“Nilesville”: A Childhood Memoir (1930s)

In 1931 our family left a second floor apartment at 27 Claflin Road on Aspinwall Hill in Brookline for a new house in Wellesley Hills.

My parents had looked at houses for several months but finally decided to build.  A lot was found in a new and wooded area called the Hundreds Estate which later became affectionately known to its denizens as Nilesville after its owner and developer Harold Niles who had a large and elegant old house on a hill on the tract.  What was to become the geographic and demographic center of gravity of our young lives was a road loop called Hundreds Circle.  In the period between about 1925 and 1931 many of the lots were sold, houses built, and new roads made to accommodate them.  Mr. Niles took a personal interest in every prospective buyer and essayed to assemble an educated and congenial group of prospective residents.

An architect was hired, a Mr. Avery, and design and construction began apace in the spring of 1930.  There was much blasting of ledge in the construction of the garage and foundation.  In the summer and fall we would often take the old Dodge on Sunday and drive out to visit the site.  I remember these visits only vaguely; I was five and a half.  The lot was small, a quarter acre, but had room for a level lawn on the east side.  The lot was otherwise surrounded by woods with a pond in back, Rockridge Pond, owned as parkland by the Town.

We moved in to 85 Ledgeways on a snowy day early in January, a day during most of which Holley and I had stayed at the Henderson’s on Elm Street.  Mr. Henderson was a business associate of my father’s.  To this day I can see the view down the upstairs hall from my bed through the open door of my new bedroom that first night.  A view filled with a giant stack of boxes on top of which was perched our old black electric fan.

Ledgeways had not yet been paved.  By 1932 or so most of the lots had been developed but, in the depths of the Great Depression, there remained many vacant plots and tracts of open woods.  Mr. Niles commissioned none of the houses and few developers bought plots to build dwellings on speculation.  There seemed something not quite acceptable about buying a house identical to some other one nearby.  Each house, on a wooded quarter-acre plot, had ten rooms more or less with a one or two-car garage:  Capes, salt-boxes, French provincial.  Several of the houses were designed by Royal Barry Wills, a well known local architect.  None had the open plan so popular after the War.  All had two or three stories; “family” rooms, unheard of, lay far in the future.  Finished attic spaces tended to occupancy by the boys.  No family had a swimming pool and but one a tennis court.  Lawns were small or non-existent and nobody ever gave a thought to the condition of his neighbor’s patch of green.

Mr. Niles had laid out a complex and winding maze of streets up and down dale.  Each had a gravel sidewalk along which, on snowy mornings, slow and plodding, came a steaming, shaggy, and blanketed horse pulling a simple wooden V-plow upon which sat a hunched and bundled figure clutching the reins.  The only sound to break this muffled silence was the grate and grumble of the plow blade on the frozen gravel beneath.

The salient feature of this new population was homogeneity.  The adults were all professionals of about the same age (thirties plus) and all the children between the ages of zero and ten.  I was six and my sister Holley five.  These children numbered about sixty boys and girls distributed among about twenty-five families and among whom at least a dozen attended the same elementary school classes as my sister and me.  In the immediate group I can remember no only children, not a single divorce or the death of a child, and but one family broken by the Depression.

Some afforded live-in help- a maid, a cook, a housekeeper- leaving the mothers relatively free.  At our house we employed Maude Smith from Bermuda who had come with us from Brookline.  She had her own cramped quarters in the house over the garage and cooked and cleaned and cared for us for almost thirty years.  Holley and I spent endless hours talking to her in the kitchen.  Mrs. Lilja came once a week to do the laundry by hand, in a soapstone tub, using a corrugated galvanized washboard and hand-cranked wringer.  Mr. Daly toiled in the garden.  But my father pushed the mower until, as I grew older, the task fell to me.  The gentle sound of a reel mower was one of the muted, now lost, sounds of summer.

Occasionally, in the cool wetness of autumn, small bands of Italian women from another part of town silently walked the fringes of the woods moving slowly and stooping to gather mushrooms.  They seemed to us mysterious and somewhat gypsy-like.

FrozenCreamBefore dawn, milk (and eggs) were delivered to the kitchen stoop; the milk in glass bottles with wired-on paper caps and disks inside which, on freezing mornings, rose inches into the air on weird stalks of frozen cream.  The wires had endless hobby uses and were saved in a glass tumbler on the kitchen windowsill.  Unless canned there were no fruits or vegetables out of season; frozen food was as yet unimaginable.  Morning orange juice was obtained by squeezing oranges the night before.  Few had ever tasted avocados (alligator pears), artichokes, or broccoli and no one had ever even heard of bagels, pizza, yoghurt, margarine, salsa, pesto, or cous-cous.  On mornings when you were sick in bed and home from school you heard mother’s voice on the phone in the hall talking to the grocer or the butcher; placing her order for delivery that day.

Once a year or so the Fuller Brush or the Electro-Lux man would ring the bell; filling the living room with his wares while mother, trying to be polite, would finish by buying a token item or, sometimes and more exciting, an entirely new vacuum cleaner.

The community was tight-knit and revolved at first around the local Seldon L. Brown elementary school (Ms. Ella Buck, principal) although it drew from a pool larger than and somewhat separated geographically from Nilesville itself.  The Brown school was eventually converted to condominiums and today buses carry the local kids elsewhere.

Thus, we never lacked for nearby playmates and cars never became a necessary part of our social milieu.  We walked home from school for lunch and back again.  We walked, ran, and rode our bicycles everywhere.  When the time came even junior high and high school were within walking distance.  In the mornings we would gather at the shortcut by the dam at Rockridge Pond waiting for the stragglers to convene before setting off together for the mile and a half walk.  Coming home in the winter Holley and I could cut straight across the pond, running and sliding on the ice, through the snowy woods to our own backyard.

In kindergarten we sat in a circle of little green wooden chairs under which, on rare occasions, a suspicious puddle might form. In the grades we saluted the flag and recited the pledge, hands over hearts.  We sang America the Beautiful.  At recess we played I’m the King of the Castle (and you’re the dirty rascal!) and swarmed over the jungle gym and held long-jump competitions in leaping off the flying swings.  Infractions earned visits to Miss Buck’s office and we (as older boys) dropped our pencils often in order, while picking them up, to sneak a look up the skirt of the girl at the next desk.

Dick & JaneWe learned to read with Dick and Jane and to write by the Palmer Method (supposedly effortless swirling, slanting “O’s” in black ink on lined paper, wrists gracefully poised) whose upper and lower case examples ran in a panel across the top of the blackboard.  The lefties had a tough time with ink.  Our desks, screwed to the floor with seats attached, had filled ink wells in the corner and ink-stained lift tops under which we kept our notebooks, pens, nibs, gnawed pencils, grubby erasers, rulers, baseball gloves, macaroni guns, and comic books.  Except in winter, we looked forward to fire drills.  Every classroom had an American flag and an unfinished portrait of George Washington gazed down upon us.

Relatively few went off to private school.  Those who did became, of course, removed somewhat from the core group, especially as they grew older.  Through the years, the weekends, and the long summer evenings playing Kick the Can (“Allee, allee in free!”), Murder, and Capture the Flag we thought of ourselves as “The Gang”.  In the winter we skated on the pond (Hill-Dill and Crack-the-Whip) and sledded on Valley Road- running and flinging ourselves downhill on our Flexible Flyers in the days before salt and sanding.  We moved through Nilesville like a fluid never static always in motion and changing in size and makeup but with a core of stability and friendship that has lasted now for more than seventy years.  It seems truly remarkable.  I have never met another who grew up in such halcyon days.  Nilesville had insulated us more or less completely from the economic woes of the Depression era through luck, hard work, or foresight.

CaptureFew homes had more than one telephone—not even an extension.  It sat, usually, in its strangely expectant and upright blackness on a table in the downstairs hall.  Lacking a cord long enough to reach a nearby closet, no phone call  was private—all the family privy to the embarrassments of ones halting efforts to conduct a tenuous social life—especially as we got into the dating game in high school. One waited, nervous and hovering, until the moment might arrive to place the crucial call.  Sister or brother (finally!) upstairs, mother in the kitchen, and dad- not home yet but expected to burst through the front door at any instant.  Now!  Snatch the receiver off the hook, wait, wait, beating heart.  Then the operator: “Number please?” And you: “0434-J.”  Many families had party lines, the number followed by a letter.  Ours was 1546-W.  Often, before making a call, one had to wait for the other party to relinquish the line.  There was a kind of unwritten ethical code about the length of calls and about the temptations of “listening in”.

In Nilesville’s early years the adults organized elaborate New Year’s Eve parties at the Beacon School with skits and theatricals and sillyness.  At Christmastime, at least until the War, Marion Niles would have everyone in for cocoa after several hours of carol singing through the dark, chill, and snowy neighborhood.  And when it snowed it snowed!  And, although it seems impossible now to believe it, in those long-gone days it was actually pitch-black dark on moonless nights; the ebon sky filled with stars.

At Hallow’een (we had never heard of the threat “Trick or treat”) we dressed up in old sheets and carried our lighted jack-o’lanterns from house to house seeking the traditional handout and avoiding the older boys who might, and did when we were little, smash our pumpkins.  But, when we became older ourselves we, too, engaged in some nights of bad behavior of which dumping garbage and breaking street lights with stones was perhaps the worst.  Our mother would sometimes dress like an old hag, turn out all the house lights, except for one candle in the window, and terrorize the little kids who came to the door.

Early on Holley and I had a next door neighbor, Larry Rice, who spent many hours on the steps of his house fabricating fanciful stories in which we held the protagonist’s roles.  One summer he acquired a wholesale store of unusual whip tops and organized all of us into sales teams to spread them throughout the neighborhood.  Later he built a local gymnasium in the woods with a tennis court and established the Winter Sports Club (on Old Farm Road) where we boys spent Saturday mornings at basketball, ice hockey, track, gymnastics, tennis, and dodge ball under the tutelage of coach Pop Foster.  One rainy afternoon Pop took us all to one of the scariest movies I have ever seen: Night Must Fall.  Larry’s passion was tennis- he held a State doubles championship- and he coached a few of Nilesville’s boys to later excellence.

Radio was in the ascendancy. Television lay far in the future, although just before the War one family had a fascinating experimental set with a tiny two-inch screen displaying ghostly green cathode ray images.

Radio
Zenith radio (1940)

Importance was attached to getting home by five.  Between then and six on weekdays we listened to the radio- Little Orphan Annie (Ovaltine; secret Decoder Ring), Tom Mix (Ralston Chex; “Meanwhile, back at the ranch.”), Jack Armstrong (Wheaties, “Breakfast of Champions”), and Don Winslow of the Navy; fifteen minute shows one after another.  On Saturday night the “Hit Parade” was on and Sunday afternoons we had thirty minute dramas: The Green Hornet, I Love a Mystery, and the Shadow (“Who knows what evil lurks in the minds of men?  The Shadow knows…”).  These sounded in the background while we played at Hearts, Battleship, or long and drawn out games of Monopoly sprawled on someone’s living room rug.  Some listened endlessly to the Boston Braves or Red-Sox ball games.

The Community Playhouse showed movie double bills, usually with a Disney Silly Symphony and a newsreel- Time Marches On with Lowell Thomas as commentator.  We laughed ourselves silly over Joe E. Brown as salesman Alexander Botts in the Earthworm Tractor series, laughed and cried with Charlie Chaplan, and fell fatally in love with Simone Simon (Girl’s Dormitory) and Kay Francis (The White Angel).  There I saw my first movie; Treasure Island with Wallace Beery as John Silver opposite Jackie Cooper’s Jim.  I see yet the evil pirate, a wicked knife in his teeth, slowly climbing the ratlines toward Jim ensconced below the crow’s nest with a pistol in each hand.

Bendslev’s ice cream parlor, at the Playhouse, often waylaid us while walking home from high school and there we would deconstruct the movies we had just seen over waffle cones, sundaes, and Cokes.

In those years the fathers went universally to their offices in town until noon on Saturdays and having even that half-day was a relatively recent departure from the six-day week.  “weekends” weren’t invented until after the War.  The men walked to the train at Wellesley Farms station in most weathers retracing their steps every evening.

Baseball had an early toehold as evidenced by more or less perpetual pick-up play in the street on Hundreds Circle at the house of the resident coach and self-proclaimed entertainment director.  I remember elaborate and exciting games of Fox and Hounds that took us miles into the woods, into territory we hardly knew, running pell-mell, strewing bits of newsprint behind us for the Hounds.

Eventually Nilesville had its own Sunday baseball team the Whops Workers—fathers, sons, and the rare daughter who fought to the death the Cliff Dwellers from the hinterland on the other side of Nilesville’s woods.  The games were played out on the abandoned fields of the Beacon School until finally the old building burned one night in a spectacular fire and the property fell to development.  Thereafter the teams battled it out in back of the Brown School surrounded by fans, hangers-on, and dogs.  The Wellesley Townsman saw fit to report on important outcomes.

BigLittleBBook
Big Little Book

We read “Big Little” books, four inches square and as thick as a Bible, featuring the likes of Dick Tracy and Mickey Mouse; a comic book panel on the left page and large print text on the right.  We pored over the Johnson Smith catalog and sent away to Racine, Wisconsin for books on hypnosis, magic, and the Rosicrucians, and for “X-ray” machines (hoping, of course, to penetrate skirts), crystal radios, real electric motor kits, “Whoopee” cushions, hand-shake buzzers, and Ouija boards.  Little, tin “putt-putt” boats steamed in the bathtub on tiny candle power.  The crack of pearl handled cap pistols snapped in the summer air teasing the nostrils with the delicious aroma of gunpowder smoke.  Occasionally we made serious attempts to hypnotize someone in the group and sometimes nervously wondered whether we’d actually succeeded.  Mysterious and unsettling.  The girls played “jacks” and we played marbles and tossed jack knives for “Territory” in the dirt.  If you could hyper-ventilate and then have someone squeeze your chest hard enough from behind you would fall to the ground in a dead faint- our first daring brushes with death.

Passing fashion ruled for at least two months at a time.  By turns it was beer jackets (white canvas, with metal buttons, on which your friends wrote their names and sayings in indelible ink), yo-yos, polo shirts, broomstick skirts, saddle shoes, and bobby socks.  We boys wore corduroy knickers above our sagging socks until our first long pants in junior high school.  The girls wore shorts in summer but never long pants not even to school, except for snowsuits over a hopelessly crumpled plaid skirt in winter.  Jeans and “sportswear” had no existence; for roughing it outdoors we simply wore our “old clothes”.

Our parents church affiliations, all Protestant, ranged from High Episcopal to Unitarian with scattered pockets of unobtrusive atheism. Christian Science and Quakers were represented.  There were no Baptists, Mormons, or fundamentalists of any stripe.  Each affiliation seemed to have as much a social component as one of religion or a tradition of previous family religious upbringing.  Mother was Episcopalian and my father had no discernible faith other than that hard work, honesty, and engineering were the only agents capable of advancing mankind.  I seem to remember that Holley and I started out in the Episcopal Church (for a few months?) then changed for a several years to the Congregationalists, who made up a significant part of social Wellesley Hills, and finally descending to the Unitarians because that was where, we insisted, our best friends went to Sunday school.

In junior and early high school years our parents began to take a hand in shaping our social amenities especially in regard to the niceties of ballroom dancing and the interactions among us who had, heretofore, simply regarded ourselves as boys and girls- rough and ready members of the gang.  The elders had matured in an era of courtly Victorian formality and the monthly dances they promoted were the last pre-war expression of that old and dying order.  The Assemblies, as they were known, were the work of Mrs. Ferguson (an ample woman of a certain age, but perhaps undeserving of the epithet “battleaxe”) and her comrade in arms, Baron Hugo and his orchestra.

The Assemblies were held in an old ballroom upstairs at the Maugus Club.  Those of us new to dancing had had rudimentary instruction from our parents or more formally from others.  Dance cards were issued- only to the boys- listing the dances by number each followed by a line for a partner’s name.  As boys we scrambled to sign up our favorite girls- especially for the first and all important last dances- before they were invested by competitors.  Many a soaring hope was buoyantly realized or forlornly dashed in this process.  We dressed in suits and ties and the girls in elegant “formal” dresses; some wearing corsages on their bosoms or wrists.  Upon arrival we accosted a line of matrons and chaperones.  “Cutting in” by the boys was encouraged as a way to accommodate the “stags” and the matrons did their best to see that no unhappy girl sat for long on the sidelines.  Given even a barely discernable affinity between partners we danced as in the Irving Berlin song Dancing Cheek to Cheek– then to us the summa cum ultra of physical contact.  Baron Hugo indulged us mostly with the fox-trot and waltzes but with occasional exotica such as the polka, rumba, conga (long lines snaking around the floor), and the Lambeth Walk.  At the very end of this era the jitter-bug came swinging to the fore; a harbinger of the final end of elegant nineteenth century formality.

Our early insulation from the world at large was virtually total.  As children we knew nothing of bread lines, of Okies, of Gandhi, Prohibition, Communism, Kristallnacht, Guernica, or the Rape of Nanking.  Of “earth shaking” events I can remember only, the Lindbergh kidnapping, and the burning of the zeppelin Hindenberg.  We knew not even, really, of sex—which it seems we gradually unraveled more or less on our own from sources hidden away in our parent’s attics and dresser drawers.  Anyway, nobody ever got into “trouble.”  We began to experience the wider Town in junior high school and finally the wider World in high school but even then, in spite of the war in Europe, not really until the shock of Pearl Harbor and the advent of gasoline and food rationing and the blacking out of streetlights to darken the Boston skyline as seen from the sea.

1933_BthFrmWaHa
On the Farm in Locke, NY (1932)

As adults we have sometimes speculated as to whether we were harmed in some essential way by our privilege and isolation as children in Nilesville.  Certainly there exist advantages to exposure to adversity, hardship, and the working people and cultures of the world.  My father would have been the first to espouse this idea—he sent us off to a hardscrabble, God-fearing, working dairy farm in New York State for three summers, and wouldn’t hear of isolating either of us in a “privileged and sheltered” private school.

But then, no one was ever exposed either to shallow values or to false respectability, empty materialism, ostentation, social climbing, or sham.  All our parents had a common grounding in sensibility, education, responsibility, honesty, modesty, and deep respect for others of all classes and faiths which certainly rubbed off on all of us.  Among the parents almost none drank, even socially, few smoked, and virtually nobody was overweight.

Nilesville was a narrow world within the wider world.  Inevitably and gradually its edges dried and it evaporated.  Slowly at first, as we kids grew up and left for the War and college in 1943 and ’44, and then more rapidly as we finally went off to claim our lives, as our parents died or moved to simpler spaces, and as new more disparate families displaced the original settlers.  The streets, many of the houses, even Rockridge Pond— now more a swamp than a pond—all still exist as before but our Nilesville has vanished forever.
                                                                       -o0|0o-

Written on the occasion of our Wellesley High School Class of 1943 60th reunion in 2003.


 

 

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