Sunday, June 14, 2009

Remembrances of a Childhood (Installment #4)


By Lynn Harrington

Part I: 1918 – 1927, continued

6. The Elk Bakery

The Elk Bakery was a fine establishment. It was a treat just to spend some time looking in through the window at the fascinating display of baked goods. The assortment changed every day. There were cakes and cupcakes and jelly rolls and sweet buns one day, and the next time I was there I might see a great assortment of pies and tarts and doughnuts and turnovers and cookies. Of course, there were also days when breads and rolls were featured, but they didn't hold my attention for very long.

By the time I was in the fifth grade I had formed fast friendships with several schoolmates, and on Saturdays and on summer days when school was out we would often get together to play or fight or run like a pack of young dogs. On one such Saturday one of the boys announced that someone had told him that the lady at the Elk Bakery would sell stale cookies and things cheap. So the six of us in the group at that time pooled our resources and came up with a total of ten cents (a couple of us had no capital to contribute, but the others would not have thought of leaving us out). So off we went as a group, to try our luck.

When we reached the bakery counter, presided over by a nice motherly woman, our acting treasurer asked if we could buy ten cents worth of stale baked goods. The lady asked if we would like some bread or rolls. When we all shook our heads in the negative she said, "Just a minute and I'll see what I can do."

She disappeared into the room behind the store, and shortly after reappeared with a rather large paper bag, bulging with its load and securely closed at the top. The ten cents was exchanged for the bag, and out of the store we trooped, all dying to know what was in the sack, but thinking it would be unseemly to look while she was watching.

Once out on the sidewalk the bag was promptly opened and we all tried to look in at once. What we saw might as well have been gold. We whooped and hollered like a bunch of wild Indians when we saw the jumble of cookies and tarts and even cakes in that bag. We could hardly wait to get at the treasure, but with the cunning common to wild animals and little boys, we instinctively concealed our prize and made a quick escape from that busy Salina Street sidewalk where some bigger boys might see what was going on and relieve us of our treasure.

After a short conference we decided that the safest place to go would be up Colvin Street hill eastward to the mounded eminence beyond Oakwood Cemetery. There we climbed the steep side of what we would learn in later years was a drumlin. People familiar with the area now would know it as the prominence at the southern base of which stands the University's Manley Field House. To us then it was just a wild, grassy hill, dotted with shrubs and small trees, but open at the top, affording a beautiful view down on Syracuse and across to where the city was spreading up toward the western rim of the Onondaga valley.

Modern geography of the ten-cent sugar bonanza, as seen courtesy of Google: Cannon and Salina streets are at left, the Oakwood Cemetery is at upper-center, the Manley Field House is the round, white structure at right, and the feast's drumlin is just above that, topped now with water tanks.

By the time we had left Colvin Street for the steep climb our numbers had grown from the original six to eight or nine. A half dozen boys running with a bag of something served as an irresistible magnet that attracted two or three boys of our acquaintance, who voted themselves in for a share of whatever was goingon. When we reached the crest we all sat down, gathered around the prize. Then it was just a matter of lounging there on the hilltop, helping ourselves to whatever we wanted from the abundant supply and luxuriating in the treat. I remember that it was the first time I had ever seen a jelly roll, and I consumed a good share of the one in our stock.

We all ate to repletion, and it was a rather subdued little group that descended the drumlin that afternoon, more than a little queasy and no doubt surprising our mothers by our strangely light appetites at supper that night.

Over the next year or two, at appropriately discrete intervals, we made similar, but variously rewarded, forays. The Elk Bakery lady was at all times kind, and the goods were never actually stale. But my recollection is that the yields diminished as other boys began showing up at the bakery on similar missions, and that after our initial orgy we were quite willing to exercise more moderation in our Elk Bakery ventures.

7. Horses and Men

The transition from horse power to internal combustion engines in the work of transportation, earth moving, and construction did not occur overnight. In my early childhood, up to about 1922 or 1923, horses and wagons made up a considerable share of the traffic on the city streets. We found the horses most interesting to watch. Some of the peddlers drove bony, worn out old nags, living out the last of their days in equally worn harness. Other horses were fine, vigorous specimens, such as the light animals ridden by mounted police we would see patrolling in the parks, or escorting a parade. Much like them were the single horses that farmers sometimes drove into the city, drawing the buggies in which country people came to town to shop or to visit family or friends. Much larger and more powerful were the draft horses that drew large wagons to the feed store on Salina Street near Brighton Avenue. Those wagons would come bearing loads of oats and shelled corn in burlap bags. At the mill that grain would be mixed and ground to meal with wheat or other cereal grains supplied by the miller. The grist was then bagged and loaded back onto the wagons, to be hauled back to the farms for use as winter feed for the milk cows, to supplement their hay-and-silage diet.

On early spring Saturdays, before the cows would be turned out to graze in the pastures, we would see numbers of such farm teams and wagons lined up at the mill, each awaiting its turn. We enjoyed walking along beside the standing teams (but, being city kids, not too close), admiring the size and the rippling muscles of those great animals. We would occasionally see a team stopped at the corner of Salina and Elk, quenching their thirst at the large cast-iron watering trough maintained there by the city.

Another good place to watch horses at work was at the sand and gravel pit down near Roosevelt Junior High. There they pulled in with empty dump wagons and took up positions within reach of the large crane-like steam-powered shovel. That machine would dig into the gravel bank, pullout a scoopful of gravel, swing it around and drop it into a wagon. Two or three scoops made up a load, and the driver would move his team with its loaded wagon up the grade out of the pit and along city streets to its destination. That might be a road grading and paving project, or a construction site where gravel and sand would be mixed with cement and water to make concrete. Those wagons lacked, of course, the hydraulic devices which elevate the front end of a modern dump truck. The wagons were so built that the bottom was made up of two door-like lengthwise sections, each hinged to the frame along its side. A chain and ratchet device allowed the driver, from his position on the seat up front, to work a lever back and forth, to either bring the doors tight shut or to let them drop open, thus dumping the load directly under the wagon.

Any construction which involved excavation, as in making a hole for the basement of a new house, called for a still different form of man-and-horse equipment. There were no bulldozers nor backhoes then. The bulk of the dirt was removed by what was called a "scrape'. This was a large shovel-like arrangement, with a steel bed about three feet wide and equally deep from front to rear. The steel backplate extended up about a foot, and at the center of its reinforced top edge was a ring. The two steel side pieces tapered up from the front edge to a welded joint with the back piece. Back and up along the outside of each side piece was a sturdy wooden pole, which extended out two or three feet beyond the back of the scrape. These wooden poles were rounded and smoothed for the last foot or so of their length. The operator would stand between these handles, gripping them firmly. From the ring at the top rear of the scrape, a chain extended forward, several feet, where it was attached to the evener behind a single horse. The reins from the horse's bit reached back far enough that the driver could tie them together and loop them around his back.

Heading the horse in the direction he wanted to go and setting it into motion, the man would raise up on the handles, the front edge of the scrape would bite into the ground, and as the horse moved forward the pan would fill up with dirt. Then the driver would bear down hard on the handles, bringing the front edge free from the ground. Then, engaging each rein between thumb and forefinger of each hand as he grasped the handle, so that he could steer the horse, he would continue to bear down as the horse dragged the load to the desired dumping point. Then the man would tilt up the handles just enough to allow the leading edge to catch in the ground, after which the forward motion of the horse would flip the scrape forward and face down, leaving its load in a heap. Then it was a matter of righting the scrape, reversing direction, and repeating the process.

This technique was used for rough excavating only; men with hand shovels had to do the more precise labor of cutting the corners sharp and leveling off the rough places in the floor.

Primitive and arduous as this operation was, a strong man with a good horse could dig out a lot of dirt in a day. On major construction jobs, such as excavating for the base of a large office building or apartment house, steam powered shovels did the digging. Horses and dump wagons still did the hauling away.

Horses, in their various labors, made great contributions to the economy. They were, in effect,
and in contrast to fossil fuels, self-renewing energy resources. The were also, especially in crowded cities, a source of pollution far different from what we see on the streets today. In the downtown section sanitation men were equipped with two-wheeled pushcarts, each with an open-topped barrel supported between the wheels, and with a shovel and push broom. The men patrolled the streets, sweeping up and carting away the horse droppings that accumulated every day.

In the residential sections the streets were washed down by the use of water wagons. The body of the wagon consisted of a wooden tank placed like the metal tank on a modern tank truck. At the rear of the wagon was a transverse pipe with holes along its rear surface. The water flowed out with considerable force just by the pressure of the load in the tank. The flow of water washed most of the detritus from the street surface into the gutters, down through the catch basins and into the storm sewer system.

A refurbished horsedrawn water wagon, manufactured by Studebaker. Photo from "Automotive History Online". Click the link to see the photo's context there.

We lived a little more nearly in the state of nature then than we do now. When a horse felt a call of nature, he stopped and answered it, no matter where he might be. It was a common occurrence in the city, and we took it quite for granted. We noticed, but thought nothing in particular about, the performance of a little man who walked past our house on Cannon Street on his way to and from the street car line which carried him to and from work each day. He carried a brown leather satchel as he walked during the spring and summer months.

Not uncommonly, on his homeward way in the evening, he went out into the street in two or three places, opened his satchel, took out a small scoop, transferred some horse manure from street to satchel, replaced the scoop, closed the satchel, and continued on his homeward way. When I asked Mama why he did that, she said he probably had a nice garden, and used the manure to fertilize it.

As motor vehicles gradually replaced the horses, tank trucks were used for washing down the streets. On a hot summer day we kids took off our shoes and stockings and had great fun running about close behind the slow-moving truck. Then the city switched to combination washer-sweeper vehicles, which did a better job of actually cleaning the streets, but which ended that particular fun for us.

8. Coal Stoves

The kitchen of our house was a large room and, especially during winter, the center of activity in the home.

Coal was the fuel for the big iron cookstove (often referred to as the kitchen range). A smaller, upright stove stood in the living room. Coal was the fuel for both of these stoves which, in the absence of a furnace or fireplace, provided the heat for the house. Winter evenings were spent gathered in the kitchen, the warmest room in the house. When we went off to bed on especially cold winter nights we all, adults as well as children, took along a securely closed bottle of hot water, wrapped in cloth. One such bottle, tucked between the covers and close to the feet, made falling asleep more comfortable.

Near each of the stoves was kept a scuttle, a sort of pail, oval in outline, with its circumference extended to form a chute from which coal could be dispensed into the stove. The scuttles had to be refilled from the coal bin cellar.

You can still buy new coal scuttles. This one is available for forty euro from Ireland's

The coal we burned was anthracite, a hard, relatively clean-burning fuel in contrast to the soft, or bituminous, coal used in factories and other industrial applications. We owed the availability and comparatively moderate price of the hard coal to the proximity of the vast Pennsylvania anthracite coal fields. "Moderate" in relation to price is, of course, a relative term. Coal was one of the major elements in the cost of living, and we had to use it as conservatively as possible. This involved a job for us children. A grownup, for obvious reasons) would shovel the ashes from the pit under the firebox of each stove, into a metal basket and carry that out to the back yard. It was then up to us kids to sift the ashes, using a device consisting of a circular, cheese-box like holder open at the top and with a coarse wire screen bottom.

A handle like a broomstick was attached to the sifter. We would scoop ashes into the sifter, then hold it over an ash can and shake. The ashes went into the can, and we then picked from the sifter any incompletely burned pieces of coal for return to the scuttle.

9. Laundry Day

Laundry day was a hard one for Mama. I can see her now, with a large wash tub on a platform Dad had placed near the kitchen range. The wash boiler on the stove was full of steaming hot water, which Mama transferred, a dipper at a time, into the wash tub. She then refilled the boiler, for more hot water would be needed for the rinsing. The stove had to be kept hot, too, which added nothing to the comfort of the task.

The dirty laundry was put into the tub, and a washboard was inserted. This was a wooden frame holding a horizontally-corrugated sheet of galvanized iron which extended a little above the rim of the tub. Using a brown bar of strong Fels-Naptha soap, she would work up a head of suds on the hot water, and then, taking the pieces one at a time, rub them vigorously over the corrugations of the metal. Shirt collars, knees of pants and elbows of shirts usually needed extra attention, and these were rubbed vigorously with the bar of soap before they were scrubbed. Each piece, after scrubbing, was wrung out by hand and then dropped into a second tub, situated on the floor beside the platform and containing clear, moderately hot water. When all of the clothing had been scrubbed, it was sozzled in the rinse water and left there to soak while the wash water was dipped out and into the sink to drain away. Then the boiler of water, hot by this time, was dipped into the tub which had been used for the scrubbing. The clothes soaking in the first rinse water were once more wrung out and then dropped into the second rinse water. Each piece was again sozzled about in the clean hot water, then wrung out and dropped into the clothes basket. The basket was carried out into the back yard with the bag of clothespins and the laundry was hung out to dry.

While the majority of this work fell to Mama, whenever possible she arranged to have one of the big girls on hand to help her with it. She had need of a second pair of capable hands especially for the wringing operations, and anyone big enough to reach into the wash boiler could do most of the dipping.

Mechanical assistance came very slowly as the years passed. I do not remember just when it was, but at some time in my early years Dad brought home from somewhere a crank wringer device, which could be attached to the edge of the rinse tub. This device consisted of two rubber-clad rollers pressed close together in a spring-loaded frame.

Hand-cranked wringer: a technological wonder for laundry day. Photo from an entry on EBay.

This must have been a great help, but it would not have been until at least 1928, when we first lived in a house wired for electricity, that Mama could have had a washing machine of any kind.

Much of the laundry required ironing. There were no wash and wear fabrics in those days. The items of clothing and sheets, pillow cases, and such were first sprinkled in preparation for ironing. Two flat irons, similar in shape to modern irons but each a single piece of cast iron with a polished, flat bottom surface, were placed on the kitchen stove to heat. The ironing board was set up near the stove, with the basket of sprinkled pieces close at hand. When an iron was hot enough for use (the simple test was to lick a finger and touch it gingerly to the polished surface; if it hissed, it was hot) the ironing began. With those old one-piece flat irons, the handle was so hot that a hotpad was necessary as an insulator. When the iron cooled only a little it was returned to the stove in exchange for the one resting there.

Later in the years of our residence there, a new iron was developed which contributed to the comfort and efficiency of the operator. The irons looked like the old models except that they had no handles. Instead, they had been cast in a mold that formed a pair of recesses in the center of the upper surface. The separate handle was a metal frame affair with a smooth wooden grip and a clamp arrangement so that the operator could release one iron and pick up the next without the necessity of wrapping a cloth pad around a hot iron handle. Alternation of irons could be achieved as before, but much more comfortably.

10. Kerosene Lamps

The lack of electricity or gas in the house meant that we had to depend for illumination on kerosene lamps and on candles. The lamps provided the basic lighting; the candles were just supplementary. In some central locations, Dad had placed lamp-holding brackets high enough on the walls to put them out of the reach of the smaller children and high enough to achieve better distribution of the lamps' limited light. However, lamps were also needed closer at hand for dining or reading or such tasks as sewing, so a number of them were distributed on tables and stands around the house. Portability was one of the advantages of the table lamps.

Early 20th-Century kerosene lamp. Photo from the Laurel Leaf Farm online antiques catalog.

Maintenance of the lamps provided small jobs for each of us, as we reached an age where we could be trusted with the tasks. For one thing, the chimneys required frequent washing, and this was a job for the older girls. Rather early on Bob, and then I and then Jimmy were assigned the daily task of refilling the lamp bases with oil. This was done on the back porch where the oil drum was kept. We had to learn to do the work carefully, spilling no oil, for kerosene was at best a stinky fuel. We also learned to trim the wicks, using scissors made special for the job. An even wick and a clean chimney meant clear, bright light.

I seldom think of those kerosene lamps without vividly recalling an accident involving one of them. It happened in the after-supper time in winter when darkness fell early. Mama was in the kitchen ironing, with a lamp on the base end of the ironing board casting its light on her work. The end of the board was close against the frame of the doorway that opened on the dining room.

I was playing on the floor nearby. Suddenly I heard the sound of breaking glass and a cry from Mama. The piece she had been ironing was a large one, a sheet or tablecloth, and in maneuvering it as she worked she had somehow struck the base of the lamp with the iron. The lamp collapsed, spilling kerosene on the vertical board of the door frame. As the broken lamp tipped against that board the chimney smashed and the burning wick came into contact with the oil-coated board. Flame leaped from the board, and Mama instantly wadded up the cloth she had been ironing and, by rubbing it frantically against the flame she managed to extinguish the fire.

Everything had happened so fast that I could scarcely believe what I was seeing. But as brief as the action was, it was indelibly burned into my memory.


Next: Christmas


1 comment:

  1. Again, the detail astounds me. You ARE aware that you have the makings of a book here, right?

    Had to look up "drumlin". How did we ever live without Wikipedia?