In the fall of 1937 I entered the second grade at Grove Street School. My teacher was a young, new teacher and Spencer native by the name of Miss Margaret McQuaid. I don’t remember too much about the second grade. I guess that I was a decent student and my school year was uneventful. (Incidentally, Todd and Keith, Miss McQuaid’s brother, Frank, though he did not graduate, attended Syracuse University in the 1920s. Frank McQuaid married Miss Rachael Dufault, who was my grammar school art teacher.)
One day as I was walking home from school, Dad picked me up in his first brand-new car. It was a 1937 Hudson Terrraplane, with tin instead of cloth upholstery on the inside of the doors. Did I think that car was the cat’s meow? The car before the Hudson Terraplane was a 1930 Essex that I guess left a lot to be desired.
Life moves on that year. The Kimball family, who lived above us on the second floor at 48 Cherry, moved to one of the yellow houses on East Main Street, across from Frank Kimball’s job at Sibley Farms (now Ragsdale Chevrolet). Uncle Nathan and Aunt Gertrude and baby David move from Phillip’s on lower May Street, to the apartment above us. The Spencer Savings Bank sold 48 Cherry Street to Wilfred Cournoyer, who had a market on Chestnut Street, but had started to speculate in rental property. (Wilfred Cournoyer was the grandfather of Bobby and Steve Kowal, and Jimmy Latour.) One of Mr. Cournoyer’s (whose nickname was “Beaverboard”) first projects was to convert the barn in the back of the house into apartments. Maybe the time was coming to relocate, but not for a little while.
The family business is beginning to do a little better. Mother stays in the store, and Gertrude comes in to work even though most of her time is taken up with her infant son. Dad and Nathan peddle on the road to the outlying towns. Dad covers North Brookfield, South Barre, Gilbertville, and West Warren. Nathan covers the Palmer villages of Thorndike, Bondsville, and Three Rivers. Civin’s Specialty Shop is supporting two families -- not lavishly, but we are all eating. Don’t forget, this is still the depression.
I also start to go on the road with my father on Saturdays. What fun it was for me! We would start in North Brookfield, then go on to West Warren. Most of Dad’s customers on that route were Polish immigrant farmers and mill workers. I used to marvel at the way my father conversed with his customers in Polish. I guess I forgot that he came from the same part of the world they did, though I think he most likely spoke Yiddish in Russia, not Russian or Polish. It was on these Saturday trips when my Dad used to tell of his days in France with his 306th Infantry. I knew, when I grew up, that I was going to be a soldier just like my father. Lunch was always brought from home, eaten by the side of the road, but the day always ended with a treat at Tony and Annie Holda’s Diner in West Warren.
There were many places around Spencer that a boy could enjoy on a warm day — but not Peloquin’s Beach. “No Dogs, No Jews, No Niggers Allowed” was the policy of this beach, located on the south side of Lake Whittemore, in back of where the Dairy Queen now stands. Peloquin’s bigotry hurt me a little bit when I was a kid, but it could have been worse. I still had a place to swim and picnic with my family, in Luther Hill Park. This park was a beautiful place, with tall pines, picnic tables, and stone fireplaces.
Disaster stuck in September 1938, when the Hurricane of 1938 destroyed (among other wonderful things and precious people) Luther Hill Park and every one of those beautiful pines. What a terrible hurricane, one of the worst storms of the century! One of the two big pine trees adorning the side of our sidewalk at 48 Cherry Street fell. I remember the morning after the storm, climbing over trees lying across Irving Street. One of the tragedies of that day was the death of a farmer by the name of Rich. (Remember that there were no warning systems in those days.) Mr. Rich’s farm was where Bob Welch’s house is on Greenville Street. During the storm he noticed that his cow barn was about to blow down. He ran into the barn and tried to hold it up so his cattle could get out. He was successful. However, the barn however collapsed on him, taking his life.
After the hurricane, my parents, Uncle Nathan, and Aunt Gertrude decide that it was time to look for a home to buy. During the winter of 1939 they found a vacant Victorian house at 26 High St. It was owned by Richard Sagendorph, the son of Arthur and Martha Sagendorph -- who owned the mansion at the bottom of High Street -- and the grandson of Noah Sagendorph. Noah had the house built in 1876 and moved in with his bride, the former Emma Sugden. Emma was the daughter of wire manufacturer Richard Sugden, who generously donated the library to the town. The Sagendorph family in 1939 owned Alta Crest Farms, a beautiful 1,000-acre spread, where they raised Ayshire cattle. Richard Sagendorph lived on and managed the farm. Alta Crest was purchased by the Trappist order in the 1950s, and is now St. Joseph’s Abbey.
Uncle Nathan and my father went to the Spencer Savings Bank and asked for a $2,900 mortgage, the price Dick Sagendorph was asking for the house. Mr. Walter Prouty, treasurer and manager of the bank, denied the mortgage, saying the house had been vacant for a long time, was in disrepair, and was just a bad risk. J. Henri Morin was on the Board of Directors of the Southbridge Co-Operative Bank. My father went to see J. Henri Morin to see if he could help. Morin called his bank, and a 12-year mortgage was secured for the house at 4%. Thanks to their friend, Henri, the Civin and Israel families were now homeowners. I am told that, back in those days, many families who could not secure mortgages from the very conservative Spencer Savings Bank secured their mortgages through the Southbridge Co-Operative Bank, thanks to Henri Morin.
We all moved onto High Street in March 1939. The house was a mess, with broken windows from the hurricane, and an accumulation of dirt and grit that had collected from many years of vacancy. There were downed trees everywhere. A small orchard, completely destroyed by the hurricane, had occupied the backyard. Everybody’s work would be cut out for him or her for some time. But, it wasn’t all grim news. As Dad was cleaning up fallen limbs in the side yard, he was chopping up the magnolia tree that was lying on its side, a victim of the storm. As he was about to pull up one little sprig left in the ground and was still growing, my mother walked by. She said, “Oh, don’t pull that up, let it stay.” Thank you, Mother, for the spectacular magnolia tree. It has been a joy for over 60 years.
The house was very much in need of paint, and much work and cleaning had to be done on both the exterior and interior of the property. Nathan, Gertrude, and David lived upstairs. A kitchen had to be put in up there, and the walls plastered in that area. They used the beautiful front staircase to access their apartment. The only difference on the outside of the house is that the windows have shutters. The shutters were removed a few years later, because they rattled when it was windy. They are still in our possession, stored in the attic. A big coal boiler in the cellar did heating. Hot water had to be heated on our kerosene stove. When we took our baths, mine was on Saturday night. Dad heated a big tub of water in the kitchen, and carried it into the bathtub in the bathroom. On cold winter nights he used to heat bricks in the oven, wrap the brick in a towel, and place the brick under the covers of my bed to keep my feet warm.
Being the spring of the year, a large vegetable garden was planted. My mother planted just about every vegetable that could be grown locally. We even had watermelon and cantaloupe. We had blackberry bushes, currant bushes, and an herb garden. My mother canned a big enough supply of vegetables and fruit to last us most of the winter. Father made great pickles in a crock, using dill from mother’s herb garden. The crock my father used is on the floor in our kitchen. Oh yes, flower gardens; they became grandma’s love until she was close to 80.
Next to the house there was a barn of the same architecture, even with the same rod-iron gingerbread. It was two stories high, with stables and a place for carriages on the first floor. On the second floor there was a complete theater with a snack stand and projection box for the movies. A few years later Bob and I raised Rhode Island Red chickens in the basement of the barn. We even peddled eggs in the neighborhood and joined the 4-H poultry club. A young poultry farmer headed the club by the name of Eddie Thibeault, Sr.