Sunday, January 13, 2008

Story Hour - Part II

Still waiting for the dingity-dang-dang laptop cord to arrive. Here's some more of my Dad's story...

The House

The House, located on North Road out of Pulaski, sits on the side of a long sloping hill. It used to be great sport to take our sleds to school at the top of the hill so that at the end of the school day it would be a mad race to see who could go the fastest and farthest down the road. If conditions were good, packed snow and ice, one could coast almost to the Route 3, the Sandy Creek “Y”. Of course, that meant a ½ to ¾ mile walk back upgrade to get home which was a ¼ mile downhill from the school. Go figure….It was fun, I was an active youngster. We didn’t worry much about traffic. In fact, if we heard a car coming down the road we would all run out to watch it go by and wave to the people. Also, if anyone heard an airplane all activity would cease until that faint speck would be spotted and observed as long as possible.

The house was built probably around 1825/1840, just a basic northern farmhouse. The front door, which no one used, opened to an open hallway with stairs to the second floor. The stairs to the cellar were located directly under the first set of stairs. At the entrance there were two doors, one on each side of the hall. To the right was what we considered “Moms” side and to the left was “DGs” side of the house. That is the only way I recall any of us kids referring to our father. David Gladstone…..DG. (But not to his face). By the same reasoning my mother’s father was GN for George Norris Hilton…..

To answer Heather’s question regarding the reason for moving to the farm. I must admit I never really thought about it very much. I would suspect that considering the economic times during the Great Depression, a large family and other considerations - it made sense to do as most others did and engage in subsistence farming. This meant growing as much of your own food as possible and with a few cows make enough off the milk check to buy clothes and pay the taxes.

My dad worked full time as a fireman on a train engine (New York Central) until he accumulated enough seniority in the “Brotherhood” to become an engineer. I recall twice he snuck me aboard the engine for an overnight run to Massena, Oswego and back to the Syracuse yards. This run was, I believe, called the “Hojack”. Can you imagine, a 6/8 year old boy riding in a train engine all those miles, un-friggin’ real. Actually there wasn’t a damn thing to do except stare out at the dark night going by and stay the hell out of the way. Once in a while I would be allowed to turn my cap around and lean out the window like the fireman or engineer. I think I even pulled the whistle cord a time or two. Now remember, this was a STEAM ENGINE, not a stinking diesel-electric. This had a real train whistle not a bull horn.

Now, back to the house. The cellar was spectacularly unspectactular, other than the spider webs, ear-wigs and centipedes. Laid up stone walls, sandy dirt floor, wooden frames holding plank shelves for home canned goods, bins for potatoes, onions, squash and other dry keeper vegetables including cabbage and apples. Some of the cabbage was destined for the kraut crock. This storage area was vital to our existence. If it wasn’t filled chock full in the summer and fall you could get pretty hungry in February and March when the woodchucks started coming out. By then the winter hog was long gone and the chicken flock couldn’t stand too much more thinning out. Jars and jars of tomatoes, green and yellow beans, beets Swiss chard, sweet corn, carrots, pickles, relishes, tomato sauce and my favorite home made chili sauce. NOT SALSA, rich tomatoey, cinnamon, clove, onion, pepper-flavored “tail end of the garden CHILI SAUCE”.

The “Winter Hog” was butchered in November when it was determined (hopefully) that the cold weather was ready to stay. After being well chilled overnight it was split and carried into the cold pantry. This was a windowless room on the north side of the house behind the kitchen and was the wall of the woodshed. Along the cold interior wall was a broad shelf which was the full length of the room. The hog halves would be laid out on the shelf and broken down into large portions. The choicer portions were used first to safe guard against loss by an onset of warm weather. This was living “high on the hog”.

As the winter progressed the pickins got slimmer and some nights there was not much of an entrĂ©e other than boiled potatoes and milk gravy with bits of pork trimmings. Canned corn or tomatoes and warm Johnny cake ensured we didn’t starve to death. After supper, for a snack there was usually popped corn or, on occasion, mom would make a small plate of simple fudge. 2cups sugar, 1 cup of milk, boiled to soft ball stage. Stir in a teaspoon of butter and pour onto a buttered plate. Vanilla or cocoa could be added during cooking as a special treat.

During the summer with no refrigeration available, meat was limited to what was at hand. DG had to use the truck to get to work so we were left with no transportation to the store 6 miles away in Pulaski. We ate a lot of woodchuck. Actually it was pretty good. They are a very clean animal. They eat nothing but grasses and sustained countless generations of Native Americans.
As young boys we delighted in going fishing or frog hunting. In the fall it was time to seek mushrooms and puff balls. Wild berries and nuts supplemented our food requirements. If Brother Dick had ammunition for his gun (.22 caliber) and a careful aim we would enjoy pigeon pie or a pheasant for a change.
Mom really liked it when we came home with a nice stringer of fish. It didn’t matter what kind, bullheads, suckers, sunfish, bass or pike, that woman loved fish. Cleaned, dusted with a little salt and pepper, coated with flour and fried in hog fat and a slab of Johnny cake on the side ….. It sure beat anything from McDonalds.

Each side of the house was the same. From the front hallway you entered into a front parlor which on DG’s side contained a nice old table and leather “Morris”type chair. On the table was the standard kerosene lamp. I recall a book shelf that had an illustrated copy of “Dante’s Inferno” on one wall. The other significant item in the room was the round “Oak” parlor stove. I swear this thing would hold ¼ of a cord of good hard wood and hold a fire for 2 days.

My Dad, as you will discover, was a dour, old country, stern disciplinarian, Presbyterian Scotsman who believed you were put on earth, NOT to enjoy yourself, BUT to work hard and be thrifty. This strong belief he tried to instill in our young minds, but kids will be kids.

I think I acquired a great deal of his frugality and retained it through the years. Some people even say I’m just cheap. Passing through the parlor you entered DG’s bedroom; a plain unadorned room with a bed, dresser and straight chair. The bed, as all the beds had a feather tick mattress because of the lack of heat at night. In addition to the door from the parlor there was a door back to the hallway and a door leading to the kitchen.

On mom’s side of the house was where the living occurred. From the front hall doorway you were met with a completely different environment then what existed across the hall. Piles and bags of fabric, balls of rag strips for crocheting rugs, yarn for knitting, cats and kittens. Soft comfortable chairs (old but useable), plant stands with a multitude of different plants; Wandering Jew, Christmas Cactus, Flowering Maples, Geraniums, just to name a few.

A traditional table and chairs with a kerosene lamp provided work space for projects such as sewing, drawing, coloring and the occasional school work. In mom’s bedroom of course there was a bed and dresser also a crib and a trundle bed. More plants certainly kept the room well oxygenated.

I have a very vivid memory of sleeping one night in the trundle bed and having a nightmare. Believe me I was scared! Maybe 5 years old and I was in the midst of a herd of stampeding elephants. My bed was bouncing all over the floor. I woke up screaming to find we were having an earthquake. Once mom got me calmed down I went back to sleep BUT I NEVER FORGOT IT.

From this room were two more doors. One went back to the hallway thence to the kitchen the other entered into what we called the summer kitchen.. It was not really a kitchen, no stove or appliances. More of a utility room where we kept the laundry tubs and later a gasoline powered washing machine (progress). This room exited onto the back porch and the primrose path to the outhouse. The regular kitchen back door also exited to the porch. The woodshed and cold pantry were the full width of the house with the end of the woodshed open to the outdoors.

I don’t recall much about the upstairs rooms as I didn’t spend much time up there except to sleep. Dugal and I shared a room under the eaves over the summer kitchen. There was one window that was a mite drafty. I recall waking in the morning and seeing little snow drifts across the window sill and on the floor.,. Once I was sure I had all my clothes spotted I would leap out of bed, grab my clothes and out the door, down the stairs, down the hall into the kitchen and behind the stove where it was warm…..Sure got a guy moving in the morning.

Brothers Jack and Dick also slept up stairs. They had to get up pretty early because they had to do the milking every night and morning. Mom would work right along with them while Dugal, Sally, Alex and myself slept in (Thelma came along later).

We kept a herd of about 30 cows, maybe 20 of them regular milkers. It was not what you would call a prime dairy but it did pay the taxes. We also had four horses. Babe and Elmer made up a light team and Tom and Jerry were a team of half broke, wild eyed western work horses that would rather run away than do anything else. I do not recall what the brand markings were but one of them had a bar and diamond on it.


leslie said...

I am LOVING this!
Would it be possible to draw and post a rudimentary floorplan of the house? It sounds so much like the house I grew up in. My father lived there all his life before me, and told of how the Depression wasn't as bad for them as most because they sold eggs, chickens, and canteloupe. His first "job" was redigging the pit to move the outhouse.
And I remember snow on the inside window sills, too!

leslie said...

Thanks for the floorplan! What a great feature to have the woodbox have a sliding door.