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Memories of a Native Son (abridged introduction)

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also at Gibson’s Bookstore, Concord

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Abridged introduction

Source

Concord Monitor, book-excerpt (Hillsboro) Memories-of-a-Native-Son

The residents of the early twentieth century always referred to their street as Water Street although the early maps of the Town of Hillsborough, New Hampshire, had it named River Street, and that was without doubt the name of record. It is likely that residents called it Water Street to avoid confusion with the road that ran along the river on the south side and led to Bear Hill. It was called River Road by many of the townspeople because it wended its way along the river until the latter’s course abruptly turned northward at the base of Bear Hill.

As time passed it became necessary to clearly identify the streets by their official names to avoid confusion by the town’s safety departments, so Water Street was officially rechristened as River Street, and the road on the south side, Bear Hill Road. To bring depression-era realism to these memories, the writer has continued to call the roadway Water Street and the neighborhood the Water Street Community, for that is the way they were known at that time by the residents of that unique little village.

The families were by no means considered ethnically homogeneous, although by far the vast majority of the families were still of the old Yankee stock, but liberally mixed in were hardy Polish, French and Irish families. They brought Catholic traditions to the neighborhood that had only been habituated by the old-line nostalgic Protestants who considered the area ancestral territory.

The older residents could properly be labeled nostalgic Protestants because few of the adults attended church on a regular basis or had any strong Christian beliefs, although the mothers made certain that the children attended Sunday School. Needless to say, there was a certain degree of tension that manifested itself between the old and the new residents over these religious issues with the deeply rooted Puritan distrust of the Roman traditions still dominant in the mores of the older citizens.

There was a necessary acceptance of the new neighbors, but for many years there was not a willingness to mix with the new families through marriage.

Some of the distrust was alleviated by the daily contacts developed through their common employment in the mills. While the older natives might have distrusted the different cultures of the foreign groups, they often developed a personal fondness for individuals with whom they worked. This feeling of good will carried over to the general acceptance of the new families in the community, albeit it was a slow process.

The French, Irish and Polish families dispersed more widely into the community than did the Portuguese who tended to maintain a fairly tight-knit group. This led to the slower absorption of their new culture that was clearly seen with the second generation as they entered the school system. However, being a member of a less dispersed group did not deter many of the first generation from gaining leadership roles in the mills.

While the American society had always experienced rapid influxes of new citizens, during the early periods when our economy was primarily agrarian, the migration was much slower in New England.

The new migrants were most often from northern Europe whom the established Americans found easier to accept since their religion was frequently of the Reform tradition as was true of the New England Puritans and their Congregational Churches. The mills often recruited new workers from southern Europe or Slavic countries who were usually of the Catholic faith and presented a greater contrast as they settled in the small communities where the mills were frequently located.

By the early twentieth century, the mills had drawn workers from a variety of countries, all of whom were trying to find a fit in their adopted country. These varied ethnicities account for the heterogeneous mix of families on Water Street during the years of these memories.

The children of that era were particularly affected by the new ethnic mixes. Many of the migrant mill workers had children that were of school age during the 1920s, so for the first time the grammar school classes enrolled a large number of students with foreign born parents.

In many of these homes English was not spoken, so the children had to learn much of the new language as they played with the neighborhood children. Since both parents usually worked in the immigrant families, some of the preschool children were left in the care of mothers who were not employed during the long working hours of the mills. These children had the good fortune of learning English from children and adult native speakers, and to become acclimated to the American family life.

When these children entered school they often had less difficulty than those who spent their childhoods in more closely knit neighborhoods. But on the whole, school work was more difficult for children of the foreign mill workers and as classes progressed usually there would be children a year or two older than the average age of the class.

It was true of a number of the children from Water Street. For example, a child from a Polish family who was born during the year 1916, graduated with the class born in 1919 after being held back three different times during the grammar school years.

Generally, it was not the practice for the children on Water Street to establish their strongest friendships with the children of the new families. When it came to after-supper games, however, that were played in the roadway in front of the old tenement house (and always spilling over onto Dude Kemp’s property), all of the kids joined in, from the Lamberts (who were of French and English origin) of the west end to the Rysniks (of Polish descent) from the east end.

These games that included both the girls and boys lasted until about 8 p.m. which was bedtime for the children in many of the families during the school year.

In the Water Street community there were established traditions for the children to adhere to the adult rules and regulations. They covered a whole range of behaviors, from being present on time for meals to the types of clothes they could wear at different stages of their lives.

It was not difficult to muster the children at meal time because during the depression years food was often in such short supply that the children were always at the table making certain they got their share. Adequate food was not a foregone conclusion in those difficult days.

A certain amount of it came from the grocery stores that were “Up Street.” We frequently would be sent with a few pennies in hand to purchase a can of Franco-American spaghetti or perhaps a can of Campbell’s vegetable soup that would be enhanced with additional vegetables or macaroni and a little leftover hamburg to make the noon meal for a family of four or five including the adults and children.

But regardless of the state of the appetite, children were expected to be at the table with clean hands at dinner and supper times, and be prepared to accept whatever had been prepared by the cook. One of the compelling reasons for these strict rules was that the millworkers operated under a tight schedule, with only one hour between the time they left their work station and the time they had to return.

To walk home and back and still have time to eat left no time to account for missing children at the noon table. It was a time when the needs of the adults trumped the desires of children in order to survive in the harsh world of that time, and the children abided by the adult rules having learned that only by passing through the various stages of “growing up” successfully would they later gain the freedom and rewards of adulthood.

It was this process of maturation by the children of Water Street and in particular the seven children who lived in the old tenement house on the south side of the street that prompted the author to record these memories of the unusual activities that made up their daily lives during those seminal years of the depression.

***

Although the broader community as a whole did not consider Water Street the kind of environment designed to enhance the intellectual development of children. It was referred to sarcastically by some members of the community as “Ward 7” (apparently a slum ward) and by most residents as being on the “wrong side of the track.”

But as a group these children performed academically in the most amazing fashion, ranking at the highest levels of their high school graduating classes.

Of the seven children living in the old house in the 1920s and 1930s, four were in the Harvey family and three were Halladays. The youngest Harvey child, a daughter, Maxine, died at a young age and did not attend school. The three Harvey boys, Donald, Luke Marshall and Philip and the three Halladay children, Norman, Jacqueline and Maurice received all of their grammar and high school instruction from the Hillsborough schools.

Donald was several years older than the younger children and had developed a more aggressive personality than the others. During his maturing years he had acquired unusual knowledge of the principles of chemistry, physics, mechanics, etc. through a home shop and laboratory that he setup in the basement of the old house.

This special knowledge placed him a cut above the other students and also often placed him in conflict with teachers when he believed them to be incorrect. As a result his grades often did not reflect his actual level of understanding of a subject.

In spite of these social problems, he had no difficulty gaining admission to the Chemical Engineering Department at the University of New Hampshire. He was successful in those studies for two years, but unfortunately during the summer vacation following his second year, he was tragically killed in a truck accident while working for the State Highway Department.

The remaining five children survived to adulthood and had outstanding careers, far exceeding the expectations for individuals from such humble economic and cultural origins.

Their academic careers were so outstanding in comparison with their peers that a question has been raised about the unique learning opportunities that possibly existed in this humble neighborhood. Was there something happening in their everyday lives from infancy into their adolescent years that greatly expanded their interest in their surroundings and fostered their ability to learn and think creatively? Prompting this notion that there was some special nurturing affect in the environment, was the most outstanding academic success of the five surviving children.

Four of the five were valedictorians of their high school classes, and the fifth was in a virtual three-way tie for the honor. All five were college graduates at a time when only a small percentage of the population successfully achieved that level of learning.

One graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a Masters Degree in Electrical Engineering, two graduated from Tufts University, one from the U.S. Naval Academy and one from the University of New Hampshire. Two of the five children were born in the old Water Street tenement house and each of these individuals earned a Ph.D., a degree that is granted only for the highest level of academic achievement.

Their outstanding achievements did not end with their school and college years. The four male members of the group served honorably in the military during World War II and/or the Korean War.

The fifth person in the group was the daughter in the Halladay family who grew up, surrounded by many of the same environmental factors that were experienced by the boys, but from early childhood her intellectual interests were oriented more toward the verbal than the non-verbal.

From an early age she was a voracious reader and almost from the time she could hold a pencil she worked the daily crossword puzzle. At the same time she was an excellent athlete, her tennis skills far exceeding those of the neighborhood boys.

The successes of these children, raised in the humblest possible conditions and living their school years in the throes of the greatest depression in the country’s history, has raised the question about the possible enhancing influence of the unusual surroundings that embraced their daily lives in the Water Street Community.

The author has recorded his memories of the scenes that flashed across the minds of the seven children as they grew from infancy, and most through their adolescence, in this society with its multiplicity of unusual experiences. Was it the exposure to these varied learning experiences that motivated this clutch of children to such success in their academic and life endeavors?

This article was written by glenns

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