Friday, August 11, 2017

Our Home-Life at the End of the Depression

My family with me in Mother's arms
My earliest memories are from a time when our family lived in a little three-room shotgun house. I must have been about three at the time. There were four of us in the family.

My Dad, Jewell Bell, was in his late thirties at the time. He worked for the Reynolds and Gamble Lumber Company as Foreman of their planing mill. Besides supervising operations of the mill, he was responsible for upkeep of all the machinery in the plant. Just under six feet tall, Dad was wiry of build and had black wavy hair and black eyes. Working often in the sun, he had deeply tanned skin. I remember him wearing a chambray shirt and bib overalls and smelling of pine resin and the Prince Albert Tobacco he rolled into cigarettes.

Olive Bell, my Mom, was ten years younger than Dad and looked even younger. She had brown hair and eyes and was a little over five feet tall. Always slender, she had a pixie quality about her.  She always wore a neatly pressed housedress. Mother was what they call a "stay-at-home-mom" nowadays. Besides raising two boys, she had plenty to keep her busy. In those days before labor saving appliances, she did our laundry by hand, dried it in the sun, and pressed everything with flatirons heated on the cook stove. Mom cooked three meals a day from scratch on that wood-fired iron range, summer or winter. She had to split the wood to fit the firebox and keep the fire ablaze all day. Just keeping the house clean so close to a sawmill with its slab pit for burning excess wood was a challenge.

My older brother, Tom, was in the second or third grade at the time. He often got stuck with looking out for me when there were myriad other things that he would rather be doing. Wiry like Dad, Tom was smart and good looking. He made friends easily. A few years later, he would be very popular with the girls. I realize now later that he had to put up with a lot because of me.

Our home was located on the grounds of the lumber plant and was owned by the company. Living in the house was part of Dad's compensation. The front room of the house was my parents' bedroom as well as the parlor. The middle room was where Tom and I slept. The back room was the kitchen and dining area. I don't remember much about what furniture we had. The bedsteads were spindly iron frames with bare springs under the mattresses. Mom kept all the beds made up neatly when we weren't sleeping in them. I recall an oilcloth cover over the kitchen table but not much more.

We had a fenced yard that I remember as shady behind the house. There was a well about fifteen feet from the house. It had a wood casing and a frame supporting a pulley. The well "bucket" was a galvanized sheet metal cylinder with a flap and a trigger at the bottom. It was suspended by a rope from the pulley. We lowered the bucket under the water, then raised it up above the casing. A sloped wooden chute with a notch at the bottom ran down from the casing. We hung a water bucket from the notches. Then the well bucket was lowered against the chute, the trigger opened the flap, and the water rushed down the chute into the bucket. We always had a dipper handy to get a fresh drink of the cold well water. Farther back in the yard was the ubiquitous privy. No one in our community had indoor plumbing. Lacking electricity, we depended on kerosene lamps after dark. Our lifestyle was that of most people who didn't live in cities in those days.

Not far south of our house were the lumber company offices and company store. Employees could buy supplies at the store on credit. I suppose the prices were somewhat inflated, as was common in those last days of the Great Depression. The saw mill was directly behind the offices. Dad's planing mill lay behind the sawmill. Several acres of trams and lumber stacked to dry in the air before finishing lay to the south. A few other company houses were located on a small bluff on the other side of the South Field Road. My paternal grandparents lived in one of these. George Luther Bell, whom we called "Pappy," worked at the sawmill. My Grandma Clyde was blind from an injury as a child. Tom and I would often stay with her for a while after he got out of school, especially in the winter when we kept the fire going in her wood-burning heat stove. Pappy had a knife to split board ends. He had made it by casting a lead handle around a wide planing machine blade. We loved to use it to split cutoffs from the mills into kindling.

Even at that young age, I realized that Mom was a really good cook. Having been raised on a farm, she learned about growing and cooking food from an early age. She always planted a large garden, and we had many vegetable meals in the summer—green and butter beans, English and field peas, greens, squash, Boiled new potatoes, and fresh salads. She always cooked cornbread, sometimes twice a day. At this age, I sometimes sneaked into the kitchen and cut the crust off to eat it as a snack. That always got me in trouble with Dad, who also loved the crust. Of course, what Tom and I liked best was the desserts. Dad had a sweet tooth. He didn't care much for pies except chocolate, but he loved cakes. Mom almost always had a cake of some sort on hand. Tom especially liked those chocolate pies. In the summer when we could pick berries, blackberry cobbler was my favorite.

Me in the driveway with Dad's car
We kids didn't have many toys that I recall. I'm sure we had a cap gun or two, and I must have had little cars. I remember playing in the sandy soil of our driveway. Dad had a small garage to keep the car safe. I remember having a little tin cowboy with a lasso. It was a wind-up toy, and the lasso would spin round and round. Alas, I left it in the driveway one night, and dad ran over it the next morning. We boys always went barefoot in the summer, and our play clothes were often just a pair of short pants.

My sense is that our small nuclear family was happy in that little shotgun house. Our days alone as a family were all too few. Pappy died of a stroke during the winter. I still recall the red glowing wood stove in the little country church where we had his funeral and how cold and wet it was at his graveside. Grandma Bell moved in with us after that, completely changing the family dynamic. The company did move us into a larger house so that she could have her own room. I shall always have fond memories of our days in that tiny house.

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Warren Bell is an author of historical fiction.  He spent 29 years as a US Naval Officer, and has traveled to most of the places in the world that he writes about.  A long-time World War II-buff, his first two novels, Fall Eagle One and Hold Back the Sun are set during World War II.  His third novel, Asphalt and Blood, follows the US Navy Seabees in Vietnam.  His most recent novel, Snowflakes in July, is a Pentagon thriller about domestic terrorism.  He is currently working on a new novel, Endure The Cruel Sun, the sequel to his best-selling novel, Hold Back the Sun. For more about Warren Bell, visit his website at: or see him on twitter @wbellauthor.