If you’re a regular reader, you know that occasionally I write down some of the things about ‘how it used to be’. Stories and observations from these times should not be lost, but be shared.
And if you know me, you’ve noticed that I’ve seemed to be mostly silent for a while. This post is the reason: it took some time to craft.
Here’s another installment of Times Past. Grab a cup of coffee, this will be a minor novel. Or a fairly good short story, anyway.
My Granma and Granpa’s house was built in 1893. Centralia was a ‘mill town’ then, and most of the houses were ‘mill houses’, built by people who worked at the mill – the lumber mill. Timber was king then, and the houses all reflected the social status of those who built them. Their house was built by one of the supervisors, so it was pretty fancy with two floors and a great big corner lot. Granma and Granpa owned a half-block, in a Z-shape: Their corner lot, the lot and small house next to them on the alleyway (which they rented to a nice guy named Henry Kent, who had a Ford Model B in his garage in a million pieces), and then a big lot across the alleyway from that. That’s where my Granpa’s chicken coop and garden tool shed was.
Like most of the houses in town, they had a detached single-car garage. The opening was just big enough for their ’55 Belvedere (white roof, aqua over white). Granpa had a workbench and storage all along the left side as you walked in, and on the right side was wood storage. There were uprights tied into the garage roof rafters at regular intervals to help keep the wood under control. I can still smell the faint sharp whiff of turpentine, the rich scent of the old workbench in the corner, complete with Swedish vise, and the faint machinery smells of gas and oil from the mower.
I remember helping bust and stack wood to go into the garage; we would stack the fresh stuff to one side, so that Granpa could use off the other side, which would have been nice and dry. In my memory, that space is about 10 × 14 feet, the long side was the depth of the garage; and divided by a regular door on the alley side; we’d go in and out that door when busting and stacking wood. Granpa had friends at the mill and would get “pond lilies”, those eight-to-ten-inch cutoff rounds from the butt end of the logs that floated in the mill’s pond and were periodically pulled out and put to the side as useless.
And where did all that wood go…? Granma had a Monarch wood range up until about 1960; at which time she got a General Electric range that had a ‘pot well’ in it. There was a special pot that came with the range to fit that well, and for big family dinners it got a lot of use. (She used to make the absolute best chicken and dumplings.) Next to the range was the original Monarch trash burner.
We very seldom went into the house through the front door; I remember the front porch, with the unusual (and original) iron sconce porchlight and its soccer-ball-sized original glass – that glass always fascinated me, because it was rectangular inset frosted panels joined with clear glass. The very day the house sold, some S.O.B. STOLE that glass before I could replace it with something else; it must have been worth a pretty penny. We always went in the back door; there was a set of poured-concrete steps that were rough from a century of weather, and a handrail made from bent plumbing pipe. It joined the bottom step through a flange and then was screwed to the house on another flange. They must have been well-galvanized; I don’t remember them ever being painted. The back door was glass panels in the upper half only, with a plain screen door.
The back porch was fully-enclosed, with glass panels from about waist-high to the ceiling. Granma’s GE ringer washer was in there, along with concrete ‘stationary tubs’; the washer filled from the sink faucet and emptied into the sink, with a J-shaped hard rubber hose. There was always a washboard standing up in the other half of the sink – with a glass insert, of course – Granma said they cleaned the best. The laundry area was divided from the rest of the porch by a wall next to the sink. I always remember that on laundry day, that would be the only time that the porch felt warm at all; and it would be with that homey steamy smell of laundry and Wisk detergent. The washer would be grumbling away, going ‘aaaoooowwwwerrrrrrrr, rrrrrrowwwwwwwerrrrr, ‘aaaoooowwwwerrrrrrrr, rrrrrrowwwwwwwerrrrr…’ all the while making big heavy sloshing sounds; with that funny rhythm that those old open tub washers had. On your left as you entered the porch was space to hang coats and shuck off dirty shoes, and next to that was the box that enclosed the back of Granma’s fridge. She had an Admiral that was built-into the wall in the breakfast nook on the other side of that wall. Then the back door to the house was ahead of you. I remember that it was a four-panel door, with narrow, full-width panels, and a very well-worn knob that had to have been bronze at one point, but had been polished into smoothness by decades of hands.
Entering the kitchen was always like entering a familiar adventure. It was indeed a second home for me, and I remember it very well. The placement of the range and the breakfast nook made the kitchen a general T-shape, with you entering at the left base of the T, and the top bar leading to the rest of the house. To your right, to the base of the T, was a wide arched opening and upon entering that dark space (there was not a light), to the right was a set of built-ins with the downstairs linens in drawers, and an overhead cabinet where she kept cereal and crackers, away from the moisture of the kitchen. Through the arch on the other side was the house’s bathroom; very plain, with a window in the far wall, a sink to your left, the tub (no shower) in front of you, and the commode to the right.
Returning to where you walked in, across from the back door was an L-shaped set of upper and lower cabinets, with a linoleum countertop; you were looking at the inside corner of the L. Those held pots and pans in the lowers, cooking utensils in the lone drawer, and ingredients in the uppers. There was always a Saltines tin on the countertop, and an ordinary cookie jar. Often it had cookies in it, sometimes not. The rest of that wall was the range, and on the end was the trash burner. That trash burner was of endless fascination to me; opening the front door, it had all kinds of levers and draft adjustments, so that it could burn everything from household trash to coal. The unit was all cast iron and had to be heavy as heck. Up top, it had an oval-shaped space, filled with two round disks and an I-shaped piece in the center to make up the rest of the top. To add wood, you took a stove lifter (look it up), inserted the dog end into the grip, and pulled aside one of the disks, and threw in the piece of wood. Granpa had an old galvanized bucket on the back porch to hold the wood, far away from the fire. The only time there wasn’t a fire in the trash burner was summer; it was a source of inexpensive heat for the house. I don’t know what time Granpa got up to start the fire, but on Saturday mornings when I’d ride my bike over to their house, the kitchen would just be getting warm and cozy, while the rest of the house was cold.
Riding my bike to their house on Saturday mornings was always an adventure. We lived on the other side of town, and my Mom and Dad were really concerned about all the busy streets I’d be riding on (and crossing) between us and Granma and Granpa’s house. There were always lots of parked cars in the streets, and popping out from behind them was a real hazard to your health. We finally compromised with me confined to the sidewalks and only crossing those streets where I could see at least a block both ways. I had a big old red Schwinn, and after going back and forth successfully a few times, I realized I could ride through the alleyways most of the way there. Now there was adventure to be had! You could see what people were generally up to: there was one guy who was obviously trying to bring an old (40s was old and decrepit then) Ford F1 truck back to life; somebody else whose passion appeared to be fixing old furniture; someone else who had about 50 cats; and so on. And yeah, there was always that one house with the loud and mean dog. It was always interesting to be going behind the corner grocery store; they sold more than groceries – school supplies and the like – you never knew what they’d be throwing out. And yes, this was the era of the small-business corner grocery store. Those were the stores where you could walk to them, get enough fresh stuff for a couple days, and walk home. Wolff’s was at the corner of Cherry and Alder, really kind of a bend in the road. But it was a big outfit for a corner store. And a bottle of pop there was a reasonable 8¢. (Yes, that’s a cent sign, there used to be a dedicated typewriter key for it.) They had an Ideal 55 pop machine (look it up), and they kept the machine full of water and it was COLD. You haven’t lived until you’ve paid for your pop, then opened the top on the machine to choose what you were going to get, slid the bottle down the rows in the machine, then pulled it out through the gate, getting your fingers wet with that very cold water. What a refreshment on a hot summer day!
On the way to their house, I not only had to cross Alder Street – a real busy one – and I also had to cross the Milwaukee’s railroad tracks, a few blocks down. I got to where I crossed Alder at that set of tracks, because drivers in those days always slowed down and looked both ways as they were crossing railroad tracks. Signal systems weren’t that good, and it was YOUR fault if you got hit by a train…
I never saw any Milwaukee traffic on those tracks, but I saw plenty of Chehalis Western traffic. CW traffic was fun to watch only about the first or second time, because they went so… darn… SLOW. It was like if they exceeded 10 MPH, stuff might fly apart from the speed. Their traffic was always raw logs, headed to the mill. (The mill would load up and ship out on the Northern Pacific, on the far side of town.) Often you’d see real long stuff on what’s called ‘disconnect’ cars. These were like a normal log flat, but they had no center bar. They had the pillars, but just on one set of wheels. This allowed them to be put at the very ends of long logs, and let the railroad carry such special loads without a lot of extra bother. Whenever I got delayed by the CW, I would just dump my bike in the grass and sit there while the train rolled by… ‘ka-dunk…ka-dunk………….’ as each wheelset rolled slowly over the rail joints. The wig-wags would be clanging away, with the pendulum target swinging back and forth relentlessly. I always thought the wig-wags were the most fascinating thing to watch; I couldn’t figure out how they could work, as they didn’t appear to have geartrains. (I later found out they worked with electromagnets.)
Once across Alder and the Milwaukee, there was a nice downhill stretch on a side street to coast down. There was always next to no traffic on those streets, so it was OK to ride in the street – especially as the sidewalks were always broken and rough. These were days when the City didn’t fear liability lawsuits; just having a sidewalk to walk on was a luxury. One more busy street to cross, and that was Yew. Now Yew was a street to be reckoned with: it was wide, smooth, and traffic moved FAST. This was no ride-the-bike-across street; it was one where you did like they taught you in school – you got OFF the bike and WALKED it across the street, crossing at the corner. Both my Mom and Dad pounded that into me; it was a condition of being able to go over to my grandparents’ house for Saturday breakfast and lunch. Once across Yew, I could put a foot on the bike pedal, shove off, and hop on while rolling.
The last block between me and Granma and Granpa’s house was kind of fun. It was a big long and wide block, with houses only on two sides of it, forming an L. The rest of it was vacant lot with really tall grass, and for a long time, I used to have to ride all the way around (which was a really long way), their house beckoning all the while in the distance. Then it became obvious that other kids had been cutting diagonally across it, and finally the grass got beaten down enough to form a good path. The first time I tried riding it, I snagged a pedal in the tall grass and darn near went down hard. But after a while I got the trick of it.
It’s worth taking a couple minutes to describe the inside of the house, especially the kitchen. I spent a lot of time there as Granma and Granpa spent most of their time in the kitchen.
Turning left once inside the back door, ahead of you was the sink. It was one of those giant single-bowl farm sinks, with an integral drainboard to the right, and the faucet mounted in the back. Over the sink was a double window, which opened out from the center, but only reluctantly. Of course there were the white lacy curtains on a plain rod. All the cabinets in the kitchen were painted this light green, almost an off-white. To the right of the sink was an upper and lower cabinet, again with the linoleum countertop. The rest of the house was beyond that.
Now that particular cabinet – especially its upper drawer – was a source of endless fascination. That was their ‘odds and ends’ drawer. Granpa had his old (broken) watch in there, a small supply of rubber bands, couple balls of string, and a couple of Scotty-dogs glued to magnets. You could put one on top of the table, the other underneath, and move the top one around with the other one.
To the left of the sink was another upper and a lower, this one with open half-round shelves to its left. The upper had glasses and ordinary cups, the lower had appliances like her Sunbeam mixer, which to me was absolutely fascinating when she was making a cake (from scratch of course): the beaters would run, and the bowl beneath turned as if by magic. It was on bearings, but wasn’t driven. The action of the beaters (which were off-center) forcing the batter against the bowl made it turn. She also had two different kinds of toasters – the every-day one was a Sunbeam with these dark brown, round Bakelite knobs on the front for pulling the bread platforms down into the toaster, and there was an antique for large or homemade bread; It was the A-frame kind where you laid the bread in, then when it had toasted enough, you pulled down the side holding the bread in, and the bread slid down. Then when you raised the side, the bread would catch on the bottom, causing it to flip to the other side as you raised the side to bring the bread back up to the element.
The radio sat on this counter. To the left was the breakfast nook, a bright sunny place where Granpa spent most of the day, listening to the radio. It was a Majestic, a table model with real receiving power and a shortwave band. It was always tuned to KELA, the local 5,000 watts day, 1,000 watt night station, permanently underfunded, and on the Mutual Network. Mutual used to be a real powerhouse news network, always there before ABC and NBC Radio. At night, he used to listen to KGO, all the way down in California, and sometimes KSL from Salt Lake City (“good for news, but they have too much religion”), plus tune around the shortwave bands just for fun.
Above the radio was where the phone was. This was an early wall phone, with a separate ringer box. I will never forget the sound of that ringer, and I did find a copy of the phone in an antique shop, buying it just to install it and hear that ringer once again. If you want to look it up, it was a Western Electric Spacesaver, with a front receiver hook.
The nook had a built-in table and chairs for four. If you continued your turn to the left, there was Granma’s fridge. As I said before, it was an Admiral, about chest-high; and it had been skillfully built into the wall so that it was flush. There was just enough room in the freezer compartment for a small carton of ice cream and a couple ice cube trays – the aluminum ones with the handle that lifts to break the cubes loose (and only works about every one in ten tries).
Continuing your turn to the left, looking past the rest of the kitchen, you then faced the doorway to the living / dining room. Traveling through the aisle between the trash burner and the counter, you entered the living room.
The ‘good’ part of the house – the living/dining room and sitting area – had the ‘expensive’ light switches. Those were the ones with the two buttons: push the top one to turn the light on, the bottom one to turn it off. I still remember the distinctive ‘thunk’ that they made when pushed. The dining room light fixture was some kind of cast metal, worked to resemble vine-covered branches, and the five sockets were flower petals. Bare bulbs.
One thing about the kitchen floor – it was linoleum. Linoleum came in about four different patterns, and only about eight different colors, even with all that they sold for all those floors. Granma’s was that medium blue, with those black and red insets. But the other thing about the floor… You could take a marble, and from the living room, if you let go of the marble in exactly the right spot, you could make it weave its way across the floor, then come back somewhat, and finally go all the way out the back door. I developed this skill over a few years.
The reason the floor was like this was that this house was built on a rubble foundation. Which means that when they went to build the house, they took all the flat field stones and dry-fit them, filling in with concrete, to make the foundation. In some places, coarse aggregate was packed around the stones to make them fit and stay. You could see all this from inside the root cellar.
Yep, the house had a root cellar. There were these two heavy wood doors set at an angle, to protect the steps; I still remember how the paint on them was never great. And I was NOT allowed down there, unsupervised. I remember vividly the once or twice that I was allowed down there. It smelled of the raw earth under the house, but not of anything bad, like rodent infestations or anything. Perhaps that was the virtue of the rubble foundation. In spite of having its share of darkness, the root cellar also had the rubble piers for the foundation posts. I surreptitiously touched one, and a small rock fell to the ground. My Mom was down there with me and Granma, and Mom spun on her heel (as only a Mom can do) and in THAT tone of voice, told me “I TOLD you NOT to touch ANYTHING!!” But we came back out with three jars of canned peaches.
Out in the front yard, there was a HUGE oak tree. It had to have been good-sized even back when the house was built in the early 1890s. It was the perfect place to lean up against and read a book on a quiet afternoon. And after I discovered the hammock frame in Granpa’s garage, it was just shy of heaven to lie out there in the shade on a warm day. I do remember lying out there on a fall day, only to wake up with a blanket over me, and I’m all wet from a passing rain shower. Granma had seen me fast asleep, and rain coming; she had come out with a blanket and tenderly covered me up.
That same oak tree fell to the Columbus Day storm in October 1962. It just missed the house, only putting a branch or two on the breakfast nook. It took a couple guys with chain saws most of a week to get that tree sawn up and cleared out. The storm was so bad, there had to have been no problem getting firewood around town for years.
Across Mellen street was Street’s Grocery. I would occasionally bum some change from Granma to buy a bottle of pop on a warm day. I remember always being watched like a hawk by Mr. (Simon) Street. I never bought any candy bars from him (Granma: “Too expensive!!”) but I do remember buying the pop (Granma: “He charges ELEVEN CENTS for a bottle of pop!!” Remember, Wolff’s charged 8¢.).
After I got a bit older, I was deemed old enough to mow their lawn. My Dad had found them a really good mower (he was really partial to Toro reel mowers, as a reel does a better job), and that one always started on the first pull. The way you started it was to set the throttle just above idle, set the choke, drop the knot at the end of the starter cord into a slot in the starter pulley, then wind the cord around the pulley, hold the T of the handle in your fist so the cord came out between your index and third fingers… Take a good firm stance, and pull HARD to spin the motor. If you did everything right, it would stammer into life, and you’d wait until it started to smooth out before pushing the choke in. If you got it on the wrong side of the compression stroke, it’d backfire, spin backwards, and try to break your fingers. But once it started, As soon as you could, you’d engage the drive to run it out of the garage so you wouldn’t gas yourself. Then while it puttered away outside and warmed up, you’d go back in and get the grass catcher. Except Granpa’s grass catcher wasn’t worth much, which meant I had to just leave it off and go over the entire lawn again with the lawn sweeper. I seem to remember that Granpa’s sweeper was a Parker. The sweeper was about three times the width of the mower, so at least you were done quicker than the mowing was. I do remember that it was an acquired skill to keep the handle at exactly the right height so that the sweeper didn’t drag as you were pushing it, but low enough so that it would sweep the grass and not miss too much or leave too much behind.
Behind that garage was a big old Gravenstein apple tree. That tree had to be at least as old as the house, because it also was huge like the oak out front; and it also was about four feet through at the trunk. I remember using Granpa’s ladder and we put a swing in that tree. But the apples… WOW they were TART!! They made really great pies and applesauce (which Granma canned every fall) but if you bit into one, it would suck your lips clear to the back of your mouth. They made lemons taste sweet. The only way you could eat one was to put salt on it. I’m saddened that you don’t see Gravenstein apples any more; the Granny Smith variety are tasteless by comparison.
Across the alleyway from the apple tree was Granpa’s tool shed and chicken coop. The chickens were long gone by the time I was around, but the roosts and such were still there. The tool shed half was a danger-filled wonder to a kid. He had this step-on weed puller that was actually fun to use. It had a long handle ending in a set of four tines that pushed into the ground, with two of the tines hinged and attached to a ‘foot’. You shoved it into the ground around a weed, then rocked it over on the foot; the tines closed on the weed and the foot gave it leverage to just pop the weed out of the ground. There was also a man-powered cultivator: it had a big wheel in front, and changeable implements like a plow, flat row weeder, and so on. I used to think it was fun, pushing it around with the row weeder, going down Granpa’s garden rows – under his very watchful eye, as that garden was their meal ticket.
About Granpa’s garden: I remember it in all seasons of the year, with something to produce. He did asparagus, lots of potatoes, lettuce, carrots, parsnips, and radishes. Lots of root vegetables for storage over the winter. He did a minimum of watering (watering costs money) and the radishes would get burning HOT. You had to have sugar handy to dip the cut side in so that you could eat them. Along the alley were raspberry vines, and those were Granma’s pride and joy. I remember many summer afternoons with her, picking raspberries for cobblers, pies, and to go on ice cream.
One thing that Granma had in her freezer that we didn’t have at home were ice cream treats. I suspect that they weren’t expensive in the first place and it was a way to have a little something special. She had Dixie Cups (which I don’t find in a quick search so I’ll tell you about them), which were about a third cup of ice cream in total, split into two layers. The bottom layer was a creamy vanilla, and the top was an orange sherbet. It came with a cardboard top, to which was stuck a small flat wooden spoon. I will always remember the taste; half wooden spoon and half ice cream. The other thing was a Nutty Buddy, which was a waffle cone filled with soft ice cream, drizzled with semi-hard chocolate, and sprinkled with walnuts. On a hot day, the thing to do was to get most of the way through the ice cream, and if the bottom of the cone got too soft, you’d bite that off and suck out the melted ice cream. Then the trick was to stick a finger over the end, to keep it from running all over you.
I hope you enjoyed the journey back into the middle of the last century.
I will come back to this post in the future if I remember more things; but it’s getting fairly long at this point. Time to publish, and I hope you had as much fun reading it as I did in writing it.