The photo of me holding Peppy was taken in my grandparents’ backyard, but the fence and garden you see behind me wasn’t theirs for the vacant lot between them and the Darlington’s had been invaded.
A man bought the empty lot between 424 and 418 Washington Avenue. He built a large double house on the plot and he lived on one side and his daughter and son-in-law occupied the other.(pictured right).
I remember people clucking tongues over that and the angrily whispered conversations. “Just what you’d expect they’d do!”
The “they”, who bought the lot and built the house were Italian. There was a lot of prejudice against Italians at the time. They were a little too dark, a little too foreign and the boot of Italy dipped too close to Africa (yes, their were some who viewed this negatively). Italy had fought on the side of the Axis and perhaps worse of all, Italians tended to be Papist, that is, Roman Catholics. At the time many Italian families lived in their own section of the borough called Johnsontown.
Johnsontown doesn’t sound particulary Italian and originally it wasn’t. John R. Johnson egotistically gave the place its name. He purchased the tract in 1871 and built 108 buildings. The first residents consisted of Civil War Vets and Irish. There was a great wave of Irish immigration to the States between 1860 and 1900 and most of these settled in the mill towns where there were opportunities for unskilled laborers.
Now here was a family, two families actually, living on our block and their surnames ended in vowels. This was a jarring note to the Browns, Merediths, Darlingtons, Ingrams, Zittles, Fredericks, Shirks, Fahays, Amways, Robinsons and Buckleys who occupied the street. There were the LaFevres, but wasn’t that French?
Those days seem so distant, a galaxy far, far away. Not just the prejudices, but also the whole way of life. I mentioned in a previous chapter that the farm equipment dealer next door closed on Sundays. He had no choice. Pennsylvania Blue Laws forbade businesses opening on Sunday. You couldn’t play certain sports on Sundays. Those you could were restricted to certainhours of the day. When the Philadelphia baseball teams (Phillies and Athletics) had a Sunday afternoon double header and a game wasn’t ended by 7:00 PM, they had to postpone the remaining innings until another day.
Several different services came around during the week to meet the consumptive needs of daily life. Coal heated many of the homes on our street. The Coalman, probably W. P. Canby and Son, came when called to dump a new load of black coal down a chute into a basement storage bin. The icehouse (Atlantic Ice Manufacturing Company) was located at the coal dealer’s lot as well and we still had an old icebox operating at 424 early in my residency. The iceman cometh with great tongs holding a block of ice that kept this box cold. The Maxwell-Canby Heating Oil Company occupies that spot today.
Burning coal produced ash. Just like our modern garbage collectors there were ash men who came once a week collecting ash from buckets set by the curb. Speaking of garbage, we had a collector for that as well. You smelt him coming a couple blocks away. He had an open binned vehicle and just dumped your garbage pail in with all the rest. This was food scrap only. It was pig slop for the farm. How’s that for recycling?
The stench from the paper mills pulp pits masked the garbage odor in the high humid heat of July and August. If you lived in Downingtown in the heyday of its paper industry you would never forget the smell of those summer days and nights.
Paper trash, which was less frequent then because much of what you bought, especially groceries, didn’t come wrapped in shrink-wrap and packaging. This refuge was burned. We had old 55-gallon drums to the rear of the yard and there we burned any combustible. That became one of my chores, one I enjoyed. I liked setting the fire and I would drop some of the trash in by hand, pretending it were people falling into the flames.
The postman came twice a day. Doctors made house calls. Milkmen came early in the morning to pick up empty bottles and leave filled one, along with cream and a few other dairy products. My grandmother would tuck a rolled note into the neck of an empty bottle giving her order for the day.
We kids gathered the other empty beverage bottles like soda to cash at the grocery. There was a deposit on most such things and we kids could make a good living scavenging for discarded containers. This tended to be slim pickings. Most people went after the deposit themselves.
Bread trucks also delivered daily, leaving bake goods on order.
The insurance agent came to the house monthly to collect. Ours was a chubby woman who had an odd smell to her. It wasn’t a bad odor like B.O., but a strangely strong one. It was half metallic and half leather, as if a human recliner had walked into the living room of its own power.
Pet owners simply let the dog out the door when nature called and then they buried the pets in the backyard when they died.
There were many odd people who came around.
Some of these people were entertaining, doing what they did either for tips or to promote some product. A sample of this was the photographer who traveled about with a pony and cowboy outfit offering to snap a portrait of children perched upon the steed. I mentioned this itinerant hustle earlier. It seemed everyone of my generation had their portrait taken by the guy.
Another gentlemen who popped up occasionally in town during my earliest years were the Organ Grinders. I don’t know much about the guy, and I am assuming it was the same man who came back every year when I was very young, but old enough to go listen to him. He had a box like thing and it had one leg on the bottom at the middle. He rested it on this leg as he turned a crank and music came out. He also had a little monkey that wore a fez or perhaps a bellboy cap. The monkey was on a leash attached to either the man or his box and it danced about before anyone who came outside when the music started. The monkey held out a tin cup for people to drop coins into.
This was another case where my mother instilled fear into me. She would pull me back, admonishing me not to get too close to the beast for it might bite me. My grandmother didn’t say much about the monkey, but she didn’t trust the man. She glared at him with distrust.
Another source of yearly entertainment, at least for we kids, when I was a bit older, were the Duncan Yoyo Men. I say men because I don’t think the same demostrator came each year, but I could be wrong. He came to different sites. Sometime to one of the stores that was selling Yoyos and even once to the playground behind East Ward. There was a program the township ran a couple years during the summer vacation. It was supposed to keep we children occupied so we wouldn’t get into mischief. They had contests and craft tables outside for us to engage in varied activities. One summer the Duncan Yoyo Man came to and did his Yoyo tricks for us. The object was to sell the toy, of course. Yoyo-ing was quite the fad for a couple years. They had Yoyos that whistled, ones that glowed in the dark, ones that shot out sparks. I actually became quite good at doing tricks with the thing.
Not everybody who wandered through our part of town was selling something.
Hobos stopped at the back door offering to work for food.
There were Gypsies who came to the door at times, offering to tell fortunes or maybe give curses. My grandmother would give the Hobos some food and not ask them to do any work. The Gypsies she would shoo away. She didn’t fear any evil eyes.
There were witches in the hills. A witch lived in a little cabin up in the woods off of 322 just outside of town pass the high school. My grandfather pointed her place out to me every time we drove pass. She had a little shack up there in the trees.
Rumor had it there was a witch living by the waterworks.
I had my own run in with a witch as a boy.
I had warts on the thumb of my right hand, three of them in a row. I never thought too much about them, they were just there. No doctor ever offered to remove them. I was playing outside, me and a girl, and we sat down on her front steps around the start of evening twilight. This heavyset woman came up to us. She was overdressed in a flouncy blouse and long flowing skirt with a trimmed hem. She looked down at me.
“Would you like me to take away your warts,” she asked.
It was a little scary, this strange woman with a slight accent asking such a thing. Maybe she would whip out a knife and cut off my thumb.
“I guess, so” I think I mumbled, while at the same time I was remembering something about Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn carrying a dead cat to a graveyard at midnight to cure warts.
“I will take your warts away,” she said.
Where would I get a dead cat, I wondered. I think by this time my girl friend was edging closer to her front door.
The woman took hold of my hand and she passed the palm of her other hand over my thumb. She stroked my thumb a few times and then let go.
“I take your warts now,” she said.
I looked at my thumb and they were still there.
“You see,” she said and left. She didn’t ask us for money or anything, she just went away and I never saw her again.
Of course my warts were still sticking out on my thumb when I went home that night.
When I woke up the next morning my warts were gone.
I don’t explain them, I just tell my experiences.
There were sad cases, too. My Grandmother called them “unfortunates”. We were to shun them. There was a boy downtown that had either ringworm or lice. There was another boy we were to stay away from because “he took fits”; he had epilepsy.
There was also Henry who I was afraid of.
Henry was quite harmless, I suppose. People said, “He isn’t all there.” I really didn’t know what that meant, but I knew he was different than anyone else I encountered on the street. I would see him quite often in the summer walking around downtown. I saw him at the annual fair sometimes. He was very strange to see.
He wasn’t very big, neither in height or girth. He was gangly and when he walked he constantly turned his head back and forth. When he looked at something, or somebody, he would stand close and bend forward and move his head back and forth instead of just his eyes. His eyes sort of bugged out and he was slightly bucktoothed. He looked like a giant Preying Mantis. I don’t remember if I ever heard him say anything.
He was always dressed the same in heavy winter clothes too large for his frame. It didn’t matter if it was ninety degrees out; he had on a coat and one of those hats with the earflaps. Whenever I saw him coming I would duck behind my grandfather.
“He won’t harm you,” Pap-Pap would say.
I wonder what ever happened to him? I assume he is dead by now. That was sixty years ago.
Maybe people considered me one of the odd people about town by the time I left as a teenager.