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“We had no water – just a cistern, no bathroom – just an outside three-holer, no telephone, no electricity and just a black iron stove in the kitchen which used coal and wood, but life was wonderful. People had ingenuity and independence.” ~ Roxane Eldredge-Coffin, March 1991
In 1990, at age 86, Roxane Eldredge-Coffin was given a small journal as a Christmas gift. She was asked to write recollections of her childhood in the fishing village of Chatham on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. In her beautiful handwriting, she focused on significant incidents and tidbits of daily life.
In 1904, Roxane’s father, Ernest “Skipper” Eldredge, was on leave in July and August from his job as a surfman for the U.S. Life-Saving Service, when he designed and built the house that still stands today at 85 Cross Street in Chatham. Roxane was born a month later.
Roxane wrote in her journal that her young life at the big, white house was “wonderful.”
I hate to be skeptical, but really?
In those days, if you wanted to eat a pickle, you had to do the Little Red Hen routine: plant, water, harvest, can, and then go down cellar and bring up a jar. Let’s see about the wonderfulness of it all without modern conveniences.
What was life like before electricity? It was dark. In 1916, none of the 568 homes in Chatham had electricity. Lighting was by lantern or candles. At night, if a neighbor was at home, there might be a bit of light visible through a window. Otherwise the house would be dark.
As for refrigeration, it would be decades after Roxane’s birth before refrigerators became common in homes. Roxane’s father cut ice from cranberry bogs and ponds and delivered it using horse and cart so they’d have ice for their small icebox. There was a space at the bottom sufficient to store a small quantity of food like a jar of milk or some butter – which came from their cow. The word “leftover” was not yet a household word since there was no space for extra food.
Then there was laundry. Let’s be honest. If you had to wash by hand all the clothes you wear, hang them to dry, then iron them, how many would you have?
Aside from the chore of washing, Roxane’s mother sewed the clothes for her family. She’d travel to New Bedford, Massachusetts once a year by train and boat to buy the fabric she needed. Once a year she shopped. Once. With having to wait for clothes to be made, children certainly learned patience.
Roxane mentioned in the journal they had no indoor plumbing. They went outside to get water from a cistern and lugged it in for…well, everything. The only water heater was the kitchen cookstove. She wrote of taking spit baths and bathing in a galvanized tub in the kitchen on Saturday nights.
And yet, life was wonderful? Was she letting nostalgia for days gone by color her memory? She might have thought life was wonderful, but perhaps her mother thought differently. Or was it more like “If you don’t know what you don’t have, you don’t miss it?”
WHO WAS ROXANE?
From a young age, Roxane managed to get into scrapes. Neighbor children once dared her and her brother to throw chickens down the outhouse, but they had no idea the minister would come to visit, make his way to the facility and get his bum pecked.
But she had responsibilities…and we’re talking at ages eight and nine. When out trapping skunk with her brother, she accidently dropped the sack of dead skunks. And yes, that rank, putrid, overpowering scent can be released even after a skunk is dead. Roxane continued to trap skunk and muskrat and learned to work the pelts expertly. She also picked cranberries in the autumn for 50 cents a day, and worked for Mrs. Laurence Howes for 50 cents on Saturdays changing beds, dusting, mopping, and washing dishes. The money she and her older brother earned went toward coal and food.
One day, she saw a pink sweater at Johnny Howes’ Dry Goods Store with a price tag of $3.00 – which was considerable money in those days. She convinced her mother to let her save the 50 cents she earned on Saturdays to buy the sweater. Six weeks later, on the night she paid for her sweater, she tucked the brown package tied with twine under her arm and headed home as the Chatham fog creeped into the village. If she had known the chain of events that would involve her beautiful pink sweater, she might have clutched the package a bit more tightly.
Roxane was also involved in a house fire. In those days, when fire was used to cook, light, and heat homes, the risk of fires was high. But even with just a bucket brigade, Chatham houses withstood fires. They were built of solid wood, with 12 to 15-inch beams with walls of wood or plaster. Today, there are fewer house fires comparatively, but they are more dangerous due to light-weight construction and flammable materials such as adhesives, plastics, and insulation.
Though she loved being outside in nature, Roxane was also an accomplished pianist and at age 14, volunteered during World War I at the Chatham Naval Air Station, playing the piano for church services.
She certainly navigated humorous and serious situations throughout her childhood. But wait. What about childhood?
Perhaps life was wonderful because she really had a childhood.
Do you know of neighborhoods today where there are no fences? That was what Chatham was like. After school, kids roamed. They went to Mrs. Fuller’s house to play croquet and up the hill to climb a tree. They walked to the market or down to the shore. Curiosity and imagination were a part of each day. Roxane could have been recalling that time when children could play safely away from home instead of being under constant adult supervision.
Or maybe childhood was special because children didn’t begin school until first grade. Students thrived in multi-grade groups at the local one-room schoolhouse. Although Roxane started school in the second grade because of an injury, she graduated valedictorian of the Chatham High School Class of 1922 and valedictorian of her college class.
Overall, it was a time when parenting roles were clearly defined and moms were valued for raising their children. It was a different kind of childhood.
THE BOTTOM LINE
So what did Roxane mean when she wrote “life was wonderful?”
She didn’t say life wasn’t difficult in the early 1900s or people didn’t experience hard knocks. For example, childhood diseases took their toll much more in those days, but at least children weren’t killed in auto accidents or by guns at school.
Perhaps she was nostalgic about the simplicity of daily living and the joys experienced despite a total lack of conveniences we have today. Her parents certainly were complimentary of her contributions to family finances and her early life of play had positive outcomes.
There were other positives, like community interaction – meaning flesh and blood friends instead of Facebook friends. Families were independent, not confined by government rules and regulations. People actually spoke with and helped shipwrecked sailors instead of “just” donating money to causes like we do today. She lived when gyms weren’t necessary because people walked everywhere – or rode a horse or rowed a boat. Family suppertime was sacred. Overall, it was a slower pace of life…which seems quite nice.
On a brisk winter night, 11-year-old Roxane bent down to scoop freshly-fallen snow into a large wooden bowl. Rushing into the warm kitchen, she divided it into small bowls and poured a bit of hot maple syrup on top to make a gummy covering. Nothing else mattered because she was there, in the pleasure of the moment, eating snow ice cream with her parents and two brothers.
Indeed, life was wonderful.
Find out more about Roxane in the book, The Surfman’s Daughter – Growing up in a Cape Cod Village 1904-1929 by Rebecca Locklear. It will be released in the summer of 2022.
“Fabulous presentation of life at the time…. It’s interesting to know what life was like for a kid: chores, dangers, expectations. Charming stories that leave you wanting more.” – John Chamberlain, author of Finding Things (A Joe Martin Novel)
“My only request is that I want more stories! This is a peek back into a little-known part of our history through a first-hand account. Roxane is so REAL. My family was drawn to her because of her hilarious exploits.” –Jenny Underwood, educator
In eight charming and poignant vignettes, Rebecca Locklear evokes life in the sweet and harsh Chatham of over a century ago….– Debra Lawless, author of Chatham in the Jazz Age.