My father’s reduced salary during the Depression did not deter my parents from traveling in our black Chevrolet coach. Most of the trips were required. Grandmother Stuart spent half of the year with us, the other half with Mother’s sister. Twice a year, I viewed the countryside between Pittsburgh and Ritchie County, West Virginia while sitting amid Grandmother’s prized possessions stacked between us in the back seat from which neither of us could escape until one of my parents exited the car and tilted his or her seat forward.
Although West Virginia was our primary destination each time we motored out of Pittsburgh, we made several other journeys while I was growing up in order to satisfy Mother’s romance with history and her yen to see new vistas.
Lack of money was our major restriction. Our car was willing to travel, but my parents could not afford overnight accommodations other than tourist houses run by widows or elderly couples. Cleanliness being the major criterion of her selections, Mother developed a regular ritual of inspection that enabled her to spot the perfect tourist home. Lysol-clean bathrooms and unstained mattresses were high on her list of requirements. Her sensitive nose was alert to mold, mildew, and other worrisome conditions; at the same time, she sought out sun-dried sheets and jars of herbs or potpourris for the pleasant scents she considered vital to gentility.
One trip took us to Cleveland where Mother and Father had spent their honeymoon. We were drawn there by an Exposition designed to generate tourism and business to the city during the depths of the Depression. I was most impressed by delicious orange sherbet sold at stands throughout the fair, a troupe of midgets dressed in western regalia singing “I’m An Old Cowhand,” and a tricky display of mirrors that separated a woman’s head from her body.
Just as the Dionne Quintuplets fascinated the rest of the world, so did they amaze my parents. Both former teachers interested in all aspects of child study, they followed the Quints’ progress from the day Dr. Defoe broke the news of their birth to the world. When the children’s caretakers created a unique playroom where their charges could romp merrily, oblivious to the fact that they were being monitored through a one-way window, my parents began planning a journey to the distant country of Canada. Perhaps they pursued their daring trip in the hope of discovering new ideas for developing me into a model child.
We set forth from Pittsburgh in August, but the weather turned cold on the second evening as we drove past the Nabisco Shredded Wheat factory in Niagara Falls. Several days later, we reached the small village of Callender, Ontario, not far from North Bay, in a heavy snowstorm.
That trip, venturesome for the era, provided my parents with experiences they relived again and again through the photographs my father took with his Kodak brownie camera. We and other tourists were divided into small groups and guided into a hallway from which we could gaze into a playroom where the Quints played. They were undisturbed by the crowds herded through the structure because they could not see anyone through the magical window. When we emerged from the hallway into a gift shop, we were propelled toward Papa Dionne who sat at a table autographing pictures of his daughters. His older children collected the coins everyone was charged, presumably contributions to the family expenses. I remember that Father begrudgingly handed one a quarter, but when we were out of hearing range, he muttered to Mother that people without the funds to support children should not have them. This was the philosophy held by the concerned public during the Depression when the typical family had one-and-a-half children. Most of my friends were only children like me.
On the way back to Pittsburgh, we stopped near Erie, Pennsylvania to see the lake where Commodore Perry’s flagship “Niagara” defeated the British during the War of 1812 by flying the “Don’t Give Up the Ship” flag made by my mother’s ancestor, Margaret Forster Stuart. The charred remains of the “Niagara” protruded from the lake bed, a sorry sight, but one Mother exclaimed over in awe for its historical value and obscure family connection.
After a walk around Presque Isle, we returned to the car. I had already crawled into the back seat and Mother was arranging herself in front. Believing that she was settled, Father exhibited his gentlemanly manners by closing the door for her. Instantly, Mother’s screams shattered the afternoon calm. Father had slammed the door on her hand quite by accident. Despite the fact that it took several months for her to regain the use of the fingers on her right hand, Mother regarded that trip as one of the nicest she ever took.
Her favorite journey, by all accounts, was the visit to Williamsburg, Virginia shortly after it was restored and opened to the public. On the way, we stopped at Monticello and Mount Vernon and took a winding, unpaved road part of the way into West Virginia just so my parents could show me “The Saddle,” the dip in the Blue Ridge mountains thought to be the site of the cabin where Nancy Hanks, mother of Abraham Lincoln, was born.
The road from Winchester (where we saw the famous tree growing out of the house and the cannon ball embedded in the side of a house) to “The Saddle” was nothing if not poor. Paved with rugged rocks, it invited flat tires at every bend. I remember four within that single stretch of road. As he always did for such emergencies, Father donned the mechanic’s overalls that he carried in a kit before meticulously re-patching both inner tubes and tires.
While father toiled, Mother and I stood by the roadside studying the wildflowers and searching for small creatures scurrying through the tall grass. Progress was slow on the tires, giving us ample opportunity to examine the flora and fauna of the countryside and allowing me to learn about America’s history and that of our family, in particular.
Through my parents’ conversations, I became acquainted with the Pritchards in their progression from Thomas, the carpenter, who arrived at Jamestown in 1620 to help construct a fort for the Virginia Company, to his descendants as they advanced across the Commonwealth of Virginia. Each generation moved westward by twenty or thirty miles, heading from Virginia’s Westmoreland, Prince William, Fairfax, and Loudoun Counties into Maryland’s Allegany and Garrett Counties, and finally into the westernmost reaches of Virginia (destined to become West Virginia) through Monongalia, Harrison, Lewis, and Ritchie Counties. Along their way, they developed into the strong West Virginia clan devoted to one another and to their home state.
On Mother’s side, the Bells and Stuarts, Scots transplanted to Northern Ireland, came to America early in the 1700s to escape British oppression. Like the Pritchards, they moved readily into the wilderness, establishing their own El Dorados in western Pennsylvania. For my parents, their automobile trips were opportunities to retrace the trails their adventuresome ancestors had blazed. I often detected that Father was less enthusiastic than mother in following those treacherous roads. He, after all, was the one responsible for repairing tires in less than desirable conditions.
No matter where my parents traveled, West Virginia cuisine was to them the hallmark of excellence. Whether they were in Clarksburg, Parkersburg, Wheeling, or in another state, they regarded the YMCA Cafeterias as outstanding adventures in fine dining, as indeed they were for many years, with prices that were unsurpassed for the value. Where else could one obtain a tasty chicken and dumpling dinner for fifteen cents?
My parents never forgot the delicious meals served them in West Virginia YMCAs. When many years later Father dined at New York City’s legendary Algonquin Hotel dining room, he compared the YMCA fare of his memories with the solitary piece of haddock and single boiled potato carefully dished onto his plate by a solicitous waiter. Neither the dry fish nor the elevated price of the skimpy meal met his approval. For the first – and only – time in his life, Father “made a scene.”
As he shoved his money at the waiter, he drew himself up and said, “We’ve eaten in some of the finest restaurants in the east, including Bailey’s Cafeteria in Huntington, West Virginia, and this, without a doubt, is the worst meal I’ve ever had!”
The waiter tried to refrain from expressing his amusement as he gravely replied, “I’m very sorry that the Algonquin does not live up to your expectations. Perhaps our chef can visit Bailey’s…uh…Cafeteria one day to try to improve our menus.”
“That would be a good idea,” Father said. “He could learn a lot.”
As we scurried out of the dining room famous for years as “a gathering place for smart and interesting people,” Mother giggled appreciatively and agreed with Father that a famous chef’s reputation is no guarantee that his food will meet your expectations.