Let’s take a tour of 424 Washington Avenue. As you can see, it is a narrow house, but long. (These first two photographs are from August 2007.) You walk up the short pavement from the street to the porch; step up two or three steps and cross the front porch to the front door. Going through that door takes you into the living room.
The living room is claustrophobic, not because it is too small, but because it is too dark. The walls are dark and the overstuffed sofa and chairs are dark, maroon or mossy green in color.There is a wooden magazine stand, a small coffee table and an end table, all in dark wood. Doilies cover all tabletops and armrests. There is a floor lamp and a couple of table lambs, but all give off very little glow, thus the room is always dim. There is a large front window and smaller windows on each side, yet the room gets very little sunlight. The porch roof shades the front, a large tree blocks the East and sun just doesn’t hit the West window.
Continuing through into the dining room you find the brightest room. The wallpaper is a lighter color and the two doors to the left front are white. The door nearest the west window opens to circular stairs to the second floor. The other door is to steps to the cellar. The trees do not block the windows on either side. There is less furniture and most is covered with something white. The dining table dominates in the center, but has a tablecloth over it. There is a large credenza along the back wall covered with a six foot long white doily. To the west side is a daybed used as a sofa. There is a telephone table along the front wall. There are a few pictures of foxhunters hanging on the walls. There is a drawing of “Chessie the Cat”** asleep with two kittens by the east window. A ceiling light above the dining table holds multiple bulbs on chains and illuminates the room well at night. The dining room served as my playroom whenever I lived or stayed at 424 Washington. It had the most open space, most sunlight and got the least use in the evenings when everyone else gathered in the living room.
The exit door doesn’t exit the house, but enters a shed or pantry. This is fairly large. I sometimes play here during the day. There are windows looking out over the back yard and another on the west side. There is a door on the east side that opens on a small deck and wooden steps down to the driveway.
Backtracking to the dining room we can go upstairs. The steps curve about, so they are broad at one end and very narrow at the other. They take you into the short hallway. At the east end of this hallway is the bathroom. There is a half-sized window in the bath. The bathroom is small. There is a tub and toilet to the front and a sink to the back.
The other end of the short hallway joins to the long hallway, so as to form a backward letter L. The long hallway leads to the third bedroom, which is fairly large since it is the full width of the house. It has the only second floor window on the west side. It also has a window on the east side and windows overlooking the shed roof out to the backyard. This was my parents’ room when we lived there.
My grandparents slept in the master bedroom to the front of the house. It was not as wide as the back room because the attic steps foreshortened it. It had two large windows to the front, but none on the sides or back.
My room was in the middle on the east side of the house. It was the smallest room, but not tiny. My bed took up a good bit of the east half. There was a wardrobe on the west side and a bureau to the front. The room was fairly dark having only one window to the east. It had a ceiling light. I had a reading lamp that clamped over the headboard rail of my metal frame bed. This was the usual light turned on because I read a lot while lying in bed.
My mother would always come in to say good night and turn off that light and tell me to go to sleep. She would leave and shut my door. In these early years I had a small nightlight over by the bureau because I was still afraid of the dark. Eventually my father decided I was too old to be scared and took it away. It wasn’t bright enough to read by even when I had it. I waited until after my mom left and then pulled my blankets up over the headboard to create a tent. I would turn on the reading light, hidden by the blanket, and read until I was too tired to stay awake.
One night the heat of the reading light set my blanket on fire. This happened after everyoneelse was asleep, but I was still up reading. I pulled the blanket off and put out the fire, but it left a hole with scorched edges where the light had touched it. I didn’t want anyone to see what happened, so I got the scissors and cut off the burnt material. This I flushed down the toilet. Fortunately it didn’t clog the pipes. I don’t know how I explained the sudden and mysterious hole in my blanket, though.
The blanket fire probably happened the second time we lived at 424 Washington rather than the first. But during those first years I did sleep walk. I would wander about the house sound asleep or I would jump up and down on my bed. One time I fell doing this and landed head first on the floor. Perhaps that explains a lot.
At least I was never a bed wetter.
There is more to the house. I described the cellar in an earlier chapter and how it spooked me out. The attic spooked me even more.
The attic was large and divided into two narrow rooms. The ceiling sloped down sharply to the front and the back. There were little closets built into the walls down the length, like doors behind which trolls might lurk. There was a window to both sides of the attic, but because of the divider down the middle these only let light into the back half. The front half was very dark; it didn’t even have a lamp. You used a flashlight to find things. There was a light in the back half, but the switch was at the top of the twisting stairwell, not at the bottom. You had to go up in darkness and feel about for the switch.
My grandfather had creatures in the attic. He had a stuffed owl sitting right to the top of the steps. Coming up the last few you would see two large glass eyes glinting in what light there was. If that didn’t startle you maybe the stuffed fox next to it would. The fox had been my great grandfather Wilson’s so I guess my grandmother had inherited the blasted thing. (Pictured: William Frederick Wilson II and his fox.)
Occasionally the creatures up there were real. Bats sometimes invaded that dark and cozy space.
Overall the house was dim inside. It was also missing much of the entertainment appliances of There was no television either at this particular time. We had one source of diversion sitting in the living room, a large console radio and record player. It was as large as the TVs to come, but there was nothing to look at on it. There were a series of dials on the face. The top lifted up and there was the turntable. It only played 78 RPM records. These were about ten inches in diameter with a tiny hole in the center. This hole went over the spindle. You could stack ten records on our player and as one finished the next would automatically drop into place and the needle would swing back and down to play it. These records were easily chipped, scratched, or worst, broken.
The bottom of our console had a little cabinet built in where you could store your records. My parents had quite a few, a mix of pop ballads or big bands of the day and my dad’s Hillbilly songs. You only got two songs to a record, one on the front and one on the back (the B side). Record albums were not like the later 33 1/3 discs that might hold 10 or 12 songs on one record. These albums were a binder and opened like a book. Inside were paper sleeves each holding a record. If there were twelve songs in the album you had six records. I remember two albums in our cabinet. My mom had “Bing Crosby Sings Cowboy Ballads”. My favorite was dad’s Red River Dave’s “Songs of the Hill and Range”. (We had the 78 RPM album, which looked much like this 45 RPM version, only bigger.)
Red River Dave sang “The Wreck of the Streamline Train”, “Death of Floyd Collins”,
Anyway 1940 houses were dreary affairs with little within to entertain a child. This is why kids of that day spent the daylight hours playing outside with friends.
By Third Grade my folks decided I was old enough to wander about our end of town on my own. It was a different world from today. Our town was relatively small, traffic although heavy on Lancaster Pike by the standards of that day, was light compared to how it is in the years of this millennium. People warned of not talking to strangers, but there was little conscious fear your child might be snatched by a predator or pervert.
Neighbors watched out for each other and each other’s children. Few people locked their car doors when they went shopping. Many people didn’t even bother locking the house door, my father being one of those when he was home. My mother was a bit more cautious, but she only locked it at night before going to bed. In the summer doors and windows were often wide open since very few had air conditioning.
The map shows what we referred to as The East Side. It wasn’t the entire east side of the town, but it was the boundaries of my little world for those grade school years. I have marked upon it the major points of my regular wanderings.
I was free to walk the length of Washington Avenue, perhaps a bit short of a mile in distance, to attend church or go to the movie theater. I could walk downtown, visit the library, and go to my various new friends’ homes.
This map is Downingtown today, not in the 1950s. However it hasn’t changed much from the air over those decades with the exception of the clutter of the downtown shopping area. This is the entire gray surrounding that big letter A. In those days there were rows of stores along Lancaster Avenue. These did not quite run completely east to Green Street. Behind the stores to the north there was an access alleyway and behind that the millrace from the paper mill. The millrace and paper mill are gone and a shopping mall has filled their place. (Photo is 1938)
The borders of the shopping district in the 1950s began at the main intersection of Lancaster
This intersection then and to this day was infamous for flooding. In did so in August 1942, but I was too young to remember that occasion. It did so again when Hurricane Hazel swept through in October of 1954. I rode my bike down to the edge of town to view that devastation. The main intersection and much of the shopping district was under water. I made my way down the access alley a ways, but the millrace was raging up over the street.
On that side of the intersection, just behind the corner store, a great-corrugated pipe under Lancaster Avenue carried the millrace beneath the intersection. The water spilled out into the creek on the opposite side just past the bank lot. Going down the access alley was a foolish and dangerous trek at flood stage. During my childhood the millrace swept a boy into that pipe and beneath the streets. I am not sure whether it was Hazel or another rise of water, but he didn’t survive. I used that instance as a catalyst in my novel, Gray. I changed the sex of the person to female. She survived the pipe. The villain rescued her from the creek and took her prisoner.
The stores ran east from there on both sides of Lancaster until the railroad tracks just to the west side of the Minquas Fire Company. You can make out the train tracks between the firehouse and the Sunoco Station in the photo to the right. I had to cross those tracks many times in my young life and always hesitated after seeing the Dick Tracy film, Cueball.
Trains stopped me on journeys downtown at that spot. The trains would pause across the
The S. Austin Bicking Paper Mill took up a large portion of land across from the firehouse at that time. Austin Bicking also owned a large paper mill on the corner of Lancaster and Brandywine, running behind the bank building. Austin was a cousin, his great grand uncle, Frederick Bicking, being my great great great grandfather.
That railroad line is also long gone. A nature trail now runs from center town deep into the woods along the Brandywine Creek where the trains once steamed through picking up freight at the paper mill and the Iron Works. The Iron Works is gone as well. The Struble is the name of the trail, after former Executive Director of the Brandywine Valley Association, conservationist Robert G. Struble.
Dave Fidler lived in an old home directly across from the East Ward School. East Word was on the corners of Lancaster and Whiteland and Whiteland and Washington. There was a gas station on the corner of Lancaster and Whiteland opposite the school ground. I believe it was either an Atlantic Station that later became an Esso or vice-versa.
Uwchlan Avenue ran on an angle toward the northeast off of Lancaster just opposite the east homes built along its west side. Going a bit east on Lancaster just past the gas station was an apartment building. Denny Myers lived in this building when I first knew him and Gary Kinzey lived there later. The apartment building set back about halfway between Lancaster and Washington.corner of East Ward School. Bill Brookover lived a couple blocks up this street in newer
I lived at 424 Washington, just cattycornered across the street from East Ward’s playground. Later I lived just up the street on the same side as the school at 417. Billy Smith lived on Washington nearer Chestnut Street. Denny Myers moved into the same house after Billy’s family moved to Coatesville. Iva lived about halfway between that house and 424.
Ronald Tipton when I first befriended him lived on the far west side of Washington. He lived in the same apartment building as my heartthrob, Mary Jane Chudleigh, at 120 West Washington. Ronald later moved to an apartment over an office on the corner of Chestnut Street and Boot Road.
My church where I went to Sunday school was the Downingtown Methodist Episcopal Church on Brandywine Avenue, directly across from where Washington Avenue ended. movie theater was about a block down from the church on the same side. It was the Roosevelt Theater and formerly the Downingtown Opera House. The Brandywine Creek ran behind the church and theater and cut the town in half, being the dividing line between the East Ward and the West Ward. We locals called that whole street Creek Road.
It was a large enough world for a nine-year old. My boundaries stretched further each year and by the time I was 12 years old I could go just about anywhere my feet or bicycle would take me. Most of those further places I went with Ronald.
** Chessie was an emblem for the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad, from an etching of Guido Gruenwald. It first appear as an ad in “Fortune” in 1933, with the tag line, “Sleep like a kitten”. The picture was so popular with the public the cat was given a name and became quite a popular image in both ads and in merchandise.
I still have the picture that hung in the dining room at 424 Washington Avenue of Chessie and her two kittens.