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The story of Rainbow Ranch and what life was like in the Middle Island area

Growing Up in Middle Island in the 1930s

by Anne Ferguson Nauman


Rainbow Ranch

There were three children in the Ferguson family – I was in the middle, Edith was four years older, and Bill was three years younger.
The Ferguson family about 1935. Photo from the collection of Mrs. Anne Ferguson Nauman

Our family moved to Middle Island in 1925, two years before I was born. Our parents, Donald and Eleanor Ferguson, bought a 150-acre farm with an apple orchard and named it Rainbow Ranch. It was on Middle Country Road, right next door to the well-known Long Island historian, Richard Bayles, and his son and daughter-in-law, Thomas and Gertrude Bayles. The original orchard was only 20 acres, and the rest of the property was mostly woods, but my father gradually cleared more land and planted more apple trees, peach trees, pears and raspberries.


The Ferguson family and the Rainbow Ranch. Photo from the collection of Mrs. Anne Ferguson Nauman

They did the clearing by cutting down the trees and then blasting the stumps out with dynamite. This was a method that had been pioneered by my mother’s father, Hal B. Fullerton, when he cleared land for the Long Island Railroad’s two experimental farms in Wading River and Medford. Dynamite got the roots out, loosened the soil, and left it enriched with nitrogen. It was exciting to watch. I remember that even though we were at a safe distance from each blast, we were rained with dirt and pebbles. They cut up the trees for firewood and burned the brush and debris in big bonfires. Then they plowed the land and went over it repeatedly with disc and harrow to level it before planting the new fruit trees. I remember putting potatoes in the bonfires to roast. They came out charcoal on the outside but soft and delicious on the inside.


Rainbow Ranch tractor. Photo from the collection of Mrs. Anne Ferguson Nauman.

My father had a magic touch with fruit trees, and he grew the best apples and peaches that could be found anywhere. He grew 40 different varieties of apples and about a dozen varieties of peaches. My sister and I can still remember the names of most of them. He often grafted new varieties onto the older apple trees. His raspberries were huge, and perfect. He allowed only the most careful pickers to handle the raspberries. Even though he had large hands, he had a delicate touch with his berries.


The Rainbow Ranch Orchard. Photo from the collection of Mrs. Anne Ferguson Nauman

All our fruit was sold at the Rainbow Ranch roadside stand. It had a huge red apple sign hanging in front, a local landmark. There was a large sorting area behind the stand where the fruit was packed. Only perfect fruit was packed in the baskets that went on the stand. They often put the best specimens near the bottom. Some fruit sellers would put inferior specimens on the bottom, with the best on the top, but our customers knew that each of our baskets would contain only perfect fruit. The windfalls and imperfect fruit were available behind the stand, for a lower price, for those who wanted to save a little money or who wanted the fruit just for cooking or canning.

 

Along with the apples, peaches, pears and raspberries we also sold tomatoes, muskmelons, corn, homemade cider, and my mother’s homemade jellies and jams. People came from all over the Island for our fruit, and asked to be put on our mailing list so that they could be notified when their favorite varieties were ready. A Russian princess always came from New York for her favorite peaches. She would arrive in a big black car with a crown painted on the door, driven by a uniformed chauffeur. I remember being very impressed by the crown on the door.

Our entire living was earned on the stand during the summer and fall, so we had no income at all during the winter and spring months. My parents had to be very careful managers because credit cards didn’t exist. If you wanted to buy something, you had to have the money to pay for it. However, many local merchants would let farmers run up their bills, and pay them when the money started to come in at harvest time. Even our dentist, Dr. Joseph Lifschitz from Patchogue, let us run up a bill for the family’s dental work.

My father spent the winter months pruning the orchard with his long pole saw and loppers. He also did pruning work for other farmers. In the spring, the most important job was spraying. He had a sign on the stand that proclaimed, “Not a worm in a wagonload,” and his careful spraying program made sure that the worms and diseases were kept at bay. It was a frustrating job because the sprayer had a nasty habit of breaking down just as he was heading to the orchard with a full tank. I remember that he always kept a big handkerchief tied around his nose and mouth while he was spraying, and we children were always kept away from the spraying operations.

The weather was a constant concern. A late frost could kill the flower buds. A few days of rain at blossom time could reduce the crop by washing away the pollen and keeping the bees away. A blossoming season with warm, sunny, windless days was cause for rejoicing. My father always lived in dread of a hailstorm after the fruit had set. Ten minutes of hail would wreak havoc on the year’s crop.

Our barn was very old and was put together with wooden pegs. In a section that once was a stable, my father set up the cider press. Its motive power was an old tractor. The windfalls and imperfect apples went into the cider press and the juice went from the press into big wooden barrels. One of our first moneymaking jobs was drawing cider from the barrels into gallon jugs. We would sit on an upturned apple basket on a cold cement floor and draw the cider through a funnel lined with a straining cloth. It was cold and messy work. We got a penny a jug.

There was an old ice house on the property but we never used it. It was built to hold blocks of ice that the old-timers would cut out of the local ponds and store for use in the warm months. They would pack the ice with hay, and it would stay frozen for most of the summer. There was a very old building that we used for a tractor shed. It became completely overgrown with trumpet vines and I’m sure it eventually collapsed. We had a new garage built but it had no doors, and one year it became a nesting place for a family of bats. My parents planted bamboo on the south side of it. Bamboo is beautiful, but it is impossible to get rid of, so there is now a bamboo forest beside the garage.

A protected storage area was needed for the apples, so my father designed a storage cellar that was dug into the side of a hill. It was a large concrete structure that was almost all underground except for the roof and the front wall. It had a wide door for the farm truck to drive in for loading and unloading apple boxes. It kept a fairly constant temperature so it was cool in the summer and never froze in the winter. Each day’s crop went from the orchard into the storage cellar. The fruit that was on the stand, or in the sorting area behind the stand, was always moved to the cellar just before dark and then taken out again in the morning. I remember helping with this after I became strong enough to lift the apple boxes.

Picture on left is the ice house, above is the storage cellar dug into the hill, and under construction. Photos from the collection of Mrs. Anne Ferguson Nauman

We had a small greenhouse where my father started his tomato seedlings. They were good-sized plants when he set them out, so he was able to get the earliest fruit. This gave him an advantage over the other growers at the start of the tomato season. I remember that his favorite variety was Bonny Best. There was a small coal furnace down in a pit in the potting shed that adjoined the greenhouse. It was intended to heat the greenhouse, but I don’t remember it ever being used. I do remember slipping on the ladder that went down into the furnace pit, and getting coal dust in my scraped knee. There’s still a black spot on my knee.

The pump house was behind the greenhouse. The water pump was in a pit about six feet below ground level. It pumped water up into a big storage tank, and I think that it was just gravity from the tank that supplied the house with water. The pump often broke down, especially at spraying time, which caused great consternation. My father had to go to a place in Ronkonkoma to get parts for the repairs. I think it was Zeidler’s.

We had a small cement pool in the back yard and it was a good place to splash around during the summer. In later years, my mother planted water lilies in it, and there was a huge resident bullfrog named Rudolph. He was Bill’s special pet. Bill always had a great affection for frogs. We had a swing on a horizontal branch of the big catalpa tree that still stands by the kitchen door. My sister recalls having an airplane swing, but I don’t remember that.

When my parents bought the farm, it had a very old house that was in such bad condition that they tore down everything except the huge old chimney with its three fireplaces. Then they built a new house around the old chimney. The biggest fireplace was in our living room, and it was enormous. It had an old iron crane for hanging kettles on. The andirons were in the shape of cats with yellow glass eyes that glowed when there was a fire behind them. The fireplace was an important source of heat in the winter. My father built huge fires, with flames roaring up the chimney. I remember that we once had a chimney fire. My father rushed up to the roof and poured something down the chimney. I don’t know what it was, and it made a terrible mess, but it did the job. During the warmer months, the chimney swifts would make nests in the chimney and we could hear the babies twittering.


The original Hutchinson homestead replaced by the Ferguson home. Right - the fireplace in the home.


Andirons in the shape of cats. Photos from the collection
of Mrs. Anne Ferguson Nauman

We had running water, so we were able to have two indoor bathrooms, but we had no electricity until the spring of 1935, when I was seven years old. I don’t remember what powered our water pump before we got electricity. We used kerosene lamps for light. They were smelly and messy. The wicks had to be trimmed and the glass chimneys had to be washed often because they would get coated with soot when the flame was turned too high.

We had a telephone, but it was a party line. Our ring was one long and one short. You always knew when your neighbors had a call. If you were really nosy, you could listen in, but we never did. If you needed to make an important call and a neighbor was on the line, you would ask them to please hang up so you could make your call. The phone sat on a small shelf on the wall. It had a big earpiece hanging on a hook at the side, and you had to stand up to use it. There was no dial – you had to turn a crank to reach the operator. She would say, “Number please,” you would give her the number you wanted to call, and she would make the connection for you. I remember the first time I talked on the telephone. My mother wanted me to say hello to one of her friends, but I couldn’t understand a word that was coming from the other end. Children never used the telephone to chat with their friends, as that would have tied up the line for several families. Cell phones were a thing of the distant future.

The stove in our kitchen was a big coal-burning iron range. A water tank attached to it was our source of hot water. There was no way to adjust the temperature of the cooking surface, so you had to just move the pots around to find the right spot. And of course there was no way to regulate the temperature in the oven, so again it was guesswork. My mother didn’t bake her own bread, but she made the best pies in the world in that oven. She made great baked beans too, and luscious sponge cakes and gingerbread. A coal scuttle sat beside the stove and it had to be filled every day from the coal bin in the cellar. The ashes fell into a metal box and when it was full we would empty it on our dirt driveway. We also had a kerosene stove that we used in the hot weather. However, when we let the big coal stove go out, we had no hot water.

With no electricity, we couldn’t have a refrigerator, but we had an icebox. It was a big wooden box with two compartments, one for ice on the top and one for food on the bottom. It had a drip pan underneath to catch the water from the melting ice, and if you didn’t remember to empty it once a day you had to mop up a flood. An iceman came once a week with a truckful of big blocks of ice, and he would cut the blocks to size with an ice pick. There were no nice neat ice cubes, so if you wanted ice in your lemonade you had to use the ice pick to hack small chunks off the big block.

Of course we didn’t have a washing machine or a dryer, so doing the laundry was a hard day’s work. I often helped with the washing. We had a big soapstone washtub next to the kitchen door. The procedure was to fill the tub with hot water and dirty clothes, rub each piece with a cake of yellow Fels Naphtha soap, and then scrub it on a scrubbing board. This was hard on the knuckles and hard on the clothes. Then you would wring everything out, one piece at a time, putting it through the rollers of the hand-cranked wringer that was clamped to the edge of the tub. Then you refilled the tub with rinse water, and rinsed everything. Once more through the wringer, and then you lugged a heavy basket of wet clothes out to the yard and hung them on the clothesline. In the winter, the clothes would freeze stiff before they dried, so you had to drape them around the house to finish drying. Today’s automatic dryers are a godsend, but nothing smells as fresh and clean as clothes and bed sheets dried in the fresh air and sunshine.


kitchen at the Rainbow Ranch. Photo from the collection of Mrs. Anne Ferguson Nauman

Ironing was another hard day’s work. Girls in the family were expected to help with this chore. The irons were heavy, and had to be heated on top of the coal range. They had removable wooden handles that you could switch from one iron to another as they cooled. Again, it was guesswork as to the temperature. If you licked your finger and touched an iron (quickly) and it sizzled, the temperature might be just right, or it might be too hot. I left quite a few scorch marks when I was learning to iron. Before each piece was ironed, it had to be sprinkled with water and rolled up for an hour or so, until it was evenly damp. Even after we got an electric iron, the clothes still had to be sprinkled and rolled. Steam irons were yet to be invented. There were no wash-and-wear fabrics, so everything needed ironing. Even the sheets got ironed. We always used cloth napkins, which also needed ironing. We each had our own special napkin ring, and each napkin was used for several days.

During the busy season, my mother had to work full-time on the stand, so she would hire a local girl to help with the laundry and cleaning. I think Bertha Nowaski, Eddie and Ann Nowaski’s older sister, was one of her early helpers. I do remember Emily Buniski, Florence and Henry Buniski’s sister. We called her Emmy. Whenever I think of Emmy, I picture her at the ironing board where she cheerfully spent so many hours. I shouldn’t say it, but Emmy did a much better job of it than my mother did.

We heated the house with the living room fireplace, the kitchen range, and a coal furnace in the cellar that was connected to hot-air registers in the floor. Coal was delivered in a truck that would drive right up to the house. A metal chute went from the truck through a small window in the cellar and the coal was shoveled down the chute into the coal bin below. It made quite a racket. My sister recently had the experience of having a hot air balloon fly low over her house, and she said the whooshing sound of the gas jets sounded just like the sound of coal whooshing down the chute into our coal bin. My father had to shovel the coal from the bin into the furnace every morning. Then at night the furnace had to be banked so that it wouldn’t go out, and that left the house pretty cold by morning. Sometimes it was so cold upstairs in the bedrooms that you could see your breath when you woke up in the morning. After we got electricity, we put a small electric space heater in the upstairs bathroom. It got pretty crowded with five of us trying to get washed and dressed. I loved watching my father shave. He lathered his face using a soft, fat brush and then deftly scraped off lather and whiskers with a straight razor. He kept the blade sharp by stroking it on a leather razor strop.

We didn’t have a shower so we had to take tub baths. Our bathtub was the freestanding kind with claw feet. We only used about two inches of water in the tub because the supply of hot water was severely limited. I never felt really clean and I still dislike tub baths. Most people didn’t bathe every day. We had to wash our hair in the sink and we only did that about once a week. We truly appreciate the present day luxury of being able to take a hot shower and wash our hair every day.

Our cellar had a dirt floor and was always cool, so that’s where we kept the potatoes and other root vegetables. It had floor-to-ceiling shelves, and at the end of the growing season the shelves were loaded with jars of home-canned fruits, vegetables, berries, tomatoes, applesauce, jams, jellies, conserves, relishes, pickles, chili sauce, pickled crabapples, fruit compote and tomato juice. Everyone canned enough to feed the family until the next season came around. Women and girls spent a good part of the summer at this hot, messy, time-consuming chore. It was a great day when a family could buy a home freezer, but I think this was not until after World War II. Freezers really streamlined the task of preserving foods for the winter.

Part II - The East Middle Island School

 

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