Saturday, March 21, 2009

Norman James - The Little Shack on the Prairie - Part 2

The Little Shack

At some time in the early thirties Mother decided to improve the house by papering the walls. This would look better than bare boards, and would help keep out the wind. Unable to afford wallpaper, she obtained a large quantity of old newspapers and used them to paper over the walls and ceilings. Some of the papers were the Denver Post. There was a rotogravure section with the story about the astronomer Lowell who had studied the moon with a powerful telescope and had seen cities, roads, and people living there. There were pictures based on his descriptions. I remember that the people on the moon were hairy and had wings. Mother didn't use this section on the walls. On the ceiling right over my bed was a Van Dyke cigar advertisement. I will never forget the bearded face that I gazed at every night before falling asleep.

There was a small, tin-roofed barn behind the house. The east half was divided into a small granary and a larger hay storage area. The west half, a lean-to, was divided into two spaces for animals. One room had a long manger. The barn was a good place to play on rainy days.

Behind the barn was a small manure pile. The soil around this was rich and soft, and loaded with earthworms. It was a good place to find fishbait.


At first, we had only two kerosene lamps, but after we boys started to school, in 1932, the folks decided we should have a better light to study by. They went to a store in Miami to buy the lamp, and learned that they could get a dollar or two trade-in for a kerosene lamp. They found one in a nearby second-hand store for twenty-five cents, and traded it in on the new lamp.

After being accustomed to the dim, yellow light of the kerosene lamp (we called it a “coal-oil” lamp), the brightness of the gasoline lamp was dazzling. I believe it was at least five times as bright as the old lamp. The hiss took some getting used to, though. Hardly anyone else that we knew had gasoline appliances, and many people expressed fear of our use of the explosive fuel in the house. I don’t think we ever had a hazardous mishap with any of these things, but they required more maintenance.

About the same time that we got a gasoline lamp, my grandparents James got an Alladin lamp. This was a kerosene lamp with a mantle that was heated by the flame on a circular wick. It had a tall, glass chimney to create the draft necessary to make the mantle white hot. This lamp put out as much light as a gasoline lamp, and with less noise, but with a lot more heat.

In winter the heating stove might be either in the front room or in the kitchen. Dad was too poor to buy a good stove. We had more than one “King Heater”, a cheap, sheet-metal stove made to last one season. Dad once made a stove from an old 55-gallon steel drum and the cast-iron parts of another old stove. It, too, probably lasted only one or two winters. Dad cut trees along the creek for fuel. I “helped” him some when I was older, holding one end of the big cross-cut saw as we cut the trees into firewood. My interest was held, in part, by looking for familiar shapes in the section of the dark heartwood, much as one sees castles in the clouds.

Although bathing was more frequent in summer, it was but a weekly ordeal in winter. A laundry tub was placed by the heating stove, and water was heated in the tea kettle on the stove. The boiling water was poured into the tub, then cold water was added. A couple of inches of water in the tub was enough for a child’s bath. Mother would scrub us vigorously and wash our hair, to the tune of much yelling and complaining.

Dad once built a rabbit trap, hoping to put some meat on the table. I don't remember how the trap was made,but he did catch one rabbit. He declared that it was too old to use as food. That was probably the only time the trap was used.

On another occasion he made a sling-shot to kill a rabbit. It was a very large nut (for a bolt) on the end of a strong cord. I followed him as he carried this weapon out into the pasture. Soon he saw a rabbit crouching in a clump of grass. He whirled the device like a sling, and released it, but the nut missed the rabbit, which then left in a hurry. Dad never tried his invention again.

I don't remember that we ever went hungry, but Mother said that one winter when Dad was away on a pipeline job, the only food she had in the house was flour. For six weeks we lived on bread and gravy.

1 comment:

  1. Welcome to Geneabloggers. I also notice that you have a Scott in your family as well. I'm assuming that Nancy Scott James, that Scott is her maiden name. I've been looking for one of my Scott's family for years. But he's not from TN, instead IA, IN, MO and KS are places I have found him. Maybe we could exchange information on our Scotts some day. Great blog by the way. I love the old stories, and yes you were lucky to be able to talk to some of the old timers before they were gone. I'm much younger and wasn't even born in the 60's, and unfortunately my parents and grandparents weren't all that interested in preserving those stories or discovering them.