Oral History Interview for East Falls Historical Society
Interviewee – Anne Leonard Hollingsworth Arfaa
Interviewers – Ellen Sheehan and Frankie Jueds
Date: August 14, 2017
Place: Falls of Schuylkill Library meeting room
This is Ellen Sheehan and Frankie Jueds recording an oral history of Anne Arfaa at the Falls of Schuylkill Library on August 14, 2017.
Where were you born?
I was born in the Woman’s Medical College Hospital on Henry Avenue in 1939 on the 30thof April between 7:00 & 9:00 pm. My parents were living in a rented house across from the Wagner Free Institute of Science on North Philadelphia. We lived in that row house until my father brought a house on Timber Lane which is off School House Lane in East Falls. He brought the house in 1942 from John Wagner. The house was originally in the name of John Wagner (1824-1902). His son, my great great uncle was the founder of the Wagner Free Institute of Science. He grew up in that house and I grew up in that house. I moved there when I was 3 and I had my 4h Birthday there.
Did you have siblings?
I have a sister one year younger. Just my parents and sister and we did have folks who came in and helped. There is a ghost story about the house. It was originally a farm house I believe, built for people to go to during the Yellow Fever epidemic in Philadelphia. A big wing was built across the back, a big tower, and there was a closet closed off at both ends and had once been a balcony and the story was when we were little we use to say “There is some body walking in there” and the thing was, that there was so much in there – it was chock-a-block, you couldn’t get a mouse in there. We also had a guest who would say, “we could hear something.“ So the story was that it was a Prussian soldier who died there. Of course, he got buried somewhere else but my mother had a priest come, an Episcopalian priest, who came in and exorcised the room and ghost and we never heard anything again.
This house had a big porch and a mansard roof. It had many additions. The screened porch was on the side and you could sit out there even in January and if it was a hot day you could just sit out there. We used to roller skate on the front porch which unfortunately is no longer there. We would hang out in the woods under the Henry Avenue Bridge. We use to think there were mummies in there (which there are not). There was a stream in the back of our house and there was a spring house on the property across from the stream which we called “four corners” but I am not sure if that was the real name. We could walk down in the back of our house and there used to be a dam across the stream but is was no longer operational. We would sneak to the back of the house across the stream at night just a very big deal. We had a Victory Garden during the war and I remember going down and eating strawberries. I should have brought them up to the house.
Do you remember any neighbors who lived there?
If you go up towards School House Lane, my cousin, Sarah Evans, and her husband, Tom lived there in the house next to ours and the house just beyond that was John and Marjory Wagner, also cousins. That house was on School House Lane. We would visit sometimes. They were a lot older. If we went to the movies in town on the “A” bus, we could go at the age of maybe 12 or 13. We got off the bus on School House Lane and then we would go through all the backyards to get home. We would leave the bus and go through family land to get home in the dark.
Where and when did you go to school?
I went to Ravenhlll at age 5 which in the 40’s had Montessori education which everyone’s forgotten (that Montessori was there in the 1940’s) They had the Sisters of the Assumption, and they all wore beautiful plum colored habits, so I have been fixated on that color ever since. Those were the technicolor years of my schooling because we had Montessori which meant we had choices about what we did. I started piano lessons there when I was 5 in a parlor. There was a sliding door in the mansion and when you opened the door there was another parlor beyond with a tiger skin rug on the floor. (“The Tiger Parlor”) Cardinal Dougherty was a patron of the school. We were having class in the parlor in the mansion and across the hall was a beautiful dining room with gorgeous furniture and the table seemed to have crystal. There was a bathroom and you didn’t need permission to go to the bathroom and I remember the beautiful molding in the room. I must have spent a lot of time there. Some kids, my sister and I had Montessori there in that room because it was non-graded – first, second and third grade was together and I was there through 3rd grade.
I have wonderful memories of going to the Grotto and their idea of religion was to go and sit by the roses to learn about God. I remember the roses and singing in the Chapel because by 2ndgrade I could read music. I remember the St. Gregory missal which was blue and chunky. I had my first Confession there which I remember was confessing about talking to my sister because I got into trouble about that.
Do you remember any students?
I remember “Bunny” with long braids. We had a Halloween party at my house and I was a black cat. Pat Mayor was a year behind us in grade but was in the same class, - I had a crush on Bunny because of her long hair. I remember Aideen O’Malley who was older. There was someone named Phyllis, who looked like my grandmother. She was a senior and I remember her. I remember Sister Rose (Agnes) was a postulant there and when I taught at Ravenhill years later she came back to be Head for a year or so. There was a glassed-in porch that went around from the big parlor, it’s gone now. There was an older girl, I think she was Scandinavian. She had blond braids all the way down to her feet.
Do you remember the Von Trapp girls who went to Ravenhill?
For all I know she could have been a Van Trapp. We all had uniforms. Mine was a dark blue with medium blue blouses. I also wore a pink tutu with I was a ca t in Peter and the Wolf. We had ballet classes there too. I did not do anything that required athletic effort except for the swings.
How long were you at Ravenhill?
I went through the 3rd grade. I loved it. I never knew why they moved me. They didn’t ask you in those days. They sent me off to Melrose Academy. Let me tell you for many, many years after Ravenhill I had what you call a “Gray” Education because those Montessori years were wonderful. Because I have learning differences I am sure that had something to do with it. I did go back to Ravenhill to get my Montessori training and I sent my children there as little people. I taught there the last three years before it closed. It is a big part of my past. I remember the beech trees. Even now when I go back it is like a home coming place for me, Ravenhill.
Do you remember a Summer House on the grounds?
The only thing I remember of the buildings was Milleret Hall, an addition were the Montessori baby classes were, when my kids went there. Another building had a stage in it and my kids had Christmas plays there. From when I was a child there, I remember lockers down in the basement right off the gym. I remember walking through the Arcade to the Chapel. Up the steps was a kitchen where we had cooked lunches there. With real chocolate pudding and whipped cream. One of the nuns was Mother Sanders who was a connection of my father’s family, not a blood relation. I use to visit her in her parlor.
After Ravenhill how long did you attend the Gray Sister at Melrose Academy?
Four years. I don’t remember much about it except in 6th grade I beat up Ralph and then I had to stop being a Tom Boy. I also got a sewing prize so I was a tom boy who could sew.
Sew up the stitches needed!
I did play the piano but I never played Bach well. So after that for 8th grade I went to Greene Street Friends. Again I don’t know why. I did have a year of Quaker Meeting. Frankie Jueds was in my class there. That’s a whole story because she lived nearby on Warden Drive and we could get together and talk.
What about High School?
I was shipped off to Scared Heart in Overbook. My father use to drive me there until I could drive. We came home by 2 buses and a trolley. My sister was with me. Finally I did drive an “Anglea” an English car that belonged to my grandmother. It used to live in a barn so it smelled of goats.
Your grandmother was still living?
My grandmother was still living. My great-grandmother died when I was 14. My grandmother was Emily Wagner Beard and my great grandmother was Ann Leonard Wagner. There is a straight line. I am the 5th Anne Leonard. We go way back. Anyway, my grandmother, I would go see her in Chester County. I had this car. The first day I drove, I was a junior, going all the way from East Falls. It was sleet, and school was closed when I got there. High school was interesting but I didn’t fit in. I fit in much better in the Montessori environment. Plus I am a city person. That was the suburbs. I did get an essay prize, I remember. I guess I played wing in the JV’s, but I didn’t like it. I sang in the choir, and that’s it.
After High School?
After High School, I went to Newton College of the Sacred Heart for a year. You had to be in your room by 10:00 unless you signed out for the community room which was a smoker (thank you very much) I did well because I couldn’t get off the place. I had A’s and B’s but I do have learning differences. After a year I didn’t like being confined. It was a very narrow environment.
I transferred to Penn and really had fun. I went to class and did plays and was a creative writing minor and an English major and didn’t know that I had a learning problem until later. My papers were late but I got A plus in my fetal pig dissection in Biology. B’s for other things except creative writing and some English courses. But I lived on campus and I got to be in musicals and writing. I had really excellent professors. In the senior courses I got to know Yeats.
I was a member of a sorority – we called them fraternities even for the girls at Penn. I got the prize – a book – given by one alum every year for the girl who was different. I guess what I liked about Penn was meeting all kinds of people. There were lots of Jewish boys. Catholic girls dated Jewish boys and life got more interesting.
After that I didn’t know what to do. I got a dumb summer job and ended up in a Master’s program in the University Museum and that was in the day when connections got you in. I never would have gotten in otherwise. I took Archology and Anthropology classes. I went for half a year and then I couldn’t hack it. That was the learning difference but I didn’t know it. I was working 20 hours in the University Museum under Bob Dyson, which was wonderful. He was a wonderful teacher. I was inking pot shard drawings from Hasanlu in Iran which means they would come back on vellum and would be in pencil and somebody with good accuracy, which I did have, would take a rapido-graph and trace everything accurately which I did. I did a few site plans. Then I decided mid-year that I really shouldn’t take this masters any more. I transferred to join the English Department. Then I met my husband in around there. Actually, he is from Iran. We got married and had 2 kids in 2 years.
How did your grandparents come to have this property?
My mother’s side - both families have been in Philadelphia for a very long time. The Hollingsworth’s’ side was a Quaker out of England to Ireland to Delaware and in this area forever. On my mother’s side where I came to have that house there was a Wagner who came over from Southern Germany. He was a preacher of some kind and his forbearers were in the University of Tubingen. Anyway he was upstate at a church but didn’t stay here. He went back to Germany but his children stayed here. That is the Wagner line that I am from. I know that my great-great uncles were in the spice trade and that is where the Wagner’s Spices came from. We do not own that now.
Originally I can say that the house I lived in was the Wagner family house. There were six kids so I would have to get out the family tree. Because they had lived in town as lawyers, merchants, people like that, they had a place out here for where the air was better. It was acquired, from I don’t know who originally, because of the Yellow Fever Epidemic. The father of the founder, William Wagner, the founder of the Wagner Free Institute and all his brothers lived in that house. My mother who was a descendant of Samuel Wagner who was a great - great nephew of William Wagner whose father owned the house I lived in.
My father and mother brought that house from John Wagner whose dates were 1863-1940 and the owner before that was another John Wagner and his dates are 1824-1902. That is what I know. There have been Wagner’s living there all that time but again I need to research that. We had these 2 cousins between our house and the Evans house and she was a Wagner connection. Right up to School House Lane.
How many acres?
Four acres. The house I grew up in. It was called Wagner’s and was off School House Lane. My mother didn’t drive so the yellow taxi knew “Hollingsworth’s house.” My mother’s married name. They knew Roger Hollingsworth lived in that house from 1942 until the house wasn’t sold in the 1970’s sometime to the Baylson’s. (Michael/Frances/Todd). The address is 4111. It didn’t have an address than it was just off School House Lane. Our telephone # was Germantown 8030.
How many houses were on Timber Lane then?
On the right there were no houses. Until you got to Berger’s house which was built after we moved in. The only house I remember there would have been the Evans house and then next to our house and behind us was a barn and the Walkers brought it. I remember looking in and seeing an old sleigh. There was a renovated chicken house in the back. The Kimmels lived there. Back across the street from us was Ben Gimble and next to him the Montgomery’s, but they built after. When I was first there it was the Milne estate foundation where Dr. Morani lived. When I was living there it was just a column and stone steps. There were very few houses there when I was little. I remember people on the left as you come in the lane. He came and shot our dog. He was not a nice man. My dog played with Ben Gimble’s dog who was large and a Great Dane. But our dog was brighter, a bull terrier, and dogs just roamed around in those days so the man Bowman just shot our dog.
What do you remember about Ben Gimble?
He had a huge record collection. For a house of that size he did not have a pool. But he had famous people stay there like Bob Hope. I went and hung out with the help, who were really nice. He was very friendly and so was his wife, Jesse, she was very nice. I left to go to college and didn’t live there after 1961.
Do you remember it as being a happy place?
I loved being in and out of the woods. I loved the sounds of nature and storms and running in the rain. During the war my cousin Sammy, who was my age lived there. We had playmates. We were in the city but it seemed like the county.
What do you remember about the village of East Falls?
The village - I remember the big hardware store on the Ridge and St. Bridget’s and passing Mifflin School. There was a movie theater down there (the Alden) and a really good mechanic who tried to fix my father’s Jag mostly it just sat there and looked at you. At first when we moved there it had just a house but then we had this big garage. I remember walking down Vaux St. and there were some things in the road that you wouldn’t want your children to be looking at. Eventually you figured out what they were. When the trains came through, I used to dream that the train would come through to the middle of our house but it didn’t climb the stairs.
Gypsy Lane had a mansion - very secluded. It was known that girls were assaulted there if a girl got in the wrong car or whatever. It was just known that it was a dark place that you didn’t go to. Gypsy Lane was a long dark road that went down to what we called Lincoln Drive which used to be Wissahickon Drive.
Did you go to playgrounds in the Falls?
No, we played in the woods at home. I would go down behind the Gimble house where there were pine woods. I loved to hang out there or looking in the streams for skunk cabbage and cat skulls. I wandered around in the woods.
Where did your mother shop for food?
She would take a taxi to Germantown which was a lovely little village when I was a girl. We went to the Orpheum movies and the Sabre Lee store and Allen’s, Dairy Queen, Rowell’s and Woolworth and it was a lovely place. The J bus stopped at Alden Park where I would see Frankie and our friend Carol and sometimes we met on the lawn at our house.
Did you swim in the summer or ice skate in the winter?
I swam at the pool at Alden Park when I was a teen ager. A lot of time in the summers I spent in Chester County because I was visiting my grandparents. They lived outside of West Chester. It was real country and they had a big pool with a stream that went in and there were crawfish and watercress in there. I saw a lot of my grandmother and great grandmother because that is mainly who we saw unless we had guest in. Franke and Carole were my friends in high school. We didn’t live on a street where there were other children to play with.
When did you lose your grandmother?
I was 14 in1953 when my great grandmother died. The one whose husband – Samuel Wagner - was 30 years older. He was head of the board of the WFIs after his great uncle, the founder died. So there is this line that goes through. My great grandmother liked to take us to the Art Museum but not the Rodin Museum because she was Victorian and all the naked statutes were there. She would take us to see the Mikado and other Gilbert and Sullivan operas.
What was her name?
Her name was Anne Leonard Harlan Wagner. Her Harlan father was a descendent of Richard Harlan, who had been a physician in Philadelphia. He went to New Orleans and died there helping with the Cholera epidemic. On the female side the women got involved in settlement houses. My great grandmother could read Greek and Latin. She was amazing - a blue stocking. My grandmother lived to be 80. She was around for my children until they were about 12 and she would come in every week. She taught kindergarten when you didn’t need a degree. I taught little kids so we had a lot to say to each other. She loved little kids. She took my kids for weekends and took them to the movies, to playgrounds, there were toys. She was great with little kids. My mother loved to read and she spoke French very well. My grandmother worked but not my mother. My great grandmother did not work. My grandmother went to Bryn Mawr College for a year but there were no eligible young men so she left and got married.
Anne, Thank you. You have given us a lot of information. We ae going to stop now and resume your story at a later date.
East Falls Historical Society Oral History Interview
Interviewee: Thomas Horne (TH)
Interviewers: Thomas Edwards (TE) and Cory Hauptman (CH) Students at Philadelphia University
Date of Interview: April 19, 2005
Abstract:This interview was conducted in anticipation of the closing of the Falls United Methodist Church. A long-time anchor in the East Falls community, the church was built in the Greek Revival and Italianate architectural styles circa 1819. The church is scheduled for a deconsecration ceremony and closing on June 19, 2005. This interview was conducted in order to preserve some of the personal, social and neighborhood history affiliated with the church.
TE: Let me start by asking, how long you've been a part of the church?
TH: Well, I was born into it. I was baptized there. Born in 1929. And when I was old enough I went to Sunday school at the Methodist Church. My mother, father, aunts, uncles, cousins were all members. They were originally members of Church of England. Immigrated into the states in 1909/1910 and started going to the Methodist Church. Normally, they would have went to the Episcopalian Church, but they started going to the Methodist Episcopal which later changed its name to just Methodist.
TE: And how about your wife?
TH: She started when she was 15. They came down from upstate, Mt. Carmel during the War in 1942. Started going to their youth group. That's how she started to go there. She originally went to the Presbyterian Church Sunday school.
TE: So when you first went to the church, what do you remember of the community?
(note: Mary Horne, Tom’s wife, was asked the question )
MH: Presbyterians had 15 to 20 youth in their youth group. They were involved in a lot of things that drew me into Sunday school, then the church. The fellowship, everyone was friendly; it was a place to feel welcome. The Methodists had a larger group that I went to and that where I met Tom.
TE: Most memorable experiences?
TH: Well, I got married there! (Laughter) We had our six children baptized there. They grew up in the church.
TE: From what I've come to understand, there were a lot of groups that started out of the church, could you elaborate? The impression I got from my teacher was that the church generated a lots of activities, and programs.
TH: We've always been active in the community. We had a Drum and Bugle Corps. Are you familiar with the Old Academy Players? Grace Kelly and her family. Built in 1812. One of the first theaters....built on top of the hill originally to take care of young Protestant men. At the same time, the Roman Catholic Church (St. Bridget) had many things. Pool table, shuffleboard, football team. We would play each other. All the churches got involved. It (Old Academy) was a crude library before there was a free library (on Warden Drive). Community groups met there.
The reason the Methodists got into this was that the Methodists every Christmas put on a play in the church, and it got really involved and people said ”Let's get together somewhere and put this on in (a different) space.” They were all hams and wanted to be on stage. ..1923. Grace got into it, her sister, that's where they got the touch of the stage. The applause. That building is still there. The beams that hold it up are all from trees... some of the bark of the trees is still on it and it's been there since 1812. I thought that was interesting, you can still see it.
TE: Probably. How do you think that...let me get your opinions of the closing of the church, I mean we know that it's a very sad time…..
TH: Well we just don't have the people to come. People today don't need churches. We're not the only ones in the community hurting,
I mean the Baptists down the street, they have less attendance than we do, but they have a daycare that financially supports them; we don't have anything like that. We had looked into that, but when the city told us all the renovations we had to do, we couldn't afford to do it.
We just don't have the money. The people that come on Sundays - we just survive now on the people who come Sundays and put in the collection plate, and that's how we pay our bills.
TE: How many members would you say that are active now? About 50? 30?
TH: About 30. At one time, the highlight of the Methodist Church biggest enrollment, I would say was right after World War II - 1945-46.
I just saw a photograph where they used to put on a bulletin board in front of the Sunday school ….. Attendance for the day was 358! In the Sunday school, that's the men's and women's Bible Class plus all the Sunday school classes on the second floor and the basement. That's a lot!
And from that day forward the war was over - young men and women came back from the war. And of course got married, had a family, where you going to live? Then the big move to the suburbs... with Levittown where you could get a place for $12-14,000. If you stayed in East Falls... you'd have to take public education if you weren't wealthy enough to go to a private school...so most of them went on to greener pastures.
They moved out, eventually all the businesses moved out too. Well, you can imagine.., it was downhill from there. Over the thirty years we had visitations, we'd go out and advertise...and try to get more people to come, but we, of course, had more strikes against us - no parking... you know the automobile.
As a child we'd sled down these streets like Bowman Street or Sunnyside and, if even one person parked their cars, the kids got indignant, and wanted to know if they'd please move their car..."We're sledding down the street." And you go down Indian Queen Lane both sides ...some of the houses on the street down by the church have three apartments in them - there must be five cars just for one house.
We tried until we got in touch with Alcoholics Anonymous - well they got in touch with us. When they saw that we weren't that close to public transportation...the bus stop was about three or four blocks away, they decided to go to another church that was better located. Idea to have parking and the bus.
TE: What about relocation?
TH: We don't have the money. We could merge with another Methodist church if we wanted to, but because ...the few that are left... Irene (Webster)…. don't live in East Falls, and merge with another church - we have close relationships with other Methodists churches. We wanted to control the process. You don't have enough money, so we decided on our own to close when we can't pay our bills. Right now we're paying them.
TE: So do you think that one of the things that we were looking at is the trend of young people today?
TH: I can't say that they are not as religious; I think they are too busy with other things. I think sports for children. I mean our kids had to go to church and Sunday school.
East Falls is more commuter than family oriented.., people rent apartments for a few years while they are in school. ..Or get a place while they have a job for three or four years. They don't have ownership in the community or a priority of going to church.
Small groups of us would walk and do surveys as to why they didn't come to church. And, you know, we heard everything from A to Z. “I'm too busy, “We do this, we do that.” “We have different activities.”
No one seems to have any idea that back then how we compiled it all but we did.
We had “Bring a Friend Sunday.Aerobics” classes and teenage dancing in the Methodist Church...it was earth-shaking! (Laugh)
TE: What do you mean by earth shaking?
TH: We were the younger group who allowed dances for teenagers. What would happen was that the older generation wouldn’t want us to have the dances and shake the foundation. 140 people would come. This was in the 1970s.
East Falls and other communities, they still have a 4th of July parade. East Falls used to have the same thing. 25-30 people. Bring in new kids, Drum and Bugle Corps, we used to go to Penn Charter. We'd go down Timber Lane, School House Lane. There were just old woods there - we used to play baseball where the Philadelphia University campus is now. Even long before I was born. Now folks get in their cars and go to Maryland or to the shore. We didn't have a car - we'd go to the church picnic - homemade lemonade and ham sandwiches.
TE: Where were the Fourth of July picnics?
TH: Lutherans - right off where their church was (Conrad and Midvale), Catholics - McMichael Park. The Baptists went to what we called Dobson's Field. Back of the Old Academy – McDevitt’s Playground. Extensions from the Boulevard came through and that cut the playground right in half. But they used to picnic there, on holidays like the 4th of July. Everybody would go there. The Methodists originally went to Dobson’s, which is now Abbottsford Project on Fox Street.
Roxborough still manages to do this, but they hire bands, string bands. That's how it has changes. TV, of course, also changed things.
TE: Are there a lot of other noticeable changes in East Falls? Has the feeling of East Falls changed since you've been here, which is quite a while.
TH: I think for me, what I've noticed is that when I was growing up in East Falls - I grew up on Conrad at Division Street - it was a very - your grandparents lived a block away. You don't have that today...not only did you know the kids you went to school with, their parents went to school with your parents - grandparents too - everybody knew everybody. You didn't do anything bad because someone three blocks away would call your mother ...all the neighbors were watching you. Now, you don't know the people across the street. People who were "new" on the street lived here 30 years.
It used to be, your parents bought a house. Your grandparents lived a block away. Everyone knew everybody. Now people buy houses for real estate investments. They live here three to five years, sell it, and then move.
We had two (public housing) projects that were built here that defined the shape of the neighborhood. Abbottsford Homes - up there by the reservoir. Abbottsford was the estate of James and John Dobson who owned all the mills along the river. That's why my parents came over. Cause they used to weave rugs and work in the dye house and dye the rugs. These two English men came over and started the mills. They had wagons and went all through Philadelphia and bought rags off people. They tore the rags apart and made stuff out of these. Their real success was in making blankets for the Union Army, and that's how they made them. They made enough to build a great big Victorian house up on the hill. What’s that one with Dracula? It was gloomy looking.
The schools are another thing that changed. I went to Mifflin. You went to Mifflin – you all went to Mifflin. I think we had about 1000 kids in there. Now there about 400. I am amazed. One class per grade.
Private schools. I could never…Germantown Friends, Germantown Academy, these have become so affluent. I think now, it's how can you afford to live there?
We're good people. What I am saying is that we are not the kind of people you see moving into East Falls now. A Senator, Governor, quite a few judges around; it's a good location. You can hop on I-76 and be downtown in 15 minutes, King of Prussia….
Primarily Mifflin was one of the top city schools - we moved in when it was new...1936, 1937. It was racial. People came in that didn't have the homes that some of the kids had. The quality of education went down. I didn’t want to put my kids in private school - even St. Bridget's you had to pay. I didn't want to pay for my kids to go to school.
My wife and I took our kids out of school. I tell you it was when the teachers’ unionized. The kids were behaving like idiots. Some kid threw a rock – it hit my daughter in the head. Nobody was out on the playground supervising. Pulled them out, put them in a private school. It was run by two Episcopalian teachers, one for the lower school one for the upper school. 60-80 kids in there, all the kids went to college. They never had any problems; there weren't fights. My kids were always good in English. The teachers taught the basics.
TE: Do you think a lot of public institutions in East Falls have suffered over the years? Are there are a lot of other churches hurting?
TH: No, the other churches, the Presbyterian Church, is going. 35-40 year olds are moving in and they are getting quite a few of them to join, so they are starting to grow.
Our church was always active - we took care of Mifflin, we supplied books, pens - they used to fall over (with gratitude)… our congregants would go and tutor, and go into nursing homes to visit and take little packages and bags of toiletries - things that they could use. Wish list. Tried to keep active that way all the time.
With the few people we have, I thought we had a great outreach that way. 80-90 years ago. We had a young dynamic minister. A new couple that came, we even got together and did the Sunday school basement. Minister changed; one couple moved away. Disheartening. Didn't work out that way. The church relies on 3, 4, 5, 6 people – everyone is too old - they don't want to come out at nights. We felt that we weren’t getting out of worship what we wanted. The choir - now the organist got sick, got a substitute. Daughter moved to Warminster. My daughter played the organ when organist became ill. Our church has a beautiful organ. Andrew Carnegie, that old Scotsman who made all that money, didn't believe in giving all that money to his kids .He built the Falls Methodist Organ. ...1905 – I believe that was when they got the organ. He built libraries and churches all over.
You will find the houses in this area have gone ridiculous. Skyrocketed to extremes I can't believe. On Barkley Street – 2 bedroom – I call them row houses - new people call them townhouses, is selling for $199,000.
TE: Do you think that the closing of the church... it can be avoided?
TH: The Presbyterian Church - we always did everything together - we heard others saying that they are sad that we are closing. I never thought that we'd be the first to close. No, there was the Congregational Church just one block from here closed about 30 years ago. But I never thought that with all the activities that we had, that the other churches didn't have…. I am sure that in time, time heals all wounds, but it's quite a…
TE: Do you know what will happen to the building itself?
TH: No we are waiting for the Conference. As of June, the Methodist Conference will really own it. When it changes from ME to United Methodist. All the property. The complete rule over how to use that property. Basically turning it over to the Conference. They'll take over the control.
TE: Gothic...turned into condos?
TH: They probably could do something like that. I have no idea what they'll do. What I’d like to see myself is for the stained glass windows to go to a church. I’d like to see the inside stay a church. Not throw everything out. I don't know if we'll have any say.
On the corner of Conrad and Midvale – the library, the church (Lutheran), a public school - the all American corner. Private house with a white picket fence. The only actual corner like that in this Country!
TE: Well did we answer your questions, anything else you think is really important. The church? The history?
TH: I know people say why don't you move out? But this has like always been home to us. Even though it has changed. It's become transient - there are people we don't know and new people have moved in. Why don't you move out to the suburbs? It’s our home.
We just like it here. We've seen quite a few changes. We never had television, cars, we didn't have a telephone.
Wow, and now they have computers, laptops. We like it here. I don't know if we’ll leave. I really will stay here unless our taxes keep going up. I just heard that the house on the corner of Netherfield and Coulter - $375,000. Houses around the corner for $525,000.
We raised six kids. Do you know what it's like to raise six kids and clothe them?
Another unique thing that use to happen in East Falls was the Christmas caroling to greet Christmas morning to. Years ago we sang right through the night hours until 6 am, we didn’t start until 11PM though. We waited till night time – we also woke some people up.
We’d pass through the neighborhood singing, if the people liked it they’d give money - the money would go to the music fund at the Methodist Church. That's really how we got musically inclined.
Joseph Smith, the Choir Director, trained in music. When he came to Philadelphia the choirs would compete - the ones who had the best choirs were the Welsh. And Joseph Smith - he won it in1913 - Male Chorus - from every religion all these men sang downtown.
Our church always musically inclined.
The people are coming back - let's get the music going again. With the windows open on a Sunday morning, the people outside could hear the Methodist Choir. When I graduated Mifflin, the teacher told me to move to the back of the chorus – I was monotone. What did she mean by that? I could carry a tune. Then I became a big soloist. When you hear that sound… it… moves you - Oh well, I guess we’ll never hear the large choir singing on Christmas Eve again.
TE: Have your experiences got you into something because of the church? Has the church started some interest you have?
TH: Starting the choir, being in the choir. It stimulated our children - they’d get together and sing and sing. Women's circles. My daughter - she started in - she sang at West Chester University and still sings. If our organist was out sick, who would get up and play, a half dozen could get up and play on the spot. If the choir didn't show up anyone would just get up and play the piano.
This is my own opinion, St Bridget's they have the cathedral church, and when the organ plays there, it's a cathedral, but they never had much of a choir when I was growing up.
Our church went there and sang there a few times and some of the people I know who still live here said “Well we should have choir.”
I have to give them a lot of credit - the guys I knew who were Roman Catholic. But they have a good musical program there they've gotten pretty good.
The Mr. & Mrs. Club put on shows and things like that to raise money for one thing or another. The idea was to get these programs on for the guys coming home from the war - to get them involved in the church. They had art classes, there was an exercise class, a woman used to teach theater and history - first year it was great, but the next year people didn't sign up for these. It's nice to have a lot, but you need children, the church will not survive if you don't have children.
st Falls Historical Society Oral History Interview
Interviewee: Sister Frances Joseph, Sisters of the Assumption at Ravenhill Academy
Interviewers: Ellen Sheehan
Transcribers: Frances Jueds, Wendy Moody
Date of Interview: May 22, 2008
Second Interview: Jan. 26, 2008 by Charles Scarpello, Sister Frances Joseph’s nephew
Note: This transcript is a compilation of both interviews.
ES: This is Ellen Sheehan recording for the East Falls Historical Society, an interview with Sister Frances Joseph, religious of the Assumption at Ravenhill Academy. The date is May 22, 2008.
ES: Tell us about your family – your parents and grandparents.
SFJ: Well, I was born Rachel Scarpello. I was baptized with that name and I was named for my maternal grandmother who was born in Germany. I was baptized in the seminary – Vincentian Seminary Chapel on Chelten Avenue because we didn’t have a parish church at the time. We used their crypt, underneath, for a while. Underneath their seminary.
My mother was Mary; my father was Augustan, and I had a younger brother Charlie. I went to parochial school – Holy Rosary School. By the time I was ready to go to school, we did have our own parish church on Haines Street and Baynton – on the corner there. It’s now a Baptist church – a black Baptist church – I’ve gone by a couple of times. I go down memory lane.
I was very happy at Holy Rosary. Oh, I loved it! I was taught by the Franciscan Sisters whose Mother House was in Peeksill, New York.
I had wonderful teachers, wonderful teachers! It was a congregation with its base in Genoa, Italy so they had a kind of international vision. I liked that.
I grew up in a bilingual family and a bicultural family – therefore my education kind of went with that. I graduated Holy Rosary School in 1932. I was reminiscing that I had my first protest experience as an 8th grader. Our pastor, Father Dominic Nicheldeen – he was told that the houses surrounding this grammar school – all around it – they were all single-family houses with front gardens and backyards. They were owned mostly by Italo-American immigrants – they are used to having individual homes with gardens.
Now they wanted to create a project – a housing project. Father said “No. Italian people don’t like to live in housing projects.” He gathered the whole 8th grade and I think the 7th grade too and I carried the protest sign. It said “We do not want a housing project next to Holy Rosary School.” We went down to town hall at Germantown Avenue and High Street. We protested. We had own our mayor at the time. It was a mayor for that locality and protested outside his office. We kids loved it – we had the morning off from school and it was fun.
But I wonder if that didn’t get me started on justice and peace issues. A seed, I think, in my brain and in my soul. But it was an injustice. Well it was never built next to Holy Rosary School.
When I graduated, the only Catholic high school for girls was Hallahan, but that was at 19th and Callowhill and both my mother and I sat down and talked about that. It seemed so far. So she said “What do you think?” and I said “Mom, all my friends are going to Germantown High School. I’d rather go to Germantown High.” It was on the corner of High Street where we lived. So I loved Germantown High School – it was a great school. It was a college prep school – lots of Jewish kids, and Jewish parents insist on a fine education for their children. They had excellent teachers and I had four wonderful years. I graduated in 1936. In fact that school now is, I’m going to say, 100% Afro-American, or maybe African immigrant children go there, and they’ve had some problems there these past two years. Like all public schools, they’ve had some discipline problems.
But the other day, on the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer there was a beautiful picture of Germantown High School in the background with students and teachers because they had been using it on Martin Luther King Day as a center from which they went to volunteer all over the city. Oh I was so proud of that picture! The next day – I like to congratulate people for things they do – I called Germantown High and I said “Doctor” – they got him immediately – “This is Sister Frances Joseph. I used to be Rachel Scarpello and I was a student at Germantown High – I am an alumna. He waited. I said “I hope you’re sitting down. I graduated in 1936.” “Oh my” he said. “What can I do for you, Sister?” I said “Nothing. I just want to congratulate you and encourage you to keep up the good work that you are trying to do.” “Oh thank you so much” and we said goodbye. I was glad I had done that.
From there I went on to Catholic college – a women’s college in those days – Chestnut Hill College, located in a geographic suburb of Philadelphia called Chestnut Hill. Several girls from Germantown came to Chestnut Hill with me – the one that stands out is Madeleine Conte. We had been friends since 6thgrade and we both found ourselves freshmen at Chestnut Hill College. I just loved Chestnut Hill College. I was very actively engaged. I was President of the French Club from the time I was a sophomore. I just loved it because I had gotten a good background in French at Germantown High School. I had two majors – French and English and Italian as a minor.
I graduated with a lot of joy in my heart and I wanted to be a teacher of course. Now I wasn’t allowed to do my practice teaching in my fourth year. The head of the French department would not allow it. “No” she said “You have to come back for a 5th year and you can start your Master’s work in that year.”
Well, you know, jobs were at a premium – post Depression, World War II - so we agreed to do that. I did my practice teaching at Frankford High School very successfully. In the middle of my time there, the head of the French Department, a native of France who liked me very much, was very good at allowing me to see all I should see and participate in as a student teacher there. She had a heart attack, so I think she recommended me, and the school asked me, if I would be willing to ask permission of Chestnut Hill College to have me as a regular teacher substituting for that woman. They said yes and that’s what happened. I got paid for my practice teaching because I was really working for Frankford High School.
Well I finished that and I immediately went to apply at Villanova for my Master’s degree. Well Villanova said “No way.” It was just a boy’s university. “Well” I said “You accept women on Saturday mornings.” “Oh but they’re nuns.” I wasn’t a nun. “No, we cannot accept…” “But I work for the Catholic School System” because by that time I had had an interview. I was called by the Dean of Chestnut Hill who said “There’s an opening at a private school for girls – a good school – in Germantown called the Academy of the Assumption.” I never heard of it but she said “Why don’t you call and find out if they’ll give you an interview.”
ES: You went for an interview at Ravenhill?
SFJ: I got the interview on a Friday afternoon at 4 o’clock. Well I had just purchased a car – a Ford – for $28. There wasn’t a space on that car that didn’t have a dent but it worked – it got me where I needed to go. Oh my family was so proud of me in that little car! I had gotten my driver’s license when I was 16 – that was the gift from my family and my father taught me how to drive.
So I drove down School House Lane and made a left-hand turn into a beautiful entrance of a gorgeous estate and saw a sign that said Academy of the Assumption. They used to use both names. Well, as I turned into the entrance to the gate, a big black limo is coming towards me and I went a little bit too close – I didn’t hit him, but I think I touched the black fender. Well I was petrified. A chauffeur in livery uniform came out and said:
”Miss, what did you think you were doing?”
“Oh, I’m so sorry. I didn’t really figure out my space.”
So he looked and said “You didn’t really hurt my car. We couldn’t possibly hurt yours.”
He was very nice and, as he was talking to me, somebody from the back seat came out – a great big, big man, and I looked at him and recognized him – it was Cardinal Dougherty and he said:
“Miss, what happened here?”
And I said “Oh I’m so sorry, Your Eminence, but I think I touched the fender of your car but your chauffeur said I
didn’t hurt it.”
“But what are you doing here?”
“Oh” I said “I’m a graduate of Chestnut Hill College (I thought I better say I’m a Catholic school graduate) and I’m
coming to the interview by Mother Francoise Marguerite.”
“Oh”, I said “They have an opening to teach French and English and they are my two majors.”
“Very good. Good luck. God bless you and be careful of your driving.”
“Oh I will.”
But I was so relieved to get back in the car and not be arrested, and I was interviewed in this gorgeous mansion in a lovely parlor.
The Reverend Mother came in and she was very nice and the interview went very well. Towards the end of the interview she said “I’m very pleased with you. I would like to say that I would like to hire you, but you haven’t asked me what the salary is.” I said I was so happy to be hired and I said “What is the salary Mother?” She said $75. “Oh”, I said to myself “that’s the same as the public school teachers.” And I said “Mother that would be fine, but can I have a couple of days to think it over?” I wanted to play hard to get but I was dying to get the job. I got home and, as you can imagine, mother, father, grandmother, grandfather, little brother all sitting in the living room waiting for me. They were ready to have dinner I think. “And what happened, did you get the job?” And I said “I got it if I want it, I was going to think about it for a couple of days.” “Good idea” my grandfather said. “What about the salary?” I said “$75.” My grandfather said “That’s what the public school teachers are making.” He was a great business man. “Oh take it Ray; sounds great.”
That September I began to work at Ravenhill Academy of the Assumption and I stayed 12 years. It was such a happy experience.
Now the first week went by at Ravenhill – no check. I guess they paid every two weeks…Second week – no check. Third week, no check. They pay by the month. So at the end of the month I got the check - $75. I misunderstood – it was $75 a month, not a week, like public school. But you know what? It didn’t matter. I was so happy. I was growing professionally by getting all this experience.
This is 1942, but I must get back to Villanova. Villanova had refused me to start for a Masters and I asked to see the President. I went to the President and I said “I think this is unfair – it’s an injustice. I want to come and get a Master’s degree – I’m teaching in a Catholic school (because by this time I had the job). Therefore, I don’t make much money. I would love to come to this university to follow the Master’s program.”
He said “I’ll have to talk this over with our Board of Trustees.” Would you believe it? They got permission to have a lay person without a veil to come follow the courses they had allowed nuns to do, but no lay women. So I was the first woman on that campus. When I graduated and got the Masters, my whole family came to the graduation. My grandfather said “Hey, how come you were the only woman without a veil?” I told him the story – I hadn’t told them the hard time I had getting in. So that’s a little incident in my feminist background.
After two years, I was asked to be a homeroom teacher - what they called Mistress of Class, I think. Homeroom teacher for one year and then I became principal. I was the first lay principal in Philadelphia.
I went to a principal’s meeting in Atlantic City on the Boardwalk and I walked into the hotel and I walked right into the principal’s meeting and there was an Immaculate Heart Sister standing there and she said “Good morning dear. I think you must have the wrong room.” I said “Is this the principal’s meeting?” “Oh yes” she said. I said “I am one.” She couldn’t believe that a lay person was coming to be a principal in a Catholic school. Well, I was. And as I say, I stayed 12 years.
Now one day in October 1952 Mother Francoise asked me if I would drive the Sisters to an exhibit in Springfield, Massachusetts. The Sisters were not allowed to drive and I said sure. “Just for the weekend” she said. Well, they lent me this old station wagon that William used to drive the kids back and forth in and we got as far as New Brunswick. It died. Got the gas station people to come pick it up, and us, and they said “Oh no, we have to keep it overnight, something big is wrong with this.” I forget. We stayed in some convent overnight I think, or maybe we went to a hotel. No, I think it was a convent in New Brunswick.
We stayed there and then the next morning we set out again and we got to Springfield, Massachusetts. A great big convent with a huge sign “God is Love” encrusted in stone. We got in and the Sister was lovely, lovely, “We’re all ready for you Sisters, and where is the young lady staying?” “Oh” Mother said “We thought she was going to stay with us.” “Oh no, we’re not allowed to take lay people.” Well of course I didn’t know what to say. “God is Love” I thought.
So I said “Sister is there an economic hotel around?” and she said “Well we have a hospital just down the street. Let me call. Yes they have a room for you at the hospital.” So Sister Clare Joseph, the first American novice said “I am coming with you” and you can bring me back. And it was in the pediatrics department. And you know, all those poor little sick children crying and she said “I‘m not going to leave you here. Come on let’s go.” We went. I said “Don’t worry about me; I’ll find a room.”
So I departed from the convent and I went over to the exhibit hall. There was a very nice girl sitting very importantly fixing things so I went up to her and I said “Do you know somewhere I could find an inexpensive hotel to stay for the night, maybe the weekend?” and she said “Well why?” Well I said “Oh I’m here for the exhibit” and told her the story. Oh she said “You’ll stay with me.” She was secretary to the Bishop and in charge of the exhibit so that’s what we did.
At the end of the night I went home with her and I think we had a little supper, yeah, and then she brought me to the room. She said this is our room. Oh I was going to sleep with her. There was a big king size bed. “All right” so I got ready for bed. She said “Oh I have to tell you that my sister sleeps with me also, she’ll be coming home soon.” And I thought “That’s three of us - I wonder how we’re going to manage that.” Anyway I thought I’d sleep in the middle. I wasn’t very heavy at that time and so that’s exactly what happened. Her sister came home and I was introduced. I was still awake. And then she sat down in the chair. She started to undress and the poor kid, she had a wooden leg. She took off the prosthesis to get into bed. I had never seen such a thing before. I watched this procedure; I almost died. Anyway I thought I better not hurt her, poor kid.
Now in the morning I thought “Now how am I gonna get out of bed?” I was the first one awake so I sneaked out the bottom of the bed, got out, went to the bathroom and took a shower, got dressed. They still weren’t up and I walked into the living room. I was going to make myself a cup of coffee, she told me what to do, and there was a man sitting in the chair. I said “Good morning; who are you? He said “Oh I’m the girls’ brother. I visit them every Saturday morning.” I wasn’t so sure if I should believe him!
All right, we got over there and we found out the exhibit was not just the weekend, it was the week! I said “Mother, I cannot stay for the week. I have appointments all during the week.” She said “Neither can I.” So she said “Let’s us leave the car, we’ll fly home. You’ll fly back and bring them home.” And that’s what we did. I tell you that detail because it’s important in my story.
In the plane coming home, just to make conversation, I said “You know, Mother, I feel drained teaching those girls. I sponsor their religion class, I teach religion, I go with them on their retreats, all that stuff but I’m not putting anything in spiritually.” She said “Oh you’re right, what do you hope to do about that?” I said “Well I thought I would go to the Cathedral, ring their doorbell, and ask them.” You see in those days we didn’t have prayer groups, we didn’t have scripture studies, and groups like that. No, I said I’m going to ask them if we could start a prayer group for teachers. A lot of teachers must feel the same way. She said “Good luck.” I thought “She’s not very encouraging.”
So then she said, without looking at me - she’s looking straight at the cockpit, she said “Ray, did you ever think of a religious vocation?” “Oh” I said “Yes Mother, but I don’t have a religious vocation. “I don’t know why.” Then I asked “Do you think I have a religious vocation?” “Oh yes” she said, again not looking at me, “Oh yes, and I thought that twelve years ago when I first met you.” I said “Well why didn’t you tell me?” She said “You hadn’t asked me.” That’s true. She said “Well, now you’ll have to think of where to go since you’re convinced that you have a religious vocation.” “Yes,” I said, “It’s true.” She said, “Well let’s pray about it and come to see me on Friday. It would be like the end of the week when I come back.”
Well I couldn’t wait. On Wednesday I went to her. I said “I’m sure I have a religious vocation.” I could not have been more sure, Ellen, if somebody had taken a black magic marker and written on that white cockpit wall: “You have a religious vocation”. So she said “Now you’ll have to pray as to which congregation.” Because I love the Sisters of St Joseph and I knew the Immaculate Heart Sisters, but I don’t know them too much, I love the Franciscans who taught me, and they all have helped me a lot, and I love the Sisters of the Assumption, my bosses.
Now that night when we came back I guess it was, yes, the next week, the girls had their retreat and at the end of that first night Father Restuccio (?), a Vincentian priest, was giving the retreat and he was having his dinner in the big parlor and I was going to go home for the night, so I went by and I said “Good night Father; I hope you have a good night.” He said “Where are you going?” I said “I’m going down to the village.” I really was going down to buy cigarettes – and he said “Could you get me a good cigar?” “Sure” I said “I’ll bring it right back to you.”
ES: And what was the Village?
SFJ: East Falls. I said “Father would you pray for me please?” “Why?” I said “Well I think I have a religious vocation but I don’t know where to go.” “Oh” he said, “You’re already there.”
Again, if someone had taken a magic marker and written on that beige wall in that dining room “You should be an Assumption Sister” I couldn’t have been clearer.. And I’ve never doubted it since. That’s 53 years ago.
I have to say this. The night I entered, Sister Terese Margaret, who had been a student of mine, who’s now a Sister with vows – she was my angel , she was walking me into dinner after the ceremony where I got a little black dress and black bonnet – or white – bonnet. She said “Do you have any dietary problems to tell the cook?” “Oh” I said “No, but I’ll tell you one thing, though, I don’t eat eggs. I hate the sight of them. As a little girl, I didn’t like the looks of them. My mother took me to a doctor and he said “It’s ok that she can’t stand the look of eggs. Don’t force her to eat them.”
So we walk into the dining room and on the table the dishes are all set and guess what was sitting on top of the dish – our first course, if you will – two sunnyside up fried eggs on toast! Well, I thought, this is it. I can go home – I’m only ten minutes away – but I know this is for me. I’ll eat the eggs. And I’ve been eating them ever since.
ES: And how did your parents react?
SFJ: Ah, that was another story. Took me weeks. That’s how covert … And so I went to Mother and I told her “Would you accept me in your Order?” She said “Yes, now when would you like to enter?”
I said, “Well I think I’d like to wait until Oct 7.” Next year was the Feast of my Parish. I said “I have to finish the school year.” Oct 7. It would please my parish because I was very close to them and they were close to me.
ES: This was Holy Rosary?
SFJ: Yes. So that summer, July 2, I’m reading in my room and I was reading the life of Mother Teresa Emmanuel. She was the co-foundress. Very thick book, not too interesting, but I was reading that book and my room was down a set of three steps; it was on another level. We had like a split level 2nd floor, and my mother left her bedroom about 11 o’clock and went to the bathroom which was outside my room and, as she came out then, she stood at the top of my steps, and I said “Oh hi mom, is something wrong?” and she said “You know, Ray, I went to the doctor’s today.” “Oh’ I said “Is something wrong?” and she said “Not really, but the doctor found me very anxious about something.”
I said “What are you anxious about?” She said “I think you want to be a Sister and you’re not telling me.” I said “That’s true, mom.” So God told her for me.
Well she came down and we talked till about 2 o’clock. And she said “If that’s what God wants, Ray, you’ll have to do it.” I said “But you tell Papa, will you?” “Oh no” she said “You tell him yourself. I don’t have the courage to tell him.” But when she went back to the room, I could hear them talking for a long time so she must have told him. Now Papa was easier. He was very easy going and he said again “Ray, if that’s what God wants, you’re going to have to do it. It’s a terrible thing for us, but it’s a good thing for you.” So that was done.
ES: Why was it terrible for them?
SFJ: I was the only girl you know. And it was like Italian families didn’t like to give up their daughters to a religious life. There were very few Italo-American religious. I entered on October 7 as a postulate. Charlie drove – oh that was a tearjerker! All my friends and relatives were there to say goodbye to me – you can imagine coming from an Italo-American family. I remember that the last words Charlie said to me were “Now don’t you worry about mom and pop. I’ll take care of them when they’re old and need help.” It was very encouraging for me. A concern.
ES: Couldn’t they visit you?
SFJ: Well we were semi-cloistered. They could come once a month but I could never go back home. That’s what was wrong for them. And when I was in the Philippines and my father died and I couldn’t go back that was awful, terrible.
ES: Oh you were going to the Philippines shortly after that?
SFJ: I did. Well I entered Oct 7 and made my first vows on May 31, 1955. I entered in 1953, vows 1955. And the very next day, June 1, I was off to work to study theology in Rome called Regina Mundi. I was supposed to study in an Institute for Sisters that was attached to Gregorian University. It was not co-ed in those days – it was mostly priests. I got started but, gee, I was bored. I had had all those courses at Chestnut Hill or at Villanova where I got my Masters and I thought I’d better be honest about this – I’m wasting my time.
So I told my superior and she said “Well go to ask Father Martini.” He was the famous Cardinal of Milano and the President of the Gregorian. So I went to him and I said Father I’m wasting my time and I’m only here a year. Couldn’t I take courses with the men?” And he said “We don’t allow women. I said “You could break a rule like that. You made the rule; you can break it.” Well he took me, and I had wonderful professors as a result. Famous Father Teflon, British theologian. I had a course in Italian, a course in French, and two in English. It was wonderful, that second semester.
So I got through that year, it was very good for me. And I came back and became principal as a Sister. Now that was hard. The same job but now with a habit. It was very hard I thought, but I got through that. And then I guess around 1963 I was told I was going to go for one year to France, San Visier (?) to learn how the Assumption integrates in parish work because we were not doing that here in the United States. And to be a successful religious congregation, apostolically, in the US you have to be integrated – I don’t care what anybody says - into the parish. That’s the life of the church in this country.
So I went there; that was successful. I taught theology to men, a boys’ college across the street from us, and I taught religion to our own girls in our own school and I observed how the sisters worked very well - almost like our sisters do in Lansdale, fully integrated in the parish, as we’re trying to do here with St Francis de Sales.
I came back and I got a letter from the Mother General asking if I would be willing to open an English speaking college in Japan near Osaka. The Japan law says the president of a college had to be an Anglo-Saxon. Everything’s going to be taught in English. Why? Expo 70’s coming in a few years. They want the girls to learn English, get jobs. So, Anglo Saxon president with a Masters in English from an Anglo Saxon university. Now that’s pretty clear and that’s exactly what I had. Would I be willing to go? Well, gee, I’m really not big for Japan, I don’t have the personality for Japan, I‘m exuberant, I’m spontaneous - they’re reserved. No, impossible.
But Isat down and I wrote a letter and I said, Dear Mother, these four things I think I have to give to them. I could give these things and these 25 things are against my going – they should weigh – I did the discernment, but I ended “If you really need me, I’ll go.” Of course I went. And I opened the college and that was nice. It was hard but it was a nice experience. It was a challenge but I got through it. I was warned: Frances, you’re very enthusiastic with everybody and we don’t do that in this country. Sister, you smile at everyone but in Japan you only smile if you’ve been introduced. It was hard for me to not smile at all the people.
There was one incident that was funny in Japan. I was sitting in a trolley train – a fast train going from Osaka to Tokyo – I was going to interview a new teacher for the college and I was with a Japanese Sister and she had warned me “Don’t smile at anybody.” I sat down in the train and the lady across from me was bowing her head and smiling. I said “Yoko, look at that lady over there smiling at me. She said I could smile back. I smiled back and bowed my head as they do. She had a basket in her hand and she kept pointing to the basket and pointing to her eyes. I didn’t know what she meant. Alright. Her stop came before mine so she got up and as she was waiting for the doors to open – same thing – pointing to her basket and her cat appeared with blue eyes like mine. Japanese don’t have blue eyes. “You have eyes like my cat.” My father did not appreciate that story when I wrote home saying I looked like a lady’s cat.
Now Japan belonged to the Philippines so I belonged to the Philippine province (?) now. The Philippines needed me in the Philippines, so I could still be principal, kind of the absentee landlord? But I came to the Philippines and I used to go back to Japan for a whole year - I did this every Thursday, I taught - I think it was twelve hours of intense English every Friday and Saturday to obey the rule, the law. But in the Philippines then I was teaching theology to the girls at Assumption College. It was ok - a little boring. I was there six full years. But I had a real turning point – a conversion of heart.
ES: Did you teach the lady who became President?
SFJ: Corozan Aquino, both of them and Gloria Macapagal, the present one. I taught both of those girls for a year at Ravenhill, but Gloria Macapagal there. Now, my father died December 4. Christmas came. I couldn’t go home – 6000 miles for a funeral. That was hard. And all the families of the Sisters came to visit. That was sad for me to watch. I went in and wished them a happy Christmas and all that.
ES: You couldn’t telephone or anything?
SFJ: I did. Oh yes I telephoned. And then I went to Mother Superior: “I’m really sad today. I feel lonely.”’ She said “I can see that. What would you like to do?” “I would like to get into the jeep” - I was the only driver – “I’d like to get into the jeep and drive around town and wish Happy Christmas to people.” She said “Do it.”
I was driving outside just by the driveway, the entrance to the driveway and Sister Loretta was there, “Where you going?” She said “I’ll go with you.” Instead of turning right as I always did, I turned left. Nine minutes away from this rich, rich college – well, seven minutes away - I started to smell something. I said “Loretta, what’s that smell?” ”You’ll see.” Two minutes more - big mountains of garbage, garbage thrown by the international hotels to squatters. Homeless people. Squatters. They lived in corrugated boxes as homes. They were their shelters. They were glad for the garbage. They could pick food, they ate the garbage that the hotels threw away.
I said “What’s that?” She explained. I saw a little girl tugging at something. She said “Merry Christmas Mother.” I said “Merry Christmas, honey, what are you doing?” She said “There’s a crate of oranges in here - could you help me get it and bring it to my mom for Christmas?” She was right. I said “Honey they’re rotten - look they’re all green.” She said “Mother, you cut the green off and they’re real sweet on the bottom.” We helped her, we took her home. Her mother- you know they’re known for hospitality – was happy to see us, cleaned off two crates. Please sit down. We sat down on the crates. She went to a bucket of water, no running water. She washed the oranges, did what the little girl said, cut off the green and brought us an orange each. Hospitality, huh? I said “Lori, I can’t eat the orange; I have a squeamish stomach.” She said “You must.” I ate the orange - the sweetest orange I’ve ever eaten.
I got home, uneasy, couldn’t get the scene out of my head, couldn’t sleep, got up went to Mother, “Mother, I cannot stay in this mission.” “Why not?” I said ”Mother, nine minutes away people are eating garbage and I’m gonna teach theology to rich girls who don’t know what’s going on? I can’t. I can’t do that. My vocation is to go to the poor.” She said “Let’s have a meeting tonight.” So to make a long story short, we had a meeting and the sisters said “Lead us, Frances. We will follow.”
And I did just that. I gathered rich men, fathers of the girls, with poor men and we had a meeting and were going to build a housing project. We need land, don’t we? The very next day Sister Esperanza, the President of the University, gets a call - her sister-in-law had died months before and they just probated the will and she left the land to the Sisters – land near to the garbage. End of story. It was the grace of being in the right place at the right time, because just at that time Marcos came in as President and people were ready to have a revolution for social change. The gap between rich and poor was extreme. I prayed a lot about that.
The first thing I did was to start service training in college – you couldn’t take my theology course if you didn’t do volunteer work. The testing was based on what they learned in their books and what they learned from poor people with whom they worked. That was successful. Then I got a board together and, to make it short, we founded the Maryville Advisory Board and Foundation and we built together with our hands and our pockets.
We built the housing project, 34 houses, two-story. We made the bricks, concrete blocks ourselves. I came to the United States to visit my mother and a company here gave me a machine to make concrete blocks. They sent them over by cargo boat. They gave me instructions and we taught the people how to make concrete bricks. And then the Sisters built the school and we taught there. I never taught, I just took care of the social part. In our car.
Four years later our Sisters went there and built a school. It’s still in existence. Well one of the biggest thrills I ever had in my life was at the canonization of Mother Foundress. A beautiful young sister comes up to me, hugs me, and she says “Sister it’s thanks to you that I am here.” I said “Who are you?” Sister So and So. She said “You gave a house to my squatter parents, and I was born there and now I’m one of your Sisters and I came for the canonization.” That was a big grace for me. It was a poignant moment. But it was the conversion of my heart, too, because for the rest of my life, I was able to stay in the ministry of justice and peace.
Then in 1970 I was elected as a delegate to go to Paris and there we elected a new Superior General and it was decided we were going to have a General Secretariat for the first time in the Mother House. It would be the hub where all the provincials around the world would be united to create some kind of communication system. They asked me to be the first Secretary General. I said “Sure, but I have to go to the Philippines to close up.” I wasn’t happy – I didn’t want a desk job after a happy and successful ministry in the Philippines.
So on February 22, 1971 I closed up and left the Philippines to go to Paris, and I was told not to go directly to Paris, but go via Rome. In Rome I was to go and see what other congregations were doing vis a vis Secretary Generals. Oh, and they tagged on “We just made you responsible for the organization of the beatification of Marie Eugenia Millere (the founder of the Sisters of the Assumption), so while in Rome start to investigate that – how to go about that. I thought they were nuts.
I did just that. I learned a lot in Rome and stayed a good month. I flew back to Paris, and in Paris, at the airport, Mother was flying in after her first visit to Japan. We met in the airport and the General Council – all but I – came in a minivan to pick us up. Coming home on the Boulevard – like an expressway – we had an accident. A mechanical fault in our car. Our brakes gave way. We hit one car, swerved and hit another car, and two cars behind us hit us – so we were surrounded by metal. Both my legs were crushed and both my arms were crushed. I thought “This is some way to begin a new ministry.” After seven weeks I was ok. I came out of the hospital and started to plan things on paper and then started to go back and forth in Rome.
And then in 1975, first of all, I had to go to speak to every community that would get together – 3 or 4 communities – to introduce them to the beatification. In those days, the Sisters didn’t want it. We knew she was a saint – let it be. Well I was trying to convince them it was one way of making the message of Marie Eugenia Millere to the world.
It was a wonderful thing, on February 9, 1975 - the beatification with John Paul II. And while I was in Rome, I met a lot of good people – wonderful people. And I was there for the famous years of three Popes in 1978, because right after the beatification, I was asked to go to Rome and live there and be the Executive Secretary of the International Union of Superior General. It was founded by Paul VI. He wanted a central office which would unite Secretary Generals from around the world, so there would be a Central Education formation going out – a place where they could come once a year. There would be a meeting of all the heads off the religious congregation.
Now I was in charge of the women. Father Arrupe, the Superior General of the Jesuits who died a few years ago and is going to be beatified soon – he was the head of the men. So I got to work with a Saint! He was wonderful, wonderful and I learned a lot from him.
I did that for four years and then I came back to this country in 1980. Oh! I met Cardinal Foley – he was a seminarian. We were standing at mass at the basilica in the square. I met him very early when I was a student in 1955 and he was a student. He was a graduate of St. Joe’s University and he was a seminarian. And now, on Sunday, he’s going to celebrate mass at St. Joe’s and I’m going to go. He’s going to celebrate it as a Cardinal. So it’s a small world and you meet up with people again.
But the big grace was working with those three Popes – Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI. I didn’t get to work with Benedict XVI yet and I’m a little mixed up. No, it’s Paul VI, John Paul I, and John Paul II. We forget that poor man – he was only Pope for 32 days – only one meeting did I have with him and John Paul II. It was wonderful. They were just like fathers to me. I’d make some mistakes – “It’s ok, Sister; we’ll fix that.”
I came back here in 1980 and I heard there was a Mass of the Holy Spirit at St. Joe’s University. Madeline Conti, my classmate, called me. “Would you like to come?” “Sure.” I sat next to her. She introduced me to the President, the Dean, and some Provost – I’m not sure they called him that in those days. Anyway, they asked me “What are you going to do now?” I said “I have no idea.” “Well” they said, “Come and see us tomorrow.” I went to this interview with the Academic Dean and I was hired to open a Justice and Peace Desk in the Faith Justice Institute and start a lecture series – an outreach lecture series for the public in the Greater Philadelphia area.
That was the original job situation at St. Joe’s. Now at the same time I went to see Cardinal Krol to say hello because he had been very good to me in Rome. Every time he came he would call me and I would have lunch with him. I said “I’m back!” So he said “What are you going to do now?” “Well, I just had an interview with St. Joe’s University and I think I’m going to take it. It’s part time – three days a week.
And he said “You know, I’ve had an idea to open the same thing – a Justice and Peace Desk here in the Archdiocese. Why can’t we work together? You work two days here, three days at St. Joe’s. Figure it out. Go down and see Monsignor Devine and see what you can work out.”
Well it worked out. I was there fifteen years – both. I did St. Joe’s University who used to call me their liaison with the Archdiocese. After fifteen years it became too much and I left because I was also then asked to be responsible for the Spiritual Center at Bowman Avenue – our convent had opened a spiritual center a few years before and Sister Teresa Margaret asked if I would go back there and be responsible for the Center. I’m still at St. Joe’s, but only as Emerita – I go in every Thursday for the staff meeting and they pick my brain.
It’s a nice situation. I spiritually accompany anyone who asks for it. I also teach the children, K through 8th grade, once a week across the street (St. Francis de Sales Catholic School). I teach Peace. How to be ambassadors of peace to children at risk. It’s a great school. The children come from risky areas, risky family situations. On Tuesday I spiritually accompany students who would like that at the Newman Center at the University of Pennsylvania. So my week is full.
I’m now 88 years old and I feel like I can still make a contribution as long as I have spirit and voice to share. I just thank Almighty god for a wonderful, wonderful, fruitful religious life that I have had. And the gift was – He called me and I had the courage – He gave me the courage to say yes. It’s as simple as that.
Talk about your parents individually, and your grandparents individually. What were they like?
Well my mother was an only child so she had a very happy childhood. A nice education. She went to St. Vincent’s School and she was very popular in the school, I heard. She loved the Sisters of St. Joseph and they loved her. In fact one sister thought she might have a religious vocation. Of course her parents wouldn’t hear of that.
My father was an immigrant at an early age. I think he was only around 12 when he came from Italy and he went to live with his oldest brother, Alphonse. Alphonse had a son called Joseph whose children were actively engaged. He had five boys – I think three are still alive, two might be in heaven. My father became a pal of Joseph Scarpello, who was the son of his brother Alphonse. And we used to live – once my mother and father were married and we came along – we lived on the same street as my Uncle Sam, who was another brother of my father, and Aunt Betsy – they lived on the corner. He had a son Joseph who’s still alive. He’s 92. His wife Maryann often calls me and says “He’s very well. He still teaches piano to little children in his neighborhood.” And they have several children and grandchildren.
My father was a cabinetmaker. Very clever with his hands. He could make anything. I think I’ve given you, Charles, a little box with the word “Mother” on it. Well my father made that for my mother for Mother’s Day one year.
We were a very happy, normal family.
My grandmother and my mother would knit. My mother had her own business. She was kind of a liaison between Bernat Yarns and other yarn companies. She had 25 women who worked in their homes – it was like a community project, if you will – but they did the knitting. My mother would bring them the wool and the needles and the instructions. They would make the materials. My mother would bring it back to Bernat Yarns. There was a Franklin Yarn Company my mother worked for and my mother would design the knitted wear which would then be photographed in their book which sold their yarns. It was called Franklin Yarn Company, and I had a lot of nice clothes because a lot of the samples, which would be in the windows for a while, were my size and then my mother would get them back and I would wear them. The girls would say “Where do you get all those knitted clothes?” “Well that’s my mother’s business.”
My grandfather was in the construction business. He hoved bricks on his shoulders with Jack Kelly. Jack also carried bricks for his father. They both worked for Jack’s father’s brick company and then my grandfather went out on his own and had his own construction company. He was always a builder. He was kind to immigrants. He would hire immigrants. He would help them started in the world. My grandmother had no family here. I think her only brother died in Argentina and settled there.
But my father had four brothers – Alphonse, Samuel, Frank, who had two children. Michael is still alive – I don’t see him very often. Michael’s daughter Mary Frances graduated from Ravenhill.
Talk about your brother.
Ah, Charles. Charles was a colorful character. He was younger than I and he was a bright boy. When he was in 8th grade at Holy Rosary, he got a scholarship to the Prep, so instead of going to Germantown High like I did, he went to St. Joe’s Prep.
There’s a sad story: I think Charles was in school about 4 weeks, maybe 5, and he was getting off the bus. He was a cute-looking kid, always well-dressed. He was the only boy – everybody doted on him. A group of Irish boys – the school was full of Irish boys at the Prep – got off the bus and started to taunt him by calling him names that weren’t considered nice to Italian immigrants. Well, he started to cry at first and then he got angry and he went up to four of them and beat them up. Punched them. Well of course it got to the Principal. Called him in and said “Charles, what did you do?” “Father, I couldn’t help it. They called me those names and I didn’t like it. They’re bad names. You can’t call Italians by those names – it would be like using the N word for an Afro-American. You can’t do that.” Well he gave Charles a pretty good talking to and said “I’m going to have to report it to your parents. Please don’t do that ever again or you might be suspended.
I’m not going to do anything now but you could be suspended.” “Don’t you worry – they’re not going to do it anymore!” So bullying is not new. We talk about cyber-bullying…”
He’s a great kid. He went to work for the City. He got to know politicians, especially Mayor Rizzo, who took him on as a kind of son and as a Deputy Sheriff. He worked his way up to Chief Deputy Sheriff for about three different sheriffs. He had a wonderful reputation for being kind. Police weren’t always considered kind and Charlie was considered a very kind man. He had retired a short time before he went to heaven. He had a massive heart attack in his sleep and that was it. No suffering. But he left a great reputation. I was very proud of my brother Charlie. Friends – he had the gift of friendship.
One story I like to tell, that he was a little embarrassed to tell me. He had to go evict an elderly lady from her home – I think an Afro-American lady. He got there and said “Madam, I bring you these eviction papers. You haven’t paid any rent for so long – you have to leave this house.” “Where will I go?” He said “We have a couple of suggestions here. How much do you owe?” “$80.” “Here. I’ll pay your rent but please from now on pay your own rent so you can stay here.” I think that’s a wonderful story. A compassionate man.
He married Jacqueline Novelli and they had one child, Charles. They had a very happy life; it was a full life. They had a lot of guests because he knew a lot of people. Parties. I didn’t frequent those because I wasn’t in that circle. Also, in my early days of being a religious, we weren’t going out as much as we go now. We went out for our ministry but I was a Contemplative in Action and we didn’t go to family parties.
That’s my life.
You were born in 1919 so you’ve lived through major historical events. What were your recollections of the Depression,
World War II, JFK, and 9/11?
The Depression. I saw a lot of suffering. I was one of 19 students in grammar school and my father was the only one who was still working in his cabinet-making work when we graduated. Nobody else’s father was employed. I saw a lot of suffering. My godmother Carmella Palermo was a social worker so she used to come home with stories of sadness and heartaches during the Depression. So we heard a lot and it was all around me. I can’t say that I suffered during the Depression.
But we had some suffering during World War II. We had rations. I remember my mother giving me colored coupons to go buy the meat because there were rations and you could only have a certain amount a month. When you had finished those little coupons – rations we called them – you couldn’t buy any more meat. Sugar was rationed; a lot of things were rationed and we were told to be careful. You couldn’t have any more of that in the house – you had to wait until the next week for new rations.
JFK – I admired him. I remember when he died I was Principal at Ravenhill. It was just before I left. We all went to the chapel. We heard he was dying. I brought all the girls into the chapel to pray and Miss McGucken, the school secretary, had a radio going in the sacristy with the news minute by minute and we finally heard he had died. We went out on the front lawn and we put the flag at half-mast. That’s my recollection of the death of Kennedy. We saw it on television – we saw the shooting and all that business. It was sad. He tried hard, I think. We were very proud of having a Catholic President.
I also went through Franklin Roosevelt. I was proud of him. A Depression President. We never even knew he was a polio victim and was paralyzed. We kids didn’t know that – we didn’t know it until his death. I had the honor of meeting his wife. She was a great social worker – Eleanor Roosevelt. My cousin Edith Palermo was in social Service work and she had to go to a convention up in New York and Mrs. Roosevelt was the head of that. I think she had pulled it together. She came up to me and said “Ray, if I introduce you to that Afro-American fellow and he asks you to dance with him, will you dance with him?” I said “Sure.” She was afraid if he asked me and I said no he would be insulted. She was an outstanding social worker. And that’s what happened – she introduced me and he asked me to dance and, of course, I danced with him. She did not want that man to be hurt. Segregation was rampant then. So those are my recollections of those fine people.
You’ve interacted with a lot of historically famous people. Talk about a few of those who have made an impact.
Good people made an impact on me. Working in Rome with all those good Popes was a big impact on me. I think people like Eleanor Roosevelt had an impact on me. I think President Kennedy had an impact. I can remember thinking “Don’t ask what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” And I think that’s what I’ve tried to live. What I can do for my country, my church, my people, my congregation, for the lady sitting next to me in church. That’s the way I try to live. I try to reach out and, in reaching out, I was the one to receive. I had wonderful teachers – extraordinary teachers. Good examples.
Throughout your life, what are your observations of how society has changed or evolved?
Well what makes me very sad is that I’m living in a society that’s so violent. We never had that when I was a child. Do you know I was 33 years old when I entered the convent and I did not have a key to our house. We never locked our front door until the last person coming in locked it – my brother or I. We locked it from the inside but it was left open for us. We never worried about being robbed. No. We were friends of the police. We had a police patrol box right outside our house and, every hour, the foot patrol man would come and report back. “All is well.” We could hear them. No problems.
It was a peaceful society and it was interracial. The students in my school at Germantown High were interracial – I don’t remember any Asian, but maybe they were there. I wasn’t aware that people were different. No. That’s what saddens me now - that our children are afraid of walking down the street because of a gang. And that’s what happened last week. A gang – a gang of girls – jumped a girl and lacerated her face. I couldn’t sleep when I heard that story because it wasn’t far from here. That’s what saddens me.
We have good possibility in our society. Our society used to be very welcoming. Look at how we welcomed the early immigrants. They were able to make it. Look at our grandfathers – your great-grandfather made it – all those people did. They were welcomed. They had their problems when they started. Sure. My grandfather told me a story. He was walking down Haines Street one day and a white Protestant man was walking on the same side and when he saw my grandfather, he crossed the street. My grandfather wondered and asked somebody “Why did that man….?” “Because you’re a Catholic. You’re an immigrant Catholic.” So they suffered those little things but they weren’t prevented from taking jobs. If they had the talent and worked well, they could make it and climb the social ladder, and they did.
Yes, I’m sad but I have great hope for the future. We have a new Mayor (Michael Nutter) in our city – he spoke at his Alma Mater at the Prep the other day and he said “I have great hope for the city but I can’t do it alone. Each one of you has to help.” And that’s what I told the children across the street. Each one of you has to help him by being peaceful. They understood, because whoever is taking care of hem had said the same thing to them.
How would you describe your life mission?
I think I’ve been an educator and wherever I was I tried to share insights I got through learning, through grace from Almighty God. I’ve always been close to the sacraments. In Baptism I was infused with a certain grace. I was always ready to share. I am not shy. I share anything I have, anything I know. So I think my mission has been that of an educator, sharing with anybody I met – it didn’t matter who it was – male or female, black or white or yellow. But as I said before, I was the recipient of all the graces from all these people and I still am. Sure. An educator gives and receives. It’s a two-way street. I think that’s enough.
East Falls Oral History Project
Interviewee: Rose Welsh Whitty
Interviewer: Cherie Snyder
Interview: July 31, 1981
Transcribers: Jane Antheil, Philadelphia University (9/15/2009), Wendy Moody (2010)
CS: We’ll start off if you want to tell me your name and when you were born.
RW: My name was Rose V. Welsh – my marriage name is Whitty. I was born July 27, 1899. Is that alright?
CS: That’s fine. So, you just had a birthday.
RW: Yesterday, no, on the 27th
CS: So how old does that make you?
CS: 82 years old. How long have you lived in East Falls?
RW: All my life. My mother before me. She was born in 1868 on Laboratory Hill - Powers & Weightman’s estate. My grandfather lived here from 1828. He came from County Mayo, Ireland
CS: And that’s how the family came?
RW: They were all born and lived in East Falls.
CS: What brought your grandparents here? Was it work?
CS: What kind of work were they doing?
RW: Well he was in Powers & Weightman’s and I suppose he did something prior to that. He came 16 years old. My grandmother was 15 when she came.
CS: Were they married at the time?
RW: No, they married here, in Philadelphia. My mother’s people lived here for years and years. And they all had large families.
CS: Were you trying to remember something?
RW: I’m trying to think what I say next.
CS: That’s ok. I just didn’t want to cut you off. Did you say you were born on Laboratory Hill?
RW: My mother was born on Laboratory Hill in 1868. I was born on James Street which is now Stanton Street, on July 27, 1899.
CS: Now that’s not considered Laboratory Hill, right?
RW: No, it’s a street. Laboratory Hill was demolished and the Projects is over there –Falls of Schuylkill Project.
CS: Were they the homes of people who worked for the Weightman family?
RW: Yes, the chemical plant, and they had a school there for the children. And she started first grade there, but then she went down to the old yellow school house. [sounds like something was skipped here] and he was a railroad engineer. West Falls on the Reading Railroad. And they had 7 children, I am the second youngest and I am the last living member of the family.
CS: Oh really? So all your brothers and sisters…
RW: All brothers and sisters and parents and grandparents, and only one cousin living, she’s 87. And, I have one niece living. I only had one niece. I had a nephew, but he died. But she’s living in Florida. And, my nephew died in Iowa. So, as I said that leaves me the last living member. There are lots and lots of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. There are still some of them in the Falls. My mother’s name was McHale – Rose McHale. My father’s was James Welsh. My father was born on the street-Sunnyside Avenue—3522, in 1860, and he was married out of that house. My mother was living on Stanton Street with her father directly opposite the new school –the old school entrance – Stanton, now. We always called it Jimmy Street for James Street.
CS: Why did they change the name, I’m just curious?
RW: I don’t know, they did that to a lot of streets in Philadelphia. Now Ainslie Street back here used to be Spencer, er ah, ah, Fairview Avenue. And Calumet Street used to be Spencer Street.
CS: In your life time?
RW: In my lifetime. When I was a child, I used to go visit my uncle who lived there and this James Street and Spencer Street were after a man in that book, James Spencer, when they were early settlers here. And then, ah a lot of the streets have been changed. Arnold Street used to be Elizabeth Street, I think. A lot of them have been changed in modern times, you know. And then, let’s see, I went to school at St. Bridget’s.
CS: Now, were you, to go back a little, were you born in your father’s home here on…?
RW: I was born in my father’s home on Stanton Street.
CS: On Stanton Street?
RW: My grandfather also owned a home on Stanton Street. Right across from the old school main entrance. I was the only one born on Stanton Street, some were born on Calumet and my youngest sister was born on New Queen Street, 3556.
CS: Now how did you get over to this house?
RW: My father died in 1902, and then the year after, my mother bought this house, 3513 Sunnyside. And in 1944 I bought this house.
CS: No wonder you’ve been here so long.
[missing section here]
RW: But he comes to visit me every year and in the spring in the spring and winter he comes alone. So, he’s just been here in June.
CS: How old did you say this house was?
RW: It was built in 1874. There were eight of them. That’s what my deed reads. They were all built at the same time. My mother was born in 1868 and she was 6 years old when she saw these houses for the first time. A girlfriend, a schoolmate, bought 3515 and she ran over to see the new house and then years later, we bought 3513.
CS: Did she ever say how much they sold for then?
RW: Why they were built for $2500 in 1874. And she paid $1900 for hers, but it was in very bad condition and she had to remodel and do a lot of work to it in the same way I have done a lot of work, all new plumbing work.
CS: Did they, were they built with plumbing?
RW: Well, they had no bathrooms, and they had no heaters. They had holes –there were chimneys here- holes in the bedrooms if you want heat in the summer, I mean, winter when somebody was sick and ah, it was 1918 people began to remodel them and put bathrooms in off the back bedroom and put heaters in.
CS: Why around 1918 was it about then that they started to remodel?
RW: They didn’t have the money to do so.
CS: But after the war…
RW: After the war they, they had bought Liberty Bonds during the war and after the war they cashed them in and remodeled their homes. Most of them did that. I know my mother did. We bought Liberty Bonds and after the war in 1918, she started remodeling. She had all this broken out and open the staircase upstairs. She fixed the stairs and she had the heat put in and a bathroom put in and electricity –all in 1918. No one had electricity. We had gas. Prior to that we had oil lamps. Our streets used to be cobble streets.
CS: I didn’t know that.
RW: And they paved over them.
CS: About when did that happen that they paved…
RW: Not so long ago, since I’ve been in this house and I came in it in 1944. I remember the day they paved over there. They coated all over with black tar and in a day or so I remember all the kids from the neighborhood were out there with their bicycles and everything because it was so smooth.
CS: I bet after those cobblestones it was great.
RW: But, ah, that’s just since 1944.
CS: I ah, something came to mind, this wasn’t it, but maybe it will come back to me. When do you first remember locking your doors, when you thought you had to keep your doors locked?
RW: We used to go to Cape May every summer, and we had, and I still have, shutters all over these houses. They’re solid shutters on the first floor and slat shutters –moveable- on the second floor and no shutters on the third floor. And when we went to Cape May for many years, all my mother did was shut those slat shutters on the second floor and turn them down and opened the window about that high. Of course we locked the doors. We always locked our doors.
CS: Even when you were home.
RW: Oh, no, they were always open.
CS: Do you do that now?
RW: I lock mine. When we’d go to the store, there would be screen doors on, but I can’t remember when we started locking them, ‘til this violence started. Every place I go, I lock the doors. I do leave the windows open when I just run next door. We lock everything now at night. I lock everything up when I go sit on my porch. Is my voice carrying?
CS: Fine, it picked up beautifully.
RW: I can’t remember what we were talking about. All that you heard about the men coming around selling the crabs and all, I remember all that.
CS: The street vendors, but that’s not what you called them, you had another name. The hucksters.
RW: The hucksters. That was the men that came selling produce and on Friday they sold fish. And the grocers and all the storekeepers would go down there to the wharf at 2 o’clock in the morning for all their products and fish and everything. And then a couple - three or four families – had a huckster business l and they came around right to your door, in front of your door, and you would run out – you knew the time they were coming. And the grocers would come to your house in the morning and take your order and bring in back – maybe in less than an hour sometimes. And the grocers and the businessmen used to have a picnic at Willow Grove once a year and we would go on trolley cars. And we’d go out to Willow Grove and the families would take their family basket with them and then during the day, at certain hours, they’d distribute free food, like ice cream and lemonade. And then we got so many tickets to ride the amusements donated by the businessmen.
CS: Here in East Falls.
RW: In East Falls, yes. And ah, the stores all closed on Wednesday around here.
CS: All day?
RW: All day Wednesday. That was for them to go and order. I think they closed all day but I might be mistaken on that. They would go down and order all their stuff from the wholesale houses. Nothing was delivered to stores, only bread, later on bread was delivered. Nearly all opened by 5 o’clock in the morning.
CS: The stores did?
RW: Yeah, cause my mother, the mill started at 6 o’clock and mothers would go out and get buns and breads when the stores opened. There were all kinds of stores. This Conrad Street every store you see now was owned or rented and there would be maybe the same kind of business in the same square, the same block.
CS: You mean they would cluster certain businesses?
Yeah. We had fish houses, oyster houses, dry goods stores on Conrad Street and we had ice cream stores right across the street, all kinds of stores and down on Cresson Street there were stores. See, Tilden Street and Vaux Street those places were all woods. And they had big farms all around here.
CS: Well, when did that start to change on Conrad Street with all the stores?
RW: When the supermarket started. The first supermarket around here was the Acme. And it was down at Ridge and Midvale. And we used to walk down there.
CS: Is that where the Acme was?
RW: Yeah, it was down…
CS: Is it where there is a grocer there.
RW: Across from the firehouse. There was a drugstore there, last time I was down there.
CS: But that’s where the Acme used to be? When was that, in the 50’s?
RW: A lot earlier than that. When I was a child about ten years old. In 1910.
CS: I didn’t even know Acme was around then.
RW: When Acme was down there, when I used to go down over the railroad and there was a hill right after Midvale Avenue and we’d go down Midvale to Ridge Avenue, the corner, and they gave you crown (?) stamps with everything you got and then they would have all these special sales you know and the people would flock down when the specials were on. So eventually some of the grocers had to go out of business.
CS: So that was kind of the beginning when you’d see some of the stores…
RW: But they had the Acme down there for a long, long time, then they closed that and opened one over here at Bowman Street and Conrad.
CS: An Acme?
RW: An Acme Market and they had an A&P right over here where the politician is now.
RW: O’Donnell. That was an A&P for a long time.
CS: So A&P’s and Acme’s must have been a lot smaller than they are today.
RW: Oh, they were, yeah. Then they had an A&P up at Tilden and Vaux
CS: I never heard that before.
RW: And then they went out of business and the Coldwell boys had it for a long time. I don’t know who has it now; I never go up that way. And, we had all kinds of stores around here. We had a fish store right across the street, we had a bakery in the next store, and at different times we had a fish store at the bottom of that street, and before that there had been a feed store for horses. Hay and feed all kinds of food. We had a grocery store at the bottom of this street and a grocery at the bottom of ? and a grocery store at the bottom of New Queen Street. Different people took them over, you know. We had a butcher store here. We had one at Bowman Street. We had a grocery store diagonal with the butcher. We had lots of them, and they’d be open at night. They were all open at night and they were open early in the morning until 9 and 10 o’clock some nights. And plumbers, we had good plumbers. A lot of the plumbing work around here was laid by Mr. O’Brien. Mr. O’Brien who used to be on Ridge Avenue , and Mr. Weir who used to be on Indian Queen Lane and Mr. Forster who used to be at Ridge and Calumet.
CS: So a lot of local workers.
RW: As you’d go along you’d see names on the vents in front of these houses.
CS: I wanted to ask you, this is switching the subject, but where did you go to school?
RW: St. Bridget’s
CS: You went to St. Bridget’s.
RW: I graduated from there.
CS: From the time you first went to school you went to St. Bridget’s?
RW: Um hum. We all did. Seven, six of us.
CS: Now is the school that you went to still there?
RW: Still the same school. The gray stone school. Then they built the new school and my son entered that….he was born in ’37. I forget when that was built, but it had just opened when he went into the 7thgrade from the old school. Just went 2 grades there.
CS: What’s your most vivid memory going to school when you were a child?
RW: Well, I loved studying. I liked to study. I used to stay up ‘til 12 o’clock at night studying. And I liked the nuns. They were very nice to us and very polite. We were very polite at that time, too. And, we had a stage on the first floor. We used to have concerts over there. Then later they needed more room for children and they turned it into a classroom for the first grade. But, I can remember that stage there. And later on, many years after, the church used to have shows there and we’d go over. It was mostly adults in the chairs. Then later on when our old church was turned into a music hall, we used to have our affairs over there on Stanton Street. Course that’s been demolished since; there’s a playground there now.
But I loved school. I got seven certificates for daily attendance and the reason I didn’t get one the first year was I was sick for about a week or so, so I lost that. And my son got the eight for his attendance.
CS: Does that mean perfect attendance?
RW: Yeah, never late and never absent.
RW: And I liked it because we had to study and I loved studying and I wasn’t pushed in any way. You just had to study. Course the ones who didn’t study, they didn’t go ahead. We didn’t advance them. They didn’t go half. We didn’t get semi-annual examinations. Only once a year in June. So, you had to study pretty hard to pass that one examination in June.
CS: Can you just describe for me what a typical day was like at school from the time you’d get up and get off to school?
RW: Well, we went to school and when we went to school we said a prayer, the Our Father and the Hail Mary, and then we started on our schooling - our lessons and we had, I can’t recall just what our periods were during the day, but we had arithmetic, and English, and spelling. We had like four periods a day morning and afternoon. But I just can’t recall.
Then at Christmas time, Friday afternoon, we used to be allowed to make our Christmas presents. We listened to stories while we were sewing and making our Christmas presents. We could go around to the stores and could get ribbon like was on the bolt and we’d make pin cushions, we get scraps from home and we’d make pin cushions for the folks at home, my mother and sister. And then that time was when they wore hats and we’d make hat pin holders. We’d go to the drugstore and get a vial about that long and we’d twist ribbon around it and make like a rosette at the top and a hanger on it. And hang on the side of the bureau for your hat pins.
CS: So those were made.
RW: We made them in school. We’d make them a couple weeks before Christmas. And everything was made out of what—we had to go and get things for almost nothing, you know. Children didn’t have money like they have now. And then we would make something out of cardboard, as long as it was a Christmas present.
And then we had spelling bees, you know. And the captain, you know, she would pick her good spellers. She would pick them and then Sister would give us a word to spell, like on the side you would line up. And if she would miss it she would ask someone on the other side. No, she would ask the next one, and if she knew it, she would move up. And it was a race between my cousin and myself –which could stay first and second. (laughter) And, ah, then at the end of the year, the spellers were awarded something. So many spellers were awarded something.
Then while we were making Christmas presents, there’d be a girl reading us a Christmas story.
CS: Were your classes with boys?
RW: No, we were all girls when I went. And, it was a long time when my son went, too that they mixed them.
CS: That was different from the public school.
RW: Boys and girls went to the public school together.
CS: But at the Catholic School you were separated.
RW: We were separated.
CS: And did you have to pay to go to Catholic school?
RW: Oh, no. We didn’t have to pay. We were paying the City taxes. We didn’t have to pay to go to our own school. And that lasted for a long, long time. And we used to have what we called a school collection, I think, and they gave 25 cents a week for repairs. And when my boy went to Roman Catholic High School we never had to pay, only $15 a year. And some people doubted it, but it was. When he went it was $15 a year. And then from that on, things went up. Everything had to be repaired. And I was surprised when he came home and said “I have to have $15 tomorrow” and I said “What for?”
He said “School.” But when I was going to high school – I didn’t go to high school – but when my class went to high school they didn’t have to pay anything that I knew of. I went to business college.
CS: Now when did you finish at St. Bridget, then?
CS: And how old would you have been?
RW: I was 15 years old because we didn’t start till we were 7.
CS: And at that point you went to business college?
RW: No. I left in June, 1914 and my sister worked in the mill and she got me a job– most all the girls worked in the mill - because most of them couldn’t afford to go to high school – it was only two years then.
CS: What do you mean they couldn’t afford it – did they have to pay to go?
RW: No, they didn’t have to pay but they had to pay carfare. It was 5 cents but they couldn’t afford… They had to go to work to help the family. But the ones who had fathers – like my father, an engineer on the railroad – why they could pay and go to high school although a lot of them didn’t go. One of them that I knew, her mother had a business, a grocery store, she didn’t go to high school. She went to work in the butcher store as a cashier. But most of the girls couldn’t wait until they got in the mill. And when I went, I worked 15 months there, and it was like in school because all the girls I went to school with, excepting those few that went to high school. Well they only went two years to high school in those years. So I would work 15 months in the mill and I was 10 months in the business college and I graduated the same time they did and I got a job before they did. And I got twice as much as they did.
CS: Now what job did you get?
RW: I got a job as bookkeeper and stenographer in Dobson’s Mill on Scott’s Lane. I got worked in as plush mill in velvet and plushers – I worked in the velvet department and it was a nice job and I didn’t want to leave it to go to business college.
CS: Why did you?
RW: I liked it. And I liked working with the girls I went to school with. It was just like school, you know. And I came out…
CS: Why did you go to business college if you…What made you do that?
RW: My brother. My sister-in-law was a bookkeeping-stenographer and she said she thought it was a shame I was in the mill and she thought I should go to business college. So they paid for my business college education – my brother. See, there were still four of us at home, two boys had been married, and there were still four of us at home. We had had 7 but one died. So they thought I should go to business college and that’s how I come to go to business college. And when I first went it was quite different from St. Bridget School – there were girls and boys mixed and there were…
CS: What business college did you go to?
RW: Strayer’s. It was at 8th and Chestnut. And they – I took Pittman shorthand revised by Mr. Strayer and his brother – he had a college in Washington. And they shortened it so that we took, like, we had a lot of reporter’s word signs instead of long Pittman, see. But I also included court reporting word signs but I never used that. I would forget now, I guess. I know all my word signs, yeah, I often do dictation over the radio.
CS: Oh, that’s a good way to keep in practice!
RW: I keep up, I keep up. And I know all my bookkeeping. I run my house on a bookkeeping system.
CS: Good for you! That’s great.
RW: I never wanted to lose it in case I ever had to go to work, but I haven’t worked for 44 years. I left for the birth of my oldest son.
CS: You left work as a bookkeeper?
RW: When I was with Dobson. I worked there from October 1916 till February 1937. Counting the other time, I put 21 ½ years in.
CS: How did you get the job as the bookkeeper once you graduated from business college?
RW: Well the Strayer’s ran an employment office I worked in Mr. Strayer’s office and they guaranteed you a job. When I graduated in September, I worked in Mr. Strayer’s office as his stenographer-bookkeeper and I worked there for a month to get the experience and then I went out there to Dobson’s – Scott’s Lane.
CS: Did you just hear about the job?
RW: No, they called up. No, I didn’t hear about the job. See, all the firms would call Strayer’s Employment Agency. He had his own employment agency because he guaranteed you a job. And he would hold you in his office working so you that you could go right out and start working but it didn’t cost… (tape pauses here)
Of course it was quite different – I used to go along Conrad Street here over to Scott’s Lane and down Scott’s Lane – there’s how I used to go. But then when they started liquidating after the Great Depression, they rented the offices out – the buildings rather – and they moved us over to the carpet mall which was a mansion – an old mansion – the picture is in that book.
CS: Do you remember whose mansion it was?
RW: It’s in that book. I forget the name of it just offhand. And Mr. Dobson used that for an office. And I was there from about 1931 till 1937 in that department.
CS: Now was that when - since the Depression, is that when the mill started to…
RW: To liquidate. And they first started to sell all the machinery and all the material they had there.
CS: Were there any people still working there?
RW: Yes, there were people still working there when I left but there was only one man in the office and he was a CPA. And I was a jack-of-all-trades – telephone operator then, cost clerk, made out the payroll and everything. Once you worked for Dobson you did everything. But you see after 1929 business got slack and I didn’t have too much work to do so I really was – I didn’t get in until 9 and I left at-11. And I didn’t go back until 12 or 12:30 and I left at 5. I didn’t have the detailed work. And then they started leasing the buildings, as I said, and then they started selling them. As they emptied the buildings, they started selling them. And they wanted to sell them as a unit – the whole thing – the ones on Scott’s Lane and the ones on Crawford Street but they just didn’t get their price. And I guess the women - James had 5 daughters – and John had one – and John was dead by this time and James was dead too. So they liquidated and as the mills emptied I believe, I don’t know, but I believe somebody bought what was left.
But there are all kinds of businesses down there - I call it my alma mater. I pass down on Sundays on the bus –and come out Henry Avenue on the church bus and I’ll say “There goes my old alma mater!” (laughter). But it was a nice place. I had a nice position. Everyone was nice to me. I was practically my own boss. And I got vacations and when they liquidated I even got a couple weeks vacation of housecleaning! And I got my regular vacation. And when my mother was ill, I’d come home anytime – She’d just pick up the phone and I’d come right home.
CS: Why was that? Because the Dobsons were generous? Or they were fond of you?
RW: Well the Dobsons were already dead.
CS: I see. So you’re talking about when the mills were liquidating, you had a little more freedom.
RW: Yeah, I had a little more time.
CS: Now can you tell me what were the Dobsons like – the two Dobsons?
RW: Well, John Dobson when I went there – he was sort of senile. And he didn’t come in much – once in a while he would come in. But Mr. James Dobson, he came in every day in the morning and by that time he had a car. He didn’t always have an automobile. He would come up the hill on Crawford Street there, where the public school was, he would come up to - there was a hill on his property that would lead out to the railroad crossing. He walked to Bowman Street where the old railway station was and take the train down to the main office which was at 809 Chestnut Street.
CS: Oh, they had an office in town?
RW: Oh yes. We had an office where, oh, everything was done. There was an estate (?) of John Dobson’s located there too. See John Dobson owned all that property along the railroad. He owned a lot of property around here. But there was a combination. John Dobson was on the next floor and James – John and James - on the second floor from the street, the other was on the third floor - they conducted their business. Later it was mostly horseracing.
CS: Whose business was horseracing?
RW: John Dobson’s estate. His estate. You see his daughter, Mrs. Riddle, was a great horsewoman. She owned that Man-O-War horse that won so much money. And then her daughter married Mr. Jeffries. You’ll see his name in the papers now – Walter M. Jeffries - and he was a great horseman, see. They were all horsemen. And, as I said, Mrs. John Dobson had the one daughter and James had five. And two, like the father, two brothers married two sisters, the Scofield sisters.
CS: That’s what the Dobsons had done, right? Did you say that James and John…
RW: Had married the two Scofield girls. They worked for Mr. Scofield when they come to this country and then they met their future wives in the mill – their wives worked in the mill too – and they married these two girls. James married Mary Ann and John married Sarah. Then James had these five daughters and, just like their father, two daughters married two brothers. Two Dobson girls married two Norris brothers. Mrs. Richard and Mrs. John Norris. They married two Norris’ – Richard and John. They were a very fine family. As I said, John didn’t come in – after I went there in 1916, I only saw him a few times because he became senile. Then James did later on, but once in a while his chauffeur would bring him down. But John walked over. And he just lived around the corner on Allegheny.
And, Mrs. Altemus, she was a lovely woman. I knew them personally because they used to come down to the mill once in a while. And I knew Mrs. Riddle personally.
CS: They used to come down to the mill meaning…
RW: Bessie Dobson Altemus. She came down mainly during the First World War. She came down; she used to be dressed in white. A dress and a big white hat. In the summer she wore nothing but white. In the winter she wore black. A velvet dress with a long string pearls. And her hair became pure white. She was a beautiful woman. And they were all tall women except in the youngest girl, Florence, who married a lawyer from New York, Arthur Spencer. And she was a good sized woman but they were exceptionally tall.
CS: Was Mr. Dobson tall?
RW: No. John and James were – John Dobson was taller than James. James was a small man. In my eyes he looked small because I’m small. But on the other hand he was a very fine man. Now lots has been said about how mean he was – that is quite true. I know of one man who was going to be fired because he was out in politics. But he didn’t fire this man; this man quit before he was fired. (laughter).
CS: So people said he was mean…
RW: But, anyway, like if any children were around his property – he never had fences around his property – down to the playground was his property, and where the steel mill is. And I think it was comprised of 31 acres. And they wanted to try to get the public school to build a school down there but they wouldn’t do it because it was too near the railroad for children. And then the steel mill bought so many acres of ground down there. And he never had a fence around his property. He said nobody had a right on his property. And if anybody got hurt that was their own fault. And, of course, in those days people didn’t sue. They were afraid of losing their jobs. So there were a couple of men down there – one had his arm taken off and one had… - he worked in the carpenter shop and it was cut right off. They just signed that he would work with them and he would give them a life-long job. Well the mill liquidated, went out of business, and they were out of luck. But I must say, for myself, he was a very pleasant man. I took his dictation every morning when he come in, whatever he had, and he was a very pleasant man to us. He was up in years at that time; he could always crack a joke to somebody. Sometimes when I walked in, why, like one day I had a buzzer. That office had a door - our other offices didn’t. But when he would come in, they would close the door to talk privately, see? And I had this little buzzer in there and one push was for me. And two pushes were somebody else and so on. So one day it pushed and I grabbed my book and I started in but I knocked anyhow on the door before I went in and they said “Come in.” I come in and they all looked at me. There was this son-in-law – this Mr. Spencer, Mr. Dobson and the manager and the general manager there and the assistant general manager. And they looked at me and I was dumbfounded when they looked at me because the boss would always say “Sit down” – I’d have my favorite seat to sit down besides his desk and Mr. Dobson would sit beside him and he would dictate to me. And for a minute I didn’t know what to do. No-one spoke, they just looked at me in surprise. So the general manager - he must have sensed what was wrong and he said to me “What’s the matter, Miss Welsh?” And I said, “Well my buzzer rang.” And he said “Well we didn’t ring it.” (laughter) And I was embarrassed! I said “You didn’t ring it? I said, “Well it rang real loud.” So after a while the boss looked over the buzzer. Just then Mr. Dobson leaned back on his chair and with his head pushed the buzzer!”
CS: They wondered why you came in!
RW: The general manager said “Mr. Dobson, you called the girls!” “Miss Welsh” he said “I didn’t call her – I didn’t push no buzzer.” He said “You did with the back of your head!” Well Mr. (James) Dobson almost went off the chair laughing. And that’s how pleasant he was with us. He always had something nice to say.
One time he leaned down and I used to wear my hair – I always twist it in a roll – it looks like bob when I go out – but I always wore it in a roll in the back – I had extra long hair – black hair. And he put his hand on my head going out one day and he said “You have a beautiful head, little girl. Take care of it.” And I never had my hair bobbed – I’ve never been to the hairdresser only ten times in my life – and each time I had a bob was for my son’s wedding, that was 18 years ago and other times for something special. But we got a good laugh out of that, you know and so I’d always wait and I’d say to the boss “Push it twice when Mr. Dobson is here. Push it twice and I’ll know what to do - let someone else run in!” Then it was really funny, but he was a nice old man to me.
And when he come down sometimes he’d bring his wife with him, really lovely. And she was a nice – she was so small, and she used to wear a little bonnet tied under her – all in black she dressed and she had - she was up in years and she’d have a fine dress on, black trimmed with lace and all, and this little bonnet set up upon her head. And she had peaches and cream complexion. Beautiful little woman! And I would go out – I would sit in the car with her while they were inside and then she would ask me, you know, she’d ask me different little things about the mill because she never got down and got in the mill. They never took her down.
But, as I was saying, during-the First World War, Mrs. Altemus came down and she went – one time she brought a British soldier – he was an officer – I can’t recall what it was – and she was all in this white. And we had a platform built out in a little court for her to stand on and to talk and she introduced this officer. And then she had another American officer with her and he spoke to us all and we were all out there listening to him. Then after it was all over she said: ”Now we’re out for Liberty Bonds”. And she says “Who will be the first one to take it?” So some man stepped forward, you know, and he said he would be the first one to take it. She said “I’m not taking your name just now” but she said “Our assistant is here, Miss Welsh, and she’s going to come through the mill and you be sure to treat her right and give her a bond.” So, of course, I was well-known living here and most everybody from the Falls worked there, so you’d be surprised the bonds I got that day. And then there were so many more of them, I had to go back two or three days more to get them. And then it was taken out of their pay.
By the end of the time the war was over they had bonds to do whatever they – of course they could draw them after the war was over, you know. But that’s how many people got remodeling their homes from the bonds they bought in the First World War - and other things – paying their debts and all. You know some families had to double up; they were losing their homes and children were going with their parents. And you could buy homes very reasonably… men were building them and foreclosing on them, and anybody who had money could buy the houses.
But I must say I was glad I ever went back to work. And I got numerous people work down there. Then when they closed, you know, I was sitting there in the office nearly all day by myself, and we had different men used to come in and I’d be sitting there and one day a man came in and I thought: “I recognize that man” when he came in. It was then all those years since I had seen this person but I was trying to recall who this man was. And when I worked in the mill, I worked under this man. And he was a very fine man. And he lived in this town. When I said I was leaving, he said to me – now he was all over the whole velvet department - “Now why are you leaving?” And I told him. And he said “Oh, I’m glad you are. Getting a better education.” So I hadn’t seen that man for years – he had a mill of his own in Kensington – but when this man came in and I was really coming off on my lunch hour I thought: ”Oh, his face is familiar’. And when I went back, here was a note to make a bill out this man for some looms he had bought and a check. And as soon as I looked at his name, I said “Gee, that’s the same man. I wish I could have seen him, to tell him I was back in the same place!” I thought he would be interested, you know. But I hadn’t seen him; I guess he’s dead now.
CS: What was his name?
RW: Tom Murphy. Thomas Murphy. He was a fine boss too. He was boss over the whole velvet department. And I’ll tell you one time when I was in the mill I was given his pay by mistake.
CS: Oh, that would have been nice!
RW: I was given his pay by mistake. And they came around with long boxes – about that long and about that high to hold the pay envelope. We paid cash then – all cash. When my pay was handed out, you had a check about that long to hand with your name on it and you got your pay. And I took it and I walked back to where I belonged never looking at it. And when I go down and open it up, it had on it “Thomas Murphy” – it was his pay envelope. I didn’t give that to anyone. I held it. Of course he came in at a certain hour and when he came in, I walked up to him and I said “Mr. Murphy, I think this belongs to you.” But I didn’t tell anybody I had that pay. And he was very, very nice to me at all times but after that he was so glad that I was getting out of the mills. And I can remember that. But no-one to this day – I think you’re the first one I have told that too. Now I guess everybody will know!
CS: Now everybody!
RW: I liked it there. It was really home to me. But there’s so much you could tell about it. But I guess, maybe, I don’t know, sometimes I know he was mean but not to me. And I always had to speak up to people.
CS: What happened at the mill at Christmastime? Did he have any special for you or for his people who worked there?
RW: Nothing. For the office we always got Christmas presents. And when I was married they gave me beautiful silverware, both the firm and the family. I have a lot of silverware I got. And they were very nice to me – my mother – before I married she was very sick – she was in Jefferson Hospital. And they were very nice to me. I could just drop work whenever I felt like and go down to that hospital. If my sister got a call that she wasn’t feeling good, I could drop by work and go right down to the hospital and stay with her and then if she wasn’t well the next day I didn’t have to go in, I could go right down the hospital. That all counts. And then Mrs. Altemus knew my husband – he also worked at the main office - that’s where I met him. And Mrs. Altemus and Mrs. Jeffries they all knew him. They’d go down to the office. They knew him as well as they knew me. But see they knew my family – my parents and my grandparents before me. All were in the Falls. They knew everybody’s parents. My mother never worked in the mill but my father did. He started 9 years old and he started on a little stool to get up to where the machine was going. And my grandfather taught the Dobsons to do things. He was a boss carter (carder?) up at the stone mill up at the Wissahickon Creek. When the Scofield girls came here, he taught them certain things and then when he was down the mill - he was a boss carder there - and then later his son was in the spinning room. It’s a very extensive trade – I mean it has a lot of detail to it. They took me out – anything I would ask about, they would take me right out and show me – how it was made – it would come in sheered from the sheep’s back and it would be in oil that the sheep had picked up no matter where he went in his body (indecipherable) and then they would send it what they called the scouring room. And they had washing tubs and they were, like, half a circle. And they would put that in – they would first send it to what they called pickering house or burr room or something and they would pick all those stickers and everything off
CS: Is that where the little children worked? Did I hear that somewhere? They put little children in there?
RW: No, not in the pickering house. They put little children – my father – worked in the spinning room. I don’t know where…anyway, this machine, the first machine would take all the stickers out – anything they picked up in their wool. And then this other machine would wash it and it would come out beautiful. Like silk. You could take it like that and squeeze it.
And then it would go into a carding room – that’s what my grandfather had been – boss carder – and it would be put on a carding machine which would separate it into little pieces.
And they would come down and go on spools and then it would take it to the spinning room where the machines would go back and forth and would spin and twist it, twist it into certain grades, like thick or light, you know, the threads.
And then it would be taken from there to the winding room where the girls would wind it on the spools.
And then from the winding room it would be put into bobbins – steel bobbins – about that long. I’m talking particularly now about velvet. And they were like steel bobbins and they would run back and forth. And then there was a beam, which was a cylinder about this high, and threads were running around that – they called them beamers, the woman who did that. And then they were like on the bottom and then you churdled (?) you had toppers called the filling and the bottom called the warp and the threads would come in like this from the warp, and the shuttle went across with the filling. I had some beautiful velvet upstairs that they wove.
CS: Oh, really?
RW: Yes. When we stopped working, why we could take anything we wanted and I took some velvet, see, and some upholstery stuff, I took. We had our sale room was in New York and that all came back. We sold a lot of it. Then there were a lot of odds and ends left in velvet. Beautiful velvet. It was hat velvet and dress velvet. And the dress velvet was all panne velvet – that was pressed (?) real…
CS: Is that ever the velvet the Mrs.Dobson - that Bessie Altemus wore?
RW: Yeah. The back of that was silk. The back here was silk and the face was silk too. Of course that panne velvet was beautiful. I have a dress upstairs of it but it’s put away. My sister had made it for me before I started to sew myself. I had a little jacket with buttons down here.
CS: Made out of material from the mill?
RW: Yeah. And they wore long skirts down here then. I…invited to get (indecipherable) down there on Scott’s Lane. Through his knowledge (John Dobson) of textiles, he was – of course he was a citizen. He was made an officer in the Union Army, John. And James I guess too. That was before my time. Later in years they kept up blankets, but then they made clothing blankets for men and women’s suiting – overcoat material – and they made suiting – men and women’s suiting – pin striped suiting – that was a great go. And then they made coats – lumberjacket cloth – plaids and for woman they made fake fur – teddy bear cloth, you know for teddy bears? And cerical (?), black cerical (?), they made that. And they made plushes.
And not only did they have these mills down here, they had other mills besides what’s in the Falls. They had the Somerset (that was named after a town in England), out at 8thand Somerset Streets in Kensington. And they had a men’s/woman’s suiting out in Germantown – that was called the Bradford Mills, a town in England. And then they had a place in Kensington called fleece-lined underwear, like they used to wear and I think you can buy men’s sport jackets with that, for sports, you know, to absorb perspiration. And they had a yarn mill up in Manayunk; it was called Mt. Vernon Mill, that was called. I don’t know if they had a Mt. Vernon in England, but we had a Mt. Vernon here. And they had an interest in the Imperial Woolen Company and the Dobsons’ women – it was run by their brother down in Manayunk. Imperial Woolen Company. And they had an interest in that. And they were also very fine men. I knew two of them coming in the office.
CS: We’re almost at the end of the tape, and I had one question I also wanted to ask you about the Dobsons. Did Mr. James, who was there, or was it John…which one did you say was around more?
RW: James. He lived longer than John.
CS: James, he’s the one. Did he have any special quirks, or odd things that he did? Any special habits?
RW: Not in my time. He just would come in and he would stay about an hour and a half and get everything that had come up in the day before. And all matters would be brought up to him and letters he wanted to answer personally, we could answer those. And at times he wouldn’t even sign them. You know, he’d leave them and sign them part of his name, see.
But John, John, yes, he had one thing. When I first went there, there was an old swivel chair there and it must have been out in the weather because it looked like weather-beaten. And if you touch it, it went this way, you know. So nobody touched it. There was a new girl in the office. Brand new desk and a chair – the typewriter would go down –I pulled it up and down like my sewing machine and then they had a nice chair for it. And I also had another flat old table that was there that I used to work the bookkeeping. So I always wondered what this chair was sitting there in the corner. So one day I asked, you know. “Oh don’t touch that chair” – he was still coming in at that time, you know. “That’s a $50,000 chair.” And I said “$50,000? I’d throw that out” to the boss. “I’d throw it out. It’s so old.” And he said “Oh, no. Do you want to hear the story about it?” I said yes. He said “Well there was a firm that owned Mr. John Dobson $50,000. And he couldn’t get nothing out of him! So he went down there and he grabbed that chair and he said “I’m going to get me $50,000 worth!” So that’s why they term it the $50,000 chair. So after Mr. Dobson died, perhaps it went in the junkyard, I guess. It went out of the office because they were afraid someone would sit on it! But nobody… it was pushed back in the corner and somebody might accidently pick it out. That was real funny. I wish he had told me that joke himself – a joke on him - but he, James, was a real nice man. I think he changed as he got older. It was a shame they did away with the mill but no one wanted it. See after he died the woman didn’t want to keep it.
CS: It must have been hard on the people…
RW: ……work you know. And I would go down and there would be men there who had been there a long time. And I did get several people work through men that were coming in and buying the machinery or buying something, you know, or leasing the buildings. And I did get a few people in that way. But I used to feel sorry because people would come into the office and walk all the way from Kensington looking for work.
CS: Oh! All the way from Kensington!
RW: All the way from Kensington looking for work! And when they couldn’t get any here, they’d walk all the way up to Manayunk and the same thing up in Manayunk. They couldn’t get work.
CS: And this was during the Depression.
RW: And they were selling candy. I’d buy candy off them; I was sick at my stomach. And they were selling – they used to go, years ago, from door-to-door selling notions, you know. Peddlers, they called them. And they’d come in there with a big basket of stuff and I’d say -”Come on, I’ll take you out in the mill, the men that were still there, and see if somebody wants something. And I’d go out and he’d stand at the door…
END OF TAPE