Growing Up in Middle Island in the 1930s
by Anne Ferguson Nauman
Part III - Family Life
My family life was very different from that of most of my classmates. Most of them were of Polish descent and their parents had come to this country fairly recently. The fathers could speak English fairly well, but many of the mothers had very limited English, so at home the parents would speak in Polish but the children would answer in English. I envied my classmates the ability to speak two languages. It is surely a great gift to have the opportunity to become bilingual. Their foods were different too. I remember tasting my first potato pancake at the Deptas’ house, and discovering the sweet joys of krushchiki at the Obiedzenskis’ house. I don’t know how to spell it, but it is delectable.
My grandfather, Hal B. Fullerton, lived with us for many years. My memories of him are hazy, because he died when I was only seven. One thing I do remember is his willingness to read to me at any time. I would choose a book, climb into his lap in his big wing chair, and say, “Read me, Grampa.” And he would read for as long as I wanted. He helped me learn to read before I started school. I also remember that he had a terrible cough. He would have to stop reading when he had a coughing spell, and then catch his breath. I’m sure he had emphysema, the result of a lifetime of heavy smoking, but in those days it didn’t have a name. It was so bad that in the winter, when our house got so cold at night, my parents would send him to stay with John and Catherine Morrissey in Patchogue. They had central heating, so he was more comfortable there. He had been John’s scoutmaster many years earlier, when they lived in Medford, so they were old and dear friends.
Grampa had a beard for a couple of years, but he had it shaved off when I was about four. That was a traumatic experience for me. When he emerged from the barbershop, I was totally shocked at his newly shaven appearance. I remember hiding my face all the way home in the car, and being unable to look at him for several days. I would walk past him with my head turned away. I eventually accepted the fact that this bare-faced person was still my beloved Grampa. He did keep his mustache.
After my grandfather died, my uncle, Loring Fullerton, lived with us for many years. He was my mother’s brother. He had studied landscaping in college and he worked for Hart’s Nursery in Wading River and then the Baier Lustgarten Nursery in Ridge. He wanted to start his own nursery so my parents let him have a ten-acre field at the north end of the farm. We called it the North Forty. He had no money for nursery stock so he started everything from cuttings and seeds. As the trees and shrubs got bigger, he moved them to a smaller lot near the road, next to the stand. This was his retail area, and he called it Rainbow Nursery.
Loring and my mother had always been very close, although they were seven years apart. They had much in common, as she had graduated from a two-year horticultural school and was an expert gardener. She knew the Latin names of everything, as did Loring, so they spoke the same language in more ways than one. He had a droll sense of humor, and kept the family laughing with his nonsense. He once planted a Cotoneaster by our cellar door, and named it Cotoneaster bidacella. (Say it quickly.)
Loring had been captain of his track team, and an outstanding miler, at Michigan State University. He talked a lot about running. He had run a mile in 4:21, and often speculated on who would run the first four-minute mile, which was then considered a near impossibility. He favored Glenn Cunningham to do it, but it was Roger Bannister who finally broke that barrier in 1954. Since then, countless runners have gone under four minutes, with a current record of about 3:43. I remembered these conversations in later years, when I became a runner myself.
My great-grandfather, John Alonzo Jones, built Badger’s Dutch Oven Inn on the east edge of our property, just down the hill from the stand. He had help from Albert Bayles with the framing, but he did most of the work himself, even though he was in his eighties. We always called him Badger. His daughter, Catherine Cowles, would come out from the city to help him at the Inn during the summer. They served simple foods that could be cooked in their Dutch oven, which was modeled after the one in our ancient chimney. They served baked beans, delicious nut bread, apple pie, and clam chowder. I liked to walk down the path through the woods from our house to the Inn. There was usually a catbird’s nest in the briar patch along the way. I loved Badger’s nut bread, and liked to help Aunt Catherine roll her cigarettes. She smoked a lot, and had a little device that rolled the tobacco into the little white cigarette papers. I didn’t do a very neat job of it, but it was fun. I always called her my great-half-aunt because she was the half-sister of my mother’s mother.
This was the time of the Great Depression, so we didn’t have much in the way of material possessions. It didn’t bother us, because everyone else was in the same boat. My mother had a saying, which we heard frequently: “Use it up, Wear it out, Make it do, Do without.” Nothing was wasted. I am still appalled at the amount of stuff that is thrown away in this day of disposable-everything and plastic-everything. In those days, very little was thrown away, and plastics didn’t exist. Leftover bits of soap were put into a mesh holder that you could swish in the dish pan to wash the dishes. Food scraps went into the compost pile or went to the animals. Worn-out sheets were cut down to make pillowcases. Feed bags were cut up to make kitchen towels and girls’ slips. Worn clothes were mended or patched until they were no longer usable, and then they became cleaning rags. Holes in socks were darned. I remember feeling gleeful but guilty the first time I threw away a sock with a hole it, instead of darning it, but that wasn’t until the 1950s. Frayed shirt collars were removed, turned over, and sewn back on. There was always a big pile of clothes to mend and socks to darn.
We had a trash burner behind the greenhouse. This was a chicken wire enclosure where we burned waste paper and anything else that was combustible. Real trash, like broken crockery, glass, leaky pots, rusty hinges, and other such unusable junk, was eventually loaded onto the farm truck and taken to our family dump in the woods at the edge of the orchard. Every farm had a dump like this, in a far corner of the property. There was a town dump, I think on Whiskey Road. Donald Bayles used to go there to shoot rats, but unfortunately we were never able to join him.
Wearable clothes, including shoes, were passed down from older to younger children. It was a lucky younger child who had something new to wear. All my dresses were homemade – and we always had to wear dresses at school. In high school it was skirts and sweaters or blouses. No pants for girls in those days. In grade school we had to wear brown cotton stockings held up with round garters. My sister remembers having to wear underwear with attached garters to hold up the stockings. Shoes were usually “sensible” clunky brown oxfords. No nice comfy sneakers for school, although I think the boys wore high-top Keds. It was a lucky lad who had high-top leather boots in the winter. I still remember the first shoes that I was allowed to pick out myself – a pair of soft red moccasins that I got when I was thirteen. I loved them.
There was no such thing as fast food, or junk food, or pre-packaged food, or frozen food. There were no 7-11’s or convenience stores. We had never even heard of pizza. Everything was made from scratch. And we had to eat everything on our plates. We only had one solid piece of meat each week, usually a roast. Then it was hash, meatloaf, stew, baked beans and the like. But of course we had an endless supply of fresh vegetables and fruit in the summer and fall, and home-canned vegetables and fruit in the winter. Everybody had a big vegetable garden, and what didn’t get eaten fresh got canned for the winter. The vegetables were wonderful. There’s nothing like a tomato picked ripe off the vine, or a pod of freshly picked peas. We always had a big plate of sliced tomatoes with dinner. As for corn, my mother would put a big pot on the stove, and when it was boiling, then we were sent out to pick the corn. The favorite variety was Golden Bantam. It was so good, each of us would eat three or four (or five or six) ears until there was a mountain of empty cobs.
If we wanted a snack, we ate an apple or a peanut butter sandwich, or maybe a few graham crackers. Anna Cattle, the wife of my father’s hired man who lived in a cottage on the farm, always gave us rye bread and butter. She also gave us peppermint Chiclets. And of course there was always Badger’s wonderful nut bread. To my great regret, his recipe is gone forever. We were always free to eat fruit from the sorting area behind the stand. I remember eating about 14 ripe, juicy Bartlett pears one day. One day, Paul Ehmann made a mark on the poplar tree behind the stand every time I ate a pear that day, so there was a permanent record of my pear consumption. We were never allowed to pick any fruit from the trees except for two very old trees, a Red Astrachan and a Yellow Transparent. They were our trees. They were the earliest varieties so we really enjoyed them.
Sometimes we made popcorn. But first we had to grow it. We always had a few popcorn plants in the sweet corn field. We left the ears on the plants until the husks had dried and then removed the dry kernels from the cobs. We popped the kernels in a long-handled popper with a wire basket that we held over the flames in the fireplace, shaking it constantly. We had to take turns, because your hands would get too hot after a couple of minutes. After most of the kernels had popped, we would put them in a bowl with melted butter and salt. It was delicious. We also roasted chestnuts in the fireplace. We would cut X’s into the shells so they wouldn’t explode, and then bury them in the red coals.
There were no supermarkets. When my mother went food shopping, she would first stop at Toth’s butcher shop in Medford. Mrs. Toth was a round, pleasant Hungarian woman with short, stubby fingers and an impressively hefty whack with a meat cleaver. She would bring out a big piece of meat and cut off just what you wanted. If you needed ground beef, she would grind it on the spot. It looked a little like thick red spaghetti coming out of her big grinder. You always knew exactly what went into it. This was a lot more satisfactory than prepackaged meat wrapped in plastic.
Then we would go to Shand’s grocery store on West Main Street in Patchogue. My mother would read off her list, and Harvey or Malcolm Shand would get what she needed from the shelves, sometimes using a long-handled “grabber” for items on the high shelves, and then pack it all in boxes. Shand’s was a wonderful store – they had absolutely everything. Even in the 1980s, if you couldn’t find something elsewhere, you could always find it at Shand’s.
We got our milk from the Rev. William Stewart, the Presbyterian minister, a mile or so down the road. It wasn’t pasteurized, and of course there was no such thing as homogenized milk. It had a heavy layer of cream at the top so you had to shake it up before you poured it. Marjorie Stewart was close to Edith’s age and was a good friend of hers.
We didn’t grow our own potatoes, so we would go up to the Szuster farm on Yaphank Road to buy hundred-pound bags of potatoes. I always liked to go there because I thought Mrs. Szuster was the most beautiful woman in Middle Island. She was very shy and had the sweetest smile.
We got our eggs from Myrtle Ruland on Rocky Point Road. Bread was from the Dugan’s Bakery truck that came around every few days. The driver for many years was John Benarick. We called him Johnny Dugan. There was Mr. Swezey’s fish truck that came around once in a while. My mother didn’t have a way with fish, and it was always full of bones, so I never liked fish until I grew up and discovered the delights of flounder filets and broiled salmon. There was a little man, Mr. Morse, who used to walk around house-to-house carrying two big leather suitcases filled with spices and extracts and other interesting things.
We made our own ice cream in a hand-cranked freezer. It’s still possible to buy them nowadays. We took turns cranking because it was hard work, especially when the ice cream began to solidify. It was always a treat to lick the dasher after it was done. It had to be eaten right away, because there was no way to keep it frozen, but that was never a problem. My mother made the most luscious raspberry sherbet in that freezer.
We got our mail at Pfeiffer’s store and post office on the corner of Middle Country Road and Rocky Point Road. At that time, it cost three cents to mail a letter. Pfeiffer’s store was a little like Shand’s – they had everything, including crackers in barrels, horse collars, and a pot-bellied stove for heat. It was run by Edward Pfeiffer, who had to speak in a husky whisper because of an old throat injury, and his son Everett. Everett Jr. was a good friend of my brother Bill. The Pfeiffers had the only gas pump in town at that time, and a great selection of penny candies.
We went to Rovagna’s store in Coram for the Sunday newspaper. They had an even better selection of penny candies. I remember their young, pretty daughter, Lena, who often waited on us. We always got a quart and a pint of vanilla ice cream at Rovagna’s. It was bulk ice cream, in big tubs, and had to be scooped out with an ice cream spade and packed into cardboard containers by hand. They always packed the containers so full the tops wouldn’t go on. We had the ice cream for Sunday dinner dessert, topped with crushed fresh raspberries or peaches, or chocolate sauce.
We made our own root beer, using Hire’s extract and yeast. We had a bottle capper that sealed the bottles with crimped metal caps. Sometimes it would get a little too fizzy and a few bottles would blow their caps off in a loud and messy explosion. It was a lot of work, but the root beer was wonderful.
Sometimes we would go out for Sunday night supper, often to Joe’s Clam Bar in Selden. I think it was near Wendell Still’s place. My father would sit at the counter eating clams on the half-shell and chatting with the owner, Joe Slechta, and the rest of us would sit at a small table enjoying Joe’s delicious clam chowder with oyster crackers, or hamburgers with tomato slices. My sister remembers them as “out of this world,” and says she has never found a hamburger to compare with Joe’s. I think Joe had been a diplomat at one time, and was an interesting person. I used to enjoy visiting the Slechtas at their home in Patchogue because their four sons (Hamilton, Joseph, Francis and John) had a huge collection of Oz books and they would let us borrow them. We always called Mrs. Slechta “Mrs. Joe.”
We visited Beth Bubb and her mother in their little house down the hill from the historic Ashton house that was then occupied by Minnie Ashton, “Aunt Min.” I liked going there because Beth had the best tire swing in her back yard and her mother made excellent pumpkin pie. Beth was a jolly person with an infectious laugh. She was a practical nurse. She cared for me and Edith when our brother Billy was born. In those days, new mothers had to spend about ten days in the hospital. Beth stayed to help for a while after mother and baby returned home. My earliest memory is of seeing my mother emerge from the hospital with the baby in her arms, and asking, “Is that my Billy?”
We sometimes visited Hunter Sekine in West Yaphank. He was Japanese and spoke little English. I could never understand a word he said, although my parents and grandparents didn’t seem to have a problem communicating with him. I remember him as a small man, always dressed in brown from head to toe, with a padded cotton jacket. He reminded me of a happy little gnome. His little house was surrounded by Japanese flowers – peonies, flowering cherry trees and wisteria. The last time I drove past the site of his old house, all the trees in the surrounding woods had become covered with wisteria vines, a beautiful sight in the spring. He died during World War II. He was found lying on his bed, dressed in his best clothes, and it was sometimes speculated that he may have taken his own life in remorse for the actions of his native country in that war. He was a good friend of my grandparents’ and for a short time they were business partners dealing in Japanese ornamentals. I still have some of the correspondence between them and their suppliers in Japan. I have two antique Japanese vases and a beautiful red silk embroidered piece that Mr. Sekine gave to my grandmother.
We often went to visit Beatrice Ritch at the infirmary in Yaphank. She used to be called Beatie, but we just called her Bea. She was the daughter of Lewis Ritch who lived in an ancient house a short distance west of us. We called him Grampa Ritch. Bea had been crippled by rheumatoid arthritis when she was in her twenties. All her joints were totally frozen so that she could not move at all. When her mother died, her father was unable to care for her, so she spent the rest of her days flat on her back in the infirmary. She could move her head, and had a small amount of movement in her right arm so that if you put a pencil between two fingers she could write, but that was the extent of her ability to move. Her jaws were frozen, so they had to extract all her teeth in order to feed her. But despite her terrible infirmity, she was always cheerful, always interested in the lives of the people around her, always smiling. She had a lively curiosity, loved company, loved reading books, and even learned a language, I think Spanish. They would set up a book holder so she could read, but she had to wait patiently for someone to come and turn the pages. My mother used to sit and read to her, and take her special treats like baked custard and ripe peaches.
Everyone at the infirmary loved her. Sometimes they would transport her in an ambulance to a friend’s house for a couple of days. Ethel Quinn was a dear friend and a nurse, and she would often attend to Bea’s needs while she was visiting friends away from the infirmary. Bea liked to go to Marian Young’s house in Bellport at cherry blossom time. They would set up her stretcher in the yard so that she could enjoy the sunshine and the blossoms. She also enjoyed the salt air at Julia Muirhead’s beach house in Rocky Point. Julia ran a small tearoom in Coram, the Orchard Tearoom, just east of Lester Davis’s place. Bea visited our house a few times, and she always remembered with delight how I would feed her peaches when I was about eight. She was an amazing person. I’m sure that modern-day medications and therapies could have made her life a lot easier.
Medical care in those days was pretty simple. Everyone had one family doctor for all ailments. There were no pediatricians, and very few specialists. And there were no antibiotics. Our family was taken care of by Dr. William Neuss in Yaphank. I liked going to see him because he had a goldfish pond in the front yard. However, I didn’t like his treatments. It seemed as if he prescribed enemas and/or castor oil for everything. No wonder I still hate going to doctors. The castor oil was always mixed with orange juice to mask the taste, but that didn’t really work. Nothing could mask that awful stuff. I couldn’t drink orange juice for years after that. We also had to take cod liver oil, and that was almost as bad. Now you can take it in capsules, but we had to have it in a spoon. Dr. Neuss had a pair of Chinese nodding Mandarin dolls in his office that I loved, and he always told me that he was going to give them to me for a wedding present some day. I remembered it when I was married, many years later, but I never saw the dolls again.
Life was simple and safe in those days. I used to roam around alone in the woods, and it never entered anyone’s mind to consider this unsafe. Crime in Middle Island was virtually unheard-of. Nobody locked their doors. I don’t think anybody knew where the keys to our house were, because they were never used. Friends were free to just walk in. In fact, my mother was annoyed when friends knocked, because she would have to interrupt whatever she was doing to go to the door. There was a day, however, when my mother was out and a hobo came to the door asking for a cup of coffee and something to eat. My sister and I didn’t know how to make coffee so we made him some cocoa and a peanut butter sandwich. He was grateful, but I think our mother was a little upset when she came home and heard about it.
We received a small allowance once a week. I think it was ten cents but eventually went up to a quarter. We could augment this with work. Drawing cider was one source of income. Edith made money in later years by taking over my mother’s jam and jelly business. Once Loring accidentally dropped a pocket watch into a bubbling kettle of peach jam. I don’t remember if it still worked after they fished it out and cleaned it off.
We collected black walnuts from the trees in our yard and spread them on the farm roads so the truck would run over them. That crushed the tough green outer husks. We removed the remains of the husks from the nuts, and this left dark brown stains on our hands for days. Then we sold the nuts on the stand. Black walnuts are delicious but they are a lot of work. To get at them, you need a large flat rock, a heavy hammer or another big rock, a nutpick, and a lot of determination.
We couldn’t work picking fruit in the orchard because that was a very heavy job. But our next-door neighbor, Tom Bayles, paid me to pick strawberries for him. I enjoyed the work and also enjoyed eating the berries. There’s nothing like a soft, ripe, sun-warmed strawberry straight out of the patch – a far cry from those crunchy things we buy in the stores now. He also paid me to pick string beans, but they were not as much fun and the plants were itchy.
The Bayleses were nice neighbors. I remember that “Grandma” Bayles had an enormous Christmas cactus plant that bloomed in great profusion year after year. I liked visiting Mrs. Gertrude Bayles because she would give us bread and peanut butter. She had the best peanut butter in the world. I think it was Beechnut. I admired the hand pump in her kitchen sink and the big organ in her living room. Sometimes she would take me to the hen house to help collect eggs. I liked the smell and the warmth of the house, and it was like hunting Easter eggs to find them in the nests. Their son Donald had a wonderful old car, I think a Model A Ford. He used to drive around the local dirt roads and let us ride in the back. I’m not sure if it was an open back or a rumble seat, but we loved it. It’s a pity that nobody nowadays even knows what a rumble seat is.
We had one year-round hired man who lived in a cottage on the farm. It is still there, on the hill just above the storage cellar. Al Cattle was our hired man for many years, and George Lymber was the last one. George’s daughter Dorothy was my age and was a good friend. At harvest time, my father hired local high school boys as extra help. I can’t remember them all, there were so many through the years, but I do remember that Middle Islanders Willie and Roman Zebrowski and Johnny Szuster picked apples for us. Lino Manzoni came from Coram; Henry Neuss, Will Neuss, Pat Raimond and Frank Mapes from Yaphank; Jack and Paul Ehmann and Nelson Crisler from Patchogue; and Henry House from Port Jefferson Station. Henry House married the boss’s daughter and in 2007 he and my sister Edith celebrated their 65th year together.