I was born when my family lived in the 6500 block of 9th Street but they moved when I was 2 to 909 69th Street in 1940, a seven-bedroom house that my father bought for $7,000. That house can be seen in the center of the photo below. It had a library, stain glass windows and a grand staircase. All the bedrooms connected from within or through the two bathrooms on the second floor. The third floor had three rooms and a bathroom with claw foot tub. The previous owner had a maid who probably lived on the third floor who could be summoned by a bell from the kitchen to the upper floor. The house was one of four like designs in a row. Three were field stone to the second floor and one was stone up to the third floor. In the 1930 census, George Read lived at 913 with his wife and adult son, Merle. George was born in 1861 and died in the late 1940s. He was a jewelry salesman who in summer wore blue seersucker suits and straw skimmer hat. His son was a pencil manufacturer. The house was sold to a Naumann family, a middle aged man and wife and her mother. He was a rose fancier. After moving in he had the house repainted in the interior and did a lot of work outside as well. One night he invited my father over for a drink. I don’t know any details except my father recalled Naumann’s concern about his furnace. At any rate after my father departed, Mr. Naumann must have fallen asleep with a lit cigarette that started a fire in the living room. The newly oil painted walls probably fueled the fire. Mother woke all of us up in the middle of the night fearful that our house would catch on fire. Fortunately the wind was coming in from the north and the flames shot out toward the street. Mr. Naumann died, his mother-in-law was severely burned and his wife survived unharmed. They were able to get out by the back stairs and rear porch. The house was restored. The house at 905 on the other side was owned by a Mrs Lynch. In 1930 she had seven boarders. She died about 1945. I watched men take a mattress out and thought the body was in it. The next house down was owned by the DiVincenzos mentioned above.
Kids growing up in Oak Lane in the 40s and 50s had pretty much free roam of the neighborhood. At age seven I was down on Cheltenham Avenue chasing after WW II propaganda leaflets that were dropped from planes. Certain colored leaflets were more desirable but I don’t know why. I saw one across the avenue and I went after it without looking. Fortunately I hit the car instead of the other way. I had a small wound on my forehead but did I bleed and my mother said she had to treat the driver more than she had to attend to me.
There was a kind of divide in Oak Lane at least in the area around Oak Lane Avenue among kids: those who went to Elwood and those who went to Holy Angels. Eddie O’Boyle’s mother across the street admonished him not to play with the Protestant kids. But he did anyway. There were a few Jewish families in that particular area. Kids played lots of the games in the alley between Verbena and 9th Street or on 9th Street itself. Classes at Elwood were probably half Jewish and I think most lived down near Chelten Avenue. There was one black kid who lived on 10th Street who we would see from time to time but he never got involved in our games. I don’t think we had anything against him.
The business center at 8th and Oak Lane Avenue was where we kids would hang around and even get jobs. I worked for the pharmacy behind the soda fountain delivering prescriptions all over the neighborhood. Frequently I delivered prescriptions to the Carmelite Monastery at 66th and York Road where I had to pass them through a revolving wooden conveyance keeping me from seeing the nuns and their seeing me. I also delivered to Mabel on 5th Street around 68th Street who lived alone in a big house that was dark and dingy and smelled of cats. She signed her checks with a wooden pen dipped in ink and did so with a palsied hand. One year, a bunch us worked at Franklin Field during the Penn football games serving hotdogs and cokes. We got to watch the games between the quarters and half time. At that time Penn was a football powerhouse that played Penn State, Notre Dame, and University of Southern California among others like Harvard and Yale. Star players were Reds Bagnell and Chuck Bednarek, the latter a long time player of the Eagles.
I delivered groceries by wagon for customers of the American Store and I delivered beer to houses and bars for the beer distributor. The business district was self-contained but did not have a hardware store. My father saved every nail, straightening them if necessary and saved every paint brush. He had to walk to Old York Road and Cheltenham Avenue to buy a bottle of liquor. I went with him and found the State Liquor Store to be an austere place. The neighborhood had a pizza parlor in the early 1950s probably the first anywhere outside of South Philadelphia.
Eddie the barber took over from Pete about 1950. We stopped going to Pete because his haircuts were terrible. I then had to go to York Road to get a haircut at my father’s barber. Anyway Eddie changed all that. And he stayed at barbering at that location probably for 40 years or more. We had a neighborhood reunion at Larry Wentz’ house in around 2002 and Eddie was there. He was retired at that time. He must have unparalleled stories about that neighborhood.
The part of Oak Lane that centered on 8th and Oak Lane Avenue was mixed in terms of income, education and status. My father was a bank analyst, Larry Wentz’ father owned an insurance brokerage. One father was a scientist at the Navy Yard. One ran a skee ball concession at Wildwood NJ. Jim Saddington worked for the Reading Railroad. The 1930 census showed a number of merchants, engineers, architects and people in sales and publishing. But other families were wage earners. Mr. Mack who lived at 1001 69th Avenue bought a new Cadillac every couple of years. He walked to and from the train and tipped his hat when passing women. The woman who lived in that grand house on the southeast corner of 10th Street and 69th Avenue had a gray Lincoln driven by black chauffeur.
In those days Martin’s Century Farms milk straight from the dairy was delivered to the house with the cream naturally separated in the top. We had oil heat but many houses still got coal deliveries and had to put ashes out periodically, using them on the sidewalks when it got icy. The ashes were picked up by horse drawn metal bins that when full were taken to long bed trucks that could fit three bins on the back to haul away. Many houses still had iceboxes and ice was delivered by horse drawn wagons. Kids used to get pieces of ice during the summer and even caged rides on the back of the wagon. The street-lights were gas illumined and every couple of weeks a man came by with a small ladder and cleaning equipment to clean the large globes. Those globes got shattered every so often from an errant ball but there was little deliberate smashing of them.
It was a neighborhood of contrasts in housing, row houses mixed with single standing houses. Big houses mixed with small. On 69th Avenue, the first block up had had nice brick row houses on one side and elegant duplexes on the other. After that the houses were mostly, single, three storey, of field stone construction from about 1900. The houses on 69th Avenue from 10th Street to 12th were referred to as “Battleship Row” because of the immensity of the houses, some actually having fourth level attics. Ninth Street had modest twinhouses mixed with the Gudis’ mansard stone house and the Thalheimers beautiful gothic house hidden down behind the hedges toward Verbena Avenue. The alley behind the row houses on 69th Avenue and 9th Street were the main play areas for the neighborhood and the play included Softball, Simon Says, Johnny Johnny Jump, Capture the Flag, Hop Scotch, Jacks, Stickball, Hide and Seek and just hanging around. In many respects the neighborhood was like a small town.
The police station was referred to as the Branchtown Station. There were never any neighborhood gatherings or celebrations except for V-J Day in August 1945 and when the Phillies won the pennant in 1950. What a bitter disappointment when the Yankees swept the World Series. On V-J Day I helped deliver a special magazine put out by the Evening Bulletin that traced the course of the war with photos. The Reformed Church had a Strawberry Festival every spring and Sturgis Field on 5th Street had Memorial Day remembrances with Root and Birch Beer.
We went to movies at the Lane Theatre on York Road at 66th Avenue and Erlen Theater on Cheltenham Avenue in West Oak Lane. The shows consisted of previews, newsreels, serials (people falling off a cliff at the end of the previous episode), a cartoon and then the movie. The Erlen had a blue dome ceiling like a darkened sky with a fake brick wall around the cornice. It had two aisles. A few times I got to got to the Mastbaum Theatre downtown and saw on one occasion Samson and Delilah with Victor Mature and Hedy LaMarr.
Next to the alley there were maybe a dozen brick garages but no one ever parked their cars in them. Their ownership was unknown but the Hall brothers used them for pigeon coops and escaping from the police through preconstructed tunnels. The garages were torn down and for a time the space was a pile of bricks. Out of the bricks some of us built a candy store, bought candy at the store and set them out for sale. A kid from 7th Street promised to watch the store while the boys went home for lunch. The candy was gone on return.
The Halls, father and sons built a sailboat in the garage. The boys also built a tree house using the discarded garage doors from the torn down garages. It meant using pulleys to get them up the tree selected on a vacant lot on Lawnton Avenue. Why the police didn’t chase them away from this perilous enterprise seems amazing today. They also built a small cabin at Rocky Gulch that Boy Scout Troop 173 used on weekends in the Fall and Spring. And they built a plywood jeep that looked real. Once they rigged a rope swing from the southwest side of the railroad bridge that went out way over Cheltenham Ave. I didn’t have the nerve to swing from the fence but did so a little bit down. That was my only ride because a police car had pulled up under the bridge. I swung back and we all ran.
Oak Lane Presbyterian Church was where I was sent every week for Sunday School. Sometime I had to go to the Church service. Mr. Maussert was the organist and the same four people constituted the choir who I think were paid. The Minister early on was Dr. Beale who was succeeded by Dr. John Strock’s whose sermons, were dry, boring and beyond us. I sat there dreading the sermon that always took 20 minutes and might as well been a lifetime. The Doxology meant it was over.
During the war, my father was an air raid warden who when the sirens went off had to go out in a white helmet to tell residents to turn off the lights or pull down the blackout shades. Who ever thought that the Germans could possibly bomb Philadelphia. During the blackouts we listened to the radio in the dark to programs like Inner Sanctum with the squeaky door, Suspense and the Shadow with his
insidious laugh. My older brother took great pleasure in scaring me in the dark. On the vacant Hall Murcer lot at Oak Lane Avenue and 10th Street many “Victory Gardens” sprouted up and all kinds of drives took place to collect rags, newspapers and metal objects.
We regularly burned trash in the back yard and then put the charred residue in a metal can to be picked up. Friday was pickup time but one old black man high on a horse drawn wooden wagon came by on Thursday night picking over the trash for goodies. The kids in the neighborhood did the same and found some good stuff.
We did not just have Halloween. It was preceded by Mischief Night, Soap Night, and Chalk Night. It’s a wonder that people passed out candy and such. A candy bar was very much desired, but ginger snaps and apples were not nor were handsful of candy corn. We liked to go to the Apartments by the Oak Lane Station because through one door one could knock on four apartments at a time.
After the war, we took excursions from downtown on a river boat to an amusement park south of the city. The river really stunk in those days. Shibe Park was the place to watch the Phillies in their red, white and blue uniforms and the A’s in plain blue trim. One took the subway to Lehigh and walked west to about 21st Street. One passed through a neighborhood of row houses and on game days or nights the porches were always occupied watching the passers-by or even trying to sell something. One afternoon my brother and I watched a Phillies game on television at a neighbor’s. We did not have television. The family was having a picnic in the side yard but Mr. Eberz said to tell him if anything unusual happened. An opposing hitter lined a shot to centerfield and it appeared to us and to all at the park that Richie Ashburn had made a shoestring catch. The umpire ruled it a hit and the park went berserk with fans throwing bottles of beer onto the field. (Since then fans get beer in a cup) Players and umpires had to hide in the dugouts. It went on for a time and the game was forfeited to the opposing team 9 to 0. The game was over. We walked out of the house and Mr. Eberz asked who won. We told him it was a forfeit and he was stunned we hadn’t called him in.
Boy Scout troop 173 was founded about 1920 about the time the entire organization was founded and met in the basement of the Methodist Church at 12th and Cheltenham Avenue. John B (Doc) Chubb, a dentist, was the scout master. In the spring and fall we regularly went to the troop’s camp ground on the Nashaminy Creek, actually it consisted of crude cabins with pot belly stoves. It’s a wonder we didn’t burn them down and we with them. We also went to Hart Scout Reservation up near Lansdale where we all stayed in a lodge. And in the summer we went to Treasure Island, always the first week because our scoutmaster found the latrines then to be a little more bearable. Dan Leary and John Neff on 7th Street were the only Eagle Scouts I recall. Most of us were content with 2nd Class although I managed to the rank of Life Scout. In 1953 I discovered the charms of girls and Boy Scouts lost something for me.