Boyhood memories of Ralph Wyant (1925-2007)
Grandpa, when young, lived in the small town of Greenfield, Indiana, population 4,000. It was a bustling little town, the Hancock county seat, with a beautiful courthouse in the center of town. Before Grandpa was born, a famous children's poet by the name of James Whitcomb Riley was born here. The town was pretty proud of this man and erected a statue of him on the courthouse lawn. Every year on October 7, James Whitcomb Riley's birthday, Grandpa and all of the other children were dismissed from school to walk downtown and place flowers around the base of this monument. Several things in town, a hotel, the park, theater, school and street were named after him. His fame has lasted. His boyhood home has been restored and is still open for tours. Grandpa lived on Riley Avenue and these are some of his memories.
The main business section of town extended out one block each way from Main Street and State Street. There were three drugstores, Thomas's, Early's, and Eikenberry's all on Main Street. Thomas's had a soda fountain and in later years my friends and I hung out in that drug store.
There were four grocery stores. One was Rhim's Meat Market. I heard a rumor about Mr. Rhim. He had a habit of leaving his thumb on the scales to make the meat weigh heavier. Most people didn't catch it but this one customer did. He grabbed up a knife and said "I paid for that thumb and I 'm going to take it with me". Old Mr. Rhim took his thumb off the scales in a flash.
Bert Orr and Kroger had a grocery, and there was Ray Moore's grocery where my family did most of our shopping. Eggs were 12˘ a dozen, bread 7˘ a loaf, milk 8˘ a quart. My dad made 37˝˘ an hour. He gave my mom $11 every two weeks for groceries and paid $11 a month for rent. Going to the grocery was a little different back then. My mother would make a list of the things she needed and I would go to the store for her. I would wait in line until my turn came, then the grocer took my list and went around the store and got the items for me. Back then there was no such thing as self-service. Sometimes he had to get the things from high up on shelves with a pair of tongs on a pole. Usually all of the cereal and lightweight things were up high. Almost everyone ran a grocery bill and paid it when they got their checks on payday. My folks let their bill get up to $40 once and had great trouble paying it.
Over on Pennsylvania St. there was a little grocery called Gorman's Grocery. George Boots, one of my friends, was a relative of Mrs. Gorman. We frequently went there and George would buy me a coke and Powerhouse candy bar and put it on his bill. Each one cost 5˘. The coke was so strong it would come back out through my nose and the candy bar so big I had trouble eating all of it. In later years, when I was not quite 16, I was a clerk, the guy that ran around and got stuff for people, in that grocery for $3 a week. That was the job I had between my paper route and Goff's Meat Market.
There were three barbershops in town. I got my hair cut at Cox's Barbershop for 30˘, which I put on a charge account for Dad to pay later. One day while getting a haircut, Beulana Clinkenbearder, a girl I was madly in love with, walked by and waved. My heart did a flip-flop. Later I found out that it was her dad who was cutting my hair and she was waving at him. What a letdown! I don't think she even knew me and certainly didn't know I had a crush on her.
There were two tobacco stores, a Goodman's Dept Store, John Guther's Men's Store, Danner's Dime Store and Nay's Jewelry Store where I bought Grandma's wedding rings when I got older. They cost $225, which was a fortune for me that I had to pay out on time payments.
There were two movie theaters. One was the State Theater on State Street; the other was the Riley Theater that my friend George Boots' dad owned. You could go in town on Saturday night and go to the movie, have popcorn and a coke for 25˘. I wasn't allowed to go to the movie so when I went in with George to see his dad, I was scared to death someone would see me and go tell Dad. I would have been in big trouble.
At the corner of Osage and Pennsylvania Streets was a small shop where "Tink" Wilson worked and lived. He was an older guy, tall and stooped, who always walked bent over with his hands clasped behind his back. He kept a bag of gold dust with him everywhere he went. In his shop he repaired watches, as well as other things, and the rumor was that he got the gold from scraping it off the inside of the backs of the watches that people took to him to be repaired. True or not, it was easy to assume that's where it came from. When the clock in the courthouse tower quit working he was asked to repair it. He told them he was not going up in that tower but if someone would bring it to him he would gladly fix it. "Tink" also built himself a car. It looked like a motorized buggy and had no reverse gear. When asked what he did when he got in a position that he needed to back up, his reply was that "any damn fool that got in that position shouldn't be driving".
There were three ice cream stores. The Greenfield Ice Cream Company was on South Pennsylvania St., and was owned by Russel Jacobs. About two blocks away at the southwest corner of Pennsylvania and Main was Miller Yarling's where ice cream cost 5˘ a dip. If I had money, I would get a triple dip. At Simms ice cream store on North State Street pints cost 15˘ and quarts were 25˘. Even back then the ice cream man came down the street every day in the summer. He didn't have a truck with music like they have today, but he was like something out of Disneyland only Disneyland hadn't been invented yet. He had a big wooden. barrel mounted on wagon wheels. The barrel was painted white and the wheels were painted red. There was a handle on the barrel and a hole cut in the top of the barrel for the ice cream that was kept down there in dry ice. The ice cream man wore a Panama straw hat, white shirt, red bowtie, striped seersucker pants, and red armbands around his arms to hold his sleeves up. He had a little bell that he made go "dingie, dingie, dingie". He was a small man and his name was Abie Gross.
My Great Uncle Charlie was a "street sweeper". He walked down the street with his push-cart and with a push-broom would sweep the gutters and edges of the street; then pick up the dirt with a scoop-shovel and toss it in his cart. This was pretty primitive by today's standards but our streets were clean. When I was quite small, I was allowed to play out in front of my house and even on the sidewalk but no farther. One day my mother missed me. I forgot about my boundaries and walked about a block and half down the street talking to Uncle Charlie while he worked. I was in big trouble.
I don't know how many doctors or dentists were in town. My dentist's name was Dr. Kenneth P. Watts who drove a 1932 Buick. I had pretty bad teeth and had to walk to his office by myself to get them filled when I was so small I could hardly find my way.
When I was about nine or ten, my folks took me to Doc Titus' office in Wilkerson to get my tonsils out. He gave me some ether and did the surgery right there in his office, then kept me overnight. The charge for all of that was $35. One thing that was the same back then as today, was the promise of all the ice cream I wanted. I don't remember the ice cream but I do remember that I tasted ether for six months after that.
The farmers and local people came to town on Saturday nights to shop and visit. Some said it was to see and be seen by others. Early in the afternoon, my dad would drive the car to town and drive around until he could get the best parking place, which was right in front of Kroger. . He would park first in line on the south side of the street, headed east toward State Street, then walk home. After the family ate supper we all walked up town. My mom and dad would sit in the car and watch people walk by and visit with them while my sister and I and our friends would walk around town.
My Uncle Nolan had a 1932 Chevrolet Coupe that was really a hot car in that day. He would park downtown, too, and sometimes, people standing on the curb talking to each other would lean up against his car or sit on the fender. He didn't like for them to do that so he rigged his car with a Model T Ford coil and when someone got on his car he would push a button and shock them. It worked. People moved away instantly.
Cars didn’t have trunks in those days so the stores carried different attachments for when you needed to take luggage, etc. with you. When our family went to the 1933-34 Chicago World’s Fair, Dad bought an accordion type device that held our luggage on the running board of the car. (This was much like the gates that you put in doorways for children’s safety.) He also bought a folding platform that fit on the back bumper. More luggage was put back there and secured with leather straps.
There was a street called Mill Street that poor people lived on. Almost all of us were a little poor in those days since this was during the last part of the depression, but they were poorer than most. To heat their homes they would go to the Mill and get corncobs to burn in their stoves. They also walked along the railroad tracks and picked up coal that fell off the train. Back then the trains were all steam and coal fired. I had one customer on Mill Street when I had a paper route that I had a hard time collecting from. The paper was 10˘ a week and his bill was $1.20. That was a lot of money back then. I didn't think I would ever get my money, but finally one day he paid me all of it.
I lived a couple of blocks from the Pennsylvania railroad tracks. One of my favorite things to do was to get my little red wagon, and with one leg in the wagon and the other leg pushing me along the sidewalk, go up to the railroad crossing and watch the trains come thundering through town, smoke pouring out and the whistle screaming. In those days there were lots of trains that went by. Mr. Ricks operated all of the switches that turned the railroad flashing signals on at the streets where the train passed. He sat up in a tower that was probably 25 feet above the ground. I guess he could see most of the town because as the train approached each street he would turn on the signals for that street. As I remember, there were five streets that he was responsible for. I liked to watch the local come in and switch cars. One time they got too near the main track on the siding, accidentally hit the derailer and set the locomotive off on the ground. The fireman and the engineer got a bunch of blocks and a rerailer out and put the locomotive back on the track. That was interesting to watch.
When the mail train came through, someone would throw a bag of mail off the train. A Mr. Thompson, who had only one arm, hung a mailbag on a rack beside the track. An arm on the baggage car would grab that mailbag and pull it inside the car. One time a mailbag fell under the train and it got chopped up when the train ran over it. There was mail everywhere. There were Railway Post Office cars on trains back then that sorted the mail and had it ready to be delivered at the next train stop. I remember seeing ads in Popular Mechanics "Train to be a Railway Post Office Clerk" and earn $6500 a year. Big bucks back then. We received mail at our house twice a day, once in the morning and again in the afternoon.
Back in those days homeless people (almost always men) would hop on freight trains and ride from place to place. They were called "hobos". Occasionally, a hobo would show up at our house and my mom would fix him something to eat and hand it out the back door. He would sit at the edge of the porch and eat it. They usually knew where they could get a good meal and passed that info along to their friends. .
There weren't many airplanes in that day. To see one was a real treat. I remember my dad taking us to the Indianapolis airport to see a plane. We sat there all afternoon and there wasn't that first airplane that came or went, but, every day when I came home from school for lunch about 11:30, there would be an airplane going east,, an old propeller DC 3 I think, flying so low that you could read TWA on its wing. T hat was about 25 miles from the airport and it hadn't got any higher than that. The planes had no radar or radios so to keep them on course there were revolving beacon lights about every 20 miles. The revolving light was white. A steady green light was on the east side of the beacon tower and on the west side was a steady red light. This let the pilot know which direction he was flying.
The main street of town was snowplowed in winter but on our side streets, they snowplowed the sidewalks instead of the street. Most people parked their cars for the winter because the old car's 6-volt batteries wouldn't let them start when it got cold. Multi viscosity oil had not been invented yet. People walked or had things delivered. The walks were cleared of snow with a simple "snowplow" made by putting two 2 X 12 boards on edge, joined in the front to make a "V". A board was nailed across the top of this for the driver to stand on and a horse hooked to the front of the "V". It was crude but it worked. The poor old horse would have a long icicle hanging from his nose most of the time.
Charlie Wicker had a horse drawn grocery delivery wagon. It had bigger wheels on the back and smaller wheels on the front. He lived next door south. Every day when he finished his morning route, he came home, parked his wagon in front of his house, dropped a heavy round metal disc on the sidewalk so the horse wouldn't run off, then went in to eat and take a nap. At two o'clock he went back out, got in his wagon and he and the horse went back up town to deliver more groceries. He finally got more affluent and put automobile wheels and rubber tires on the wagon. Later, when even more affluent he bought a 1936 Ford pickup truck to make deliveries. One day while stopped at a stoplight he had a heart attack and died.
The milkman delivered milk with his horse and wagon. He would fill a tray or carrier that held eight quarts of milk and walk from house to house making deliveries. When the milkman was ready to reload his tray, he didn't have to walk back to the wagon because the horse always followed him up the street and was right there with the milk wagon waiting for him to refill the carrier with eight more quarts of milk.
Sometimes people didn't get their milk in the house before it froze in the winter. It was a funny looking sight to see the milk freeze and push the cap up maybe two or three inches above the bottle. Of course everything was glass then, plastic hadn't been invented. Milk wasn't homogenized then either, and the cream always came to the top. Polk's Milk Co had a bottle that had a little restriction near the top to separate the cream from the milk. They came out with a little spoon that would cover that restriction so that you could pour the cream off the top without the milk coming out. One time, we didn't have enough money to pay the milk bill and the payment on a new radio that we had recently bought. A radio with all of its stories and music was very enjoyable but we had to let it go back to the store. I think my dad, who worked at Lilly's, was laid off again. Back in depression days, it seemed like about every two weeks he would be laid off for a week.
There was an icehouse in town. They froze ice in 200-pound blocks and covered it with straw so it wouldn't melt. If you wanted 50 pounds of ice, they chipped it off of the 200-pound blocks. Ice was delivered to homes to put in an icebox that looked a little like a refrigerator except the top part had a place for a block of ice. As the ice melted it dripped in a pan under the ice box and you had to empty it every day. If you had ice delivered, you were given a square card that had the numbers 25, 50, 75,and 100 on each side. When you put this card in your window, with the amount of pounds of ice you wanted at the top, the ice man saw your card from the street and brought that amount of ice in your house and put it in your ice box. The iceman came with a horse drawn wagon, too. We kids would follow along and he would give us little pieces of ice he had chipped off.
Two little boys named Eldon and Edwin lived across the street from us. Their mom's name was Alice. The family had a 1934 Plymouth that she drove most of the time. Alice was a real hot-rodder. One day the boys made a bunch of little paper airplanes and stuck them up the tail pipe. Their mom went out, got in the car and as she drove away, little airplanes kept shooting out the tailpipe. It was funny to watch.
I wanted a bicycle and knew that if I waited on my parents to buy one for me, I was never going to get one. So when I was about 12, I got a paper route. I delivered 110 Greenfield Daily Reporters and 48 Indianapolis Times every day except Sunday. My paper bag was so heavy I half carried and half dragged it until I got to Mrs. Buskin's house. Mrs. Buskin felt sorry for me and loaned me a wagon she had so that I could finish my route. The" Reporter" cost 10˘ a week, the "Times" cost 12˘ or if a customer took both, the price was 20˘. When I began to get a little money I rented a bike for 10˘ an hour from Hugh Offenbacker who owned Western Auto. Finally, when I got a little more money, Dad helped me get my own bike. We got it at Wm. H. Block Co. in Indianapolis. It was a beautiful Super Schwinn Deluxe that cost $35. Dad charged it and I paid him $1.25 a week until it was paid for. As luck would have it, on the very first day that I had it, I let Phil Miller try it out and he caught the back fender on a high curb and bent it. I was heartsick and mad.
There were twelve of us paperboys who hung out at the bus station waiting for the Central Swallow Bus to bring the Times from Indianapolis. When the papers finally came we would take them to the Reporter Office to fold and wait for that paper to come off the press. The twelve of us rotated getting our papers. It was good to be first but with my new bike when I was twelfth I could deliver my Times route while waiting on the Reporter.
The police had to use their own cars in their work and they were unmarked. Pearl Johnson drove a 1938 or 1939 Chevy. The Chief of Police's name was Bill Roberts. One time when World War II first started there was an army convoy that came through town, a little too fast Bill Roberts thought. He either didn't realize that the army had precedence over him or (as most people thought) he just wanted to be a " big shot". Anyway, he told them to slow it down. The Military Police didn't waste any time telling him "Junior, get back up on the curb before you get run over." Bill's face turned noticeably red and he meekly got back up on the curb.
I was a senior in high school when I worked at Goff's Meat Market. I worked one hour before school and two hours after school. On Saturdays I went to work at 6:00 in the morning and got off at 12 midnight. Sometimes I went home for supper on Saturday. One time, when walking back to work, I walked through the depot from Riley Avenue to Pennsylvania Street, then north to Main Street, and on to work. As I walked through the depot I saw a train approaching from the east. When I got to Main Street, I heard this terrific crash. I turned and saw that the train approaching from the east had derailed and demolished the depot that I had just walked through.
At Goff's Meat Market I sold meat. Baloney was 17˘ a pound, hamburger was 25˘ a pound, and steak was 39˘ a pound. If I dropped a piece of meat on the floor, I was told to throw it in the trash can. When no one was looking, they would clean it and put it back in the meat case. I'm sure the customers wouldn't come back if they had known that. All of the meat had two tags, one had the price on it and the other had the amount of ration stamps it took to purchase it. This was in the early 1940's during WWII and several things were in short supply and rationed.
Gasoline was rationed. You could only get four gallons a week on an "A" stamp. That was what most people were entitled to. If you drove to work and people rode with you, or if you were a doctor or someone important who needed a car in their work, you were allowed more gasoline, so you got a "B" or "C" stamp. Gasoline was five gallons per $1. A new car cost about $700. Tires were unavailable. The speed limit was 35 miles per hour to conserve gasoline and tires. Our gas station was in downtown Greenfield across from the courthouse.
I was a normal 16-year-old who could hardly wait to get his driver's license. Dad took me to the license branch in his 1935 Ford and I took and passed the test. That was a great day! Now I needed my own car.
Finally, one of my most memorable days was March 20, 1943. I got my car! It was a 1936, 2 door, deluxe Ford. I bought it from Mr. Howell for $250. Dad got a loan at the bank for me and I made the payments. When I wasn't working to make the payments, I practically lived in my car until I got drafted six months later on September 10. Granddad Wyant in Carthage, Indiana took care of it for me and stored it in his barn until I came home from the navy almost three years later.