Saturday, June 13, 2009

Remembrances of a Childhood (Installment #3)


By Lynn Harrington

Part I: 1918 – 1927, continued

3. The House

The house on Cannon Street, not as large in fact as it seemed to a small boy, must have been, for so numerous a family as ours, crowded to the limits of comfort.

It was not very long before the number in residence was reduced. The first to leave was Margaret, who was married in early 1919 to Lester Gilbraith, not long after his return from traumatic service with the American Expeditionary Forces in France in World War I. Then, in 1921, Mary graduated from Syracuse University and took her first teaching job, in Fort Plain, where she took boarding accommodations for most of the year. Myrtle, in 1924, was next to marry and move away. From then until the end of our tenancy there in the spring of 1927, there were only seven of us to whom the house on Cannon Street was home. [The remaining seven: two parents, Florence, Mildred, and the three boys. –Ed.]

The house itself, despite its city location, could hardly be described as modern even for that day. It had running water, but cold water plumbing only. No electricity, no gas, no central heating, no bath tub nor shower, and no telephone. The lack of electricity meant none of the multitude of electrically operated household conveniences we take for granted today.

City water was piped to the kitchen sink and to a small lavatory equipped with a toilet and a small wash-up sink. The large cook stove in the kitchen was so designed as to circulate hot air from the firebox under the cooking surface and around the oven and the built-in water tank. That tank was kept full of water carried in a pail from the faucet of the sink, and hot water was dipped from it for use as needed. Baths were taken standing in a large, circular wash tub placed on the kitchen floor close to the stove. Larger quantities of hot water, for those baths or for laundry work, were heated in a large oval copper container called the wash boiler. [Copper wash boilers are now trendy antique items for storage of various items, such as firewood. -- Ed.]

4. Mrs. Searles’ Dry Goods Store

It was not unusual for my mother to give me a nickel and a piece of thread, and tell me to go to Mrs. Searles' and give them to her and ask for a spool of thread just like the sample.

1924 nickel

That store never failed to awe and subdue me. A little bell tinkled when I opened and closed the door. Outside, it might be bright and sunny, with streetcars rumb­ling along, their motormen clanging their bells to demand that all other traffic make way. A few auto­mobiles with their Claxon horns and trucks with their noisy engines added to the din, while teamsters drove their rattling wagons over the bricks and paving stones.

But the door which closed behind me when I entered Mrs. Searles' store cut off all outside noise at once and completely.

Along one side of the room ran a counter; the wall back of the counter aisle was lined with shelves, from floor nearly to ceiling, all loaded with sewing specialties and boxes of unknown contents. On the counter were glass cases of bows and ribbons and pins and needles and great numbers of spools of thread in all colors imaginable. The remainder of the store was given over to racks and frames and hangers all heavily loaded with bolts and spreads of cloth of countless kinds and colors, mostly subdued.

I do not remember ever entering that muffled stillness and finding anyone else in the store. I would stand there for a few moments, just a little apprehensive lest by my presence I might disturb the silence. And then, moving majestically forward from a passageway at the rear, Mrs. Searle would appear. She was a tall, severe woman in a long black dress, and as she slowly approached, arms folded across her chest and her glasses reflecting little flashes of light from the few ceiling-­hung lamps, it seemed that her movements did not even stir the air through which she passed. She would come to a stop a short way from me, stare at me briefly, and then whisper the single word:


I would quickly hand her the nickel and the thread, much too frightened to speak. She would go and get me the spool of thread, hand it to me, fold her arms again across her chest, and resume staring at me. I would turn and get to the door as quickly as possible while maintaining absolute silence. Once out of doors into the light and the noise and the bustle all about me, I would run all the way home just as fast as my legs would carry me.

5. The Fire House

By the time I was in the second grade (1922 -- Ed.), I had begun to enjoy exploring the neighborhood, and to look upon it as my own domain. One of the first places we boys and our friends would go to of a Saturday morn­ing was the fire house. We would approach as near as possible to the great doors and peer in to admire the equipment poised there. Now and then a fireman would call us in, to visit with us and to show us the two engines stationed there. On one memorable day one of the men took us on a tour of the building, taking us first upstairs where he showed us the big room lined with the single cots where the night shift slept. There was a chair by each cot, and he told us that the men kept their uniform pants and shirts on their chairs, ready to be donned in an instant when the alarm bell sounded. He showed us the shiny brass pole that extended from the ceiling down through a large circular hole in the floor to the main floor below. The men upstairs could reach the engines quickly by sliding down the pole.

We looked longingly at that beautiful pole, and [my older brother] Bob even reached out tentatively to touch it. But the fireman knew what Bob was thinking of, and told us at once that we mustn't try to slide down it -- that was a very slippery pole, and too dangerous for us.

Downstairs again, he showed us the inside of the tall tower in which hoses were hung to dry upon return from a call. He showed us, too, where until quite recently the fire horses had been kept, before they were replaced by the trucks. He said that when the horses were resting at night, their harnesses had been suspended above them in the stalls, with a pulley arrangement by which the harnesses could be dropped and buckled into place very quickly.

One fireman in each shift was on duty con­tinuously at the signal desk. The fire department had no radio communication in those days. Each of the alarm boxes in the area served by Company 8 was connected by wire, like telephone lines, to that signal desk. The system was so designed that when the lever at any box was pulled, the connection auto­matically triggered the alarm gong in the station house to sound a pre-coded series of clangs of the bell. Three strokes followed by a brief pause, then two strokes, for example would identify for the man at the desk the location of the box from which the alarm was sounded.

All of the firemen made it a practice to memorize the location from which any coded call originated. If the fire chief of any district found his men and equipment unable to handle alone a fire in his area, he would call by telephone the cen­tral dispatching office downtown, from where additional units from adjoining districts would be instructed to send help. The most serious of fires would result in the emergency call-out of the entire city fire fight­ing force, save only for a few scattered companies assigned to standby alert in the event of another fire anywhere in the city.

Such a blaze, at least in the Syracuse system, was called a three-alarm fire. I remember only one such fire during my Cannon Street years. From our house we could hear Company 8 move out, bells ringing and sirens wailing. Then we heard other engines, from a station farther south, roaring north on Salina Street. People were soon out in the street, talking excitedly about the great fire that was raging downtown. We boys ran to Salina Street, from where, looking north toward the center of the city, we could see a great mass of swirling red and gray and black smoke rising high into the sky. We were told that the Bastable Building (in later years the site of the State Tower building) was burning.

I knew very little of the downtown scene, but Myrtle was with us and told us that was one of the bigger buildings in the city. It was leveled that night [but resurrected: --Ed.]

New York Times account of the Bastable Building fire, February, 1923


Next: Urban horses, coal stoves, and laundry without electricity.


  1. Historical note on those horses: The expressions about old fire horses responding to the bell are apparently quite true, though anecdotal. The horses at larger stations took shifts standing under the suspended harness while others were in a paddock out back, but they all got excited when they heard the bell because they were going to get to RUN LIKE CRAZY!!! Consequently, when a fire horse retired, it was best to find him a home out in the country where he wouldn't get stirred up by the sound of the alarm, but sometimes a merchant would buy one of the old fellas. This reportedly had unintentional but foreseeable consequences if the store's wagon happened to be quietly plodding down a street in the vicinity of the firehouse when the bells began to sound.

  2. No wise-guy quips this time, just wanted you to know that this is truly fascinating Dad.

    I don't know if it's a generation gap thing, or I just have lousy long-term memory, but Grandad's vivid recall of people and events from such a young age baffles me. I was often similarly astounded at Grandpa Kroeger's ability to recount such lucid stories from his youth. Little details like Mrs. Searles' long black dress, or a brother reaching tentatively for a fire-pole. These are things I just can't relate to.

    I'm sure the distractions available (even thirty years ago when I was roughly the same age as Grandad in this installment) had something to do with life's little nuances slipping out of my grasp. I can't help but think, however, that there's something else to it. Maybe life was just more..... REAL then, you know? More visceral.

    I'm a bit ashamed to admit that I remember episodes of Three's Company with more clarity than any particular day form my boyhood.

    Kinda sad really. I envy their gift. And am grateful they left these tales for us.

  3. I'm equally amazed not only by what your dad observed, but what he understood. It could be partly a guy thing, and partly that the water and heating system of the house was in a location he could see, but someone taught him how a house operates, and he remembered in detail. About the house i lived in till age 12, i could tell you nothing of the infrastructure. It kept me warm, heated my water and kept the fridge humming, and i just expected that to go on. I never once entered the ladder-accessed basement, where all that magic took place. To this day i want to knock on the door and ask the current owners if i could please just take a look in their basement!

    And i crave a trip through that dry goods store.

  4. Adam and Ruth, I am less impressed and more doubtful about my Dad's clarity of recollection about things that happened when he was five years old or less. I sure don't remember more than one or two images from that part of my life, and certainly not anything as detailed as the recounts given here so far (and later on, not yet posted.)

    I also do not doubt the truth of what Dad "remembers" here.

    The house on Cannon street housed seven children during the 1920's: four girls, all older than the three boys. The boys were the girls' charges in many ways, and that shepherding and nurturing extended throughout whatever adult years they were afforded.

    The older girls told the younger boys stories. They told them about times when they were young. They instilled memories where none had been before, I'm sure. The chorus of Mary, Myrtle, Mildred, and Florence informed Lynn's memories in ways that you and I, Adam, have no parallel for. You have few memories that Doug didn't; I have no siblings at all. Dad's growing up as the seventh of eight (the first five, girls, and the last three, boys) is something that we can't imagine, really, but the passing around of experiences as shared memories is something we can, perhaps, accept.

    So, what I see in "Remembrances..." is a tale told by many siblings, not just one little boy.