“The Attic” is just one of the many short stories from the memoirs of James Thompson Sr., a resident of Carlton Senior Living San Jose. Written during the 1970s, Thompson’s writings illustrate what life was like as a child growing up in the small town of Dyer, Indiana during the 1930s. Dyer is a town in St. John Township, Lake County, Indiana and is a southeastern suburb of Chicago. According to census records, the population of Dyer was just 672 in 1930 and had increased to 976 by 1940.
by James Thompson Sr.
The attic was a good place to play if the weather was mild. In the summer, the attic was very hot and in the winter it was very cold. I still have an old trunk that was in it. Martha has the other one. There was an old pair of ice skates, all worn and patched that belonged to Henry. He finally claimed them after many years. John had a decanter with a little hand pump to dispense whisky. I used it to pump water in tiny little shot glasses. It disappeared sometime or other. There were a lot of figures of cardboard owls about three feet high but these were from the Dyer Owls club that Henry belonged to. An old set of Boy Scout signal flags were in there that also belonged to Uncle Henry. There was an enameled chamber pot from the days before we had indoor plumbing. There was an artificial Christmas tree and a lot of metal candle holders with clips to fasten to the tree branches. I never saw the candleholders used. I found an oak wedge about ten inches long that probably was dropped there when the house was built. There were two old radios from the time the 20’s that people built their own radio from kits. There was a stereo viewer for looking at stereo photographs.
There was a knitting machine for knitting socks. It had a metal cylinder about four inches high and about six inches in diameter with many wires guides for the yarn. Aunt Ann said they sold you the machine and the yard and were supposed to buy the socks when they were completed. But the socks were never good enough for them. Aunt Ann said it was a scam.
There was a set of books in a small end table. It was supposed to be an “Encyclopedia of Commerce.” Mom said that Grandma took washings to pay for them. They were for Henry.
“Chicken, Eggs and the Broody House”
Every spring we got a hundred baby chicks and raised them in the garage. Sometimes we got the chicks from Mike Burson who had a hatchery in the basement of the drug store. When the chickens were bigger they went to the chicken yard where the roosters provided Sunday dinners for most of the year. Then hens provided eggs. If we have extra eggs, we got credit at Hoffman’s IGA store at four corners. (The four corners was where the town’s only traffic light was.) Those eggs were a lot fresher than you can buy today.
In the winter, the chicken house had maybe six or eight hens. With the doors closed, the inside temperature was above freezing even on cold days. The chicken coop was close to falling down and some of the rafters were propped up with two by fours.
There was a smaller coop we called the broody house where the hens could set on their eggs until they hatched. It made a good playhouse. I got some leftover patching plaster and filled all the nail holes that I could. I bought an old dry cell battery from Gene Schultz for a nickel and wired up a tiny bulb and pretended that you could really see with it.
“The Story of the Old House”
We lived in an old house that rented from the Hilbrich’s. After the war, we had to buy it, because they wanted to sell it. It wasn’t much, an old farmhouse built before the Civil War. It was built before electricity. The electrical wiring was added after the house was built. A single cold water faucet was in the kitchen. There was no hot water unless it was heated on the cookstove. There was originally a barn beside the road but it burned. A chicken house, broody coop, an outhouse, a garage and a woodshed were there.
When we moved in, the house had an old outhouse in the back with a brick walkway. The outhouse was in danger of falling down. Uncle Henry built a new outhouse which lasted until a bathroom was built five years later. The bathroom had an old used cast iron tub and was built very cheaply. The outhouse then became a woodshed.
Another memory was the bare pine floors in the bedrooms. I got slivers in my feet, unless I wore slippers or shoes.
The house had a shallow cellar made with limestone blocks and had a dirt floor. It was fine for me as a child, but the adults had to duck their heads. The cellar finally was made deeper and a cement floor was put in. I found an arrowhead in the dirt that was excavated from the floor. There was no basement under the dining room or the kitchen. The kitchen was added to the original house, lean-to. In the winter, the kitchen faucet could freeze, so the water was left on just a trickle.
I used to get my baths in the kitchen sink when I was two or three. To get soft water, rainwater was pumped from the cistern under the front porch and heated on the stove. The drawback was there was soot in the water. The Saturday night bath was more truth than fiction.
Uncle Henry worked on the railroad. Before we had inside plumbing, he would take a bucket of water and a wash pan to his room and wash up. He was in the army in France near the front lines during the war (WWII), he said his early years training stood him in good stead. (Published on July 12, 2020)
We look forward to sharing more of James’ short stories on Carlton Senior Living’s blog in the future.