Did you know that today’s neighborhood kids flock to the same sledding hills as they did a century ago? And even in the early part of the last century, siblings could be a pain in the neck. But kids in today’s DC don’t spend their winter days caring for livestock or trying (unsuccessfully) to keep a pet monkey out of trouble. (But let us know if you know some who do… and want to share the story!)
Fred Rhodes (1913-2001) shared his story, Four Seasons in the Soapstone Valley, with the Historical Society of Washington in 1979, and Forest Hills Connection has been granted permission to reprint his memoir. The excerpts were selected by Ann Kessler, a neighborhood historian and frequent FHC contributor.
Rhodes’ winter recollections below bring us to the end of his tales of life at 3000 Albemarle Street from 1913 to 1926. Read about his springtime escapades, his summer pastimes, and his autumn memories.
Excerpts from Fred Rhodes’ Four Seasons in the Soapstone Valley
It used to be popular to say that the winters now are not as severe as they were when we were kids. Some of the recent winters, which I’ve found hard to take, make me avoid using that old saw. Snow removal was a problem, but it was one which the municipal government dealt with only in a partial way. Those of us who lived in remote areas could not depend on visits from the city snow plows.
Snow plowing on our side of Connecticut Avenue was done by a farmer who lived up on Grant Road. (I can’t remember his name but he lived next to the Springer Farm.) He would show up with his team of horses (whose names I do remember – because they were a well matched team of dappled grays whom he called Buck and Bob) pulling a homemade snow plow. This device was made in a shape of a “V” and consisted of two pieces of 12” x 12” timbers which were held in position by cross boards on which the farmer stood. If guiding was necessary there were plow handles fastened at the center of the rear of the plow. In those cases he would walk behind and steer the plow.
He would make two passes at our drive which would open a path wide enough for my father to get the car out. Then too he would open a path to Connecticut Avenue as he went in search of plowing jobs. The going rate as I recall was $2.00 per drive. The only time I can remember being truly snowed in was an occasion which native Washingtonians will never forget. At 4:00 P.M. on Friday, January 27, 1922, it began to snow. By 9:00 P.M. everyone knew we were in a first class blizzard. The storm lasted twenty-eight hours dumping twenty-six inches of snow on the area. As you can see this works out about one inch per hour. By any standards that has to be some sort of record. Historians say that this was the first major snow storm to hit the city since the use of the automobile.
On Saturday morning [January 28] my brother Wallace got on the phone to my cousin Paul Rhodes, who then lived on Euclid Street near Columbia Road, asking him to come out and spend the weekend with us to go sleigh riding. He had an additional reason for his urgent invitation and that was that Paul had a set of pony harnesses. Wally had in his mind that we would hook up one of the ponies to a large Flexible-Flyer sled for transportation. Otherwise we would be grounded. I never knew how Paul made it out to the house because it was not long before street car traffic on Connecticut Avenue stopped. My recollection is that it was stalled for some days. Schools were closed for a week.
Paul was not an altogether willing guest in our house. He was being forced to miss a movie which he wanted to see at the Knickerbocker Theater. Not only was he missing the feature film but also a “serial” which he had been following on previous Saturday nights. At nine-twenty P.M. the evening of January 29, the roof of the Theater fell in from the weight of the snow, killing ninety-six people. One of those who escaped with only minor injury was our family doctor – then a high school student – Dr. Edward W. Nicklas. He was seated in the last row of the balcony and was in the act of climbing over the back of his seat when he was trapped by falling debris. He, along with many others who came out of the tragedy alive – had this awful event etched into the fabric of their minds indelibly.
Wally had the task of hitching up the pony to the sled and taking my father to the Calvert Street Bridge where he was able to catch a street car to work. Drifting snow and freezing and thawing paralyzed auto traffic and caused untold trouble for public transportation.
A week off from school meant that we all got our fill of sleigh riding. One of the favorite sleigh riding areas for those who lived in the Soapstone Creek area was in the cow pasture of the Holy Cross Academy [now Howard University Law School and still a popular sledding spot]. It was located on a steep hill at whose northern border was a fence, large trees and a precipitous drop down to the Soapstone Creek. Sledding had to be done in such a way as to turn at the bottom of the pasture. During the freezing that took place that week it was too dangerous to come down the hill on sleds. Since the crust was thick enough to hold us, we slid down on the seat of our pants.
Christmas was always a big time in our neighborhood. No one ever thought of buying a Christmas tree – instead we would scout the nearby woods and find a scrub pine that had good shape. We’d cut it down and drag it home. That it was on government or private property gave us no concern. It is hard to remember when we did not have an electric train under the tree. One of the show places of the neighborhood was the Ludewig’s (4609 30th St. NW). Mr. Ludewig worked at the Bureau of Standards as a highly skilled machinist. He built a trolley which went around a circular track under their Christmas tree. The car was fashioned after one of the early Capital Traction cars which we used to ride on the Connecticut Avenue line. His two sons – Joseph who later became an Admiral in the United States Navy, and was a survivor of the attack of Pearl Harbor, and Charles – who became a Foreign Service Officer in the State Department – were proud to bring neighborhood kids into their home to see the neat outfit their father had fashioned.
It is hard to think of winter without realizing that you are penned up in the house a good bit by the weather. One of the hardships my mother used to have to endure was that my brothers and the neighborhood boys would invent games which involved crawling back under the eaves of the third floor. They would walk across the joists in the area where the attic was not floored. Seldom were these bad weather games played that one of the boys did not slip and stick a foot through the ceiling below. Thus Mr. Alfred Klessner of Hooper and Klessner – Paperhangers, 1116 H Street, N.W. – was always able to find winter work at our home.
Another winter scene that fixes itself in my memory is of the several times when we had monkeys as pets. Whether my father had a buyback arrangement with Mr. Schmid, the pet store operator at 712 12th Street N.W. I do not know. Having one of these “hard to manage” pets in the winter caused a great strain on my mother. She had floor to ceiling lace curtains at the downstairs windows. She would carefully wash, starch and stretch these on frames that had a series of pin-like gadgets around the sides. The curtains were placed on these horizontal frames to dry.
There was constant motion in our house from inside-out and from outside-in. At times when the monkey was loose someone would allow our dog, Aloyisious P. McGinnis, to sneak in and put the run to the monkey. Invariably his first route of escape would be to climb up the lace curtains in utter terror. It should be said that at times like these monkeys have nothing which resembles bowel control. As a result the affected curtain would have to come down – be re-laundered, starched and stretched again. My mother and Mrs. Secession Richardson, whom all lovingly called Sessie (she was born in the year the states seceded), would grumble over the task. My mother might put up with the monkey looking at himself in the sugar bowl on the sideboard. In his curiosity he might knock it over. Lace curtains were something else, and so back to Mr. Schmid went the offender.
Chores in the winter were also a problem. Wally had the milking to do while I had to feed the animals and clean the stables. I’m sure I was supposed to wear overshoes over my school shoes. This was a lot of trouble so I never wore them. My mother was so busy getting everyone going in the morning that she could not check up on me. That my feet would smell of stable was only part of the story.
Wally always had trouble staying awake and when he was milking was no exception. In order to keep his attention focused on what he was doing, occasionally he would squirt milk from its source against the light bulb to watch it steam. He used to brag that we had frosted light bulbs in our stable long before they were invented. Another of his “stay awake” tricks was to try to squirt milk on me as I went about my chores. More frequently than not he would hit his mark and my sweater would absorb the warm fresh milk which soured as the day wore on. In large school rooms I might get away with the severe odors I bore. When we were in the temporary buildings at the rear of the E.V. Brown School I must had been exceptionally hard to take. There was a large coal stove in the middle of the room which heated the building and it always seemed too hot. It is a wonder that any of the kids in my class spoke to me then or now for being guilty of wafting such alien odors through the classroom.