1920’S: WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO GROW UP A CENTURY AGO?
I was always fascinated by the stories my 93-year-old Grandmother would share about her youth. I remember her telling us about the hobos that would visit her home near the railroad. Hobos were migrant workers or homeless vagrants who hopped trains moving from town to town looking for work. My great-grandmother would often give them a plate of food and they would sit outside on the back stoop to eat. Grateful hobos were known to have their own “language” and place an “easy mark” (a circle with an X in the center) on a fence near her home so that other hobos would know that the kind homeowner would provide a meal. Although mostly harmless, 97-year-old Waynedale resident Mary Marcella (Giant) Sorg, better known as Marcy, shared that her husband Tom’s family always kept a shotgun by the front door just in case an unscrupulous hobo would drop by.
The 20’s are defined as the Roaring’ Twenties, a time of Prohibition, the Jazz Age and the decade of industrial growth. But not so for the family of Harrison Hull who grew up with very little in a farmhouse in Dekalb County, between Waterloo and Butler, near Highway 6. Harrison said “We were so poor, the poor people felt sorry for us.” His family raised potatoes and onions on muck, which for us non farmers is “really great soil, almost compost.” They also raised chickens and hogs. Harrison recalls being a youngster during the cold butchering days. “Sometimes you get a good scald, sometimes you don’t” was the saying. Once killed, hogs were scalded to get their hair off. Frankly, after hearing my grandmother’s stories about plucking chickens, steaming feathers and these details about butchering pigs, I am pretty sure I would never have survived in those early days.
When Harrison was born, there was, in his words, “snow knee deep to a tall Indian”. His dad hooked up a team of horses to a bobsled and met the Doctor on the highway and brought him in to deliver the baby. The Doctors name? Harrison of course! Fast forward 100 years later, as Harrison will celebrate his 100th birthday this month. He built his home on Thiele Road in 1956, long before Wayne High School was constructed.
The Hull family didn’t get a flush toilet until Harrison was almost a teenager. Until then they used the privy or outhouse, one that featured three holes. I always thought the stories of using catalogs for toilet paper were hearsay, but Harrison assured me that the Sears Roebuck harness section was glossy and very rough, whereas the rest of the catalog was the texture of newspaper and much softer. Marcy Sorg reminisces about having to brush the snow off the seats before sitting down, a memory her grandchildren find hard to fathom.
Although the Hull’s didn’t really celebrate Halloween, the family always worried that some mischievous kids might knock the privy over. At least until the WPA (Works Projects Administration) made outhouses with cement bases to keep them from toppling. Chamber or thunder pots (large bowls kept in the bedroom to save a nocturnal visit to the cold outhouse) were made of enamel or porcelain.
I also remember my Grandma and her tales of walking “miles in snow up to her knees to get to school.” Harrison only walked a mile and a half to get to his one room schoolhouse. Proudly, Harrison was first from his family to graduate from high school since all of his eight siblings worked, every nickel earned going to support the family.
Marcy bounced back and forth between the one room schoolhouse #9 on Tillman Road and St. Louis Besancon School, depending on transportation. Each morning Miss Pearl handed the students their toothbrush from an oilcloth with pockets in it to brush their teeth.
They also each had their own comb, tucked in a separate oilcloth in case their hair got mussed. They recited the Pledge of Allegiance every day. The neighbors would bring them buckets of water and each student had a cup with their name on it.
Marcy recalls that whenever they heard the rumble of the loud engine of a plane approaching, the teacher would have the students all stand, fold their hands in prayer and recite this poem: “God keep you birdman, in your plane up there, with your wings a bare. May you have good flight, oversight, and bring you back safe to Earth again. Amen.”
Harrison was eight or nine when he saw his first plane. It was in a field and a barnstormer was earning money by giving rides. He knew then that when he grew up, he wanted to be an Airplane “Driver” (he didn’t know the word for pilot). He served in WWII as Crew Chief for the P47 Fighter Squadron from before Pearl Harbor until after war. Because he was color blind, he was unable to become pilot during the war. However, he did realize his dream when he obtained his pilot’s license in 1947.
The 1920’s also reflected a rapid increase in production of cars. The Hull family did have a horse and buggy for short trips but drove their 1923 Model T when they went into town. As no license was required at that time, Harrison started driving when he was 14. They later got a 1927 Dodge Sedan. Although she doesn’t recall the make and model of their family car, Marcy remembers having to snap the window coverings on the car in the winter and cranking the engine to get it started.
Harrison states that the icemen wouldn’t deliver to farmhouses, therefore they did not have an “icebox.” They used cold water from the well to keep things refrigerated but most often just planned meals so there were no leftovers. With eight siblings, I’m surprised they even had any leftovers! They existed mainly on potatoes, onions and beans which you could buy 3 pounds for 10 cents. Bean soup was known as “Hull’s dessert”. Marcy’s family stored their perishables on the steps in the cellar where it was nice and cool.
When in his teens, Harrison worked after school five days a week and all day on Saturday at a local market. He earned $2 for the full day on Saturday. He also worked chopping cotton, making $1 a day. He would thin it out, cutting out the smaller ones leaving the taller healthy ones. Back then, a good job for a grown man was a rate of 20 cents an hour.
The Hull’s kept warm due to the heating stove. With no heat to the bedrooms, at night they heated flat irons and wrapped them in towels to keep their feet warm. Perhaps due to her dad being a Township Trustee, the Giant family was in a little better position. They had a furnace that they kept stocked with wood that heated the house with registers in each room.
Although electricity came about in the 20’s, Harrison shared they didn’t have it and relied on kerosene and Coleman lanterns (gas pumped up with pressure) for lights. They had a one-cylinder gasoline engine to power their washing machine and every Monday was wash day.
Finger waves in your hair may have been the rage in the 20’s. But Marcy recalls her mother putting her hair up in rags to make curls. She would wind the hair around a length of rag and sleep on it. Marcy tried to duplicate it on her cousin but instead wound the rag around the strand of hair and failed miserably. Either way, it certainly was not comfortable to sleep on.
Bath time for Harrison was always on Saturday night in preparation for church on Sunday. There is a saying about “don’t throw out the baby with the bath water.” It came about because the tub would get filled and the men would go first, followed by the women and children and by the time it got down to the baby, the water was so dirty, you couldn’t see through it.
Harrison said he wouldn’t know because he always ran and hid when they brought out the #3 galvanized washtub! Marcy said that using a white wash pan and warm water from the reservoir on the stove, they normally just took “sponge baths”.
Children were left to their own creativity to amuse themselves. Harrison and his siblings played “funeral”. One sister would play the organ, the rest of the kids were the grieving attendees, and his brother played the role of corpse. Until the time when his sister went to the cistern and soaked a rag with water, walked past the “casket” and proceeded to wring the rag out over the corpse with her “tears”. His brother never consented to be corpse again.
Harrison also played baseball using a flat board that they fashioned into a bat and a rubber ball. The bases were whatever happened to be handy. Marcy states that the game Red Light Green Light was a favorite of theirs growing up.
Because the average cost was $150, Harrison’s family did not own a radio until he was in his teens even though they became quite popular in the 1920’s. Radio broadcasts included newscasts, weather reports, popular classical and jazz music, sporting events, and stock market updates. Comedy, music and variety shows became a great favorite of listeners especially Amos ‘n’ Andy, the Eveready Hour and the Grand Ole Opry.
Everyone helped around the farm. Chores included getting the hay down from the upstairs haymow to feed the stock, helping in the garden and bringing up the cows from pasture. Marcy would hold the reins of the horses who were pulling the pulley to lower the hay. This wasn’t her favorite job as she was always skittish around the animals.
Harrison said at Christmas the house was festively decorated with tissue paper bells and paper ribbon strung to the corners of the room. According to both Harrison and Marcy, fresh fruit such as oranges and bananas were considered special treats, and typically only received at Christmastime.
The Depression began when the stock market crashed on Black Tuesday, October 29, 1929. Harrison remembers all the things he did without. He states “You can get by on almost nothing if you don’t have much.” Marcy agreed, sharing that you couldn’t get many foods and you didn’t waste anything. At her farm, three or four rows of field corn would always disappear as the hobos helped themselves.
Tom and Marcy Sorg had 11 children; six girls and five boys. She is a proud grandmother of 45 and the great grands total over 90 in number. She feels that the change that made the biggest impact during her lifetime was the Women’s Liberation Movement. Not that Marcy didn’t agree with equal rights for women. But she believes that women leaving the home to work changed family dynamics and how children were raised. As someone who has a passion for living life to its fullest and built a family based on love and faith, she has always felt blessed.
Harrison has lived through many changes in his 99+ years as well. When he made the radical career change from flying to life insurance, he wasn’t too sure. But he says it was proved to be a smart move, providing the resources, peace and security he has enjoyed in his retirement. He is the proud father of two sons, Wayne (Shirley) and Ken (Myrna). He boasts four grandchildren; one girl and three boys. First Missionary Church has been a foundation in the life of their family. He attributes part of his longevity to the loving care his late wife Becky gave him. The other part is that he grew up a in a Christian home. He states “That upbringing was invaluable, worth everything. It provided a positive pattern for the entire family. We didn’t have much, but we had love. I have been blessed; God has been good to me.”
If you would like to help Harrison celebrate becoming a centenarian on January 27th, please join in a greeting card shower and send birthday greetings to Harrison Hull at Kingston Residence, 7515 Winchester Road, Fort Wayne, IN 46819.
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