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MEMORIES OF GROWING UP IN PENCADER HUNDRED DURING THE 1940s AND 1950s.

by John Wilson Slack, Sr.

Over the past several years I have read with great interest the childhood memories of two long-time friends, Barbara Bryant White and Louise Lattomus Dick. They have inspired me to share my recollections of growing up in a rural area south of Newark.

On the first Sunday in December 1941, I remember an aunt and uncle coming to visit. In somber tones they discussed with my parents an event that had occurred that morning which would mean we were at war. There would be changes for everyone in the next few years.

It seemed everyone had a Victory Garden, scrap metal of all kinds was collected for the war effort, gas and other commodities were rationed. A unique change was the installation of opaque curtains in many households. Each night those curtains would be drawn to prevent any earthly light being seen from possible enemy planes above. On Chestnut and Polly Drummond Hills wooden lookout towers were constructed and manned by two people working in shifts throughout the night. In 1943 the U.S. Army established an ammunition depot on the 1047 acres they purchased, where the Pencader Plaza /Scottfield area now stands.. Ammunition was stored in railroad boxcars dispersed throughout the depot. It was called the Newark Holding Area. The idea was that large quantities of ammunition could be quickly moved by rail to the Port of New York and then shipped to wherever needed. The depot was enclosed with a 12-foot high barbwire fence. German prisoners of war were incarcerated there and assigned various menial tasks. At harvest time the prisoners would be employed by local farmers. World War II ended before any large supply of munitions could be stored in the depot.

It may seem strange but one of my earliest memories was the coming of the highway men. There were three, two wielding scythes and the third driving a horse drawn mowing machine. They had stopped under our gum tree on a terribly hot, dry summer day in the early 1940s. Their red faces and clothes were covered with perspiration. From a wooden cistern mounted on the side of the mowing machine, they drew water for themselves and their horses. The two men standing sharpened their scythes with whetstones, wiped their brows, took a last gulp of water, and then the three of them moved off. I watched as they slowly moved down the road leaving behind a neatly mowed road bank.

There was a special lifestyle for some back in that era. Today we would call they homeless, but in the 1940s they were known as hobos. These men would walk or ride the rails. They came from somewhere…. their destination was nowhere. One or two a week would pass by our home, often carrying all their worldly belongings in a small satchel slung over their shoulder. They would often stop and ask for, or offer to work for, a meal. Their sleeping time was in any barn or shelter close to the railroad or under the open skies.

Our elementary school was a two-story brick building, now demolished, which was located on the southeast corner at the intersection of Academy Street and Delaware Avenue. It was ruled by Miss Sarah Steele, Miss Jacquette, Miss Morrison, and the legendary Miss Jenny Smith. These ladies taught us, disciplined us, and earned the respect of all. Miss Smith must have taught in the old Newark Special School District for over 50 years. In 1944, she was my second grade teacher; in 1904 she had been my father’s second grade teacher at the old Welsh Tract County School #54. She and her sister lived on South College Avenue just north of the old PRR railroad station. They both lived to be nonagenarians.

A number of the teachers, administrators, and school board members who served in the mid 1900s have been memorialized by having schools named after them. Consider: McClary, Marshall, McVey, Shue, Medill, Jenny Smith, Gauger, Jones and Gallaher.

Many of the roads leading into or around Newark then consisted of compacted dirt and stone. In summer months the wheels of vehicles would pulverize that dirt vase in a fine powder. It was like walking through a giant vat of brown flour. Then the rains would come and large mud holes resulted. After they dried, the roads would have to be scraped and leveled back into shape. With the arrival of fall and winter the roads would solidify again. The introduction of concrete and black-top for road surfaces has to be one of the greatest advances of the 20th century.

There were many small farms surrounding the Newark area in the 1940s and 50s. Certain farms have left permanent imprints on the history of New Castle County…the Dempseys at corner Ketch, the Staffords on Newark-Ogletown Road and chestnut Hill Road, the Zeitlers and the Barczewskis of Glasgow and the Mayers of Newark-Elkton Road. On Iron Hill there were several families of Finns: they all had the same occupation, selling eggs produced by their large flocks of White Leghorn and White Rock chickens. These family names were Salminen, Pollari, Palo, Maki, Fagerlund Tammi, Marson and Lehtinen. Long-time and much respected African-American families: Smiths, Jameses, Williams, Earls and Congos were also residents of the Iron Hill area.

There was one annual event that Newark did not look forward to. A clan of gypsies would normally come in late springtime and often would camp near Purgatory Swamp. They would then invade the neighborhood selling rough hewn furniture, chairs, tables, benches, etc. The gypsies would normally stay in the area about two weeks. Their departure was welcomed by all since they were considered to be “dishonest, unclean and in cahoots with the devil.”

The family doctor would make house calls, usually in the afternoon, having completed his morning office appointments. He would arrive with his stethoscope, satchel filled with a multitude of pills, and a needle which I thought greatly resembled an unsharpened pencil. All three would ultimately be utilized. Two cures for colds, flu and the like, were sulfa drugs and hot mustard plasters applied to the chest. Someone once described the taste of sulfa drugs as capable of gagging a maggot.

It is difficult to imagine that in 1900 railroad passenger service existed between Newark and Delaware City. That rail spur out of Newark from the main Pennsylvania Railroad line (today Amtrak) had eight stations (stops) along the way. Passenger service was also provided from the main Pennsylvania line north through the east side of Newark to Pomeroy, PA. If you had taken an imaginary ride north from that main Pennsylvania Railroad in Newark in 1945, you would have passed a hosiery mill, Continental Diamond Fibre, Newark Lumber Company, Eastern States, National Vulcanized Fibre and across White Clay Creek, Curtis Paper Company. None of these business sites exist today. It is so true the only permanence is change.

The late 1940s and 1950s were a special time for those of us who grew up then. After WW 2 ended there seemed to be unlimited hope and faith in the future and a general feeling that all problems could be solved. There was a quiet and trusting relationship between all races and walks of life. It was the best of time….times I fear will not come this way again.

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Webpage Updated: FLR on: 2/21/08