Living in Oneida, N.Y. in the 1920ís and 1930ís

The House

For my Children and Grandchildren these memories try to tell how our family lived during those years in case they might not be aware of the differences between "then and now", the year 2002. Charles E. Page, age 81

[Note: Since I started writing this piece, I have thought of so many things, that I decided to divide them into sections. Iíll call this one " The House".

house on Walnut Street

Our family of five lived in the house my Grandfather, Charles E. Page, built about 1890 at 217 East Walnut Street.

He died there at age 34. My father, Clayton, was born in that house in 1891. My sister, Alyce, and I were born there. [See the story Grandpa and Grandma Page]

People lived differently then. Our house was heated in winter by a coal-burning furnace in the cellar. Occasionally the fire went out, and to restart it we first built a wood fire and when it became hot enough, fine coal would gradually be added until it "caught". Each morning and night the ashes had to be shaken out through the grates and fresh coal added. After adding new coal, the fire was allowed to burn quite freely, until the coal gas [carbon monoxide] had burned off. Then the "check draft" could be opened to slow down the fire so it would keep over night. If this was not carefully handled the family could be killed in their beds during the night by the gas, which was said to be odorless. However, when gas was in the house we could "taste" it on the back of our tongues. If you were asleep you probably wouldnít notice it.

I still remember the sound the coal made when it was shoveled down the metal chute stuck through the cellar window into the coal bin. We had two bins, one for "stove coal" [coarse] and one for "chestnut coal" [finer]. The furnace was like a large stove surrounded by an outside metal shell that trapped the heat given off. At the top were big pipes that allowed the heat to go to "registers" upstairs. Also, there were a couple "cold-airí return pipes, which went to the bottom of the shell. There were no fans or blowers. The heat and cold air worked by gravity. No electricity required. We had a register in the floor of the living room and one in the parlor. There was none in the kitchen, which was heated by the cook stove. Most of the heat that went to the second floor was just what seeped up through the ceiling. On cold mornings it felt good to stand on a register while getting dressed. On cold winter days we would sometimes bring our chairs near and sit with our feet on the register.

Each morning the ashes had to be shaken out and put into containers, carried out to the back yard and dumped in a pile. In the spring a man who specialized in that business would come with his horse and wagon, shovel up the ashes and cart them away. He would charge about two dollars. Later when I was older, each Saturday, I carted the ashes across East Avenue to a steep bank behind the Elizabeth St. School near the "Feeder" where many people dumped theirs. At first I hauled two bushels at a time in an old baby carriage and later my father bought a "push-cart" which was made in a shop somewhere in downtown Oneida. I still have the pushcart, and Alberta uses it as a flowerbed.


"The Old Pushcart" as it is in 2002

We had a coal/wood cook stove in the kitchen and an iron sink with a hand-pump, which was used to pump the soft water from the cistern in the cellar. The soft rainwater ran from the eaves through pipes into the cistern. The cistern was big wooden barrel type of container like a wooden silo about six feet in diameter and six or seven feet high with iron hoops.

It had an overflow into a drain so that it never overflowed the cellar floor. The cellar had a dirt floor, but it was never wet.

It was my job to pump water at the sink and carry it over to the stove to fill the reservoir every evening after my mother and sisters washed the dishes. So we had hot water on hand all the time for the dishes, bathing, etc.

For years the only bathtub we had was a round washtub which on Saturday nights was set in the middle of the kitchen floor. We had a toilet on the second floor but had no real bathroom with tub until probably in the late 1920ís. The cistern water was used because the city water was "hard". We didnít get rid of the cistern until later after the Glenmore water system near Florence was built. I think this was about 1926. Then the city water was soft and of better all around quality. I suppose that was about the same time the new reservoir was built up on Rte. 5.

My mother did all the cooking and baking on the coal stove. She made all our bread, cookies, pies. She canned fruit and vegetables from our garden and also chicken, so that she always had food ready at hand if company dropped in. We had no refrigerator. [In fact, we never had one during my parentsí lives, which ended in 1940 and 1943] Leftovers were eaten at the next meal and four quarts of milk were delivered daily.

Of course, there was no television and the small radio [crystal set] had earphones. Sometimes we would be able to get some Canadian station [KDKA comes to mind. Was that Canadian?], and I think WGY in Schenectady. Since there was only one set of earphones, we would take one phone off the set and hold it up to one ear so two people could listen at the same time.

My grandfather had built the house sturdy and well, but when the trains went through Oneida, the whole house would creak and groan as if there were an earthquake. It was said that Oneida was built on quicksand. I remember sometime in the 1930ís there was a real earthquake. It was during the night, there was a distant roar, and I remember my bed was rocking me back and forth. A funny feeling!

Grandpa Page died before he had time to completely finish the house. My two sisters and I slept in one big room at the front of the house [2nd floor]. Two other bedrooms had been finished off, but across the back of the house was one big room with the toilet in one end. Sometime probably in the middle or late 1920ís, that big room was divided so that there was a bedroom, for me, a bathroom, and a large walk-in closet. I guess my mother thought I was getting too old to share a bedroom with my sisters. When were real little kids, and went visit our grand parents, my sister and I shared the same bed. The time came when my mother said I had to sleep alone. She said "You are getting too big to sleep with your sister". I couldnít quite understand why. There was plenty of room in the bed! I supposed it was just some rule, like girls having to wear dresses and let their hair grow long. So after that when we visited Grandpaís I slept in my deceased Uncle Lloydís room with a picture of Dan Patch on the wall. The caption under the picture said " 1:55" "A Minute and Fifty-five Seconds". Dan Patch was a famous racehorse who ran the mile in that length of time.

Anyway after the partitioning in our house, we had our first regular bathtub with hot and cold running water. Of course, we had hot water only if we went down cellar and started up a coal fire in coal-fired water heater. This usually happened only on Saturday or Sunday nights.

The Saturday night bath was a well-established custom in those days. There was some "sponging" in between, but since everyone was the same, I guess we all stunk together! We never thought anything of it then. C.E.P.

Copyright©2002 Charles E. Page