Once upon a time, about this time of year, the children were looking forward to that long, wonderful summer vacation. It was a different world. In those days, we had neighborhood schools, and I still think that was the best system we ever had.
I lived on Cliff Place and went to Hobart Avenue School. There were four grades, and then, in the fifth grade, we went to Broadway. There were major schools that took the children from fifth and sixth through the eighth grade, but the neighborhood schools took care of the children through kindergarten, first, second, third and fourth.
It was a time when there was not one single school bus in the City of Norwich. The young children walked to the neighborhood schools, and then, when they got to the fifth grade, they walked a little further. In my case, I walked to Broadway School. I would walk home to have lunch and walk back to school after lunch. Everybody went home for lunch from all the big schools and little schools.
There was a two-room schoolhouse in East Great Plain where they now park cars for the volunteer firemen. The children from East Great Plain would later have to walk to Elizabeth Street School which, like Broadway, was a big school. Other big schools were Greeneville and Samuel Huntington.
There were a few intermediate schools. Laurel Hill and Broad Street were pretty good-sized schools, but then June rolled around, the schools would close for the summer. All of the children were active all summer long.
As I look back, there were so few automobiles, we were able to play in the streets. The boys played stickball. The girls would play jump rope and hopscotch.
It was rare that an automobile would interrupt our play. In fact, at Christmastime, when we would have snow, you could slide down all the big hills without fear of any automobile traffic.
Looking back, the thing that changed the lifestyle of this country and the world most was the automobile. Before World War II, maybe one family in 10 had a car, and people would all live downtown in the neighborhoods of Broadway, Washington Street, Franklin Street and Boswell Avenue, not to forget the East Side, West Side and Laurel Hill. You knew all your neighbors, and as you would walk downtown, there would usually be someone on the porch for you to talk to.
At the end of Park Street, across from the Elks, was one of Norwich’s first supermarkets, the A& P. It was built where once stood a most beautiful mansion that served as the office for Connecticut Light.
It was a big beautiful house with a wall and wrought iron fence. That fence, in the summer would have more roses than any I have ever known in Norwich.
In those days, an ice cream cone was a nickel, and while we didn’t have one everyday, there was a group of us boys who would make our way down to George Wallen’s bus terminal, next to the post office, for an ice cream.
Off to the Park
During the day, it was not unusual for many of the boys to walk to Mohegan Park to go swimming. I can’t imagine any children today walking the three or four miles that we would often in the summer.
It is hard to believe, but I recall when many of the little dead end streets in Norwich were unpaved. They were actually dirt paths, and it wasn’t until after World War II that Cliff Place was tarred. Before that, the four houses on Cliff Place had a road of clam shells, and those unpaved streets were never plowed in the winter. But why would they plow them? There were no cars to speak of.
I remember, during those summers of the 1930s, when the world was suffering that horrible Depression, that there were wagons, horsedrawn, that would visit the neighborhoods almost weekly— some several times a week.
The farmers would bring vegetable wagons to the neighborhoods, and women could buy lettuce, tomatoes, and all the wonderful vegetables that were grown in Norwich, Preston and Franklin.
In East Great Plain, where today it is still a fast-growing housing area, there were once big farms — Malerbas and Deutches. The O’Neill farm was where today’s McDonalds, Dunkin’ Donuts and the Backus Hospital Branch is.
There were the Blackers, and the Zachae brothers, Paul and Ernest, had a big potato farm where today Nordon Village sits. During World War II, I dug potatoes for one day and for a full day’s work was paid $1.50. I only did it one day, because it was very hard work in the hot sun, and I just wasn’t cut out for it.
Back in the ‘30s and through most of the 1940s, all of the grocery stores were downtown. There was Ferry Brothers, the Mohican Beit Brothers, A&P and First National Stores. People would walk downtown almost daily, and in my case, my mother would take me with her to help her carry the bags home. You shopped everyday because there was no refrigeration. For that matter, no air conditioning, no television, no computers.
We would listen to the radio, and then, of course, on weekends everybody would go to the theaters for a children’ matinee. There were three active theaters in those days— the Palace, the Strand (affectionately known as the “Scratch House”) and the Broadway Theater across from City Hall. I believe that movies were 10 cents and 25 cents at night.
For the most part, they were simple movies where good was rewarded and bad was punished, and where the script had absolutely no profanity. You couldn’t as much as say “damn” or “hell” in those days, but there were a bunch of continuing short subjects that all children looked forward to seeing — “The Lone Ranger,” “Zorro” and “Tarzan.”
Less Healthy Now
We all would go home when the street lights went on, and I think our activity all summer and all winter was healthier.
Today’s children play video games, and I don’t think they get enough exercise.
When we went back to school, it was always an adventure, and the teachers were so caring. I suffered dyslexia. I couldn’t read and I still can’t, but in those days they knew nothing about that. I was thought to be slow, lazy or more correctly, stupid. When I joined the Marine Corps, some years later, and had trouble with the rifle, the Marines discovered that I suffered from dyslexia.
I can’t help thinking that our whole society would be better today if there were no cars, if we knew our neighbors, our shopping was done downtown, and the suburbs were farms instead of shopping centers and housing developments.
Very often I guess old guys like me think of what once was and feel sorry for the children today because they will never know the pleasures of growing up in Norwich so many years ago.
Bill Stanley’s prize-winning, latest book, “The 9-Mile Square,” is available at Lawrence 7 Memorial and Backus Hospital gift shops, all branches of Dime Bank, Chelsea Groton, Eastern Federal, People’s Bank, Johnson’s Flowers & Gift shop in Norwich, Wonderland Books in Putnam, or credit by calling 1-800-950-0331 .