A Place In Time
My father, Albert Plumb Thompson, was born January 5, 1887, in Westerly, Rhode Island, and my mother, Ethel Irene Laing, October 28, 1893, in Newark, New Jersey.
My mother had graduated from high school, and I remember that she helped me with arithmetic. When she was young, my mother was energetic, physically strong, competent, full of ideas, and protective of her children and chickens. Once she became aware that a weasel was stealing her baby chicks. Never having shot a gun, she nevertheless took the 38 caliber revolver out of its drawer, loaded it, and shot the weasel. Even the farm hands were impressed with her feat, and I think she was set up about it.
When I was young my mother sang to me songs from her girlhood: "Has anybody here seen Kelly, "I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream," "Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer true," some lullabies, and a song of which I was particularly fond,
Whether in rain or in shine.
Just come after breakfast, bring all your lunch,
And leave before supper time.
If you'll do that I'm positive
My wife will treat you fine.
As my mother aged, with bringing up five children, with hard work for which she received little thanks, with little of her own independent area, I think she gave up trying to develop herself, and was beaten down by life into a less interesting person than she was capable of being. Any question of women's rights as it applied to my mother would have been settled in the time-honored way in a man's world. My father once remarked to me, "It's every woman's ambition to control a man, and once she succeeds she has no respect for him."
My father, raised as a city boy in Westerly, Rhode Island, wanted to be a farmer. He succeeded, and managed to hang onto his farm during the depression. He was always in debt but, as he said, we always had enough to eat. He worked hard and was generally in good health and physical condition. He had to be tough to make it. I've heard people say, "I'm so tough I chew nails and spit rust." But that isn't quite what I heard my father say to his older brother who had questioned whether we children could survive the primitive conditions in which he saw us growing up. My father said: "We eat nails, and shit rust, and wipe ourselves with broken bottles and sandpaper. And we thrive on it." Perhaps my father wasn't so tough as he thought he should be. I remember him as a good teacher in my use of his tools. He never spanked his children, and he complained that my mother would ruin his razor strap using it to spank us.
I think I rejected the idea of toughness for myself. I didn't feel tough. I disliked pain and discomfort. I feared bullies.
My father didn't attend high school, but he read quite a bit, mostly his farm journals, bulletins from the Department of Agriculture, and newspapers. When he was eighty years old he still read without glasses. He spoke with a definite New England accent from his youth in Rhode Island. Recently, my daughter-in-law, Mary, pleased me when she asked what I had done with my New Jersey accent. My father used occasionally to tease his children about their two syllable pronunciation of the words in down town, as if it were "dowen towen." We in turn claimed he couldn't even pronounce his own name, which came out "Albit." Then, of course, he added an "r" to idea, so that it came out "idear." Perhaps it was an advantage for me to know that there were different accents.
Once, in his seventies, my father was very ill, wasting away from some mysterious cause. He thought at the time he was going to die. Finally a doctor identified the source of the difficulty in an infected tooth. He was again restored to good health, and climbed with confidence putting a new roof on his barn
Then he had another difficulty, which he diagnosed himself as cancer of the rectum. His diagnosis was confirmed, and he was operated on to remove the cancer. He lived for two years after his operation, becoming ever more ravaged by spreading cancer. He said, "I went into the hospital a well man and came out a sick one." He decided the operation was a mistake and spoke quite bitterly about it. I asked him whether seeing his children and grandchildren during the time he lived after the operation wasn't some compensation for the pain he was suffering. He replied that it was.
My father, as he became older, tended to think of himself as undesirable to be close to. Because his clothes often smelled of the barn, he frequently ate at a table separated from the rest of us. After the operation, with his colonic bypass, he considered himself a sort of pariah.
Each of the children in the family received somewhat different treatment from my parents. But whatever our differences or our resentment of our treatment, neither I nor any of my siblings was willing or able to declare independence from our parents.
I, being the oldest, was for my parents at first a source of pride and joy, then a vexation as our attitudes toward many aspects of life diverged. I was convinced my father asked me for opinions and advice, then took pleasure in doing the opposite.
It seems to me that Robert and Edna were treated as first class citizens, whereas Edith, and particularly Evelyn were assigned to second class.
Edith, two years younger than I, had difficulty with my mother which caused her desire to get away from the family as soon as possible. Whenever Edith's potential interest in a local boy came to my mother's attention, she attacked Edith verbally with, "I've given you the best years of my life, and you're throwing yourself away on this worthless boy."
While I was in high school I bought at an auction sale an Aladdin lamp, having a mantle which burned kerosene with a very bright flame for reading. The base of the lamp was a shiny metal bowl with an opening through which one filled it with kerosene. One day Edith, filling lamps, put her finger through the hole to check the level of kerosene, then couldn't remove her finger because of a sharp edge inside. Her finger was swelling, making the situation worse. To my consternation, my father cut up my prized lamp, a high price to pay for a finger.
Because there was no family support for her attempt to gain economic and social independence, Edith had to work out her own solution. Somehow she managed to enroll in a school of beauty culture in New York City, with a live-in job as housekeeper for the family which operated the school. After graduation, she supported herself with her new skill both before and after her marriage to Rolf Lindberg, who lived with his Norwegian mother in New York. Rolf was quite accomplished as a musician, playing several instruments well enough to get substitute assignments with the New York Philharmonic, but could not make a living that way. Rather than giving music lessons, which he had tried and found beneath his dignity, he preferred to work as a short-order chef. Rolf was agreeable and attractive, a very decent person. My mother at first disapproved of him as she would have done with anyone Edith married. If he never achieved open approval from our mother, at least the open hostility disappeared.
Rolf for a time after he came away from serving in the Army suffered with tuberculosis, the treatment for which required him to be away from home for a considerable time. Barbara and I helped them financially during his illness.
Later Edith learned that she had breast cancer. She didn't want to have an operation. Instead she was being given some sort of medication. I suspected her doctor was a quack who was taking advantage of her fear to get money which was needed by her family, a suspicion which was confirmed by my check with the American Cancer Society. The word got back to Edith that I had checked and I received a call from her asking, "Are you trying to kill me?" I stopped checking, and some time later Edith told me she was cured. Two years later she moved out to the Hope farm with my father and mother. She was forty six years old when she died of the cancer, which had metastasized. Shortly thereafter Rolf died from a heart attack, leaving their daughter, Karen, who was pretty much grown. Barbara and I were then in Turkey.
Edna, the next in line, was seven years younger than I. She was bouncy, cheerful, and vivacious, a joy to have around. For some time she was my father's favorite. I remember her sitting on his lap when she was quite small, coaxing for something she wanted him to promise to do, without letting him know what it was. "I'll hug you. I'll kiss you. I'll love you. Alright then, I'll break your neck." When she was about eight she started to embroider on a handkerchief for my father's Christmas present the words, "Merry Christmas." The task was more time consuming than she had anticipated, and Christmas passed while she was part way through "Merry." She settled on "Merry New Year," but January 1 also passed before "Merry" was finished. My father's birthday however came on January 5, so she gained a reprieve by changing her goal to "Merry Birthday." When, on my father's birthday Edna had almost finished the "y" in "Merry." the salutation became "Merry Times." This appealed more to her sense of appropriateness anyway; after all her work it wouldn't be for just one particular day of the year, but could represent a continuous celebration. The job was finally completed. My father was duly appreciative, using his new embroidered handkerchief off and on over a period of time.
One day while burning brush, my father, feeling something hot behind him, investigated and found "Merry Times" smoldering in his back trouser pocket. The fire was extinguished, but "Merry Times" was damaged beyond repair. I do not remember that Edna was at all saddened by the ignominious but hilarious end to which her work had come.
When I was young I thought younger sisters had been made for brothers to tease, such as waving hands in front of their faces, and in answer to protests claiming I was in my own air. On one such occasion I was teasing Edna through the window of the kitchen door. Forgetting about the glass between us, she hit at me to vent her frustration. Fortunately she didn't cut her hand, but unfortunately I had to pay for new glass from money I had made from selling muskrat and skunk pelts.
By the time she was ready to leave home, I was not there to know much of the troubles Edna may have had with the family. She enrolled in a nurse's training course, but didn't finish. Once she was engaged to a young doctor. She invited him home to meet her family, and that apparently finished his interest in Edna. To the consternation of my parents, Edna married Alvin Walker, a Jew. I'm sure she didn't ask my parents, and didn't invite their comments. Alvin, at the time, was a photographer in the army. Later he and his brother, Robert Walker, developed a business in color photography and processing of color film which became very successful.
Edna also developed breast cancer, and decided to have the radical mastectomy which was recommended. Her cancer metastasized and she died when she was forty six years old. Not too long afterward Alvin died of a heart attack.
My brother, Robert, twelve years younger than I, appealed to my father because he was more successfully macho than my father. One day, when Robert thought no one was looking, he climbed a fence post and jumped onto the back of a large calf standing nearby. The surprised calf took off, running and jumping, unceremoniously dumping Robert.
Robert found out, early in life, a useful fact. If he pestered my father long enough, he could get anything he wanted, including motorcycles and automobiles, and even airplanes. I found it difficult to reconcile his successes in this respect with the continuing indebtedness of the family, and with the underpriveleged status of other members of the family, particularly Evie.
Evelyn was fourteen years younger than I. She and Robert were almost in a separate family from the one in which I had lived. Whereas Robert survived by being tough, Evie was sweet. During the second world war my parents both took jobs with General Motors at a war-production plant in Trenton, some 50 miles from their farm. At this point Evie and Robert were to a large extent abandoned, Robert being enrolled in Blair Academy from which he failed because of low grades. In 1945, while the parents were in Trenton, Evie came to live with Barbara and me in Swarthmore for a year. She went to high school, and helped Barbara with the house and the care of the children. When she came with us, Evie had a speech impediment which made her unhappy. It could have been fixed when she was small by a minor operation on her tongue, but that didn't happen. Barbara helped her with her speech, which was greatly improved. She told Barbara later how grateful she was for that help. When Evie married Walter Kulich, a son in a Russian Orthodox family, my mother complained. Evie told her that if the subject came up again it would be the last time my mother would ever see Evie in her house. Apparently no more was said. For the record, I think Walt is a wonderful person.
I have the general impression that family life, in the past and in other places, was thought by my parents to have been hard and unpleasant. Perhaps they felt fortunate that their ancestors had come to this land and time of opportunity, and all energy must be directed toward developing that opportunity. Nothing was to be gained in glancing back.
MY MATERNAL ANCESTORS
Ocean Grove was a religion-oriented seaside resort community of Victorian houses on the New Jersey coast, controlled since 1869 by rules of the Camp Meeting Association. One was not allowed at any time on the streets of Ocean Grove in a bathing suit. For changing clothes one must rent from the Association a bath houses on the boardwalk. Sunday was a special day. Gates into the town were closed, so no vehicles could enter or leave. On Sunday the bath houses were closed and no swimming was allowed on the closed-off ocean beach. To swim on Sunday, one must walk, decently clothed over one's bathing suit, to adjacent Asbury Park, on the north, or to Bradley Beach, on the south. At either of these towns one could peel down to a suit on the beach.
On Sunday one could attend the 7,000 seat Ocean Grove auditorium, which I remember as a very large, dome-ceilinged building with an immense "Mighty Wurlitzer" pipe organ. I went to the auditorium, at least once to watch Billie Sunday, a professional-baseball-player-turned-fundamentalist-Presbyterian-fire-and-brim-stone evangelist, preaching and smashing chairs on the stage to impress all of us sinners with the gravity of our need to be saved. I think Billy Sunday was part of my conversion at the age of twelve to the conviction that organized religion was a personal menace to me. Any God who would treat so horribly as Billy Sunday said the people he had created deserved no respect.
My grandparents moved to Ocean Grove when my grandfather lost his job as a cabinet maker in Newark, New Jersey, during the depression. When I knew him my grandfather was contracting to paint houses, and did various odd jobs for hire. Every summer my grandmother took in boarders. She rented for the summer one of the Association bath houses, the use of which we shared with her boarders. My grandmother gave us free rein to enjoy our undirected life at the seashore. I do not remember her ever chastising us. Her only instruction if we wanted to help her was, "Just stay out of my kitchen."
I remember my grandfather as having a ready smile and laugh, and being very welcoming to us as children. My grandmother had baked a large cake which my grandfather was serving from the head of the dining room table. He had cut several slices, leaving a large uncut piece. As he passed the plate, he remarked, "I'm waiting for the end piece for myself." When it came back to him, to our amusement, he placed the large uncut remnant in front of him, as if he were going to eat that. We thought it was funny when he referred to the chamber pot, which in those days was placed under every bed for use during the night as an emergency toilet, as the "thunder mug."
My grandparents had two children, Ethel Irene, my mother, and a younger son, Franklin, my Uncle Frank. Franklin had been a soldier in World War I and was sometimes dressed in his olive drab uniform. Uncle Frank was a somewhat bawdy, fun-loving, improvident person, quite often in disfavor with his parents for what they called his laziness ("Franklin, get out of bed, you lazy fellow"), and generally disapproved by my mother. I remember one time his being scolded on my account. Because there was temporary overcrowding at my grandmother's house when my whole family was visiting, I slept with Uncle Frank, in his bed. I fell out of bed during the night, and he was scolded for pushing me out.
I was fond of Uncle Frank because he was willing to put effort into giving me a good time. Once he took me on an all-night fishing trip in a rowboat on Barnegat Bay, in the lower Toms River. The only fish we caught was what he called a "toadgrowler," which bit him when he removed it from the hook. I spent most of the night swimming around the boat.
Franklin married, fairly late in life, a divorcee named Helen. They had no children. Helen, older than Franklin, was disapproved of by the family, in part because she also was somewhat bawdy. I had a good time once, visiting them at their home in Redding, Pennsylvania.
I know very little about my other maternal ancestors. If my grandfather had any relatives I never met them, or heard anything about them. My grandmother, Mary Rath Laing, had two sisters, Elizabeth Rath Carey and Emma Rath Parsons, living perhaps 60 miles away from our farm in suburbs of Newark. Because of the distance we visited them only rarely.
Elizabeth, my Aunt Lizzy, was married to a locomotive engineer, William Carey (Uncle Will), who was retired when I knew him. To me driving a locomotive seemed very exciting, the essence of modern technology. Having no children, the Careys lived in an apartment.
Aunt Emma was married to Frank Parsons, who worked in a shop which manufactured jewelry from precious metals. We were once shown his shop, and I assumed he must be very rich to have all that gold around. They had one daughter, Gladys, married to Richard Riggs whom everyone in the family appeared to dislike.
I remember a quotation Elsie sent my father, "Study to show thyself approved unto God., A workman that needeth not to be ashamed" .
My grandfather died on December 16, 1890 in Waterford, Connecticut. He was thrown out of his buggy when his horse shied and ran away as a locomotive let off steam under the bridge over which he was driving. He left a family of seven children, the youngest of whom, Lewis, was fourteen months old, and the oldest, Alexander, was 15 years old. There were two sisters, Mary and Edith. My father was then four. It became the task of the two oldest boys, Alexander and William, to support the family. William died of syphilis when I was still quite young. Mary, I knew only slightly before she died of breast cancer. Two brothers, Horatio and Lewis died before I was born, Louie, the youngest, as a small child and Horatio as a suicide, supposedly because my mother rejected him as a suitor.
The main burden of family support fell on Alex. I think my father somewhat resented Alex because of memories of his disciplinary actions as a substitute father.
I met Uncle Alex on several occasions, either visiting him with my father, at the house in Westerly, or when Uncle Alex visited us in New Jersey. At the time of my early visit to Westerly, probably about 1926, the Thompson house was occupied by Alex and his family. Alex commuted to work in New York City as an architect of granite monuments. On a visit to our farm in New Jersey, he showed us where his wallet pocket had been neatly sliced by a New York City pickpocket. I remember him as an impressive, handsome man, with a mustache. His face had areas of lighter colored skin as a result of an explosion which had burned him when he opened his furnace door to check on the fire.
Uncle Alex's sense of humor intrigued me. During a visit to us he donned an old fashioned bathing suit he found in our attic, with long arms and legs and horizontal stripes, like those on a prison suit. This he wore, walking through Hackettstown to the swimming area at the Musconetcong river. He received lots of attention, to his satisfaction and to the embarrassed amusement of my mother.
Uncle Alex's oldest son, Alexander Raymond Thompson, had been named Raymond Alexander Thompson before someone noticed the succession of initials. Although I never met Raymond, I was intrigued by tales of his exploits. As a barnstorming pilot in the early days of airplanes, he was flying the mail over the Rocky Mountains in a snowstorm, and lost his radio contact with the outside world. Not realizing that he could be heard, though he couldn't hear, he was singing at the top of his lungs, "When it's springtime in the Rockies." Later he flew commercial planes, and was killed, along with his passengers, when his plane dove unexpectedly into the bay during its routine approach to the San Francisco airport. I heard from Raymond's sister, Ruth Dunning, that there is a commemorative plaque to Raymond at the Salt Lake City airport.
My father told a story to illustrate why he particularly loved his sister, Edie (Edith). When he was quite young he attended a vaudeville show in Westerly. In one of the acts a magician set a table with a cloth on which were placed all the dishes, silverware, and food for an elegant meal. In the center of the table was a lighted kerosene lamp. At completion of the setting, with a grand flourish, the magician yanked away the table cloth, leaving the entire table setting intact, with the kerosene lamp still lit. When my father arrived home his mother was not there, but Edie had set the table for the family supper. The table setting, resembling that of the magician, complete with a lighted kerosene lamp, was for my father irresistable. He yanked out the table cloth, spilling dishes, silverware, food, and the kerosene lamp in a mess on the floor, where it caught on fire. Edie, somehow, gathered everything into the table cloth, and threw it outside the house. Then she cleaned up the mess. My father was convinced that his mother never learned what had happened. He was eternally grateful to Edie for covering up for him. It seems to me my grandmother must have learned what had happened, but thought my father had learned his lesson without words from her.
I remember a visit with my father to Aunt Edie and her husband, Charles Lamb, at their home and general store on Misquamicut Beach, Rhode Island, on a cold blustery day. Aunt Edie's six-year-old son, Richard, announced that he was going into the ocean. A friend exhorted, "Edie, you shouldn't let him go into that water. It's cold." Edie smiled and said, "Richard will find that out." Richard gave up his venture without getting even his feet wet.
Some years later, in 1938 I believe, a tidal wave took away the Misquamicut Beach house and the store. Uncle Charlie and Aunt Edie rebuilt both and a later tidal wave took away their new structures. The next house was built on a hill, above the ocean. Uncle Charlie said, "This time the ocean has to come up and get me." I believe the store is still on the beach, being run by their son, Richard.
My father reserved his highest praise for Willie, who had been a wonderful older brother to him, even helping him financially at times. Willie boasted that he could sell anything, even horse manure, if you put it in a package for him (a very modern idea). I remember my father's story about the time Willie loaned his sister, Edie, money to start their store. The store went bankrupt. When Willie received a small check for his share of what was left from the bankruptcy proceedings, he came into Edie's house waving his settlement check and shouting, "Look, Edie! I just got my first dividend."
Aside from my paternal grandmother's maiden name, Pirie, which I learned from the inscription in her watch and from the fact that my brother, Robert, had been given the middle name, Pirie, I knew essentially nothing of the family history beyond what I have recounted here. My grandparents had come from a far-away place called Aberdeen, in Scotland. I had a strong feeling that my father shared in a family opinion that Scotland was a place from which absence was something to celebrate. My father loved the memory of his mother, but had no hankering after the place from which she had come.
It was many years later that I met my second cousin, Alice Kiesel, who had collected genealogical information on the origins of my paternal grandparents in Scotland, and through her met second cousins whose grandparents had moved to England and to New Zealand.
It was in a rather primitive area of Warren County, New Jersey, that I lived from my birth in 1914 until I went away to college in 1931. Place names included Kittatinny, Jenny Jump (from a fable of the Indian maiden, pursued by a villain to the edge of the cliff, who was instructed to "jump, Jenny, jump"), Shades of Death (a beautiful, dark, mysterious, narrow valley in the shade of a steep flank of Jenny Jump Mountain), and Allamuchy.
Warren County was then largely agricultural and rural. Belvidere is the county seat, a town listed in the 1960 census with a population of 2656. The County Fair, at which my father exhibited corn and apples, was held in Belvidere each year as entertainment for the local farmers and a display of the current state of their agriculture. Industrial Phillipsburg is located on the Delaware River across from Easton, Pennsylvania. The new, consolidated, Central Grammar School, which I attended for eight years, is still located on the Pequest Creek at the boundary between Great Meadows and Vienna (pronounced "Vy Anna"). My high school, now replaced, was in Hackettstown, the home of Centenary College for Women. Other towns were Blairstown, the home of Blair Academy, a preparatory school for boys; Oxford, during the Revolutionary War a busy center with a blast furnace for making cannon balls; Hope, a village of houses and a mill all built with massive stone walls by Moravians in the late 18th century; and Washington, a pleasant town for which I remember no distinguishing features. On a recent automobile trip, I was briefly lost going through Washington.
These places were about 65 miles from New York City. But the trip from New York represented a considerable jump backward in time, to my area of hill farms connected by dirt roads with Great Meadows, a country village centered around a general store, a blacksmith shop, a railroad station, a Polish Roman Catholic Church, a Presbyterian Church and a Methodist Church.
Great Meadows was named for an extensive area of thick black loam, once the bottom of an ancient lakebed. A money making venture to mine the loam to a depth of several feet for sale to city gardeners was stopped by citizen awareness and government action. A community of mainly first generation Polish immigrants sold their attractive and wholesome vegetables from beautifully kept geometrical garden plots.
Connection of Warren County with the remote outside world was mainly by U.S. mail and by train on the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railway and the Lehigh and Hudson River Railway. Travel by automobile over any distance outside familiar territory was an uncertain adventure with breakdowns of equipment, flat tires, mired roads, and frequent stops to ask for directions. I remember one such trip to Newark with my father in his Model T Ford. In the darkness which overtook us on the way back, the fog became thick, and at one point, when the driver whose car lights we were following turned off, we found we had followed him into his driveway. These external problems were compounded by the fact that the Model T had no battery. Electricity for lights and ignition was supplied by a magneto activated by the motion of V-shaped magnets mounted on the engine flywheel. The generated voltage depended on the speed of the engine. When the speed was high, the elevated voltage burned out headlight bulbs. At slow speed the lights were so dim as to limit vision. The lack of a battery meant, of course, that a stalled engine had to be hand cranked. Sometimes the engine kicked back on the crank, breaking arms of unwary auto enthusiasts.
To come to our area, venturesome automobile travelers from New York City descended the right flank of a low forested mountain around a long right curve of State Route 6 (now U.S. 46) into Warren County at Hackettstown. To dissuade drivers from exceeding the speed limit into the County, the New Jersey State Highway Department had sloped the road surface steeply to the outside of the curve around the flank of the mountain. Rounding the curve too fast was uncomfortable under the best of circumstances and lethal under the worst. In slippery weather the journey for unwary travelers sometimes ended off the road.
Route 6 traversed Warren County from Hackettstown on the east through, Vienna, Great Meadows, Townsbury, Pequest, Buttzville, and Manunkachunk to Delaware Water Gap on the west. Less euphonious than some of the names above, and less serene, was Buttzville, a cross-roads place to buy gasoline on Route 6 between Pequest and Manunkachunk.
From Manunkachunk on the west of the county, Route 6 turned north along the Delaware River to Columbia, where an ancient covered bridge crossed the River to Portland, Pennsylvania. From there one followed the road west through the Poconos of Pennsylvania. I understood one could, with persistence and a helping hand from God, eventually get to Chicago - - and the WEST.
Later the covered bridge was swept away in a great flood. Interstate Route 80 now crosses the river into Pennsylvania at Delaware Water Gap, where through geological time glaciers had cut their way through the 1200 foot high Kittatinny Ridge of the Appalachian Mountains.
The farm lane led to the east, between the house and the barnyard, contouring around the hill. Some distance out along the road there was an opening into a hillside, with steel tracks disappearing into water which filled the hole almost to the top. This was the remains of an abandoned iron mine from Revolutionary days, when it had provided ore for the foundries at Oxford Furnace. Nearby, on the next property to the south and below our house was an old grain mill, powered by water from a pond on a small stream. The mill still operated part time.
About that farm I have, in general, only vague memories: being chased by a terrifying flock of hissing geese, being rescued by my father from the top of a thirty foot high silo to which I had climbed before I lost my nerve ("Hang on tight - I'm coming up with you."). A picture from this period shows my parents holding me and looking proud and pleased, as if they wouldn't have wanted me to fall from a high silo. Still, I appear to have been somewhat unsure of my position in the world. I can recollect my panic when, walking home from the first grade of school, I saw my parents Model T Ford passing. Despite my frantic yells, they didn't stop. It turned out to have been another Model T, not theirs. Then there was the terrifying time my mother jested about taking me back and getting Peter instead.
When I was perhaps six years old I became ill with an intermittent fever for which I was taken to Doc Hagerty, in Vienna. He diagnosed the symptoms as indicating some sort of stomach and liver ailment, and prescribed a tonic, whatever that was. The tonic did no good. I have a primordial memory of being in my upstairs room delirious with fever, jumping up and down in bed and feeling desperate, and then of my parents coming in to comfort me. My parents later told me that they rushed me to see Doc Hagerty, but he was out playing golf, and couldn't be reached. In their concern for my survival, they took me to Hackettstown, to Dr. Kline, who listened to an accounting of my symptoms, looked at me, and pronounced that I had malaria. He prescribed quinine. The primary symptoms disappeared quite rapidly, though for some years my eyes were affected, requiring glasses, and I was skinny.
It turned out that Doc Hagerty, a popular local doctor, was practicing, with no medical degree, on a license granted by the State of New Jersey under a "grandfather clause."
Soon after that time, my father sold his first farm to a Russian immigrant named Steve Mykatink, and bought his second, a larger, and more productive hill farm near Great Meadows which was my home through the rest of grammer school and high school.
Family shopping spread, according to the needs of the moment, from Great Meadows with its general store, blacksmith shop for horse shoeing and for repairs of farm equipment, and the truck farms for celery and whatever garden vegetables my mother bought. Hackettstown had department stores for clothing and a movie house which we never visited. Occasional shopping trips were made to Easton, thirty miles away, across the Delaware River from Phillipsburg, in Pennsylvania. There were infrequent trips for some special purpose, such as to Bangor, Pennsylvania, to obtain slate for a new roof, or to Belvidere, New Jersey, for the County Fair.
Once I went with a high school science class to Scranton, Pennsylvania, to see the coal mining operations there. I remember deserted houses which were sinking into abandoned mine shafts. Scranton was the farthest west I had been until after I graduated from college.
Every summer for several years Edith and I went, generally by train, to Ocean Grove, New Jersey, for our stay with our grandmother and grandfather at the seashore.
The places enumerated here were the farthest extension of my dirt road into a more-or-less familiar external world. All else was a vast unknown exterior, in which I could imagine that it would be easy to become lost. Once at Grand Central Station, in New York, I saw a sign over one of the railroad entrances, "CHICAGO AND THE WEST". I had a mental picture of the great, wonderful WEST with Chicago squarely in the middle of it. Twice my father traveled to distant Wisconsin to buy dairy cows, but the rest of the family stayed at home.
THE FARM COMMUNITY
On Route 6, beyond my turn, was the general store where my mother and father asked for and got whatever they wanted. This seemed to me a wonderful system, and one to be used to the maximum. So, for some time I made a foray each evening off my direct way home to the store where I asked for, and received, whatever candied delicacies appealed to me. When my parents found unanticipated charges on their account my source of supply was cut off. For some time I avoided the store as much as possible because I was embarrassed to have my criminal tendencies come to public notice.
When I did make my proper turn, just beyond the Presbyterian Church, at the intersection of our road with the railroad, I passed the creamery. Milk from our farm, and from the farms of our neighbors, was brought here for shipment by train to New York City. Past the creamery my road soon took a sharp left-right jog around the Pequest Presbyterian Cemetary, then continued in its southerly direction. After perhaps a half mile I came to the Pequest Creek which was crossed at a point where there was an island, so that two bridges were required for the crossing. Under the first bridge was a swimming hole where boys swam naked. I have another recollection of these bridges and the creamery which is associated with the depression plight of farmers. Milk was being sold for about a cent and a half a quart. The local farmers decided it wasn't worth while delivering milk at that price. I have a vivid mental picture of striking farmers with their milk trucks parked on the two bridges. Farmers working two together poured the contents of one ten gallon can of milk after another over the steel rail of the bridge into the creek. About this time the federal government began developing various programs to ease the farmers' lot. The federal government established a milk control board to regulate prices. At a meeting in the creamery a government agent assured the farmers that things were going to be better. One of the farmers asked the agent, "What will I do for satisfaction if you die before your promises are carried out?" The answer came, "Write a letter on asbestos paper and send it to me."
The farmers formed "The Dairyman's League Cooperative Association." For a while this organization served the farmers well. Later my father remarked that it had become just another big company, "like Borden."
After the creek, on the left, was the Flummerfelt farm, stretched along east of the road for perhaps a half mile, with a large old farmhouse surrounded by a whole cluster of farm buildings. Ollie and Daisy Flummerfelt were for over half a century my parents' friends. Their son, Lester, was several years older than I, and I did not know him well. Their daughter, Catherine, was deaf and mute and was often away from home at a special school. The Flummerfelts owned the first radio in our neighborhood. Neighbors would collect at their house to hear broadcasts from Station KDKA in Pittsburgh of such notable events as a Dempsey-Firpo prizefight.
Daisy Flummerfelt always had a crock full of delicious, fat cookies with which she was generous. I particularly loved them. For a while I stopped in every afternoon on my way home. Then my parents discovered this source of my pleasure, and it stopped. Now I was reduced, on my way home, to whatever food the countryside provided, in season. The roadsides were not then sprayed with carcinogenic poisons as they would be now. I think I knew all the clusters of hazel nuts, the cherry trees, and the patches of raspberries, blueberries and wild strawberries along the road.
Ollie was a mechanical prodigy who could make anything work, generally with an audience of neighbors and his own farmhands. He had a machine shop, with mechanical equipment powered through a maze of belts and pulleys, by a waterwheel in the small stream which ran through his farm. I remember Ollie mounted atop a tremendous steam tractor, plowing one of his fields.
Stewart Johnson was my friend, two years older than I, who lived on the next farm to ours, perhaps a quarter mile away. Occasionally, on the way home from school, Stewart and I would fish for suckers, feeling with our hands under the overhanging banks of Ollie's stream for a familiar fish shape, and then grabbing hold. I have been advised since that this was a dangerous practice, because of the prevalence of snapping turtles. Even in the Depression, my family considered suckers too bony to eat, but the Johnsons ate them.
To the west, across the road from the Flummerfelt farm were some fields belonging to the Johnsons, and past these the small (perhaps 15 acre) Morgan farm. I don't remember much about the Morgans. One of the few books in our family was called the "Morgan Book" because it had been given to us by the Morgan family. One elderly man in the family had blue skin. I didn't think much about that at the time, but later I read an article describing an investigation of the inheritance of the characteristic of blue skin in an interrelated set of southern mountain families.
Past the Morgan farm, my road took a sharp right turn into a westerly direction. I remember this turn. Once at a country auction my father bought me a Columbia bicycle. It was difficult to ride on our rough dirt road, but I loved it. It disappeared soon and was presumed stolen. Later I found it, smashed, in the woods just off the road at this turn. I received another bicycle, a Raleigh, on my sixty ninth birthday. That bicycle was stolen from our parking garage in Eugene, Oregon.
To the west of the Morgan farm I came again to a Johnson field, and then to a private lane which led south to the Johnson farmhouse and farm buildings. The Johnson farm surrounded the Morgan farm on its north and west boundaries the way the stripes on our American flag, turned upside-down, would surround the region of stars. Where the Johnson lane met the road there was a pond from which in winter they and my family cut ice cooperatively, storing it in icehouses for cooling the milk during the following summer.
In the winter, the Johnson lane, which was eroded by long use several feet below the level of the surrounding fields, would fill with snow which packed and formed a hard crust at the surface. The children in both our families cooperated to make long tunnels through the snow beneath the surface which were like caves, except that the sunlight came through the crust, lighting the interior.
Farther west, past the Johnson lane was our farm.
Sometimes in the morning I walked through Stewart's place and to school with him. Occasionally our return from school was through his father's watermellon patch. I admired the way Stewart ate mellons with the seeds, because "it took too long to get them out."
Stewart's mother was English. She had a few present practices by which she influenced her future. For instance, on the first day of each month, and particularly on the first day of each year, she did only tasks which she found pleasant, with the belief that her pleasures would repeat in the following period.
The Johnson family ate with their knives and forks in the European fashion, cutting meat with the knife held in the right hand, then using the fork, still in the left hand, to transfer the cut piece of meat to the mouth. In my family we transferred the fork to the right hand after cutting. Stewart's father, Wes Johnson, as a substitute for swearing, would say, "Thunderin' and lightnin'." Once when I was quite young, I was eating dinner with the Johnson family, using my fork and knife the way I had been taught. Mr. Johnson suddenly exclaimed, "Thunderin' and lightnin'! Didn't your folks never learn you no manners?" At the time I thought he was being critical of me, and I felt crushed. Looking back, I think it more likely that he was making a joke, and that Mrs. Johnson was the target. Perhaps he resented being expected to eat in the fashion she carried over from her English past.
The Johnsons' mean bull, with a chain in its nose, stamped and pawed the ground and snorted at us across the fence. Once, at Stewart's suggestion, we crossed the fence. I grabbed the bull's tail and he its chain and we pulled him around and around in circles. I don't remember how we crossed the fence at the beginning and end of the operation, and I don't propose rerunning the experiment to verify that it could be done. I do remember that it was exciting.
Another time when Stewart and I were herding his father's cows, he threw a stone hitting the leg of one lagard, which then limped. Stewart commented, "That'll learn her a lesson". It turned out the leg was broken and the cow had to be destroyed. A long time later he dared to tell his father who commented, "I always wondered how that happened." About the bull his father remarked, "I wondered why that bull was so nasty."
To the north, on the right side somewhat below the road, was a swamp of perhaps ten acres, full of calamus, cat tails, tiger lillies, and muskrat houses, and then the farm buildings. The swamp had once been dammed to make a pond to provide ice for the ice house, but muskrats had undermined the dam to make suitable conditions for homes for themselves, in many thatched lodges. I trapped the muskrats, selling their furs for a dollar apiece until, to my naive surprise, there were no more - my early contribution to the American compulsion to conquer nature for profit. At about the same time I remember seeing the last fox in the area trapped and shot to death in a stone row.
Past the swamp, still on the level shoulder, was the area of farm buildings and houses, bordering the road midway between the low northern and high southern farm boundaries. Below the farm buildings were fields which provided the largest segment of land for growing corn, oats, clover and alfalfa. The northernmost bottom part, bordering on the Pequest Creek, was flat, and grew prize corn in the years when the Pequest didn't flood at the wrong time of year. The Creek provided several muddy swimming holes, from which one often emerged with leeches attached. Our farm, like many others along the Pequest, had its own eel basket for capturing migrating eels, but my family would not eat eels.
Above the road on the south was an orchard, past it a shed which my father later made into a tenant house. A farm lane across the road from the buildings ascended the hill between pastures to a kiln in which limestone was burned to make lime for fertilizer for the fields. A swamp below the lime kiln grew calamus, the roots of which I liked to eat, and cattails. The southernmost upper part of the farm, at the top above the hilly pastures was wooded with tall, straight tulip trees which my father nurtured by selective cutting. A spring high up in the woods, which never went dry, had been piped to the house and farm buildings below. In the barn automatic drinkers had been installed which the cows operated by pressing down on a valve with their noses as they drank. The water pressure caused by gravity was so great as to require a reducing valve to avoid frightening the cows. A large field above and beyond our woods belonged to a neighbor, Fred Tillou, referred to by his wife as "Fred, the poor devil." They had had thirteen children of whom one survived to adulthood. Their field, being grown up to sumac bushes and small scrub trees, was at that successional stage where it grew every year a great profusion of wild strawberries, which they permitted us to pick. From those which got past our mouths into the picking pails my mother canned many quarts for future use.
My mother raised chickens and traded eggs for groceries at the general store. Aside from the eggs and what was grown in her garden practically everything raised on the farm was consumed there to produce milk. The milk was transported to the creamery in Great Meadows, in the early days by wagon or sled drawn by a team of Percheron horses and later by a Model T Ford truck. At first the dairy cows were mostly Holsteins, bred to produce a large quantity of milk, with a few Jerseys and Guernseys included to increase the butterfat content to the minimum required by the dairy companies. The minimum was later dropped, and the Jerseys and Guernseys were eliminated when government rules required the dairy companies to pay farmers for the added butterfat. Finally the dairy companies "stabilized" the butterfat content by cream separation at a value even less than that of the Holsteins, selling the cream to augment their profit.
My father remarked that farming was an unusual business in that one spent what was required to turn out a product to specifications preset by the buyer who then bought that product at whatever price he was willing to pay. In his early days of farming, my father read everything put out by the Department of Agriculture and his farm magazines telling him ways to be a better farmer and to take care of his land. He used crop rotation, manured his pastures, planted clover on them, and removed noxious weeds by hand. He quoted someone's statement that "the traditional pasture is a barren place where no grass grows," and resolved that his pastures would not be like that. This period of land care predated the sellout by the Department of Agriculture to the agribusiness chemical industry.
On the tilled part of the farm, first corn was planted. When it was ready for harvest, while the kernels were still soft, a group of cooperating farmers and their wives collected at each of their farms in turn, the men to gather and process the corn, the women to cook and serve an ample noonday meal. The corn, stalks and ears together, was put through a power driven ensilage cutter and blown through vertical steel pipes into round silos, perhaps twelve feet in diameter and thirty feet high. There it was stored to ferment and to be fed to the cows during the following winter.
In the fall the corn stubble was plowed up and oats and alfalfa were planted together for the following years' crops. When, next year, the oats was harvested, part for the horses and some for a cash crop, the alfalfa was still too small to be part of this year's crop. But, over the next few years, until it ran out, the alfalfa provided a hay crop to be mowed two or three times a season, stored in the hay mow to nourish the cows over the winter, meanwhile replenishing the nitrogen in the soil.
The barn was designed for dairy cows, for their feeding, milking, and cleaning, and for short time cooling and storage and then shipping of the milk away from the farm. The service buildings surrounding the barn included a three story wagon house, across a driveway ramp to the north, an ice house at the northwest corner of the barn, a silo at the southwest corner, and, beyond the wagon house to the north, the smoke house, the chicken house and the garden, then the farm house on top of the low ridge which enclosed the swamp.
I include the house deliberately as a farm service building, because the people who occupied it, like the ants tending their colony of aphids, were there primarily to perform various functions for the well being of the cows. The schedule of the cows even determined when we could eat, and to some extent the content of our meals. In order to have milk ready to go to the creamery, and from there to be delivered to the markets in the city on time, it was necessary that milking be started at three o'clock in the morning. Breakfast was delayed until after the milk delivery, perhaps at seven o'clock. By then a four hour stint of work meant that everyone was hungry. A typical breakfast consisted of oatmeal, ham and eggs with fried potatoes, toast with butter churned in a ten gallon wooden churn, milk and coffee with cream, and, when we were lucky, apple pie.
The house, on a low east-west ridgfaced the barn to the south, and was pretty
much closed off from the valley to the north. The original house had been double,
the west end being for the owners, the east end for live-in hired help. The two parts
of the house were separated by an immense stone chimney, with fireplaces which had
been blocked, and connections for pipes for the wood and coal stoves which now heated
the house and cooked the food. Another large stone chimney was located between the
kitchen at the west end of the house and the living room, alongside the stairway
which connected the cellar and the two upper floors of the main house. To the east
of the living room was a parlor. The bedrooms upstairs were unheated, and in the
winter cold. I don't remember much about them, except that one of them could be reached
only by a back stairway at the end of the parlor.
THE FARM SHOP
THE FINALITY OF CHANGE
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