Tuesday, May 26, 2020

A Yankee in the Canadian Bush -- Roots

Housekeeper and kitchen helper Jessie Keesic and my mom, Del
Chapter 9

That couple of months living at McDougall’s were hard times for sure but nothing my mom couldn’t handle. Born in 1918 in The Plains, Ohio, Adelpha Maxine Adams had seen plenty of lean times. She was the oldest of seven children and grew up on a subsistence farm which was, of course, common for rural folk in the 1920s and ‘30s.
Her dad, Archie Plummer Adams, was also born in The Plains. His father had worked in a local coal mine and was killed in a mine accident. He had been a union organizer and there was suspicion that he was always given the riskiest work by the company. He left behind a large family and so when he was killed his oldest son, Archie -- but known to me as Poppy -- had to quit school and take his place. He was just 12 years old.
Child labor was not uncommon. The coal companies actually preferred children as workers because they were small and the coal seams they were mining were often only four feet high. Adult miners had to work on their knees.
Coal mining in the Hocking Valley Coal Field was in its heyday in the late 1800s. Coal had been discovered there in 1748 and by the beginning of the 20th century coal from the Athens, Perry and Hocking counties supplied 40 per cent of Ohio’s needs.
Poppy’s responsibility was to go underground, blast the coal loose using dynamite, then shovel it into a cart which was pulled by a tiny pony to the surface. To keep the mine shafts from collapsing the miners left pillars of unmined coal until they reached the end of the seam, then they backed out taking down each pillar. The company would not allow any coal to be wasted. The same couldn’t be said about the miners.
For two years Poppy worked in the mine, turning over all of his pay to his mother, just as she instructed but all the while the wheels were turning in his head. There was no future in being a coal miner. If you weren’t killed in a cave-in, explosion or fire, then you died from black-lung disease. The meager pay you earned went right back to the coal company for rent and for food from the company store.
One day Poppy disobeyed his mom and bought a mule and wagon from the local doctor. He rigged the wagon with a seat on each side and used it as a taxi to ferry miners from the townsite to the mine and back each day. He never worked a day underground again.
Poppy and his delivery truck
He also used the mule and wagon to sell extra vegetables, eggs and milk, door to door. Years later he would do the same thing in Willoughby using a truck. One winter when we were visiting from Red Lake I got to be his helper. We would go to farm auctions where Poppy bought eggs, bread and vegetables from the Amish. Then we drove around the communities of Willoughby, Eastlake and Mentor where I would run to the doors of Poppy’s customers and deliver their orders. Poppy paid me each day in silver dollars.
When they were still living at The Plains, Poppy’s older brother, Sam, got a job at an estate up on Lake Erie and sent for Poppy and his wife, Opal Marie Ponn. The Town of Willoughby needed a roads supervisor and in particular, it needed someone who knew how to use dynamite. For the next 30 springs Poppy would walk out on the ice jams at the mouth of the Chagrin River Harbor, placing sticks of dynamite in the crevasses between the shifting ice chunks. The first sticks had long fuses. The last had short ones. The far side of the river would be exploding sky high as Poppy came to shore on the near side.
Tragically, not far from the river's mouth in the early 1960s, Poppy's brother Sam drowned while working as a commercial fisherman in a rowboat.
My mom, Del, graduated high school in Willoughby. She was the first person in her family to do so. In the 1930s, during the depths of the Great Depression, she was offered a scholarship to study business at Ohio University at Athens. However, she then met my dad and her business became raising a family. She asked Poppy one time where she got the name Adelpha. From a mule, he said.
The Adams family had been in North America and especially the Ohio Valley area for a long time. Poppy’s great grandfather’s brother was a founding father of the U.S. – John Adams, who became the second president. Then his son, John Quincy Adams, became the sixth.
Poppy and Granny Opal raised their seven children in Willoughby on a rented farm which produced food for the family while Poppy worked as roads supervisor. They had their own milk cow and would raise a couple of hogs each year to turn into bacon and hams which after smoking hung from the ceiling in the screened-in porch.
Reeves historic home, Willoughby, Ohio
After Granny Opal died, Poppy bought a small parcel of land across the road from the Reeves Farm nearer the lake. The old farm had been bought by my uncle, Ervie Kitzel, who was my dad’s best friend and also his brother-in-law. Ervie had married my mother’s sister, Ruth.
The farm once bordered a large swath of the Lake Erie shoreline when it was one of the estates in the Connecticut Land Reserve. This was land given to Connecticut land owners who fought in the Revolutionary War and lost their homes to the British.
When Uncle Ervie purchased the farm in the late 1950s, it had already mostly been carved up for housing developments as part of the Cleveland suburban sprawl. Ervie’s piece was still large by standards at the time and might have measured 30 acres.
The farmhouse was majestic compared to the boxes in the housing developments. It had a stone basement, 10-foot-high ceilings and most interestingly, its own natural gas well.
An enormous gas-light chandelier hung in the living room. Aunt Ruth despised it. She was a clean freak and found dusting the hundreds of crystal prisms dangling around the gas lights too much. Also electricity, not gas, was how the home had been illuminated for decades. So, while we were staying in the house the winter after we left McDougall’s, Dad and Ervie took down the chandelier. Dad separated all of the gas lights and packed them in a box to be taken to camp. After being dark for most of a century, the gas lights from a Revolutionary War soldier's home would blaze again at Bow Narrows Camp on Red Lake in Northwestern Ontario.

...to be continued

1 comment:

Neil M. said...

Dan, I have certainly enjoyed reading your story so far. What an incredible journey. Looking forward to the next chapters!

A Yankee in the Canadian Bush -- Roots

Housekeeper and kitchen helper Jessie Keesic and my mom, Del Chapter 9 That couple of months living at McDougall’s were hard times...