The House

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The House

Our house at 711 East Joliet Street in Crown Point, Indiana, was home for me from age 8 months through 18 years. Dad and mother bought the place in the spring of 1916, when it was about two years old. They put much of their lifetime energy into the maintenance and improvement of the house and grounds. The house foundation occupied an area about 25 by 35 feet. In addition, there was a front porch running about 18 feet of the full 25-foot width of the house, projecting about 7 or 8 feet toward the street. A smaller back porch, about 8 feet long, projected 4 or 5 feet from the house into the back yard. The original lot was 40 feet wide by 180 feet deep. In the early 1920s the family added half of a vacant lot between ours and the neighbor to the west. The addition was 20 feet wide and about 100 feet deep. So our land was an "L" shaped piece oriented north-south, and the house faced north.

The accompanying rough sketches show the floor plan. The living room, den, dining room, and kitchen were on the first floor; two bedrooms and accompanying closets, and a bathroom were upstairs; and there was a full unfinished basement. Thus the total area was 1750 square feet of finished space and 875 square feet of basement. The house was definitely in the middle range for Crown Point, though perhaps slightly larger than the average in that class.

The most-used space must have been the kitchen. It had a sink and drain board and kerosene stove and oven in the northwest corner, a floor-to-ceiling wooden wainscoating cupboard--containing all of the everday dishes, silverware, and cooking utensils--in the soutwest corner. The ice box stood against the south wall. A varnished oak table with four matching chairs stood in the center. Doors to the back porch, basement stairs, and dining room opened on the southeast, northeast, and east sides of the room. A window on the south, beside the ice box, overlooked the back porch. And a large tin bread box sat on the floor beneath the west window.

The ice box stood along the south wall. It was a varnished oak cabinet about five feet high and a couple of feet square, thermally insulated walls, with a metal lining. The top left quarter was a sheet-meta-lined cubicle with a drain conduit down through the bottom of the cabinet. That was the ice chamber. There was a makeshift shelf nailed to the sill outside the west window. Milk, butter, and eggs were chilled on that outdoor shelf during the winter, when we didn't buy ice for the ice box.

A garbage can stood beneath the sink. There was no garbage collection in Crown Point. We had a trench at the back end of the strawberry patch, west of the chicken coop, where we composted garbage and chicken manure with grass cuttungs and dirt and weeds from the garden.

On the east wall of the kitchen, beside the back door, for many years, stood the blackboard my parents bought for me at a pretty early age. It remained there until I was perhaps 10 or 12 years old. It included a "roller" with panels picturing the presidents of the United States, flags of nations, Palmer-method standard handwriting, multiplication tables, and all sorts of other "basics". On the wall above the blackboard hung the latest edition of the annual calendar from Schedell and Wendt Brothers drug store, with its perpetual map of Indiana showing all post offices, county seats and counties, steam railroads and electric interurban lines. I had all of that stuff memorized and kept the blackboard filled with miscellaneous scrawlings.

 

At least until the 1930s it was a pretty simple system. The blackboard corner was the primitive substitute for a kid's computer. A hot and cold water faucet were all of the plumbing. Dishes were washed in a pan in the sink and stacked on the drain board for drying. Packaged dishwashing soap displaced the big brown Fels Naphtha bars sometime during my early boyhood. There was no gas or electricity except for the ceiling light in the center of the room. The stove required a match to light each burner, and the half-gallon glass reservoir on the side had to be filled with kerosene manually. I was disciplined very thoroughly to leave the matchbox alone and steer clear of the kerosene glass.

The ice man came three days a week during the summer. He delivered cakes of ice cut the preceding winter from Fancher lake, in the county fair grounds, and stored under straw in a big windowless wooden building on the west edge of town. A big card in the front window indicated whether we needed a 10, 20, 30, or 40 pound cake of ice. The numbers were big enough to be legible from the street, so he'd know what size block to bring in from his wagon. He was careful not to make a mess; and one of my tasks was to remove and empty the meltwater pan from beneath the ice box daily without spilling a drop. The "grocery boy" came every couple of days. He delivered supplies from the grocery store and piled them on the kitchen table. For many years our "grocery boy" was uncle Eldridge ("Honey") Hall (age about 40 to 60), dad's sister Clara's husband. He delivered first for Schmidt's, then Miller's on the courthouse square. My mother placed her order by giving a written slip of paper to the delivery boy until she began to order by phone in the mid-1920s.

Low technology notwithstanding, there were many activities. My mother used a portable ironing board on the kitchen table, with a flatiron that had to be heated on the stove. Besides meal preparation and cleanup, she and Grandma baked all of our supply of bread, cookies, cake, and exotic German pastries there. The table was the scene of all card games--the frequent family rummy games, my parents' pinochle games with friends, frequent games of solitaire. It was the only feasible place for certain uses of toys. My precious Wheeden model steam engine had to be used in the kitchen because it had an alcohol firepot and use of it anywhere else in the house was forbidden. The three-foot-wide, 36-inch-deep gap between the table top and the cupboard counter was the best place in the house to build a high, long, dangerous railroad bridge span with the erector set to carry my wind-up train across a massive chasm. And in the cupboard-sink end of the room I dried and put away the dishes for quite a few years for part of my 25-cent-a-week allowance.

The second most-used space in the house was the dining room. It had double windows on both the south and east sides, hence by far the most sunlight of any room in the house. A four-bulb white-shaded lamp hung over the center of the table, so the room was also well illuminated at night. The china closet built into the north wall held all of my mother's Sunday dishes; and the buffet on the south wall had all of the fancy silver and table linens. Virtually all of those items could be identified with Grandma's housekeeping days or my mother's hope-chest and wedding. There was virtually no on-going addition or replacement that I was aware of. In the 1920s a corner cabinet held the successive crystal, 1- ,and 2-tube radios and headphones. Pet canary Dickie's cage hung above the fernery that stood under the south windows. The foot-powered sewing machine--not used very much--stood along the west wall. Behind the door from the kitchen, next to the fernery, was the telephone--party line number 459-J on the town's manual switchboard.

The phone had a fair amount of use, but by far the most memorable call was the one from mom's friend, Cora Berleen, reporting frantically one morning from her job at the courthouse that U.S. Public Enemy Number One, John Dillinger, had escaped from the county jail on South Main Street. Dillinger had been arrested in Gary, as I recall, and was being held in the Lake county prison. The scoop story in William Randolph Hearst's Chicago Evening American was that he threatened the guard with a wooden gun he had whittled with a razor blade. But rumor had it that a reporter for the American had smuggled a genuine pistol into his cell. The intense search for him was already under way when Cora called; and some months later he was shot in front of a movie house in Chicago.

That was one of numerous anomalous events in the annals of the county seat at Crown Point. Because the place was the county government center for the Calumet industrial district, its criminal court did have an unusually long and interesting weekly docket for a small farm trade center. There were always numerous cases of murder, sodomy, assault, rape, grand larceny, and so on. The county jail and cadre of politically-appointed deputy sheriffs and guards were unusually large. About 20 lawyers practiced in town instead of the 4 or 5 you might have expected in a county seat that size. There was business to support two sizeable abstract and title companies. Then, since the courthouse was just across the state line from Illinois' comparatively strict marriage licensing laws, it was the "gretna green" for quick marriages of impulsive and sinful couples from Chicago. There were three justices of the peace and several "marrying parsons" who had founded their own church "demoninations" under lax Indiana law, ordained themselves, and operated "churches" above store fronts on the courthouse square. All operated 24 hours a day. The county clerk's office was open 24 hours, also; and politically favored employees had the privilege of pocketing extra fees on the evening and night shifts. Among the off-hours customers were Al Capone--at least once--and many of his gang members. Their big bullet-proof limousines parked on the courthouse square, with a couple of stern-faced, muscular thugs standinbg guard, were unmistakeable .

Some time around 1930 we installed a Minneapolis Honeywell thermostat on the dining room wall above the phone. It was a big gadget, about 3 inches wide by 8 inches high by 2 inches deep. It housed a clock and a trigger-and-spring mechanism which would trip at a set time and release a taught spring. The unwinding spring pulled a chain which crossed a series of pulleys to the firepot of the coal-burning furnace in the basement. When the spring in the thermostat pulled it, it lifted the damper to increase the draft and combustion rate in the furnace. So we would bank the furnace fire at night before retiring, set the thermostat for about 30 minutes before the next morning's rising time, wind the clock and chain spring, and retire confident that the furnace would be roaring when we arose. When dad was on the road, my mother would ask me to wind and set the thing. It was exciting, patented high technology and an important factor in positioning Honeywell for its eventual leadership in the space age.

A special place in the dining room from about age 4 to perhaps 15 was "John's drawer" in the china closet. From the time I got my first bank savings account around age 7, I kept the passbook and cash there. But from perhaps age 4 it was the place for my supplies of writing paper, crayons, pencils, rulers, erasers, pens, and ink. These were the raw materials for literally hundreds of sketches and maps which I drew over the years. "Drawing" on the dining room table, with heavy wrapping paper protection for the finish, was a major evening pastime. There were occasional ambitious projects where I drew panoramas and life-size figures on five- or six-foot strips of wrapping paper, or one enterprise in which I used chalk to draw an aerial view of a complete railroad system, towns, and depots on the sidewalk and driveway, around both sides of the house from the front walk to the garage and chicken coop. With no video games, computer, or TV you had to have something to do.

In later years the dining room table was the place for all school homework. And, of course, it was the locus of dad's intensive scheme correction and exam preparation. On infrequent Sundays it woud be used for dinner parties for family from Crown Point and the farms or families of relatives or "the girls" and their families from Chicago. In late high school and college years it was set perhaps two or three times for dinners with girl friends I brought home to meet my family--anticipating the ultimate dinner when Jane came the first time during the Christmas break in 1941!

The living room was different. The furnishings were by far the most formal. It was more heavily draped, had only two double-hung windows and door window on the north wall, and one wide window on the west wall. In the northwest corner after about 1930 stood the Howard radio, an eight-tube cabimet model with a long outdoor antenna. Next to it was a comfortable chair and a magazine rack containing a tiny but priceless library. There was a Hammond atlas and a radio log listing the frequency, power, location, owner, and network affiliation--if any--for every radio station in the U.S. and Canada. In front of the radio in later years was a woven stool which I had made as a 7th-grade manual training class project. I recall, too, a travelling salesmanís directory of hotels, incliding nmbers of rooms, for several thousand cities and towns in the United States.

On week-ends for several years--I suppose about age 12 to

16--I was allowed to stay up til midnight (I could often fudge it to 1:00 a.m.); and I'd sit on the stool with my ear strained to the powerful speaker of the Howard listening at every 15-minute station break in hopes of hearing a previously un-logged set of call-letters. It was quite a lesson in not only the basic place-name geography but also the commercial and cultural geography of North America. I not only puzzled over the variety of proprietorships of those stations but also over the commercials for chewing tobacco from the station in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, the French language from Montreal and Spanish from Eagle Pass/Villa Acuna, and the interesting accents on colloquial stations in the South and Northeast. The hotel and radio station directories, together, mentally superimposed on the maps, were a challenging mass of data.

The piano stood on the south wall. I longed to be able to play it but detested practicing and the weekly lessons from Vernon Heinz, who tried vainly to instill some interest and discipline. The piano lesson affair ran sporadically for only a couple of years. Between the piano and the staircase was the area occupied in season by the Christmas tree.

It was always exciting to trim the tree, savor, and eventually open the presents. But most memorable were the years of the electric train. For many years I had yearned to have an electric train. I spent quite a few quarters from my allowance to purchase copies of the color-illustrated catalogs of Lionel, American Flyer, and Ives. But I could never hope to save enough money to buy a real train, nor was anything forthcoming from my folks. Then the situation changed. With the advent of the great depression about 1930, our relative income changed. Dad's federal civil service pay remained steady, while virtually all others in town declined, many drastically, as unemployment spread. As I recall, his checks totalled about $3000 a year in the early thirties. Meanwhile, prices fell on virtually all goods because the market was so sluggish. Within a few years we acquired our electric kitchen range, electric refrigerator, and the Howard cabinet radio.

Then dad decided one Christmas that we could buy the American Flyer train August Heide had put on display in his department store window for several seasons. Mr. Heide was willing to sell it for $15--locomotive, three cars, a good-sized "figure-8" track layout. I think I was already 15--too old for a toy electric train. But brother Bill was only 8--a reasonable age. Bill was only moderately interested. So I "taught" and "helped" him to play with the outfit. Moreover, by now I had more income, from mowing lawns, digging potatoes, and cutting asparagus, and in later years from Christmas season work as a clerk in the men's accessories department at Sears in Gary. So I not only encouraged the folks to buy Bill a set of freight cars and signals, but I also chipped in and added switches and many feet of additional track.

We even rigged the locomotive with a pantagraph, so it could get power from an overhead wire rather than a third rail. Then we bought tens of feet of very cheap two-rail track, made for wind-up trains, added poles, wire, and insulation and were able to extend the electric railroad from the den to the kitchen at minimal cost. My mother was a good scout and stepped carefully around the main line and sidings which for short periods covered most of the house. The greatest model railroad enterprise combined the track and rolling stock of four of my Sunday School buddies in the attic of Lisius' garage. It was with some embarrassment but a lot of fun that I joined Bill in building electric train layouts until I was at least 18. I think the last time we had a big layout was during Christmas break of my freshman year at De Pauw.

Thinking about the den brings back several disparate memories. Until we got the Howard radio a Victrola stood in one corner of the den. I don't know when it was acquired. Perhaps my mother bought it when she was a pretty young lady working at Western Electric. That was the more believable since she had a small collection of 78 rpm wax dance records from the 1910s. I was the only one who ever played them. I went through a spell when I fancied myself as a radio broadcaster (perhaps inspired by our tour of NBC in Chicago). I bought a telephone mouthpiece and headphone and dry-cell battery from the Sears catalog, made a microphone, complete with call letters, from the mouthpiece and erector set, strung a wire to the receiver in the kitchen, and tried to get my mother to pay attention while I made up commercials and news and "broadcast" those ancient dance records from the den to the kitchen. That phase didn't last long, but it was fun.

More lasting was the typewriter phase. When I was about 13 or 14, Uncle Bob donated an ancient Oliver typewiter, which we put on the table in the den. I spent hours typing--letters to Dad and Grandma, essays on all manner of subjects, and newspapers. My Sunday School friends and I combined our talents to make up quite a few papers--ads, cartoons, illustrations, and, of course, news columns done on the typewriter. They would begin serious but end as spoofs. By the time I was in 10th grade, my parents had given me a $25-dollar Remington portable from the Sears catalog. I was using the typewriter for papers in English, history, and civics classes. In 11th and 12th grade and during the following year while I worked for the Crown Point Register I used it to write material for the paper and the school annual as well as for homework. The machine always stood on the table in the den.

Dad kept "Turtle Joe" in one corner of the den. That was a beautiful big brass turtle whose shell was about ten inches in diameter. When you stepped on his head, his shell rose up to expose a large cuspidor. Joe was purely ornamental, since my mother did not allow dad to chew tobacco in the house. On the daybed, along the north wall of the den, anyone in the house who was ill lay for attention of all kinds. Dad took his frequent naps there. (In retrospect, I'm sure he was forever adjusting between his daytime sleeping on the road and his nightime sleeping in alternate weeks at home. It served as a spare bedroom on rare occasions when the house overflowed with guests. (I slept there when Jane visited us at Christmas break in 1941.) And Dad used it many hours each day in his last year or so.

The most-used room upstairs was the bathroom. Besides the obvious individual activities, I recall a somewhat bizzare family ritual. Every other week, when my Dad came off the road, he'd come home from the afternoon train from Cincinnati, unpack, and head for the bathtub. While he took a long hot bath, the rest of the family would gather around in the bathroom while he spun out tale after tale of the events the past week on the road. There were arguments among the crew, adventures in the city streets and the hotel and the restaurants, emergencies on the trains, exciting occasions like the nights the Cubs or Reds baseball teams or some national celebrity rode the Pullman. The ritual would continue while he toweled and dressed. My mother sat on the bathroom chair; I got to occupy the covered toilet seat; and Bill sat on the floor. The medicine chest was a fascinating place in the bathroom. There were remedies like Dr. Miles Nervine to calm the nerves, Fletcher's Castoria, and Pluto Water from the French Lick mineral springs, to move the bowels, and Snake Oil for sore muscles. The register in the center of the bathroom floor was by far the warmest place in the house on a cold winter morning.

The closets and bedrooms upstairs were most memorable for their cold temperatures in winter and extreme heat and stuffiness in summer. But the "store room", off the south bedroom, was more interesting. It contained the accumulating run of old National Geographic magazines, from 1929 onward. The articles and ads were worth many hours of repetitious reading. Not the least interesting items, along about junior high school years, were the closeups of young Balinese women unclothed above the waist. It's no secret that those photos were a key to the Geographic's popularity among boys that age. But I have to admit that I was even somewhat more fascinated with aerial views of cities, canals, mines, and the ads for sports cars, speedboats, and the Twentieth Century Limited.

The basement was another world. The north half was known as the furnace room, because that device overwhelmed the space. The cast iron core was surrounded by what seemed like a monstrous envelope of sheet metal ductwork reaching upward into the rooms of the house. The coal bin filled the space between the furnace and the northeast walls. Each fall the "coal man" pulled his truck up to the coal bin window and shoveled in a couple of tons of "Pocahontas egg". Then we spent the winter shovelling the coal into the furnace. A pile of kindling wood filled the space beneath the basement stairs, and a pile of lumber scraps rested agains the south wall. The work bench was on the east wall between the lumber pile and the coal bin. The work bench was a center of great ambitions and broken dreams. I had neither the skills nor the patience to make what I wanted to make from cigar and cheese boxes and spools with inadequate tools and too little patience. My grandfather Ernst Borchert's tool cabinet, with his own tools from the last half of the 19th century, stood against the north wall. He would have been disappointed by the small use dad made of them and the amazed by utter decay of his skills in the second generation.

The south room of the basement housed the laundry tubs, with their wash board and attached hand-cranked wringers. A small kerosene stove provided heat for a big copper wash boiler. An electric washing machine replaced all but the tubs in the 1930s. And the ice box was moved to that room when the electric refrigerator replaced it in the kitchen in the 1930s. Some other things did not change. The potato bin remained; it was filled every fall, and I had to de-sprout every one of the hundreds and hundreds of potatoes through the winter. There were crocks and jugs and glass jars for making dandelion and grape wine, grape juice, root beer, tomato juice, and sauerkraut. There was a stained board for cleaning fish. My specialty was skinning bullheads.

In one corner of the south room was the grease trap. It collected the floating, greasy component of the household sewage discharge before the waste stream went into the city system. The sewer trap was a cast iron cylinder a couple of feet deep and a couple of feet in diameter. Removal of the lid ventilated an exceptionally foul-smelling mess, and regularly I had the job of "cleaning" it - bailing out the mess with a coffee can and dumping it on the compost pile at the back of the lot. Even a coffee can had value; it had to be rinsed and returned to the top of the grease trap to be ready for the next use.

Then there were the floods. Our side of town stood on a nearly flat area of glacial till plain. So the sewer mains there had little natural slope and flowed sluggishly. What's more the storm and sanitary sewers were combined. As a result, when we had a summer clouburst--which was once or twice a season, the excessive storm drainage from the streets backed up the sanitary sewage into the basements. We could get three to six inches of foul-smelling, oily water over half the floor of the south room. That always seemed to happen when dad was on the road, and I'd have to clean it up. The world took another big turn for the better when dad invested in a valve near the street curbing to close off the sewer connection during one of those heavy rains. It meant we could not run any water down the sink drains or flush a toilet until the street flooding abated. But it was worth the trouble.

The garage was an important appendage to the house. Dad had it built when we got our first Whippet in 1927. He had a concrete driveway poured from the street at the same time. It was a double garage, with a wide concrete apron in front of it. It made a wonderful place to shoot baskets. He rented the spare stall to a neighbor, Henry Schleuter, for several years. Fortunately Henry built his own garage about the time I got my first bicycle at age 14. The bike was a red Elgin from the Sears catalog. I think it cost about $19.95. I assembled and maintained it with great care and pride.

The most exciting event in the garage was the time dad drove part way through the back wall. He was learning to drive the Whippet, but with a lot of frustration. His practice would be interrupted every other week, of course. But I don't think he ever really believed that autos were here to stay. He continued to prefer horses as long as they were available at any of the relatives' farms. I can recall standing in the back yard watching as he fumbled with the gearshift stick and clutch, then watching the Whippet shoot forward into and through the garage. There was a lot of commotion and expense. Dad never again drove after that.

The cistern was a small landmark in the back yard as well as an interesting part of the household technology. A piece of culvert tile about four feet in diameter and ten feet long was set upright in the ground about four feet from the back porch. The tile was sealed by concrete and pine tar at the bottom. The top protruded about two feet above the ground and was capped by a circular, four-inch-thick removable slab of concrete. Beneath the slab was the upright tile. That was the cistern, and it held about 700 gallons of water. Rain and snow melt ran from the roof into eave troughs to downspouts at each corner of the house, thence through tiles to the cistern. The heavy slab kept dogs and cats and birds and the occasional skunk or raccoon and careless birds from fouling the water. A pump in the basement lifted water from the cistern into a small tank. A pipe led from the tank through coils in the furnace then branched to the warm water faucets in the kitchen and bathroom sinks and the bathtub.

The idea behind all this was to avoid using the public water supply for hot water. Crown Point's water came from 300-foot wells in the Devonian limestone which underlay the glacial boulder-clay. Hence the city water was "hard". Its calcium carbonate would corrode and scale the hot water pipes. Since rain water was "soft", it had no such problem. So the warm water pipes tapped cistern water. There were other problems with the cistern water supply. Though soft, it had a certain amount of contamination from coal soot and bird droppings from the roof and decaying leaves in the eave troughs. So we didn't drink it, or even brush our teeth with it. Also, since we fired the furnace only in winter, there was no ready hot water in summer. Then Mom had to heat water for laundry on a kerosene stove in the basement; we heated bathwater in two teakettles on the kitchen stove and carried it upstairs to the bathtub. You had the choice of a one-kettle or a two-kettle bath.

When rain was scarce, cistern water was also scarce. I recall a couple of times during the early 30s dry years when we had to have water hauled in. Dad's cousin, John Rettig, had a couple of windmills on his farm and wells in the glacial drift which were not quite so limey. He also had a 500-gallon, horse-drawn tank wagon for use in summer with the steam engine on his itinerant threshing rig. He pulled the team into our driveway, backed the tank up to the cistern, and hand-pumped farm water into the cistern. It was quite an operation, with the horses tearing up the back yard, endless maneuvering of the wagon, all orchestrated to "Old Chon's" swearing at the horses, the wagon, the pump, and the immutable laws of mechanics in his peculiar combination of Hoosier and German dialect and slang. He was a large man, clad in bib over-alls plus any layers of sweaters and denim jacket the weather might call for. You could hear his booming voice half a block away. I can still hear him one snowy day, shouting, "If it vaassent for dis dangt schnowbaank, I could git dis ting backed arl-l-lrount here!"

 

 

 

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