WELCOME TO INDIE LECTOR .STORE
Paper Back Books
From a wide variety of authors and genres
Stories you will love to read.
Take them anywhere
Check out our authors and genres.
Two Generations-Visions of Life, Volume 1
Two Generations is not just the story of the Wilcox family, father and son. It is also a study of life in America for more than 100 years as seen through the lives of one family, ranging from basic pre-electricity and plumbing small-town life in the early 1900s to modern life in a large city, with all its conveniences, far from the family's original home town.
Hard Cover :
Growing up in Gobles, Michigan (1899-1918)
Located halfway between the two county seats of Allegan and Paw Paw on Highway number 40 lies Gobles, Michigan. When I was young it was called Gobleville. It was in this community of Gobleville that I was born on August 21, 1899. At that time it was a village of about six hundred and fifty people. In the early 1900s people decided the name was too long, so the name of the post office was changed to Gobles on April 10, 1922. As with so many American cities and villages, it got its name from a local family; the Gobles family owned a large farm in that area.
Dad was born in Gobleville, as it was called, and mother was born about one and a half miles northeast of town on a farm. Her dad, George Nelson Brown, taught in the one-room country school that was named after him. It was called the Brown School until it was torn down in the 1930's. My mother, Susie Belle Brown, lost her mother when she was around thirteen years old, as I remember it. Sometime after her mother's death she went to work for a distant relative near Albion, New York. She and this family lived on a farm through which the Erie Canal was dug. After a year with this family, she returned to Gobles and kept house for her father there until he died in 1891.
There was a basket factory in Gobleville that later burned down in which my dad worked as a young man. Also there was a flour mill and a sawmill, both of which burned before I was out of high school.
Dad was a remarkable man in many ways. Although he never went to high school, he accomplished a great deal in the seventy-six years he made Gobles his home. Born a natural musician, he learned to play the violin, piano, trumpet, and drums without a single musical lesson. When spring circus time arrived, Dad, a young teenager, took the train to Baraboo, Wisconsin, to play the trumpet in the Wixom Brothers Circus Band. The circus traveled on railroad cars, and Dad had many a circus tale to tell his eight children. Mother and Dad had met at Gobles Methodist church, the church of their immediate family. We have love letters that he sent her while traveling with the circus, and they sound just like the letters you and I wrote to our sweethearts. The time came when Dad realized that if they were to marry “I had to find a new job, for circus life was no life for a young married trumpet player.
Apparently Dad thought Gobleville needed another barbershop, so he bought a set of tools, a chair, and the other necessary equipment and opened up for business. I never did hear him say how, when or where he learned the trade, but I am of the opinion he learned it as he did his music, and everything else he did. It just seemed to come naturally. Without a doubt Dad was a superior craftsman when it came to shaving and cutting hair. Men who lived in faraway cities such as Kalamazoo (twenty miles), and Chicago (one hundred miles) would wait for haircuts from him when they were going through Gobleville. Dad was my favorite barber during the forty-seven years that I had the privilege of having him cut my hair.
Our house in Gobleville was on the east side of town (410 E. Exchange St.). My dad’s grandfather, Seth Wilcox, owned and lived in the house before Mother and Dad did. They moved into the house with the understanding that they would take care of his grandfather, who died on August 7, 1903, as long as he lived (Seth's wife, Abigail Wilcox, died on April 26, 1896, and my parents were married on May 6, 1896). Then the house would revert to them. I can remember my great grandfather when I was real young – his long whiskers, tall and thin stature, and being a great walker made him stand out in my mind. Many times this granddad would start walking to some other village or city because he didn’t want to wait for the train.
After my great grandfather had passed away, the house, needing many repairs, became a building with several additions. First they finished off two rooms upstairs, which as the years passed by became the boys’ rooms because there were six boys in our family. Then we had an expansion on the back of the house that became our kitchen. I can remember the old cook stove in which we burned wood and soft coal. This type of stove served many purposes to cook on; to bake bread, cakes, and pies; and with the large basin tank on the side filled with water to wash neck and ears in warm weather or on cold chilly days. When my sisters Abbie and Donita came, which completed the family of eight children, they slept downstairs in the west bedroom off the parlor. Dad and Mother occupied the east downstairs bedroom off the living room.
We were a happy family. Mother worked tirelessly to keep us in clean clothes and food on the table. Dad spent long hours at the barbershop cutting hair for thirty five cents and shaving for fifteen cents. You realize that in the early 1900's barbering in a small farming village called for the shop to be opened at 7:00 a.m. and generally during the weekdays not closing until 8:30 p.m. or 9:00 p.m. Then Saturday was that long day when we opened at 7:00 a.m. and worked until 11:00 p.m. or 12:00 p.m. or until the last customer was served, who generally was Frank Friedman, the owner of the Friedman Department Store. After many years of barbering in the same community, Dad knew his customers and the day and about the time when they would be at the shop. There were the “once-a-weekers,” mostly farmers who came into town on Saturdays to shop, get shaved, and possibly a haircut about every other month. They didn’t mind sitting in the shop with many others, waiting their turn. Exchanging views, discussions of local and national issues, and passing the time of day were relaxation to them. Then Dad had some “twice-a-weekers,” generally on Wednesdays and Saturdays. These men were mostly from the local business group. The “every-other-day” clientele were few in number. I can recall the two doctors and two or three businessmen who were in that category.
I can still remember my first day in school. There was no kindergarten. You entered school in the first grade. My brother Monroe, a year and half older than I, was held back for a year so he and I could start school together. I never did understand why Mother thought that would be best for us. The school girl living across the street from us was several years our senior and she told Mother she would take us to school and show us where the first grade room was located. I still have a vivid picture of that room as we entered the open doorway for the first time and were greeted by the teacher. The first three grades must have been in one room because I can recall the teacher would have one grade on the recitation benches while the rest of us were in our seats. The Gobleville public schools were about one-half mile from our house, which allowed us to go home for lunch. After the other boys, Leland, Allen, Whyle, and Paul, became old enough to be in school, it was a hustle and bustle at the noon hour to eat and get back to school on time.
I had been in school about one year when I came down with what the village doctor labeled typhoid fever. I was in bed for a long time, and I can still see the water glass of medicine with a spoon lying across the top near my bed. Because of my illness, Dad had put up a bed in the parlor for me. Monroe continued in school, and when I was able to return he was in the third grade and I was in the second.
In our family, like most large families of those days, every member had a job to do. In the front room we had a large hard coal stove that had to be attended to during the cold weather, and with it the kitchen cook stove. It was Monroe’s job to keep the cook stove's ashes emptied and to maintain a full coal pail, and it became my job to do the same for the hard coal stove in the living room. There were a few times when we would forget to empty the ashes, and when he came home from work Dad would call upstairs, “Monroe, Harold – get down here and take care of these stoves!” To have to dress and empty the ashes out in front in the dirt street with snow on the ground was a good reminder not to forget too often.
As I have noted, most large families in those days had to be industrious and ours was no exception. While Dad made good wages from the barbershop there were always things that had to be bought, so I became conscious early in life of having to provide for many of my own needs. When I was about twelve years old I made chocolate fudge candy and went from house to house selling it for one penny per large square. I presume the men and women of the community bought some just to encourage me to become a worker.
When Monroe and I were in the seventh and eighth grades, Dad got us a South Haven Laundry Company route. We canvassed the village for customers. We would pick up the soiled laundry, which consisted mostly of men’s shirts and collars, on Wednesday after school. Then we got up early Thursday morning to get the laundry basket to the depot for the 8:30 a.m. train, which went to South Haven. Saturday morning the train would bring our basket back from South Haven (twenty miles) with packages of clean laundry. These had to be delivered to the houses and collections made. As in most businesses, collections were sometimes slow and there were some Wednesdays we were hardly able to pay for the previous week’s laundry bill. But people were honest in those days, as most people are today, and we eventually got our money. Living in a farm community made work opportunities possible that cities did not offer.
Memorial Day (May 30) was always a landmark in my memory. The band, under Dad’s leadership, would lead the march to the cemetery after a brief concert in front of the barbershop that was located on the only business main street. I would decorate my bicycle with red, white, and blue bunting and would ride the one mile to and from the cemetery, located south of town. Then in the afternoon there were school activities in the old opera house, which terminated the school year. Following these activities, the highlight of the Memorial Day celebration, at least for me, was a baseball game between our local boys and some out-of-town team. It might have been a Kalamazoo team or a team representing some village such as Paw Paw, Lawton, Bloomingdale, or Bangor. Memorial Day also marked the beginning of strawberry season. Dad would buy enough strawberries for one good big shortcake with the promise, “Just as soon as they get to ten cents a quart you may have all you can eat!”
Ways to make money during the summer were numerous. First, it was picking strawberries at ten cents per sixteen-quart case. A fast picker could earn as much as one dollar in an eight-hour day, but we youngsters were quite elated to do half that well. Then came the cherry-picking season: an opportunity to make extra money for the July 4th celebration. Jobs of a different nature were plentiful during July and August. One August Monroe and I worked for a farmer who had two sons who were about three years older than we were. Our job was to take a row each in the cornfield and pull the weeds. The farmer would pick us up at seven o’clock in the morning and bring us home for lunch, then back again from 1:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. I would get so tired I could hardly pull another weed. At the close of three days we had the cornfield weeded and Monroe and I were each three dollars wealthier.
A Chicago Daily News agent came to Gobles one summer day hoping to introduce that newspaper to the citizens of our community. The barbershop seemed to be the place for information. First, he wanted a boy to peddle the papers and go with him on this house-to-house canvass. I was in the seventh grade and had my eyes on the MLive Kalamazoo Gazette route, which an older boy had. When Dad told the agent that his son Harold was looking for a paper route, he immediately made me his paperboy. I can recall going with him from house to house on that hot summer day. His sales talk was, “Try the paper for one month!” At the close of the day, we had about twenty-one subscribers on a one-month trial basis. Now it wasn’t that the Chicago Daily News was such a poor newspaper, but that Chicago was so far away and the MLive Kalamazoo Gazette had become the established paper in our village. At the end of the month, my paper route dropped from the twenty-one subscribers to only three! It wasn’t long after that the Gazette boy gave us his route and for many years the Wilcox boys were the paperboys in Gobles.
By 1909 Dad had become the only barber in the village. His sister Mildred had learned the trade from Dad and handled a chair with him in the little old shop, which was housed in a small building located where the Gobles City Hall and Fire Station are today. Business had been good for several years and it afforded the financial opportunity of a larger and new barbershop as well as an addition to our house. The new barbershop building was constructed in about the middle of the block at 205 S. State Street, on the east side. In spring 1910 I helped Dad and Monroe uncrate the new chairs and equipment in the rear room. Although Monroe and I were both young, we labeled a chair as “our chair” with the view of being future barbers¾which we were. Dad taught the barber trade to four of his sons. The day Monroe started high school, he gave his paper route to Leland, and became what one might call the “prepare and finish” man in the shop. The greater percentage of the trade in those days was shaving. As I did a year later in my training, Monroe would lather the customer’s face, Dad would come over to that chair and shave him, while Monroe would step to the other chair where a man had just been shaved, wash his face, put on some lotion and then powder, shave his neck, comb his hair, and collect the money, and then prepare the next customer for Dad to shave. Saturday was always the big day in a small town, and it was true in barbering. To stand at the chair from 7:00 a.m. until 11:00 p.m. or 12:00 midnight, or until all customers had been served, was an accepted duty.
When Monroe had become proficient enough to work his own chair after a couple of years, I stepped in on the third chair and Dad started training me to be a barber. There were times during my high school life that I had to work for Dad on Saturdays and had to give up the opportunity to make the high school baseball team, which I had lived for. It was a great sacrifice. As years passed, I could see that the trade Dad had taught me had proven to be far more useful than a few Saturday ball games. After my Dad felt we had become proficient in shaving and cutting hair, which took a year or two of working under him, we went to Kalamazoo and worked before the state barber’s board to get our license. The license gave us the right to work in any shop in the state of Michigan. Monroe and I barbered our way through college. Monroe barbered his way through Boston University School of Theology, which was a three-year postgraduate course for the ministry. I barbered during the summers in Flint, Kalamazoo, Owasso, South Haven, Marshall, and Boston. One summer after I started teaching in Ferndale, I barbered in Royal Oak.
My Mother was a devout Christian and we all became members; you could say we grew up in the Gobles Methodist Church. In those days, I think more than it is today; community life centered in and around the church activities. Christmas Eve was a great occasion at the church. The large Christmas tree was well decorated with strings of popcorn, colored paper, and a few candles. People would bring some of their gifts to church and your Sunday schoolteacher made sure each boy and girl received at least one gift. I can remember there were a few adults who would put on a show in the presentation of presents. One such occasion I recall was when an organ was moved into the church by a parent and given to the daughter. Santa was always on hand to pass out the gifts. In one program I was to recite a three-verse poem. I knew all three verses, but because of excitement I left out verse number two. On Sunday evenings Monroe and I could always be found at the youth fellowship group, and then called the Epworth League. All these activities helped me to develop a greater self-confidence, and stimulated Monroe to the extent that by the time he had reached the seventh grade he had already made up his mind to become a Methodist minister, a vocation that he followed all his life. He spent forty-seven years in the Montana Conference of The Methodist Church as a very active clergyman.
The early 1900's were rather easy-going, relaxed days. Our country had not as yet reached a state of war and militarism, which was the pattern of governments in Europe. Business was good, taxes were low; the horse and buggy was still the chief means of local transportation; railroad passenger traffic was heavy; and people took time to relax, live and let live, and enjoy life. What did it matter if a customer had to wait fifteen minutes for a shave so that Dad could finish pitching his game of horseshoes, which was played in the rear of the barbershop, or if John Reigle put his son and daughter in charge of Reigle’s Grocery Store to go fishing; or if when in Myers Department Store a farmer took a couple of crackers out of the cracker barrel and cut himself a slice of cheese to sample before buying; or if the businesses closed at 3:00 p.m. on Thursdays to help support the local baseball game! There were no robberies, no killings, and people didn’t bother to lock their doors¾only on such occasions as when the telephone operator got a call from a nearby town that the gypsies were headed for Gobles! As our old family friend Bert Travis, who for many years edited the weekly paper the Gobles News, said to me after Dad’s death in 1947, “Harold, before World War I things were so different. We used to take time to play – but since World War I, it’s business first and if you have a little time left to play, you are lucky. Harold, take time to play!” Over the years that statement has become more and more significant in my life. Wars, militarism, big business, heavy taxation, and so on have all contributed to a speeded-up life, which has at times caused at least some to sing (which will always be popular in group singing), “Is the struggle and strife we find in this life really worthwhile after all?”
Dad bought a cart for Monroe and me, one with roller-bearing wheels and a wooden box. We carried the groceries in it and used it to do errands. One night Monroe and I went to the barbershop with the wagon to give Dad a ride home. The sidewalk had been made of wood in our block, but the village had torn up the wooden walk and installed cement. It was a nice smooth strip about a block long. As we came to it, Monroe and I with Dad in the wagon, really cut loose with our speed. We were about eleven and ten years old, and to race down the sidewalk with Dad as our passenger was fun. We gave him several more fast rides during our youth and got the name of “Dad’s span of bays.”
When I was about eleven years old I learned to ride a friend’s bicycle. My number-one financial project was to save enough money to buy one. We were earning money through our laundry and paper routes, but we had to buy our clothes plus our everyday needs, and we didn’t save as quickly as we had hoped to do. While sitting around the supper table talking, Monroe and I took inventory of our savings. We found I had more money than he had, but between the two of us we had enough to buy one bicycle. We agreed that he would loan me his money and I would allow him to ride my bicycle until we had saved enough money for his. It was a great day in my young boyhood life when I saw the trainman at the depot taking my shiny new bicycle crated in wood out of the boxcar, for I had ordered the bicycle from a Chicago firm. I asked the deliveryman if he would take it to the barbershop, and he did without charge. There in the back room I uncrated it and put it together. I was a proud boy riding it home for the first time. I kept it in the front room until Mother said I should leave it on the front porch. That bicycle and the one I bought three years later with a three-speed coaster brake provided my transportation until I left for college.
I never did like winter. One thing that I believe caused me to not like winter as a youth was that I didn’t have the necessary winter clothes to keep me warm and dry. Nevertheless, a heavy sweater, a cap, rubbers, and mittens made it possible for me to withstand the cold and snow, and that was about all the clothes any of us wore. Sliding down the hill in back of our house, ice skating, and riding on the runners of the bobsleds as the farmers came to and from town on Saturdays constituted the major part of our winter activities.
In the spring, summer, and fall it was outdoor life for all of us. There are many lakes within walking and bicycle-riding distance from Gobles, and the water is clear and pure. Swimming was a sport you learned early in life.
The Sunday school picnic was held at Mill Lake every summer. A couple of farmers would hitch their horses to their wagons with the hayracks bolted on. Parents and children of all ages with baskets of food of all descriptions would climb on the wagon and off we would go to the Sunday school picnic. The good Lord must have protected all of us on that day because I never remember a rainy day or a single accident. There were horseshoes for the men and baseball games for the younger groups. Many brought their bathing suits and went swimming. Of course, the big event of the day was when the food from the many baskets was placed on long tables and someone beat on the tin pan and called out “come and get it!” By four o’clock the wagons were loaded and the horses started on the one-and-a-half-mile ride home.
If I could have had my love, joy, and desire in a vocation, I would have become a major league baseball player. From the time I was a kid I was able to catch and throw a baseball; that was my greatest interest. I had fun playing catch, batting, and running from sunup to sundown. When I was in the seventh grade I played on the seventh- and eighth-grade team organized by us kids. We did not have a coach or manager; we just did everything for ourselves. We played South Haven, Bloomingdale, and Coloma as well as games with local groups. I would ride my bicycle for miles just to see a high school or independent team game. But apparently the good Lord never intended me to be a great ball player because I had a very poor throwing arm; as much as I tried to improve it each spring my arm would get sore and lame.
Basketball has always been my second favorite sport. As a seventh grader I organized our team, and we played several games with other school teams. The old Opera House was the only place in Gobles for community affairs. It housed the dances, the sports, the plays, the high school commencement activities, and what have you. It was such a busy place that we kids had a hard time scheduling it for basketball. Of course, the owner expected his fee to be paid, which came from our own contributions. My senior year in high school, the year 1917-1918, was a war year. It seemed that everything was greatly affected by the war, and my sport activities were no exception. The school superintendent, Hub Wood, told us he was busy with community war projects and had no time for basketball or baseball. Being such a sports enthusiast, I took it upon myself to organize a high school basketball team. I set up our schedule of games, got the referees, rented the Opera House for the games and practice, sold the tickets and did anything else that was necessary to make a basketball game possible. We played Van Buren County teams and did real well. Paw Paw played at Gobles in the Opera House for the county championship and beat us 18-16 in the last quarter. It was a great disappointment to me since we led most of the game and had packed the little hall with spectators pulling for us. The winter of 1917 and 1918 was a long and hard one, and considered one of Michigan’s worst. Gobles is in the Lake Michigan Snowbelt and we had so much snow that the railroad trains didn’t run for three days; schools were closed for a week, and business in general was very slow. The barber business was no exception. Monroe was in Kalamazoo College and Dad was helping to finance his first college year. With a large family to feed, there was little money to pay me for helping in the barbershop.
The railroad company needed men and boys to shovel snow off the tracks at one dollar and twenty-five cents a day. Since school was closed because of the weather, Dad’s business was poor, and I needed some spending money, I reported at the depot with a shovel to go to work. The first day was bitter cold and many of the workers didn’t come back the second day. Fortunately for me, Dad’s cousin, Elmer Howard, was working for the railroad, and he gave me an old pair of four-inch-high buckle overshoes, a heavy coat, and gloves, which kept me warm. I worked two full weeks and made enough money, with careful planning, to last me the rest of the winter.
Spring was with us and it was my senior year in high school. Dad’s business had picked up a little and he could now afford to pay me seventy-five cents a week. Dad knew that I would probably not be with him next year, so he started training Allen to work in the shop. Leland, the brother next to me, had quit high school and had gone to Jackson, Michigan, to work on the railroad. Although he was only sixteen he looked older than his age, and besides it was a World War I year during which there were plenty of jobs.
It was baseball season again and my heart and soul were centered on playing high school baseball. Other high schools were playing baseball in the County League, so in spite of our superintendent’s warning that he would not have time to coach since he served as the coach, teacher, and handyman at the school, I took it upon myself to organize a team. Darwin Brown, who was in the senior class, was the catcher, and I played first base. Bob Miller, who lived in a house next to the high school and was two years younger, played shortstop. I don’t remember the other members of our team. We played several games before Superintendent Hub Wood called me into his office for a talk. He stressed the importance of my studies and with my barber work, and thought I should give up managing the baseball team. Of course, I followed his advice and that was the end of my baseball career.
The spring of 1915 our Sunday school superintendent announced that Albion College, one of our state’s Methodist Church-affiliated schools, was sponsoring Camp Howell for boys of high school age. College seniors were to be camp leaders, and besides good food there would be plenty of swimming, sports, and fresh air activities. After talking it over with Mother and Dad, I set my mind on Camp Howell as my summer project. The morning of departure came and with two suitcases, one with my blankets and the other with my personal belongings, I boarded the train for Kalamazoo. To get to Howell, Michigan, one had to take a New York Central train from Kalamazoo to Ann Arbor, then change to an Ann Arbor R.R. train to Howell. That was quite an adventure for a fifteen-year-old boy who had never been farther from home than about twenty miles.
I arrived at Howell about 6:00 p.m. and there was no one to meet me, which was not part of the plan. I asked the station agent for directions and the location of Camp Howell. “Walk about one-half mile down the railroad tracks until you come to the road that will lead you to the lake and the camp,” he said, so with a suitcase in each hand, off I went down the tracks. As I came to that road, here came a car loaded with boys. “Are you Harold Wilcox?” the driver asked. “Yes,” I said. “Sorry we’re late meeting you, the old car wouldn’t start. Hop on and to the camp we’ll go.”
The camp was located on the fairgrounds bordering the lake. We had one of the fairground buildings for a mess hall. Since it had screens on the windows and doors to keep out the flies and bugs, I enjoyed all the meals. We slept in tents, three boys to a tent. Two boys had to sleep on the ground and one on the cot in each tent. You just know who grabbed the cot, for I never did enjoy sleeping on the ground. There were about twenty boys between the ages of fifteen and nineteen in camp. As we gathered around the campfire with darkness settling upon us, I will have to confess that a feeling of loneliness came over me and my thoughts wandered back to my home in Gobles.
Carrying a paper route, riding a bicycle, and playing games and all kinds of sports had made me run and walk a great deal. This helped to prepare me for the sport in which I was to be the most successful at camp. During the course of the ten days, we ran races on the fairground track. We started with dashes and jumps the first day and finished on the third day with the half-mile run, which was once around the racetrack. After the three days of events were over I was awarded blue ribbons for having won every single race. One of the customs of the camp was to award a boy an Indian name at the last night campfire for an outstanding achievement during the ten days. Little did I realize I had earned the honor of the Indian name “Kabato” (Indian Runner). To my great surprise and delight, the camp leader called Harold Wilcox to the front of the group and, with ceremonies, was given the name Kabato, which was to be my name at all future camps. Unfortunately, the European war was having its effects on American life, and when May 1916 rolled around the announcement came from Albion College through our church that there would be no camp that year.
That camp experience proved to be the beginning of my love for running and my track career. During the spring, summer, and fall months after the barbershop closed for the day, I would often jog down to the big oak tree and back, east of town on the gravel road, about a two-and-a-half-mile run. It was pitch dark most of the time, and it was uncommon for me to meet or pass someone with horse and buggy while I was running. This training really paid off and helped to build my physical strength for my future participation in track sports.
My next reward came at the annual Van Buren County Track and Field Meet which was held in Hartford in spring 1918. At this time it was rare for a small high school to have a track coach. A few weeks before the county meet Hub Wood would call a meeting of the older boys to ask who wanted to participate in the meet and which events each boy would enter. I had entered and won a second and third place in the dashes in my junior year, 1917. Having been running distances, I entered the quarter and the half mile, which were the longest races of the meet. The big day arrived; up early, we drove in a car to Hartford, about twenty miles away. The quarter mile was my first event. It started on the back stretch of the half-mile horse racing track and ended in front of the crowd of people in the grandstand. I got away to a good start and was leading until about the last fifty yards; a competitor came up alongside me to make a run for the finish. The track was just grass in the final yards and I slipped, fell flat on my face, and needless to say I didn’t even place in the race. About an hour later they announced the longest run of the meet, the half mile. I was confident I could win. I trailed the front boys for the first quarter mile, then, feeling the pace was too slow, cut loose and outdistanced them and won going away. That gold medal was my first and a very highly prized one. It wasn’t to be my last.
While a few of the financially better-off people had Model Ts and a very few more had more expensive cars, the old horse and wagon was still the best and most used means of transportation back in the early 1900s. It was very common for villagers to have a horse or two in the barn on the back of their property. Although I don’t know the circumstances by which he acquired it, Dad had what we called “Old Doll Horse.” The horse was stabled in a little barn on the rear of his father’s (Romaine Wilcox) property. Dad’s father took care of the horse and Dad used it when he needed it, which wasn’t too often. My grandparents Romaine and Sabrina Wilcox lived on another street north of us, and we used to cut between the houses to go by their house on our way to and from school. Granddad was blind in both eyes. He had received great damage to his eyes while working in a saw mill. Wood splinters had hit him in the face and eyes resulting in his blindness. But Granddad could walk all over town with his cane as his guide. He would come to our house almost every morning about breakfast time, which was just before we went off to school. I asked him how he knew when to turn off the sidewalk across from our house and come across the dirt street. He said there were three big maple trees opposite our house and when his cane hit the third one he knew it was time to cross the street. He had landmarks all over town that enabled him to get around and live a normal life.
Dad’s bachelor brother, William, lived with my grandparents. He worked on the railroad as a section hand. When they replaced the old ties with new ones, William would hitch “Old Doll Horse” to the wagon and haul them home. Then Granddad would saw them up into stove lengths. There was always a huge pile of neatly stacked wood for heating and cooking fuel for the house year round.
For several years each fall mother and we boys would hitch “Old Doll Horse” up to the wagon and drive about one and a half miles south of town on number 40 where there were big walnut trees lining the road. We would pick up and fill the wagon box full of walnuts, take them home, and bore holes in a large board just big enough to take the shucks off when we pounded the nut through. A basket under the board would catch the nuts. We would then put the nuts by the bushel up in the attic to dry out. During those long winter nights, cracking a pan of walnuts along with a pan of popcorn made the evening complete. I guess that is the reason that black walnut meat is my favorite.
Monday was always washday in most homes. A washday meant a completely different schedule. It was up early, eat breakfast, get the dishes done, and get the tubs, wringer, and boiler out. The cook stove was loaded with pans full of water to heat. Beans was the order for the noonday meal since putting on a batch of beans to cook was the easiest way to feed hungry kids as well as adults. Many times on the way home from school at noon, I would stop at Grandma’s house and get a bean sandwich to tide me over until I walked the rest of the way home. Sometimes she would have apple or pumpkin pie, and that was even better. Granddad (Romaine) passed away at the ripe old age of seventy-nine. I was in high school at the time. A few years later when I was in college, Grandmother Sabrina, also at the age of seventy-nine, followed him to the eternal resting place. They were both buried in the cemetery one mile south of Gobles.
In spite of Dad’s long hours at the barbershop, he always took some time to play. In my early youth dad had acquired a boat, which was docked on Lake Mill about 1 one and a half miles from Gobles. It was a nice boat, about twenty-five feet long with a canopy top. Dad put a canvas around the top so that by rolling down the canvas you could enclose it. This kept out the rain, snow, and wind. Dad was a great “steam” man. He built a steam boiler to connect the steam engine he had, and the boat became “The Cupid” owned by Tink Wilcox, called “Tink” because he was always tinkering with something. On Sundays during the late spring, summer, and early fall you could always find Dad and sometimes our whole family at Lake Mill riding around the lake in “The Cupid.” “Old Doll Horse” provided the transportation, and the fried chicken, and pumpkin custard, and apple pies that mother sat up half the night preparing tasted mighty good.
I don’t remember the exact date that Dad bought the first of the two old Stanley Steamers he owned. I was about a seventh grader at the time. He liked to talk about the advantages of the steam automobile over the gas engine, which helped make interesting conversation while shaving or cutting hair in the shop. To take a ten-mile drive on Sunday was some trip. Dad’s interest in “Cupid” waned after he got the first of his two Stanley Steamers, and the last I remember of the “Cupid” it had disintegrated into kindling wood over a period of years. After World War I, the steam automobile found competition too great and the gasoline engine car became more popular. The Dodge automobile advertised, “No new models, just a constant change for the better!” This was during the early 1920's when Henry Ford advertised the Model T, a car of any color just so long as it was black. The Dodge took Dad’s eye, and he bought a secondhand one. He then lost interest in steam, and the old Stanley Steamer stood for years beside the garage; in the end it suffered the same fate as the steamboat “Cupid.”
Automobiles were not yet very numerous. The headlights were not powerful enough to encourage people to drive at night. However, the parents of one of my chums, Darwin Brown, had a Model T Ford. He was allowed to drive the car once in a while, and on several occasions during our high school days Monroe, Steve Martin, Darwin, and I would take what we called an all-night ride. After the barbershop was closed about 9:00 p.m., we four would start off for Benton Harbor, about forty miles away. Most of the roads were graveled, and to drive fifteen to twenty miles an hour was a fast pace. After dinner at a restaurant in Benton Harbor at about 11:00 p.m., we would head back through Paw Paw to Kalamazoo, where we would have breakfast. Then it was home, arriving about 5 a.m. tired but having accomplished an adventure.
All during these years mother was busy raising a family of eight children. Although I am sure she would have enjoyed more outings and companionship with Dad, she did not complain because she was devoted to raising her family.
The barber and musician “Tink” Wilcox became known all over the county in and around Kalamazoo. For years Dad organized and directed the only community band Gobles ever had. It played Thursday night band concerts that drew people from many miles around Gobles, thus stimulating business and putting the “go” in Gobles, as J. Bert Travis, editor of the Gobles Weekly News, said. The band also traveled to South Haven on July 4th, and to many other communities for pay. Dad also organized the Wilcox Orchestra, which played for community dances in the old opera house, commencement exercises, and on many other occasions. The result of his community spirit caused a group to draft Dad to be a candidate for the school board, a position to which he was elected and served for a number of terms. My high school diploma had Dad’s signature on it as a board member. Many a night after a basketball game you could find Monroe, Steve Martin, Darwin, and I at the barbershop eating a late lunch, talking, planning, and so on. It was just clean fun when on New Year’s Eve after such a lunch we would station ourselves one at each of the two churches and two at the high school. At 12:00 midnight sharp, the bells started to ring and the people would say, “Those two Wilcox boys with Steve Martin and Fatty Brown are at it again.” But there was no vandalism or harm to anyone or anything, just clean fun. It’s just too bad that young people today can’t have the good times we had without cost or damage to anyone.
In 1917 the United States joined our allies in World War I, and this opened up a lot of good-paying jobs in the war industry. This situation stimulated a number of our high school boys to quit school and go to work. Some went to Camp Custer near Battle Creek, Michigan, to get jobs as assistant carpenters. All they had to do was keep the carpenters supplied with lumber, nails, and other materials in the building of the camp and they got big pay, some as much as fifty dollars a week. When our June 1918 high school commencement exercises took place, our class had been reduced to twelve members, six boys and six girls who made it very nice for our class skip-day. I had been elected president of the class and voted the role of salutatorian. Our class motto was one of the war-minded clichés – “Over the Top.” I prepared the opening speech of the commencement exercises, drawing a verbal picture of four years of mountain climbing, after which we had gone over the top. Rehearsals were numerous and fun. I had learned my speech well, and being the opening speaker I was sort of relieved when I sat down to really enjoy the rest of the program.
High school days were over. What next? I was broke, having bought a new suit from Frank Friedman for graduation that had to be paid for, so now to find a job. Monroe was home from college and was to work for Dad in the barbershop during the summer months. Allen was still in high school and was helping Dad at the shop; Whyle had become the MLive Kalamazoo Gazette paperboy; and my friend Steve Martin had gone to Kalamazoo a few days before commencement (he was a year behind me in school) and had found a job in the ice cream factory. That certainly appealed to me, so off I went to Kalamazoo to look for work. Steve had a room on Cedar Court just off South Burdick Street. He and I decided to share a room and cut expenses. It so happened that the ice cream factory did not need another young man of my stature, for I was only 5 ft. 7 in., weighing one hundred and eighteen pounds. I set out to canvass the city. There was a big demand for men in construction, loading and unloading, manual labor jobs, but when the employer would look at my one hundred and eighteen pound frame he would shake his head and say, “Sorry, buddy, but you are just too light.”
About 4:00 p.m. that first Monday after commencement, I ended up at the railroad station after applying for several jobs advertised in the newspaper. I was ready to go to our room and meet Steve and have dinner when I got the idea of going across the street where men were unloading boxcars, and wheeling merchandise into the warehouse with a two-wheel hand truck. I went over to where they were working and, to my great delight, saw a man who had lived in Gobles. I told him of my mission to Kalamazoo. He took me to the boss, and I was hired. I went to our room and with a happy heart told Steve I had a job and was to report for work at 7:00 a.m. the next morning. By sharing a room, Steve Martin and I paid only one dollar and fifty cents a week each. By eating at cheap restaurants where you could get pretty good meals for thirty cents, we kept our expenses low and I was able to save enough money to not only pay Frank Friedman for my graduation suit, but also to have a bank account of about sixty dollars by the middle of September.
Railroad trains had always fascinated me. I used to go upstairs at our house and watch the trains go by from the south window, since the track was only about one mile from our house with an open field between. To work on the railroad was very appealing. The men with whom I worked were very considerate of my one hundred and eighteen pounds. They would give me the lighter merchandise to truck, and when we came to a heavy piece like a stove or heavy furniture one of the stronger men would truck it. After working three days the boss called me in. “Harold,” he said, “the men have been favoring you, but after a few weeks they might not continue to do so. They need a yard clerk down at the yards and that would be a good job for you. What do you think?”
The next morning found me down at Boxford’s Yard Office with the yardmaster and clerks. This was an entirely new experience for me. You would think that a new eighteen-year-old boy coming on the job would have been given some training and general instructions. Not so with this yardmaster. We were at war, and the railroads were being pushed to their limits to transport soldiers and war materials to their destinations. It was a high-pressure job to be a yardmaster, and Hank Carney let everyone know that he was the boss and under pressure. He had a vocabulary all his own. Most of the words he used for communication were not in the dictionary and had never heard such use of four - letter words and profanity before or since. However, the other clerk, a man of about thirty years, told me to treat his talk and tongue-lashing like water off a duck’s back.
It didn’t take me long to find out that every freight car had to have a ticket to travel. The empties traveled on an empty ticket and the loaded cars had tickets that listed or described the contents of the car. A freight train would pull into the yard with about 100 cars, and the conductor would hand the tickets for his train to either me or the other clerk. It was then our job to write a number on a 4 x 4 inch card corresponding to the city the car was to be transported to. For example, if twenty was the number for Chicago, every car that was to make up a train for Chicago had to be tagged with a number twenty card. After getting our cards made out, I would go from one end of the train to the other, tacking the numbered card on the side of the car so that the switchman would know which track he was to switch that car to make up a new train. Switchmen always worked the right hand side of the train; something I found out after I tagged two trains on tracks next to each other at the same time. The switchman reported his train had not been tagged. Did that bring the wrath from the yardmaster! I was the recipient of all the profane and four-letter words he could think of.
I recall another time Hank called the Yard Office and gave me a list of car numbers with instructions to get the tickets together, stating some were empties. Not being well versed on the procedure, I made out empty tickets for all of them and took them to the Penn. Railroad office where the switchman was to take the cars. Several hours later a call came from the Penn. Office to the yardmaster about the “loads” he had just received. Where were the tickets? Boy, did I get another tongue lashing; I had forgotten to look in the “load” box and sort out the tickets of the cars going to the Penn. tracks.
We were on the job from 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. seven days a week with one Sunday off a month. I got twenty one dollars a week. We were not busy the full twelve hours since there were times when there would be two or three hours with no work, and we would just sit around waiting for another freight to come rolling in. The yard tracks were about eight hundred yards long and I got plenty of exercise running up and down those tracks looking for cars that had to be tagged.
Several weeks later I was sitting in the office and the yardmaster said, “Wilcox, you’ve been around here long enough to have learned the duties of a clerk. They need a clerk uptown at the depot. I am transferring you to the depot office.” To me that was a very welcome assignment because the yardmaster uptown, Bill Lovett, was a rather easygoing, soft-spoken, but efficient man whom I enjoyed working with. Years later he told my brother Leland, who had been transferred from the Jackson to the Kalamazoo baggage room, that his brother Harold was the best yard clerk he had ever had. Lee, the nickname we all called Leland, spent the rest of his working life in the Kalamazoo baggage room and saw passenger traffic dissolve from a very flourishing business to just a trickle over a period of forty years. Today the railroad business isn’t what it used to be with those powerful steam engines bellowing that black smoke. That made it romantic.
The work of a yard clerk afforded many amusing opportunities besides being out of doors with lots of leg exercise. There were passenger trains, troop trains, freight trains, and switch engine trains that were almost constantly moving by the depot office out of which I worked. The switch engines would haul long trains of freight cars up from Boxford yards to be switched to one of the other railroad lines running through Kalamazoo. Many times when I had a little or nothing to do I would ride the train to be switched, and would help relay signals from on top of the box cars as the train was making curves in the tracks.
One day during fall 1918 I had the opportunity to go to a movie at a Kalamazoo theatre titled “Crashing Through Berlin.” During the movie I noticed scenes that were very familiar to me, and as the story progressed I saw pictures of the Kalamazoo railroad yards and station with the Lee and Cady warehouse, which at that time was located just north of the depot. My interest grew, and behold, here was a scene of a switch train with Harold B. Wilcox on top of a boxcar relaying signals by waving his arms. Of course, I went to see the film “Crashing Through Berlin” several times after that. During my many years of teaching, my students heard about the moving picture career of their beloved teacher!
This was my first experience being away from home for a long period of time, and needless to say there were many lonesome evenings. Having my friend Steve Martin to chum around with made it easier to enjoy my work during those three summer months. However, when I saw the Saturday night train (5:45 p.m.) that passed through Gobles ready to leave for South Haven, and saw some of my high school friends who were now working in Kalamazoo boarding it to go home for the weekend, I was very tempted to be a passenger also. I could have been back on the job by 9:00 a.m. the next morning. Besides, the “uptown” yardmaster didn’t work on Sundays, and as long as I would have turned in the car check on Monday that I had to make each day, he probably wouldn’t have known the difference. However, I was dedicated to my job, for I had learned from my parents that your job comes first and must be done right. I must admit that this theory didn’t hold true in my academic work in school since I was never a very good student in high school or in my undergraduate work in college.
As the summer wore on, U.S. involvement in the war increased. The whole American economy was being geared for war. We had meatless days, sugarless weeks, and conservation of fuel supplies, as well as many other deprivations. There was newspaper talk, and Monroe was getting literature from Kalamazoo College, on the government’s plan to organize each college and university into a “Student Army Training Corps” for the men, known as the SATC. It seemed that there was a great need for more officers to command the troops. You could draft boys into the service, give them six weeks’ training in squads right and squads left, how to fire a gun, etc. and they were ready to be shipped overseas, but to train men to be officers was a much-longer and more-difficult process.