Common Ground in Play

Throughout the 1930’s, eighth-grade graduation photos show that the school was still predominantly Euro-American. A few Japanese-American families sent children to Youngstown, the Ishida’s and Susumi’s, and at least one African-American family, the Hendersons. According to Betty MacWatters, the school was mainly Caucasian. “[Residents] were basically back then the immigrants of the 1900s, which were German, Polish, Italian, some English, Yugoslav, Austrian. We had a melting pot. And nobody was ever concerned with what they called you. They used to call us Wops, different slang names which are not permissible now. Of course, we had no other input. All the other races were not prevalent here. We didn’t have a lot of Hispanic. We didn’t have a lot of Afro-American. There were [a few] but they mingled and seemed to get along with people.”

Food exchanges at lunchtime and after school educated children in ethnic tastes: spaghetti traded for apple pie, Norwegian lefse passed around in the lunchroom. Skalabrin’s store sold pickled herring, lutefisk, sauerkraut, and bakalar (dried cod). Italians and Croatians competed in wine-making, sampling lugs of grapes shipped each fall to Georgetown from California. “And there’d always be an argument on Saturday night about the right way to make wine. They all had their wine,” Nick Skalabrin remembers.

Among the children, however, there was awareness of socio-economic differences that came with geography. There was freedom to ride bikes almost anywhere, comments Betty Dunn, except for the Gulch. “The only thing that we ever were warned about–you had to be careful of those kids that lived in The Gulch.”

“If you lived on the hill, you stayed on top of the hill,” Vivian McLean recalls, at least the children did. Families had so many children they had fun just among themselves. Debra Miles Yerg confirmed the experience of being tied to the hill except that she and her friends were free to roam up and down the hill and woods to Riverside.

Darla Fox viewed the difference from the valley: “There was a little bit of a separation of the kids that lived on the east side of Delridge Way—up on Pigeon Point, or south of the school—to all of us in our little neighborhood. We didn’t get together that much. There wasn’t any way of getting together unless we met at the park.”

The Duwamish River, Longfellow Creek, and the park were common gathering places for kids after school. “I can remember climbing up on one of the pilings,” says Mary Alice Willi; “the first time I jumped in the river, it was so cold it took my breath away! I thought I was going to drown and die right there.”

John Hendron describes an afternoon ritual in the summer: maybe up to two dozen kids building a fire on a section of Riverside beach and then swimming in the river. He learned to swim “by taking a piece of rope and putting five ring corks—fishnet corks—on the rope, and tying it around my waist. That caused me to float…. After awhile, I was able to take one ring off… and I could still swim. And then I’d take another ring, until I had only three rings on my life belt. I was still able to swim alright. I was going to take off another one, then I thought, ‘What the heck! I think I can swim without it.’ Then I threw it away.”

Once he was proficient, he joined the older boys: “Sometimes we’d get on a boat that was tied up at the dock and hide until it backed down into the river. Then we’d get up and thumb our noses at the captain, and jump off the bow as they backed out” and swim to shore. However, in the 1940’s, a third-grade student at Cooper drowned in the Duwamish.
Betty MacWatters played at the clay pits at the brick yards on the Riverside side of the hill. “Then on the river we would always borrow several of the men’s small rowboats… and we’d row out over the log booms to find the ducks on Kellogg Island.” Although they couldn’t swim a lick, “we’d walk them log booms. We must have been insane.” Children also swam when the tide came in to Spokane Street, but at least one boy drowned doing that.

Longfellow Creek runs through the Delridge valley, beginning at a bog near Roxbury Street, flowing north through what is now West Seattle Golf Course, and into the Sound. Salmon and beaver inhabited the creek, which was tamer than the river as long as it wasn’t flooding. Gino Lucchesini fished with worms and a stick with a piece of string. His brother gaffed salmon with a broomstick and a hook when they came up from the bay to spawn in the creek. Four-inch stickleback inhabited the swampy lower end of the creek in the early 1930’s (Hendron).

Cliff Davidson and his friend Richard Knight once caught a 13” rainbow trout in the culvert where the creek runs under the golf course. Davidson chased the fish from one end of the culvert, and Knight caught it with his bare hands, earning himself a picture in the newspaper.

Delma Carpenter described tying a big heavy rope to a tree. “We’d get up on the bank and would swing over the creek, and some of us would come back, and someone would grab us, and other times we’d just drop to the other side and wade back across and take turns doing that.” Newcomer kids might not know to make a good run on it and wind up in the creek. “So it was always a big deal when a greenhorn was going to do it because you knew he was going to have to drop into the creek” (Skalabrin).

Falling into the creek was not necessarily healthy. A lot of sewage and storm drain overflow flowed into it in the 1940’s and 50’s. When the steel mill diverted the creek’s water to a cooling pond, salmon could no longer spawn in the creek. Children swam in the cooling pond even though it was fenced; “you could climb over the fence” (Skalabrin). Today that polluted site is paved under a fitness center club parking lot.

“It wasn’t quite as clean back then [in the 1960’s] as it is now,” Bruce Schwald commented, but he and his friends still had great times, making little wooden replicas of hydroplanes and floating them on strings up and down the creek.

Periodically the creek overflowed its banks. The meadow across the street from the school was swampy because of the flooding. One of the PTA’s first actions was to have it drained.

Puget Mill Company was the original owner of much of the land in the area. They sold or donated sites near growing communities when there was a sharp increase in state taxes. In the 1920’s, the land south of Genesee Street was a dump. Kids went there to look for wheels, Gino Lucchesini recalls. “If you’d find some wheels, you’d make a little go-cart. We had to entertain ourselves, you know.” In 1938 the City of Seattle purchased that land, and WPA funds developed the West Seattle Golf Course and Recreation Area. In the early years, the golf course was not fenced, and children had easy access for bicycle riding, sledding, and picking up golf balls. “We used to go over to the golf course late at night and fly kites” (Fox).

The golf course, the playfield, and Camp Long served as large backyards. After the demise of the slingshot wars, Lucchesini remembers playing baseball and tennis in the park. Games of kick the can and hide and seek went on until dark on summer evenings. “We used to play up in Camp Long…up and down the paths for hours. During school, we’d go across the street and play at the playfield. And I don’t recall adults there. When they rang the bell, we’d go back across the street. And we’d play in hills, and running, just over that whole thing…. We had a great time. We had forts and camps and everything,” said Sharon Faler Ackerlund. Iris Nichols echoes that freedom: “One thing I remember from grade school that the kids can’t do now, and that is we could all meet up and just go someplace. Ride our bikes, play down by the creek, roller skate, go swimming at Colman pool. And our parents didn’t have to worry about us.” She tromped all over Youngstown, Pigeon Point and the valley selling Campfire mints by herself. Nick Skalabrin and his brother had a Schwinn Knee Action bike which they rode double. “We’d get on the top of Avalon Way… and we could coast all the way down Harbor Avenue to where we could fish for cod… We’d go there early enough that the tide would be down and we could get pile worms, and we’d use that for bait. So we’d catch cod, usually rock cod, and we’d bring it home and have it for dinner.”

Because the neighborhood was self-contained, “We had a run of the place. It was just everybody knew everybody, everybody went to Cooper that was in that area,” said Paula Tortorice. Along with that freedom came a certain amount of mischief. Grace Susumi Suyematsu recalls sliding down coal chutes on cardboard boxes Betty McKenzie used to slide down the cement rain gutters on the north side of the school to the sidewalk below with a friend. “Our mothers soon discovered this was the reason the soles of our shoes kept wearing thin.” Gino Lucchesini described five or six guys getting on the cow catcher of the small dinky (streetcar) that ran in the neighborhood to the main streetcar on Spokane Street. The boys would bounce the car up and down and rock it off the tracks. “Then they’d help [the conductor] put it back on.”

The neighborhood was not without rules for the children. In the early decades, most of the families had two parents at home, according to Georgia Baxter, and “there was always somebody there to tell them what to do or look out for them.”

“Most kids in those days…were very well disciplined. Whatever their dad said, that was it. No ands, ifs, or buts about it…. You always had to be home for dinner,” Lucchesini recalled. Although much of the play was unsupervised, parents supported community activities. Barbara Iacolucci described her fathering grooming the baseball field in the park: he would tie the old bedsprings to the back of the family Durant. “I’d stand on the bedsprings and he’d drive slow around and around. And that’s how we’d smooth out the Delridge ball fields!”

In the 1920’s Youngstown School hosted silent movies on Friday nights, featuring Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Buster Keaton. “Friday night, that was a big deal, come up to the school and see the Charlie Chaplin movie” (Lucchesini). With a community center, the park became a more organized hub of activities with dances on Friday nights, tap dance lessons, and nickel movies. It was always neutral ground where any kid in the neighborhood could go. There were trips outside of the neighborhood, too, bicycling to Alki Beach and the Natatorium and to Colman Pool in Lincoln Park. In the 1930’s, “A group of us would gather enough money to have a five-cent hamburger and a ten-cent movie” at the theaters downtown, Georgia Baxter recounted. Then they would walk up the waterfront, through Hooverville, and into town. There were also summer trips to the zoo at Woodland Park and excursions to the skating rink in White Center.
Religious organizations held the community together, too. Bayview (or Mayflower) Church had started on Pigeon Hill in the early 1900’s, later becoming known as First Congregational Church. The church sponsored a basketball team for neighborhood boys. In the 1920’s, Swedish immigrants started the Youngstown Corps of the Salvation Army, which moved into a hall across the street from the church on Andover and 23rd, hosting Sunday School and youth work. Iacolucci recalls that people felt comfortable at the Salvation Army church because they didn’t have to dress up in suits, dresses, hats, gloves, and high heels they couldn’t afford. The Boy Scouts, Cub Scouts, Girl Scouts, and the Salvation Army Girl Guards used the basement during the week. Many of the families in the communities were Catholic and went to Holy Rosary Church, and some children attended Catholic schools.

The first Boy Scout troop at Cooper School was organized by the Sea Scouts in 1936. Another troop was organized in 1943 and took boys on two-week hiking trips to the Olympic Peninsula. “This was still considered a rough neighborhood,” Fred Hansen recalled, “but our Scout leader [Lionel Skinner] had such an interest in the boys of the community, not to let them become juvenile delinquents. It was important to have this stability for the boys.” Besides having one of the only telephones in the community, Skalabrin’s store on Dakota had a branch of the public library and the polling place for a huge part of West Seattle. During one of Franklin Roosevelt’s later terms, people lining up for the one voting machine stretched five blocks long, all the way up Dakota Street to 30th Avenue and then across and up by the golf course.