Native La Portean writes of her childhood “on Niles Street in the early 1930s”

 

By Arlene (Ahlgrim) Lighthall 

WNLP editor’s note: Arlene (Ahlgrim) Lighthall grew up in La Porte and now lives in Del Mar, Calif. She graduated from La Porte High School in 1949 and earned degrees from Ball State and Indiana universities, as well as studying in various European countries. “I enjoyed Mike (Kellems’) recent story about the demolition (of homes) on Maple Avenue, which was forwarded to me because I have recently been writing about my early life in La Porte,” Arlene wrote to WNLP. “Perhaps this chapter of my manuscript would interest Mike and your readers because it deals with life on Niles Street from about 1931 to 1944.” Here is that chapter, and there are a few more to come, courtesy of Arlene. 

Arlene (Ahlgrim) Lighthall

I grew up on Niles Street, as did my father. I didn’t know then that a lawyer Niles had arrived from Vermont in 1833 and in the very next year had established within his office the first public library of donated books. 

In the early 1900s our house was under construction in the old Niles division of town. My great uncle Leonard Kadow, a master joiner, was involved in building it for his sister’s family (Anna Kadow Ahlgrim).

My earliest play years were centered on Niles Street and within a small radius of not more than two and a half blocks except after age 5, for walking six or seven blocks to Maple School. Life was simple. Nothing threatened us. Loving parents cared for us, clothed us, fed us.

I‘ll say that my house was located on Niles Street and that I lived literally on the street as much as in the house itself. The few cars that came along never detracted us from our fun in the street. It was our playground; in spring and summer we played on it beneath umbrellas of heavy maple leaves. La Porte was also called the Maple City. Those  fallen leaves in the autumn were raked into massive pillows for our romping and jumping and hiding. Occasionally we roasted potatoes in piles of burning leaves in our backyard after flowers had died and the last vegetables had been harvested. 

The street had its music throughout the whole day. Lack of traffic left silent space for sounds. Early in the morning and just before supper, it was the steady clomp of heavy work shoes on the sidewalk as men who lived farther down the street passed by. Carrying black metal lunch pails, they were on their way to or from one of La Porte’s many factories.  

In fair weather we could hear the swish swish of broom bristles as old Mr. Ormsby swept up leaves and twigs from the gutters along the curb. Using his hand cart and broom and one arm, he kept the street clean. Through those same gutters after a downpour ran rainwater to the grated drain on the corner. Splashing barefoot in that stream was almost as much fun as running through the hose on a hot summer day.

But the heat of a hot summer afternoon didn’t discourage us from “playing” tennis in the  street. Batting old tennis balls back and forth required many balls because we often hit them into the trees, where they would hide till the leaves fell in the fall. 

Tiring of chasing balls in the street, we retired to the sidewalk for two favorite games. Mother didn’t complain about a dress soiled by sitting on the ground to play “Jacks” with the strong bounce of a retired golf ball. We needed a dexterity similar to that for Pick Up-Sticks.

Hopscotch patterns decorated sidewalks with colored broken glass markers that came from somewhere in the alley near garbage pails squirming with maggots. 

Because our block was double size, visiting someone on the next street required going to the corner, walking a block, and returning on the next street. We children were ignorant of the concepts of private property and trespassing. Crossing the alley and cutting through a neighbor’s yard was easier and not questioned. We became better acquainted with those neighbors around the block in the late summer when our winesap  apple tree bore more fruit than Mother could can. Our wagon was loaded with paper sacks of good apples and others bruised by falling: “windfalls.” My brother and I would round the block to Virginia Avenue on a sales trip. There we made a rest stop when we reached a cement slab between the sidewalk and street. It held a post with a ring to  which, before our time, a horse was tied, and the cement stepping stone eased the steep step from the buggy to the sidewalk. 

Different music began after supper. We loved being outside until dark on long summer evenings. Our parents knew from our noise what was going on. The first sound they heard was “thump thump thump” from across the street where Bob Gust caught hundreds of balls in his catcher’s mitt, practicing every single night with his dad. “Kick the Can”  had its own tinny sound. The leader of “Red Light” and “Statue” shouted directions for  us to run or freeze in place. “Hide and Go Seek” was the most fun. Screeches when caught were part of the game till darkness defeated us. Next we caught lightning bugs in glass jars to make lanterns or for rubbing on our arms to create a phosphorescent patch.

For a while an empty lot in the next block, still on Niles Street, served as a baseball field, while two blocks beyond it was Scott Field. Its one-room log cabin held tables and art supplies where we could create craft projects in the summer. The playing field there  was quite large, but who wanted to go three or four blocks to play when the street  waited outside the front door? 

We invited friends to play by standing at their houses and calling out their names: “Mary Lou, Dottie, Tommy, Frankie!” No one would consider knocking, for our mothers  couldn’t put down their work to answer a child at the door. They summoned us home  by calling out our names from their doors. Outside school hours and weekends, factory whistles alerted us of our time to be home. The five-o’clock whistle meant “get home for  supper.” They were loud enough to be heard throughout the whole town, and the town was small enough for us to walk to almost any part of it. 

Each factory had a distinctive whistle starting at 8 a.m. Because they were not  synchronized, we recognized them as coming from Bastian-Morley, Allis-Chalmers, or  Modine’s. At noon and again at one o’clock workers were dismissed and called back from lunch until at five the whistles declared the workday had ended. The few men who had cars went home for lunch; our first car was an Essex in 1937. 

Mother always had the main meal hot and ready to put on the table the minute my father arrived at noon; from Maple School we came in hungry about the same time. For 13 years we’d be  walking home from school for a hot noon meal, always with dessert. 

Our mothers kept one ear tuned to the street during the day for almost real music. At the soft tinkling of chimes and a bell, they hurried outside to the itinerant repairman to have their knives and scissors sharpened. Mom always put her dull instruments aside for him  to hone. I recall my father painstakingly doing this for her, but somehow it wasn’t  professional enough. Or perhaps women in the neighborhood simply wanted a little diversion. I wonder if he was a handsome and charismatic man! 

We children listened for  a different piper. A tune from a slow-moving truck told us that the Good Humor man was nearby with Eskimo Pies. We followed him down the street, yelling for a stop so that we could run home for money. 

More quiet was the ice truck. Refrigerators had not yet been invented, but everyone had  an icebox, a bulky wooden container lined with metal, probably zinc, and opened with a  heavily hinged door at the front. The top lifted for the placement of a huge block of ice that was delivered once a week. The ice industry thrived due to harvesting from local frozen  lakes in the winter. A friendly driver always had slivers of cold diamonds for us to wrap in newspaper and suck and slurp after he had grasped a huge block with special tongs like two curved fingers, hoisted it onto his shoulder, and toted it to our icebox. 

To this day I use our old ice tongs for manipulating logs in the fireplace. I keep them next to the  fireplace in a recess in the brick wall for firewood. On the hearth, huge pinecones from  our fir trees await immolation in a large copper boiler Mom used to boil water for  washing. A bent copper pail from Niles Street also is there to hold kindling. I haven’t been able to leave LaPorte behind. 

Those same ice trucks in early fall delivered dusty black clumps. They slid with a roar through a basement window down a shoot into our coal bin, a small separate room. Dad slid a shovel through a slit at the floor, scooped up a load, and then turned to deposit it in the dinosaur furnace. Each night he had to “bank” the furnace and in the morning get the fire going again to send heat through fat arms that reached upwards to various  rooms. How happy he must have been to install a gas furnace years later! 

Coal fire created soot in the house, unnoticed until gray wallpaper and curtains demanded spring cleaning each year. My parents bought wallpaper cleaner in cans. It was similar to Play-Doh. With it they would rub a ribbon from the ceiling downward, revealing a clean pattern whose brightness had been slowly clouding over the months. My father was in charge of the wall halfway down, where Mom began. The cleaner ball  was kneaded to expose a clean surface for the next ribbon. In time, they opened new cans to continue the laborious process. Lace curtains were washed and stretched on special wooden frames of nails to dry in the sun. 

Dad worked at Allis-Chalmers (farm implements) in Accounts Receivable and Mom was  a housewife. From a distance, theirs might seem an easy life, but as I think back they had little leisure. But more on them in another chapter. 

Not many children lived nearby, but that didn’t matter when it came to a sense of  neighborhood. Along Niles Street and for blocks away on other streets we all knew each other. Grass greened every front yard. No fences divided us in front or back. The height of the grass determined the property line and showed which neighbor should next mow. Until mosquitos chased them inside, people sat on their front porches after supper. Our porch on the side of the house was screened. Backyards were for gardens and hanging clothes to dry. Every block was bisected by an alley, along which resided a few small garages and ubiquitous garbage pails. I cannot recall any family’s ever moving away from our long block of 10 residences. nor any ethnic discrimination. We had great diversity, though all white.

On the corner lived the Rices from Armenia. Mrs. Rice was a large, solemn woman while her husband was small and slight. Both seemed elderly. I never spoke with them, though he cut Dad’s hair in his little barbershop on their property. Next came the Dukes, probably English. They were short people. Mrs. Duke daily walked their two miniature Pekingese dogs, an appropriate size for their owners. For 10 cents an hour I babysat their grandchildren a few times a year. (In 1987, with pay almost $3 per hour, my dad wrote me that when he was still in school he had 150 customers on his paper route, six days a week; he earned 2 cents per customer or $3 a week. In the summer he worked from 7 to 6 for 50 cents a day, so six days’ work gave him $3.) I liked my job at the Dukes’; it was such a pleasure devouring their library of Reader’s Digest condensed books and listening to music! When Mr. Duke had his gallstones removed, his wife put them into a jar and carried them on her walks to show us neighbors. Shaking them, she’d say, ”They found these in Harry.”  

Now we come to the stern German Roempagels. Perhaps some of these people were not really so solemn and stern but simply didn’t speak English and had no young children. The Schultzes in the next house were the first to own a car. Frances Schultz and my mother were friends, and Ralph was an executive at Bastian Morley. Their son,  Bill, was several years older than I, but I went out with him once because his friend wanted to be fixed up with my friend Pat Fulford, who lived at the jail with her uncle, the  sheriff. Next came the Legners. They had come from Bohemia and grew rutabagas, a vegetable that confounded Dad as much as their speaking some sort of Czech tongue.  We never knew when they had come to the U.S., where Vaclav worked, whether they had lived elsewhere. In fact, that question on the rutabaga may have been the only time ever that more than “hello” passed between them and my parents. I doubt they spoke English.

Vaclav Legner had two sons, Rudy and Danny, and a daughter older than I. Martha made beautiful clothes for my dolls, dresses I promptly ruined by cutting holes in the front to insert artificial flowers from Mom’s old hats. Such thoughtless behavior still embarrasses me to remember. Rudy went to college and became a music teacher. The  parents ignored their front porch, preferring to sit on the platform outside their back door and opposite our screened side porch. Neither of our two families worried about privacy. Frequently I slept out there on the glider when the summer heat upstairs in my bedroom was unbearable. In the winter a small storm shed replaced the larger porch. It provided  only enough space to remove boots and hold a card table as an auxiliary icebox.  

After the older Legners died, Martha married Ken McGaffey, a factory worker much younger than she. Just like her parents, the couple ignored the large front porch with a swing and perched on the back platform. Ken’s sense of humor was acerbic, making him a delightful chatterer when Dick and I much later visited my parents. He must have  appealed to the very quiet and retiring Martha.  

I don’t know about the background of the little old Finstick sisters on our other side, but I  believe they were sister and sister-in-law, Martha and Mary. They made a few cents a day selling Tibma’s bread from their front room. Both died when I was quite young and the house was purchased by the Drewes family — Karl the father, Bill my age, and  mother Vera, a living female Frankenstein. She was nearly 6 feet tall with midnight hair, face puckered and wrinkled as parched earth. She walked slowly with a limp, not one for which I felt pity but fear. Karl didn’t stay long before they carried him off to the cemetery.  Bil’s mother suddenly had another man in the house as she established a sort of board and care facility, claiming she had been a nurse. This client hadn’t lasted much longer than did poor Karl before another old man  took his place. Were the elderly gents ready to die or did Vera help them along? 

Next to the Drewes came three houses alike, occupied by people of French descent, good old Americans named Smith, and finally Hans Rhykus (from Scandinavia). Mrs. R. lived on her screened front porch and never tired from stopping us to relate her health problems and pains.

All these people lived on the same side of the street in the same block on Niles Street. In addition to our side of the block, I knew the names of people across the street and in the blocks adjacent to ours on Niles Street as well as the people on the next streets like Virginia and Maple avenues. 

Within the town were varied neighborhoods. Near Lenick’s Dairy off Pulaski and Kosciusko streets thrived a Catholic church/school and people of Polish descent. I didn’t know any of those “kids” till we all reached high school. More wealthy citizens and business owners lived in gracious old Victorian homes along the “avenues,” Indiana and Michigan. One mansion was special, that of Admiral Ingersoll. Fanning out from there were most middle-class neighborhoods whose homeowners were strongly of German roots. In my neighborhood we had the families of Middledorf, Hasselfeldt, Silverstorm, Hilgendorf, etc. Perhaps their surnames were too difficult to pronounce or spell so the immigrants, upon arrival, simply chose place names of origin such as Middle Village,  Hasse’s Field, Silber’s Storm, Hilgen’s Village, etc.

Three blocks from where I lived was the Rumely mansion on the corner of Niles and Rose and East Maple and Ridge; it occupied an entire city block. Rumely originally manufactured farm implements and sold out to Allis-Chalmers. The famous family didn’t live there when I was young. To go downtown or to church or to junior high or high school I had to walk past the mansion. Most intriguing was a head in front of a window,  clearly visible from the sidewalk. At first I thought it was some dark person sitting there. Again and again he appeared in the same place. Soon it was a dead person, abandoned. Later I learned what a bronze bust is.  

Only one family in La Porte was black, Hattie Collins and her daughter. When my dad was deputy county trustee in the early ‘30s (a sort of social service agency), he helped Hattie when she came for clothing, the bread line, or whatever social services she  needed. One day he came home with a white linen tablecloth and napkins with “A” embroidered in the corners: a gift for my “hope chest” from Hattie.

All in all, it mattered little who we were, where we lived or where we came from. All of us were just LaPorteans. But I came from Niles Street.

20 Responses to “Native La Portean writes of her childhood “on Niles Street in the early 1930s””

  1. Lynn Lisarelli

    Jan 04. 2021

    What an interesting story to read over my morning coffee–thank you!

    Reply to this comment
  2. G. Arndt

    Jan 04. 2021

    Very charming, enjoyed Chapter One even though I am not a native of La Porte. I recognized one name, Pat Fulford who I knew.

    Reply to this comment
  3. Impressive

    Jan 04. 2021

    Thank you Arlene for those great stories, I really enjoyed reading about your memories.

    It took me to a world gone away.

    GOD bless.

    Reply to this comment
  4. Bob Caddy

    Jan 04. 2021

    Read “Whats New LaPorte” nearly every day and the title of this
    article caught my eye as I too grew up at the corner of Niles and
    Scott Streets. Went to Maple School, was fascinated by the
    old Rumely mansion and played in the vacant lot mentioned.
    Remember Mr. Ormsby cleaning the gutters, playing in the
    near empty street with my brothers and sister and other
    neighborhood kids. I do remember Arlene and her brother
    Ed from the “old” days. Wish sometimes we could just turn
    the clock back in time. Great article brought back many
    memories.

    Reply to this comment
    • Elizabeth (Singleton) Habdas

      Jan 05. 2021

      Thank you for the stories down memory lane. My family lived on the north side of LaPorte on Rockwood Street. We shared the same lives, just.different locations. A carefree safe childhood. One of love and lots of family times. How special it is to be able to go back to memories of a lost time, a wonderful childhood of love, family, friends and safety. Thank you, again. Look forward to reading more aticles from your memory bank!

      Reply to this comment
  5. Gina

    Jan 04. 2021

    I hoped to hear about my great-grandparents, Jacob and Katherine DeHaan. Beautiful story of bygone days-so different from our lives now.

    Reply to this comment
  6. Kathy Tulacz

    Jan 04. 2021

    Thank you Arlene for a great article.
    I’m the granddaughter of Andrew and Eva Rice. I don’t remember too much about my grandmother she died when I was 7. But my dad (Harold Rice) said she was 5ft 10 inches. Grandpa cut my hair too and there are pictures of me looking like Buster Brown. My husband and I bought 302 Niles from grandpa’s estate and lived there for 23 years.
    I grew up on the corner of Ridge and Division Sts.
    Mr Ormsby looked to be about 100 when he was cleaning the gutters when I was 5-6 years old.
    Thank you for the trip down memory lane.

    Reply to this comment
  7. Kathy Tulacz

    Jan 04. 2021

    I neglected to mention that my grandparents came from Lithuania

    Reply to this comment
    • Pam Prokop Richardson

      Jan 05. 2021

      Thank you for the memories. I grew up next to Scott Field and also walked to Maple School.

      Reply to this comment
  8. Susan

    Jan 04. 2021

    Thank you for writing the article and your memories on growing up on Niles Street. My dad also grew up on Niles Street. My second cousin, Bob Gust, was also mentioned. I would love your email, so I could get a personal response from you. Thank you Arlene for your memories.

    Reply to this comment
  9. Tom Caddy

    Jan 04. 2021

    I too grew up on Niles along with my brother Bob and our other brother and sister. Great neighborhood. Thanks for the great article.

    Reply to this comment
  10. Frank Hoeppner

    Jan 04. 2021

    I lived on East Maple, the Gusts were my grand parents, spent a lot of
    time playing catch on Niles with Uncle Bob. You had a perfect description of Mr. & Mrs. McGaffey.

    Reply to this comment
  11. frank

    Jan 04. 2021

    What a beautiful lady.

    Reply to this comment
  12. Jarom Thorn

    Jan 04. 2021

    I lived in the Rumely Mansion in the 80s and was friends with Kathy Tulacz’ boys. I cannot count how many times people told me the place was haunted by the bust that was in the window when Mrs. Rumely lived there. What a wonderful place that little corner of the world is. I often think of it and miss it.

    Reply to this comment
  13. Mike Kellems

    Jan 05. 2021

    Such a great read! Thank you Arlene for taking the time to share your experiences of life growing up in your neighborhood. As I was running errands around town yesterday, I was found myself driving through the area of Niles Street and based on Arlene’s writings, I could envision all that went on back in the day.

    It has also been fun reading the responses… please keep on sharing!

    Reply to this comment
  14. Frank Hoeppner

    Jan 05. 2021

    Yes, I am the Frank you used to hang out with.

    Reply to this comment
    • Tom Caddy

      Jan 05. 2021

      We need to connect some how. I don’t see you on facebook. You living in FL now? I googled you but it shows 2 land line numbers.

      Reply to this comment
  15. Arlene Lighthall

    Jan 08. 2021

    Thank you, readers, for your kind remarks about my memories about growing up on Niles. It was interesting to note that two comments came from the Caddy brothers. Though they were too small to remember me, I was their baby sitter. It’s heart warming to learn that many years after the Rices were gone from the corner their grandchildren lived in the same house and that other readers are related in some way to neighbors that I mentioned or childhood activities.

    — Arlene Lighthall

    Reply to this comment

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