Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Memoirs of Eugene Gochenour Part II

Today I am continuing to share from Dad's memoirs about his family and life growing up in Tonawanda, NY. Today is about his Depression era childhood.
Emma, Al, Mary and Gene Gochenour
The Depression was at its worst during 1935, the year we moved to Military Road when I was five years old.

One day some of us kids were over by the railroad tracks when we saw this huge monster coming down the tracks toward us. With black smoke billowing from its smokestack, the whistle screaming as it approached the road, and the ground shaking as it went by, my first sight of a steam engine was terrifying. But it did not take long before we were used to the ironwheeled monster.

Sometimes we would put pennies on the track to have the train flatten them out as it passed by. We would count the box cars, tankers, and gondola cars, and read the names on them. A really long train had about one hundred and fifty cars and one caboose.

A huge, deserted factory was near the tracks about four blocks away, the old Jewett Stove Company, and I guess it had closed a few years before we moved there. The building’s windows were broke out and the doors were open so us kids would run through the building playing games, and looking at the piles of paper and other things that had been left there. Years later the building would become the Lucidol Corporation, where a huge explosion would occur, causing many deaths.

There were other signs of the Depression. Basements were dug on Oakridge Street by Elmwood Avenue, and when the work stopped they filled with water and became a hazard. Near the railroad tracks by the airport was a field where a business had closed. There were some old trucks, and a deep pit where a mechanic could work on the underside of them. At all these places it looked as though the people had just dropped everything and left.

But one place that had stayed in business was the Eastern States Grain Company. Huge grain elevators, or silos, sat by the tracks just somewhat south of Sheridan Drive. Spilled grain lay on the tracks there, and many birds, mostly pigeons, lived off of it. Years later when I raised rabbits, I would take a bag and gather grain to feed to them.

There were four movie theaters within probably five miles from where we lived. Three were at the Tonawandas: the Star, the Rivera, and the Avondale. One more theater was in the city of Kenmore. To get to them we had to walk to Delaware Avenue and catch a bus. Years later there were also three drivein-theaters. One was on Ensminger Road, one on Delaware, and another on Niagara Falls Boulevard.

The entrance to the Erie Canal was at Buffalo, New York, about ten miles south of where we lived. It followed parallel and next to the Niagara River to Tonawanda. Many huge factories were built, supplied by the raw material that came through the Great Lakes. On many days when the wind blew from the west, you could smell the odors from the Semet Solvay plant, and when near the Niagara River the odor and see the soda ash that emanated from the International Paper Mill.

When we first moved to Military Road us kids would walk to Two Mile Creek by the golf course. The water was crystal clear, and many fish and frogs lived there. But during the Second World War, the creek became contaminated from all the factories, and filled with black silt, killing all the wildlife. In those days no one thought of pollution, but one place it was very visible was at the Niagara River by Wheeler Street in the city of Tonawanda. There was a drain pipe from the Spaulding Fiber Company that emptied into the river there, and every day the water that came out of it was a different color. It was a strange sight to see a bright red or green stream enter the river, then mix and slowly disappear.


This picture of my father and I was taken at the porch at our side of the house. Dad is in his work clothes, sitting on the rickety porch. We finally had a fuel oil furnace, and the oil tank that fed it stands behind him. My bike is leaning against the porch. It did not have a chain guard and the pants on my right leg were all chewed up from getting stuck in the chain. One day I decided to paint my bike silver. When Dad came home and saw what I had done, he gave me a spanking. He didn’t like my artistic flair I guess!

There were still some horse stables and farms then, and their manure piles created many flies and odors. The screen door of our house was often coated with flies during the summer. We used fly swatters and fly strips to control the houseflies and horseflies.
Gochenour Homestead in Woodstock, VA

The second trip we took to my father’s birthplace in Virginia was around 1940 or 1941. At that time my father, mother, Mary, Alice, Grandfather Becker, and I went in Dad’s 1937 Buick. The trip seemed to take forever. I remember Dad showing us the seven horseshoe turns of the Shenandoah River on the way.

When we got there we stayed at the farm. On the farm they had some turkeys. I had never seen turkeys, and when three went into the barnyard, they chased me. Everybody thought it was funny except me. I was terrified! Mother and father went into town, and when they came back, they bought us kids some Kazoos, an instrument you blow into to make a tune. It probably wasn’t long before they were sorry!

Since it was Christmas time Dad and I went out into the woods and found a tree. We cut it down and hauled it back to the house. It seemed strange to celebrate Christmas when there was no snow and it was not cold. Before we made the trip, mother had bought me a pair of high top boots. They were the latest thing, and they came with a jack knife, and a knife holder sewn onto one boot. I was so proud of them, and when we went to church that Sunday, I wore them. I was quite the envy of the boys there. Soon it was time to leave. The trip was uneventful until we got near home. Grandfather got car sick, and we had to stop the car so he could heave. Nice thing to remember, huh?

One summer night father heard men talking out at the road in front of the house. It was during the year of 1937, and I was seven years old. Military Road had a speed limit of 50 miles per hour, a pretty fast speed for those times. Dad got dressed, and went out to see what was going on and found some men attempting to change a flat tire. He offered to help and was kneeling down taking the tire off of the car when a drunk driver hit the vehicle. Dad was thrown down the road about 50 feet. A neighbor from down the street who was watching was killed, and the person who owned the car with the flat tire was killed. The driver of the car that hit them fled the scene, but was caught later. Dad went to the hospital and survived, but had back trouble for the rest of his life. The day after the accident, I walked out on the street, and saw car parts, and what I thought were human brains. The man that was driving the car that fled the scene, was never prosecuted, and no one ever received any compensation. 

Years later, after my father had died, our station had become a New York Inspection Station, and occasionally a state trooper would come in and inspect our station. When one trooper came in, he saw the name on the form, and asked if my father had been in an accident years ago at this location? I told him yes, and I was his son. He said the driver of the vehicle that was hit was his father, and that the man who drove the car that killed him was rich, and had found a way to avoid liability. He said he had always kept track of that man, and said the man was struck and killed by a car two years previous.

Near the airport and the dump was a golf driving range. During the late ‘30s, some of us kids were hired to pick up golf balls from the field. We were paid ten cents for our work and we would give back five cents for our favorite candy bar, a Milky Way. 

We liked to go to the dump also. There we found what we thought was some neat stuff and took it home. When our parents saw what we had hauled home they made us put it out to the street so the rubbish man could haul it back to the dump. I often wonder if the rubbish man thought that some of those things seemed familiar! 

The Sheridan Park Golf Course had some nice hills where we could sled during the winter. One day I slid down the hill and ended in the creek. It was a long freezing walk home! There was also a pond where we ice skated on. When summer came, I would go to the fields next to the golf course to find golf balls that the golfers had lost. Then I would sell them back to them. One day I found and sold twelve dollars worth of balls, with which I bought a portable radio. Since they were new on the market at that time, few people had them. The radio was large by today’s standards. I liked the smell of the plastic material that covered it. The plastic looked like leather, and the radio had large batteries. It was great to take anywhere and have music. 

During the ‘30s and ‘40s, I had many ways to make money. I picked up pop and beer bottles from along the roadways, and took them back to the store where I got two cents each for them. I had a paper route, cut lawns, worked in the field with John, and got a weekly allowance of twenty five cents from mother for my home chores. During the fall and winter, I went to the housing project where I received a dollar for each ton of coal I could carry from the street to the customer’s coal bin. My friend Dale Thiel and I would usually do the coal jobs together. We would use the customer’s trash cans to haul the coal. It took about 20 to 23 cans for the ton of coal. Also during the winter I would shovel snow from people’s driveways and sidewalks, for two or three dollars. The nearby horse riding stables rented out horses to the public. They made many trails through the woods and fields that we would ride our bikes on. We literally had trail bikes in those days! Also in the woods we would build tree houses from scrap wood we found.