310 E. Latham, Hemet, Calif.
Oct. 9, 1951
Dear girls (1),
I told you that I was going to write you about what girls did when
I was young, nearly three-quarters of a century ago. I am starting today,
don't know when I will finish.
We were a big family(2), and the last five were
near enough of an age to be companionable. I was the middle of the five
and your grandfather was the youngest. Then we had three girls and a
boy next door(3) and two girls on the block and
two boys across the creek(4) and as we all played
together all the time we had a lively time. The neighbors had a big
lot of land, large enough for a baseball diamond and then some, so we
staked off a diamond and called in enough from other parts of the town
to keep a two-team game going most of the time. It was fun. The girls
were as good as the boys and could holler just as loud. Confined within
four walls we were supposed to be little ladies, quiet and well-mannered,
but playing outside we were a rough bunch.
Back of the baseball field, the lot led down to a swamp and a lovely
creek, Laurel Creek(5). Its banks were full of
cattails and wild shrubs draped with blue bells and wild roses and now
and then a woodbine with its slender red bells. And the water by the
shore was covered with dainty water lilies, shifting from here and there
on their brown stems. Even as children we appreciated the beauty, but
we didn't know that it harbored ague, too. The boys made boats from
time to time and we had a wharf where we tied them up and we were not
afraid to venture out in them, sometimes out on the river, a mile or
two. Every now and then somebody would fall overboard, but that meant
not going home till your clothes were dry so we were a little careful.
Our own lot ran down to the creek also, but we didn't have any way
to get through the swamp. Nowadays your kitchens are compactly fitted
in your house, but then our kitchen was out in the yard, a two-story
house with four rooms, and when the meals were served they were brought
from outside. Imagine the cooling off they got. But the hot biscuit
stayed hot and the egg bread still melted the butter and we did not
know the difference.
Christmas was a great time with us, it lasted till past New Year, and
it began in preparation at least three weeks before. We always had a
tree covered with tiny wax tapers and finery kept from year to year.
We made paper chains, strung pop corn and red Christmas berries or any
other red berries we could find. Somebody in the crowd furnished a horse
and cart and two or three of us went out in the woods to find the tree,
a great big cedar tree. Also we got cedar and holly for the church decoration6.
Then night after night we went to the school house with the grown folks
to make wreaths of cedar and holly to be draped all over the church.
We had a pretty church and after it was decorated with the cedar ropes
hanging from the choir rail and the altar rail and everywhere else we
could find to put them, it really was pretty.
I remember when I was about eight years old, on a cold Christmas morning,
we all gathered at the head of the steps in our night clothes and wrapped
around with shawls or whatever we could find while Father went down
to light the candles on the tree. Then he threw the door open and we
all scampered down, tumbling over each other. We rushed to the tree.
In some way, we each knew what was for him. I had a doll which my brother
from New York(7) had brought me. I didn't care
for dolls, but this one was robed in a gossamer, a rubber cape to you,
with a hood, I had never seen anything like it and I was pleased as
Punch. Then I sat in the corner and began to play with it. It had long
hair, real hair, and that was unusual in those days, but I didn't like
long hair, I much preferred short hair, so I cut it off to suit my taste.
When my sister saw what I had done she immediately went to my mother
and told her and then I got a spanking, even if it was Christmas day.
I didn't understand why, if the doll was given to me, why couldn't I
do what I wanted to with it, I didn't know there were any strings tied
to the gift. I puzzled over it, and I am still puzzling to this day.
Why shouldn't I fix my own doll like I wanted it?
We were boisterous children. But we amused ourselves, we had to devise
our own amusements. We slid down on the roofs of barns, we jumped out
of two-story windows and caught the branch of a tree feet away, we sprinted
over the railings of bridges about four feet high and twenty feet wide
and nobody ever fell off. We waited for the right tide to bring the
water high in the river, then got in a boat when the water was only
three inches from the bridge and had to be pushed down to get under
the bridge and nobody drowned though nobody could swim.
These things we did until we were sixteen years old, then were we ladies
and were made to give up such roughness. An uncle taught us to play
cards, whist, the forerunner of bridge, and we had card party meetings
every week. You must remember we had no movies in those days, not even
a theater, and when we did go to a play we had to go to Norfolk, and
though the trains began to run when I was a child, the trip was quite
an event, just forty miles away! I saw Joe Jefferson, Ada Rehan, heard
Paderewski and lots of good things, all you had to do was have a beau
to take you down, then I would spend the night with my sister in Portsmouth(8).
The only other form of amusement we had was dancing. My, did we love
to dance! But we had no music of our own, we had to wait until the itinerant
Italian bands came along, which was every month or so. Three-piece bands,
two violins and a harp. The underground somehow passed the word that
the Italians were here! and we all sat by the window in our own homes
waiting. We didn't have just one boy friend in those days, everybody
was everybody's friend. We had specials, of course, but they were always
changing. Remember there were no telephones in those days, you had to
get your invitation to the ball by note, and the notes were carried
by certain little negro boys. The first one that came you accepted,
then when two or three or more came, you declined with a certain satisfaction.
Then the dance! They came from Edenton, they came from Hertford, they
came from all the neighboring towns until there were about fifty couples.
You had to walk. There were no automobiles and no one used a horse and
buggy to go to a dance, sauntering down the street, slippers in a bag,
with dresses of voile or dotted mull, or organdy, for nobody had a silk
dress. I remember I had a lavender dotted mull one time, low neck and
short sleeves, but after wearing it I had to wash it and it faded, so
then I had a white dotted mull. Then another time I had a voile with
sprays of iris, with a lavender ribbon belt and a piece of ribbon going
from the front around my bust and tying in a small bow between my shoulders
with long flowing ends.
Well, when we arrived at the Albemarle House, where we held our dances,
we had to go down the lines of chaperones, about ten or more. Then we
could dance. In those days we danced the German, occasionally a Virginia
reel or the lancers, but not often. Do you know what the German(9)
is? We all sat around the wall with our partners and there was always
a leader. The band began to play, the leader called out six or eight
couples and they waltzed for a minute or two, then he blew the whistle,
and the dancer broke away and went among the sitting dancers for a new
partner. Then the leader put on some kind of fancy marching figure,
or grand right and lefts in a circle or something of that kind for a
short time, then he blew the whistle and we began dancing with our new
partners, the waltz. That kept up all evening until about two or three
o'clock. The last break, "Home Sweet Home" was played, and
if you were not dancing with your special, he was sure to break in for
the final. But the evening wasn't over for always four or five couples
went to one girl's house for supper. We sat by the lighted fireplace
and ate and talked the evening over and usually two or three of the
girls stayed all night. About four the party broke up.
But the evening wasn't over yet. We went upstairs to bed and turned
the lamp out and waited. Soon there were voices and the music struck
up. Out of bed we jumped and lighted the lamp to signal that we were
awake and sat on the floor to listen to the Italian band and to peer
out and see who was bringing the serenade. Not a care in the world,
just having a good time.
In the winter I went to visit my sister in Portsmouth. She gave me
two silk dresses. My, I was proud of them, and they were made by a seamstress,
usually I made my own. They were one white and the other pink and as
I remember she paid the seamstress as much as eight dollars. I went
to dances there at Kern Hall and over in Norfolk at the Masonic Hall.
Always having a good time, always enjoying myself.
|Souvenir of a visit to Nags Head in 1897. Mildred Vaughan Emmerson
holds her daughter Sue Barron, clustered around her are her children
Bertha and Cloyd; Annie Vaughan is the tall woman at left center;
Aunt Mary Emmerson is beside her; children Annie Mae, Mildred and
Robert Albertson surround their Aunt Marcia Albertson; the older
women at right are Susan Barron Emmerson and Aunt Annie Emmerson.
In the summer we went to Nags Head, your Nags Head. At that time there
was a three-story hotel(10) on the sound side of
the less-than-a-mile-wide strip of sand, with verandahs running all
around on all floors. I think that is burned now. When I was young we
stayed there but when I grew up there was always someone on the beach
side to visit. All day we swam or crabbed or went boat riding in the
sound or over to Roanoke Island, Virginia Dare's birth place, and the
site of the original settlement in the United States. Of course you
have heard of the legend of how Nags Head got its name(11),
but I'll repeat it. It must have been in the early days for the bankers,
that's the nickname we gave them, the people who lived there all year,
were as nice and well-intentioned as the people of our own town. Well,
here goes the legend. In the old days it was hard to make a living in
the isolated place, so the bankers schemed to attract business their
way. When the skies began to overcast and the wind slew a gale and it
began to grow dark, a lantern was fastened to the neck of an old nag
and he was paraded up and down the beach. As he shook his head and moved
along the ships out at sea saw the light and thought it was another
boat. "It is safe if another boat can ride there," they said,
so they steered that way and the next thing they knew they were aground
and the ship was lost and the cargo piled up on the shore. It makes
a good story, anyway.
Then there is another legend about Nags Head(12) which
probably you don't know. My father was a lawyer and with Dr. Pool used
to go down there to attend to their respective businesses with the bankers.
Dr. Pool had a patient once who said to him, "Doctor, I can't pay
you any money because I haven't any, but I'll give you these things
which I have in an old trunk." Then she gave him a couple of old
colonial silk dresses and an oil portrait about ten by twelve inches.
The portrait was of a very attractive young woman, dressed in colonial
evening dress, with ringlets of reddish hair about her face, I've seen
the portrait, in fact, I had it under my supervision at the Jamestown
Exposition(13). Well, to continue the story,
I'll have to tell you another story. In colonial days, Aaron Burr lived
in New York and entertained lavishly with his daughter as hostess. She
was a very popular young woman and later married Governor Allston of
South Carolina. When her father got into trouble she planned to visit
him and to try to cheer him up. She had a young son, and as I was always
told, a portrait of herself for her father. She and her young son said
farewell and set sail from Charleston to New York. They have never been
heard from from that day to this. Her father paced the dock day after
day, but no Theodosia, and Theodosia's final end has always remained
a mystery. Now, as I was told, the banker woman told the following tale
which had been handed down to her. Following a wreck on shore, among
other things, there had been the body of a young child and a young woman
who was still living, and the two dresses she gave to Dr. Pool, and
the portrait. The woman soon died, although she was cared for as well
as possible by the banker woman. Now just remember, the banker woman
didn't know anything about the story of Theodosia and her father, and
draw your own conclusions.
I had a dog when I was a young lady, Duke, a Chesapeake Bay water dog.
He was a New York prize show dog and was brought down our way by a docking
party on a yacht. But he became gun shy so they didn't want him any
longer so they gave him to a friend of mine who had a store. But the
dog was such a good watch dog he wouldn't let anyone come in the store,
so finally I became the owner. He followed me everywhere, and when I
went shopping he always came along, even if I had meat he would carry
it for me. If he saw another dog he would quietly lay the package down
and go investigate the other dog, then after he was satisfied he would
come back and pick it up and trot along by my side. When I went away
to work of course I couldn't take him, as much as I hated to leave him.
He moped around all over the house and yard for days then got so queer
he had to be shot. It almost did me up and I have never had another
pet since. It is too painful when they die.
But I'll go back and tell you a little more about Nags Head. In my
day the place consisted of just a few houses and the Hotel with a long
pier running out into the sound, and a board walk always partly covered
with sand running to the ocean side. On the ocean side there were three
frame, story-and-a half houses on the south side of the boardwalk and
about eight of the same kind of houses on the north side. Hollowell
Hill was near the sound and Engagement Hill and Jockey's Ridge nearer
the ocean. Back of these hills there was what was known as the Fresh
Ponds, a big lake of purely fresh water between the two salt bodies
of water, although the strip of land was less than a mile wide. There
was quicksand, too. I remember one day we started for the Fresh Ponds
in a wagon, four or five of us. The tide was so high we had to go inland.
All of a sudden the horse went down, as far down as his body. My, we
were a scared lot. We jumped down, not knowing whether we were going
down, too, but we didn't and somebody grabbed the horse's head and we
finally got him out. It was a scare though. We were a little distance
from Kill Devil's Hill, that was nearer Kitty Hawk, where the airplane
sprung to life. I expect where you go now is nearer there. There was
no way to get down to Nags Head except by boat from home and we went
on a little boat called the "Lizzie Boroughs" (14)
which was none too safe. It took a long time, too, about six
hours. The fishing was very good. I remember one man from Ohio who happened
to be there. He went fishing from the pier and caught fish as fast as
he could drop the line. He was disgusted. "That's no way to fish,"
he said. "To fish right you have to hang on to the line for an
hour before you get a bite! But it wasn't always as good as that.
Sometimes we went boat riding, in round-bottomed boats with one sail.
We called them canoes. Sometimes we went as far as the Inlet, about
where Sir Walter Raleigh's men came though. But the inlet is constantly
shifting. It is the oldest part of the country, as you know. There are
many historical reminders there yet. There was an old colonial house
near home that I went to see once. It had a china closet which originally
opened at the back, through which the family used to disappear when
they heard the Indians. It led into a tunnel and down to a nearby creek
where a boat was always kept for emergencies. Then there was Hayes in
Edenton, the old home of Governor Johnson, where I used to visit very
often. Also in Edenton was the Cupola House of colonial days. That also
had a china closet with a back door exit. Governor Eden lived there,
and I understand he was friendly with Teach, the pirate, and they made
use of the back china door for their communications. Teach is supposed
to have planted his loot all over the country, and many's the big hole
I've seen where even then people had dug up the earth looking for a
prize, but as far as I know, no one found anything.
Then of later vintage was Mr Terry's house (15) with
the room papered with Confederate money. And when I was a child I was
taken down to see the first steam engine steam into town. My, how I was frightened
at the engine and I can't say I've gotten over my awe of it to this
day. I don't know how many of the old landmarks are still standing,
but the countryside was filled with them in those days.
I forgot to tell you that when I visited my sister we were great baseball
fans. There were no autos, so we had to ride out on the horse cars.
Of course it was the time of the greatest heat, but I remember distinctly
one costume I wore. It was a black serge skirt, much heavier than they
have today, reaching to the ground and held up daintily by one hand
on one side, while the other side dragged on the ground and picked up
all the dirt so that when I got home, my petticoat, with its foot-wide
embroidered ruffle, was black. My waist was of butcher's linen, tan,
piped with red with the collar reaching as high as my chin, and going
up to points below the ears, fastened in the back, with the cuffs of
the sleeves so tight somebody had to fasten them for me with a shoe
buttoner, and on my head, not my head inside the hat, I wore a
red sailor hat with a crown about an inch high. Of course it had to
be anchored down with hatpins, two or three of them. I was something
to behold. Oh, I didn't tell you about the shoes. I wore high laced
black shoes and I had to be careful not to show any vestige of leg when
I held my skirt up. Well, anyhow, I enjoyed the games, and we swung
our fans back and forth and cheered as loud as anybody and I wasn't
any hotter than I was this summer, wearing as little as the law allows.
Well, we had a good time anyhow, even if our pleasures were simple.
We were all great readers and most of us could play the piano. So for
entertainment we often went to the Martins, my next-door neighbors, and
sat around and read, while one girl played the piano, there would be
six or eight of us. Then when the piano player would get tired she would
get up and somebody else would take her place. My favorite book was
"Old Fashioned Girl." I read it so often I could tell what
was on the whole page by reading the first line. We didn't have many
books. Every family had a secretary or bookcase with a few books but
they were few and far between, and of course everybody read everybody
else's book! What with buggy riding and an occasional horseback ride,
and canoeing with supers on the water and singing as we bounded over
the waves by moonlight, and fish fries on the river shore when we first
caught the fish then sizzled them over the flames of the drift wood
fire, and an occasional dance and a few card parties, that is about
all we had, but we went after it without a care in life.
Oh yes, I remember I went to New York to visit my brother in about
1896. It was a great event. Two cousins went with me and one of our
childhood friends was living there so we made the rounds of the town,
Koster and Beals, an old time show house, Keith and Proctors, another;
the Metropolitan Opera House, the Manhattan Opera House. We learned
what Tammany Hall was and saw the George Washington headquarters down
by the Bowery and even went down through the Bowery. We were small town
sight-seers and we did the part well and thoroughly.
Well, I have rattled away until I 'm afraid I have tired you. It has
been a long time and it is plain as yesterday to me and I love to think
about it all and that is my excuse for writing.
Lots of love,
P.S. I must tell you about matches when I was young. We did not have
them in boxes like you do now, they were in blocks. A square wooden
block about two inches squares. They were cut cut down straight, about
the size of a present-day match, then cut crossways, leaving an uncut
base of about a quarter of an inch. Then the tops were covered with
a sulfurous concoction and a piece of emery was pasted on the bottom
then when you wanted a match you broke it off of the block and put the
block back on the mantelpiece in a safe place.
We didn't have bath tubs or running water, either. In everybody's room
was a china basin and pitcher and a tin foot tub. And you kept the
basin filled from the pump. Many the morning I have broke the ice in
the pitcher in order to bathe, for we didn't have heated houses, either.
Lots of things we have to be thankful for now.