Thursday, October 8, 2015

Grandfather's Memories of Boyish Play, Pranks, and Paddles

My grandfather Lynne O. Ramer wrote articles for his hometown newspaper, the Lewistown Sentinel of Lewistown, Mifflin Co., PA. In one article he recalled that from 1900 to 1920 the Brock family boys of Milroy, PA were loaded with play things:
circa 1911: Gramps at play, about 8 years old, with cousins. He is pretty well dressed in a 'middy' sailor inspired suit.
 A year later he was an orphan dependent on aunts for his care.
Play Things around 1910

"First they had a home-made merry-go-round with a grand organ that produced music. It was all hand operated, much to the delight of the teens and preteens who flocked, some invited and some not, to come and enjoy the fun.

"The play room—we’d call it the recreation room nowadays—was the storage room off the kitchen. There among the pies and cookies cooked for the family use, but shared with the youngsters who came calling between meals, were the home-made playthings.

"There were hand-carved spreading fans inside of Mason jars, continuous chain links carved from one billet of wood*. There were two spinning cylinder wire cages housing chipmunks who chattered gaily all day long.

"Besides these and dozens of other games to play there were stacks of comic strips from the Williamsport Gazette and the Philadelphia North American. These consisted of the adventures of the Katzenjammer Kids, Jiggs and Maggie, Enoch Periwinkle Pickleweight, John Dubbalong and the like.

"On a rainy day there would be no less than 10 or 12 little boys deeply at their work-play reading the old “continued funnies,” grinding the hurdy-gurdy carousel and intently watching the chippies race around the insides of their wire cylinders.

"There were stacks of paperbacks of adventure characters, such as the Liberty Boys of ’76, Jesse James, Fred Fearnot, A No. 1 and every known Horatio Alger tale, Andy Grant’s Pluck, From Rags to Riches.

“And so it went for many happy hours or boyhood daze. So once more, it’s thanks to Robert, Albert and Luther Brock, not forgetting their doting mother and a kind father [James S. and Minnie Melissa Maben Brock] who realized how to keep kids happy and busy, making and using their playthings.

"The lessons learned well by the youngsters of that time. Long since grown to manhood and womanhood, is this:

“It isn't necessary to buy one’s children expensive and attractive mechanical toys, but something requiring participation. And never forget children are fondest of things they improvise themselves---cooking pans and saucers, empty thread spools, old tin cans, a handful of bright, shiny horse chestnuts.”

The Brock family included parents James S. and Minnie Melissa Maben Brock and sons Oscar Ream (b. 1890), Luther J. (b. 1902), Albert (b. 1894) and Robert (b. 1903).  Dad was a carpenter, which explained the wonderful contraptions the kids had.

*We have an example of this kind of chain made by John H. O'Dell, my husband's great-great grandfather.
Continuous link wood chain by John H. O'Dell
My husband's father took up whittling carved half of a piece of wood to show how the chain was made.
Partially carved chain by Herman L. Bekofske
Pranks around 1910

As to trouble, boys a hundred years ago had all kinds of options. Gramps wrote,

"This little story verifies the truism that “there is no perfect crime.” Somehow or in some way the wrongdoer always leaves tell-tale evidence at the scene, which betrays him. The tell-tale evidence on the occasion given herewith was a certain color. A maroon color. Not too bright. Not too brilliant, but still a dead giveaway for the wearer of it.

"The incident itself happened not a few years ago, but there are many who will still remember it when we recall it to their attention. We recite it here especially for today’s dads who are wont to claim, “Now when I was a boy, we didn't do things like you kids today!”

“We were all old enough to know better, but just old enough to think we knew best. The scheme arose from nowhere and ended in nothing—luckily—when a small band of Reedsville lads idly watched a fall threshing from Cow Field Hill.

“As the wind blew the chaff, and some grain, farther and farther from the barn, the hungry chickens kept advancing under cover of the barrage, to gobble up the banquet. Well, the poultry advance edged nearer and nearer. An idea began to form in the minds of the boys---fresh stewed chicken, mingled with tender, unripe field corn from some farmer’s fields.

“One quick grab and we had a plump, squawking Rhode Island Red rooster. His neck was quickly twisted to stop his racket. Up Cow Field Hill we scrambled fast, but not fast enough to escape the ire of the farmer whose rooster we were snatching.

“Unbeknownst to us, the farmer had obviously been watching us—and the rooster. He had taken time to arm himself with a shotgun. When we were slowed down by a barbed wire fence, the pellets began to rain mightily close, it seemed. So it was that wisdom outscored valor and we left the rooster and fled to the near-by woods, finally returning to town by a detour, around the upper end of the mill dam at Tea Creek.**

“The irate farmer guessed our devious route and he met us head on, on Main Street, and easily he spotted the maroon sweater that one of the boys was wearing. It was a case of his being known by the color—and the companions—he kept.

“It seemed the farmer had failed to see us* close enough to identify any of the boys, but he did manage to catch a good view of the maroon-colored sweater. Which proved our downfall—the one clue that showed this was no perfect crime.

“The chicken costs only one dollar. But the lesson could have been more painful if the shoguns pellets had landed you know where.

“One of that group, but this time a highly-respected Reedsville citizen, carried this experience to the grave recently. But there are others in the village who will recall it. Simple moral seems to be avoid wearing colored sweaters on escapades. But here’s a better moral: Stealing is breaking one of the divine commands—so refrain from it always.”
Maroon boy's sweater circa 1900
* Here, using the word 'us', Gramps betrayed that he was one of the culprits!
**The dam was built in 1870 by the Reedsville Milling Company. It was 14" ft high and 47 ft. long, creating a duck pond.
As a teacher Gramps found students could be troublesome. Actually he WAS one of those troublesome students. Later he got back what he had given. Gramps recalled,
Hartwick Seminary
"At old Hartwick Seminary in Otsego County, New York—near Cooperstown—where I taught from 1926 to 1930—about mid-June the student sneaked squibs into their rooms. Then at night they lit these firecrackers and tossed them out the window. Imagine how it startled the faculty, including me.

"There was a fire law against such things, so I watched windows one night. I caught a Philadelphia dentist’s two sons in the act. As soon as I saw one of them light a squib I yelled, “Hold it!” He did just that. It exploded in his hand. It wasn't hard to find who it was next day, for he had his hand bandaged.

"That wasn't the end of the incident. In the wee, small hours of a later night, I was suddenly aroused by a six-inch squib exploding on my chest!

"Nasal reactions to the “sulfur and brimstone” lent the impression I wasn't on earth. Needless to say we could never prove who did it. It’s very likely that he too is a Philadelphia dentist, or doctor, by now.

"The student had climbed on a ledge outside my dormitory window and tossed in the fire cracker. Before I could gather my wits, he had climbed away.

"But school boy sport was going over on long before old Hartwick days. In 1917 at Milroy High School [in Milroy, Mifflin Co., PA] some energetic boys would apply snowballs to the thermometer and Prof. Stanley Morgan would excuse the school when he read the mercury read 29 degrees at the time we called his attention to it.

"You can image the prof’s chagrin when the temperature leaped back to the 70s after everybody was on the way home. But I can’t recall we ever played with matches or explosives of any sort in MHS.

"Now to update this matter: Last Thursday at Lawrence Institute of Technology [in Southfield, MI] in a calculus class, I began to make an erasure. Suddenly the eraser exploded into a thousand Roman candles in my hand! Some energetic student had fitted a row of match heads in the felt. Friction did the usual.

"Only a few hours before that one of our college chemistry profs had a piece of chalk light up when he wrote H2O on the board. It was a match head (old fashioned kitchen kind) which had been fitted into a hole in the chalk end.

"That was quite a surprise for him and so was mine. Needless to say a good laugh was had by all and sundry, including me. But had the burning felt fallen behind my specs I likely would not be seeing so clearly—as in a mirror.

"When I was a kid we boys used to ‘find’ chickens and sweet corn for our dough bakes, but we never demolished rural mailboxes on KV’s [Kishacoquillas Valley, Mifflin Co, PA]back mountain road or stole $100 from an 80 year-old-widows.

"The State superintendent of schools in New York remarked (and that was back in 1950): “They are not bad boys and they aren't good boys either. They are just busy!” To which I add: Ain't we all! Except the ‘busy-ness” is getting to acquire some funny new formats.
In another article on 'pranks, Gramps wrote about punishments no longer in use.

"The old school teacher listened patiently while the ancient mill worker related the tales of pranks that misfired in the industrial world. Then he spoke up: “And that reminds me of the pranks which boys in schools and colleges used to do and in which the present generation still indulge. Some of these happened in Mifflin County, others elsewhere that I taught.”

"In Burnham high school, the first principal to serve there punished six boys alike, whipping them for pulling one girl’s pigtails. One boy was very angry and remained so for over 50 years, because he was innocent. He was just “doodling along behind, minding my own business,” he said. In fact, he died holding the grudge. And the principal died too, never knowing one boy was still angry at him. Moral: Don’t walk behind naughty boys, said the narrator of this tale.

"This happened in the fifth grade of the Armagh Township school. A certain boy provoked the anger of the teacher, who instead of waiting to apply her oak paddle at the right spot and at closer quarters, let it fly at his head as he sat in his seat. He ducked. His companion who shared the desk in common with the other boy got whanged with the missile. Said his sympathetic grandma: “You shouldn't set with him anyways.” Moral: Be careful whom the teacher assigns you to sit with.

"In another fifth grade the text asked: “What amount of dirt is in an excavation 100’ x 100' x 50’?” One boy wrote on his slate, “None.” Said the teacher: “You’re the only one who got the wrong answer.” He replied, “I’m the only one who got the right answer. There is no dirt in an excavation.” "The book answer says 500,000 cubic feet, which proves you’re wrong,”declared the teacher. She sent him home until he could learn the correct answer. He must have never learned it, for he never came back.

"It was the custom among the older students to check their traps both before and after school. One found a skunk in his trap. Contents of the animal’s cologne sac were placed in a standard empty perfume bottle. This he proudly displayed to all the girls and then visibly hid it in his school desk. At recess he left it unguarded. Three maids who lingered shared the contents on the front of their waists. School was let out, not just for a day, but till the stench was eradicated. The lad was beat up by the girl’s males relatives—brothers, fathers, uncles. Also by his own mother, the teacher, and the principal, all using their paddles. He never forgot it. He learned his lesson. But then the girls never forgot it either.

"But paddles weren't the only weapons used on boyish pranksters. Some boys had told teacher a fib. Said she, “If you lie to me just once more, I’ll put red pepper on your tongues.” It’s human to err. Came the time to administer the punishment. There was a lot of scrambling and bawling. But that all ended abruptly, for the hot stuff turned out to be merely ground cinnamon. Proving that imagination is stronger than realization. But the kids didn't forget. Teacher got straight answers after that.

"The exam question was, “What is 6 feet wide and 1 feet deep?” One boy wrote on his slate, “It's an outhouse.” Teacher sent him home, “until you learn to be respectful.” Days later she readmitted him. Came another exam. Same question. Seeing the lad reach for his hat and jacket, she said “Where are you going?” “Home,” he replied, “I still believe it was an outhouse.” He never returned to school.
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