Thursday, July 28, 2016

Memoirs of Eugene Gochenour Part I

My father Eugene Gochenour wrote a memoir about his life growing up in Tonawanda, NY. I will be sharing excerpts. Over the next months I will share what Dad wrote, starting with his memories of his father.

Alger Jordan Gochenour was born on March 25, 1904 on a farm at the community of Fairview, Virginia, located in the Shenandoah Valley.

The first Gochenour came to America in 1735, years before we were a nation. Jacob Gochenour and his family were Mennonites who came to America to avoid religious persecution. He acquired 400 acres in 1735 in the valley.

Henry David Gochenour, Dad’s father, was a fifth generation descendant and he was born on December 5, 1861 and died May 28th, 1924. He married Mary Stultz, born on June 4, 1864 and died on April 23, 1927. Her nickname was Mollie.

Dad’s father had operated a tanyard which had been operated by his father. Most of my father’s decedents of his lineage are buried at the Mount Zion Lutheran Church cemetery, located near the farm. I never met my grandparents, as they had died before I was born.

Father never told me why he ran away from his home as a youth but I was told that he only had an eighth grade education. He and a friend ran away together and their travels took them to New York City. They earned money by cleaning and polishing office furniture far business people. Dad was a good salesman and he and his friend had unique skills.

Dad, dressed in a suit and carrying a briefcase, would go into an office building and ask the receptionist if he could talk to the person responsible for cleaning the office furniture. Since no one had ever done this service for them before he would often be taken to talk to the owner or manager of the office. Dad knew that their office was the showplace where business people met with their clients, and that their office furniture and desks were very expensive. Many of their chairs were upholstered with leather, and the desks were made from cherry wood.

After he introduced himself, he gave them a demonstration on one of the office chairs. To show that the cleaner would not harm the finish, he drank some of it. This impressed the customer, but it was harmless, since it was only water with baking soda. I don’t know where Dad learned about the cleaner but it did a great job. After he cleaned the chair, he took a clean white cloth and wiped it dry, and showed all the dirt he had removed. Then he applied the polish, and when he buffed it, it looked like new. He explained that he was aware how important the clothes business people wore were, and that the polish he used would not soil them. Dad told them he would work in the evening after they had left for the day, and would not expect to be paid until the job was finished.

Dad and his friend had many jobs at New York City but eventually he went to Tonawanda, leaving them behind. I don’t know why father left New York City, or how he came to live at Tonawanda, but once there he became an insurance salesman. In those days insurance salesman went from door to door to collect the money for the policies and that is how I suspect he met Mother. Mother at that time was living at home with my grandparents and worked at the Remington Rand Company that was located at Wheeler Street and Military Road. [Note: I heard that Al and Emma meet because Al went to the factory and he noticed her. He asked her out several times before she agreed.] Father lived at the Lincoln Hotel in North Tonawanda.
Emma Becker and Al Gochenour seated; wedding photo

Al Gochenour, 1927

They were married on December 24, 1927. Mildred Behner was the witness for mother at the ceremony, and she also became mother’s lifelong friend. It was just a small wedding. Times were good and since Dad made good money as an insurance salesman, they bought a new car and a new house. The house they bought was built by my grandfather and it was located across the street from his own on Morgan Street.
Tonawanda, NY 

Mother quit working and sister Mary was born in 1929. The Depression started in 1929 when the stock market fell and in 1930 I was born. The insurance business deteriorated and Dad lost his income and in 1935 my parents lost their new car and the house and they had to move.

Before we moved Dad wanted to take us all to his childhood home in Virginia. The trip was made in an Erskine automobile. To me the trip was an attempt to temporarily escape the problems they had left behind. Mother, Father, Mary, and I visited relatives that lived on the farm that had been Dad’s boyhood home. Both his mother and father had died years before, and a brother and his family lived in the old homestead.
1865 Military Road in 1935

After the trip to Virginia we moved to an old farmhouse on Military Road in the Town of Tonawanda. The house was [made into] a duplex and there was a family living in the large side; their name was Morrow. Roy and Winnie Morrow had five children: Buster, Audrey, June, Sunny, and Tommy. Tommy was my age, the rest were older. I was five years old when we moved there but I still remember how impressed I was with the huge grassy front yard.

Our side of the house had not been lived in for years, but the rent was only ten dollars a month. In the kitchen was a wood burning cooking stove that also heated the house. An outhouse served as our toilet. During the winter blankets were hung over the doors to keep the heat in the living room and kitchen. The upstairs bedrooms where we slept were unheated. Thick comforters made it hard to roll over when sleeping since they were so heavy. Chamber pots were kept under the beds during the winter. As a boy I do remember opening my bedroom window and urinating outside. There are some advantages boys have! Mother never questioned why she never had to empty the pot.

Dad worked jobs like cutting fire wood and at a cemetery until he was hired at the Buffalo Bolt Works located in North Tonawanda.
Mother would  take Mary and I to visit our Becker grandparents and mother’s brother Levant who lived at 520 Morgan Street in the City of Tonawanda. It was a fairly large house with a porch that went across the whole front. When you walked in the front door there was a large banister that went to the upstairs bedrooms. It had a large living room, a dining room, and in the kitchen sat a large wood burning cooking stove. During the winter shoes were all around the stove drying.
John and Martha Kelm Becker, German refugees from Russia

One of the favorite foods my grandmother cooked she called perugans [pierogies]. They were about the size of a ping pong ball and consisted of a cheese coated with ground up potatoes then deep fried.

Grandfather raised pigeons and would occasionally kill some young ones for dinner. One day when I was back by the garage where the pigeon coupes were I stumbled on to a hornet nest. I had never seen hornets before and when one stung me I just jumped up and down, and hollered. This caused more hornets to sting but I finally ran away from them. Grandfather heard all the noise, and came
back to see what had happened. When he saw that I was all bit up he put on some mud on to take the sting away.

Sometimes when we would visit I would play with the neighborhood kids. We played kick the can, hide and seek, and sometimes we would stomp on cans till they stuck to our shoes then klomp around the street.

I am not sure how old I was when my grandmother died but I do remember she was laid out in the dining room of their home. After a few years grandfather married a lady called Mrs. Pete. Grandfather also outlived her and spent the rest of his life a widower. My uncle Lee was still living with grandfather when he married Mrs. Pete but soon after joined the army, and served in Korea. He was the youngest, and the last of the children to live on Morgan Street.