Central New York Summers in the 1950’s-Notes from the Field

Note to My Readers:  A compelling part of the family history research experience  happens upon the researcher in the most unexpected moments.  In my parents’ lifetime extended family was wider and more intimate than most American family relationships of today.  I counted on that fact as I researched my paternal lineage through small town newspapers of the early 1900’s.  I am close to my mother and her family….I still say that in the present tense though she has been gone for many years…but my knowledge of my father’s family has always been sparse and disconnected.    When I came upon an article about my father’s brother and his Penird and Case cousins,  the old printed lines had finally provided me with a solid connection to their grandmother, Emma Case.

Feeling elated that I had found my great grandmother at last and reading the blurry text again and again…to know her somehow… I experienced a sudden wave of childhood memories that took me back to my father’s family and central New York summers in the 1950’s.

An Unexpected Moment

After a bit of research on my father’s family , I found my Uncle Ron, my dad’s brother,  and his former wife, Ethel, at the Auburn Skeet Club with their second cousins-Floyd Case and Floyd Penird.    Emma Case Penird was my paternal great grandmother and her brother, William, was Floyd Case’s grandfather.

Ron Martin, Louise Case, Floyd Case, Ethel Martin, Will Palmer circa 1933 photo courtesy of Jack Cholette

In local Cayuga County newspapers I found the cousins, aunts and uncles at social gatherings, family weddings and funerals for the Cases and Penirds.  A good number of these people were around through the seventies and eighties so they were in Auburn when my family moved there in the fifties.  I searched my childhood memories to “find” them with no success.

But sometimes, in the midst of names and places that are so much a part of my family, I find me…the child that loved to skip rope, play jacks, fix broken toasters and hold my parents’ hands.

As I made my notes of the names and relationships of these people, vivid memories from my childhood overwhelmed my thoughts and transported me back to faraway summers in central New York with my father’s family.   A couple of them come to mind…

A Summer Visit in Fleming NY

When my Dad was alive, we would go to my father’s sister’s home in Fleming for Sunday dinner on occasion.  From a small child’s vantage point in the cavernous back seat of our old automobile, my view was of the city streets giving way to the endless deep blue summer sky, rolling hills with rows of corn and the occasional and sudden appearance of a stark white farmhouse.  Our old Hudson was a favorite since it had massive running boards and my father kept it meticulously cleaned and tuned.  To my little girl delight, the spark plugs for some unknown reason were pink.  In the 1950’s, traveling even twenty miles was an event.  To keep me still, my mother would allow me to hold her Sunday church gloves and they were as white as the clouds and the farmhouses in the countryside.  They seemed to glow in my hands.

Riding to the countryside in Fleming, New York where Aunt Emma (my dad’s sister) and  Uncle “Bud” Scofield lived seemed like traveling to another planet.  They had a big Victorian farmhouse with a wraparound porch and a bright red barn was tucked away in the trees behind the house.  One summer I stayed a day or two at the Fleming farm when I was six years old.   It sounded like a grand adventure and I was excited at the prospect of chickens and swinging on the old tire to my heart’s content.  But as I watched our car leave with my parents and little sister, Mary,  inside, a wave of homesickness and anxiety flooded my chest.

My lovely mother with her soft summer dress and my father in his starched white shirt and smart wing-tip spectator shoes…my little sister with her ribboned “fountain” pony tail and matching summer pinafore were disappearing down the highway only to be replaced by my no nonsense aunt, my loud and rough uncle…and all of those cousins! I had left the planet.  Nothing was remotely familiar and an overnight stay was eternity.   When I had arrived on that early Saturday morning, my older cousin Mary Ann,  took one look at my crisp and starched clothes and exchanged them for more suitable “farm” attire.   She smiled at me and led me by the hand to the large porch where there was a litter of puppies nestled next to their mother on an old quilt.  I felt better…how could it be awful with puppies wiggling and tumbling all over each other.

That evening the children all slept on the porch where we could catch a breeze during the hot and sticky night.  I saw my first chamber pot there!  The farm had no inside plumbing and we weren’t to venture out to the “outside facility” on our own in the night.  I was not only NOT on the planet, but had left the galaxy.  Older Cousins Buzzy and Jimmy slept on the porch with us to make sure we were watched over and that was fun because they were jovial and played games with us.  And there were plenty of dogs…old and young…to snuggle up with and provide a comforting presence.

Breakfast was a real eye-opener…and a belly buster!!!  The big plank-style table in the sunny kitchen was filled with fresh rolls from the oven and MASHED POTATOES! At breakfast!  Accompanying the potatoes were sausages, eggs, pancakes…and endless big pitchers of ice cold milk.   I never saw so much food.  AND every ounce of it was gone before the dishes were cleared.  Lunch and supper were equally impressive.

After breakfast the boys drove an ancient and rusty Ford pickup truck to a nearby field where the little kids picked up stones and piled them into a trailer.  I knew the truck was a Ford because my father was in the auto parts business and he taught me all the automotive logos before I could read.  Once the trailer was full, we were put into the bed of the pickup truck…bouncing across the fields toward an old stone wall where the stones were unloaded.  Filthy, sweaty, mosquito bitten and smelling like “old dog” we headed back to the farm house at noon for lunch.  Outside the farmhouse sat an old pump and a bucket filled with water.  One of the boys primed the pump with the bucket of water and we all “cleaned up” sharing the big bar of Ivory soap and water that was frigid even in the central New York midsummer temperatures.

An old picnic table was situated in the almost liquid green shade of an immense elm tree. To my astonishment lunch was once again a feast as the table was loaded with noontime fare and a bowl of fresh strawberries that seemed as big as apples and oh so sweet.  In the afternoon we headed to the barn and “did chores”.   I don’t remember what we (the younger children) did…probably tasks that our little bodies could handle and required little supervision. No doubt I didn’t notice or care since I was propelled by the babble of noise and sweaty activity that was the pure “art of being” only a young child experiences. While my uncle and older cousins hauled and stacked bales of hay, it was our job to stay out of harm’s way.  After the serious work was done, the bigger cousins took us around the farm yard on an ancient John Deere tractor which was a grand treat for a city child who had only seen a tractor in Golden Books.  Although I was a little girl that wore starched ribbons in her hair, I didn’t escape the love of machines that were the focus of my father and older brothers’ activities.

I kept my eye on the outhouse and ran to it when I could so that I wouldn’t be faced with a “chamber pot experience”.  Somehow I managed to avoid it entirely though the outhouse was pretty scary…the hole being large enough for a six year old to disappear into with one hasty move.  One of the old dogs had taken a liking to me and trotted behind me wherever I went and was my furry sentinel outside the outhouse.  I hurried as much as I dared without losing my balance and the dog was always there when I threw open the door and dashed to catch up with my cousins and whatever new activity awaited.

Before supper everyone took turns with a tub of hot water on the porch…no modesty there.  In retrospect it was like being part of a big litter of puppies.  Once again the kitchen table was filled with fresh baked rolls and roast beef and gravy and the ever present mountain of mashed potatoes drooling with butter. My aunt sent me and one of my cousins to the cellar (YIKES!) to get some pickled beets and pear preserves for the supper table.

The cellar was dark and cool and full of scary shadows and tickling spider webs.  When my eyes adjusted to the light, I saw rows and rows of shelves laden with all kinds of jars that were crammed with preserves and pickles and all manner of mouthwatering delights.  I was allowed to hold one jar to carry up the steps and I soon forgot the worries of what lurked in the shadows as I cradled the heavy jar.  The steps didn’t seem so high on the journey down, but they appeared to have multiplied while we were down below gathering the preserves for supper.  I made sure at supper that I had a generous helping from “my” jar and it most definitely made the unsettling trek into the cellar seem more like a grand adventure with a jar of preserves as the prize.

By the time supper was finished, dishes cleared and cleaned, it was time for bed…around 6:30PM.   There was no TV and the grownups had the lone radio in the cool front parlor while the children settled down on the porch.  I was afraid of strange animals and, of course, the old boogeyman and was sure I would stay awake …listening for any threatening noise.  AND that was the last thought as the food, the fieldwork, the tractor ride and the dog scented, velvet night took over.

Pinafore and Ribbons circa 1953

On late Sunday afternoon my Mom and Dad arrived to pick me up.   I was once again in my pinafore and ribbons.  I had forgotten to be homesick and I certainly had eaten very well, but I was glad to be going home.  I had missed my mother and her cuddles and kisses and the smell of my Dad’s Old Spice and was glad to be one of two little girls instead of a bit of human flotsam in a raucous crowd that relentlessly churned.  And…of course, there was the indoor plumbing.

Uncle Ron Martin…Cayuga Lake…Dog Biscuits and Goats

Summers on Cayuga Lake… “Goin’ t’ Unca Ron’s”  we called it.  There were actually two houses on the lake during my childhood.  The first was a simple weathered-shingle cottage and the later house was a lovely, year round home.   The long unpaved road that took us from the main road to the first lakeside cottage caused the car to lurch and leap while clouds of dust rose around us like a small dry storm.  Now whenever I drive in a graveled driveway, the crisp crunching sound of tires on stone instantly sends me back to those moments.  From the deep and dark back seat of our car, I would judge how close we were by the changing motion of the car and the sounds and smells that found their way to me.  Approaching the lakeside, the ruts in the road would lessen and the distinct scent of the lake reassured me that soon I would be dashing down to the lakeshore and into the deliciously cool water of Cayuga Lake.

The old dock stretched into the sparkling water where we could sit and watch the fish swim in and out of the shade it had created in the shallow water.  At the end of the dock bobbing up and down in the waves floated my Uncle’s pride and joy…an old Chris Craft Runabout motorboat  It was a 26′ model with a forward drive double cockpit and a rear drive single cockpit. They sold for $3,000 and $2,800, respectively in those days.  A standard painted finish with mahogany trim or a full mahogany hull sold for $500 extra.  Uncle Ron’s had the full mahogany hull. We would all pile in and he would run us up and down the lake.  It was like flying.  There weren’t many boats on the water in those days so there was the illusion that you were alone in the whole world…sometimes skimming the water…sometimes popping up over the waves and coming down so hard that we gasped with fear and excitement.

Years later Uncle Ron bought a year round home on the same stretch of eastern lakeshore.  It was large and beautifully situated in a private cove.  The beloved classic Chris Craft was moored in the lake waters next to the new dock.  The new lakeside home featured a large living room with a bank of windows that framed the view of the cove and the lake beyond.  At the end on the living room was a field stone fireplace and tucked away in a corner  a set of bookshelves that swiveled out to reveal a fully stocked bar…Martin nirvana…liquor and books.  A tradition that lives on, I might add.

Will Palmer, my grandfather

Uncle Will, my step grandfather, was alive at the time and he was a frequent visitor at Uncle Ron’s home.  Uncle Will introduced me to blood pudding and kidney pie… traditional fare from his Tadworth, Surrey, English homeland.  I managed to decline his gentlemanly offer of a “bit of” without any hint that I was revolted.  Uncle Will always had a dog at his feet as he sat in the big chair by the fireside…the room redolent with his pipe tobacco.  It was his habit to carry butterscotch candies in his jacket pocket nestled next to his tobacco pouch.  When Will offered the butterscotch, we were in total “sweets harmony”.  I accepted.  It wasn’t until I was older that I knew what the actual taste of unadulterated butterscotch was.  Sans the faint hint of tobacco, it never tasted “right” again, although butterscotch remains my favorite.

Big family picnics for the Martins at Uncle Ron’s lakeside house were a greatly anticipated family event and Uncle Ron was a tireless practical joker bringing out a plate of dog biscuits and remarking to the little kids that his wife, Mildred, made them especially for us. He would eat one and roll his eyes and exclaim at how tasty they were.   Same joke every year…but we fell for it…ate them…spit them out and laughed anyway…every year.  Some jokes never seem to get old.

Since food was an ever present part of family functions, mealtime was a good time for a youngster to observe the oddities of our adult relatives.  Uncle Ron would chew with his front teeth (no doubt his molars were missing)…kind of like a big bunny.   He would send the young cousins to the garden in back to gather something for Mildred to prepare and we would take the opportunity to pluck and eat the scallions and tomatoes…dirt and all.  With a merry smirk he would ask, “Have you been eating my onions and tomatoes?”  We would solemnly say “no” while we had appalling onion breath and dirty hands and faces.  Uncle Ron would just grin.   I still love scallions and tomatoes.  I just skip the dirt.

Despite being the owner of an elegant new home and the classic Chris Craft, Uncle Ron was still a bit of a country boy and owned a nanny goat and a billy goat along with a dog or two.  The billy goat would get loose and he would gather up the children and head down the old railroad tracks along the lake shore to retrieve the goat.

The Cayuga Lake Railroad was opened from Ithaca to Cayuga Junction in 1872, along the eastern shore of the lake, and was later extended east to Auburn.  Even though many of  lovely lakeside homes existed along the eastern side of Cayuga Lake, the tracks were still used by trains periodically and sat up above the homes so that when you drove down the country lane access to the homes, you would have to cross the tracks.

It didn’t take long to locate the goat as he often wandered down the tracks to a find a favorite verdant cove and to munch on the sweet grasses that grew there.  As Uncle Ron closed in, the goat would scoot another few feet away.  After a few minutes of this dance of “approach and scoot”, Uncle Ron would bend over and wiggle his hips at the goat and the goat would charge Uncle Ron’s behind.  Like a toreador Uncle Ron would turn around and grab the goat’s horns and march him back to the pen.

It was great theatre and I suspect that the goat and Uncle Ron liked it as much as we did.


Author’s Note:  During my early research on Uncle Will’s Palmer family, I found one of his grand nephews, Jack Cholette.  Jack has generously shared his memories of the Palmer Cayuga Lake cottage and a photo of Uncle Will and my grandmother, Sarah Leona.  Jack has a wonderful genealogy site for his family.  Stop by and check it out.   You will be impressed at Jack’s work.  Thanks again, Jack, for your insight into the Palmer family. http://familytreemaker.genealogy.com/users/c/h/o/John-L-Cholette/

Deborah Martin-Plugh

Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher

(c) Copyright 2010.  All Rights Reserved

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2 thoughts on “Central New York Summers in the 1950’s-Notes from the Field

    • So glad you are enjoying the blog! I have been overwhelmed with an extraordinary research project-that involves pioneer families from Enfield and Lansing and have been hard pressed to post to my blog for two months while the research just keeps yielding amazing results. You in particular will love this project as it takes two families from Enfield of the 1800’s and to Wisconsin then Washington DC and to the Meiji period of Yokohama and then to modern day London. I am meeting the descendants of my great grandmother’s (Elizabeth A. Williams) first cousin (Frances Lorinda Heath) this June when they arrive from London. We are both descendants of Dr. Parvis Austin Williams and Lorinda King of Enfield. I found my cousins in London after two years of research and though they were very knowledgeable about Frances’ husband, Dr. Stuart Eldridge, they had no real knowledge of her lineage. It is a fabulous story and will be my next post…but it is deep and rich and has required me to dig down deep…get it right…and then publish. I plan a trip early this year to Ithaca so let’s be in touch.

      Deborah Martin-Plugh

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