Visiting May Wixom, and my early recollections of Interlaken
By Bruce Clark January 2006 Volume 31 No. 3
Reading Bob Dickerson's story of "Grandma's House" in the historical society newsletter brought back many fond memories of his grandmother, May Wixom, and my early years in Interlaken. In my estimation May Wixom was one of Interlaken's finest citizens. I remember her exactly as pictured in the photo: volume 31, No. 1.
For a bit of history: In 1900 my grandparents lived in Rochester. Their next-door neighbors were Anna Dickerson, her husband, and family. Anna was mother of Joe, Floyd, Adrian, Carleton, and Charles Dickerson. After Anna's husband died, Anna moved to Interlaken and my grandmother Rae Metcalf visited Anna often, usually boarding the Lehigh Valley train from downtown Rochester and arriving at the Interlaken train station.
Shortly after my grandparents started to visit Anna in Interlaken, they became friends with May Wixom and her daughters Carrie, Alice (Dickerson) and Marjorie (Carver). Carrie never married and lived with her mother May.
Carrie was a jolly, small lady and quite uninhibited about personal matters. Given the opportunity, she would take delight in explaining them in great detail. Floyd Dickerson nicknamed her "Lucy Bowels" which never failed to send Carrie into uncontrollable laughter. Carrie was a very good person and a hard worker. Carrie worked at the canning factory and also worked as a cleaning lady to help support her mother. May's daughter, Alice Wixom, married Joe Dickerson. (My mother's sister, Ruth Metcalf, was an attendant at their wedding).
My mother's other sister, Muriel, married John Bullock, who was a brother to Floyd Dickerson's wife Ruth (Bullock) Dickerson. May Wixom and Anna Dickerson were my grandmother Metcalf's best friends and probably influenced my family to visit Interlaken.
As early as 1910, my grandparents and their three daughters socialized and vacationed at the Wixom cottage on Interlaken Beach. The cottage was named "Ken-Wic" (Kennedy-Wixom). The cottage was destroyed by fire long before I was born. I am not certain of its exact location. My grandparents spent every summer at Interlaken Beach, often renting various cottages, including the Bassett cottage next to my present home.
My home was the former summer cottage of Reverend Frederick Palmer, his wife Mae Bristol Palmer and their two boys. Reverend Palmer was minister of the Dutch Reformed church in Interlaken. He built the cottage for his family in 1892. The cottage was a happy place for the Palmer's until one of the boys, who was attending medical school, died suddenly from selling too much of his blood. People were paid for blood back in those days. After their son died, it no longer was enjoyable for the family to be at their cottage without their son, and it remained vacant or rented until my grandparents purchased it in 1938 for the sum of twelve hundred dollars. That was a lot of money in 1938. Since that date, I have lived here every summer. In the early 70s when faced with a choice of city living or cottage living, (I could not afford both) I chose to leave the city and make the cottage my year round home. It has not been easy. The house was never designed for year round living and there are still many inconveniences in winter that must be endured, including no central heat and a limited supply of drinking water and indoor plumbing during the winter due to exposed pipes. The house is suspended off the ground by six inches allowing much space for drafts and very cold floors. It is 2005, and I am still living here, and have no desire to live elsewhere.
In the 1940s, my grandparents and I often visited May Wixom's home on Leroy Street in Interlaken. Mrs. Wixom did not have a telephone. She could not afford one and barely had enough funds to live on. Still she was a very happy person and was always delighted to have visitors. May was able to work wonders in the kitchen and could stretch a meal for two into five on very short notice. Her cellar had neat rows of her home canned food and May would simply add one more can and could prepare a delightful meal for unexpected guests in an instant.
I remember May Wixom, her home, her kindness and unconditional love for everyone.
As a six year old, I was known as a "live wire". This is a euphemism for a precocious brat, always wiggling and asking countless questions. On a few occasions May offered to look after me while my grandparents went shopping or had appointments. I am sure it was a challenge for her. May had the patience of a saint, and always had a good word for everyone. I will always remember what she told me: "If you cannot say anything nice about a person don't say anything at all." To this day, I try to live by those words.
May's house still remains. Somewhere in the back of my mind I was told the three similar houses in a row on Leroy Street were built by a man for each of his three daughters. Facing the three homes, May's was on the left, Ernie Quick's was the center, and I do not know who lived or owned the third house.
I remember clearly the interior of May's house beginning with the front door. For a curious six year old, the door had an interesting doorbell. It had a button on the outside of the door that rang a bell on the inside. The bell itself was rotated to wind a spring, so that when the button was pressed, the bell would ring loudly using a mechanical action. I was fascinated by that bell and I am sure that I rang it far too often, but May was very patient and did not seem to mind, or at least never let on that it bothered her. Ahead of the front door was a stairway to the upstairs. There were four rooms. One had been converted to a bathroom and the others were bedrooms. Each had a washbowl and pitcher on a small dresser, probably left over from the early years, and kept for sentimental or ornamental purposes. There was a door and stairway leading to the attic where May kept a small trunk of toys for children to entertain themselves when visiting. Often I would go to the attic and play with these toys. Lead soldiers, child's dishes, large-scale puzzles, coloring books, and numerous things that would interest children could be found in this trunk. One item in that trunk was a stereopticon which is a hand-held device for viewing photos in third dimension. There were many cards to view and I would sit by the hour looking at the various scenic views and comic photos.
May's kitchen did not have an electric refrigerator or even an old-fashioned icebox. Again I think she could not afford one. Food that needed to remain cool was stored in the basement in a screened cabinet to keep it safe from mice or insects from contacting it. In one corner of the kitchen was a mint green and cream color Ivanhoe four-burner kerosene stove for cooking. I was learning to spell and would read the letters on the stove: I V A N H O E. There was a Hoosier-type cabinet with a flour bin and sifter, a sugar container, spice racks, and baking utensils. May baked pies in white porcelain pie plates that were placed in a portable tin oven that sat on top of the kerosene stove. She knew exactly how to set the flame for the correct temperature. In addition to the kitchen furnishings, there was a washing machine (May took in laundry to help with expenses). Over the kitchen table was a Rexall calendar from Wickes pharmacy that had weather predictions for each day printed on it. I often wondered how they could predict weather a year in advance and did not realize it was for entertainment purposes. May kept her dishes in a large built in white-painted cupboard near the back door. May's best dishes were very old English made and decorated with brown transfers, probably a wedding gift. They were her pride and joy and only used on special occasions.
There was no sink in May's kitchen, but there was a small room off of the kitchen that contained a sink and a hand pump that pumped rainwater from a cistern in the basement. I was fascinated with the pump and May allowed me to pump water into a large kettle to heat water for washing dishes or laundry. May taught me how to light her kerosene stove, too. I thought that I was very privileged. Drinking water came from a single faucet suspended from the wall over the sink.
On the back porch was a 55 gallon barrel that held kerosene for the stove and auxiliary portable Perfection kerosene heater that was used when the weather was mild and the coal furnace was not in use. I thought it was great fun to be allowed to fill the glass reservoir for May (anything to keep me busy!).
The dining room was May's sewing room. There, her sewing machine was in one corner of the room along with an oak buffet with leaded glass doors on one wall and a library table with a lamp and two rocking chairs at each side of it. The floor was covered with linoleum. May taught me to make potholders using her treadle sewing machine using scraps of left over materials. Anna Dickerson often came to visit and would sit and rock while May was busy sewing alterations, or making dresses for her customers.
Between the living room and dining room was a large floor register that was square, with a round center. The heat came up from the center and the cold air return was around the square edge. The furnace smoke pipe came up from the basement and through the center room ceiling passing through a bedroom and to a chimney in the attic. Heat from the stovepipe was supposed to add more heat to the rooms above. This would not be allowed or up to code these days, but it worked and took the chill off the upstairs rooms in very cold weather.
The living room was sparsely furnished. It had a 1920's style sofa and matching chair, one floor lamp, a radio console that sat between the two front windows, and a 1920's style rug.
Sometimes when I became uneasy, May and I would walk over to Irene (Kennedy?) Wheaton's place. Irene lived in a big Victorian home that still stands on the corner of Leroy and Railroad Street behind May's house. Irene's house was filled with all kinds of interesting things that kept me busy asking her thousands of questions. One in particular was a large aquarium containing gold fish and interesting ornaments, including a mermaid and a miniature deep-sea diver in the bottom of the tank. I would sit on a chair and watch the fish for hours.
Next door to May's house, Ernie Quick and his wife resided. The house was nearly identical to May's. In this house, instead of the sewing room, Ernie's dining room was his barbershop. Outside by the front steps was a small, thin, red and white barber pole! Ernie cut my hair for 50 cents! He did not have electric clippers. He used hand clippers that had to be repeatedly squeezed. They often snagged my hair and hurt. When he finished cutting my hair, he gave me a choice of after-shave fragrances such as Lilac Vegetal, or Bay Rum. I liked the Bay Rum.
One of the most memorable times visiting May was a time when I wanted to go to the movies. I think Carrie took me and we walked from May's home up Railroad Street to the "Lakes" theater on Main Street. When we arrived, there was a note on the door that the theater was closed due to technical problems. I was very disappointed and got a bit testy. Carrie and I walked back to her mother May's and suddenly a violent thunderstorm came and knocked out the electricity. No radio for me either! Carrie went to the attic and brought down a kerosene lamp and May lighted it with a match, and placed it on the radio in the living room. I was still uneasy and May, in her very quiet way, announced that we would be making popcorn and that I could shake the popper over her kerosene stove. She had a square popcorn popper made of screen wire with a screen wire top, and a green wooden handle. May placed popcorn kernels in it and I shook the popper until the corn had popped. May, then buttered and salted the popcorn and we sat in the living room and enjoyed eating it by the light from the kerosene lamp. By then I became sleepy but did not want to go to bed. May carried the lamp up the stairway and saw to it that I was in bed. In the bedroom on the dresser was a big Victorian clock that ticked and struck at the hour and half hour. I told May that it might keep me awake, but she said she wanted me to stay awake all night and count how many times the clock struck the hour. I tried to do that, but the next thing I knew it was morning, the birds were singing and sunlight was streaming in the window.
Later when I was teenaged, I still enjoyed going to the Lake's Theater in Interlaken. Admission was 25 cents. There was no air conditioning, and the theater was cooled by two large, electric fans at each side of the screen, that cast a breeze upon moviegoers. Richard and Eric Storath were my cohorts and often we would walk from the beach to the theater in Interlaken. I recall one humorous incident during a spooky part of a movie. Eric threw a gumdrop into the electric fan. It made a loud bang, and scared many of the girls and made them scream. I thought that was great fun! On the way home we would stop at Cronk's dairy and have ice cream if we had enough money. After that, we walked down Cemetery Road, passing the cemetery and often would dare each other to walk in to it and would briefly try to scare each other, but we did not linger.
Other things I remember about Interlaken was the old post office. Dorothy Wickes worked there with John Kellogg, Joe Dickerson, and others. There were two service windows; one for purchasing stamps and special mailings for letters and a package window, reserved for mailing or delivery of packages. There were the usual combination boxes on the right side of the small office. The regular window was at the side of it. The package window was at the rear of the office. The floor was wooden and squeaked when walked upon.
I recall Peterson's dry goods store, where Hubbard Plumbing is now located. The store always smelled of oil. Perhaps it was the oiled wooden floors, or the kerosene heater in the center of the store leaked? My grandmother liked Mr. Peterson and bought dry goods from him, usually oil cloth for our table, window shades, thread and materials to make curtains etc.
Another interesting place was Wickes pharmacy. It also was an ice cream parlor. It had four small wooden tables with wire legs and matching chairs. To the left of the front door was a marble top soda fountain counter top. In front of it were several tall, wooden-topped stools with twisted wire legs. For 20 cents I could get a chocolate ice cream soda, or just about any other flavor one might want. It also was the bus station and sold tickets for the Greyhound bus, and a great place to wait for friends arriving by bus. Charlie Wickes' mother, Irma Wickes usually sat in the back of the store keeping a watchful eye on things. There was a big, fat cat that slept in a chair and we were cautioned not to touch the cat, because it might bite or scratch. There were magazines, comics, post cards, and comic post cards with enormous fish advertising Cayuga Lake, and all kinds of interesting things.
In the 1940's we did not have a telephone at our cottage. If we needed to place a call we could go to the telephone office in town to make a call. It was in a small house next to the theater. Two small switchboards were in the living room of a house there. Two elderly ladies managed the switchboard and it was not uncommon to find one napping on a couch in the same room, while the other was at the board. The telephone operators knew everything! I am sure they listened to many of the conversations. As a youngster we set up a trap for one of the operators. We planned a conversation in advance and talked about a (fictitious) dead body that floated up on shore at the lake. Later the telephone operator asked us if there was anything new at the lake. We knew then that she had listened to us talking. We told her no, nothing new at all.