Our thanks to William A Rogers, Jr. for us allowing to reprint this manuscript.
The attached manuscript, written by Harry Rogers in 1962, is about life as a child at the turn of the century in Downtown Dayton. The “Bill” refered to in the story is William Allen Rogers Sr. Harry and his wife lived in Worthington, Ohio at the time, and had a very young child, only 5 years old. Harry was suffering from a slow cancer, and was concerned that by the time his son was old enough to understand and be interested in his father’s youth, Harry would be gone, so he wrote the enclosed history.
The house referred to was on the corner of Perry and West Second street and William Huffman and his 3 sisters were growing up in a house right behind them.
Harry Rogers was born in 1897 and died in 1973. Harry was 60 years old when Andy was born.
BEFORE THE FLOOD
by Harry Rogers
Many many years ago when I was a little boy one of the things I liked best was to listen to my father tell about when he too was a little boy. My father at that time was probably about sixty five and the stories he told me seemed very far away and long ago, and from a different world than mine. He had always loved to fish and he used to tell me about snaring suckers with a wire noose, and all about Buck creek, a fascinating stream just east of Springfield, Ohio. He lived near there in a beautiful old farmhouse on a hill. Once he took me for a walk along the banks of this stream and I caught a shiner while he hunted for sponge mushrooms. He always claimed he could smell them. Maybe he really couldn’t but at any rate he usually found them. He told me many things about his school and his father, who was a judge, and his brothers and sisters, one of whom, Uncle Will, became a famous cartoonist. But as I grew up most of these stories have become hazy or completely forgotten, so I thought it would be fun for you to know how your father lived when he was a boy and so I am writing it down for you.
I never have been really certain just when my father was born. I think it must have been about 1845 because he was a soldier for a few days during the end of the Civil War. But at least I know that I was born Nov. 10, 1897 in our home at 315 W. Second St., in Dayton, Ohio. My father’s name was Robert Andrew, and that is why you are named Andrew. He was never called Robert at home, or any place else as far as I know, so we just left off the Robert in your name. My Mother’s name was Sarah Wight Rogers, but only my father called her Sarah. She was Aunt Sally to everyone—young and old. I’m afraid you are going to get a little mixed up with all the “aunts” and “cousins” in my stories, for pretty nearly everybody that we knew well was either aunt or uncle this or cousin this or that. It didn’t seem to make any difference at all if they really were part of the family.
Besides me, who was the youngest, there were my sister Martha, or Marnie and our brother Bill. Marnie was about 9 years older than me, and Bill was a little less than six. Your aunt Marnie was the mother of Stephen Gilman who is the father of your Gilman cousins. All your Rogers cousins are the children and grandchildren of Uncle Bill and Aunt Betty.
I was born at home in a big ugly—on the outside—three story brick double. Except for a narrow stone front porch, it was almost flush with the sidewalk. There was a wide side porch and then a narrow side yard leading back to a small backyard surrounded on three sides by high board fences, one of which had a gate opening on an alley. The back of the house didn’t go straight up like the front, but was a series of roofs covering rooms at the back of the house. You will hear lots more about these roofs later on. This back yard wasn’t very big and it wasn’t very pretty, but it did have an enormous cherry tree. My mother, who loved flowers and shrubbery tried pretty hard but vainly to have it nice, but we boys and dogs etc. were too much for it and her.
I have told you that the outside of our house wasn’t very pretty because it was just a big square brick house, but it was a very nice house inside. You see, because it was a double house it was only one room wide, but they were all big and wide ones. On the first floor next to the street was the parlor, then came the sitting room which had an alcove with little stained glass windows. I’ll tell you more about them later. Then after this was the dining room and after that, a big kitchen with a pantry and a back porch opening off of it. There were back stairs leading to the second floor from the kitchen. Beneath the whole lower floor was a cellar which was more like a dungeon. You could go down into it from a trapdoor in the kitchen. This was where we kept apples—think of it –whole barrels at a time, and jellies and preserves etc. One of my favorite places was the kitchen so I’ll describe it first. It was big and not very bright and had two big stoves in it. One was an enormous coal range and the other was for gas which was becoming very popular when I was little. But the coal stove was wonderful on a cold day.
I have said that the inside of the house was very pretty and that was because my mother loved pretty things and knew how to make everything look warm and bright and cheerful. Some of the furniture was pretty old but everything was comfortable and cheerful. This was before many people had electric lights in their home, and we lighted our house by gas lights and coal oil lamps. The brass lamp which you know was once an oil lamp and was in our parlor. The parlor had an open fireplace which my mother loved so much that we had a hard time keeping her from having a fire there even in summer. The sitting room could be closed off from the parlor by big sliding doors, but most of the time we left them open and the two rooms became one big one. In the sitting room there was an overhead gas chandelier and a gas grate. Along one side was a long book case filled with fascinating books. The walnut desk which is in our living room now was my father’s work desk and it was just as filled with assorted junk then as it is now. The big round cherry table that we use in our dining room was then in the sitting room. Off one corner of the sitting room was the alcove with the fascinating stained windows that I mentioned before. Next came the dining room which was very pretty with a white ma ntlepiece with blue and white china on it, a big mahogany table and a long sideboard of cherry. The floor always fascinated me. It was made of alternating boards of cherry and black walnut. They were laid in a complicated pattern. The stairway led off a narrow hallway along the parlor, and part of the sitting room. This hallway was always filled with umbrellas and hats and shoes and rubbers. It lead straight up to the second floor hall which ran the length of the house. The front bed room was a bright cheerful one with straw matting on the floor and big windows which looked out on the street. Back of it was another big bed room with an alcove and then came another which was usually Bill’s and my room. Off it was another closet—really a small room which was where we piled every thing immaginable, just to get it out of the way. It looked just like our laundry. The bathroom was down a few steps and was big and usually cold. It had a window in the back that looked out over the neighbor’s back yards. There was a wonderful gas water heater attached to the tub. It had lots of levers and knobs to turn and used to mildly explode every now and then. The third floor had three bedrooms and an attic we called the sky parlor. The roof of the house could be reached by crawling out of the attic window and then climbing up to it. It was almost flat which made it a wonderful place to play, but more of that later. So now you have some idea of our house as I remember it. It was an old house and it was always out of repair but it was a very happy one. I like to think that it enjoyed being lived in.
Our house was in the older and the nicer part of Dayton, and it was surrounded for a few blocks by much larger and richer ones, but none ever seemed so bright and gay as ours. You see, in those days when the automobile was scarcely in use people lived near the center of the city so they could walk to their business and to the stores. Only real farmers lived in the country then. Second street on which we lived was a long street which ran from the river on the west to Main street on the east—at least this was our part of it. It was tree lined and paved—many streets were still dirt then—and was lined with big brick houses, many of them ugly, but all of the looking rich and substantial. Our little world of the time was pretty well limited to First and Second streets, and those that joined them. It was, of course, a very small world but a very secure one. I’m sure we knew everyone in this district and as I said before, most of them were called uncle, aunt, or cousin. Back of the houses ran alleys and back of most of the houses were stables for horses and buggies. Many of the houses had rooms for the colored men who acted as handymen and coachmen. These stables were our favorite places to play, but I’ll tell about that later on. We didn’t have a horse or stable which bothered me a little but not much. If I’m not wrong Dayton was then a city of about 65 or 70 thousand persons. You will hear more about Dayton when I tell about what we used to do.
I’m not going to try and tell you much about my earliest memories because to tell you the truth I can’t remember much that happened to me before I started to school. I do remember vaguely being very sick with pneumonia and being taken care of by a lovely nurse named Alice Root. She became one of our close friends and later was married in our house. I have been told that I was a very bad baby, and that I screamed so much that my mother and father became so worn out that they had to leave me with a nurse and take a vacation, which to my father, just like yours, seemed necessarily concerned with fishing. So off they went to Gull Lake. As you will see later this was a break for everybody concerned and has had unthought of results. Our household at this time consisted of our family, a nurse whom I don’t remember, and our cook, Mary Keogh who was to become my devoted friend for as long as she lived. I don’t even remember at that time our family doctor--George Goodhue—who was to mean so much later to me—but who must have been around a lot for he spent most of his time with me when I was so sick.
There was another incident which I dimly remember and that is being carried home after being run over by a pony cart. My sister and friends were in it and they brought me home more scared than injured. I was chasing you “uncle” Hale across the street at the time. I have always claimed to be practically the only man alive who has been run over by a horse and buggy.
I am sure that despite being sick a great deal that my very early days must have been a very happy period. My mother had a remarkable gift for making people happy and having fun herself, and my father while very quiet and gentle, was also very witty. I’m sure that my family spoiled me horribly from what was said later on, but I think I must have been a friendly little boy because people seemed to like me and I liked almost everybody.
I don’t remember much about my first days at school except that I didn’t like it. It happened that I entered rather young and for some reason or other I stopped after a few weeks. I was always getting a cold or tonsilitis or measles or something. There wasn’t anything like penicillin or sulfa then (I suppose by the time you read this they will be as far outdated as is the antiflogistine of my childhood. Antiflogistine, or Aunty Flo, as we called it, was a sticky sort of clay that was heated on a cloth and plastered on your chest. It stayed on until it dried and it was a horrible mess to get off. I have a vague memory of being sent to kindergarten and not liking it. It is funny that I ended up a school teacher because I never did like grade school. I’m afraid that I felt that school interfered with playing. I remember that I started in the first grade younger than I was supposed to and disliked it so much that I dropped out in a few weeks. It wasn’t that I found the lessons too hard for I never got below an A all through school. But as I said before I had some sort of feeling that my freedom was being cut off. I’m sure that most of my teachers were fine hardworking women but with very few exceptions they seemed like ferocious and ancient dragons to me. During the first years of my school my principle friends were your Uncle Hale Charch, Richard Kennedy, Jimmy Earnshaw, and Robert Harley. We all lived very close together and played together at school and after every day. Hale, or John as I called him, stayed my very good friend all this life and I gave your brother Steve his middle name. He became a very famous chemist and perfected cellophane, orlon etc. Like me, he disliked school very much, even though he was probably the smartest boy there. But except for school, we had a wonderful time. The neighborhood was full of kids and the back yards, the barns, and the alleys were fascinating places to play. Later on, the river which was five or six blocks from our house became our favorite place. Its funny, but I don’t remember disliking Sunday school at all. Perhaps it was because it was very small and my class was made up of my gang. I’m afraid we didn’t learn much about the Bible, but we did have lots of fun. Mostly it was horseplay, pulling chairs out from under other kids, etc. But best of all we liked the hymns to which we made up our own words. Things like “Shaving in the breeze” for Bringing in the Sheaves”. There was another hymn we particularly liked with a line which went, “And Crown Him King of All”, the emphasis we put upon the work “Crown” practically shook the place. We belonged to the First Presbyterian Church which was the oldest church in Dayton and of which one of your ancestors was a founder. But by the time I was a little boy most of the members were quite old and there were only a few children in the membership. I remember particularly a Mr. Perrine who used to pass the communion wine and whose hand shook so much that the glasses rattled in the tray he carried. Sometimes I went to church after Sunday School and sat with my cousin Dorothy Gebhart about whom I’ll have much more to say. My mother and hers, Aunt Mamie, sat in the last pew in back of us and spent the whole hour whispering. I don’t think they ever heard a word of the sermon. Now and then my mother sang one of the hymns in a loud monotone. It really must have been funny but I can remember being embarassed as I got a little older. Dorothy and I spent most of our time drawing pictures in the hymn books. My particular favorite was a man a few pews in front of us named Baldy Black. The part I didn’t like about church was the choir. There was a big fat soprano who simply yowled. I’ve never been able since to listen to choral music. Our preacher was Dr. Wilson, a quiet scholarly gentleman who preached learned sermons that were far above my inatentive mind. We all liked him though, perhaps because he was said to be an expert baseball player.
One of the best things about the church was the “Socials”. The food was wonderful and simply no limit to the quantity. Then after the meal we could slip into the belfry tower and climb way up into its mysterious heights. Sometimes we managed to get into the church itself and play hide and seek among the pews. It was at one of the church socials that I saw my first magic lantern show. It was a series of colored slides about the sad love affair of an indian girl name Red Wing. Some one sang the works of “Red Wing” to accompany the slides. I remember that it impressed me greatly. Something about pretty Red Wing weeping her heart away.
Perhaps I should tell you something about Dayton in those days before it became a big industrial city. If I remember correctly it was a town of about 70,000 and to my mind, at least, a beautiful city. The principal residence district was right down town and covered an area of about a square mile with Main street to the east, the Miami River to the north and west and Third st. to the south. Most of the houses were of brick or stone and quite large, usually three stories. Some were very elaborate imitations of pretentious palaces, but most were just big ugly piles of brick. Most of the houses had barns in the backyard, some of them with living quarters for the coachman. It was a pretty tight orderly section in the midst of the city and I suspect a little snobbish and superior, but I’m sure that didn’t apply to my family. It was sometimes called the “seal skin” district due to the fact that many of the ladies wore the then fashionable coats of seal. I remember that my mother had one but I’m afraid it was a bit motheaten by the time I remember it. We didn’t have a stable or a coachman or even a horse and every one rich and poor loved my mother and father. The streets in this section of town were wide and paved and lined with stone and fancy iron hitching posts. These posts were wonderful for playing leap frog. Some of the houses had stone blocks at the curb to help in stepping out of the carriages. Every day a street cleaner came along in a wagon with a shovel and broom and cleaned up after the horses. I remember that the street cleaner always came to the house on Christmas morning for a small present. In every block there was at least one gas lamp post. It was sort of mysterious when just at dusk the lamplighter made his rounds and lit the lamps from a flame carried on a long stick. The lights gave a yellow glow, but failed to light the street very well. The other parts of Dayton were pleasant but much more simple than our section, but I don’t remember any slum sections. As I said the river passed along two sides of the part where we lived.
I suspect that it was a pretty dirty river and not very big but to me it was a place of enchantment. In the winter there was skating in the backwaters and in the summer fascinating willow covered islands to explore. It was this river which caused the terrible flood in 1913 about which I’ll tell you later. It is hard to realize that when I was a little boy there were only a few automobiles and that one got about by foot, street car or horse and buggy. Of course there were bicycles. My first ride in a car was when I was about ten. I was just getting over an operation for appendicitis and a neighbor arranged a ride for me and my friends to go to the little town of Xenia, about 16 miles from Dayton. It was pretty nearly an all day excursion and a big adventure. I remember it was a Winton Torpedo and aluminum or silver colored. As a special favor I was allowed to sit in the front seat with the chauffeur. Later on, some of the rich people had limousines. They were enormous lumbering cars with a separate compartment for the chauffeur. The passengers sat in back and talked to the chauffeur through a speaking tube. The reason people had chauffeurs was that ladies scarcely ever drove a car and most men didn’t know enough about machinery to keep one going. For one thing they were very hard to start and had to be cranked by hand. It was a long time before the self starter was invented, and starting a balky car on a cold morning was pretty rough. Without cars, horses were of course everywhere. There were ice wagons, for this was long before the day of Fridgidaires, and all of us loved to hop on to a rear step that they had and grab slivers and pieces of ice to suck. Fire engines, usually pulled by two or more big horses raced through the streets answering alarms. They were wonderful to follow on your bicycle. My first job was working in a grocery store nearby and part of it was driving the grocery wagon to make deliveries. Sometimes there were two of us on the wagon and one held the horse while the other carried in the grocery orders. Every time there was a fierce dog at the house it seemed to be my turn. I think the other boy who was older had this worked out.
We worked from six in the morning until six at night and from six to nine on Saturdays. I wish I could tell how by diligence and devotion to my work I rose to a high position in the grocery business but unfortunately I didn’t last long. One day I was sent out to collect bills from which errand I returned proudly with several hundred dollars. The only thing wrong was that I had forgotten or didn’t know enough to mark who had paid. They were nice about it but it was obvious that I was not cut out for a Horatio Alger career in business. Even as late as 1913 horses were used a great deal but after the flood in which hundreds of horses were drowned, the automobile almost totally replaced them.
Perhaps it is time to tell you more about my school. It was called the Central District School, and was about four blocks from our house. As I remember it was a square red brick building of three stories and set in the middle of a gravel playground, one end of which was for the boys and the other for girls. When the bell rang or rather when one of the teachers rang the big old fashioned cowbell, we lined up by grades and marched in to the music of a player piano. There were usually several sections for each class and Hale and I always tried to get in the same one but for some reason we were almost always in different rooms. This was a serious handicap to our schemes but we arranged a system so that we would ask to be “excused” and in that way meet in the basement and linger there as long as we dared. I’ll tell you a little later about our activities in the basement but perhaps I’d better tell more about the school now. It probably was the best and most modern school in Dayton at that time and I think it had the best teachers but it was pretty dark and dingy compared to school buildings of today. School started at 8:30 and lasted until 11:30 with a thirty minute recess about 10. If it was nice weather we played out in the yard, the favorite game was Hill Dill—whoever I catch I’ll kill. We all went home to lunch and then came back at one and stayed until 3:30. I don’t think we had much homework so it was mostly play after school. We had the same teacher all day long and sometimes I wonder how the poor women stood us. Teachers pay in those days was very very low and most of them were what we called “old Maids”, girls who for some reason or other didn’t get married. Most of them seemed dreadfully old to us and just plain mean but I suspect they couldn’t have been as ancient as we thought for some of them were still going strong when I was a grown man. At any rate despite all my resistance I think I received an excellent training. Sometimes it seems to me that I learned more in grade school than in all the years since. A Miss Margaret Burns was our principal for the first 5 or 6 years of my grade school and she was a wonderful woman of great character. She knew all of us very well and always had a private name for her favorite students. She always called your Uncle Bill Romeo because he was sort of dreamy and romantic. For some reason based on a story that I cried for the moon she used to call me Victor. It was embarrassing.
Perhaps I should leave school now for a little while and go back home. I think I told you that ours was a very happy one. We wern’t rich like many of our neighbors nor were we poor. I don’t think I ever envied my richer friends for I was aware that our house was always the gayest and happiest. It always seemed lighter and brighter and warmer than whose of my friends and as Mary was a fantastic cook the food always seemed better and more plentiful. I think most of the credit for this should go to my mother who was always ready for fun and who understood little boys to perfection. She didn't think we needed elaborate toys or fancy clothes as many mothers did. Her idea was to give us all the love we wanted plus a great deal of trust and freedom. She loved a good time herself, playing cards and visiting and having friends in to eat. My father was much quieter but he, too, liked a good time. He was an expert whist, bridge, etc. player and as soon as I grew up enough we had nightly games of casino or cribbage. He usually beat me of course. When he and my mother played they fought from beginning to end because my mother wasn’t above peeking and taking back a mistaked play. I think my father really enjoyed this much more than a more scientific and less bickering game. My father neither drank nor smoked, but he really loved to eat. As I have said our cook Mary was something of a genius in the kitchen and my father gloated over every roast and dish. In fact for quite a few years he suffered terribly from some severe form of indigestion and had to live on a very strict diet. He didn’t complain but he really suffered. After he recovered he ate just as much as before except that he never touched bananas or strawberries again. Some of his worst attacks were caused by them. He loved to read and had a very large library of English “classics”. He really had wanted to be a lawyer like his father who was a very distinguished judge but he had to leave school on the death of his father and help support the family. I think you would have loved him very much as he was one of the kindest and most gentle men who every lived. He loved to take me on walks and taught me how to fish but I’ll tell you more about that when we come to Gull Lake. He wasn’t an impatient men in general but if supper was two minutes late he would pace up and down outside the big dining room door waiting for Mary to open them. He liked to read out loud to the family and particularly enjoyed some thing humorous.
Like your own father he was a master at making puns. He had been a very rich man at one time but lost all of his money in some financial crash but it didn’t make him unhappy. Instead he really thought that too much money was one of the great causes of unhappiness. So he went to work for a paper company and never complained even though he had to travel a great deal and be away from his home and family a lot. Perhaps he sounds too perfect to be true so I’ll have to admit to one minor weakness. He was really fond of young and pretty girls and never failed to make a fuss over them in a nice way. They say that I look like him.
Fond as I was of my father and mother it was my brother, your Uncle Bill who received my complete adoration. As far as I was concerned he could do anything, knew everything and was absolutely perfect. He was about six years older than I and sort of took me under his wing. We played together, he taught me to paddle a canoe, to shoot a rifle and all sorts of interesting things. I must have been quite a trial to him at times with my open adoration and my tagging after him and his friends but he always was patient and good to me. I don’t think we ever had a serious quarrel due largely no doubt to his patience. I quoted him as the source of all wisdom and was known sometimes as “me and Bill”. I must admit that he did tease me at times. He was much more romantic and dreamy than I was and used to tell me fantastic stories that half scared me but I believed them almost entirely. I think he must have wanted to be a cowboy or something for once he got hold in some way or another of a cheap 22 calibre revolver. He considered himself a great expert with this and once while the family was a church, he accidentally shot right through the baggy knickers that I wore at that time. I wasn’t hurt a bit but we surely were scared. He made me swear oaths of secrecy which I am happy to say prevented my father and mother from finding out about it. When he was a little older he secretly acquired a pipe and as a great treat I was allowed to watch him smoke it in what he fondly thought was an expert manner. I would no more have told on him than cut off my arm. To go on a Sunday afternoon walk with him along the river was one of the greatest of all treats. The nice part of it all is that I have never changed my opinion about him.
My sister Martha or Marnie as we called her was nine years older than I. I’m afraid I don’t remember too much about her when I was little as hers was a different world from that of little boys. It was only after I grew older that she became very close to me. She was smart and quick and very sensitive so we fought now and then but she was one of the best and most generous and loving people I have ever known. There was simply nothing she wouldn’t do for you.
Then there was Mary Keogh, our cook, who stayed with us for about forty years. She was very small and very Irish and very Catholic and probably one of the best cooks who ever lived. She had a hot temper and was very easily offended. For example, she refused to work for anyone who called her a “maid”; she was a cook, and proud of it. Mary had almost complete control of the buying and planning of meals, and resented any interference by my mother. Whenever she was mad, and that was pretty often, she would start banging skillets and pans and muttering to herself. We called them her “banging spells”. It was a signal to stay out of the kitchen. I think my father, Marnie and I were her favorites. For some reason she blamed most of my sins on your Uncle Bill and a little friend of mine to whom she always referred as “that dirty little Jimmy Earnshaw”. Every evening after supper she would take the paper to the kitchen and read the obituaries, nothing else was of any interest to her. I used to go to the kitchen almost every evening and sit there with her and talk to her and tease her. She usually had some special treat stashed away for me. She was deadly afraid of rats and about the only time she ever was really mad at me was one evening when my cousin Dorothy and I sneaked down the back stairs that led into the kitchen and sent a little toy steam engine rolling across the floor. You could hear her yells all through the house. I’m not sure she ever did quite forgive me. Mary, as I said before, was a real genius at the stove, but like most perfectionists she was always convinced that this time the roast was burned to a crisp, that the pie crust wasn’t fit to eat and so on. Saturday was baking day at our house. Mary made most of our bread, rolls, and a wonderful coffee cake and on Saturday noons we always had hot apple dumplings with a hard sauce flavored with sherry wine. My father always went to market on Saturday morning and would come back laden with big rib roasts and backstrap and country sausage. One thing that was lacking when I was a little boy was the plentiful supply of fresh fruits and vegetables in winter and of course there were no frozen foods at all. But everyone canned a great deal and made enormous quantities of jellies, jams, and pickles. Then there was usually a big barrell of apples in the cellar. Sunday dinner was always a tremendous feast with the principle dish usually being an enormous rib roast of beef. The dessert was often a lemon meringue pie that was a creation. Perhaps I shouldn’t dwell so much on these meals because it might make your mother a little bit annoyed. As you know she is a very fine cook herself. Sunday was quite a day at our house. We had to be up and dressed and fed and on our way to Sunday school before nine. I remember I usually wore a blue serge suit with knickerbockers and black stockings and shoes. Also there was what was called a Buster Brown collar with a big black silk bow tie. My mother and father were faithful churchgoers but to be absolutely honest I don’t thing they were really very devout. For my mother it was more of a social affair while my father enjoyed the sermons particularly if they were on the intellectual side. We, the children, went to the first Presbyterian Church while my father went to the newer and more progressive Third St. Presbyterian Church. Just why my parents went to different churches is a mystery to me.
Sunday was a very different day when I was a child. I don’t think ours was a particularly strict family but still there was a strong Puritan tradition. As I have mentioned my father was an expert card player and we all enjoyed card games all through the week, but on Sunday cards just disappeared and didn’t come out until Monday evening. Movies were, of course, strictly forbidden and even after all these years I always feel slightly guilty about going to the theatre on Sunday. We weren’t allowed to buy anything at all, not even a nickel’s worth of candy. On Sunday afternoons if the weather was nice we went for a walk or just stayed home and read or visited with friends. Sometimes we went for a buggy ride. But if you think this was strict, I’ll tell you about some of the other members of our family. One of our cousins was Aunt Harriet Strong who was the widow of Col. Strong who was killed in the Civil War. She was a lovely old lady but she had a will of iron and tried to rule the family. I think she was a little bit shocked by what she considered the frivolity of our family. As you know, we spent our summers at Gull Lake. Our cottage was around the point from Aunt Harriet’s so we were pretty free from the regulations that she imposed on her immediate family that lived near her. In fact, they called our place Sinner’s Retreat and all the boys and girls escaped to there if they had a chance. One of her rules, and these are really true, was that if it were hot you could dangle from the dock by holding on, but it was forbidden to let go and swim. Going out in a canoe or sail boat was strictly forbidden but a ride in a motor boat or launch, as we called them, was usually allowed. There really were some fine distinctions made. Of course at our house there were no such fine distinctions. Bathing suits in those days were really something. Girls wore a complete dress that came to below the knees and black cotton stockings and black canvas shoes. There were really awful. Boys wore striped cotton suits with short pants and short sleeves. But despite these awful clothes the girls somehow managed to look pretty. Once in a while a really bold girl went swimming without stockings to the horror of the beach. I don’t want to keep on now with Gull Lake because I want to save it for later.
Perhaps I should tell you something about the amusements and “things to do” available while I was a boy. First of all there were very few organized and supervised programs. The Boy Scouts were just starting and there were only a few troops in Dayton. They didn’t appeal to me so I never joined. About the only organization was the Y. M. C. A. where on Saturday mornings there were classes in gymnastics but much more pleasant was the swimming pool. It was probably the only one in Dayton. Otherwise it was the river which wasn’t very appetising. I didn’t care much for the gym classes but as they were necessary before the swimming pool could be used, I put up with them. Sometimes the Y had organized hikes but we usually preferred our own. There were no athletic teams at all in the elementary schools. Of course, this was before the time of radio and television so we had to provide more of our amusements for ourselves. Movies were just beginning to be popular and I believe there were about three movie theatres in Dayton. The first movie that I saw was the “Great Western Train Robbery”. This was one of the earliest movies ever made and it was shown in a tent. It was pretty exciting. Another movie that made a great impression on me was called the River Pirates. During one of the exciting scenes I stood up and yelled, to the amusement of everybody except your Uncle Bill who was greatly embarrassed. One of the theatres was called the Bijou Dream which we pronounced Bijo. Most of the pictures were comedies where everyone chased everyone else and fell into bathtubs and received nice big custard pies in their faces. Between reels as they called them there were colored slides thrown on the screen usually telling some romantic love story and they were accompanied by a piano and sometime a singer. I thought they were terrible and no doubt they were. Most of the shows cost a nickel but a nickel would buy a lot in those days. Then there was the soldiers home. There were still lots of Civil War veterans there at that time and it was one of the show places in Dayton. Unfortunately they didn’t have a “canteen” at the “Home” so the old soldiers used to come downtown and at times get pretty drunk. But they were always nice to me. Near the soldiers home was an amusement park with roller coasters and merry go rounds and shooting galleries. I never liked the merry go rounds because I got sick on them but the roller coaster and the chute the chutes were wonderful. We went there on the street car and whenever possible we rode on an open car which was a series of benches in a car without sides. There was a running board along each side and the great desire of all of us was to stand on this and hold on while we roared down the track. Unfortunately our parents took a dim view of this procedure and usually herded us in.
Without radios, television, record players etc. I suspect we read a great deal more than most boys do now. My father had a very fine library but I’m afraid my taste ran more to adventure stories. I almost literally devoured the improbable adventures of the Rover Boys, the G. A Henty historical novels and the whole series of the Horatio Alger stories. These last almost without exception were about poor but honest young boys who through hard work and honesty finally achieved at least a modest success. Then, of course, there was Stevenson with his wonder Treasure Island that could be read and reread, and Walter Scott with Ivanhoe, The Talisman etc. I really loved to read and if none of my favorites was available I would tackle some of my father’s books, even though I didn’t understand them. I shouldn’t forget Edgar Allen Poe whose stories scared me half out of my wits. One of my favorites was Toby Tyler, or Ten Weeks With a Circus. It was illustrated by my Uncle Will.
Perhaps our chief diversion on Saturdays was an all day hike in the country. Usually along the river or to the high bluffs along the river to the south of town. This route took us along the old canal which, while not active, still had many canal boats moored to the banks. You can imagine how much fun it was to explore them and play at going to sea. On rainy days we either read or made things. We had a room on the third floor where we were allowed to make all the mess we wanted and we certainly did. I had a work bench there and a few tools and we made wagons, and toy derricks and all kinds of junk. Unfortunately I wasn’t very handy with tools so most of the results were disastrous. In winter ice skating was the sport we liked the most but Dayton was too far south for steady winters and we never could count on good ice. Shoe skates such as we have now were unknown, but my mother thought of having a pair of clamp skates riveted on to a pair of shoes and they worked wonderfully. I wouldn’t be surprised if these were among the first pair of shoe skates. When there was snow we coasted or hooked our sleds on the backs of wagons. There weren’t many hills until you went south of town so we didn’t get to do much coasting. We did have glorious snowball fights though. Sometimes as many as fifteen or twenty of us took part in these battles. Sometimes there were frozen snowballs among the soft ones and these could really hurt.
As you probably know the airplane was invented by Wilbur and Orville Wright who lived in Dayton. When I was a boy it was a great thrill to see one and sometimes we were taken out to a big field east of Dayton called the Huffman Prairie where they flew the planes. They wern’t much like the big planes you know today but were very little and flimsy biplanes. The pilot sat right out in the open. It must have been pretty dangerous. Another thing we liked to do was to go to the museum that was in the public library. It probably wasn’t much of a museum but to us it held wonderful treasures and relics of the Indians. One curiosity that impressed me very much was a two-headed calf. Once Hale and I found parts of an Indian skeleton and gave it to the museum. I don’t think I have mentioned bike riding. It was, of course, one of our favorite amusements. Bicycles, in those days, wern’t the fancy gadget covered machines that you know, but were simple but sturdy affairs. My first ones didn’t have a coaster brake and it was quite a trick to stop one going down a steep hill. The pedals would get going faster and faster and it was easy to bark your shins on the sharp points of the pedal. There wern’t any rubber covered foot pedals. The only paved streets were in the center of town but when the roads were dry we took excursions out in the country. One more thing was that there wasn’t much traffic to bother us. My first bike was a Yale that I bought from a friend of Bills for three dollars. I can’t tell you how much I loved that little machine. Roller skating was popular too, but until I was pretty big we didn’t have ball bearing skates. I can remember what a thrill it was to use them after the slow creaky ones.
One of our big projects was an organization called the First Street Band. With the exception of a few who had a little musical ability this was probably the worst bunch of musicians ever gathered together, and of this group of so called musicians your father was probably the worst. I played a bettered old baritone horn that was about as big as I was and from which I coaxed grunts and groans which I fondly hoped were music. Once we played on Amateur Night at a local theatre and while they didn’t throw us out we certainly didn’t get a prize. Later on the band changed into a bugle, fife and drum corps. My efforts on the bugle were so horrible that I was demoted to the fife which after all wasn’t so loud. One nice thing about the fife was that you could hold it to your mouth and pretend to be playing it. It was only on the strong promise that I would just pretend to play that I was allowed to march with the band in the Memorial Day Parade. We called it Decoration Day then.
Another big project that we had was a circus for kids; it really was a pretty good one. We worked hard and long on it. Of course no one came to see it except our families but we charged them enough so that we made a little profit. I remember that my share was almost two dollars. I was a clown dressed like a policeman and rode around the ring bareback on a fat pony. The only trouble was I fell off and hurt my leg and had to stay in bed two days. But it really was a pretty good circus even though the emphasis was a little strong on clowns. Circuses were a very big event in our lives. I mean real circuses. We even took sides and quarreled over whether Barnum and Bailey or Ringling brothers had the best acts. But to me, at least, it wasn’t the circus itself that excited me the most, instead it was the arrival and unloading before dawn. It was impossible to sleep the night before and we all arranged to be wakened long before dawn so that we wouldn’t miss a thing. Some heavy sleepers, even tied a string to a big toe and dangled it out the window to be pulled by an earlier rising friend. Then we would all run to the railroad yards where the circus trains were to unload. Usually they were late. The great thing was to get there and perhaps scramble onto a car and ride it the last few miles if possible. Naturally our parents didn’t approve. It really was exciting though to watch them unload the animals and put the cages on big wagons and see them unload the horses and elephants. The noise and confusion were tremendous. Then sometimes we followed the wagons to the fairgrounds where the big tents were being set up and the animals were watered and fed. Usually we skipped school that day and went to the performance in the afternoon, but for some reason it was never as exciting as the unloading. Usually they had a parade in the late morning with bands and elephants and performers in brilliant costumes.
Halloween was another big day for us kids. I don’t think it has changed a great deal since I was a boy except perhaps for the better. In those days there was more vandalism than now. One night was called “Gate Night” when gangs went around and wrenched gates off people’s fences and upset outhouses etc. I wasn’t allowed to get in on this and my gang limited itself to throwing shelled corn at windows, ringing doorbells etc.
Perhaps the biggest day of all, at least for me, was the Fourth of July. Nothing else, not even Christmas quite equalled it for pure excitement and anticipation. For weeks ahead I saved every cent I could lay hold of and about a week before the Fourth I made my purchases with the greatest care possible. Each item was bought with the idea of the loudest noise for the least expense. Of course this was in the days before the adoption of the Safe and Sane Fourth of July laws. I suppose the laws were necessary because many people were killed and burned and there were many fires and other catastrophes, but it would have been pretty hard to convince me of that at the time. Some of the boys liked to set off whole packages at a time but each firecracker was a treasure to me, and I had each pack separated and classified long before the Fourth. There were lady crackers which were tiny ones about 3/4ths of an inch long, medium sized ones, cannon crackers and especially powerful cracker that came in packages, and then there was the fearful “Happy Hooligan”, a green monster that really had power. We were forbidden this last as being too powerful but we usually managed to sneak in one or two. Long before dawn people began setting off big cannon crackers and all day long the noise continued. We all burned our fingers and had holes in our clothes but that was about all. Then in the evening we went to Aunt Hattie Wight’s home for a picnic and to watch the fireworks which were set off in the park across the street from her house. They were wonderful but nothing to compare with the noise and fun of the day. My cousin Collins Wight did have a little cannon though which we loaded with black powder. Our cannon balls were little green apples. Now that I am older I can understand why my mother worried so much about the Fourth but then to me it was really “the glorious Fourth”.
Kids now in 1962 are interested mostly in planes, cars and space ships but with most of these unknown in my childhood railroad trains were one of the great interests of boys. To be a railroad engineer and drive one of those mighty engines was the goal of most of us at one time or another. Trains, in those days were still the fastest and easiest way of going from one place to another. The roar and the whistles and the steam and smoke were really romantic. The railroad station, particularly in small towns, was a gathering place where people could wait for the train to come roaring in, and shudder to a stop. Then the conductor in a blue uniform would step off and the passengers would slowly file out. Sometimes the great engineer would lean out of the cab and wave to the small boys, mail sacks would be tossed off and on, and lucky travellers laden down with baggage and lunch baskets would climb aboard. Then the conductor, after a quick glance at a heavy watch, would shout “all aboard” and the train would slowly gain momentum and finally dissappear. I’m not sure just what it was but nothing else has ever offered such a mixed feeling of excitement, a slight fear of the unknown, but above all, a desire to be on that train and see what was down the track. Passenger trains in those days weren’t the most comfortable things in the world. The seats were benches big enough for two and covered with red or green plush. The coaches were usually dirty, the windows wouldn’t open most of the time and when they would, smoke poured in. It was a lucky trip that didn’t result in a cinder in the eye. All of the engines were coal burners in those days. The trains went pretty fast and at times rocked and rolled and the wheels went clickety clack and now and then the whistle blew with a mournful sound and it was just about the most romantic thing in the world. But there was one fly in the ointment; I usually got carsick.
Hale had a friend who was a railroad engineer and once he invited us to ride around the “yards” in what was called a switch engine. We were allowed to pull on the throttle and apply the brakes and even shovel a little coal into the firebox. This was one of the real red letter days. I’m afraid I’ve never got over my romantic feeling about trains and the sound of a far off whistle on a still night brings back most of my childhood feeling.
Of course one of the big days in the year was Christmas. But perhaps surprisingly, it hasn’t changed in our family much from the way it was when I was a boy, probably because your mother and mine both loved Christmas so much and put so much into it. We had the same tree, only ours were never live ones, and we hung up our stockings and we wrote letters to Santa Claus just like you have done. But perhaps it would be better if I told you just what we did. I don’t believe Christmas was quite as commercial as it is now. At least, the stores didn’t start displaying toys and Christmas decorations quite as early. But along about the middle of December we began to get pretty excited. I was one of those kids who held on to the belief in Santa Claus much longer than most of my friends and I can remember some pretty bitter arguments on the subject. Mother used to buy our presents and hide them, but she had a pretty hard job as we were always trying to find them and peak. A few days before Christmas we bought a tree and holly wreaths and holly and we all took part in shining holly with sweet oil and in decorating the tree. Bill was the expert on tree decoration, Mother always hung up big paper Christmas bells all over the house and holly and pine branches were all over the place. It smelled wonderful. Mary made great quantities of Christmas cakes. They were like cup cakes with white icing sprinkled with tiny colored candies. On Christmas Eve a lot of Marnie’s and Bill’s friends came for supper together with one or two of mine. My cousin Dorothy was always there, of course. For supper we always had scalloped oysters, (I can’t remember just what else) and afterwards presents for every one were hidden around the house. They were usually just silly gifts, not regular ones. After the presents we played charades and Jenkins up. When every one had gone my father usually read “The Night Before Christmas”. It was awfully hard to get to sleep because Marnie claimed to have heard the patter of deer hoofs on our roof once, and I used to try and stay awake on the chance of hearing them. In the morning about 6:30 Mary would go down and get breakfast ready and then mother and father would go downstairs and light all the gas jets. Finally we kids were allowed to come down and see the presents in our stockings and those around the tree. Before I went to bed I always left a plate of Christmas cookies, some candy and an orange by the fireplace so that Santa Claus could find them when he came down the chimney. Of course they were gone and there were always foot prints in the ashes on the hearth which was proof enough for me that Santa Claus had been there. We never got very big or very fancy presents but they were almost always something that we particularly wanted. Christmas dinner was usually at Aunt Mamies. She was Dorothy’s mother and my mother’s closest friend. Usually there were about 25 or 30 there. We had sort of a funny arrangement in the family.
Thanksgiving was held at our house, Christmas at Aunt Mamie’s and New Years at Aunt Hattie’s. Food was excellent at all three but, of course, I thought ours was best. In the evening lots of young people came in and we played all kinds of games. Thanksgiving of course was nothing like Christmas for excitement, but largely devoted to the idea of wonderful food. It was pretty well restricted to family in the fact that usually about 25 of the family were there with the preacher thrown in for good measure. Our preacher, Dr. Wilson, was a very fine and very learned man. We were told that he had played on the baseball team in Princeton which made him quite a person in our eyes. The holidays that I have mentioned were the principal ones although there were, of course, birthdays. It seemed, though, that something was always going on at our house. I suppose it was because my mother loved parties and people so much. Probably it is hard for you, who have lived in the country, to realize how it must have been to live where you simply knew everybody. I suppose there were 10 or 15 people that I called aunt or uncle without the slightest idea whether or not they were really relatives. As a matter of fact there really was a very large family group. My mother’s grandfather had come to Dayton in the very early days of the 19th century. He was of Dutch descent and named Conover. He opened a store at the corner of Main and Third St. which was and still is the principal intersection in Dayton. Later on one of the few tall buildings that were in Dayton was called the Conover Bldg. Then there were the Wights who came to Dayton from Vermont. My mother was Sarah Conover Wight. So with all the children and their children we did have a really big family convention. Most of my father’s family were in Springfield. In those days people didn’t move around so much as they do now and so families remained together and in close touch with each other. Probably our closest family connection was with the Gebharts. Aunt Mamie was my mother’s cousin and our two families were almost like one. There were three girls in the Gebhart family but the closest one to me was Dorothy who is now Mrs. James Carl. She was just as close as a sister and while in general I was scared to death of girls when I was a little boy, Dot and I were very close. She grew up to be a lovely woman but while a child she was really a tomboy. Her birthday was the 4th of July and it was our custom to give each other a one dollar bill on our respective birthdays. I have always held that I gave the last one and that she still owes me one. Then there was Aunt Hattie Wight. She was married to my mother’s brother Harry. She was kind and gentle but very vague. I remember that she used to sing Civil War songs and accompany them on an enormous old piano with lighted silver candlesticks on it. Dorothy and I liked to go there for Sunday night supper. She made a wonderful big and fluffy sponge cake. Her children were Barbara and Collins. Both of them although quite a bit older than me, were always exceptionally nice to me. Aunt Harriet Strong was the family matriarc and the mother of Aunt Hannah Frank and Aunt Mamie. She was a woman of very strong opinions and although we loved her we were, even the grown ups, just a little scared of her. Her husband had been Colonel Hiram Strong during the Civil War. He was killed at the battle of Chickamauga and we used to hear the story of how Aunt Harriet had gone to the battlefield to try and reclaim his body. There were many others but those that I have mentioned were the closest.
I think it is about time to tell you about some of the things that my friends and I did when we were kids. Most of them aren’t very important but they were fun. The craziest of all was the “Young, Swan, Charch, Rogers Cremating Society.” Dogs and cats a specialty. Babies on request! This was a club or a group or something composed of Hale, me and the two school janitors, both of them colored. Our meetings were held in the basement of the school, usually at recess and sometimes on Saturday morning. We had quite a collection of strange and imaginary creatures. According to us we had a Horned Toad, a gila monster which if it bit you you went stark crazy on the spot. It was an old basement with a big furnace and lots of pitch dark rooms and underground passages. One of these rooms was called the Tomb of the Kings. Young played the trombone and was a skilled lockpicker. The chief idea of this club was not a very good one for our great project was to initiate people into the Tomb of the Kings. They, of course, could not become full-fledged members. The idea was to get them into a dark room in the basement and then Young would enter the room through one of the underground passages making horrible animal noises as he approached. I don’t know how many kids we scared half out of their wits. Our teachers of course knew nothing of this underground activity or we would have been in trouble.
Another idea that Hale and I had to amuse ourselves was the International Detective “Bura”. This was an organization devoted principally to shadowing unsuspecting citizens. We had elaborate disguises and draped different coats under our overcoats and had our pockets stuffed with hats, false noses, spectacles etc. As far as I can remember we had no particular system for picking out our victims. We just chose some man who we hoped was a criminal type and then we shadowed him. As I remember it, none of our quarry every suspected that the two little guys dodging around behind them were two celebrated detectives. It seems to me now that most of our victims ended our chase by seeking refuge in a saloon. They undoubtedly needed a drink.
Another school activity was a military company copied after Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders of the Spanish American War. We had regular drills and learned to march and do the manual of arms with wooden rifles. Sometimes we marched in 4th of July parades. I wasn’t an outstanding soldier but I did win a baseball outfit for being the most improved in the company. I’m afraid it was something of a doubtful honor. We wore khaki uniforms that were supposed to be copies of those worn by the Rough Riders. Of course there were the usual games of “kick the can”, cops and Robbers, “Sundown”, Prisoner’s Base” etc. I never was a very good baseball player, probably because I was near-sighted and too stubborn to wear my glasses. I blame part of my reluctance on the fact that my mother called me Izzy Einstein when I wore them. They were gold rimmed spectacles and as I had big ears that stuck straight out and a kind of skinny face I expect I would never have won a beauty prize. Later on I came to like baseball very much but I never was really good at it. We didn’t have kid football teams and basketball was just getting popular. For some reason I never cared much for organized play or sports but instead liked to be with my gang and make up our own games. We liked to try and build things but most of them never worked very well. I remember one wagon we made called the “Fast Freight” that actually worked and in which we carried our junk. Then there was one that we were very proud of and pulled to the edge of town where there was a steep hill. Everything went fine until we came to a sharp curve on the way down where the whole thing collapsed. As I mentioned before alleys behind most of the houses in our neighborhood had big barns. They were right up against each other and we could travel a whole city block on the roofs without ever touching the ground. Some were flat, some were steep but we ran around on them like goats.
Sometimes we did have to get into organized things and perhaps the worst of them all was dancing school. Most of our mothers had some silly idea that we ought to know how to dance but in my case it didn’t do much good. I got dressed up and went for a while but I never did learn to dance. As I remember it I spent the whole time horsing with other little boys, pushing and shoving and making general nuisances of ourselves. Part of it was that we were afraid of the little girls. My career at dancing school didn’t last long. Then there was a horrible time when I was supposed to take part in a May Pole dance at the country club. I don’t remember exactly what happened but I got out of it some way.
But the really big event of the year was Gull Lake. I don’t think I can tell you what Gull Lake meant to me as a boy. Way back when I started this story I told you that my father and mother got pretty tired of my crying when I was a little baby and took a few weeks off and went to Gull Lake which is in southern Michigan between Kalamazoo and Battle Creek. The fishing was wonderful so every year for years afterwards we spent about a month there. I don’t remember my first years there at all, but I think we went there when I was about two. We rented then a little cottage called Bide a Wee. I don’t remember much about it except that there was a loft that you reached by a ladder. We were on the south end of the lake at a beach called LaBelle Resort about a mile from the village of Yorkville. There was a hotel there where we sometimes ate but about all I remember of it was a big dining room and a fish pond in front that had some big garfish in it. Gull Lake then, as it is now, was a beautiful lake about 4 miles long and a mile wide. The water is clear and on summer days is blue and sparkling. There is an outlet to the lake that in those days passed through a small tunnel of the old stone bridge at Yorkville and ended at a dam near the railroad station. When I was little the water from the dam was used for power in a cereal factory that made a product called Malta Vita. I can still remember the wonderful smell of the roasting cereal. This was one of the early cereals that are so popular now, like corn flakes or Post Toasties etc. Gull Lake now is very popular and there are beautiful homes and cottages all around it. But in those early days the cottages were mostly on the island which was directly in front of and about 1/3 mile away from LaBelle Beach. Then there was Allendale where the lake could be reached by traction cars and where the passenger boats had their docks. There was also an hotel there and a dancing pavilion. There were also other groups of cottages around the lake and a hotel at the far end but almost all of them were simple. Roads in Michigan in those days were pretty bad and cars were very rare so we went everywhere by boat. There were a few motor boats or launches as we called them. But almost all of the passenger boats were steamboats. For the size of the lake quite a few of them were much too large. There was the Searchlight which was the largest and had two decks. It could only go in the deepest parts of the lake and was always running aground. Then there was the Kalamazoo which was a very dashing yacht type boat and the Michigan which was broad of beam and very slow, the Alert which was little and whose captain was sort of sweet on Mary Keogh and most important of all was the Brownie of Captain Norton. It was a small low boat that could g o through the tunnel of the outlet, or glen, or Lover’s Lane as it was called and in that way meet the trains and bring the visitors back to the cottages. Yorkville was just a small village of a few houses, a school, a post office, a church and two grocery stores. Mail was delivered usually by boat. The most important store was Rice’s which during the summer did a tremendous business. They made deliveries by wagon and also had a grocery boat that made the rounds of the lake several times a week. So whenever we wanted to go anyplace on the lake we either went by canoe or rowboat or stood out on the dock and hailed a passing steamboat. Gradually more and more friends and relatives came to Gull Lake and soon the whole beach was filled and some of us had moved around the point to Grandview Beach. It was something like a family migration each summer to Michigan. Before long some of the family bought cottages and remodeled them and finally some of them made their permanent home there. Among them was your Aunt Marnie who while she never lived there permanently did have a beautiful house made from a remodeled cottage. Also your Cousin Dorothy Carl made a house out of a cottage and lives there the year round. So you can see what an enormous influence one squalling baby had on the future life of his friends and relatives. So far I havn’t told you much what we did at Gull Lake so perhaps I’d better go back to the beginning. Even in the middle of winter we kids began to dream of the lake and before the time came to go we had literally figured out the remaining hours and minutes. Almost as soon as we got home from the summer there the family started a piggy bank to help pay the next summer’s rent. It was usually a fat china bank and every spare penny, nickle and dime went into it. Every week or so I would lift it and shake it to judge its progress. One of our friends was Judge Dustin, a fairly wealthy man and I can remember t that several times he put a $10 gold piece into the slot. My mother was very funny and she would get him laughing and the more he laughed the more generous he became. The big day, of course, was when we broke the bank and gloated over the treasure. Sometimes there was as much as one hundred dollars. The last two weeks before we left were endless and almost too exciting. The trunks had to be packed and the tickets bought and a hundred other details arranged. Not that I did much of anything except to get in the way. The train left at 6:30 in the morning and as my mother was always afraid of missing trains we had to be at the station about six blocks away at least a half hour ahead of time. I usually had my dog Billy on a leash and a picnic basket for our lunch on the train to take care of. Once the dog was safely in the baggage car and we were on board then the excitement was almost too much to stand and I usually got car sick to add to the confusion. Sometimes there were as many as twenty or thirty of us all going the same day. I had memorized all the stations along the route and marked them off on the time table as we reached them. Our first change was at Greenville Junction only about thirty miles from Dayton. There we waited impatiently for the Cincinnati Northern which was to take us on our next step. I remember once that Billy (the dog) became scared as the train approached and broke away from me and ran and hid under the station platform; I had to crawl under the platform and drag him out with people yelling that I would be left and poor Billy howling with terror. The next run was to Addison Junction where we arrived around four o’clock. At noon we always had a tremendous picnic lunch of fried chicken potato salad and cake and fruit. After stuffing down enormous quantities I was usually sick again but really didn’t care. Finally we came to Devil’s Lake which we could see from the train, then a little later, we got off at Addison Junction where we waited, it seemed to me for ever, for the train that would take us to the lake. Everything looked different and smelled different and seemed wonderful. After a three or four hour ride through what seemed to me an enchanted country we finally arrived at Yorkville about 7:30 or so in the evening. Usually there were lots of friends and relatives waiting for us for meeting the evening train was almost a ritual for most of us. It was only a short walk to the end of the glen where the Brownie was waiting to take us to the lake. The ride there through the channel out to the lake was the climax to the day. The next day seemed endless with swimming and rowing and running wild. It’s hard to list just exactly what we did do. One of the things I liked the best was sailing. I guess I was pretty lucky because some older person always was ready to take me along and I never grew tired of going. Of course we had our own sailboats too which were rowboats with a sheet or something tacked onto a stick. Usually they collapsed after a few minutes. Another thing I liked was rafts. There was always something romantic about a raft to me and we used to pole them up and down the shoreline for hours at a time. Fishing was good at Gull Lake in those days and I fished quite often although it wasn’t until after many years that I became an ardent fisherman. Perhaps one reason I didn’t care very much for fishing was that often I had to row the boat for my father or mother. They would fish for hours whether they caught anything or not and I felt that this was interfering with my more important activities. Most of us liked to take walks and as we got a little bigger, one of the big things was to walk around the lake. I don’t know just how far it was, but I suspect about 12 or 15 miles. We would stop around noon at the hotel at Geiger’s Landing, where our mothers and fathers had come by boat, and have an enormous dinner of chicken and dumplings, and fill up later with cookies called Hermits, which was the specialty of the hotel. Your Aunt Marnie was an expert a stuffing great quantities of these cookies into her middy blouse, to be eaten on the way home. Then we would finish the second half of our walk in the afternoon. Another thing we liked to do was catch turtles and keep them in a tub. Sometimes we took a big supply of them home with us. But I suppose our chief activity was swimming. I was always kind of skinny but I was a pretty good swimmer, although I couldn’t stay in as long as most of the kids because I’d get pretty cold. I never did like cold water very much and I don’t until this day. It wasn’t long though until the first endless and wonderful days grew shorter and shorter and the time for going home and back to school kept drawing nearer and nearer. Sometimes we would stay a few days after school had started. Once a cousin of mine asked me to spend two more weeks with her family. Her house was on another beach up the lake. I think the real reason she wanted me was that I would be handy to row the boat while she fished. She was quite a large lady and for a little boy it was pretty tough. At any rate I became pretty homesick and decided to run away. I didn’t know just where I was going to run to but fortunately I told my plans to my cousin, Barbara Wight, who decided she would help me escape. So one day she came by in her catboat and I managed to smuggle my few belongings aboard and we took off. It wasn’t much of a runaway for we ended up at Aunt Hattie’s where I spent two wonderful weeks. I’m afraid there was a little family trouble over my escape but anyway I had a good time. One of the places we liked to go on the lake was Mosquito Island which was at one end of the lake just at the entrance of the outlet. It was a little round island surrounded by swamp, and it was certainly well named. To us it was a romantic hideaway and sometimes we were allowed to spend the night there. The lily pond and swamp around it was a wonderful place to hunt turtles and trap minnows. Near by was a small hill that we called the Indian Mound. I’m not a bit sure that it really was one, but we firmly believed the legend of the grieving Indian princess who was supposed to come there at night. Maybe she did, but I never saw her. As I told you before, my father was a really good fisherman and a good sportsman. He and my mother used to fight all the time they were out about the undersized fish that she insisted on keeping. She wasn’t interested in a rod or reel, but used a handline, which was a remarkably efficient way to catch fish. Any fish was a fish to her and game laws were for somebody else.
One of the families at the lake which was not related to us was the Lefevres. They had the biggest house and the longest dock, with a boathouse at the end from which we used to dive. They were the only ones on the beach with a launch and quite often in the evenings they would invite some of us for a boat ride. It was a pretty big launch and chugged along at about 5 miles per hour, I think. George LeFevre was the boy in the family. He was about your Aunt Marnie’s age. I don’t think he was very attractive because I remember Marnie’s friends laughing about him, but his launch, sailboat and car did give him a certain standing. Once he took me and your Uncle Bill in his car to watch a rainmaker explode bombs in Battle Creek. It was supposed to be a method for making rain. As I remember, it rained and rained, but then it was one of the rainiest summers ever. But the high spot of the trip was when, coming home, we hit a good stretch of road and got the car up to 52 miles an hour. That was something.
Over the years we lived in several cottages at Gull Lake, but the one I remember the best was Linger Longer. It was a shingled cottage of two stories and surrounded by a wide porch. Bill and I slept on the porch and much of the kitchen work was done there. There was an open fireplace. We cooked on a gasoline stove which I always remember as flaring up and appearing as about to explode. I think the day that we finally had to leave was probably the saddest day of the year. I suspect we were almost literally in tears at the prospect. Gull Lake has changed a great deal since then but it is still one of the bluest and most beautiful of all the lakes in Michigan.
One thing I don’t want to forget to tell you is about my great friend Doctor Goodhue. He was a very famous doctor and our family friend. As I told you I was quite sick when I was a little boy and while I don’t remember much about it, I know that he stayed with me day and night until I was out of danger. He was a big jolly man with a deep voice and just hearing his voice and his step on the stairs made me feel better. It seems to me that we had more snow when I was little and when the streets were covered Dr.. Goodhue used to come for me in his sleigh and I would make his calls with him. When he was in the houses of his patients his driver and I waited outside wrapped up in a big fur robe. It seems to me his favorite prescription was a horrible bitter tonic, but then he usually ordered lots of steak and mashed potatoes to go along with it. He liked to hunt and had some fine bird dogs. And he always had bantam chickens in a cage in his backyard. Once he gave me a hen and a rooster for my own. I think I told you that Mary Keogh had a pretty bad temper and got very cross with everyone except my father and me. Well, once she had to go to the hospital for an operation and ever after that she was much more even-tempered. I remember Doctor Goodhue saying that he had cut out her bad disposition. When I was about ten, I had a terrible pain in my stomach, so Dr. Goodhue took me in his touring car to the hospital and cut out my appendix. I really wasn’t a bit scared because I had so much faith in him. In those days an appendicitis operation was much more serious. I remember I had to stay in bed for two weeks. Now patients are up and walking in a few days. After the first few days I had wonderful time in the hospital, as all my friends and Marnie’s and Bill’s friends came to see me and brought presents. Doctors then didn’t have the medicines and equipment that are common now, but had to depend on their judgement and their knowledge of the patient. I think Dr. Goodhue knew just about all there was to know about me.
A little while ago I mentioned riding in the doctor’s sleigh on winter days. One of the great things in winter was the sleigh races that were held on First Street on wintry Saturday afternoons. I think the street must have been about a mile long and straight without any intersections for that distance. The racers would start at the river and as the street was wide, four or five sleighs would come down the stretch with the horses seeming to be as excited as the rest of us.
I don’t want to forget to mention Jimmy Earnshaw, who was one of my close friends and to a certain extent something of a problem. When his mother, who was nice but pretty flighty, didn’t know what to do with him, she sent him to our house for the day. Mary couldn’t stand him. He was a nervous kid and sort of snorted through his nose. Mary always called him that “dirty little Jimmy Earnshaw” but as a matter of fact he was much cleaner than I ever was. Jimmy’s family was rich, and I’m afraid he was bit spoiled, but he really was a nice kid and grew up to be very elegant and cultivated an English accent.
Another friend of mine was Jack McIntyre. His family had an island on Rice Lake which was north of Peterboro, Canada. I once spent about a month there. It was a big lake and famous for its Muskie fishing, but I was too little for that. What I liked much better was wonderful air rifle that Jack had but didn’t care much about. I’m afraid he was a bit sissy. While I was there James Cox came to visit. He was a congressman then but later governor and candidate for president. I never saw him after that but he seemed to take a fancy to me and promised me a real rifle, which I never got. Probably a campaign promise.
Another of my close friends was Richard Kennedy. His mother was a widow and they didn’t have much money so Richard had to work on Saturday even when he was quite little. I remember though that when we did get to go on hikes his mother always gave each of us a big sack of wonderful chewy home-made caramels to take along with us. He still lives in Dayton and is a very good chemical engineer. As I remember him he was much more serious and gown up than the rest of us and didn’t get into nearly so much trouble.
I don’t think that as a boy I had very strong commercial instincts because, unlike some of my friends, I never did manage to make much money. I tried selling papers a few times but without much success. We paid one cent for the paper and sold it for two. It took a pretty good salesman to make much out of that. Then I tried picking blackberries at two cents a quart. The most I ever made at that was 68 cents on one day, which was doing pretty well. But I really didn’t need much money for the kind of things I liked doing best. On eof my favorite places to play when I could get away with it was the roof of our house. To get there you had to crawl out an attic window and creep up a steep roof until you could reach the main roof, which was almost flat. As I told you, it was a three story house and I could look down on the street far below. It was even higher than the trees. It was even possible to jump over a narrow space to the next house, but fortunately we didn’t try that often. Naturally my mother took a pretty dim view of the roof idea. I used to like to go up there alone and just sit and see the world.
I mentioned my dog Billy when I was telling you about Gull Lake. He was part collie and one of those dogs that when he walked down the street seemed to be swinging his back legs out to the side. I expect he wasn’t much of a dog but I loved him very much and it was a great blow to me when he was run over. He was terribly afraid of a little toy dog that squeaked and used to run and hide under the bed when I teased him with it. But once I left him alone with it and when I got back the toy was in shreds. The poor thing had nobody to squeak it. Billy wasn’t very smart but, by feeding him an unending supply of cookies, I did manage to teach him to jump through a hoop.
From now until the flood I think I’ll just jot down little things that come into my head. Things like Dennis the milkman who always visited in the kitchen when he brought the milk. I remember that he wore big cowhide and rubber boots. He used to tell me to chew tar to avoid catching the smallpox. I did chew tar now and then but I expect it was the vaccination that kept the small pox away. In my boyhood smallpox was still pretty prevalent but gradually being wiped out. But south of town on top of a bluff and all isolated by big old trees was a gloomy old building that was known as the “pest house”. It was where they put sufferers from contagious diseases. I suspect it was the poor people that got stuck there. Anyway we kids were half fascinated and half scared by this mysterious place and we used to go just as close as we dared, which wasn’t very close.
When I was a boy we didn’t have comic books like Donald Duck, etc. There was a comic section to the Sunday paper which we all waited for and one or two comic strips in the daily paper. The big daily one was “Mutt and Jeff.” Jeff was a little fellow with a beard and Mutt was very tall and very thin. Sometimes my father called me Jeff because I was small but I never got up the nerve to cal him Mutt. The favorites in the Sunday papers with the “Katzenjammer Kids”—Hans and Fritz, who were two of the most persistently mischievous children ever invented. Fifty years later they are still carrying on their tricks and will probably continue forever. I don’t remember when “Bringing up Father” started, but I do know that Maggie has been beating up Jiggs for many, many years. Another was Buster Brown, a thoroughly unattractive child who was always being spanked with a hairbrush. He was so popular that we had to wear stiff white collars with a Windsor tie named after him. I think and hope something horrible happened to him. Another was “Alphonse and Gaston,” who were two extremely polite Frenchmen who could never even get through a doorway, because it was always “After you, my dear Alphonse,” and “After you, my dear Gaston.” But one good thing about the comics of those days was that at least they tried to be funny. They were single episodes and not serials such as we have so many of today.
We didn’t have the elaborate toys that there are today. Mostly our toys were wagons or stuffed horses and dogs and things of that kind. But there was one toy that I loved above all others and that was the steam engine. These were real engines that actually worked and with which you could run toy buzz saws and hammer mills, etc. Some of them were very complicated and had steam whistles and gadgets but mostly they were a boiler in which steam was made from an alcohol lamp and which caused a flywheel to turn, to which a string belt could be attached and connected to saws, etc. When they got up a full head of steam they had a tendency to jump all over the place but pressure could be let off by turning the whistle valve. The whistle made a wonderful shrill sound and let out a thin spurt of steam. To keep them from blowing up if the pressure got too high there was a safety valve which was supposed to let go and keep the boiler from exploding.
The record player was just coming in when I was young but we didn’t have one. Up until that time phonographs were little machines that played records made of pretty soft wax in the form of cylinders. To hear the music you had to wear earphones and of course the records didn’t stand much use. But the flat shellac disks replaced them, and, while the recordings were far from what we now call Hi Fi, they were essentially the same. I remember that my favorite record was called “The Preacher and the Bear.”
Like all kids I was very fond of candy, though strangely enough not so devoted to ice cream. There was a candy store near us called the Penny Store, where they had a great display of fearful and wonderful candies. Most of the big units cost a penny and if we were lucky enough to have a nickel among us we could get six cents worth for a nickel. My principle aim was to get candy that would last. The best of these were enormous jawbreakers that turned various colors as each layer was sucked off. Some of them had a strange tasting nut in the center. Long licorice shoestrings were another favorite and there were some lime candies in the form of small barrels that would last for at least half an hour. Ice cream cones were just starting and I seem to remember the cones as tasting a little like paper.
There were also real 5 and 10 cent stores when I was little and when they called them 5 and 10, they meant 5 and 10. They were something of a joke with us kids and when we wanted to make fun of something another boy had we used to say he had got it at the 5 and 10. As a matter of fact, you could buy a tremendous variety of things for a nickel or a dime. Just think of it now. They even have “down payment” plans at the 5 and 10.
I think I told you about the airplane just getting started in Dayton when I was a little boy, but for some reason or other airplanes never interested me like balloons. There were hot air balloons and gas-filled ones. The hot air ascensions were usually at the county fair, where a man would ascend to what seemed to me a tremendous height above the crowd and then descend in a parachute. But the ones I liked the best were the gas-filled balloons. Sometimes they were moored near the gasworks and we could climb up and into the basket and pretend that we were taking a trip. Airplanes were too far away. I remember though going with some other boys through the Wright airplane factory. One of the things that interested me was the shaping of the propellers, which were made of wood and shaped by hand. There was another fascinating place not far from the gasworks. This was a long, low wooden structure where the street repair machinery was stored. There were long catwalks and balconies and they made a perfect pirate ship for us.
I think I should tell you something about our neighbors. As we lived in a double house, naturally our nearest neighbors were the people in the other side--the Conovers, who were, of course, cousins. Cousin Harvey was a big jolly man in the advertising business. He played the cello at times and it could be heard through the wall. I don’t know if he played well or badly but there was one piece (I think it was “Miserere”) which used to scare me half to death when I was alone in the house. He had a fox terrier that howled when he played and the combination was really something. His daughter, Dorothy, was about your Uncle Bill’s age and I remember her as awfully pretty and always nice to me. Cousin Mildred, his wife, was an elegant lady who seemed to be always ailing. I think I told you that I liked most everybody but I’m afraid that isn’t quite true, for there was a family that lived for a while on the other side of our house that I couldn’t stand at all. It was principally the father who was just plain mean and browbeat his whole family. Directly across the street from us was the home of Cousin Emmy Brown, who like all the Conovers (except my mother’s mother) was big and jolly. She loved to play jokes and once she dressed up as a colored cook and came to our house and asked for a job. She fooled all of us including my mother--who was not easy to fool—and would have got the job if there had been one. She had three daughters but the one I remember best was Annie Lee, who was a friend of Marnie’s. She was a big girl and took singing lessons which she practiced in the loudest soprano I have ever heard. There was no escape from it. Then there were the Stouts nearby, who were very rich and seemed incredibly old. The kept a coachman and a team of fine horses and on Sunday afternoons often invited us for a ride in their “victoria.” I always tried to get out of going if I could, for it was two stiff and formal for me. They did have one thing in their big gloomy house though that fascinated me. That was an enormous glass case with hundreds of specimens of minerals and other wonderful things.
So all up and down the street were people our family had known for years and most of whom were either cousins or honorary aunts and cousins. It was a very tight little world and perhaps a little too easy for us children. Almost all of these people were good and kind. Most of them were fairly rich, but that didn’t make much difference. As long as you belonged to the group it didn’t matter whether you were rich or poor. Just so that you had lived in Dayton and went to the right church were the important things. I don’t think most of the people were snobbish for they were too good and simple for that. Perhaps it was more on the clannish side. I suppose there were selfish and even bad people among them but if so it was all kept from us children. I’m not a bit sure that this secure and sheltered life was too good a thing for it made the later break into the outside world a very bewildering and at times, very painful adventure. On the other hand it made for a very happy childhood.
Now and then my father used to take me on short business trips with him. We usually went by interurban—or traction cars, as we called them—and I usually got car sick. I remember once we went to Middletown by train and then from the station there to the town by horse car. This was a small car that ran on tracks and was pulled by a horse. I think this was one of the last places using horse cars.
Public lectures were one of the entertainments that came to town. Perhaps the two that interested me most were about the discovery of the north pole. Robert Peary gave his talk with slides and made his claims. I remember that he had a pack of sledge dogs with him. But he had a rival named Dr. Cooke, who claimed that he alone was the discoverer of the Pole. People took sides and argued violently over the rival claims. I, of course, was a Dr. Cooke partisan and it was quite a blow to me when he was exposed as an impostor with fake pictures, etc.
Perhaps I should say something about my teachers who put up with me through eight long years. I don’t remember all of them, but outstanding was Mrs. Martin who taught the first grade for many, many years. She was a fine woman who loved children and who kept in touch with many of them after they were grown men and women. Another one that stands out was a Miss Finley who taught the 5th grade. I didn’t like her very well as she was very strict but I do remember that she could read aloud better than anyone I have ever known. To hear her read Tom Sawyer, which she did on Friday afternoons was a real treat. I had read
Tom Sawyer several times by then but Miss Finley always made it seem much more alive and real. There were many good teachers there who worked very hard for very little, but I’m afraid we kids didn’t have sense enough to appreciate them. One that I disliked intensely was a Miss—I’ve forgotten her name—who taught Elocution. She spoke in a very affected manner and made us get up and recite what were known as “memory gems.”
I suppose the real end of my early childhood came with what was the most exciting time of my life up until then. This, of course, was the famous Dayton Flood of March 25th, 1913. For some reason the idea of floods had always fascinated me and I loved to hear my parents tell of earlier days when there had been water in the streets and people had actually rowed boats from place to place. If anything could possibly be more fun I couldn’t imagine it. But for some reason or other floods didn’t seem to happen any more. Whenever the river got high during the Spring we boys used to spend our spare time on the levees which protected the town watching the roaring muddy water and the trees and debris coming down and I’m afraid, secretly hoping that the water would rise at least a little bit higher. Well, we finally got our wish.
The winter of 1913 was a snowy one and the snow stayed on without melting so that when the rains began about the 15th of March and kept on and on everything was perfect for trouble. I think it rained between 7 and 10 inches in that time. As I remember, my mother called me on Tuesday morning about 6:30 and told me that water had backed up in the street about a block from our house. I don’t think I ever had been so excited, and I rushed out without breakfast to explore. My first stop was near your Aunt Dot’s house where, to my dismay, I saw that there actually was a foot or two of water in front of their house. It seemed completely unfair that they should have a flood and we should be dry. Besides, it was obvious that she wouldn’t have to go to school and I would. Naturally the next place to go was to the river bank. It was there that I began to realize that this might be more than a play affair. Hundreds of men were piling sandbags on the levees in a vain attempt to control the river, which by now was almost level with the levees. After a few minutes there I had sense enough to take off for home as fast as I could and was lucky enough to make it before the water was more than a few inches deep at our house. It happened that only my mother, Mary, and I were home at the time. Father was away on a business trip, Marnie was in Madison at the University and Bill was at Ohio State. We still didn’t realize the fact that this was a serious matter. But all of a sudden there was a rush of water about a foot deep down the street and a roar from the cellar where the water was coming in the coal shoot. So we hurriedly packed a lunch and began piling things on tables and bookcases and prepared to go upstairs if water actually did enter the house. We didn’t have long to wait for all of a sudden there was another rush and the first floor was covered. We ran for the stairs and Mary in her excitement dropped the lunch basket. My greatest worry at the time was that Billy, my dog, had disappeared. The water rose and rose with almost incredible speed and soon it was obvious that the situation was really serious. By early afternoon our bathroom, which was foot or two lower, was under water, and the current was rushing by at a tremendous speed carrying with it trees, fences, small buildings, and, worst of all, horse after horse frantically swimming and screaming. By this time I was good and scared. To add to it all, people were calling for help from one of the few small houses in our neighborhood. They had climbed onto the roof and one was blowing a bugle in the hope of attracting rescuers. As I remember it, they were finally taken off in one of the many hastily improvised boats that were put together at the National Cash Register plant, which was on high ground. During the rest of that first day the water maintained its level, and the rain, mixed with snow, continued, and isolated clouds of smoke from the business section indicated that fires were breaking out. When darkness came the dark red glow of fires could be seen and now and then a dull explosion heard. There was actually so much light from the fires that our rooms were dimly lighted. All night long the water roared and the horses screamed and shouts for help could be heard. The next morning, if I remember correctly, the water started to recede a little, but the current was still tremendous and fires seemed to be everywhere. I think it was then that one funny incident did occur. Directly across the street from us was the house of John Lowe, a most elegant gentleman. Suddenly he appeared on the roof of his front porch dressed in a morning coat, striped pants and a top hat. I think I felt a little more confident after that, that we would survive.
At this time our neighbor was a Doctor Matthews. By crawling out the back window and over the roof, I was able to reach his side of the house. He had a little food, bananas as I remember, and generously offered to share them with us. So Mother and Mary crawled over the forbidden roof to his house, where we stayed Wednesday night. Those bananas were all the food we had for the three days of the high water, which I believe reached a level of close to fifteen feet at its peak. By Thursday morning the water was only a few feet deep and late that afternoon Alfred Swift Frank, who did heroic service during the flood, came in a canoe and took us to the home of friends where we found the Gebharts and other members of the family.
Bad as the flood was, the accounts in the newspapers were fantastic. I really think it must have been much worse for my father, Marnie and Bill, who read of the complete destruction of Dayton by fire and flood. There was nothing they could do. I believe Marnie, who was in school at Madison, got as far as Richmond, Indiana, before a washed-out bridge stopped her. My father somehow managed to reach the outskirts of Dayton and when the water was low enough made his way through the mud and destruction to our house where he found that we were safe. He was not a demonstrative man, but I have never forgotten the reunion between him and my mother. Your Aunt Marnie, who always was very clever, managed in some ingenious way to finally reach home over broken bridges and washed-out roads. When the water was finally down we managed to get back to our house where we found the most indescribable confusion and everything covered with about four inches of slimy silt. Furniture was overturned, china and glass were all over the floor and everything sodden. I remember that a folding card table was hanging from one of the high chandeliers. It was a pretty discouraging outlook with everything apparently ruined and no heat, no water, no lights. But for some reason we all pitched in and began to shovel and scrape and salvage what we could. Your Aunt Marnie was very pretty and she managed to get perhaps more than our fair share of shovels, boots and food from the Red Cross. So we camped in the house, cooked in the open fireplace, sloshed through the mud and in a surprisingly short time were almost back to normal. The loss of my father’s library was perhaps our biggest blow. I don’t know just how we did it but by the end of June, the house was ready for your Aunt Marnie’s wedding to Stephen Gilman, the father of Stephen Gilman for whom our Steve was named.
So with the flood came what might well be called the end of my early childhood. Someday, perhaps, I’ll tell you more about later events. But I think you will see that I was a pretty lucky little boy.
P.S. The dog came back.