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Growing up in Louisa – Let there be Light!

Weekly feature . . . by Mike Coburn

The reader can relax. This article isn’t about the way I looked as a young man. The thrown-back memories I plan to discuss are from a time prior to this posing for a college yearbook. Unlike many vintage photographic images, many of my earliest memories are fuzzy, very dark and unclear, more like an under/over developed picture that was so common in the days of Brownie cameras.

I suspect that I, like most people, can remember very little about preschool days, and even then, only those events make an impression. For example, the apartment we lived in at the Louisa Inn appear in my mind as almost totally dark images. It is as if there was little natural, or any artificial lighting. I remember from my exploring of parts of the building that gas lights were still in place on the third floor, but the first and second floors had electric ones. While I don’t specifically remember, my intellect tells me we must have had some kinds of lamps, or at least an occasional bare bulb. I’m fairly sure it’s my memory that isn’t well illuminated.

My memory banks are restricted to a few minor details of our family kitchen. It was well-lit by a large window over the sink and a back door that had glass in the upper portion. It was often open to expose a screen door which kept me inside and the flies out. I’m guessing I spent most of my time in the kitchen because I have memories of sitting in a high chair and watching mom warm my bottled milk in a wire rack of some kind over the cook-stove. I can see she in my mind’s eye testing test the temperature of the milk by placing a drop on her wrist before she would pass the bottle to me. I’m guessing that like Pavlov’s dogs, I salivated in anticipation of the warm brew that promised to follow. I also remember the old ice-box that sat near the large porcelain sink, and the kitchen table used by the grownups. I can still see my great aunt Shirley Chapman sitting, reading a newspaper, and drinking coffee at that table.

The ice-box didn’t work that well because I remember several times when my mother discovered that the bottled milk had clabbered. It looked bad to me and smelled worse. That meant that my bottle would be slow getting to hungry little me. It was a good time to scream and log a complaint to management. That almost always brought results. Thank goodness, the milk man came often. My little cousin Julia was an infant, and I was still yet to be weaned from the bottle, too. I think the milkman was Eddie Boggs, but I would figure that out much later. He was just a guy in a white outfit to me. On the other hand, the ice man only came every few days. The old ice-box system of that time was hard-pressed to keep the milk cold enough to not spoil in the summer.

 Hurricane lamps Hurricane lamps When I was a couple of years older my cousin George and I would chase after the ice man, grabbing whatever clean chips of ice we could reach on the truck bed. Those chips really flew when the iceman picked away on a block of ice to make indentations for the tongs he used grasp and hold the ice during the trip from the truck to the kitchen. I recall when a real electric refrigerator arrived to replace the icebox. By that time, I was more interested in the refrigerator box than the appliance. That reinforced cardboard box made a great playhouse for us kids. Sadly, a heavy rain came along and destroyed it before we could. I remember looking out of the window during the storm and seeing the box fall apart. Maybe Billy Elkins’ dad would buy a refrigerator and we’d get the box, I thought.

I was around five when we moved into my great-grandmother’s new home on the corner of Clay Street and Franklin. She had good lighting, but even in this wired, modern house there were times when Edison’s life-changing invention failed us. In those days, incandescent bulbs didn’t last very long and power outages were also common with the town’s young, still-developing power grid. I remember that during even minor storms it was common for our lights to blink and go out.

Because electricity was still relatively new, my great-grandmother, in her wisdom, kept some ‘hurricane lamps’ stationed around the house. She also still had a few fancy lamps with cut glass and sparkly colors, and some with fancy, fringed shades. One was loaded with prisms that we later used to make rainbows on the wall. These lamps were filled with kerosene and at the ready. They were handy for us to use to navigate dark spaces during outages, or maybe to do some ‘light’ reading. When the power was restored after the storm, it would be my job to trim the wicks, and polish the shades and chimneys. It is likely that I broke one or two of those chimneys, but back then they were common items carried in good supply in the stores. They were cheap and easy to replace.

I also remember using candles, but those had an open flame and were more dangerous. Mom taught me to never place a candle near anything that would catch fire. She told me stories of candles setting off curtains and burning down houses. I also heard the stories of bathrobes catching fire and killing the person who stood too close to a fireplace or stove with open flames. I always wondered how the old Christmas trees were lit with candles without burning up the tree, house, and contents. When I asked Granny once she said there were a lot of fires caused by the trees, but the wise only lit them when they could be carefully watched.

 Dinner candlelight Dinner candlelight There’s a couple of things about candles that I think we all still appreciate. They are so blooming romantic. Who hasn’t had, or wished they had a candlelight dinner with their sweetheart? As a youth, due to a shortage of sweethearts, I never had a dinner like that. The family did eat by candlelight once or twice just after a storm when the lines were apparently knocked down. Candles are also attractive because they are often scented. That can add ambiance or cure a ‘sick’ smell brought on by cooking fish, or another nasty source.

Candles were fun to use to cast a flickering light when playing board games when the electric lights went out. Those candlelit rooms would simply dance with light and shadows on the walls. I remember some who were talented at making great shadows with their fingers and hands. Candles were especially useful during times when families sat around telling swapping ghost stories. You could count on the children running to lite up the lamps or candles during power failures. Those times gave me an appreciation of how mankind had lived all through history. I could picture scenes in my mind of our nation’s forefathers drafting the constitution, or Bill of Rights by candle light.

Just think, since the beginning of time mankind had to use oil lamps to see how to paint the walls of their caves, palaces and tombs. Metal, ceramic, and glass oil lamps and wax candles were used every day when the sun went down. My great-grandmother was of the first generation that saw those marvelous changes brought on by electricity. Her first house as an adult was not lit by electricity, nor was her parent’s home in Peach Orchard. Even when I was growing up some of my county friends still didn’t have power. Generally, it was the 1930’s before many outlying towns in America had electricity. Populated areas would have power decades before some smaller communities, but gradually the power poles were set and the grid grew to fit a rapidly growing demand. Most had power before the second world war, but the folks back in the hollows and hills still had to wait.

 Vintage lampsVintage lampsLighting for those new ‘horse-less carriages’ of Granny’s day underwent a metamorphosis, too. They no longer had lamps that used candles, carbide, or kerosene, that at best gave off a dim light. The new ones were powered from batteries, or straight out of a generator connected to the car’s engine. Gone was the historical requirement for someone to walk ahead of the car, or wagon to ensure the traveler would not leave the path. Usually they used a lantern to both light their way and to help the driver see which way to go. In the mountains, a misstep could be tragic.

Railroaders, farmers, factory workers, miners and others used lanterns to light their path or to signal others. Commonly lit by a candle, it was 1899 when the first battery-operated light made its debut, but that first model only provided a quick ‘flash’ of light, thus the name ‘flashlight,’ was coined. Except for North American, they are better known as a torch, but we must LED LED admit that they have made a huge impact on today’s lighting scene. Used by policemen, firemen, rescuers, and workers, they began to be commonly available during and just after the first World War. We always kept one in a certain place so we could see to replace a blown fuse. I remember having Julia hold the light while I unscrewed the old glass fuse.  Of course, we have breakers today and the flashlights have improved over time. They are many times brighter now, most using LED lights that can emit a blinding light. Sadly, these new lights aren’t one bit romantic. I mean, dinner by LED? Candle-makers are still busy in gigantic ‘candle-factories’ that are popping up in outlets across the country, and that’s a good thing in my mind. But, really, have you checked the prices? Makes me want to dip my own.   

  

 Ghost story Ghost story Let’s face it. Ghost stories just aren’t as good without that flickering light that threatens to go out with the first crisp breeze. Candles or campfires are the best for that. My wife, Suzie, and I still have a selection of kerosene lamps and boxes of candles spread around the house. That’s just in case the power goes out and our generator doesn’t work. (Aren’t we spoiled?) Grandchildren beware. Lights can still go off when you least expect it. Maybe that’s because grandpa (me) shuts off the breakers. Heh, heh. After all, we all need a few dark memories. . .     

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Comments  

0 #2 Bernard 2017-08-13 15:31
Great article Mike, really enjoyed recalling some of the things we did as youngsters, and who could forget Rance Adams (the Ice Man) and grabbing a nice piece of ice, wrap it with a newspaper and lick on it for hours. WOW the things that comes to mind. Again great writings and as always "thanks for the memories."
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0 #1 denverfraley@gmail.c 2017-08-12 18:17
Rance Adams was the ice man.
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