Friday, March 20, 2009

Norman James - The Little Shack on the Praire

A pen-and-ink drawing of the shack we lived in, which I did many years ago, working from measured dimensions. My mother used the drawing as the basis for a painting of the place, shown above.
I wouldn't take a million dollars for the experience of growing up when and where I did, but I really would prefer not to repeat it.
The Little Shack on the Prairie

Although it contained only the barest necessities, our house was quite crowded. Its overall dimensions were sixteen by twenty feet. The exterior walls were of vertical boards nailed to the framework, covered with black tar-paper held down by thin wood strips. There was no wallboard on the inside. When we moved in, there was nothing whatever on the walls...just bare, weathered boards and exposed 2x4’s.

The “front room”, on the east, was the living room and bedroom. Against the north wall was the double bed in which we three children slept. I slept on the outside, since I was the oldest and had priority. Gobel had breathing problems, so he slept on the inside, next to the window. Even in cold weather, the window was raised slightly and Gobel’s nose was close to the opening. Dad and Mother slept on a wire cot that was placed against the south wall of the room. It was really too narrow for two, but they were young. The sides were folded down during the day, making a couch for sitting. There were also the piano, the sewing machine and a chest of drawers in this room.

We didn’t have many clothes, so we didn’t need much storage space. Four of the five drawers of the chest contained clothes. The top drawer, which we always called “the top drawer”, was the repository for important papers, medicines, and odds and ends. Dad had made this chest from parts of another chest of some sort, while he was working at the lumber yard in town. It was not a thing of beauty, but was the only thing I know of that Dad ever built.

There was a closet in the northwest corner, which Mother had made from three orange crates stacked on end, and a broom handle for a rod. A curtain, made from an old sheet, covered the front of the closet. The rod was less than three feet long, yet it sufficed for all the hanging clothes we had. The bottom three sections of the orange crate stack were allotted to us boys for toy storage.

The narrow lean-to addition across the west side was the kitchen/dining area. The ceiling at the west wall was too low for Dad to stand up there. The roof was rather flat, and often leaked. During most rains we had to place buckets and pans under the drips. After the rains Dad would get out the can of tar and repair the roof. Once, he brought home a big chunk of road tar to melt for repairing roof leaks. We kids would cut off pieces to chew.

At the south end of the west room there was a table with four chairs plus a high chair. There was a tall cabinet against the east wall for miscellaneous storage. Mother’s trunk, in which she kept all her treasures such as certificates and old letters, sat on the floor under the west window. The kitchen cabinet, in the northeast corner, was a rectangular table with about three shelves above it for the dishes. A white cotton curtain covered the front of the shelves.

Between the cabinet and the door between the two rooms was the shelf that held the water bucket and the wash pan. We all drank out of a long-handled dipper that stayed in the bucket. We dipped water from the bucket and poured it into the wash pan when we wanted to wash up.
Under the shelf was the “slop bucket”, into which we emptied the washpan and where we threw table scraps. When we were raising a hog, the contents of the slop bucket were part of its diet. The gasoline-fueled cookstove, with an oven and three burners, was angled across the northwest corner of the room. Mother ironed with a Coleman gasoline iron.

The kitchen floor was not very smooth. I once ran across the room barefoot and skidded my feet on the floor. A large splinter went through the calloused ball of my foot, out of the skin and back in at the heel. They had me soak my foot in kerosene, a common remedy used in those days to prevent infection.

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