard job, and by the time I sold the 24th tin I was sure I didn't want to be a salesman when I grew up.

1920's-vintage Daisy BB gun. Image from .

At last came the great day of the arrival of my Daisy air rifle. It was beautiful. Unfortunately no ammunition was included. When Dad got home he gave me five cents, so that on the next day I could go to the hardware store and get a tube of 100 BBs. I could hardly wait to try out my new gun. It was too cold and snowy outside, so the only place I could try it was in the cellar. That was a dark, dirt-floored place, but it would have to do. There were nails in the beams, where Dad hung lanterns when he had anything to do down there. One of the girls fixed up a target for me, by drawing circles on a cardboard box. We put that under a lantern at one end of the cellar, and at the other end, under another lantern, I sat down on a box to load the gun. I decided to pour in the full 100 BBs, as that was less than the capacity of the gun. The mechanism of the air rifle was such that the forward end of the barrel consisted of a metal disc, threaded around its outer edge, and with a tube, through which the BBs were propelled, leading back into the invisible interior of the works. By cocking the gun, air would be compressed into the chamber behind the BB which, with the cocking motion, was dropped into place in the tube. The inner surface of the front end of the barrel was threaded to receive the threaded tube-and-disc arrangement.

I put the pieces all together, screwing the insert into place, and cocked the gun. I was surprised at the force required to cock it. It was a very strong spring, but I managed to get it cocked. Then, seated on the box in the dim light, I took careful aim at the center of the target, and squeezed the trigger.

The gun went off with a surprisingly loud BANG, and a lot of things happened to the gun all at once.

Concurrent with the bang there was a rattling noise, and I could see the whole inner works flying out of the barrel and landing on the dirt floor about half the distance to the target. Along with the other components went the entire 100 BBs. The loss of the ammunition on the dirt floor made no particular difference --the threads at the end of the barrel had been stripped, and there was no way the gun could be put together again.

I never did find out why my gun was faulty. Just defective workmanship, I suppose. I was very much saddened, and probably should have learned some important lesson from the experience. But all I could think of was a conclusion I had reached some time before:

Kids shouldn't expect to win all the time.

17. Winter

The winters I remember from our Cannon Street days were much the same asnorthern winters are today, but coping with them then was in some ways harder. For one thing, the sophisticated snow-removal equipment available now was not even dreamed of then. There were no snow blowers, no plows mounted on high-powered trucks. The snow which was not shoveled off by hand or melted off by intermittent thaws simply accumulated and was packed down by traffic. Streetcar tracks were kept pretty well cleared by the weight of the iron wheels on steel rails. But in a season of heavy snowfall, this caused problems.

As the layer of snow in the streets became packed down and hardened under the traffic, the street level became effectively raised, leaving the trolley car tracks as deep, hard-walled channels. It was not unusual to see a team of horses pulling a sleigh wagon diagonally along the street, with the team and the front set of runners on the packed snow surface, straddling one rail, while the rear set of runners, firmly trapped in the rail's trench, could not change its course.
Following slowly behind would be a streetcar, or in rush hours a string of streetcars, their frustrated motormen all clanging away at their bells to the annoyance of the equally frustrated teamster. Sometimes a break in the icy wall would free up the runners, and the cars could get by. And sometimes the whole procession had to stop while workmen broke down the barrier for a long enough distance to free the trapped runners. Under such road conditions it was an imprudent teamster who tried to cross the tracks at an acute angle.

Playing in the snow could be great fun, especially when we could build snow forts and engage in snowball fights. That was more dangerous at the time of the first early, wet snow. Under those conditions it was easy for a malicious boy to pack a stone into a snowball, and a hit by such a loaded snowball could be a serious thing. That didn't happen in my experience, but we heard of incidents of that kind in tougher neighborhoods. Later in winter, when the snow lay deep all over the land, stones were well buried, and did not become ammunition.

There were ice skating rinks in the parks, and many people enjoyed that recreation. People who skated rarely had shoe skates; at any rate, I have no memory of seeing such skates. I do remember Mildred and Florence taking their skates and going to the rink at Kirk Park. The skates were of the platform type, with a flat metal upper surface with clamps by which the skate could be gripped firmly to the sole of the skater's shoe. We boys somehow didn't get into skating much, but we did enjoy just sliding on the ice. Onondaga Park, with its long, sweeping hillside surfaces, made a great place for sledding and tobogganing. We had no toboggan, but we were always able to join a group of several boys on a toboggan one of them had brought to the slopes. We had sleds, which were great for riding on packed surfaces. That was in contrast to the toboggans, which rode best down trails they cut into deeper soft snow.

As we grew a little older Dad helped us to make exciting devices called skip-jacks. Old wooden barrels and scrap lumber were easy to come by, and a single stave from the side of a large old barrel became the sliding surface. A short section of two-by-four attached to the center of the concave surface of the stave and surmounted with a small flat piece of wood formed the seat. Given a steep slope of well-packed snow, a boy could sit on the seat, push the device along by a shove with both feet, and be off on a wild ride down the slope. Some became quite expert at maintaining balance, and could ride all the way to the bottom of the slope. Most of us were lucky to get half way down the hill before the skip-jack flew off in one direction, and the rider in another.

Four decades later, Lynn Harrington still loved doing the skip-jack thing, even without a seat and on a real toboggan. (1960 photo by Catherine M. Harrington.)

Skiing was popular then, too, but not by any means so popular an activity as it is today. In later years we boys would have skis of our own, but while we lived on Cannon Street the only family member who had skis, to the best of my recollection, was one of the older girls, probably Myrtle. She was the best sport of all, and would try anything. That continued into her adult life, when she played golf, rode horseback, and even successfully completed the qualifying lessons for an airplane pilot's license.

Those winters on Cannon Street had a quite different, special charm of still another kind. The family was closer at that season than at any other. On cold winter nights we would all be within warming distance of the stoves, mainly the one in the kitchen. We played games and listened to stories, enjoyed the fragrance of hot cocoa steaming on the range, and one of the girls would occasionally make a pan of fudge. We would never again live in a house just like that, and the winter evenings would never again be quite the same.

18. Summer

Summertime was the best season for outdoor play. During the days we would wander about the neighborhood, an ever-expanding area as each succeeding summer found us grown a little bigger, a little stronger, and a little bolder than its predecessor had left us. We went to the deep gravel pit and found excitement in daring each other to jump from the rim far down to the big pile of sand heaped up below. And, the dare accepted, we had to make that breath-taking leap ourselves.

We challenged each other to climb to the top of the big apple-tree in our back yard, and one day Bob's friend Bobby Ammerman went first, and climbed very nearly to the top before falling. He didn't fall far, though, because one foot caught right at the start in a tight crotch. He hung upside down there, screaming bloody murder. We ran to a neighbor's house for help, and the man came with an extension ladder and got Bobby down, and then gave us all a thorough scolding for being such nuisances.

After supper, the long twilight of those summer evenings was the best time for playing outdoor games. Hide-and-seek and tag and various games with balls were the favorites, followed closely by kick-the-can. This was a group game, played in the street. It was a distant relative of soccer, of which we had never heard. Any old tin can would do; imaginary goal lines (or sometimes black lines made by a boy with a piece of the black carbon rod material used at that time in the city street lights and discarded when too far consumed) were drawn across the street, perhaps 20 yards apart. A half dozen kids would kick away at the can (and each other) trying to kick it across the opposing team's goal line.

Most of those games, while we didn't recognize it at the time, were based on an inborn desire to challenge and compete, and conquer if we could. They were, for better or for worse, training exercises for the game of life. Sometimes they led us into small troubles.

Such was the case one nice evening when six or seven of us pondered what to do next. Bob, being one of the older boys, was a natural leader in such circumstances. He put forth an irresistible temptation when he said, "Let's raid McNulty's grapes!"

Mr. McNulty had a house on a rather large lot around the corner on Colvin Street. He was a big, vigorous man who took special pride in the small vineyard he maintained in his back yard. Entrance there could be made only by the greatest stealth, for Mr. McNulty knew what a temptation his grapes were to the kids of the neighborhood. But since Bob was going to lead us, we had to go or lose face.

Noiseless as a band of Indians, we made our way around behind the house next door, and found ourselves very soon in among McNulty's vines. We thought our movement utterly silent, and were enjoying the luscious grapes far more than we would have if they had been served to us at home. And then, with no warning at all, the light on the nearby back porch turned on and there was Mr. McNulty, shouting "Who's There? Stop or I'll shoot!"

We didn't even pause to wonder if he had a gun. Scared witless, we took off at top speed in all directions, like a flushed covey of partridges. It just happened to be my bad luck that I alone chose to dash pell-mell not for the street, but across another neighbor's yard. I hadn't fled more than a dozen strides when I met a sudden comeuppance. That neighbor had clotheslines hanging slack between standards in his yard, and one line hung just low enough to catch me by the neck, just under my chin. At the speed at which I was running, I took the slack out of that line in no time at all. My feet flung up ahead of me, and I came down on my back with a thump. My neck was on fire and I hurt all over and I was going to get shot and I was scared.

Mr. McNulty was over me with his flashlight in a moment, and the neighbor whose clothesline had leveled me had heard the commotion and he was there, too. I could just make out the two of them bending over me. "What happened?" the neighbor asked. I heard Mr. McNulty's deep voice answer, "It's just a boy who was enjoying my grapes, but I don't believe he wants any more, so I think he'll get up now and go home." And that is what I did, and I don't think that when I got home Mama knew what I had been crying about, and I didn't explain.

The next morning when she saw me in the daylight she saw the red, rashy line on my neck, and put some Cloverine on it, and told me I must be more careful.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Tales Told by AGH, Installment #3: Rat Tales and Dan Kelly

Editor's note:
These reminiscences by my grandfather, Arthur George Harrington, were transcribed by his daughter Mary when he was an old man. See the sidebar pictures for birth and death years of each.

Prelude by Mary:

We got started on rat stories because there had been an article in the
Saturday Evening Post
about a new system of rat control. Dad told about an encounter he had with a rat in Uncle Henry's house in Troy.

He had brought home some meat for Aunt ________, and as he came into the kitchen with it, he saw a rat scurry into the dining room. He put down the meat, picked up a stove poker, and followed the rat. It was not in sight in the dining room, from which a bedroom, living room, and pantry opened. He tried the bedroom first. He couldn't see any rat, even when he got down and looked under the bed. Then he lifted a corner of the mattress, and there on the bedsprings was Mr. Rat.

The rat dashed back to the dining room. Dad quickly slammed bedroom, living room, and pantry doors shut, and the rat got to the kitchen. Dad followed, closing the dining room door behind him. He said the rat circled, then headed for the outside door -- also closed. Dad started after him. He must have been at least 6 or 8 feet away, when the rat whirled and leaped at him. Dad said he was really scared. "The rat was about here" (holding his hand level, palm down, about even with his breastbone) when he slapped it down, kicking at it, at the same time.

The rat landed, a gory mess, at the top of the door frame. End of tale.


He told of a story he read in the S.E.P. during the War, about some men in London who had been trained to do something about bombs that had landed but had not yet gone off. One day a bomb landed in a big shell hole made by a previous bomb. One of these men volunteered to go down in and see if he could render it harmless before it went off. They let him down with a rope -- but he had hardly reached the bomb when he signalled frantically to be hauled up. They worked in desperate haste, and when they got him to the top, asked him if the bomb was about to go off.

"I don't know," he said, "but there's a bloody rat down there!"


(Now Let Dad Tell 'em.)


When I was a kid, Old Dan Kelly had a brickyard out on Rowland Street. Dan had a horse. In those days, they used to give them a mixed feed. They'd cut hay all up fine. One kind of chopper had blades something like a lawn mower. Another kind had a straight blade you'd work up and down. They'd put feed with it and mix it with water. Dan had a box about this big, filled with the feed, near the horse stall. One day as he stepped in, he could just make out that there were 5 or 6 rats in that feed box, eating away. He went quiet and got a shovel, and was just ready to bring it down on the rats, when his horse lifted his hind leg, caught him about here, and tossed him into the box with the rats.


Dan was a terrible man. [Note:- "Terrible", in this case, doesn't mean "bad." -MEH] He was death on booze. His father and mother and two brothers were drunkards, and he said he'd seen enough of it. I can remember more than once seeing his mother going down the street with a suit of clothes. In a few minutes one of the girls would take after her. She had stolen clothes from the boys while they slept, and was trying to sell them to get liquor.

One icy day in November, I was down on Shonnard St. with Dan and the team. A milk man came along. He was having a bad time. His horse's shoes were smooth and the horse was slipping and sliding. Dan yelled, "Spend less for beer and whiskey and use your money to shoe your horse, and he'll not be slippin' all over the road!"

Another time I was with him, when a man I knew but Dan didn't came along with his arm in a sling and bandages. I asked him what was the matter, and he said it was blood poisoning. Dan yells "Keep the beer and whiskey out of your belly and you'll not get blood poisoning!"

Not long after that, we were raising a house. [Note:- The spelling is correct. Some houses, they raised, and others, they razed. -MEH] A lot of trash had been dumped out behind it and we had to clear that away to get at it. There were rusty tin cans, etc. Dan cut his hands a few times, and the cuts got infected. One day he came to work complaining about how his hand hurt and I told him he ought to go to a doctor. He did, that night. The next day he came with his arm in a sling. I asked him "What's the matter?"

"The doctor says it's blood poisoning," he said.

"Keep the beer and whiskey out of your belly, and you'll not get blood poisoning," I mocked.

"I didn't think a man could get it," he said, "if he never took a drink!"

Once a couple kids came to the house and said Dan sent them to ask me to come up to the barn where he was. I went. He said he was pretty sick and asked me if I'd go to Doc Forman's with him. We got started. I asked him if he wanted to take a street car. He said no, he'd walk.

While the doc was working on him, he looked bad. Doc asked him if he felt faint. He said he felt funny, but didn't know what it was. Doc went out of the room and came back with a glass with a little something in it, and said "Here, drink that."

Dan says "What is it, whiskey?"

Doc says "No, it's brandy."

"Give it to Art," says Dan, "I'd rather die than drink the damn stuff!"


Once the whole gang was near the corner of Geddes and Gifford, across from Carney's saloon. Carney himself came along and started in, but turned as he reached the door, and called "Hello, Dan!" Dan said hello, and Carney went in.

Then Dan said to the gang, "Did you see that? Did you see that? I'm the only one who never spent a nickel in his place, and I'm the only one he spoke to!"


Dan worked and got some money. In fact, for all their drinking, his father and mother left quite a piece of property. It was some land they couldn't sell easy. Dan and his brothers -- and sisters, too, I suppose -- got together and marked it off into building lots and divided it. Dennis and John drank up their shares, and Dan lost his in the brickyard. He didn't do very well with that brickyard on Rowland Street, and he went out to Camillus and started one there. That time he lost it all.

He came back to Syracuse. Somehow he got the idea he could build cellars. Fifty or sixty years ago [circa 1900 -SH] most of the houses up in the Second Ward were set on posts, with no cellar or regular foundation, and there was quite a spell a few years later when builders were busy raising the houses and putting in cellars.

Dan wanted a hundred dollars for mason's supplies, etc., to start business. But nobody'd lend it to him. They didn't have any confidence in him.

Finally he went to Frank Dolan, the real estate man, and explained to him what he wanted to do. Frank listened, then counted out a hundred dollars and handed it to him.

Dan says, "All right -- make out your note and I'll sign it."

Frank says "No need of any note. If you make good, you'll pay me. And if you don't, a note wouldn't be any good anyway."

Dan made good, all right, and paid.


Crouse Klock asked Dan if he'd take down the old Crouse place, on Genesee St. between University and Crouse Avenuse, about across from the old orphan asylum. [Note:- Next to University Ave. church, where the armory is now. -MEH] There were two buildings on the place, the house and barn (carriage house). He wanted Dan to do it for the material in the buildings. Dan said he would. Then he asked me if I'd go up and look at it with him. When we looked it over, I told him I thought he ought to get a hundred dollars besides the material. So he went back and told Crouse Klock, who agreed.

There was some beautiful hand-carved woodwork around a couple doors. A woman walked in one day while we were working, and asked what we'd take for it. I told her I wasn't boss, but I'd ask Mr. Kelly. I told Dan about it, but it must have slipped his mind or something. For the next thing I knew, a couple Irish laborere he had hired were ripping the stuff out with crowbars. He could easily have got another hundred for it.

The old lath they ripped off the walls and piled out in back. The pile was as big as a haystack. Dan touched a match to it to be rid of it. Maybe that didn't make some blaze! The sparks were flying all over the neighborhood. Some of the neighbors got excited and called the fire department. I didn't blame them.

Number Seven came, from Fayette St. just below University. The chief asked who was in charge of the job. I told him Kelly was. He said, "Tell him we want to see him."

But Dan stayed in the house. He knew better than to come out -- he knew they'd turn the hose on him. But the chief gave him a good talking to later.


Working for McNeill, on a job on Cortland Ave., Dan came along with the wagon one day, and asked me if I'd go with him up near the university to get something. I asked what street.

He said, "I can't think of the name, but we'll find it." We went along till we got up on S. Crouse Ave., where Marshall comes in, and coming down the hill was a well-dressed couple. The man looked as if he was a professional man of some sort. Dan suddenly recalled, and let out a yell, "Say! Where in hell is Useless Avenue?" [Note:- He was looking for Euclid. -MEH]


The brick Dan got from razing the old Crouse place, he used for the inside course of bricks, to build a couple of houses near the corner of Elliott and Geddes Streets. A fellow who lived near there asked me one day, "Doesn't Dan Kelly ever sleep?" He said he woke up at two that morning and heard some pounding. He looked out, and there was old Dan with a lantern, busy cleaning bricks.


Dan said once that if he thought there was a man anywhere in the world that he'd done any harm to, he couldn't rest until he'd found him and squared it with him.


When we were raising a house for an Irishman one time, an old woman came out. She said to Dan, "I'll bet I came from Ireland before you did."

"I'll bet you did, too," said Dan. "I never was there."


Dan was an awful man to holler. Once on a job, Young Dan did something he didn't like, and how he yelled! He bawled him out for fair, and called him down fifty ways.

When he got through, Young Dan says, "Was you talkin' to me?"

Old Dan says, "Yes! I was!"

Then Young Dan says "Oh-- well, what did you say?"


Finale (by AGH)




Sunday, July 26, 2009

Remembrances... Installment #8: Trains, Real and Toy


By Lynn Harrington

Part I: 1918 – 1927, continued

Lynn Harrington's fascination with trains would last beyond his childhood and throughout his life. He took this photo of a New York Central locomotive near Syracuse more than 20 years after what he recounts below took place. -SH

14. 1923 or 1924: Trains, Real and Toy

In my description of the Cannon Street house I did not mean to be depicting a typical house in the neighborhood. Ours was almost surely one of very few which were without either electric or gas ser­vice. Some of the homes nearby were very fine upper­ middle-class residences. One such was the home of Mark Conan, a boy my age and one of my kindergarten through sixth grade classmates. Mark's father was a lawyer, active in civic affairs. My especial remem­brance of Mark relates to two or three occasions, when I was probably five or six, when he invited me to come to his house so I could see some of his toys. Those were great occasions for me.

Of houses, there could be no other like his in the world. The rooms were large and beautifully furnished. Not only did it have elec­tricity, with reading lamps and table and ceiling fix­tures, but it also had something I had never seen before. When Mark's mother called us to the kitchen for cookies and milk. there was a stove that burned gas. All Mrs. Conan had to do to start it was turn a lever and then strike a spark close to the burner. The thing that made the spark was a pincher-like wire frame bearing a flat surface like a small section of nail file, and when the device was squeezed a piece of flint was scraped across that. A spark flew off and the gas was lit. The burner was a circular ring of iron pipe with many small holes around its upper surface. There were four such burners on the stove. When the gas issuing from the little holes burned it formed a ring of beautiful little dancing lights, which Mrs. Conan could make burn higher or lower just by turning the small control lever.

Best of all at that house was Mark's elec­tric train. He laid out the tracks on the floor in a figure-eight arrangement, plugged the lead wire into an opening in the wall, put the engine and cars on the track, hooked them together, and the train was ready to run. He could make the train go slow or fast by turning a lever on a box he said was the transformer. I didn't know what a transformer was, and probably Mark didn't either, but it worked just wonderfully, and he let me run it too. I was a little puzzled to see three rails in the tracks instead of the two that street cars and real trains ran on. I asked Mark about that, and he said it was because his train was a Lionel, and Lionel trains used three rails. I didn't understand, but it was Mark's train, so the explanation suited me just fine.

1920's-vintage Lionel electric train equipment. (Photo by and copyright Frank Tellez. Please view this image large on his Flickr photostream.)

Even at that early age I was fascinated by trains. I loved to walk up east Colvin hill to the D.L.&W. Railroad crossing occasionally, and wait in the hope a train would come by. It was wonderful to see a steam engine, its exhaust barking rapidly as it pulled a string of five or six passenger cars at an already fast and still accelerating speed up the long grade out of the city. Better yet would be the times when an even bigger locomotive crept more laboriously up that grade, the very ground trembling as the roar­ing exhaust sent black smoke billowing high out of its stack, and cinders showering down on me as the engine worked past me. Trailing along behind would be a long string of freight cars of all kinds, swaying and rock­ing in their heavy passage. As often as not such a freight train would be helped up the grade by another big locomotive shoving hard against the caboose which marked the end of the train of cars. And a trainman would always return the wave of a boy who thrilled to stand at trackside to catch the sights and sounds of such an impressive passage.

I never felt envious of Mark for his elec­tric train, nor did I ever expect to have even a wind­up train of my own. We were poor and knew it, but I don't remember ever feeling bitter about it. It was just the way things were. By the time I was seven or eight I had decided to have a train of my own, and this is the way it came about:

First of all, Dad had had a tool box and a work bench in a closed-in end of the back porch. Any time he was working there I just loved to watch. He encouraged me to do little pieces of work with scrap wood he brought home from the shop. He also encouraged me to use his tools, but there were rules I must obey. First, I was never to use any tool until he had taught me how. Second, if anything hap­pened to any tool I used, such as if I broke one of the delicate coping saw blades, I was to tell him at once, and he would go over the incident with me, and show me what I had done wrong. And, last but not least, when I finished what I was working on I must put what­ever tools I had used right back where I found them, and clean everything up where I had worked. I might add, in this, connection, that by the time we moved from Cannon Street, he had built and equipped for me a very nice small toolbox of my own.

Windup toy trains from the 1920s (photo from the Milford, NH, Antique Show website.)

In our back yard that summer of 1923 or 1924 there was a pile of dirt that we boys liked to play on. I resolved to build a railroad on that mountain. I had for some time been collecting sect­ions of the kind of track that came with wind-up trains. It was simple material, with tinplate ties to which little hollow rails attached. Sections, either straight or curved and eight or 10 inches in length, could be securely connected by metal inserts that fit tightly into the ends of the hollow rails. On trash day, people placed their ash cans and boxes of discarded materials out by the curb for pick-up by city sanitation men. I had learned by observation that at the time of traditional spring house-cleaning all kinds of interesting discards appeared in the dis­posal boxes at curbside. Wind-up trains were common Christmas presents for young boys. Those train sets were not especially durable. The engine spring would break, car wheels would get lost, cars would get step­ped on, and kids in general had lost interest in their toy trains. Cars without wheels appeared in the trash, but they were no good to me. Sections of track held up better, and they were what I rescued whenever I found them.

Windup train tracks from a modern EBay antiques offering.

With the track I could lay down a very nice, curving railroad around Dirt Mountain. What I needed was cars, and I found a way to get them. We had always known that tobacco shops accumulated empty cigar boxes in quantity. In those days cigar boxes were nicely made of fine-grained, smooth wood about one­ eighth inch thick. All a boy had to do to get some free boxes was to go to the tobacco shop and ask the man politely if he had any empty cigar obxes. I don't remember coming away from such an expedition empty­ handed. The boxes had many uses --all members of the family had one or two or more, for storage of letters or trinkets or private little treasures. They had no tobacco odor, either. As I learned many years later, the wood was sycamore, the same kind as used in much larger pieces for butcher blocks and butter tubs. It possess the unique characteristic of neither taking on odor from nor imparting odor to materials with which it comes into contact.

My purpose for the cigar boxes was as wood I could work with. The work was quite precise and demanded considerable care in measuring and cutting and assembling. What I did was to cut out a substan­tial number of rectangular pieces, alL a half::~inch or so wider than the space between the rails. For each bottom piece I cut two side pieces about a half-inch shorter than the bottom. Then I cut two end pieces, as long as the bottom was wide, and the same width as the side pieces. Then, using Dad's tack-hammer and vice, I would nail together (using little brads Dad had given me) an open-top box, the bottom of which extended out a little way on each end. Placing the open-top boxes on the bench, I drove a brad into the top of the platform at each end. Turning the affair upside down on the bench, I drove into the bottom of the platform four brads deep enough that their heads extended down about a quarter of an inch from the bottom. Those four brads, two an inch or so in from each end, had to be opposite each other and spaced just far enough apart so that when the rig was placed right side up on the track, they would allow the wooden box to be slid along the rails, with the downward protruding brads holding it in position from side to side. If the box slipped left or right, as it would tend to do on a curve, the brads between the rails served the same purpose as the flange of a real train wheel.

All that remained was to make a set of small loops of string, one of which could be dropped over the upright brads standing on the platform ends of every two adjacent cars. And so the cars were coupled together to form a train. I put the joined cars on the track and, by inserting a finger into the first car I made of it the engine. Then I could crawl along beside the layout, and my train of cars slid right along the rails, moving up grade and down, and negotiating curves flawlessly. Of course, the train had to be drawn gently, and not too fast. But it held the rails, and I could produce my own sound effects as I moved the train along, and I was pleased as punch with my very own homemade train. I doubt very much that Mark Conan enjoyed his Lionel electric train any more than I enjoyed the train I had made for myself.

Next week: Rat tales and more from Arthur G. Harrington

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Remembrances... Installment #7: A Frightening Ride


By Lynn Harrington

Part I: 1918 – 1927, continued

13. 1920 or 1921: Colvin Street Hill, Syracuse

As overworked and as generally hard-pressed as our Mother was, she made every effort to see that each of us understood that no matter how busy she was nor how many of us there were, we all shared equally and generously in her love. However infrequent the occasions were, she took advantage of every opportunity to to do something we boys would enjoy and that she could share with us. On one fine summer day, for instance, she found the time to prepare a picnic lunch and take the three of us boys for a walk to Onondaga Park. Bob, Jim, and I were probably seven, three, and five, respectively, at the time. Reaching the park meant walking the long block to Colvin Street, turning west there and walking about six blocks to South Avenue, a street busy with trolley cars and other vehicles and pedestrian shoppers. Small shops lined both sides of South Avenue at that corner. That avenue marked the western boundary of the flat bottom of the Onondaga Creek valley in that area. From there West Colvin Street climbed very steeply up the west slope of the valley for a very long block to a broad natural terrace, west of which the upward slope resumed. Onondaga Park lay on that terrace, and was a very popular picnic, playground, and swimming pool facility.

We possessed a rather old cart, consisting of a shallow rectangular box body mounted on four wheels. The axle on which the front wheels were mounted swiveled to allow for turning. The handle extended up from the front axle, and pivoted forward and back. When the cart was being drawn, the handle was extended forward; if a child were riding in the cart, whether propelling it by kneeling one leg in the box and pushing along the pavement with the other foot, or by being pushed along by someone else, or coasting down a slope, the handle was swung back into the box so that the rider could steer the vehicle.

With picnic supplies to carry and little Jimmy much too small to make the long walk and too heavy to carry very far, it seemed advisable to take the cart along. All went well, and Bob and I shared the pulling of the cart, with Jimmy and the picnic lunch riding along behind us as we made the long ascent up Colvin Street hill.

Then for a time we all lay down in the shade on the thick green grass, watching birds and squirrels come and go...

The picnic was a most enjoyable one. We couldn't swim, but we had fun in the wading pool. The park was beautifully landscaped, and great old trees shaded the picnic tables, sand boxes, swings, and sliding boards; and a circular platform bearing small wooden horses would rotate when pushed, and made a safe and delightful merry-go-round. We played until we were hungry, and then enjoyed the nice lunch Mama had put up for us. Then for a time we all lay down in the shade on the thick green grass, watching birds and squirrels come and go in the trees overhead, and saw the dappling sunlight slipping through the canopy of the trees as a light breeze stirred the leaves.

... I had what I thought was a good idea ...

All too soon it was time to go home. What little remained to be taken home we put into the cart, and a tired Jimmy, too, climbed in for the ride. Bob and I ran as we pulled the cart, just to hear Jimmy squeal in delight. When we emerged from the park onto the sidewalk at the top of Colvin hill, Mama was some distance behind, calling to us to wait for her. As we stood there looking down the long, steep slope of the sidewalk, I had what I thought was a good idea --why not coast just a little way down, for the fun of it and to give Jimmy another fast ride? Now, carts of that kind had no brakes at all. When coasting, the rider would control the speed by putting his legs over the side and dragging his feet on the pavement. Bob was doubtful, and thought we should wait for Mama. But I could see no reason not to coast along past a few of the houses, to stop and wait for her there. And so I pushed off and hopped in, with Jimmy behind me, holding on to the sides of the cart.

... like free fall ... I was in pure panic ...

In a very short time I had the shock of my young life. I would never have imagined that a cart could get rolling so fast so quickly. It was almost like free fall, but in those days I didn't know what that expression meant. My first and only thought was to stop the cart. I swung my legs out and pressed my bare feet on the cement sidewalk. This had no other effect than to burn the soles of my feet as if I were sliding them over a hot stove. By that time I was in pure panic, trying to steer the cart over onto a lawn. But by then we were speeding so fast that the front axle began whipping back and forth, from side to side, so fast that the handle was simply snatched from my hands, and I could do nothing but cling for dear life to the sides of the cart. Like a runaway horse the cart continued to plummet, at ever increasing speed, down the sidewalk in a frantic left-to-right and back again zig-zag motion. I was frightened out of my wits, as were Bob and Mama as they tried to race after us afoot down the hill. They never had a chance. I remember Jimmy screaming behind me, and suddenly hearing him no more.

The ride seemed to go on forever, but it had probably extended past no more than a dozen houses when it came to a sudden, crashing halt. One of the zigs or zags had sent the cart (and me) headlong into a utility pole that stood between sidewalk and curb. And then, abruptly, all was still and dark and far away. I opened my eyes to see a lady kneeling beside me. Several people were gathered around, with Mama standing with Bob close beside me. Jimmy was in Mama's arms, his eyes wide in his tear-stained face, staring at me.

... barely missing a trolley car and an automobile, then bouncing over the curb and into the front wall of a store, an iron wheel ...

It turned out to be a miraculous ending to a terrifying ride. Jimmy was unhurt. It had been our great good fortune that he had been thrown clear of the cart during one of the switches form a zig to a zag, at just the right point so that his trajectory sent him rolling and tumbling over a nice wide lawn. He could just as well have been pitched out onto the Colvin Street pavement, but he wasn't. The cart was demolished, the wood split loose from the frame, the front axle bent, and the handle broken off. One of the iron wheels was missing. In the group of spectators were two men who lived in houses we had passed, and who had seen the finish of the ride. When I became aware of what was going on, they were busy patching up the cart so that Mama and Bob could pull me home as I lay on it. I had not progressed nearly half way down the hill, but the missing wheel had. A man standing on the sidewalk on the east side of South Avenue had been startled to see, rolling very fast across the street right toward him, barely missing a trolley car and an automobile, then bouncing over the curb and into the front wall of a store, an iron wheel. As he puzzled over it, he noticed a group of people gathering on the sidewalk and a lawn well up the hill. So he picked up the wheel and carried it up to the site, just as the men working on the cart began to look for the wheel.

I suppose that if such an event were to occur today, someone would call the police or the paramedics and, at the very least, first aid and transportation would have been provided. But minor accidents then were matters more of curiosity than of alarm. The kind men succeeded in rigging a platform supported by the wheels and axles, provided a rope by which the rig could be pulled (or held in check), and I was hauled off homeward. Near the corner of South Avenue and Colvin was a doctor's office, and Mama took me in there. The doctor was rather amused by the account of what had happened. But he checked me over and said that my nose was probably broken, but that it would heal; that I was going to have a headache and two beautiful black eyes, but they would clear up, and that some ointment he would put on the soles of my feet would make them feel better. He proved correct on all counts.
And so another memorable childhood experience ended.

I did not think of it at the time, but I wonder now how poor Mama slept that night.

Next week: Trains, Toy and Real

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Tales Told by AGH, Installment #2: Motorman's Memories

Street Car Stories

Electric trolleys on North Salina Street, circa 1915 - 1917, when Arthur G. Harrington was a motorman. (From the collection of Michelle Stone.)

Editor's notes:
These reminiscences by my grandfather, Arthur George Harrington, were transcribed by his daughter Mary when he was an old man. See the sidebar pictures for birth and death years of each.
The three illustrations in this post are from a wonderful collection of old Syracuse postcards from the collection of Michelle Stone, presented on this Onondaga County Genweb page. Please visit that page for more images and captions. - SH

Note [by MEH]: Before Dad worked for the Syracuse Rapid Transit, there had been a number of horse car lines. For example --

The People's Line - with a carbarn on Colvin St. [Syracuse, NY] near cCannon - ran from Elmwood to Onondaga Lake.
The Geddes Line - up Fayette St. to the Onondaga Pottery -- 5 cents all the way, or 3 cents just to Geddes St. The barn, just beyond the Pottery, burned one 4th of July, killing 13 horses.
The 5th Ward Belt Line
The E. Genesee Line
The W. Genesee Line
- first to be electrified.
Salina Line

All these were owned and run by separate companies, until Syracuse Rapid Transit bought them up. -- MEH

(Now Dad speaks -)

1) That winter (probably 1906 - MEH) we lived in your grandmother's (really my great grandmother, Betsy Prisby West Hobert - MEH) house on Gifford Street. I used to get up and walk down to the carbarn on Tallman Street. It was cold, and almost every night it would snow, and I'd have to break a path for myself in the morning. But I didn't seem to mind the cold at all. It didn't bother me. Then on Washington's birthday we had quite a bad storm. We were out with the plows all night. In the morning they told us to back in there by the Weiting Opera House, and stop to eat and rest. I got some breakfast, then I went into the sleeper and turned on the electric heat and lay down. Three or four others came in to sleep, too. A few hours later, I woke up, almost frozen. Some smart guy had turned off the heater, and opened both doors. I never got warm again that winter. Whoever did it knew what I thought of it. I told the whole crew in plain language.


2) One morning when I was going to work there was an awful snowstorm, a regular blizzard. I got down on Tallman St., just below Onondaga Circle. I heard a woman. I could barely see her out in the middle of the road, and she kept saying "Oh, my God, where am I" Oh, my God, where am I?" I went out to her and asked her where she lived. She was about nuts, she was so scared. It was dark, only about 5 a.m., and the snow was coming thick. She said she lived on Putnam St. I asked her what she was doing here, and she said she was going on her way to St. Lucy's Church. I said "You'd better forget St. Lucy, and come with me."

She did. I took her to the barn, and put her on the first Dudley car going out.


3) One night in the fall, some of the University students were having a dance at Empire Hall, and they had us take a couple cars to run up to the University at 2 a.m. The rails were slippery -- it had been raining, and there were lots of wet leaves. We could hardly make the hill, and of course somebody wanted to get out at nearly every corner, but we finally got there. Then coming back down, the brakes wouldn't hold it. At the crossings the rails were sanded some, but not enough to slow us down, then we'd be going faster at the next crossing. I opened the door, and yelled to the conductor to get down on the steps ready to jump. I was down on the steps, too. When we hit that corner at the end of Crouse Ave., I guess we went around on two wheels. I don't see how we ever kept on the track. The trolley yanked off, of course. Wand when we got it on and got going again, -- SLAM! SLAM! SLAM! The wheels were flat.

The next day, Holstack (a boss - MEH) called me in and told me the chief mechanic wanted to see me in the barn. I went out and asked him what he wanted. He asked if I'd had car number so and so the night before. I said I had. He said "I just wanted to know how you put four flat wheels on that car." So I told him.

"Well," he says, "That eye-talian is paid to sand the whole length of that hill, and either he'll do it or somebody else will have the job."

That night, the whole of Crouse Avenue was sanded, and we never had any more trouble there.


4) One night when I was on the Elmwood - Eastwood run, I took the car from old Jim Ferguson down on Genesee and Jefferson. When one motorman relieves another, the one taking off is supposed to sign a card and give it to the relief. The card has places to check anything wrong with the car. But there was never anything wrong with old Jim's car. He never put anything on the card.

In the very early 1900's, the New York Central railway ran through downtown Syracuse on city streets. The above postcard, from the collection of Michelle Stone, is probably circa 1905 -- note the early electric trolley car at far right. Below, from the same era and the same collection, a big train steams along Washington St. near City Hall.

Well, this night I hadn't gone far when I found there wasn't any sand in the box. You let some down on the rails in front of the wheels when you stop, besides using the brake. I got along as well as I could without it. But coming down from Eastwood, down James Street hill to the railroad, I put on the brakes and it began to slide. I could see an engine coming. I figured if I left on the brakes, I'd stop on the tracks in front of the engine, so I took off the brakes, gave it the power, and shot across just ahead of the engine.

The street inspector was at the crossing and saw it happen. The next day Duffy called me in the office.

"I thought you were a good motorman," he said.

"I never claimed to be," I told him.

Then he went on to ask how I came to do that. I explained.

He said "If there's no sand in the box, no one else would have as good a chance to know it as the motorman."

"Listen," I said, "I took that car from Jim Ferguson downtown, and he reported nothing wrong with it. There was a standing load on it, and I had no chance to lift up the seats to see if the sand boxes were filled."

Next week: forward to the 1920's again, and the Coal Delivery Sleighride