Hard times at the little house on Brokaw Road

George Brown
By George Brown

It was a cold but sunny Saturday morning in late March when I awoke and went downstairs – two months before my ninth birthday.

Instead of the usual morning chores, I found Mom busily packing boxes and my Stepdad hurriedly loading them in the car. He had hooked an old trailer to a bumper hitch on the car to pack the larger items like headboards and bedrails, dressers, and the electric range. I couldn’t help but notice they were leaving some of the larger and nicer pieces of furniture, including Mom’s fancy buffet cabinet and the antique Victrola and records she loved so much. Without being told I knew leaving these would help cover the past due rent that wouldn’t be paid.

Our job as kids was to stay out of the way until it was time to leave. Knowing this would be our last day on Chestnut Ridge we passed the time exploring our favorite trails and hiding places in the woods one last time, occasionally stopping back at the house to monitor the progress of the move.

Toward evening Dad and Mom returned for the last load, which was mostly us kids. We all loaded into the car and headed up the lane, leaving the old farmhouse on Chestnut Ridge for the last time. Just like the Walls children and their Mom and Dad in the “The Glass Castle,” we were once again “doing the skedaddle.” I loved everything about our home on Chestnut Ridge, including my best friend at school, but this was my ninth time to do the skedaddle so I didn’t spend much time feeling sorry for myself. By the time we reached our new home I had fallen asleep and Dad carried me in and laid me on a pile of clothes to sleep until morning.

In the daylight of Sunday morning I could see we had moved from good times to hard times. The little house on Brokaw Road, with its block foundation and brick patterned asphalt siding, was built on the slope of a hill. It had two small rooms upstairs and one on the lower level, but there was no stairway to the lower level. To get to it you had to go out the front door, walk down around the house and enter a walkout basement door. The room on the lower level had a wooden plank floor and the block walls had been painted, which qualified it as living space.

Mom and Dad made the smaller room on the main floor their bedroom. It had no door so they draped a curtain across the opening for privacy. The room was just large enough for their double bed, a dresser, and a night stand and lamp – and, oh yes, Mom’s chamber pot, which she placed in a corner of the room. I remember taking my turn carrying that pot out to dump its contents down the hole of the outhouse, which to this day makes me especially thankful for indoor plumbing.

We were accustomed to having an outhouse but the one we found on Brokaw Road had seen its better day. It leaned to one side, which made the door hard to close all the way, and worst of all it was full. Dad dumped a bag of lye in it right away, but that didn’t help much. Within a month he had built a new three-seater on the other side of the yard. Upon its completion he set a torch to the old one. I don’t have to tell you that was some bonfire.

The larger room on the main floor served as the living room, family room, and kitchen – which amounted to placing a range and a refrigerator on one end of the room beside the kerosene heater, our sole source of heat. The room also served as the bedroom for us four kids, with a double bed placed in a corner.

Dad soon remedied this problem. He bought some sheetrock and two by fours and built a small bedroom on the opposite end of the room from his and Mom’s bedroom. Our new bedroom was narrow, maybe seven feet wide, and a curtain was hung over the open doorway. Rather than all four kids sleeping in one bed, Dad built a set of quadruple buck beds from floor to ceiling on one wall. He added a small storage box at the end of each bunk for our school books and other personal items. This left room for a four-drawer dresser at the end of the room, which worked well because one drawer was all we each needed to hold our clothes.

To make the four bunk beds fit Dad built the lowest buck almost on the floor. None of us could sit completely straight up in bed and the headroom of the top bunk was narrowest of all. As the youngest and smallest child, I got to sleep there. That suited me fine, but it sure could get hot up there in the summertime.

Early the next spring Dad moved the kitchen range, refrigerator, table and chairs, and a cabinet for dishes and food to the room on the lower level. It served as a cool and comfortable summer kitchen until late fall when everything was moved back upstairs. This was the routine for the three summers we lived on Brokaw Road. Dad and Mom spoke of cutting a hole in the floor to build a stairway to the lower level but it wasn’t heated, and I don’t think they wanted to lose the floor space that installing a stairway would require.

Mom and Dad did the best they could to make the little house comfortable, but there was one big problem for which there was no easy solution. There wasn’t a drop of running water on the property – no cistern, no spring, not even a well with a pump in the backyard. Dad did try digging a cistern to catch rainwater, but it was never anything more than a muddy hole in the ground at the corner of the house, which we kids played in when it rained.

But Dad had a solution for this problem too. He traded his 1949 Ford Custom for a 1951 Chevy pickup truck, which would hold six 10-gallon milk cans. At least once a week, and sometimes twice, for the next three years Dad made the fifteen minute trip to an open spring on the side of the road on Route 97 just outside Mohican State Park to haul water for washing dishes, for the ringer washer and for weekly baths. For our daily drinking water we kids took turns – winter, spring, summer, and fall – hiking the quarter mile path to our neighbor’s house to fill water buckets at his spring.

Despite our humble circumstances at the little house on Brokaw Road, we managed quite well. Dad worked hard at Bernie’s junkyard for a meager wage that covered most of our basic needs. Although, I do remember carrying mustard and sugar biscuits to school a few times and trading them with other kids for their peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. We were fortunate that my Stepdad’s Mom, Grandma Mary, was the custodian at the Salvation Army in Mount Vernon. She kept us in clothes and made sure we had food baskets at Thanksgiving and Christmas – and toys too.

We kids were free to roam the countryside for miles around, and during the summer we spent almost every Saturday and Sunday fishing and hiking all day at Mohican State Park, and sometimes camping just upstream from the bridge on the banks of the Clear Fork River.

When I turned 12 we moved to town. Life changed a lot as I entered high school and eventually went off to college, but I’ll always remember with some fondness both the hard and good times we had at the little house on Brokaw Road.

George Brown is a freelance writer. He lives in Jackson Township.