Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Eugene Gochenour's Memoirs Part 4

Today I continue to share my father's memories of growing up in Tonawanda, NY in the 1930s and 1940s. Here Dad writes about making a tractor, hay farming, tragic deaths, camping along the Niagara River, about the local airport and even the town dump! I remember going to 'the dock' at Grand Island as a girl and wading in the Niagara River. I was told not to go far out as the current could carry one over the Falls!
Eugene Gochenour
"Father decided to get a real tractor and found one in the country and somehow hauled it home. It was a Fordson tractor with a four-cylinder engine and was built sometime around the late '20s, or early '30s. Once home, he found it needed some spark coils, so we had to drive to Holland, New York, to a tractor parts store to buy them. Holland was about thirty miles away. When we got back, he installed the coils, made sure it had gas and oil, and cranked it up. After he got it running well he painted it red, and it looked and ran great!
John Kuhn on a tractor built by Al Gochenour from a 1928 Buick.
1937 Eugene Gochenour and with sister Mary on tractor at Kuhn's farm.
The house in the right background was on Waverly St and belonged to Phil and Edna Kuhn.

Gene Gochenour age 14
"During the summer, I would drive the tractor and John Kuhn would ride behind operating the sickle machine, the hay rake, or pitch hay onto the hay wagon. The tractor had huge rear wheels and small steel wheels in the front. I was probably thirteen years old when I started to drive it.

"The fields we mowed were Timothy grass, alfalfa, and clover. The first cutting was usually during the middle of June. When it was time, I would drive the tractor, and John would control the sickle bar, which was like a large lawnmower.

"After a few days, when the hay was dry, I would tow John as he operated the hay rake. We raked the hay into long lines so that when we brought the hay wagon out, we could drive along the line and pitch the hay onto it. Then we hauled it to the barn where it would be stored in the hayloft. Salt was added at that time. The salt helped keep the hay dry by absorbing moisture from the hay, and the salt was a good addition to the cattle’s diet when they ate it.

"When John no longer had any animals, he baled the hay and sold it to the riding stables that were near by. Each bale weighed around 100 pounds. John sold them for about a dollar each.

John Kuhn bringing in the hay, 1930s
"There were always many cats around the farm, and some of them were half wild. They would go into the fields to catch mice. The mowing machine had a long sickle bar that cut the hay and sometimes a cat would be in the field and lose a leg to the machine. There were a few three-legged cats on the farm. Occasionally a pheasant would also get caught and lose its life. Dogs, rabbits, and other animals seemed to be smart enough to move away.

"John also had a cider press and father borrowed it one fall to make some apple cider. Dad had made a box trailer and one fall day we went to the orchards by Lake Ontario and brought back a load of apples. The press was wooden with a hand crank. After the apples were washed they were dumped into the top of the press. Turning the handle chopped the apples up. Then the apples were crushed by a press that was on the machine. The press had a large wooden dowel attached to a screw, and as you turned it, the juice flowed out of the bottom into a trough. The trough drained the juice to where you could fill either jugs or barrels. When the juice first flows it tastes like apple juice, but before long, it tastes like cider. Some of the cider father gave away, some he sold, and some he made into Applejack, a high alcohol drink.

"We were very good friends with the Kuhns and one evening we invited them to a corn roast. When John ate the corn he remarked how good it was. We said it should be, because it had come from his field! We all got a big laugh from that!

"The end of the airport landing field was two blocks west of our house, and about a half mile past that was the Sheridan Park Golf Course. The airport hangers were about a half mile north, and east of them was the town dump.

"Almost every evening during the summer, a man named Peewee would parachute from a plane. One evening he jumped from the plane, and the chute did not open. He landed in the dump and was killed. The oldest Morrow boy was called Buster, and he had always helped Peewee pack his chute, and he felt bad when Peewee was killed.

"There was always something going on at the airport. There were midair shows, and they gave flying lessons, and plane rides to customers. Once during the Second World War, a P-38 warplane made a forced landing and had to be towed up Military Road past our house because the field was too short for it to take off. Another time a Grumman Wildcat fighter plane crash-landed. I went over to see it and was surprised how big it was. It had belly flopped and the propeller blades were all bent back. That plane also had to be towed past our house. During the war I knew every war plane there was.

"Whenever there was something going on at the airport it drew huge crowds. Then a neighbor friend, Ridgely Ware, and I would put a sign on the lot behind his house and charge 25 cents to let people park their cars there. I don’t know who owned the lot, but people were glad to park.

"Levant (Lee) Becker was my mother’s brother and my uncle. He was about two years older than I and we hung around together a lot. He and I had many adventures together. He lived with my grandmother and grandfather on Morgan Street in the City of Tonawanda, about four miles away. Sometimes I would walk through the fields to his house.
Lee Becker at the family camp on the Niagara River
"They had a rowboat they left on the shore of the Niagara River about four blocks from their house. Sometimes Lee and I would row out onto the river and hook onto a barge that was that was being towed up the river. We would tie the rowboat to the last barge, then run up to the front of it and jump into the river, let the barge steam by, then grab the rowboat as it passed by. The only person on the tug was the captain, and he was so many barges away that he could not holler at us. After we left the barge, we drifted back down the river and rowed over to Grand Island. The river at that point is about a half mile across, and on the Grand Island side was a spot called Elephant Rock. It had that name because of a huge boulder that sat out in deep water, about a foot under the surface. It was in deep water, but we could swim to it, and stand on it. We also called the spot “bare ass beach” for obvious reasons. The bank of the river was about twenty feet high there, and a road went along at the top of the bank. I am sure people saw us at our nude beach.

"Sometimes when we were at Lee’s house we would walk to the Erie Canal where it went through the City of Tonawanda. There was a swing bridge that went over the canal that we dove and swam from. The water was not exactly clean but that did not bother us. The Robert Gair Paper Mill was next to the bridge and we found many comic books in the bales of paper. The top of the cover page was cut off because they had been returned from stores when they were not sold. We eventually had a huge pile of comic books.

"Lee spent a lot of time at our house and one night when he was there he and I crawled out the front upstairs window onto the roof. From there we could watch the cars drive by on Military Road. Dad worked at the Buffalo Bolt Company and he brought us home some of the scrap slugs that we used with our slingshots. Well, we had our slingshots, and we decided to shoot at the cars as they passed by. We had done this before, and never hit one, but on this night when we shot, we both hit a car. The car stopped, and a man got out, walked around the car, and when he could not see what had happened, got back in, and drove away. We were so scared we never did that again!
Al Gochenour in front of  the 'chicken coop'
"There was an old chicken coop in our backyard and Lee and I would sometimes climb onto the roof and sunbathe. My father suspected we were climbing on it and told us he would kick us in the butt if he ever caught us on it. We did not listen very good and one day he did catch us on it, and he did kick us both in the butt! We never did climb that roof again!

"Lee and I fished together a lot. Sometimes we would go at night and fish for suckers or bullheads at Spicy Creek on Grand Island, or at Burnt Ship Creek Bay which was over by the North Grand Island Bridge. We fished for Northern Pike both there and at Jackie Senn’s boat livery on the East Niagara River.

"Lee got a car before I got my wheels and occasionally we would drive to a rink in North Tonawanda to roller skate.

"We spent one winter each building our own sailboat. The boat was called a sailfish and we built it from a plan we found in a magazine. It was a one-person boat and you wore a bathing suit when you sailed it 'cause you sure got wet sailing. Sailing on the river was a challenge because of the strong current.

"Nineteen Forty-Six was a great year for me. I had a motorcycle for wheels, a girlfriend, and when summer came my parents allowed me to stay at the family campground on Grand Island. The camp was a beach on the Niagara River that was leased by the year. All our relatives paid toward the lease. Lee and I stayed there all summer.
The dock at the family campground on Grand Island along the Niagara River.

"My future brother-in-law Clyde Guenther worked at the International Paper Mill but stayed when he was not working. At the camp was my father’s large Army tent, a twelve-foot trailer that he and I had built, a raft, dock, rowboat, and a sixteen-foot sailboat. We had a friend whose father owned a brewery across the river. We let him have parties at our camp as long as he supplied the beer. He also had an eighteen-foot sailboat and occasionally we would sail the river with him. The boat could hold seven or eight people, and sailing on a warm summer was beautiful. 
Clyde Guenther. Getting ready to target shoot at the camp.
"At night we would have a campfire on the shore. Crayfish (crabs) would come near the shore at night and we would catch them using a flashlight. We would throw the largest ones on the fire, and cook them in their shells. They would turn orange in color, and when they were cooked and cool, we would peel the claws and tail and feast on them. They were like lobster. 
Camping along the Niagara River

'Moose', Lee Becker, Abbey Becker, Clyde Guenther, and Gene Gochernour at the camp
"On weekends many of the relatives would come to the camp. It was like a family reunion.
Emma Gochenour along the Niagara River in 1956
Lee Becker at 'the dock' on the Niagara River in 1956
Alice Gochenour at 'the dock' on the Niagara River
"Crayfish would come near the shore at night and we would catch them using a flashlight. We would throw the largest ones on the fire and cook them in their shells. They would turn orange in color, and when they were cooked and cool we would peel the claws and tail and feast on them. They were like lobster.

"Crayfish were the best bait for catching bass. The bait shops charged $1.25 for a dozen so Lee and I would catch our own. We knew a certain weed that the soft-shelled crabs liked to hide in. Crabs shed their shells as they grow, so they hide till their new shells harden. They are the best bait for bass.
We would row to the certain weed bed, and with a net haul the mass of weeds onto the deck of the boat, and pick out the crabs. We saved them in a minnow bucket till we used them.

"Grand Island split the Niagara River into the west and east rivers. Our first camp was across from the City of Tonawanda on the east river. It was just upriver from Elephant Rock, a huge boulder in the river that we could swim to, and was knee deep under the surface. To get drinking water we had to row across the river to a park. The river had a strong current and it was probably a half mile across so it took a while to row over there and back. But we had always rowed the river and were used to it. We had a nickname for the camp. We called it Gismo Beach. Lee had been in the army and had served in Korea, and he came up with the name. Back then everything was a Gismo.

"There was a lady who walked her dog by our camp every day early in the morning. One day she knocked on our trailer door while we were sleeping, and excitedly told us about someone lying in the bushes by Elephant Rock. We were all only half awake and went back to sleep and forgot about it. Late in the day we saw a Sheriff car by Elephant Rock and walked there to see what was going on. There was a young man lying in the bushes and he was dead. Someone had turned him on his back because you could see the imprint of grass on his face. Later in the week, we read an article in the newspaper that he had been in the U. S. Navy, but they did not say what he had died from. Where he was lying was only about one hundred feet from our camp."

Clyde Guenther at the Niagara River Camp. Elephant Rock is in the background.
Where the white posts meet the trees a dead body was found.

Clyde Guenther's sailboat on shore near Franklin Street
"East, and across Military Road from the airport, was a very large field that was used for the town dump. It extended from Military Road to Delaware Road, and from Knoche Road to Waverly Road. This was where Pee Wee died when his parachute failed to open, and where we kids would junk pick.

"Many ferocious wild cats lived there. They were probably farm cats that had gone wild. They lived in the piles of trash, and if we chanced upon one, they would hiss and snarl like demons. One small pond was left back in the field, and a muskrat lived there. The dump was used for many years but finally became full.

"When they stopped dumping there they dumped in the gully next to our house. So for a while, we lived next to a dump. Living next to the dump was not too nice because of the noise, dust, smell, and flies. This was during the war, and a man told us kids he would pay us a nickel a bushel for broken bottles if we broke them up. Well, it seemed like fun at first, breaking bottles and putting them in bushel baskets, but we soon decided it was too much work and told him so. So that enterprise was short lived.

"It did not take long to fill the gully so they then started to dump at an abandoned gravel pit on the other side of the airport. Before it was made a dump we fished and swam there. We called it the Pit. Many rats lived at the dump and we would take our 22 rifles an shoot them for target practice. The original dump east of the airport changed from a dump to a cemetery. I often wonder what they run into when they dig for a grave? The gully next to our house was eventually the site of a Texaco gas station, and a bicycle repair shop."

[Ed.note: Reader Bud Reid informs that the airport Dad referenced was the Consolidated Bell Airport at Military and Ensminger Roads.]

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