By Danny Crownover
Robert Elton recently sent The Vagabond his memoirs of growing up in Gadsden, and I’d to share his story. Robert is originally from Gadsden and graduated from Gadsden High School. He studied broadcast production at Auburn University and went on to work for South Carolina Educational Television Network. Robert and his wife Jean Pearce Elton live in Orangeburg, South Carolina. This week we will share Episodes 3 and 4.
“Remember that old picture of the home place, the one you took back during the big snow about 1940? The snow was maybe 10 or12 inches deep – not your everyday kind of event in Gadsden, Alabama. I’m sure that old picture brings back many fond memories.
“Dad built most of our house in 1933 with his own hands. He hired someone to do the brick exterior, a man known only as “Peaches.” He probably lived a block away in Saint John’s Alley. Dad built a separate two-car brick garage out back, though he never owned but one car. All the building materials to-taled $5,000.
“As director of the National Guard Band, Dad was fortunate to have a steady job that paid $115 per month during the depression. Dad did the plumbing and all the electrical work on the house. What he couldn’t do himself he paid out about $1,500 in labor, which was big money during the depression. The house was paid off in four years.
“Dad earned extra money playing in a dance band and teaching private music lessons. Almost everybody in the neighborhood planted gardens. Mom raised a lot of chickens that eventually brought in a lot of eggs. Everybody swapped what they had for what they needed so nobody went hungry. I’m sure that went on in just about all of Gadsden since jobs were scarce. People were hurting, and the depression didn’t really end until World War II came along.
“Come walk with me through my old home place on Berea Avenue as I remember it, and let’s look around. A very formal fireplace mantle of stainless steel and dark mahogany dominated the living room. Lined across the mantel was a framed photo of Dad in military uniform and a gracefully carved smoking-pipe alongside a small red tin of Velvet smoking tobacco. The room was furnished with a stuffed sofa and two chairs. In one corner by a window was a piano. The radio in another corner was an Airline floor model, probably purchased at Montgomery Ward. The cabinet was very ornate with decorative inlaid woods.
“Through the AM static, a familiar song from WWI played on the radio: ‘When the lights go on again, all over the world.’ The announcer broke in with, ‘This is WJBY, Gadsden.’ This was followed by a commercial for Ross-Gramblin Furniture. The music continued, and this time it was, ‘I’ll be seeing you in all the old familiar places.’
“What was that wonderful aroma from the kitchen? If it was Sunday night, we knew it was pancakes on the griddle. It also meant that our favorite radio shows were on – Jack Benny, Fred Allen, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. First, we listened to Mother’s favorite soap opera, ‘One Man’s Family,’ Gabriel Heater (‘Ah, there’s good news tonight!’) or Ful-ton Lewis, Jr., with commentary on the news.
“Mom flipped the hotcakes with her old green-handled spatula onto that shiny griddle, cooking them to perfection. The kitchen windows steamed over and the room got very hot, but no one cared. It was all part of Sunday night at home. There were four of us kids, and like most families, we competed for attention. We could be a noisy bunch.”
“My brother and I shared the front bedroom at our house during our growing-up years. At bedtime, after we turned out the light, there remained another light casting a spooky shadow across our walls from the corner streetlamp shining through the branches of the elm trees.
“A steam locomotive across town woke us up during the night. It was a long, lonely sound that echoed through the valley around Gadsden, putting goose bumps on my arms and neck.
“Suddenly there was a loud noise from out of the west from the steel plant. The sky in that direction lit up as though someone had opened a gigantic furnace door.
“We finally closed our eyes, but not before checking under the bed and closing the closet door. We woke up to a jingle advertising shoe polish on the radio, followed by a popular live variety show on NBC’s ‘Blue’ Network from Chicago called The Breakfast Club with Don McNeill.
“Do you smell that hot cocoa, bacon and eggs? While Mother pushed a button on the kitchen wall that activated a buzzer that awakened our sisters in the upstairs bedrooms, my brother stumbled into the kitchen, pulled down the warm oven door, set his cocoa and toast on the back side of the door and began dunking.
“I usually ate eggs and sometimes milk toast, which was an adequate substitute when we did not have any cereal. If we had no sugar, we used honey. The eggs were fresh from our own hens that we raised in our backyard, and we only lived two blocks from Broad Street!
“My sisters agonized over what they should wear, and all of us fought over who got into the one bathroom next before we finally were ready for school.”
We will continue next week, introducing the kids in the neighborhood. You might recognize names of Gadsden people who helped build our city and county.