Living in Oneida in the 1920’s & 1930’s

More Memories [part 3]

Written by Charles E. Page in 2002

One of my most vivid memories in the early 1920’s is the smell of burning leaves. In the fall the smell permeated the whole city. It was the practice to rake the lawns and burn the leaves in the streets near the curb if the street was not paved. If your street was paved you were supposed to burn the leaves in the back yard or between the sidewalk and the curb. I remember, probably it was about 1922 or 1923, that East Walnut street was paved [at least on our end]. My father had driven the car downtown and when he came back the street was blocked by the construction. He drove the car up on the sidewalk and across neighbors’ lawns and to bring the car home to our garage. Nobody complained.

We always watched the leaves being raked on "Chapel’s Park" across the street from us. Mrs. Chapel would hire an extra man or two. They would rake the leaves onto large canvas sheets and carry them to one of the big mounded flowerbeds to be burned there. Clouds of smoke would come off that.

In the evenings in summer and fall most people would sit outside on their porches where it was cool. No air conditioning then and few had electric fans. We kids would play around on the lawns and go up and down the sidewalks with our scooters, or tricycles, or roller skates if we had them, or play with the neighbor kids. The parents would often stroll down the street to some neighbor’s house to visit. A very relaxed time of day! We knew all our neighbors for long distances up and down the nearby streets.

As we got older five or six neighbor kids would come around to play kick the can, hide-and-seek, cops and robbers, jump rope, hopscotch. Before we learned about "kick the can", my father had taught us to play "knock the wicket". It was the same idea as "kick the can" only a short stick was leaned up against a building foundation. Each player carried a stick 3 or 4 feet long and would knock the wicket instead of kicking the can. He also showed us how to play "duck on a rock" in which a cobblestone was placed on top of a larger stone. Then the players would throw another large stone and try to knock the top rock off. This was a country kid’s game. It had to be played where there were lots of rocks around, and space enough so that bouncing cobblestones would not break a neighbor’s cellar window, or hit somebody passing by.

Some of the kids would have hoops, which they would roll up and down the sidewalks. You would start the hoop rolling and steer it with a stick. A few had store-bought hoops and sticks with a sort of pulley on the end for the hoop to fit into. We also did simple tricks with the hoop like starting it off with a backward spin and have it return to you. Soon after it got dark we had to stick around close to home and when the parents went back inside, they would usually call the kids in too.

After about 1926 when my father bought the "farm" near Stockbridge Falls, our summers were spent there. [See "Tale of Stockbridge". ]

We were lucky enough to have a car. Many people didn’t. It was a 1920 Model T Ford sedan [with an oval rear window]. I think my father paid $325 for it at Keller’s on Cedar Street. We bought all our cars at Keller's as long as they were in business, and later I bought my first farm tractor there. One of the owners, Hugo "Hic [or Hick]" Keller was a family friend and served on the board of directors at the bank where my father worked.

Sometimes on a Saturday night [the big shopping time] the family would ride downtown and either do some shopping or just park on the street to watch the throngs of people. The stores stayed open late and since most people worked through Saturday afternoons this was the time for the week’s shopping. I remember such stores as Kinney’s and Eldred’s grocery stores, Newman’s, Pfaff’s, and Phillips’ meat markets that had "dressed" but not "drawn" chickens hanging by the feet in the windows.

There was Miller’s, Landman’s, Clark & Collins, and Friedmans’s dry goods stores. For shoe stores there were Dailey’s, and House’s, Endicott Johnson, Coniff & Toher. Myers Brothers Drug store was next to the present Chase Bank. Hardware stores were Buscher’s and Metcalf’s, [later Oneida Hardware]. The Boston Candy Kitchen and a millinery shop was on Main St. and Fred Hodges had a men’s clothing store.

One memory that stuck with me was the Clark and Collins store. They had an unusual system for handling customers’ money. After the sales clerks had helped the customer find what they needed, they would write out a sales slip and place it along with the money in a special small metal box or car. The box was hung from a track, something like an upside down train track, which went up to and along the ceiling to a cashier located on a second floor balcony or loft. The cashier would record the transaction and return the receipt and necessary change via the box to the sales clerk’s station below. I think there were several of the stations on the sales floor. It was fascinating for us kids to watch the little boxes run up, cross the ceiling, and go down to the cashier. When the store was busy there would be two or three little boxes buzzing back and forth at one time, each one being shunted back to the right sales station. We would see the cashier start to send a box back and we would try to guess if it was ours, or if it would switch to some other clerk’s location.

The Madison Theater was on Madison St. and I remember when the first "Talkies" came to town there with Al Jolson in "The Jazz Singer. There is a picture in my mind of Al Jolson [artificially black faced] down on his knees singing very dramatically. The theater was decorated outside with banners and bright lights to welcome the arrival of "talking pictures". Before that there were printed sub titles on each scene of a movie and the organist would supply the emotion with its musical crescendos. Usually on Saturday nights there would be a "double feature", probably a comedy and a "western" along with a "news-reel", plus a short cartoon, such as "Looney Tunes". Often during the depression in the 1930’s the theater would have "bank night" when drawings were made for a small sum of money, or bags of groceries might be given to the lucky winners of the drawing.

Also on main St. was Woolworth’s Five and Ten Cent store. That was among the first "chain stores". Remember the song about "A Million Dollar Baby in a Five-and-Ten Cent Store"? George Tygert had a small "Mom and Pop" grocery and miscellaneous store on Elizabeth St. called "Tyg’s" across from the Elizabeth St. School [Willard Prior now].

Sometimes we would park at the New York Central railroad station [Where the Towers is now located] and wait for trains to come in, load and unload passengers and mail. We always watched for the "Empire State" or the "Twentieth Century Limited" to come through. They were the "fast" ones. Between trains we would look up and down the tracks to see the signals on the overhead structures. A "half-way" sign meant a train was on the way and a "high" sign meant the train was almost here.

My father worked in the bank [The Madison Co. Trust and Deposit Company] on the corner of Main and Farrier [now Chase]. Sometimes he would have to go back to work in the evening, and sometimes he would take a couple of us kids with him. We were allowed to have the run of the place as long as we didn’t touch anything on any of the desks or in the tellers; cages. Most of the lights were not turned on and we played hide and seek among the cages. Also one of us would sit in a chair that had rollers, and the other would push him up and down the lobby as fast as we could. On Saturday the bank closed at noon but the employees had to work until 1:30 or 2:00 PM to finish the balancing of the books. Each employee was given twenty-five cents to buy lunch, since no "overtime" was paid. You could buy a hot roast beef sandwich for a quarter at that time.

We kids were always fascinated by the big bank-vault with its bags of money sitting in it. On Saturday sometimes my father would be the one to swing the foot thick vault door shut and set the time lock for Monday morning. It could not be opened before that time even if you knew the combination. He let us push the door shut and we marveled at how heavy it was to get started and how easily it moved once it got going.

During the depression beginning in 1929 the bank had hard going, as did farmers, businesses and everyone else. The directors were asked to invest more of their own money in bank stock and the officers of the bank took a "voluntary" cut in wages to keep the bank afloat. The tellers and other employees were not cut since it was recognized they were already getting hardly a living wage. Many banks failed and there was no Federal deposit insurance program then. When the stock market crashed bank depositors rushed to withdraw their savings. About the only thing that FDR ever did that my father approved of, was in 1932 when he declared a "bank holiday" which closed all banks for a few days until Federal Reserve money could be sent to banks which were sound but could not withstand such panic withdrawals. When people found out that their money was safe they stopped the withdrawals and the banks could function again in controlled businesslike fashion.

Another thing the bank did to improve income was to renovate the two upper floors of the building and install the first self-operated elevator in Oneida. [I believe it was the first]. Usually elevators at that time had operators, men who worked at running them full time. With the elevators installed the upper floors could then be rented to other businesses.

I remember, probably about 1923 or 1924, my parents went to Syracuse one evening. A neighbor lady stayed with us kids. In the morning my mother told us about the wonderful evening they had and they had ridden on the "rolling stairs" in Edwards’ Department Store. It was the first escalator I had ever heard of and was anxious to see the stairway on which you could stand still and be carried right up without walking. In those days most people had umbrellas for rainy weather, since cars were fewer there was much more walking done. There were lots of old worn out or broken umbrellas around. The handles and shafts made good fencing swords. With the stays we made bows that would shoot light arrows made out of cattail stems. When it was time for the cattails to ripen and spread their cottony seed-wings, we would leave the heads on the "arrows". When we shot those and hit something solid, such as someone’s porch, the heads burst open and spread the fuzz all over. Once I shot one into the open doorway of Coulter’s house on East Ave. Mrs. Coulter was "somewhat disturbed", which I had no difficulty hearing about when I got home.

Alyce and Charles under umbrella

"Other Uses for Old Umbrellas- Alyce&Charles Page"

For Halloween time we made "tic-tac’s". We cut notches around the edges of a wooden spool making it kind of a "sprocket". We then wound a string around the spool, and put a stick or pencil through the hole. The idea was to hold this against some unsuspecting person’s windowpane and yank the string. This would make a terrific noise, startling somebody out of his skin. It would be at night when hopefully someone was sitting by the window peacefully reading the newspaper.

Another toy we made was a small dart made by taping a pin on the end of a wooden matchstick so that the pin stuck out about half its length. The other end of the match was split twice [crossways] and two pieces of paper were stuck in the splits to make rudders. These could be thrown short distances quite accurately. It was quite effective in getting some kid’s attention if they were caught bending over. A variation of this was to use the match and pin as an arrow for a blowgun.

About an eight-inch long piece of ╝ inch copper tubing made the blow tube, and the tape holding the pin to the match stick, filled the tube sufficiently to allow the dart to be blown out. That worked well, too.

For something to take to school and make life more interesting, was the idea of my friend, Bobby Seifert, who cut a piece of tubing about 3 inches long. This could be held in the hand unnoticed and by holding some grains of dry rice in the mouth for ammunition, the rice could be expelled hitting some kid up front in the back of the neck. The rice was so small that it would not be noticed, and usually they thought it was some insect bite, while Bobby and I were about "busting a gut" to try to keep from laughing out loud. I don’t think that he was ever caught by the teacher.

Alyce, Charles, Bob and Naomi Seifert

"Alyce & Charles Page[left], Bob & Naomi Seifert" at our camp

At the head of Main St. I vaguely remember a railroad station of two levels. There you could board trains on the O & W, the West Shore, the Third Rail [which ran along beside the West Shore R.R.], or the trolley to go to downtown or to Sherrill. That was on the eastern side of Main. I think on the western side was a generating plant to provide electricity to the city. I think it was run by steam produced by burning coal. Vague memories! Later the Farley Coal Co. and feed store [and much later, Dalton’s] was located there [now Top's Plaza].

Depot at Oneida Castle

"Train Depot at Main Street, Oneida Castle


Third Rail at Oneida Castle

"Showing LaVerne Jones on West Shore Railroad and Third Rail"

The depot located there at the head of Main St. afforded access from the trolley anywhere in downtown Oneida to the West Shore R.R., the O. & W., or the "Third Rail".The third rail ran along the W.S. R.R . tracks and provided electricity for the trolleys. a trolley car could continue either east or west and switch to other railroads.

An Oneida Trolley

"Trolley car in winter in Oneida [note unplowed street]"

Farther down from our house on East Walnut St. beyond the feeder, the O. & W. Railroad crossed. At that point there was a building sitting astride a siding. It was called a "round-house". I don’t remember if the building was round on the outside, but inside was a big round platform. The track ran right through the building across the platform. The platform was a turntable used to turn locomotives around to head in the opposite direction. It had never occurred to me that locomotives had no way to turn around and go back for a return trip. Often times they would have to pull a train for many miles with the locomotive going backward if there was no round-house available.

When no one was around one day, Bobby and I tried whirling the big platform around. It was very heavy to get started, but when it once began to move it went easily. The platform had two long wooden handles sticking out on opposite sides for each of two men to push on, to turn it. The tracks on the platform had to be perfectly aligned with the incoming track. There was less than an inch clearance so the engine had a very small gap to bridge while running onto the platform. We thought the empty platform was heavy, but it must have taken a good push for two men to turn it when loaded with one of those big steam locomotives. We watched them do it a few times.

Many years later [in the 1950’s] I worked for G.L.F near there and unloaded box- cars of animal feed. As one car was unloaded and we wanted the second car moved up to the loading dock, instead of waiting until the next day for the switch engine to move out the empty and bring up the next full one, we would move the cars ourselves by hand. One of us would climb the ladder to the top of the car and release the brakes by turning the wheel, which was like an automobile steering wheel. When this wheel was turned it would wind or unwind a chain around the shaft. When the chain was wound up it would pull the brake shoes against the wheels below that ran on the track. Turning the other way would loosen the brakes. When the brakes were released, one man would use a special jack held on the track behind one wheel, and working it up and down could start the car rolling.

There was a slight grade on our siding and sometimes the rusty old hand operated brakes would not work very well. We had to be careful not to end up with a "runaway train". Occasionally, we would be unable to stop it at the right time to align it with our unloading door, and would have to wait for the switch engine anyhow. We couldn’t jack it back up the slope.


Copyrightę2002 Charles E. Page