Days Gone By
Editor's note: This is a continuation of a letter sent by William Stratton to the owners of the home where he was raised. The house is located at 328 N. Fourth St. and owners Valerie and Hendryk Sowa are sharing Mr. Dawson's memories with Journal readers.
If anyone has pictures or stories about their homes, please call Pat Hunter, 425-1561.
"...The kitchen was, I think, pretty standard. I seem to remember that as a boy, the stove was fired with white gasoline, but was changed to bottle gas when I was a boy.
The first ice box was just that. Ice was delivered about every second or third day and one put out a sign asking for large piece for a quarter or a smaller piece for 15 cents. The ice wagon was drawn by horses, as was the milk wagon.
Sometime in the 1930s we bought an electric refrigerator. It and the ice box were placed in the alcove at the top of the steps to the back door.
Mother made bread often when we were young. Her flour bin was just to the right of the stove.
The dining area was dominated by a round solid oak table. This was sold with other things in the house, but we wish now that we still had it. A chest of drawers on the north wall, next to the entrance to the kitchen held silver, plants, tablecloths, etc. The window to the east had a table on which Dad kept an aquarium when we were young. In the autumn we would take a minnow seine to Lake St. Croix and catch small blue gills and bass and sometimes a stickleback and keep them in the aquarium until the next summer. At times we also had tropical fish of various kinds.
The two bookcases in the dining room were put in when I was eight or ten. The carpenter was Mr. Deiss, father of a friend of mine. He may still be alive and in town. The living room was just that. We spent our evenings there. In the winter we would often have a fire in the fireplace and eat popcorn made in a popper over the open fire. The sofa was always on the east wall of the room because the west wall had the windows onto the porch and was always colder there. A big radio with a little voice, I think Philco, was in the southeast corner of the room.
The front porch, facing Fourth Street, was screened until I was eight or 10. My brother and I would often sleep there on hot nights. It was not used very much.
Upstairs I expect has not changed much except for the furniture. Our parents did not heat this floor much until my brother and I had departed and they took in a couple college students as renters. My brother and I shared the room in the southwest corner. We each had a double bed which, with a chest of drawers, pretty much filled the room. I have often wondered why we did not have single beds.
The attic was never finished while I was returning home. It was a place to store old things -- magazines (e.g. National Geographics!), pictures, etc., that mother did not want in the lower floors, but no one was ready to throw out. For a few years in grade school I was into building model airplanes and these were stored in the attic. I think that all of this and more was thrown out when my brother and I rented the house in 1961. The roof, when last seen by me, was asphalt tile shingles. This was 1961. It must have been replaced at least twice since then.
In those days all windows were single pane and we put on storm windows in the winter. I still remember frost and ice forming on the inside of the glass. We could place a finger on the ice and in a minute or two a spot would be clear of frost so that we could peer out. In the autumn these went up, in the spring down and screens would go up, etc. with the seasons. The house had no insulation by the time we sold the house in the 1960s. On some very cold winter nights we could hear a board, I suppose, pulling free and banging like a rifle shot against a nearby board. The upstairs was like an oven during hot summers.
Our father was a volunteer weather observer for the national weather service. Every morning and evening he would record the current temperature, maximum and minimum since the last reading, cloud cover, wind and precipitation, etc. I remember that the coldest he ever recorded as 49 degrees below zero; however, my brother remembers minus 51 degrees. The highest, in the hot 1930s was 109.5 deg. We often slept outside during those nights.
Trees: There were two large elm trees in the northwest corner of the lot (really only about ¾ of a standard lot). The one nearest to Fourth Street was much healthier, but the one toward the east had a large branch suitable for a rope swing with an old tire as a seat. I don't remember it being installed so it must have been in place by 1929 or 1930, nor do I remember it coming down. (Editor's note: The tree is still standing, now in the neighbor's yard, and still with a swing!)
When I was a child there were two large elm trees just behind the house -- on the east side. We had a sand pile between these trees for many years. For reasons I don't remember now when I came home from the Navy in 1945 Dad wished to cut one down. We did it, but took the furnace chimney with it. He put the chimney back up. We had a two-man cross-cut saw to cut up the wood. It did provide a lot of firewood.
The garage was on the east side next to the neighbor's garage, a most inconvenient position. To reach the garage from Fourth Street, we had to drive between the two houses, then down a small slope with a slight turn. I believe that it was made of a size to handle a Model T Ford, which I remember as the family car until I was five or six years old. The larger cars never did fit easily.
The streets were gravel until sometime in the 1930s. Dust everywhere of course, and ladies would complain. The first "improvement" was to spray oil on the streets. Unfortunately, the city fathers chose a Monday for the initial spraying. Freshly washed clothes were out everywhere, and of course the breezes carried the oil and spotted the freshly washed clothing. That ended the Monday spraying, and gradually between spraying oil and gravel spreading work the streets became a sort of blacktop. This must have been in the mid to late 1930s.
Maybe 20 or 25 feet behind the house -- to the east -- Dad maintained a small wildflower garden. It had both yellow and pink lady slippers, a beautiful orchid (similar to but different from the better known moccasin flower) that grew wild in the woods, at least before the drought years when the farmers started to pasture their cattle in the woods for food. My brother and I dug them up and gave them to Prof. Karges, but I don't think they did very well.
For many years, probably 'til 1940 there was no sidewalk between Fourth and Seventh streets. When this was put in, Dad planted an evergreen hedge between it and the house. I doubt if it still exits. (Editor's note: It does, according to the owners, and was 60 feet tall when they moved in.)
When I was a boy and until World War II, the east edge of town was pretty much Seventh Street. The next street east, Eighth or Ninth had only one or two houses. The housing boom after the war was, to us, astounding. The east-west cross street is, I think, Maple Street. There was no house between our home and Seventh Street.
There was no home on Seventh Street between Maple and Division Street. On Fourth Street going north, the house across the street (I think, Maple) was brick and even in those days it had been subdivided into apartments.
The next house was occupied by Mr. and Mrs. Ernie Ensign (several Ensigns in River Falls). Ernie made a bare living with two horses and a wagon. He would haul dirt, sand, wood, anything for a small fee. His horse stables produced lots of flies to the distress of Mother and many other ladies.
The next house was occupied by the Hix family -- I think now poor and then I thought very old.
Mr. Hix cultivated a very large garden between his house and Seventh Street. Keith Barry, Mother and Grandmother were in the next house. Keith was a close and good friend of my brother and me. They were not rich -- just the opposite, but they, the Hixes, Ernie Ensign and more survived. I can remember playing with children who clearly were not dressed warmly enough and had not had enough to eat. North of Keith's home was a vacant lot up the house on Division Street. We played softball, football, etc. on this piece of ground. I think now a street displaces part of the area.
River Falls may have been the ideal place to grow up in the 1930s. We could walk or bicycle anywhere in town with essentially no restrictions. I remember one friend who, in about grade seven or eight, said that he was going to ride his bike on every street in town. I think he did. My older brother was interested in forestry and set out to identify all the kinds of trees in town. I believe he succeeded. I wonder now if he still has the list. River Falls was a place in which many farmers would retire after their farming career was finished. Consequently, River Falls was filled with many barns in which these retired farming families had kept their horses, buggies, hay, etc. These barns, in the 1930s, had no horses or buggies, but were giant garages for Fords, Chevrolets and Plymouths. The upper levels were nesting places for pigeons and playgrounds for we children. A lively sport for we boys for a few years was to catch pigeons, adults and squabs, and try to tame them. I had one I called Brownie because of his color, but to keep him I had to clip his wing feathers. When they grew out he departed. Keith Barry was most successful. He raised a young one, called it Pete and it hung around for many years in their coal shed.
Most children had bicycles, new or used. My first was a second-hand bike for my size that cost Dad five dollars. Why in the world do I remember a number like that? Some summer evenings we, a group of 10 or 15 would simply cruise the streets. The breeze would keep us cool.
During the 1930s there were still three millponds or reservoirs in town (now two, I believe). The dam for the upper pond was about a block or two north of the intersection of Division Street and Main Street. This pond served to produce the ice I mentioned earlier. When the owner of the pond would put his horses on the ice to scrape away the snow (to allow deeper freezing) we knew the ice was safe to skate on. Late winter the owner would cut the ice into blocks and store them under straw or sawdust for later sale. This same pond served as a place to swim when the railroad was still in existence. We, boys and girls, would swim and dive off the railroad bridge that went north roughly parallel to Main Street. The water was eight or so feet deep where it crossed the pond and we could dive from the track bed. Someone before my time had kindly installed a ladder from water level to the deck. No one drowned, no harm was done. The water was a bit murky and I recollect that the girls would usually go home for a bath, but not the boys.
There was another swimming hole that we could access by bicycle. This, also, was on the Kinnickinnic. If one goes north on Main Street, in those days out of town, the road crosses the river in about a mile. Downstream from the bridge the river made a fairly deep pool. The water was a lot cleaner than the millpond. Someone had hung a rope from a tree and we could swing out and drop into the water. All this was great but one day a dead pig was found floating in the pool. Where it came from no one knew, but it certainly stopped the swimming there.
All this swimming in the river came to an end when the WPA or someone built the pool in the park. The new pool was much, much better.
As an example of our freedom, a pilot once landed his airplane in a field east of town just north of what was called "residence hill, or faculty mound" or some such. We children were there, of course. This barnstorming pilot would take passengers up for a short ride for a price of 50 cents. I desperately wanted a ride, but I did not have the money. I realized that if I went home for the money my parents would demur and so borrowed 50 cents from an older boy named John Shorta. I had no collateral nor did he ask for any. I had my ride. I was crazy about flying. I never told my parents, but I suspect they learned somehow. I later paid back the loan, but I don't remember how I obtained the money.
William R. Stratton