Monthly Archives: August 2011

Wash day

Sitting at my computer I can hear my automatic washer working away down the hall. Now and then I go move clothes from washer to dryer or dryer to laundry basket, and later on I’ll fold tee shirts and towels while watching television. Laundry is an annoying interruption in my week day, but if I save it all till Saturday I can’t do something else I’d rather do outside the house.

My grandmother Mimi did laundry outside the house, come to think of it… her wringer washer was housed in a shed attached to the smokehouse, a long extension cord running from the back porch to supply power.

I liked to help her with the wash, especially sheets. First she’d pump enough water to fill the round tub using the hand pump in the middle of the back yard. Having the washer on wheels helped; Mimi could roll it to the pump for filling. Then she’d add detergent, wind the sheets loosely around the dasher, close the top and plug the machine in.

The washer tended to dance around the yard, the movement of the dasher turning the whole machine if the wheels weren’t chocked. That was funny, watching the washer do the hula in Mimi’s back yard.

After they were washed the sheets were run through the wringer. That was the part I liked, until the day my fingers got tangled up in a sheet and pulled right into the rollers! I yelled like crazy and Mimi came running. She hit the release bar, the rollers separated and my wet, achy fingers were freed. Thankfully the thickness of the sheet had kept them from getting mashed too bad.

Shaking the feeling back into my hand I begged Mimi to let me continue, and after gently bending my fingers back and forth a few times, she did. This time I was careful to fold up a corner of the sheet and feed just the edge into the rollers. No more flat fingers.

The wrung-out sheets fell in nice swirls into a galvanized tub full of clean rinse water. I had to keep an eagle eye on those sheets — if one missed the tub it would fall into the dirt and have to be re-washed. I made sure they didn’t miss their target. Then I’d punch the sheets down with a broom handle, swirl them around to rinse out the soap and get them ready for the wringer again.

After re-rinsing and re-wringing, the machine was unplugged and the gray water drained into a low spot in the yard. Mud puddles for later play! The washer was rolled back to the shed and it was time to hang out the sheets. A sack full of clothes pins hung from one end of the clothesline.

I thought wash day was a lot of fun myself. Mimi thought it was a lot of work — but not nearly as much work as when she was a young girl, she said, when she had to boil all the dirty clothes plus make the soap to wash them with. Make your own soap? How neat, I thought, but I wasn’t really interested in the rest of the story back then.

Tim’s mother Ora Lee had vivid memories of wash day as a child. It was a day-long weekly event. A long shelf attached to their smokehouse held several galvanized wash tubs and a black cast-iron wash pot sat over in the yard, surrounded by firewood ready to be lit. And of course, clean clothes required soap — homemade lye soap.

Several times a year they made the lye soap. Fat trimmed from meat, meat skins and “leavings” were saved until there was enough for the job. On soap-making day the fat was poured into the wash pot and a healthy helping of Red Devil lye added.

The wood was lit under the pot, the mixture stirred as it heated, the lye melted the fat and eventually the glop became soap. After cooling overnight the lye soap was cut into blocks and stored in the smokehouse.

Each wash day, the same cast-iron pot was filled with water drawn from the well, a fire lit underneath and the dirty clothes brought from the house. Lights were separated from darks and a washboard used with lye soap and water to scrub out any stains.

Light colored clothes went into the boiling pot first. A good dash of lye was added for extra cleaning power and the clothes punched down with an axe handle, over and over. When clean enough to rinse they were hauled out and dumped into the first tub of clean water, then the next batch went into the wash pot. After several dumping-dunking steps in the rinse tubs, each batch was wrung out by hand.

Clothing was dipped into a flour-water starch bath, then everything hung on the clothesline to dry. Of course, the dry laundry still had to be taken down, folded up and/or ironed.

Ora Lee recalls having to stand on a chair to reach the tabletop that served as her ironing board. Her iron was hollow, filled and re-filled with corn-cob coals from the fireplace every hour or so. During tobacco season she’d take the iron to the tobacco barn and fill it with coals from there.

The next time I gripe about having to do laundry again, maybe I ought to be grateful I don’t have to make the soap and boil the dirty clothes, or even have a wringer washer doing the hula in my back yard!

Treasure City in the 1960’s

On-line is my favorite holiday shopping method these days.

Is it laziness to want to avoid the malls and big store crowds? Maybe so, but I no longer go from store to store looking for the right gift, or right size, or right color of anything. I let my fingers do the walking — not through the yellow pages, but through my computer keyboard.

There are lots of great buys on the internet these days, and from some of the same stores as at the mall. Except online they always have my favorite color, blue (blue jeans, blue shirts, blue towels, whatever).

In the late 1960’s I’d never heard of a credit card but most stores had layaway plans. For a few dollars down you could reserve holiday presents till a week or so before Christmas, when you hauled your goodies home and hid them under the bed or up in the attic.

Along the way you had to make regular payments, of course, or whatever you’d laid away would vanish back onto the store shelves. All in all it was very helpful to young couples with youngsters who expected Santa to bring the latest Mattel toys.

One year to help out with Christmas costs I took an extra part-time job. The Monday after Thanksgiving I left my regular secretarial work at quitting time and headed out to become a cashier at Treasure City on Highway 301 North. Today we take Wal-Mart and Lowes for granted but in those days Treasure City was unique. Like today’s big-box stores it featured every imaginable kind of department, plus a super snack bar.

“I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” played over the loudspeaker. Extra toys, bicycles and Christmas trees were everywhere, and so were the customers, driving in from all over the Pee Dee to take advantage of holiday specials.

To get the job as a money-handler I had to pass a lie-detector test. Unfortunately I flunked the test. The machine called me a liar on the date, the day of the week, my name, address, eye color, everything — but they hired me anyway. I guess they figured if I really lied about anything it would show up as the truth, so in a way they could still figure out the results.

I discovered a love of hot dogs at Treasure City. Every supper break found me at the snack bar munching on the best hot dog I’ve ever tasted. It had the normal weiner, bun, catsup and mustard, but they added heaping helpings of cole slaw, pickle relish, chopped onions and chili. Yummmm! A few breath mints for desert obliterated onion breath; after all, it’s not a real hot dog without onions!

That first afternoon I arrived a few minutes early, donned my blue smock and took over my register. By the end of the shift my feet were tired, my fingers were tired and my brain was tired. And I still had to total up all those dollar bills, fives and tens, plus coins. Cash and checks had to balance with the internal register tape, or else. Or else I had to make up the deficit, that is. It was okay if I wound up with a few cents over but never okay if I came up a few cents under.

One evening my register rang up about $75.00 short. It wasn’t exactly $75.00, it was something odd, like $74.37. Panic-stricken, I went back through every bill of every denomination, re-counted every check, totaled every nickel and dime.

I had resigned myself to having a short paycheck when suddenly a light bulb went on in my head. A man had purchased items in sporting goods, then brought some bluejeans to my check-out. He plunked everything down on the counter and began fumbling in his pocket. I had already rung up his fishing tackle and shotgun shells by the time he pulled out his receipt.

I should have voided the transaction and started over but with a long noisy line behind him, I simply subtracted that amount from his total and made a mental note to fix it later. My supervisor was very understanding; I wasn’t the first newbie to make that awful mistake.

It was nearly closing time one evening when a tired young woman with two cranky children pushed her loaded shopping cart my way. It contained a few toys but mostly warm winter clothes for the kids. I rung everything up and bagged the doll baby, fire truck, jackets and pants. When she handed me her check I flipped through a “bad check” list to be sure her name wasn’t on it — but it was.

She could tell from my expression that I couldn’t accept her check before I ever said the words “I’m sorry.” She silently grabbed the kids’ hands and walked toward the exit with tears running down her face. As her little girl asked “What about our stuff, mama?” my heart went out to her. I said a little prayer for her and the children as I cancelled the transaction and turned to the next customer.

That was my first and last season as a part-time holiday cashier at Treasure City. As my own children exclaimed over their new toys and winter clothes that Christmas morning, I thought again about that young mother and said another prayer.

Whenever I drive down 301 North and pass Treasure City, I still do.

First Grade at McKenzie School

bettefirstgradeThe first day I walked into McKenzie School I loved it. Except for McLeod Infirmary (where I’d spent a memorable few hours in the X-ray department once after swallowing a nickle), it was the most interesting building I’d ever seen. 

There were so many fascinating niches and stairwells to explore, steps going up here a few steps, down there a few steps.  Down a long hallway were corners leading to short hallways and more corners.

My mother accompanied me that very first day, knowing I was academically ready for the work but not sure I would find the right room on my own. She was too familiar with my innate curiosity and snoopiness, I guess.

The academic aromas at McKenzie were interesting. I could stand in the front middle hallway and smell the odors of hardwood floors and fresh bread baking in the school kitchen. School lunchrooms had working kitchens back then and hot meals were prepared right there on site. There was the hint of turpentine too, probably left over from cleaning paintbrushes. Everything gleamed with new paint!

The classroom blackboards were really black, and no chalk dust yet coated the board or erasers. Two sides of my first grade room had blackboards. Mounted to the wall above them were large printed and cursive ABC’s and numbers. I already knew how to write those but my handwriting didn’t come close to resembling those flowing curves and arrow-straight lines.

Colorful posters about Dick and Jane hung on part of the third wall, in between doors to a small cloakroom where we hung sweaters, jackets and coats in cold weather.

Our room overlooked the semicircular curve of Gregg Avenue as it turned into Cheves Street, and the fourth wall was a bank of tempting wide windows with venetian blinds kept raised halfway up. There was always something neat to see out there…

Miss Leftwich was a young teacher but she seemed so sophisticated, so intelligent and wise, and to top it off so beautiful that I don’t remember any of our class ever misbehaving (much) in her room.  She and her classroom were ours for the whole day, the whole year. We could settle down and make ourselves at home, knowing that stuff stashed in the desk stayed there, no worries about papers and pencils having to be carted home and back the next day.

After she called the roll that first day, she rearranged us to desks she preferred for each one.  Wigglers in front, perhaps? Or alphabetical? I’m not sure, but I felt fortunate to have my desk be mid-row next to the windows.

Our first assignment was probably to demonstrate how well we could write our letters and numbers.  Fat yellow pencils were distributed along with coarse ruled paper, darker blue lines interspersed with lighter blue lines so we’d get the heights of the d’s and depths of the g’s right.

Some of us former kindergarteners had this pencil-gripping part down pat. The rest were treated to a few extra minutes of personal attention as Miss Leftwich positioned their pencils and guided their fingers in making an A. Then at the blackboard with smooth sticks of new chalk, she used large strokes to show the proper way to make a capital A.

Soon the black turned to a dusty gray as she filled one section with triangles and crossbars to create A’s, the next section with 1’s and 3’s jammed together for the B’s. I made a neat row of A’s and B’s, then stared out of the window and imagined adventure stories in my mind for a while. “Daydreams too much” appeared on my report cards on a regular basis.

At story time Miss Leftwich handed out Dick and Jane books, read a sentence aloud and pointed out how individual letters made up words. We had embarked on learning to read, my favorite of all subjects ever in school. Already a reader, I flipped ahead to see how the story came out — it had a happy ending, I was glad to find.

Recess came too soon to suit me. Around the schoolyard to the back, girls and boys were separated for playtime. I’d rather stay inside to read or explore but that wasn’t allowed. Who knows what boys did at recess, but for the girls jump ropes were brought out and new songs taught to go with various routines. Double ropes were provided for the older, more nimble girls. Not a good rope-jumper, I joined the hopscotch contingent.

While the front and sides of the building were planted in sturdy green grass, the playground was mostly dirt with small trees and bushes against the back fence, a few oaks providing shade plus handy twigs for drawing implements.

Tiring of other activities, stomping on acorns to hear them crack and feel them crunch supplemented our exercise. We were entertained no end by counting how many acorns we could stomp before the bell rang. “One potato, two potato, three potato STOMP,” we’d sing as we stomped our way around the oak tree.

The lunchroom was a low-ceilinged room where each class sat together around a rectangular table.  Miss Leftwich had us bow our heads. We respectfully repeated “God is great, God is good, now we thank Him for our food” and tucked into our lunch.

No hot dogs, no hamburgers, no tacos: we enjoyed real rice and gravy, meat loaf and garden peas, dinner roll and whole milk. Dessert might be cubes of red or green jello, squares of yellow cake with chocolate icing or halves of canned peaches. The room was noisy but lunch time was short.

Recess had worked up a good appetite so there wasn’t a lot of chatting. But with our mouths full we could still make plenty of noise with feet and shoes, jiggling our chairs and “accidentally” kicking our neighbors. Clanking our dishes while jabbing our elbows at each other added to the clatter. If demerits had been handed out to first graders we’d have run up quite a record, but Miss Leftwich kept us more or less in line with a stern look and a raised eyebrow.

Then it was back to the classroom for naptime, believe it or not. We were instructed to put our heads down on our desks and shut our eyes for a few minutes while Miss Leftwich did paperwork. “Pssst.”  “Shhhh.”  “Psssssssst.” “Shhhhhh!” If anyone actually fell asleep it was a miracle.

We didn’t pass notes since we didn’t know how yet, but the boys flicked folded-up squares of paper at each other like miniature missiles. The girls just giggled at the boys. “Eyes shut!” In ten minutes or so Miss Leftwich would declare naptime over and we’d move on to our next adventure in learning.

I don’t remember all that we learned in first grade, but we surely loved Miss Leftwich. Toward the end of that first year we were devastated to be told we’d have a new teacher next fall. Oh, no! No, No, No!

We were convinced our broken hearts proved persuasive, for indeed Miss Leftwich was promoted to the second grade, right along with us. That next year she expanded our education with memorizing one plus one equals two and two plus two equals four, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, singing Row, Row, Row Your Boat, improving our handwriting and reading more wonderful stories about good old Dick and Jane.


1950’s Dime-Store Shopping

Evans Street looking west, 1937. Postcard.

Evans Street looking west, 1937. Postcard.

The 100 block of West Evans was a shopping mecca in the 1950’s. Downtown Florence had everything a kid could want, all in one block. Of course, we had our share of department stores and grownups did a lot of shopping in those. But for us kids, the five and ten cent stores were the place to go.

Saturday when the movie was over and it was too early to go home, you went dime-store window shopping. And if sometimes you had to go present shopping, naturally you had to make the rounds to be sure you got the best thing.

One Saturday in early June, I declared my desire to pick out daddy’s Father’s Day present all by myself without mama tagging along looking at every blooming thing in the store. With a smile and shake of the head, she gave me some extra cash for my trip downtown.

After the latest Hopalong Cassidy movie at the Carolina Theater, I went shopping. I turned left on Dargan toward Evans Street, crossed at the light and turned in to Kresses Five and Ten Cents Store. I really loved Kresses. The dark wood floor had a substantial sound when you walked on it, and there was usually something interesting smelling in the air, as well as a nice echoey sound when people talked.

One plate-glass window in the front featured a lady dummy with painted-on hair, wearing a short-sleeve summer dress. Another window had a little kid dummy wearing a sunsuit and carrying a sand pail. Stores were big on dummies. Most of them had heads in the dime stores. Some of the department store dummies were missing their heads, I never knew why…

At Kresses and Woolworth’s there were lots of waist-high counters arranged in a rectangle with a saleslady and her cash register in the middle.

Shallow bins with wooden dividers were arranged around the counter tops. One might contain embroidered hankies, the next one after-shave lotion. After you perused the stuff in the bins and decided on something, the saleslady rang you up and gave back your purchase in a thin paper bag. Then you went on down the aisle to another counter and another saleslady.

Down the right-hand wall in Kresses were racks of ladies undies, nighties and hand-bags, all different colors and sizes. Down the left side of the store was a lunch counter with a big sign picturing an oval-shaped chopped steak and mashed potatoes covered with shiny brown gravy, garden peas, a dinner roll and a glass of iced tea for a “Reasonable Price.”

I didn’t eat there. Daddy wouldn’t have considered any price reasonable if it wasn’t Sunday after church, and Kresses wasn’t open on Sundays.

At the back of the store there were flat tables low to the floor piled with bolts of cloth. Pyramid- shaped shelves held sewing scissors, spools of thread and dress patterns. If you turned right and headed toward Dargan Street, you found the housewares and toy sections with pots and pans, hammers and nails, and every kind of toy imaginable from Red Ryder cap guns to cry-baby dolls.

After Thanksgiving, the Dargan Street windows would gurgle with bubble lights on decorated Christmas trees, Lionel trains running around in circles underneath the trees.

This summer day, I merely glanced at the ladies and kids’ stuff as I browsed through the store, examining Old Spice cologne and cotton handerkerchiefs, billfolds and pocket knives, making careful note of prices as I went.

I considered a little leatherette travel kit with toothbrush, dental floss and toothpaste, but they wanted too much money for that and daddy didn’t travel much anyway. That saleslady gave me a closed-mouth smile like she didn’t believe I actually had any money to spend. I smiled back as I left her counter.

McLellan’s was on the other side of the street so I looked both ways before crossing in the middle of the block. McLellan’s had something the other stores didn’t — long counters and cash registers lined up like cattle stalls near the front door.

You loaded whatever you wanted in a buggy, unloaded the buggy onto the counter and paid for everything right there in one spot. It cut down on hiring so many salesladies, I guess, but McLellan’s didn’t last long. Maybe Florence wasn’t ready for that much self-service.

I didn’t find anything good for daddy in McLellan’s. Walking on down the street, I stopped and pressed my face to the window at several shops to see inside a little better. Painted neckties, Bulova watches and wing-tip shoes were all out of my price range.

Woolworth’s (at the corner of Evans and Irby) had some things Kresses and McLellan’s didn’t have, like floor lamps and big paintings of seascapes. At the back of the store, two ladies discussed pickle recipes over a shelf of glass jars.

Woolworth’s wasn’t as much fun as Kresses but it had pretty neat stuff on sale sometimes. Sure enough, oxblood shoe polish was on sale, but Daddy didn’t wear oxblood-colored shoes. I was running out of options.

Then an aisle display of “Restore Your Patent Leather Shine” black liquid polish and “Long-Lasting Woven Shoelaces” caught my eye. As she bagged up my selections, the nice saleslady said they were sure to please my dad, and I was pleased and relieved to come up with something good for Father’s Day on my very own.

I even had enough coins left over for a cherry coke at the corner drug store on the way home. Not a bad shopping trip for a kid in downtown Florence, in the 1950’s.