My daughter-in-law Bertha for some reasons thinks I might provide a permanent record of my life which would interest my grandsons, especially if I would recount numerous experiences such as her own father does in conversation, recreating a very different world from this one in which they have grown up.
A few months before I was born, my father was called to the pastorate of the new Madison Square Presbyterian Church of San Antonio, Texas. In default of a parsonage, he rented a house near the church. My Grandfather Newton, 78 years old, came with them and lived there during their rather brief stay. Father wrote Uncle Ed that he diverted himself with minor carpentry jobs – a sonata in storage cases, or a symphony in shelves. He accumulated the biggest assortment of the bent nails in San Antonia.
The summer must have been terrifically hot—the doors, without the newfangled screens, were left open for what breeze might steal in. One day those caring for me were horrified to find a scorpion underneath my crib. Mother kept me dressed in the customary southern whites; and a letter to Grandma complains that I had a penchant for finding the muddiest puddle in town and befouling my freshly-donned kilts in it.
For various reasons, Father resigned in April 1892 and returned to Milwaukee, where the family lived with Grandpa Millard’s family until Mar. 1, 1893, and supplied pulpits during that period. Here my first dim recollections begin. The house at 260-20th St. became familiar to me by three residential terms, from this date to July, 1908; so a description of it deserve mention.
A few years before my birth, Grandpa Millard took a big venture and bought a frame mansion, as it seemed then, which was to be moved from the later site of the C.M. & St.P. Railroad depot at 4th and Sycamore Sts., a block south of Grand (now Wisconsin) Avenue. He had bought a 50-ft. lot between Cedar (now Kimball) and State Sts. There he had a basement dug and put the house above it. Ever since I knew it, this fine building being too costly for the diminishing family to occupy alone, the second floor had been made into a 4-room and bath apartment, and rented, first to a widow Mrs. Williams, with a fine adult daughter, salesgirl at Chapman’s Dept. Store, and Taffy, (they were Welch) brown water spaniel.
This second floor was off limits, except that Grandpa had reserved the right to take his Saturday night bath in the tin, wood-framed bathtub (much like more modern tubs in shape and size). The rest of us used a small oval-shaped portable tub on the kitchen floor. We lived in the five lower floor rooms, with diverse closets and pantries. A partition had been built midway back in the hallway besides and under the stairs, which served as dressing-room for those who slept in a folding bed in the “back parlor” or living room. The front parlor was used only for special occasions or purposes. It had the square piano on which the youngest, Aunt Helen learned to play, and became remarkably gifted in music; a few stuffed chairs, etc. There was a fireplace, never used, with a marble mantel, on which we hung our stockings (I don’t know how) on Christmas Eve, instead of enjoying a tree. (Others did have such a tree as we now do, with candles, which too often ignited the resinous needles, and occasionally chilled the holiday festivities by fatally burning somebody.)
The living room was a busy place – Grandma’s secretary or writing desk, where she entered an account of each day’s happenings in her diary – a work which would be of real value for antiquarians who wished to reconstruct the life of the late 19th Century. (I have about a dozen volumes, which I highly prize. They should go to the Wisconsin Historical Society at Madison). Grandpa took his regular noonday nap on the old-style sofa (He was old during my boyhood, and took a long noon hour from his duties as manager of some apartment buildings downtown.) a marble-top table in one corner held current magazines and the “Evening Wisconsin”, which Millard Sawyer and I carried at various times $5 a month with a bonus of double that on New Year’s, when we held up each customer with an ornate calendar, costing us about a dime and usually bringing a quarter – once and a while a dollar. There were enough chairs in that room for each member of the family, who assembled after noon dinner for family worship – each reading in turn a few verses from the selected chapter of the Bible, then kneeling with elbows on the seat, and taking his turn in voicing a more or less devout prayer.
The big dining room in an ell to the south side, with French windows, reaching from floor to ceiling, and which could be, but never were opened upon the front lawn, was the master bedroom, serving as a chamber for Grandpa and Grandma, and the mongrel dog Carlo, who slept at Grandma’s feet. She often complained that Grandpa never allowed him in his way, but considered it proper for his spouse to be content never to stretch out full length in nightly comfort.
We ate in the kitchen, which, beside the extension table, held a combination coal and wood, and gas range; of course, chairs enough for the family, and a shelf opposite the stove, where we cut our bread. (I think Grandma baked at least part of the time; otherwise we bought unwrapped un-sliced loaves at the grocery or baker). Here we mixed the daily breakfast, sometimes dinner and supper staple of French toast—a slice of bread dipped in a mixture of egg and milk, then fried in a skillet, and eaten with butter and usually jelly, scores of glasses of which Grandma put up in season, mostly from grapes. Grandpa on his way to the office, located in one side of a large store room also housing a coal dealer’s headquarters, stopped at one or two groceries and ordered the day’s supply of vegetables (remember often spending the better part of an hour shelling peas from the pod), and other items, which were delivered from a one-horse drawn wagon. Grandpa had operated a grocery several times; but was crowded out by competition, preventing him from making enough to support his large family (ten children, seven of whom grew to adulthood). The adults had coffee, Grandpa pouring the seething brew, diluted with boiled whole milk, including a bit of coagulated cream – “leather apron cream” he called it. A favorite dessert was “thousand island pudding”, made from sweetened milk and egg yolks, topped by a thick frothing of the egg whites beaten. The staple meat ration was called chopped beef, a remote ancestor of hamburger, not kneaded into a mass but fried in pop-corn sized kernels, and industriously forked or spooned into one’s mouth. Grandma had a strong prejudice against onion; and until late in life someone persuaded her to mix in “just a suspicion”, unenhanced by any seasoning but salt. In the big city, we had our milk delivered from a wagon similar to the grocer’s, in bottles, treated in the very novel process of pasteurization, (I wondered what relation this had to the field where the cows grazed), but of course named for Pasteur, a pioneer bacteriologist who devised this means of safeguarding the public health. For extra supplies, we went to a “milk depot” which seemed strangely named, as it had no similarity to a railroad station. Here we brought our tin bucket or crockery pitcher and the attendant poured bulk fluid from a tin measuring can with a spout, 3¢ a pint, a nickel a quart.
The kitchen was where much of our toilet was performed – especially shaving for those of the necessary age and sex. A wall mirror hung near the back door, illuminated by a flare gas jet. We had no electricity, as most houses did, but beside the wasteful flare fixtures, in the parlors we were supplied with Welsbach mantle lights, which were lighted by such a taper as is still used in the churches for the alter candles. This intense but soft white light hasn’t been duplicated even yet by electricity. On the above-mentioned shelf was the indispensable candle in the old-fashioned tin candlestick, which we lighted with old-fashioned sulfur matches whenever we had to use the toilet.
As I said, the bathroom was not for us—we went to the basement where there was a primitive “can”—a regular seat, atop a funnel-shaped porcelain duct leading to the drain pipe beneath the floor. A brass-capped rod with a strong spring, when pressed poured a swirl of water spiraling down to the depths, carrying everything with it. The candle was necessary—there was no light in the basement. Here were three rooms; the first one beneath the kitchen, containing two coal bins; one for “hard” or anthracite coal for the base-burner which in winter occupied a place of honor in the back parlor; the other for “soft” or bituminous coal, for the kitchen range. This and the “laundry” under the bedroom ell, were paved with brick. There was a sink beneath the small room off the kitchen where the dishes were done; and every week an immigrant German woman would come and scrub the dirty clothes by hand on a corrugated tin washboard, and hang them on a rope line in the back yard. After this laborious process was completed, she would rest by sloshing the wash water of the kitchen floor and scrubbing the wooden boards—just while resting.
Behind the first room—or toward the front of the house, was the store-room. Beside the toilet, was a board-floor covered area where a miscellany accumulated through the years, was housed; lawnmower and hose, divers tools, scrap lumber, etc. Uncle Bob had installed an iron bar, hung from three joists, on which he and later Millard and I strengthened our muscles by doing pull-ups. (Thanks to this, being avid for some morsel of human glory, I prepared for the beginning-and-end gymnasium tests, by going through the exercises every day. As a result, I was second only to a cripple with a shrunken leg, who had arms like other’s legs and a light body. I also starred in the pole-climb, and was named in the newspaper review of the physical program conducted by the West and South side high schools).
To complete the floor plan of this interesting house, there was a ….off a cubby-hole a scant 2 ft. wide and six or so deep, off the fifth room, a small bedroom, which held a miscellany of infrequently used clothing and equipment.
(The reason for this circumstantial account of the house and its uses is that while seeking to reconstruct the world of Grandpa Barrett (1812-1904) I searched in vain through the exhaustive histories in the library, only to discover that historians were concerned only with political and public life, not at all with what one would most naturally want to know—what people ate, wore, used, how they worked, played, perhaps even sinned. Only historical novels helped to satisfy this curiosity. Possibly this rambling and of course very partial account will help the young to live with us who are going the way of all flesh, and thank God and human enterprise and ingenuity for providing them with so much their ancestors lacked.)
It was during this period that my first vivid memory comes. We four, now including baby Philip, went to Chicago to the World’s Colombian Exposition. One afternoon they jailed me in a large, bleak and bare room, furnished only with child-proof fences. They could carry the baby; but I was too much for a day-long portage, and of course not equal to the interminable hoofing it through the exhibition halls and walkways. Feeling betrayed and abandoned, I set up a howl which naturally fell on deaf ears, or most on none at all. One fortunate neighbor had a baby-sitter, who entertained him with a supply of toys. After they had looked my way and ascertained that I was not in mortal agony or dire peril, they ignored me, and left me to continued outcries, then to glum silence. The sequel I have forgotten; only Father explained that the reason for my ordeal was that I couldn’t have kept up with them in their travels; and my indignant assurance that I could too have gone along.
My earliest recollections of a home—what I have said about the Milwaukee house comes from memories of later terms there—is the parsonage at Prairie du Sac, Wis., where Father served as Presbyterian minister until his death five years after coming there, and burying Mother, who died at 24, after baby Richard was born. Here I went to a short summer term of kindergarten, attended nearly two years of school, got my first well-deserved switching, broke my first bone—“shin-bone” as Phil called it; and in general, caused my long-suffering Father and in lesser degree, other intimates, more anxiety and grief than most youngsters do.
Being situated in a small town of some 600, it is natural that I found the house there and the community lacking in many of the amenities Milwaukee provided. The limited observation and faulty memory of that early period makes it impossible to reconstruct the life or its facilities in detail. But what I can recall, you will note, comes from the 19th Century; and requires considerable imagination to grasp. The house was an ordinary two-story structure, with such fittings as other middle-class residences boast of. The first floor, of course, contained kitchen, dining room, parlor and the master bedroom; the second provided sleeping rooms one of which Father used for his study. As in Milwaukee, there was no furnace; I presume the parlor stove was a base-burner; I remember the upstairs stoves, with wooden boxes for fuel and kindling. The place was well lit by lamps. I vividly remember Father’s “student lamp”, carried along wherever he lived, having illuminated his textbooks during his seminary days. It consisted of a white-plated metal frame, one side holding a quart-sized kerosene can, the other a lamp assembly with a round wick, a slender glass chimney, and a white porcelain shade. The center rod or small pipe was topped by a ring for convenience in carrying. There was a large glass-doored bookcase, which I seem to have inherited, as Uncle Will had it in Geneseo and offered to pay me for it, as he needed it and it would be costly to move. I remember I told him to keep it, since he had done so much for me.
I well remember Father poring over his laboriously written manuscripts, (of course there were no typewriters in general use then) and pacing back and forth conning over his sermons. Bald as an ostrich egg, except for a fringe over the ears, he wore a black silk skull-cap, evidently to keep a sensitive pate warm.
Naturally there was an inevitable privy—no plumbing in town; and a barn, unoccupied, since we never afforded horse and buggy, but in his infrequent pastoral trips into the country, he borrowed Assemblyman Conger’s old mare Babe and a one-seated rig. Some cast-off pamphlets were stored in the hay-mow. In what is now the garage, then the poach-room with large sliding door, he had rigged up a swing from me, often pushing me as I soared through the air.
Since there was no plumbing, we had to dispose of our garbage and swill—dirty dish-water,-- by having a “skip-hole” dug in the barnyard—some 3 feet deep and six square. Here the maid would throw all our refuse-- a noisome slimy affair. One day next-door playmate Charlie Meisser, left to our tender care while his Mother was spending an afternoon visiting, playing too close, slipped and fell into the hole, among the peelings and a toad or two. His frantic screams brought the house-women running; who rescued him, taking him into the house and removing his befouled waist, putting one of mine—a blouse, with wide-flowing collar, made of blue cloth with a pattern of small white anchors—a beautiful creation!
This is a good place for a tribute to those house-women. The kitchen maid was the late-adolescent daughter of a German farmer near town. I remember nothing of her, except that she was there. The woman who next to my sainted month, did more to make life ____ was a spinster named Florest (“Flousie”) Squires. Through the many years since I have trusted that God in His merciful bounty, has rewarded her, who gave me the last love I basked under, until Alma became my wife and home-maker. The few memories of that era head me to wonder how one not a natural mother, could have had such an attachment for the little devil I must have been, as I remember she really had.
When I came to Prairie du Sac, there were no electric, lights, or of course, running water or plumbing. A couple of years later, while the parsonage didn’t glory in the new illumination, lights were installed at each street corner—on a telephone pole equipped with a bracket reaching out over the dirt road, a bulb with primitive carbon filament, topped by a foot-wide porcelain or enamel reflector, which threw what seemed a brilliant circle of light on the snow-covered winter ground. There were two sizes of bulbs, 16- and 32-candle power. Watts had not yet been heard of.
Each house and public building had its pump, usually with a tin dipper for the convenience of thirsty passers-by, and surrounded by a wooden platform to raise users above the soggy lawn or muddy street, and often with a wooden trough to carry un-caught water away from the favored spot. Of course every building had eaves troughs with down-spouts, to catch the rainwater, which was conveyed to a barrel at a corner or, as later in New London, into a wooden tank in the basement, into which a pipe was stuck, leading to a short-handled pump in the kitchen’s primitive sink. This soft water was perfect for washing purposes—detergents except purchased or home-made soap were unheard of.
Clothes were sprinkled when about dry from the lines, rolled tight to let the water seep through the entire fabric, then ironed, usually Tuesday after Monday wash-day. Each household had several iron flatirons, toward the years of refinement, instead of wooden handles equipped with a spring catch which engaged a depression and cross-bar in the iron, we had all-metal affairs which were placed on the back of the range, and the hottest taken up with a padded cloth holder and used until too cool; then exchanged for another one.
Father (or Papa, as we called him—he used the more genteel term for Grandpa who lived with us a good part of time) had quite a respectable garden in the side yard, the crop I remember best being potatoes, which he would sprinkle every few days using a 3-gal. spoutcan with sprinkler head, filled with a solution of paris green, a deadly poison which controlled the thriving potato bugs.
There was a bountiful supply of snow every winter; and it was a real chore to remove each fall from the long walk—we were on a corner lot. One of my jobs was to ride on the plow, made of 3’ boards fastened at about right angles, braced in various directions, and supplied with a strong push-handle reaching up to about waist level, fitted with a short cross-piece which the operator gripped and pushed. The town engaged men with single horses, which plodded along public walks dragging a king-sized plow weighted to hold it down to earth.
I remember being cared for—perhaps just after Mother’s death—in a swank residence in town. I enjoyed watching carpenters rebuilding the window sash in downstairs rooms, and installing weights fastened to the lower frame, leading over a pulley at the top of the opening, ready when the window was unlatched, to draw it up to the desired height. The Milwaukee house never had these luxuries. Grandma had pieces of half inch molding, just long enough to hold the sash clear up. If one was careless and put the thing in at an angle, as passers-by might see the disgrace, he was definitely instructed to move it over next to the frame.
I have mentioned the lack of plumbing. A homely but essential item of house furnishing was the chamber set, consisting of large water pitcher and washbowl, usually a small pitcher for shaving water, perhaps soap dish, those on the top of a commode, table-high, with a full-width drawer under the flat top, and beneath on one half, a deep drawer for linens, on the other a door with latch, concealing a chamber pot, or possibly for fluent occupants, a slop-jar, nearly a foot deep, with wire handle and close-fitting cover. The word pot was definitely understood to refer not to culinary devices, but to baser uses in the chamber. An earthy couplet from my childhood comes to mind:
“Went upstairs to light the candle,
Fell over the ___pot and broke the handle.”
A tale is told about a newly-married baseball umpire, who was presented with a chamber set. Upon unpacking it, he discovered the pot was badly cracked. He complained to the dealer: “You delivered my chamber set, and I found one of the pieces was cracked.” “Was it the pitcher?” the salesman asked, “No, it was the catcher! (Delicate publishers may, if desired, delete those last lines.)
An early recollection centers about an apparent infection in a nameless area, of which I complained. So Father arranged for a circumcision—a rarity in those days. I remember being stood before a window in the parlor, beside the folding sending table, on which were diverse strange objects. A woman seems to have had an active part in the ceremony, for I thought she was a doctor. Later Aunt Nan insisted there was no woman doctor in small places like ours – she was obviously a nurse, imported for the occasion. I remember making enthusiastic out-cries, though I don’t recall the pain.
The only real need I had for a doctor’s help was when I broke my leg. It seems I was under discipline for some of my many misdemeanors; and forbidden to leave the yard. To get as far out as possible, I climbed up on the picket fence separating us from our next door neighbor. Grandpa called out from the door: “Newton, didn’t your Father tell you not to leave the place?” In haste I jumped down. What happened is still a mystery – doubtless a hole in the knee of my overalls caught on a picket and I hung in midair, screaming until rescued. Apparently my “shin-bone” as Phil called it, was broken (the tibia.) There was no hospital in or near Prairie du Sac. (There was one a couple of blocks from us in Milwaukee.) Nor were there any telephones there. So Grandpa set out on hotfoot for the doctor’s house, and Father for his office. Flossie removed permanent ornament from the dining room table – a device with four receptacles, one each for salt, pepper, vinegar, and something else I forget—stripped off a 2” checked red and white table cloth, and laid me up there. She cut my nice black stocking from knee to ankle and removed it without moving my afflicted leg. I remember wondering, when I had always been instructed to preserve my raiment, she was demolishing mine. The doctor arrived in due course, evidently gave me chloroform—ether, etc. where not yet in common use—set the leg and put on a plaster-of-paris cast, which I wore for seven weeks. It was evidently a good job, as I never had the slightest after-effects.
I refrain from recounting several diverting episodes which demonstrated my fertile imagination and melancholy penchant for deviltry; perhaps I will live to expand these pages with belated confessions. What I have said is designed to illumine the dim and distant past and, I trust, induce appropriate thanksgivings in the hearts of the younger generation, whom Providence has brought to birth in this far more congenial age.
One Saturday Father evidently caught a cold, probably from exerting himself unduly in plowing snow. Anyway for the first time he was unable to take his place in the pulpit next morning; but lay in bed struggling for breath. I happened to be in the upstairs bedroom with him for a while; and he gasped, “Newton, pillow!” With a real effort I grasped the fact that he wanted me to hand him a pillow. This I did—my last service to him. He painfully worked it under his head and shoulders, and, I think, breathe somewhat easier. I was sent over to the Felix’ where I ate supper with the playmates and their parents there. As I was at table, Mr. Felix came in weeping, and said in a broken voice, “Newton, your papa has gone to Jesus!” What was called a stroke of apoplexy had seized him; and he apparently fell I guess from a rocker near the stove, his head striking a corner of the woodbox next to it. Grandpa was either in the room or came in at once, for a paper I still have recounts the main facts of this tragedy. I remember sitting next to Uncle Will in the parlor near the black cloth-covered casket, and an interminable funeral service in the Church, enriched by diverse eulogies from brother ministers; then the procession—I had a coach ride! To the cemetery, where I looked down into the gaping hole in the ground, graciously lined with white flannel, into which four men holding ropes under head and foot ends of the casket, lowered it slowly down into the wooden box at the bottom. I have visited the grave several times since—he lies beside my Mother who preceded him by three years in death.
How it was arranged or by whom I never knew; but Uncle Will, Mother’s eldest brother, Pastor of the Congregational Church of New London, informed me that I was to go home with him. Of course we went by train—the well-developed means of transportation beyond the range of horse and buggies. There I abode with him, Aunt Marion and 4-month-old Jessica.
For the first (and until my last residence, the only) time of my life, I shared a brand-new house with relatives. Every modern device enjoyed by small-city dwellers had been provided. In fact, a few minor jobs were still not completed until later. It was fine large frame house, with full basement, and two or three bedrooms in the front part of the second story, the rest partly finished and designed for an attic. For several evenings after I came, masons came in and laid ornamental tiles in the area before the fireplace. Heat was supplied by a big furnace in the basement, which also contained a great vat or cistern, to store the soft water running into it from the eaves and down-spouts outside. A fine new kitchen sink graced the cook’s domain, with a drain-board for washed dishes; and a pump to draw the cistern water as needed. A good serviceable pump was installed over the well in the back year, and one of my chores was to bring in a small pail-full or two each morning for drinking and cooking. In the yard was a model privy, with the usual facilities; and a clothes-reel, an improvement over lines running across the yard. It consisted of a stout upright post, topped by an iron rod, upon which was balanced a revolving reel—four 2X4 studs about 18 feet long, reaching out in the four main directions of the compass, braced to support the weight of wet clothes. Every 2 feet a wire line was passed around the square, through holes in the arms. The laundress could stand by her basket of washed clothes and hang the pieces on one line or the other, moving it about until a bare wire came to her.
Just before I came to New London, the school-boy’s dream had come true—the schoolhouse had burned down. By coincidence, the Congregational Church was vacant, since Uncle Will had led the people in building a few new red stone building, not far away. The school board secured use of the frame structure; and installed partitions probably eight feet high, which made three rooms; two toward the pulpit and the third occupying the front third. The older children passed through this primary room to their respective places. In lieu of desks, 18 inch boards were fastened to the backs of the pews at a slight angle, so the children were permitted to carve grooves near the upper edge, to hold pencils and pens. I don’t remember whether places for the books were also built in or which seems more likely, the pupils laid their equipment on the seats beside them. Of course nothing was sound-proof—any usual noise from one room was heard throughout the building.
One morning, with no apparent preparation or administrative intent, a sweet young voice, probably feminine, rose from a room other than mine, in the devotional song which some of the grades used during the regular opening minutes of each day’s session. I have written it down, harmonizing the appealing simple tune, with the words:
Father, we thank Thee for the night,
And for the pleasant morning light;
For rest, and food, and loving care,
And all that makes the world so fair.
Help us to do the things we should,
To be to others kind and good,
In all we do, in work or play,
To grow more loving every day.
No interruption or other sound, during the singing of the entire song.
During recess, we all ran over to the site of the burned-down building, to poke and prowl among the ruins for any chance non-combustible treasures—fused pieces of window glass, corroded nails, or odd bits of metal. This continued through the few remaining weeks of the term. The following fall those in my grade and doubtless the others, went around by the bridge, across the Wolf River to the north side school, in some way finding accommodation with those living in that district, as I remember it, the upper grade sharing one of the two rooms there. By the next year, a fine modern new schoolhouse had been completed on the site of the old one. I was proud to be one of the first generation of children to inaugurate this challenging building. The last time I visited the town, in the early 1960’s they were demolishing the old outdated structure, in favor of an up-to-date building.
Since the new Church was not quite ready for occupancy, we held services in the Opera House, then a splendid and commodious affair, still in use when I last passed by it. I report with embarrassment and regret, that I went up on the stage, while Uncle Will was busy with final preparation for the service, marched to the front and shouted, “Ba, ba ba!” Of course some of the silly worshipers thought it was funny, and giggled or laughed outright. My regimen had not yet reached the later point where I was unmercifully flogged when Uncle Will decreed that I deserved it; but I think I was silenced for the rest of the day, not permitted to utter a word ‘til Monday morning.
My Sunday School class met in the upper gallery, “peanut gallery” it was called, above the larger balcony constituting the second floor. I wouldn’t have noticed it, but another boy with better olfactory equipment, growled, “Gee! The air stinks up here!” With no doors or windows in that exalted purview, it is not surprising that the air was amply stale.
It was a thrill to enter the spanking-new Church. Here I came into close contact with my first electric lights. Simple carbon bulbs, hung from the ceiling by the old-fashioned two-strand extension wire. During the two years I lived there, the parsonage was not wired for modern lighting. While the old house in Milwaukee had no refrigeration, and perishables must be set down on the brick floor in the laundry room in the basement, usually cool enough for practical purposes, the New London place had an ice-box; something similar to our refrigerators beneath, zinc-lined wooden affair, with a door which had a elaborate latch to keep it sealed; above, a zinc-lined chamber large enough for a 50-pound cake of ice, which lasted, I think, for two days, until our neighbor Mandachke, (Aunt Marian parodied it to Handshake), delivered a fresh chunk, hauled from his ice-house on the river bank, filled each winter with chunks out from the 2-foot thick cover we could always depend on throughout the Wisconsin cold season; preserved during hot weather by being thickly covered with sawdust.
New London boasted a large sawmill on and about the river, with a “boom” or log-and chain-enclosed back-water into which logs from the still heavily-wooded country up north, were floated downstream. This had long since disappeared—only a lumber-yard now uses the riverside area.
I should have mentioned the convenience which Jack Frost provided for us—instead of walking clear down to the bridge and back north or west again, we walked across the ice to school throughout most of the term.
The customary costume of the day was blouse waist and knee-pants, with long black stockings and ankle-high shoes. For best, we had a three-piece suit, with jacket and vest. By now I think I didn’t have such velvet leggings which in Prairie du Sac were buttoned over my calves, as many as 17 buttons being fastened and unfastened every time I went out and came in. A strap which went under the instep of my shoes held the leggings down. I forget how they were held up, but I think they were rigid enough to stay in place. Especially during marble season, when kids groveled about on their knees in the dirt, my elders supplied me with knee-caps, ordered from Sears, Roebuck & Co.’s catalog, circles of shiny leather, shaped to a semi-cuplike shield, were held over the knees by two narrow elastic ribbons, snapped by miniature snaps to knobs on the opposite side of the leg. My hose thus survived for weeks. At least throughout the winter period, I’m not sure but all year round, we wore full-length underwear, mostly two-piece. Naturally our summer equipment was of gingham-weight stuff. Hands were protected by mittens, not gloves – each finger helped keep the rest from freezing, though it was a real chore to dry the cloth or leather between uses.
I liked to stop before going home from school at Mrs. Hermann’s, and chat with Kitty, a few years older and Hazel Boyington, a motherless niece. One day they cried, “Why, Newton’s nose is frozen!” They went out and brought in enough snow to rub on it until it thawed out.
Bicycling was growing in popularity. The old high-wheel affairs had given way about the time I was born, to machines much like those in use today. Shortly before his death, Father bought a bike for exercise, to try to reduce his exceedingly fat flesh. Racing, of course, was in vogue. About the time I was settled in New London the report went out that Claude Brown, an adolescent, had won the town race, and was the hero of the day.
Not far from our house was a rim factory. There were usually rejects, rims warped too badly to pass inspection; and every kid had one for a hoop. Many school children rode to school, especially those from the country. A favorite prank, which I was conspicuous for playing, was to let the air out of the tires while the owner was occupied elsewhere. A well-equipped bike had a leather case strapped to the frame, containing a small hand-pump, as well as a few simple and commonly used tools, a small oilcan, etc. At home many had a much better device, a large pump with a projection at the base so one could hold it in position with one foot; and a handle long enough for both hands to push the plunger down. Before garages were heard of, bike shops flourished; and a common service was inflation of soft tires. Tandems usually with woman’s frame in front and man’s behind, were every-day affairs; and occasionally extension to three, possibly four riders available. Roads were not dependable—Milwaukee had surfaced streets of various materials; but towns rarely had anything better than gravel upon the pure mud roadway. Soft sand scarcely facilitated propelling a bike; and winter ruts practically prohibited cycling in cold weather.
Histories inform us that modern conveniences were invented many years before I ever saw them; only gradually did they come into common use. Edison invented the incandescent light bulb in 1879—just as I moved to St. Louis, a great celebration with parade and ornamental lights everywhere, commemorated the 50th anniversary. But as I have said, I never lived with electricity until I moved into the Milwaukee YMCA dormitory in 1908; though as I mentioned, the New London Church was equipped with primitive bulbs. I remember the “plant” on the north side, a plain store-like building, with a one-lung gasoline engine, which generated enough juice to meet the limited needs of the town.
So it was with the telephone—my encyclopedia declares that Bell invented it in 1878; but no parsonage until the one in Geneseo was supplied with one. My first contact with this device was at the aforementioned Herrmann’s house—he was in real estate, and evidently well-to-do. The new instrument had just been installed; and as they had so many people on the wire, they lifted me up to the wall phone; and I got so close to it that I nearly bit a piece out of the rubber mouthpiece. Every kid with ingenuity rigged up a home-made set, with cigar boxes for sets, and store string for wires. They swore that they actually heard each other at some distance. This leads to a mention of the wide use of cotton string. Food was sold in bulk; dry stuff poured into paper sacks, and these tied with string. Grandma frugally saved every piece that came to the house, tying it to the ball she had wound from already preserved lengths—it grew until about the size of a soft-ball. Many household uses were found for it—in spring, she trained her morning-glory vines to the back porch floor, whence they climbed up the lattice which enclosed the porch.
It requires a bit of thought to grasp the fact that the 20th century didn’t begin on New Year’s 1900, but at the end of this year. What I have recounted thus far occurred in the 19th Century; and I well recall the furor attending the dawn of the 20th.
In this day of prepackaged and variously treated foodstuffs, I think our youth would be shocked if transported into an old-style grocery or general store. I have mentioned the septic bulk retailing of milk. In Milwaukee the large dairies were introducing pasteurization, which most people insisted had to do with the field from which the cows derived the raw material of the life-giving fluid. Tuberculosis was a too general affliction, perhaps the chief cause of death. Only well into this century did authorities require tuberculin testing of all dairy cows. Bread was sold in bulk—unwrapped un-sliced laves. Nobody brought up in this automotive age can visualize the cloud of flies fresh from manure piles, sick-rooms and garbage dumps, which defied the almost useless screen doors on every house and store. Cheese was sold by the slice or wedge—a round cheese lay on the guillotine platform, and was cut from center to rim by a knife attacked to a hand lever; then a small rotation of the platform, made ready for the next cut.
A common commodity was kerosene, mainly for illumination in lamps of diverse types. We had a gallon bottle encased in a tin shell, having large gaps through which me might see how far down the contents had sunk as we poured lamp-fulls from the spout at the top. Adhesive tape was unknown—every merchant had a big supply of cotton string, provided with a holder or dispenser usually broken off at the proper length by the dealer’s tough-skinned hands; and used to tie the paper-sheet-wrapped purchase, making all fast by an adept knot.
Though bread was sold as I mentioned, most of it was produced at home—one day or two a week saw baking as the day-long feature act. The commonest type of yeast (unless it was a packaged chunk of dry stuff, principally cornmeal impregnated with the enzyme) was a piece of grey stuff about like a bar of laundry soap, and sold by the slice for a penny each. The salesman took a piece of store string, and pressed it down on the cake to make a slice perhaps 3/8 inch wide—then wrapping it in a small package.
One day I was sent to the neighborhood store to get something; and I was intrigued by an ingenious device designed to cut the tip off newly-purchased cigars. With more curiosity than judgment, I put my finger down into the depression in the top of the machine, pressed slightly, and click! A spring operated knife within snipped off the end of my finger—not maiming my hand, but bringing blood to the surface. I asked the grocer, in terror, “will this bleed me to death?” The good-natured German laughed, and reassured me that the wound was not mortal.
Friday, August 24, 2007
Everyday life 1895 - 1900
The Rev. Newton Eliot Barrett, the Barrett Brothers grandfather, was born in 1890 in San Antonio, Texas and died in 1986 in Moline, Illinois. Late in his life he wrote the following account of what everyday life was like in his childhood. As in everything he said and wrote about his childhood, this account also reveals his unique personality and outlook, especially his resentments and bitterness at being made an orphan at age seven.