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Growing up Rock

 

These are the recollections of one of the first children to grow up in the house I (David A. Fuess) live in. The house is in Rock, Michigan in the Upper Peninsula and was build by the author's father,Charles Larson, in 1914.

Family Stuff

by

Charles H. Larson

According to family gossip and state vital statistic records, I was two hours late for supper (NOT “dinner”), the day I was born.

I arrived red-haired, I presume red-faced and squalling at 8 p.m. on an extremely hot July 5, 1913 at the home of Charles Ludwig and Bertha Follina (Johnson) Larson, in Rock. Then --- and still --- a dumpy little Upper Peninsula town.

At the time, I didn't have a name. But that was taken care of a few days later when Charles Howard Larson was handed me as the name to bear for all time to come --- Although Aunt Amber (who later denied her crime) decided to bastardize Junior and gave me the name Junie that was to haunt me through most of my adult years. Not until more than 60 years later when Gerald Ford (also red-haired and born nine days later than I in Nebraska) became President of the United States did I quit cringing when someone unexpectedly resurrected that childhood nickname. I reasoned that if a President of the United States could bear up under the ignominy of being called Junie by his family and friends, I could too!

Perhaps understandably so, I don't recall the moments surrounding my entry into this strange world. Then the third child and second son in the family after Lillian Alice and Gilbert Walter. A third son, Robert Millard, was to come 13 years later, as an afterthought.

In fact, my first lasting memory was a small picture of an owl --- on a package of yeast cakes held in the hand of Uncle Walter (Johnson). He had stopped to visit us not many months before he lost his life when the Canadian ore carrier Merida, on which he was an oiler, went down in a monstrous storm off Port Stanley, Ont., in Lake Erie in late October, 1916.

I have no idea why I remember the package of yeast with its picture of the owl rather than Uncle Walter (mother's favorite brother, who, incidentally sailed on the Great Lakes to get relief from asthma). Perhaps it was because that was in the direct line with my vision not far above the floor on which I was standing as he sat on a long, low leather couch across the room.

Being only two or three years old, I remember little of our daily lives at the time. But indelibly etched in my memory is the anguished shriek that came from mother as she answered the phone one day and learned from Grandma Johnson that the Escanaba Daily Mirror had just arrived with the story of the lake disaster that took the life of Uncle Walter and all the rest of the 24-man crew aboard the Merida. No one had bothered to notify the family. It must have been a shock to pick up the paper and read that your son had drowned.

I should, perhaps, digress here to explain the telephone in Rock (then known more familiarly as Maple Ridge) in 1916. It was one of five hand-cranked wall phones of a private system that Uncle Walter had built to connect Grandma (and Grandpa) Johnson with us, Uncle Albert (Tessie) Larson, a house that Uncle Walter owned and the Excelsior factory, which was later managed by another Johnson, Uncle Eddie.

The phone system was strictly family and not connected to the “outside world.” Each of the five phones had its own call --- a combination of long and short rings. I have been reminded often of the time when I was at Grandma's (about a quarter mile east of our house), climbed on a chair near the phone and announced: “Ring, a ring, a ring. Now I'll talk to Bertha.”

The house where I spent the first 20 years of my life was the largest house in Rock (undoubtedly because Dad built it) and, as you know located on the south side of the country road about a quarter of a mile east of the center of town. It was flanked on the west by the homes of Uncle Charlie Carlson (Aunt Annie as Dad's sister) and uncle Otto Larson on the east by Grandpa and Grandma (John) Larson. Grandpa died July 4, 1918 of “Dropsy.” Grandma had a real Swedish accent and looked like the farmer's wife in Grant Wood's American Gothic. She lived for several years with then unmarried daughter, Ellen, who worked in the post office, of which Uncle August Larson was postmaster for many years. Later Aunt Ellen married Fred LeClaire of Perkins (a fine man who had a delightful French accent) and, when Grandma died in 1931, they were given the property by Aunt Annie and the brothers for having cared for Grandma for 12 or 13 years.

We did a lot of living in our house and there was plenty of room. Downstairs (first floor) there were a kitchen, dining room, bedroom (where Mom and Dad slept), “front parlor” with a piano, small office for Dad and a long walk-in closet --- later made into a lavatory. The dining room was large and also served as the living room. It has the aforementioned leather couch --- our favorite piece of furniture. Knowing Mother's love of flowers and plants, Dad had built into the east wall a recessed bay window on whose ledge Mother kept her precious plants. Particularly, I recall geraniums, Christmas cacti, African violets and many others. The possessor of what may here have been the original green thumb.

The southeast corner of the living-dining room was Dad's corner --- replete with a birdseye maple table cluttered with his “literature” (The Escanaba paper, the small town favorite weekly “Grit,” and a Zane Gray novel or two). Dad always had to “send a couple of desperadoes packing” before retiring for the night.

Near the corner of the table was Dad's smoking stand with its omnipresent corncob pipe (notched deeply on one side from constant striking of matches) and one or two tins of “Velvet” smoking tobacco (“Prince Albert” when “Velvet” wasn't available). Only at Christmas time would there be a box of cigars, which we kids loved to buy him because we liked the smell of fresh cigar smoke (Mom never complained --- to us, at least --- of the resulting stale cigar smoke).

The parlor and Dad's office, as well as the small foyer leading to an enclosed porch on the north side of the house, were separated from the living-dining room by a sliding door (that often jumped the track).

For many years, a break-front book case stood against the west wall of the dining room near the sliding door. It contained a strange collection of “literary gems” --- “Monseur Beaucaire”, “The Saga of the Sinking of the Titanic”, Horatio Alger and Frank Meriwell books (years later in Chicago I wrote an obituary of the author of the Meriwell books) and a set of International Correspondence School books on architecture, carpentry, brick-laying, stone masonry and other “arts” that Dad learned from.

I shall never forget that book-case, not so much because of the books it contained but, rather, from an unfortunate and embarrassing incident in which I was the culprit. One day I became angry at Lillian, for some obviously inconsequential reason long lost in the intervening years. I had a light baseball bat in my hand and, with my red hair generating meanness, I swung at the back of her legs just as she was walking in front of the book-case. Wanting to scare her, rather than maime her for life, I intended the bat should hit the door frame of the book-case. Unfortunately, my aim was not too good, shall we say? The shattered panel of glass (or rather the door without glass) stood long after that as a silent reminder of my lack of prowess with a baseball bat, and my childish temper!

Because for many years, our large house had no furnace, the “front” part of the house was seldom used during the cold months. For most of the year, the house was heated by the kitchen cast-iron stove. But when fall came, the call went out for Uncle Charlie and Uncle Fred. They and Dad laboriously brought the cast-iron space-heater into the living room and hooked it up to the stovepipe connecting with the pipe hole in the wall. The stove, fired by hardwood, had an “isingglass” window in the front door, through which we often watched the leaping flames within the stove. In spring, of course, the stove had to be returned to the barn for summer storage.

The kitchen was the “command post” of the house but, before going into that, let's go upstairs where there were five bedrooms and a huge cistern and, in later years, where Mother “took in” five teachers as roomers (at $4 or $5 a month) to help keep our family treasury somewhat solvent. Gil and I shared one room (we huddled together in bed to keep warm in the heatless upstairs) and Lil had one room. Occasionally an out-of-towner or two working for Dad (teamster or construction worker) occupied the other rooms.

When the teachers came, another space heater was installed in the small, square hallway and at least some of its warm air permeated the rooms on the periphery, although one couldn't say things were as warm as toast during sub-zero blasts.

Up another flight of stairs was the walk-in but unfinished, attic that contained great treasures for growing youngsters --- two or three smelly steamer trunks filled with old, fading family pictures and mementos; a long, collapsible spy glass belonging to Uncle Walter; an outmoded radio; old clothes (I once found a $5 bill in the pocket of a coat), books, papers, etc. It was a great place to spend a rainy day. In winter, mother hung her washing up to dry.

Back downstairs again --- to the basement. This was where Mother kept all the fruit and vegetables she canned each year. A potato bin occupied one corner, holding a supply large enough to keep the family in spuds through the winter and early summer until the next year's crop was harvested.

The southeast corner of the basement held the piles of wood --- hardwood, and cedar for “kindling” --- needed to keep the stove going through the winter. It was my job to haul two armsfull of wood each day to the kitchen wood-box (which was topped by a wooden medicine cabinet that reached almost to the ceiling). Hauling wood was a chore I especially disliked (for the record, I disliked all chores of every kind!) because the sharp edges of the split wood dug into my then tender arm muscles. Many times after I had gone to bed I would hear Mother fill the wood-box that I had “forgotten” to fill. Unfortunately, I was no Calvin Coolidge who, according to legend, got up late one night and filled the wood-box at Plymouth Notch, Vt., that he had forgotten to fill before going to bed!

In early years, the basement also served as a cooler where milk not needed for the family was placed in rather shallow pans. When left overnight, the cream rose to the top, was skimmed off, and kept until enough had accumulated to churn (hand operated) into butter. The skim milk was thrown out or fed to the pigs. Several years later, Dad bought a cream separator (De Laval) and the milk was run through it immediately after it was brought in from the barn. We usually had two or three cows, which Mother and I milked (many a time cows kicked over an almost full pail of milk while trying to dislodge a pesky horse fly).

The cream separator was a fascinating machine. The milk was poured into a large metal bowl on top. Below it was a steel cone-shaped device on a spindle, filled with about 15 or 20 thin metal cones on top of each other and in a meticulous order (if any was out of order, the cream wouldn't come through). The metal cones were full of holes, closely resembling modern day computer punch card holes.

Emanating from over the top of the soon-to-be spinning cone were two spouts --- one wider than the other --- that were placed over two containers. When the separator was “separating,” skim milk poured from the wider spout and the separated cream ran from the smaller (and upper, because cream is lighter and rises to the top) into the pail and smaller container below.

But before the cream and milk ran through the machine, it was necessary for the “operator” (usually me) to crank up the machine to a “substantial” speed. (some separators had a bell to indicate that the proper speed had been reached but, lacking such a sophisticated device, the operator of our machine learned by the trial and error method when the cone was spinning fast enough so the milk from the upper bowl could be released to the separator by turning a spigot).

As I recall, a pail of milk required about two minutes of rapid cranking before the bowl emptied --- and a small amount of hot water was run through to flush out all the cream.

The pail of skim milk was taken to the barn and fed to the pigs. The cream, minus what was necessary for family coffee and sundry other uses, was put into a closed 5-gallon cream can, allowed to collect until full and then taken to the local creamer. There the dollar or two it earned (the amount depended on the butterfat content of the cream, which varies among cows) was accepted and added to the family's limited supply of grocery money.

But --- back down to the basement. In our earlier years, the basement had only a dirt floor and the outside drainage around the house was often inadequate. That had its minuses and pluses. In the spring or after an unusually heavy rain, water flooded the basement floor, often to a depth of a foot or so. When that happened, mother would send us to the basement --- barefooted of course --- to wade to the shelves to get needed cans of fruit and vegetables, and to the other corner to get wood for the wood-box. Often, if the water remained more than a few days, potatoes would develop long sprouts. This caused no great problem, though, as the sprouts were easily knocked off.

Later --- I don't remember just when --- Dad poured a concrete floor in the basement and flooding was no longer a problem. After the floor was poured, we frequently roller skated in the basement but this sport came to a sad end when a furnace was installed in the middle of the room and one corner was walled off to provide a coal bin.

The southwest corner of the basement was enclosed by a floor-to-ceiling stone wall to create a second cistern (the one upstairs was a huge circular galvanized tin tank) that collected soft rain water from a trough descending from the roof. The cistern was connected by a pipe to a hand pump in a small room (shed) near the kitchen door and we were provided with soft water (underground water in Rock was extremely high in calcium content and “ungood” for washing clothes).

 

After one last look around, we leave the basement and return to the first floor for a little look at our so-called lighting system.

For several years, our lighting system comprised what are now romantically called “hurricane lamps.” They were simple kerosene lamps, which gave us low, yellow flickering light. They needed filling, as I recall, every day or so, and the globed blackened by smoke, had to be cleaned --- by the simple procedure of wiping the inside of each globe with part of a page of wadded newspaper.

We thought modern lighting had arrived with the advent of loudly hissing Coleman lamps. They were, indeed, a great improvement in the quality of light --- actually brighter than many electric lights that followed several years later. But the hissing could become tiresome. The light was provided through two small mantle-like pouches or wicks. Gasoline (I think) was poured into a small (probably quart-size) tank at the bottom of the light shaft and air was pumped into a closeable hole in the tank with a little hand operated pump. This pressurized the gas and forced the atomized gas into the two sac-like wicks above. When the gas was released to the wicks, a lighted match was held to them for 15 to 30 seconds before they “caught” and shone with a bright white light.

When the air pressure ran low after rather extended use in an evening, it was necessary to get out the little hand pump and restore the pressure.

Because of the poor light provided by the kerosene lamps and the noise of the Coleman lamps, evenings were not usually lengthy affairs. Early to bed!

Much of this problem with lighting came to a virtual end when Uncle Eddie (Johnson) built a small diesel-powered plant near the excelsior factory across from the C&NW depot and many homes in Rock (ours, among them) were connected with small power lines.

I remember how excited we kids were when the first light was turned on in the kitchen. Always childishly skeptical, we ran through the house turning on all the lights one by one. Having made the complete circuit, we returned to the kitchen and proudly announced: “Even the lights upstairs work!” Can you imagine --- electricity getting all the way upstairs? By itself!

Actually, there were some limitations to the newfound electrical wonders. As I recall, the power system operated only from 4 p.m. until about 10 or 11 p.m., when the diesel motor was shut off. At that, it was a vast improvement.

For some reason, the power system later was sold to Uncle Herman (Johnson) who moved it to the south end of town. Uncle Herman, a long-time bachelor who married teacher Virginia Hoover of Charlotte, N.C., rather late in life, loved kids and I spent most of my spare time at his plant. He had an extremely probing mind and loved to get kids to think by asking: “I wonder why that does that?” or “I wonder what would happen if so and so?”

I would leave school at 3 p.m., go directly to the nearby power plant and get the diesel engine ready for him to start at 4 p.m. He taught me what little I know about how things operate electrically. Incidentally, he also taught me how to drive his car --- when I was about 11 years old. I was so small I had to look under the top of the steering wheel to see the road. Once he wanted to pick up a truck (or tractor) at St. Nicholas, about nine miles from Rock and asked me to go along to drive his car back. The trip back alone was nothing short of sheer torture. I imagined every approaching car was loaded with heavily-armed state police ready to nab me and whisk me off to “State Prison” (Mother's favorite scare term) for driving without a license! Muscle spasms, caused by stark fear, caused my right foot to jerk up and down on the accelerator. It might be said properly that I jerked the car back to Rock!

But --- to digress! --- and return to the kitchen of our home! Most important to a growing youngster, of course, it was where Mother prepared our meals. She very much disliked doing housework and her efforts in that department left much to be desired. But she was an excellent cook. At least, we thought she was an excellent cook! And she had awards to show for it.

She was known for her pie-baking talent --- especially apple, blueberry, raspberry, custard and shoopack. She won many first prizes every year at the U.P. state fair at Escanaba with her pies and her canned goods. At one time, she baked several pies daily (charged 35 cents a pie --- and that included labor and all ingredients) and they were delivered (by me) to a restaurant operated by Mrs. Charles Harjer in the center of Rock. I used to bring home from $1.05 (for 3 pies) to $1.75 (for 5) a day from my pie delivery route! During the depression, $1.75 was well worth going after.

Another of Mother's fortes was Parker house rolls --- and bread. And she was a master --- or mistress --- at roasting pork in the wood stove for Sunday dinner. At our house, it wasn't “chicken every Sunday.” It was pork roast, mashed potatoes and gravy, home made buns or rolls, and apple pie!

But we used to groan when Mother would send us to Uncle August's store for a beef steak. We'd whine: “Oh, no. Not that again!” It wasn't her fault, but the home-grown beef steak was as tough as boiled yak.

We didn't complain so vehemently when the order of the day was beef to boil. The toughness could be boiled out. Mother called it “boiling beef” --- and therein lies a tale. One day, when I was about five, she sent me to the store to get “3 pounds of boiling beef.”

It must have been one of my first solo shopping trips because, when I returned, she asked if I had any trouble. Very proudly I replied: “Nope. I just walked right up to the 'manger' and told Uncle Otto: 'Mom wants three pounds of beeling boif!'”

To a budding farm boy, not yet wise to the world, any parapet like structure --- like a grocery store counter --- quite naturally was a “manger.”

In addition to meal preparation, the kitchen (especially on Mondays) was the center of a big operation --- washing clothes.

As soon as breakfast was over, Mother put a large elongated copper boiler on top of the wood-stove (after removing two round lids to permit the direct contact with the hardwood fire). After it was filled with water and yellow soap cut into it, clothes were put in to boil --- and be stirred frequently with a broom stick (from which the worn out broom had been cut off).

Two large galvanized tin tubs were set up on a double rack in the middle of the kitchen with a hand operated wringer screwed on a divider board between the two tubs.

When the clothes had boiled the proper length of time (my youthful mind had little interest in the span of that time), they were transferred, still steaming, into the first tub into which a washboard had been placed. As needed, the clothes were given another soaping and, also as needed, a vigorous rubbing on the wash board. When deemed sufficiently clean, they were run through the wringer into the tub of rinse water. After sufficient sloshing around the rinse water, the clothes were run back through the wringer, caught before dropping into the tub of soapy water, and dropped into nearby clothes baskets before being hug to dry on lines outside. Only in the coldest weather were clothes hung in the attic. It was not an unusual sight to see stiffly frozen clothes hanging on the lines that ran from the crossposts between the house and the barn.

Though I never thought much of it at the time, ironing must have been a spartan chore. Three or four flat irons would be heated on the kitchen stove and picked up, one by one, with a detachable curved wooden handle and used until too cool to be effective.

So much for Monday morning in the kitchen.

Another thing I remember about the kitchen was the making of cheese --- I assume cottage cheese, although we didn't call it that. Frequently, mother would put what appeared to be semi-solid cream into the thin cloth, tie it at the top and suspend it for perhaps an hour or so (maybe more or less) from the top oven over the hot part of the stove. I presume the heat curdled the cream into cheese. Mother used to make head cheese, too, but the process for achieving that completely escapes me. I do recall that she loved pigs feet, the bare mention of which turned me off!

Whoops --- back to the laundry operation (don't you just love my careful organization of this disjointed narrative?).

It should be mentioned that the laundry water usually came from the cistern pump. But at times, there was no water left in the cistern. Then the water had to be carried, pail by pail, in from the outside well. A frequent problem in winter was a frozen pump --- the handle wouldn't work. So, drinking water remaining in the pail in the kitchen or water from the reservoir on the kitchen stove was heated and poured into the top of the outside pump to thaw out the ice. Just thought you would want to know!

Years later, Dad installed a water system in the house and made a bathroom out of one of the small upstairs rooms. Until that time, we were required --- in freezing cold blizzards and steaming hot weather --- to trudge to the (often snowy) two-holer near the chicken coop. Yes, believe it or not, Sears and “Monkey Ward” catalogues were the Charmin and not so cottony-soft Cottonelle of our day! On particularly cold days, one wisely did not permit ones bare skin to touch the ice-cold boards of the seat. Try that delicate balancing act some time!

I guess our childhood was pretty normal for any youngster growing up in a small town in the, say, 1915 to 1925 era.

Although we didn't know it then, we were poor although we never were without food or other essentials of life. Because Gilbert was older than I, I inherited a lot of hand-me-down clothes. In summer, we went barefooted a lot (once I got a stone bruise on my heel that wouldn't heal --- no pun intended --- so I went around most of the summer with a horrible poultice of flax seed on it).

We suffered the usual cuts and bruises, and stepped on rusty nails. Fortunately, tetanus germs either felt sorry for us or we were so undernourished that they failed to flourish. We never knew about tetanus shots or, if we did, the nearest doctor at Escanaba 28 miles away was seldom consulted.

In our early years, we were tended to by a fabled character, “Dr.” Charles Calley, who had an office (noted for a singular lack of cleanliness) in the front room of his home near the center of Rock. He signed my birth certificate as attending physician but, I discovered years later when I found a copy through the state health laboratory, he did not use the “M.D.” after his name. His panacea for almost all ills was iodine, which he dispensed liberally on every cut and bruise. Once while playing in a barn, I spilled the contents of a bottle of iodine all over my hands. “Dr.” Calley didn't use iodine that time. “Dr.” Calley's medical background was a mystery but he was tireless in taking care of people. In dead of winter, he would hitch up his horse and cutter and drive miles to care for a sick child or pregnant mother. During the flu epidemic of 1918, he literally killed himself working day and nights trying to save lives. Late one night, he came home too tired to undress for bed so he sat down in a chair in his living room. He was found dead sitting upright in the morning.