Memories of Clinton Street Cottage
Recently, along with other members of the Historic Preservation Commission, I had the opportunity to go back and look inside the little cottage at 209 Clinton Street, where I spent my childhood. It was already 100 years old when we moved from an even smaller house on the west side of the railroad tracks where my father had a coal yard. The depression had a firm grip on Montgomery. According to records, my father was able to buy the cottage for $700. This enabled him to rent out our little house near the coal yard. His coal and ice business was in trouble as he continued providing coal until his money ran out. When his suppliers insisted on payment, he was forced out of business. There was no bankruptcy for an honorable man in those days, so he faithfully made payments on those bills as long as I can remember. He held onto the hope that his customers would recognize him as soon as they could pay.
Last month, before I entered the little cottage, I expected to be struck by how tiny it was, but instead, I began to picture where Mother's sewing machine was and where the table and the pot-bellied stove sat. Despite the many changes, I could picture all of us there, and it didn't seem too small. It seemed just right, the way it always felt.
There was one all-purpose room downstairs and one open bedroom upstairs. Eventually, Daddy built a partition to make a downstairs bedroom in the southeast corner of the house.
At some point, while we lived there, the pump in the kitchen was replaced with a faucet and sink. We had a gas stove on four legs with a side oven. We used this to heat our water to do dishes and carried it into the living room, where we had a big round oak table that was our most important piece of furniture covered in oilcloth. We ate, did dishes, and did our homework at that table. We cut out paper dolls, worked jigsaw puzzles, and just hung out around that table. Mother would read to us When she wasn't busy at her sewing machine. She sat in the rocker and read while we brushed her curly black hair into strange upsweeps, bangs, or banana curls to entertain each other. She taught us early on to make popcorn and fudge, so we usually had one or the other, and sometimes both.
Breakfast was always the same: steaming bowls of oatmeal from the pot on the stove's back burner, which Daddy made first thing in the morning. We ate it with sugar and canned milk. I remember curling my hair with an iron that my mother clamped onto a stove burner to heat. In that family of nine, I was the only one with straight hair, and she worked hard to make me fit in. She taught me to roll my hair up in rag curlers, and I was so proud of those kinky curls.
Daddy kept rabbits in backyard cages and butchered them for our meals. I don't remember what they tasted like. It was just another kind of meat. He had a massive garden across the street next to the River. He watered it from the River and fertilized it courtesy of the rabbits. At night, Mother would work at her treadle sewing machine. She had a knack for cutting up old woolen coats and shirts and making patchwork quilts for our beds. They were a mishmash of colors, backed with flannel and tied with yarn. She made sheets out of four flour sacks, bleached and seamed together. They were coarse but always smelled sweet when she hung them outside to dry, especially in the winter when they would freeze on the line. We were always cozy and warm in that drafty little house with no central heating other than the stovepipe that stuck through the ceiling.
I remember the spring ritual when Daddy took down the stove and put it on the back porch for the summer. It was stored next to the big sauerkraut crock. Once, my glasses disappeared and were missing all summer. In the fall, when we opened up the sauerkraut crock, we found my glasses! They had slipped down into the crock when the lid was tipped. They probably helped the fermenting process.
Looking at the tiny yard, I couldn't believe Daddy had fit the rabbit hutches, a chicken coop, an ice house, a barn, and who knows what else in that space. The icehouse faced the street, and a cement platform was jutting out from the sidewalk where he loaded his truck. This truck was used to deliver coal in the winter, scrubbed out, and filled with straw for summer duty. Neighborhood kids would follow the ice truck and jump on, hoping to get a big chunk of ice. They called him "Holy Moses, the coal man."
After the business went south, he gardened energetically all summer, storing vegetables for winter, butchering chickens and rabbits and an occasional pig or lamb from his brother's farm. Once, he had a big crock of pork chops stored in the ice house. He had fried the pork chops, layered them with melted lard, and packed them away for winter. His young helper, a teenager named Phil Basuier, accidentally dropped a chunk of ice on the crock and smashed it. (Phil Basuier became the artist who painted the beautiful landscapes hanging in the Village Hall.) Daddy almost cried at losing all of that meat! We lived off the garden and his butchering.
My grandparents lived at the top of the hill in a little apartment over their "oil station." It was a Phillips 66 station, and although they had gas pumps manned by Grandma, they always called it the "oil station." They sold penny candy there, but we seldom were allowed to go up there for candy.
So many memories flooded me as I walked through those rooms. I could picture the rocking chair where Daddy would sing our baby brother to sleep in his mournful monotone. I still hear him singing, "Oh my darling Nelly Gray, they have taken you away, and I'll never see my darlin' anymore. They have taken you to Georgia to slave your life away and to work among the cotton and the corn." After one stanza, the baby would be fast asleep.
I could see the old wainscoting on the walls, with the chair rail. I remembered Mother hanging fresh wallpaper after Daddy took down the stove in the spring. The house always smelled so clean with the doors open and the smell of wallpaper paste and fresh paper on the walls. To this day, I love wallpaper stores. I remember being punished and made to stand in the corner and poking holes through the corners where the paper overlapped.
On sweltering summer nights, we would all come downstairs to sleep. Because I was small, I could curl up on the little loveseat and watch everybody else sleeping on the floor.
One snowy morning in January, we woke up to a winter wonderland outside and raced down the rickety staircase to find Mother in the living room with a new baby brother. What a surprise. Nobody told us there would be a baby coming. Our aunt came down from her house on Webster Street to help with the baby. She gave us a big enameled dishpan to take outside and slide down the hill. The hill was roped off from Main Street down to River, and kids from all over town were there, taking turns on makeshift sleds. The best kind was made from the old enamel signs from the village dump. The big kids would bend two corners back and thread a rope through the holes to steer the sled. Then they came, wildly careening down that hill and onto River Street. Cars were rare enough to pose no danger in those days.
What a perfect day that was. Big fluffy snowflakes floating down all day, ice-cold fingers inside frozen stiff sock mittens, the whole town at our block party, a newly minted baby brother, and afterward, hot chocolate next to the pot-bellied stove. Upstairs that night, sweet dreams came quickly under the lovely warm quilts.
Patricia Mosley Torrance