An Autobiographical Account
When my children were small they were very fond of hearing stories I used to relate to them of my father's family, and in later years they have urged me to put some of those reminiscences down on paper. I shall try.
My father was one of seven children of true Yankee ancestry who grew up in the country, in the vicinity of what is now the Sacandaga Reservoir. We place them in New York State for three generations back and so like to fancy ourselves as descended from one of the first families to settle here. However, they were poor people and we have no family records to substantiate such a claim, nor have we any desire so to do. We like our relatives and we don't care from whom they are descended; those of them whom we knew were fine people and we are sure that their forbears could not have been less.
During my childhood there was a great deal of "visiting" done between members of the family. (What has become of that old institution, the family "visit"?) They spent much of the time on these visits in telling tales of their childhood, and this was a delight to all present. They really could tell a story so that it became a living incident in the telling, and I wish I might have some tape recordings of their get-togethers.
One of the earliest of the family reminiscences is that of the time their father, my paternal grandfather, returned from the South after service during the Civil War, with his hair burnt crisp from the hot Southern sun. The youngest of my aunts had been a baby when he left and seeing him coming up the walk, ran in to her mother to say there was a strange man approaching. My grandfather and two of his brothers served in the War Between the States, and one of my cousins has in his possession my grandfather's dog tag showing the engagements in which he participated during the war. I have made a request for a daguerreotype which my aunt has of my grandfather and his two brothers in their uniforms.
This grandfather of ours must have been a determined soul. We have another story in the family of his having on one occasion disagreed with the schoolmaster and started a school of his own in competition.
My father's family had been country born and bred and they all loved the outdoors. I once heard my father say that he thought if he died and were placed under a tree, on a summer day, on the farm where he had lived as a boy, he would return to life. This was an expression of his deep love for his country home. How frustrating city life must have been to him! I recall once when I visited Aunt Lib in a country place where she was spending a summer, immediately upon our arrival she rushed us off to a nearby small woods, so that we might see the sun setting through the trees. The beauty of nature never failed to strike a responsive chord in her. This love of outdoors has been handed down to my children; our boys love going off on hikes and expeditions with only a dog for companionship.
Aunt Lib was my father's oldest sister and she was loved and feared by all her family. I am afraid that in our childhood the fear greatly obscured the love; it was only when we grew to adulthood that we appreciated what a truly fine person Aunt Lib was in her deeds, she was Charity Incarnate, but her tongue was something to be feared. She was an accomplished seamstress and I never knew a time when Aunt Lib didn't have some sewing project under way. She had no children of her own, but she was engaged in sewing operations for the children of our family during the entire period of our childhood. Then, she started on the business of sewing for our children.
Aunt Lib could do just about anything with her hands. She canned everything that grew that was edible and at Christmas time one could always count on a box of Aunt Lib's canned goods. (Her canned corn was really famous.) She did her own papering and painting and could turn her hand to a small carpentering job. Plumbing was something she didn't have a chance to practice on in her youth and when she did in later years have the benefit of indoor plumbing it was something she didn't care to fool around with. I once saw her put a new top on a Model T Ford with some black table oilcloth she had gotten hold of, and a very good job it was. She was a woman of varied skills. As my sister stood beside her bier after Aunt Lib's death, she put her hands over the gnarled crossed hands and said, "How very hard these hands have worked!" And I thought: what miles of material they have pushed through the sewing machine; how many tons of food they have prepared! I am sure that when she appeared at the Judgment Seat, whatever may have appeared on the debit side, there was not "Idleness". And how many corporal works of mercy will appear on the credit side!
We always spent some time each summer visiting Aunt Lib and Uncle Charlie. He was a rural mail carrier, and when we were at their home we used to walk up the road "a piece" to meet him as he returned to his home from work each afternoon. We would watch eagerly for the first sign of the mail wagon, and when he reached us would jump in and hold the reins. He always kept candy in the mail wagon.
Cooking was an art which Aunt Lib had mastered perfectly. She loved cooking and her keenest delight was to fix a huge meal and have company to sit down and enjoy it. In her pantry, for between meal snacks, were kept crocks of pickles and different kinds of home made cookies. She always insisted that we try new dishes once; if we didn't like them after that, we didn't have to eat them--but we must always make the test.
Having been raised in the country in a time when Want was not unknown, Aunt Lib never lost her respect for Plenty. She hated to see anything wasted. She could find a use for anything that was being discarded. Once she was berrying and met a couple of children also hunting berries. She engaged them in conversation and found that they belonged to a large and needy family. At this point all of her nieces and nephews were grown and without need of her services and finding someone she could "do for" was manna from Heaven. She launched upon a collection campaign throughout her relatives and friends for clothing, material from which she could make clothing, and anything that could be turned to account for her new proteges.
Uncle George, one of my father's brothers, after his marriage removed to Johnstown, where he started a small glove factory. He had three sons, and throughout our childhood our families continued in close contact. Visiting at Johnstown was part of our regular summer schedule for many years. We went together in pairs, or took our friends with us, to all of our relatives. It never seemed strange to us, as it did to our friends, that we felt free to bring our friends to visit for prolonged periods at the homes of our aunts and uncles. No matter whom we brought, they were always made welcome.
Uncle George's wife was Aunt Georgie. She was a shrewd business woman. She was always ready to hop on the band wagon as each new fad manifested itself. She became a "beauty doctor" as they were then called in the infancy of the interest of the housewife in her appearance. She built an addition on her house, installed a minimum of equipment, mixed up several concoctions for eliminating wrinkles, dying hair and was in business. She had a soothing voice and a soft touch and between the tangible aids she dispensed and the intangibles delivered in her soothing tones, she took many a woman out of the kitchen and put her in front of a mirror.
When the State and Federal authorities started to stick fingers in the pie of the "beauty culture" business by demanding special training, licenses, labels on products, etc., Aunt Georgie decided that she had had it as far as that line of endeavor was concerned, and turned her talents in other directions. In the search for greener pastures, she lit on the antique business.
She still continued to sell a patented dye she prepared for grey hair. This was a source of steady income for many years. She bought a base for which she had a prescription. To this she added liquids of a harmless nature to increase the quantity and bottled her product. Aunt Georgie's hair dye was much in demand. My mother used to "middleman" it for her to Cohosiers. That was in a day when to admit to dying one's hair was unspeakable, and the business was conducted on sort of a "speakeasy" basis.
Aunt Georgie was quick to note the first wave of antique buying, and with the waning of the profits in female beautification, she launched upon a career in that field. In 1911 she was presented with the proposition of breaking up and selling her family home in the Broadalbin outskirts (the far reaches of the outskirts), and the contents of the old house provided her with her initial stock. Before relinquishing possession of the premises, we were all invited to spend a vacation there. The farm was well removed from any other habitation. There had been a woman and her son living there for some years, without any means of support other than the vegetables they grew. They were rather shiftless and unintelligent; in fact, they hardly seemed capable of supporting themselves and I wonder now what became of them when the new owner required that they remove from what had been their home by courtesy of Aunt Georgie's family. We children had a wonderful few weeks there at the farm. Corrie (the tenant) had a cow and we were instructed in the technique of milking. We waded in a creek in back of the farmhouse; we picked berries and we just sunned ourselves. We even made an attempt at sailing in the waters of the creek, using as a sailboat an old coffin. Aunt Georgie's father had been a man of various pursuits himself and at one time he had built coffins. There were several of these grim products lying in back of the house, and one of the boys had the brilliant idea of making a sailboat from one of them. They had not been built for purposes of locomotion and we didn't get far with that stunt.
The attic of the house was packed with the accumulation of years. As I look back, I realize that there must have been a real fortune in that cramped space. We spent a few rainy afternoons up there but were not much interested in what we found. What any one of us wouldn't give today to have access to that attic!
The contents of that attic put Aunt Georgie in business once again. She continued in the antique business until her death some years later. When she died, her house was crowded from basement to attic with antiques. It was a thrilling place to visit then, for there was no end to the surprises awaiting one on entering the door. I remember the last time I visited her before her death there was a mahogany secretary on the front porch, too large to go through the door. She studied the antique field thoroughly and became very well versed in buying and selling. Her son used to act as her chauffeur on her trips around the surrounding countryside to pick up items and he learned the business with her and between them they were launched on a career that probably would have been an extremely profitable one, for they were in on the ground floor of the business. They had contacts throughout the country districts by reason of their glove deliveries of many years, and they could pick up excellent bargains. The business was really booming at the time of Aunt Georgie's sudden death, and in the shock following it, her family sold her stock without any idea of what it was worth.
Uncle George was a glove manufacturer. At the time he first started in this business, Johnstown and Gloversville were largely engaged in the manufacture of gloves and mittens. All manufacturing was by means of small scale operations; the cities were filled with small factories, and practically everyone over twelve years of age was engaged in the glove business in some way or another. Uncle George's factory was in back of his house, and as I think of it now, the smell of leather comes back to me. As soon as we arrived in Johnstown, we couldn't wait to get out to the "glove shop", to be greeted by all the employees and welcomed back to Johnstown. It was a friendly business, conducted in a small-town, paternal manner.
Most of the neighbors worked in the glove shop and many of them lived in houses owned by Uncle George. Sometimes they paid rent, more often they didn't. But he had a way of balancing it out in terms of services on one side and rental and loans on the other that made him a profit and kept the people happy and prosperous. He was a good business man; he got the orders, the work was turned out, everyone involved lived well and was happy.
Each one of the employees seemed to feel that the business belonged to him or her. This often produced differences of opinion and led to heated arguments as to administrative procedure. There were no employee representatives--each employee represented himself. There were no labor troubles; each employee felt a personal interest in the business and considered production of more importance than his grievances. When grievances existed they were brought up immediately and "thrashed out" (the term used today is "negotiated") on the floor of the shop in open forum and a settlement arrived at before any further work was done. Then, the problem settled, attention was again turned to the business of production. Gloves were manufactured and shipped; invoices were sent out; checks came in and the "help" was "paid off."
Many of Uncle George's employees were women and this seemed strange to us Cohosiers, for during my childhood in our city the housewife was simply a housewife; she did not engage in outside employment. Once when my father was visiting in Johnstown he was asked what my mother did. He replied that she took care of her home and her children. "But what does she work at?" he was queried. And I think the industrious housewives of Johnstown were rather astounded to learn that she had no other job than that of a housewife and mother. All the women in Johnstown worked on gloves; if not in a glove shop, then at home. The small glove factories were scattered throughout the city, and it was not necessary for any woman to go far from her domicile for employment in the glove trade. Gone are the days of factory operation between the kitchen and the production line. Imagine today having an employee open her kitchen window to call to the boss that she wouldn't be in to work that day because of some personal business which she explained freely at the top of her lungs.
The system of production control was completely different in those days. A manufacturer didn't wait for an order before producing; he produced the merchandise and then went out and sold it. When he got an opportunity to make an advantageous buy in material for the production of a certain type of glove or mitten, he bought and produced. When the order was nearing completion, he went out and found a customer, getting the best price obtainable. This meant that a manufacturer often found himself pretty well crowded for space and when this happened he took a sales trip to dispose of the stock on hand. On one of these sales trips to New York City, Uncle George called on a customer named Goldstein and dickered with him on the price of an order. Neither would budge and Uncle George left for more fertile fields. Goldstein called up the factory, told John Cridland (who ran the business during Uncle George's absence) that he had bought the order in question at a stated price (Goldstein's, not Uncle George's), that he was putting a check in the mail and the goods should be shipped immediately. This sounds rather unbelievable today; but business was conducted in a more haphazard fashion then, and Goldstein got away with it and got the gloves at his price. When Uncle George returned home and found that he had been outsmarted, he planned a retaliatory move. On his next trip to New York, he called on Goldstein and told him that he appreciated business cunning and had great respect for him as a customer. He was, therefore, making him an offer of a special lot of gloves which had been manufactured with a slight defect, at an excellent price. He showed a right hand glove, with some small imperfection. Goldstein made the purchase of the gloves on the sample, "as is". When the shipment arrived, Goldstein had a large shipment of right hand gloves. In order to get a shipment of left hand gloves to match those he had bought in the "as is" deal, he had to pay Uncle George's price.
Several names recur to me of people who had a very active part in assisting in the operation of Uncle George's glove factory. There was George Forker and Will Deusler, who were always around the factory, the barns or the house employed in various endeavors. The names "Cridland", "Forker" and "Deusler" were so closely connected in my mind with the glove factory that for many years whenever I saw leather gloves or mittens, those names came into my mind, and in some way I thought they were the names of certain kinds of gloves. These men and women who worked in the factory were such an intimate part of it, and of Uncle George's family, that they all seemed to me to be one indivisible unit. How different from the industrial projects of today, in which the worker's identity is lost to nothing more than a number on a clock! In those days, illness in the family of a worker had an effect on production comparable to the effect the illness of the President today has on the stock market. The little man or woman of that era was definitely a Big Frog in his Small Pond.
Uncle George, as well as his wife, was an opportunist. When the housewives of Johnstown started trekking to Aunt Georgie's beauty salon, it occurred to him that the emancipation of the housewife had hit Johnstown. He opened a laundry in the basement of the glove shop to service the local area. Known as the "Wet Wash", it worked admirably in conjunction with the glove factory. When it became feasible to slow down glove production because of overstocking, the help were put in the Wet Wash (we never knew it as anything else). Pick up and delivery service was made along with glove work pick up and delivery. Aunt Georgie advertised the wet wash business to her clientele, who, when they reached her salon were natural prospects for laundry relief. Many times they delivered their bundle to the shop when they came for beauty treatment, requested a rush job and picked up the laundry after the treatment.
Much of the glove work was done by workers at their homes. This work was delivered and picked up by my older cousins. They used horses during my early childhood, and in the bad winter weather a sleigh was required instead of the usual delivery wagon. Some of the work was delivered to workers in the country and going along on one of these trips was a thrill for us. I remember one day when I was riding with Howard and it started to rain. The day was quite chilly, and it got so uncomfortable riding in the open wagon that we got out and walked to keep warm, letting the horse go on ahead of his own volition. He had travelled the road many times and knew it much better than I did. Equal to the pleasure of riding through the open country was that of meeting the people to whom the gloves were delivered.
Another one of Uncle George's enterprises was in buying up damaged railroad salvage and salvage from fires, floods, etc. The cellar of their home (or basement, as it was called) always contained salvage of one sort or another. Once he bought up a carload of apples and crowded them into the basement in crates, barrels and every container available. They got very, very ripe--and the smell of apples permeated the house. To this day I dislike the smell of apples.
One summer when we made our annual trip to Johnstown, we found a real bonanza. Uncle George had bought from the insurance adjuster the salvage from a confectionery store fire. Candy was generally sold unpackaged at that period, and was displayed for sale in glass counters, contained in glass dishes. The heat from the fire had cracked and broken the glass dishes, and the candy had melted. However, when Uncle George bought salvage it was all salvage, and the broken dishes of candy were in a large packing case in the basement. We spooned the candy out of the broken dishes and if any of us swallowed any broken glass we must have digested it, for we had no ill effects.
At one point in my childhood Uncle George acquired a terrific quantity of fleece lined underwear in children's sizes--and I use the term "terrific" advisedly. How we hated the stuff! It itched, it picked, it pulled; it was uncomfortable as any garment could be. But each time we visited Johnstown, we came home with more underwear. It seemed to last throughout my entire childhood; I can't remember a Spring when I wasn't begging to change to summer underwear, only to be reminded by mother of that old precaution, "Change no clout till May is out". If you think that didn't put filial obedience to the test, try wearing long legged, long sleeved fleece lined underwear until June.
Uncle George's business ventures were generally a great help to my parents in raising their six children. We always had a plentiful supply of gloves and mittens; in fact, my mother, who loved to help others, passed on the products of Uncle George's beneficence to the neighbor's children. They, too, wore fleece lined underwear and had leather mittens with fur tops. When Uncle George asked us for the sizes we wore, we could produce a wide variety of sizes.
When returning home after a Johnstown visit, Aunt Georgie would call us aside and ask us for our sizes in mittens, underwear, etc. After assembling the gifts she would tell us to pack them with the admonition, "Don't tell Uncle George". He would do likewise and caution us not to tell her. We had been brought up to be obedient--so we didn't tell and it made the return luggage pretty cumbersome.