In mid-December, my Dad. Robert Harris Wilson, will celebrate his 85th birthday. A couple of years ago, I began writing down dad’s stories about growing up in a small town during The Great Depression, serving in the military and working in and around Albion, Indiana. He is proud of his home town, and of his service to his country with the United States Air Force. On Father’s Day 2012, we gave Dad his own book, “One Man’s Work”, and within a couple of months, Dad’s stories were being enjoyed by family and friends throughout the area. In honor of Dad’s birthday, I am sharing chapters and photos from his book every Thursday for the next several weeks. The series began last week, and you can step into the book here. I hope you enjoy hearing Dad’s recollections and my observations in “One Man’s Work”.
It was the mid-1930s and the nation was in the throes of The Great Depression. Dad’s father, Lorne Wilson, no longer sold cars, but had developed a reputation as a good mechanic. Like most working men of his time, Lorne barely made enough at his job fixing cars at the Albion Ford Garage to keep Ruby and their growing family under roof.
As soon as Dad and Brother Bill, as he called him, were able to pull a wagon they were sent out to collect newspapers and all types of metal. The papers went to a local factory to be used as packaging material and the metal was contributed to the War effort. After scouring the neighborhood and gathering what they could find, they drug the loaded wagon to the former school house on Hickory Street, where they were paid pennies for their haul. Every coin was turned over to their Mother, with a promise that a few would come back to them on a future trip to the candy store.
When there were no papers or metal to scavenge there were onions and mint to weed and tomatoes to pick. For 50 cents, Dad would spend the day on his hands and knees in the onion fields west of Albion, pulling weeds. Or he’d catch a ride to the mint and tomato fields to tend the plants. Again, every cent went to Mother.
Dad’s Mother, Ruby, kept the home fires burning, literally.
“My Dad never messed with stuff. He just got up and ate breakfast and went to work,” remembers Dad. “The cook stove that we had was the old kind that you see that you fire with wood – flat top with lids you could take off. Had a warming shelf up above, fire at the left, reservoir at the right, an oven down below where you baked and made stuff. You always had to clean the firebox out because your ashes would build up. You had to clean them out so you could start over. Mom was up early every day, got that fire going before we were up.
“Brother Bill and I would come home from delivering the Journal Gazette, before anybody else was up, and take turns sticking our frozen feet into the oven.”
Dad and Bill worked in tandem on most of his childhood jobs, including the early morning delivery of The Journal Gazette. They gathered their papers at the Noble County Courthouse and one boy took the north end of town, the other the south. Dad remembers one winter morning when the early hours were too much for Bill. Dad returned from his route to discover Bill sleeping next to a mound of unfolded newspapers. He rousted his brother, who was already late for the milk delivery route he ran for Gib Russell. Bill took off to deliver milk while his brother quickly folded and stuffed newspapers into his now-empty bag and got them delivered in time to make it to school.
Newspapers were an important form of communication during the late 1930s. Albion residents received not only the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette and The News-Sentinel, but also a weekly edition of The Noble County American and The Albion New Era. The Wilson boys kept their newspaper delivery routes for years, adding other jobs as they came along.
Small town households also depended on the daily delivery of fresh milk and ice in the 1930s. The ice was kept in an insulated wooden box, called an “ice box”, where perishable food was stored.
“The ice man had cards with writing on both sides. The top half would request one size of ice, the bottom another,” remembers Dad. “Turn it around and there’d be two more. You could order any one of four different sizes of ice. The ice man could see the sign and knew what to bring you.”
(Dad likes nothing more than a clever and orderly plan for dealing with life’s duties, and he still marvels at the ingenuity of simple solutions.)
After all her boys began attending school, Ruby found work at Thomas’ Novelty Factory in the old schoolhouse on Hickory Street. The factory produced “knickknacks” – sewing boxes, toys, magazine racks and other gift items made out of wood. Employees assembled and finished the products for shipment all over the country. The boys would scrounge the factory’s trash bins for rejects, rescuing them as found “treasures”.
One of Dad’s favorite and most prestigious jobs, at least in the eyes of a young boy, was helping to clean the Noble County courthouse.
The imposing brick building still sits on a sprawling raised lawn at the hub of the little county seat. In the early 1900s, the Romanesque structure, built just 40 years before Dad’s birth, was surrounded on three sides by businesses and on the fourth by the Carnegie-style Albion Library. Historic records show that the courthouse was actually the third structure built on that site to house offices conducting the business of county taxpayers.
Albion (originally known as the “Center”) was chosen as the county seat in 1846. It was a big deal for this booming little railroad town to be declared the hub of county business, and the county courthouse was indeed the “center” of the community.
When Dad was growing up, the town’s citizens anxiously anticipated the annual lighting of the Noble County Courthouse on the weekend after Thanksgiving, a tradition that continues today. Dad says that for as long as he can remember, Christmas lights were strung from the top of the courthouse clock spire down to the ground at the four corners of the lawn.
In later years, when Dad was a father himself, he took his young children to visit the painted wooden “town” that was set up on the courthouse lawn. It included a miniature house for Santa, and most of the town’s children made an annual visit to the Santa House to share Christmas requests. When the little wooden buildings became too dilapidated for courthouse decorations, they wound up in Dad’s backyard, where his children enjoyed them as playhouses for several years.
Dad’s childhood association with the courthouse left a distinct impression.
O.K. Beckley was the head custodian of the courthouse and the Wilson boys would report to him every day after business hours. Their job was to visit every desk in the building, dump all the waste baskets and carry the trash to the basement, where it was bundled before being hauled away.
“The courthouse was a lot like it is now, only not as nice. They’ve done a lot to it,” says Dad. “The job (helping to clean the courthouse) was a big deal to us because we knew it was an important place. One time, we actually got to go clear up to the top of the clock tower, under O.K.’s supervision, of course.”
When he turned 15, Dad went to that courthouse to apply for an official work permit. Children were required to get permission to work, an irony not lost on Dad today. Never mind that at that age he had already worked more jobs than most men do in a lifetime – he had to make it legal. It turns out, the path to becoming a card-carrying worker would not be an easy one, since Noble County had no written record of Dad’s birth.
Ruby used to tell her grandchildren that their father was born on the kitchen table of their little house on South Oak Street. (She was teasing, but we liked the story, so that’s what we claim.) Dad says he was born at McCray Hospital in Kendallville. The truth is that wherever the birth took place, it was never recorded because the doctor who brought him into the world had “problems”. Rumor was that he committed suicide not long after Dad’s birth. In any case, he never got around to recording the birth of Robert Harris Wilson.
Dad’s Mother had to appear with her young son before Judge Bodenheffer declaring that Dad had indeed been born to Ruby and Charles Lorne Wilson on December 15, 1928. With his Mother’s testimony as validation, Dad’s birth was duly recorded, and he was issued a work permit. In the process of straightening out Dad’s records, the county clerk discovered that Ruby Edsall Wilson’s birth records showed she was born a boy. With obvious proof to the contrary, that mistake was also rectified, making both mother and son “legal” in Noble County, Indiana, on the same date in late 1943.