In-Dell-ible Memories, a chronicle of her mother Margaret's childhood at the Shady Dell in the early years of the 20th century.
The other day as sunlight streamed through the window I noticed a small scar on Mother’s forehead – a reminder, she said, of a childhood mishap at the Shady Dell. I thought about her long life that began there and the stories she’s told me over the years that usually start with, “Things were so different then…”
That’s quite an understatement, because the world into which my mother was born is hard for us to imagine. Back then, a loaf of bread cost $.04 and
a gallon of milk $.35. $3,395.00 bought a fine
new house and $650.00 a new car. A typical yearly income was $1,209 and the Dow Jones average was 93. Life expectancy in 1912 was only 50 years old.
My grandparents’ newspaper showed headlines about Ty Cobb capturing the batting crown with a record .420, the politics of President William Howard Taft, and after the next election, Woodrow Wilson. George and Allie kept a keen eye on the trouble brewing in the Balkans. Since they had able-bodied sons, they worried about the implications of America being drawn into “the war to end all wars”, but they also foresaw opportunities.
Horses and wagons passing by the Dell were common-
place. Not so the few automobiles traveling to and from Baltimore. So when George and his sons heard about recently mass-produced cars with “30 horse power” engines, it must have seemed incredible.
I can imagine them at the supper table discussing the latest Indianapolis 500-mile race where the fastest cars averaged a top speed of 78.7 miles
per hour. One account of an early automobile race tells of spectators getting frustrated with the many stalled engines and breakdowns. “Get a horse!” they shouted.
The neighbors knew the place not as the Shady Dell (a nearby valley and woods) but as a noisy kennel and automobile business. Its address was simply York, RD 2., and on a typical day in 1918, the property bustled with activity – full of life and ambition, teeming with animals, children, hired help and automobiles.
My grandparents, George and Allie Brown, were
of the enterprising sort. They kept current with trends, followed the latest news, and became wealthy by applying their talents to the market’s demand for products and services. My energetic and optimistic grandfather made a sizeable fortune through three such businesses.
Seeing the emerging popularity of automobiles, he started a dealership for some of the first Cadillac and REO cars in the nation and hired mechanics to repair them in a garage added to his barn.
George raised dogs all his life and was a skilled hunter, so he easily gained wide respect nationally for his purebred and expertly trained hounds and terriers. Other animals soon were added for sale
as pets and for various uses at the turn-of-the-century. Medicine was still in its infancy, so bottling and selling tonics and cures from recipes given him by “an old Indian lady” added to his reputation as a healer and an honest businessman.
that includes four of his sons, circa 1921
The older sons and daughters helped with the businesses and the younger Brown children had chores to do. Mother and her sisters climbed up onto slatted shelves in the dark basement to “sprout” Allie’s homegrown potatoes. In the fall, the girls tied paper bags around bunches of grapes ripening on the arbor to keep the birds from feasting on them before their mother could make jelly from them. They also helped to mow the lawn with a hand-pushed rotary mower and kept a large hedge by the driveway neatly trimmed.
The Brown family was not ‘all work and no play’ however. They relaxed on weekends, particularly on Sundays when, according to Mother, “Pop would take us on trips”. They would ride the trolley to visit George’s parents at his birthplace in Manchester, with open trolley cars in summer and closed ones in winter. George would also load them up into one of his trucks and drive to Hershey Park or other amusement parks in Maryland.
Allie on the running board and
Mother to the left of the smallest child.
Early on, there were many toys for the children, but Mother only remembers having to share every-
thing. Her older brother Austin (in dark coat above) had roller skates she adored. I once commented that it was nice of him to share them with her. She surprised me with her petulant reply: “He wouldn’t share them with me – so I stole them!” That got her into big trouble, as did climbing on rows of milk cans and knocking them over, cutting herself badly on her forehead. She clearly was a typical child and was sometimes naughty!
The animals at the Dell were important to the family’s livelihood so most were not pets. There were ponies that gave rides at the York fair and a horse still used for pulling carriages and wagons. A cow provided fresh milk. Reaching ground to roof on the side of the barn where the dance hall would be built many years later, there was a large enclosure that held dozens of homing pigeons. George raised and sold them for use during the First World War, since two-way electronic voice devices had not been perfected. Pigeons were one
of the few reliable ways soldiers could communicate with their commanders during battle. Some birds became war heroes by saving the lives of hundreds of Allied soldiers, a fascinating bit of military history that I just discovered online.
In addition to pigeons, there were pheasants (whose feathers were in great demand for ladies’ hats), angora rabbits whose fur was used for soft knitting yarn, ferrets that specialized in keeping houses and barns rat-free, monkeys for pets, and most plentiful – hunting dogs of all kinds. There were 100 to 200 of them on hand at any given time.
My grandfather made a large part of his fortune selling them to soldiers returning from the Great War in 1918 who wanted to relax by going out to hunt in the familiar fields of home.
As a child in the midst of all this activity, Mother saw only “Home Sweet Home”, but unbeknownst to her, and in reality, a storm was building that would change her life and that of her family forever. Ironically, the very things that built
my grandfather’s success would in a few short years contribute to his downfall.
Chapter 4: Allie's Rats, Pt 2: Margaret's Pig Tale
Chapter 4: Allie's Rats, Pt 1: Hill and Dell
Chapter 3: The House on the Hill
Chapter 2: Margaret is Born...and So Is the Dell
Chapter 1: The Beauty and the Butcher
Introduction: My Shady Dell "Roots"