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Posts Tagged ‘history’

It’s still hotter than heck here in eastern Pennsylvania — forecast to reach 90 degrees all but one day this coming week.

As payback, perhaps, for our record-setting snow of January, we’re now getting plenty of summer. Summer enough for everyone.

Well, it says here that our visit to the beach last time around wasn’t nearly long enough. So, like Frankie and Annette, we’re going back.

Except we’re going back a few years earlier, and to a different beach. Perhaps you’ve been to this one. A lot of people have.

Jones Beach Trip

Note the two young ladies in the brochure trying their skill at archery. It is 1958, and Katniss Everdeen has not yet been imagined. Neither have the New York Mets, but the Yanks are sitting pretty in first place.

I’m not sure why the Hope Street Blumenaus went to Jones Beach State Park, on Long Island, when they could have gone to coastal beaches closer to home in Connecticut. (They could also have hitched a ride to Rockaway Beach … though that trip hadn’t been imagined in 1958, either.)

Jones Beach is a draw for people throughout the New York area. According to Wiki, it’s the most-visited beach on the East Coast. To me, that just screams mad crazy hassles with traffic and parking and finding towel-space.

But, sometimes, the biggest tourist spots seem more desirable because they’re so popular. It is only the sourest and most reticent of us (I am looking in the mirror here) who avoid going places because they draw crowds. To many, the place with all the people is the place to be.

Also, a check of the calendar reveals that Aug. 19, 1958, was a Tuesday. My grandpa might not have been quite so thrilled about going to Jones Beach on a summer Saturday. But Tuesday? Sure, that might be a little more manageable and a little less crazy.

So, off went the bridge-and-tunnel Blumenaus to the big city …

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See? The big city. (I’m too slack to figure out which bridge this is, but I’m sure it’s some span whose name lives in regional traffic-report infamy.)

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Jones Beach’s famous water tower, seen through the windshield of the Ford du jour.

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Compare this to what you’d wear to the beach today.

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My grandpa looks like Marcel Proust at a Parisian sidewalk cafe, not a dude at the freakin’ beach. My grandma’s conical sun hat (I said “conical,” not “comical”) is also smart and styled for the season, in adspeak.

Once the Blumenaus of Hope Street finished their travel and food, and finally got to the beach, it appears that they chose a pretty good day to go. Sunny and not too crowded at all.

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Jones Beach 8

The people at far left are fully dressed; everyone else is in beachwear. Maybe a dressing room sits somewhere between the two sides.

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The dude in the barrel is so charming, it’s easy to miss the wave and the “JB” set into the ironwork on the other side of the pole.

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A pic to prove that someone from the Blumenau family actually put on suits and went into the water. My aunt is at the center of the photo, in the yellow swim cap, and my dad is to her right.

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One of potential historic value: Wiki says there used to be two pools at Jones Beach (east and west). The west one is still in operation but the east one is closed. Wonder which one this is? It’s a little crowded at the right-hand side of the photo but it looks like things aren’t too nuts here either.

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One last from the big trip. Of course my grandma and great-grandma stayed clear of the water. My grandma’s smile indicates that she’s perfectly fine with that. They’re sharing a bench with strangers. The family-history buff in me wonders who they are; I wish I could find their grandson or granddaughter on the ‘Net and say, “Hey, you might like to see this picture.”

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1963 was a pretty good year — dare one say, a high-water mark? — in the history of American beach culture.

The summer of ’63 has been pegged as the birth of the beach party movie trend, with the movie “Beach Party” leading the way.

The third of three Gidget movies was in theaters that summer too, and the third of six original Gidget novels could be found in bookstores.

On the radio, The Beach Boys were churning out Top Ten singles and albums, like the anthemic “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” “Surfer Girl” and “Be True To Your School.”

Lesser California acts had a pretty good summer too. In the week ending July 20, 1963, Jan and Dean’s “Surf City” (co-written by the ubiquitous Brian Wilson) became the first surf song to hit U.S. Number One.

In that sand- and sun-kissed summer, the Blumenau family of Hope Street was fortunate enough to have an ocean close to home. And while they weren’t surfin’, like Cal-i-for-ni-a, they enjoyed escaping the summer heat with a sedate, well-covered trip to the seaside.

This week we go with them to a semi-historic location that’s still around, and is probably packed as you read this:

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July 3-4, 1963. Yanks win and stay in first; Mets lose and stay in last.

A town or two up the coast from Stamford is Sherwood Island State Park, in the town of Westport.

According to various sources, the park on Long Island Sound was Connecticut’s first state park, with the first land purchases beginning more than 100 years ago. You can swim, picnic, bird-watch and fish there.

You can also see the New York skyline from parts of the park, which only adds to its summery appeal.

Nothing makes a cold lemonade taste sweeter, or a breath of sea air feel more refreshing, than seeing the sweltering city a stone’s throw away and knowing you’re not stuck there in a fourth-floor walkup or a traffic jam.

(On a more somber note, local residents gathered at the park on 9/11 to watch the aftermath of the attacks, and the part of Sherwood Island that faces Manhattan is now home to a living memorial to those who lost their lives that day. Having noted that, we return to the beach-crazed Camelot summer of ’63.)

What did the Blumenaus of Hope Street do at Sherwood Island on July 3, 1963?

The family’s worldly-wise 20-year-old son smoked a cigar, for one thing …

Sherwood Island1

Sorry, Dad. Love ya, but I have no idea what the hell you’re doing in this pic.

… they ate marshmallows …

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My dad appears to be playing chubby bunny here.

… and, they ate 39-cent Wise potato chips.

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My dad and aunt wore their bathing suits, and no doubt they enjoyed the water. I’m guessing my grandfather didn’t feel like bringing his camera down to the seashore to get pix. Didn’t want to risk getting salt water in the works, most likely.

This was not the family’s first or only visit to Sherwood Island; the pic below was labeled “Probably Sherwood Island ’58” by my dad, and shows my grandpa in full beachside grilling mode.

Prob Sherwood Island 58

It’s fun being the paterfamilias sometimes. God forbid you cook your hot dogs directly over the coals, though.

I’m not near a beach this holiday weekend, but these pictures bring back the feeling of sand in sneakers, and the cries of birds, and the sweep of tides … without the hassle of finding a beachside parking spot. A pretty sweet deal, all in all.

Pardon me while I put on some Beach Boys …

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Last time around, I wrote about finding my grandmother’s birth listed in a New England annual report — specifically that of Keene, New Hampshire, in 1914.

This time, we go back to the report for a closer read, to see what it tells us about the place where she was born. What was her corner of the world like at the moment she entered it?

We find Keene in 1914 as a city of about 10,000 people (it’s about 23,500 today).

It’s a city on the move, at least by its own modest standards, with population increasing almost 10 percent between 1900 and 1910. It has a fairly healthy manufacturing sector; maybe the growth reflects an increasing willingness among the area’s people to swap farming for well-paying jobs in a factory.

One of the city’s major employers is making threatening sounds. The Boston and Maine Railroad is hinting at what the report calls “a very considerable reduction in the working force” at its Keene repair shops. (Layoff anxiety is eternal.)

Among the city’s other companies are the Monadnock Shoe Co., Keene Mica Products Co., Ashuelot National Bank, the Sentinel newspaper and its affiliated printing company, the Burdett Chair Co., the Keene Glue Co., and the marvelously named Impervious Package Co.

There is no business specifically identifying itself as a brewery. Perhaps Keene does not have a large enough German population to support one. Or maybe the mood in town is starting to favor prohibition, which is only about five years away from becoming national law.

Keene is not a dry city, though. It has a liquor agent, Ervin M. Bullard, who reports purchasing and selling everything from New England rum to porter to California brandy to something called “cherry rum.” And H.O. Wardwell, clerk of the Board of Police Commissioners, reports 152 arrests for drunkenness and nine for violating liquor laws in the first three quarters of the year.

Wardwell also reports one arrest for operating an auto under the influence of liquor, and five for auto speeding. Clearly, the automobile is not a major transportation option in 1914 Keene. (Progress is coming: The fire department’s portion of the report recommends the purchase of an automotive fire truck.)

Keene might not be a dry city, in the alcoholic sense, but it sure is dusty. Of the 103 miles of roads in town, only about nine-and-a-half are paved. Each home or business abutting an unpaved road is charged $2 in taxes to pay for water sprinkling to hold down the dust.

Keene Gas and Electric has 522 incandescent streetlights installed in the city, the locations of which are noted in detail in the report. One is located opposite the city’s hospital, Elliot City Hospital, then at 305 Main St. Perhaps it lit Maud Wamboldt’s way there as she prepared to give birth (if indeed she gave birth there, and not in a private home).

Also, while water and sewer lines are still being laid, quite a few are already in place, and the report goes into detail about when each one was installed. One wonders how many of them, patched and repaired over the years, are still in service.

Exactly 1,969 students aged 5 to 16 are in the city’s public schools — 1,063 girls and 906 boys. I cannot remember how long my grandma lived in Keene, but I am not sure it was even long enough to ever make it into that statistic.

The report includes each of the resolutions passed by City Council during the year, and they make for an interesting combination of the important and the mundane:

  • “Sliding” (presumably sledding) is permitted from 4 to 9 p.m. on a section of upper Water Street.
  • No one can rent a room to use for dancing without obtaining the permission of the mayor (one Herbert Fay in 1914) and the city aldermen. A dance permit costs $2 per year.
  • The Lynn Wood Heel Co. is exempt from taxes for 10 years as a reward for moving its operations and machinery to town, with 150 jobs expected to be created.
  • An extensive set of driving and traffic laws, covering both autos and horse-drawn carriages, is passed six days before my grandmother’s birth. (There is no indication that these laws supersede anything already on the books.) Fines are anywhere from $1 to $10 per offense.
  • Nine hundred dollars is set aside for the construction of a concrete bridge over Beaver Brook on Church Street.

The state of New Hampshire has levied a bounty on hedgehogs, and the annual report lists a good 30 names of local men who have taken advantage of it. The most industrious, Ralph Manley, collects $1.60 for his work.

Keene has a college — then called Keene Normal School — but it’s only five years old in 1914 and doesn’t appear in the city’s annual report, except for a few brief mentions related to expenses.

Also mostly absent is World War I, freshly begun and not yet directly involving the U.S. There’s a reference to it in the library department’s report, of all places, but not much else. Keene, and the rest of the country, was still willing and able to stick to its own knitting in 1914.

Finally, William and Maude Wambolt and their two young daughters do not appear in the report, except for the Vital Statistics section mentioned in my previous post.

They didn’t owe any taxes; they didn’t serve on any city boards; they didn’t do anything else of note.

They just had a daughter, without whom you might have spent the last 10 minutes doing something more productive.

William Wamboldt.

William Wambolt.

Maud (LaBatt) Wamboldt.

Maude (LaBatt) Wambolt.

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Twenty years ago, I learned to love the New England-style annual town report.

(It might be that towns in other parts of the country also issue these reports. But I came to know them in the context of New England small-town democracy, and they live there in my mind to this day.)

An annual town report is a snapshot of ongoing operations — the municipal equivalent of a public company’s annual report. It lists all the town’s relevant financial info at numbing length, as well as other operating data and the results of Town Meeting votes.

Department reports provide splashes of narrative amid all the numbers. The police chief might decry an increase in breaking and entering, while the Parks Commission might plump for money for a new dock at the town pond.

A recent annual report cover from one of the towns I used to cover. The full report can be seen here.

A typical annual report cover. This report is recent, but comes from one of the towns I used to cover back in the day. The full report can be seen here.

These reports were a staple at the chain of Boston-area weekly newspapers where I worked in 1996.

A year or two earlier, a reporter with a freshly issued annual report had had a genius idea. He’d written a snapshot-of-local-life cover story, based entirely on interesting info culled from the report — five births; six deaths; three marriages; 13 underage drinking arrests; 22 miles of town-owned road resurfaced; $4,020 in library overdue fines collected; and like that.

Combined with creative graphics, “Sherborn By The Numbers” or “Natick By The Numbers” made for addictive reading. (Basically, they were Internet listicles before such a thing existed.)

The only people who disliked these stories were town employees, who hated seeing their salaries in print. The supervisor of the local sewage plant once got salty with me after I included his salary; listed the amount of waste his plant processed that year; and did the math to find out what he got paid per gallon.

But, town employees’ salaries are public info. They’re in every town’s annual report. And the reports were available free to residents — in some places, every household got a copy in the mail. So we weren’t telling anybody anything they couldn’t have looked up themselves.

These by-the-numbers stories were so popular, and so easy, that every paper in the chain took to running them at annual report time.

Perhaps they still do.

# # # # #

Twenty years later, I’ll still thumb through a town report whenever I find one. They’re like postcards from a place and time. You can see moments of real people’s lives if you squint at the numbers the right way.

I’ve been lost to the outside world lately, since I discovered that the University of New Hampshire Library has almost 15,800 annual reports from New Hampshire towns and cities available online.

Even though I’ve never lived in the Granite State, I’ve dived into the struggles and triumphs of its communities, from the Holderness Floods of 1973 to Derry’s celebration of hometown hero Alan Shepard a dozen years before. A few paragraphs after praising Shepard, the Derry report adds: “We hope to have our main street paved in 1962.”

(Charlie Baker, if you’re reading: You need to put some resources into closing the online annual-report gap. New Hampshire is housing you. Are you going to stand for that?)

I became doubly interested in UNH’s online treasure trove when I realized that I might find my paternal grandmother there.

She was born in Keene, in the southwest part of the state. And most town or city reports include what’s called Vital Statistics — a list of births, marriages and deaths recorded over the course of the year.

A few minutes with UNH’s marvelous archive and there she was, swaddled and screaming:

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You have to squint a little bit, but she’s the second line from the bottom — “Corrine,” born female and living on June 24, 1914, the second child of 30-year-old teamster Wm. L. Wamboldt and 33-year-old Maud LaBatt.

As far as I know, the two R’s in her first name are a typo. In my acquaintance with her, she was always Corine. Her mother’s hometown is also listed incorrectly: Maud LaBatt came from North Easton, N.Y., not “No. Eastern.”

(Regular readers have met and recently said goodbye to Corine’s older sibling, who was born two years earlier in Vermont. William and Maud had no other children before William’s death in 1920. Or after it, for that matter.)

Reading the list of births — nothing else in the report, just the births — is enough to paint a picture of Keene as a place torn between 20th-century cityhood and the roots of its rural surroundings. (Remember what I said about seeing real people’s lives if you squint the right way?)

For instance, there are 26 living births listed on “Corrine’s” page and only one stillbirth. The ratio is similar on other pages, and some list no stillbirths at all.

I’m no expert on public health, and just because all these children were born alive doesn’t guarantee they lived long.

But on the whole, it’s a better report than I would have expected from a small city in a rural region 100 years ago. It suggests that prenatal care was available in the area, and was making a difference.

On the other hand, there are birth reports from as far back as 1869 wedged in among the 1914 new arrivals. You can see 1894 and 1898 listed on “Corrine’s” page. The notion of promptly reporting a child’s birth, something we take for granted today, was clearly not yet standard.

I don’t know the full story, but I’m guessing these people were born on farms or in rural homes outlying Keene — maybe even without a doctor present — and no one bothered to file the notifications until years later, when they needed a birth record to accomplish some goal or other.

I’ve prattled on a while at this point, but there’s a lot more to discuss in the Keene annual report.

I think I’ll do a little more squinting for my next post, and see what more I can deduce about the time and place in which my grandma was born.

(For those who can’t bear the suspense, the 1914 Keene annual report can be downloaded here.)

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No sooner does one member leave the extended family than another (bless her) joins it.

May’s a big month for weddings; and by and large, the men in my immediate family seem to favor it.

Not sure there’s any deep-seated reason for that. Maybe we all want to get things over with as soon as the weather’s favorable, and early enough that our summers stay free. Or maybe, generation after generation, some occult hand keeps our venues of choice free in May so we can each find an open date.

Anyway, my older brother is the latest to board the May train. By the time you read this, he will be two days married. I am flying out to San Francisco to be there for the big day, and am much looking forward to it. (The big day, not the flying.)

I’ve been on the same train a while myself. Two days after this post goes live, I will mark my 20th wedding anniversary. My wife and I were only a year out of college when we got married, and I suspect we chose our date so our friends who were still in school could come out and join us before they scattered for the summer.

My grandpa and grandma picked the first half of May as well, for reasons lost to history. They were married for almost 60 years.

This week’s calendar entry finds them at the same point in time I’m at now:

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May 3, 1961. I wonder where they went out to eat.

I would love to be able to tell you how to make a marriage last for 20 years, much less 60, but I am devoid of wisdom or vision. I just get up every morning and go to sleep every night and somehow the years go by.

(Of course, many of my readers have been married longer than I have and have no need for my advice. I’m just saying that I searched my soul and found nothing. It’s happened before.)

My brother and his wife invited their friends and siblings to share their thoughts on love and marriage — to email them to the celebrant for inclusion in the ceremony. My thoughts didn’t figure into it, because I couldn’t come up with any.

I briefly considered inventing a friend for Eric and sending in something absurdly flowery: “Eric’s friend Hassan says, ‘Love is like a welter of gleaming pearls, radiant in their brilliance. No, diamonds!'” But then I decided that pranking my brother’s wedding ceremony was probably a classless thing to do, so I kept my mouth shut. Except on my blog.

I dunno. Maybe there isn’t a fancy formula or mission statement that captures the soul of marriage. Maybe it’s different for everybody. Or maybe the secret is buried so deep in the stream of days and months that it’s hard to see.

At any rate, whatever it takes to keep two people happy together and pulling in the same direction, I hope my brother and his wife discover it together.

And I hope it only seems like months before they go out for their own 20th anniversary.

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