Childhood Memories

by H. Clay Gorton, August 2001

I was born in Soda Springs, Idaho on March 7, 1923, the oldest of three children. My two younger sisters are Gayla, b. Jan. 23, 1925, and Leah Patricia (Pat), May 30, 1928. I anticipate that what will follow will be a bit rambling. The objective is merely to record various childhood experiences to give a flavor of what life for a child in a small town in those days was like, as I think today’s youth have very little perception of what life in a small town was like 70 years ago.

I was actually born in the home of my uncle Henry Clay Gorton, and we moved to my grandmother’s home when I was two. She was Leah Mariah Waylett Gorton. Grandfather had passed away several years before I was born. Grandmother Gorton’s house was one of the larger and older houses in town. In front were huge black willow trees. The lot on which the house stood was in the center of the block and included 2 ½ acres of land. To the east of the house was the barn, where we kept our milk cow and occasional sheep and pigs. In back of the house was the wood and coal shed and ice house. The front half was for the wood and coal, and the back half was used to store ice for the ice chest. The ice chest, which we kept on the back porch, had four compartments–one, on the upper left was where we put the ice. In the winter time blocks of ice would be cut from the lake near town and hauled up by wagon. The floor of the ice house would be covered with blocks of ice, over which would be sprinkled a layer of sawdust. Successive layers of ice and sawdust would be added until the entire room was filled, with only enough space at the door to slide out near the top. That ice would last us all summer long.

When I was younger, we had no indoor plumbing. The outhouse was located about 20 feet or so west of the ice house. It was challenging to use that facility in the winter time. A chamber pot was kept under each bed which could be used at night to relieve oneself as necessary.

The floors in the living and sitting rooms downstairs were of bird’s eye maple, over which rag rugs were placed. The maple floors would be sanded and varnished every three or four years. It was my job to varnish the floors. There were three large bedrooms upstairs. One of them was my bedroom, the other was used as a guest room and third, I converted into a chemistry laboratory when I was a senior in high school. I had a friend who was two years older than me who attended the University of Idaho, Southern Branch, at Pocatello when I was a junior and senior. He stole a great deal of chemicals and chemical equipment from the university. Near the beginning of the second year he was caught and was kicked out of school. So in shame he joined the army. But before he left he gave me all the chemicals and equipment that he had stolen.

With the help of some friends I hauled up to may chem. lab a piece of slate that had been one third of a pool table, and it became my laboratory bench. I added shelves around the walls on which to store the chemicals. After I graduated from high school, I got the first year college chem lab book and went through all the experiments in the book during the summer before I registered for college at UISB that fall.

When we were little, one of my favorite pastimes was to play farm in the back yard. The fields would be fenced with string, using sticks for fence posts. We used empty condensed milk cans for cows, peach pits for chickens, half peach pits for roosters, and horse shoes for horses. I had gotten a wind-up tractor for Christmas one year, and we made roads for the tractor and the horses to run on.

Money was very scarce in those days, so the tractor was indeed a luxury. For Christmas one year I made my sisters furniture for a doll house, using a coping saw and wood from orange crates we could get at the store. Another toy was made by punching two nail holes in the lid and in the bottom of a three-pound coffee can and tying a piece of string loosely in a loop through the holes. In the center of one side of the loop we would tie a small rock. Then we would roll the can across the floor. As the can rolled the loop of string would wind up on itself lifting the rock. When the can stopped, the weight of the rock would cause it to roll backwards at it unwound. We were entertained rolling the can away and watching it come back.

We also had an old 44 caliber six shooter with a broken handle. We were able to put fire crackers in the chamber and rocks in the barrel at shoot at each other with the thing. We also had a 22 caliber repeating rifle. One day I asked by father to take me hunting, which he consented to do. So we walked out in the country together to shoot squirrels. On the way, Dad showed me the proper way to carry the gun, how to cross a fence with the gun, how to load and how to shoot. He would never go hunting with me again, but I could go by myself whenever I wanted to. However, it was required that I always went alone; I could never have anyone else with me. This rule undoubtedly stemmed from the fact that Dad had a younger brother, Jay, who was killed in a hunting accident while he and his companion were sitting on a log cleaning their guns.

I must relate one hunting experience in which I was glad to have been alone. I had access to a 4-10 shot gun and on occasion went out to shoot ducks. On one such occasion I was out by myself a little north of Hooper Springs, looking for ducks along Spring Creek. It was a cloudy day, with a low-lying overcast and there weren’t many ducks flying that day. As I was scanning the sky toward the north to catch sight of one I saw off near the horizon what seemed to me to be a flock of ducks circling to land. As they were about to land, they would then circle back up and start the process over. They were too far away to shoot at, but as this process was repeated time after time I thought that I would shoot out that way and probably scare them off so that perhaps some other hunter could get a shot at them. So I raised my gun and without taking careful aim, fired away. As soon as I had pulled the trigger, with the gun barrel in front of me giving my sight some perspective, I realized that what I had been watching was a swarm of gnats–and they weren’t even out as far as the end of the gun barrel.

Another pastime when we were kids was rolling hoops. Iron hoops of various sizes were plentiful as they were used to hold wooden barrels together. We could find them in sizes from six inches to three feet in diameter. We would nail a six-inch cross piece to a stick of wood, and would roll the hoop, pushing it with the cross piece on the end of the stick. We could make the hoop change direction by pushing on one side or another. It seemed that wherever you saw some kid going someplace, he was always following an iron hoop, which was being urged along with the stick in his hand.

We walked on stilts a lot, making our own stilts. The step on which we stood would be anywhere up to four or five feet above the ground. We became quite expert, being able to run and climb steps on the stilts. On occasion we would tie them to our sides with belts and rope, leaving our hands free. This activity was reserved for advanced stilting.

We played Tarzan a lot. To do so, we hung a cross piece of a Quaking Aspen log from a branch of the tree with two ropes. By tying three or four in succession at proper distances, we could swing from one to the other.

For in-door activities, we read books quite a lot. We also played string games. One favorite was to loop a string through two button holes in a button. Large buttons worked best. Then, holding the ends of the loop in our two hands we would wind the button around the string a bit. Then as we would alternately pull and relax on the ends of the loop the button would rapidly spin first in one direction and then the other. On occasion I would press the rotating string against my sister’s hair, which would immediately wind up in the string. Sometimes it was necessary to cut the hair to get it undone.

Many of our innocent pastimes would immediately land us in jail if practiced in today’s society. One such pastime was to take a bunch of newspapers at night up on Chester Hill, just north of town, where there were scattered juniper and pine trees. We would stuff the newspapers under the trees and light them with a match. It was exciting watching the trees burn up. Sometimes flames would leap as high a 40 feet in the air. Along in July, when the June grass on Chester Hill was completely dry, we would find isolated patches of it, and light it with a match. It would burn up with lightning speed. On one occasion we found a bunch that was bordered on the up-hill side by some low evergreen bushes. We thought, “The flame won’t last long enough to catch those bushes on fire.” So we lit the patch. We were wrong. It burned up the whole top of the hill.

Here are some entertainment activities that you don’t to tell to your children. We used to walk around town shooting the street lights out with a bee-bee gun in the summer and throwing snowballs at them in the winter. On one Fourth of July we climbed onto the roof of the two-story Enders Hotel, which was located across the street from the movie theater. Since it was a warm night, the doors of the theater were open to the street, so with our sling shots we would light the fuse of cherry bombs and shoot them through the doors and down the aisles of the theater.

Since it was the responsibility of myself and my two sisters to do the dishes after supper each day (one was assigned to wash and the other two to wipe), I would have one of the girls hold a rolled-up piece of newspaper about six to eight inches long in her mouth and I would flip it with the wet dish towel, cutting off pieces, each time closer to the attach point.

On other occasions, I would have one of the girls hold a stick of similar size in her mouth while I would shoot at it with a bee-bee gun loaded with a match stick into which had been inserted a needle. With that practice, myself and some other boys would get together to do the same thing. This became a competition; every time the stick was hit with the needle-bearing match, the target man would have to step back one pace. This continued until the shooter missed a shot, upon which he became the target holder.

I was interested in chemistry in high school. One trick I used to play was to fill a small gelatin capsule with methyl violet (the stuff that gives the color to indelible pencils) and insert the capsule in the end of a candy bar. We would then generously give the candy bar to an unsuspecting student. If he bit into the capsule it would turn his teeth and the inside of his mouth a vivid purple. If he was fortunate enough to unknowingly swallow the capsule it would turn his urine purple.

We also used to produce a hydrogen generator and fill toy balloon with hydrogen and let them go in the assembly hall, where they would float up to the ceiling–which was higher than the janitor could reach. After several days, as the balloons would gradually lose their hydrogen, the balloons would begin to lower. It would take several days for them to float down to where they could be captured by the custodian. (Nitroglycerin)

Swimming was great sport. I learned to swim when I was nine years old in the canal that wound around the bottom of Chester Hill. There was a section of the canal below a head gate that was over our heads for about ten feet. We would stand on the cement flooring of the head gate and launch ourselves into the stream. The object was to stay afloat until we reached a place where we could touch bottom. It didn’t take long under those conditions to learn to swim. There was always a race to see who would be the first in the water each spring. I think the water wouldn’t have been colder than if there were ice floating in it. Those swims were of very short duration.

To get some money to pay for the necessities of a boy’s life, I engaged in various activities. The first I remember was selling whiskey bottles.. This was the time of prohibition and whisky flasks brought a nickel apiece at the local liquor store. So I would roam the alleys and streets with my little wagon, collecting all the whisky bottles I could find. I made friends with the local sheriff, who would let me go into the jail and examine the empty cells. I could usually collect quite a few bottle from under the pillows in the empty cells. I started a collection and kept a scrap book of whisky bottle labels.

I also sold the Sunday edition of the San Francisco Examiner. The price of the paper was $.05, and my profit was $.01 per paper.

As I got a little older I was able to mow lawns for a living. Power mowers had not yet been invented, and as the people were all very poor, they wouldn’t pay to have their lawns mowed until the grass was really tall. I would get $.35 per lawn. Since the grass was so tall I had to push the mower over the same piece several times to get the grass properly cut. It often took two full days to mow one lawn.

I saved my money all summer to make important purchases. One summer I bought a tennis racket, and the next summer I was able to buy a bicycle. The bicycle cost, as I remember, about $25. The bike lasted me all through my teen years.

I built a box on the back of the bike in which I could put papers to sell. Also, I taught my dog, Skippy, to ride in the box, so he was a rather constant companion as I rode around town. Gaining a little expertise on the bike, I removed the handle bars and was able to guide the bike by leaning one way or another. On occasion, we would ride the bike out to Conda, nine miles to the north of Soda Springs, to visit my grandparents, Simeon Ralph and Emma Arminta Sterrett. We would also ride out to the Blackfoot River Bridge, 12 miles north of town, taking bamboo fishing poles with us, to do a little fishing.

Another bicycle sport was to blindfold my little sister, Pat, put her on the handle bars and ride around town. Her task was to guess where we were.

When I was 14 years old I took a summer job working for Heber Lau as a camp jack. Heber had a head of 1000 sheep that were grazed on Mt. Sherman, just south of town. The sheepherder as, to my mind, was an old man. We had an agreement that he would teach me the art of being a camp jack if I would help him herd the sheep. That was the most interesting summer of my young life. I didn’t realize that the herder had conned me into doing all the work while he sat in the shade and told me what to do.

Our equipment consisted of two saddle horses, two pack horses, one useless dog, a canvas teepee for sleeping and another for storage of supplies. We would get up about 4 AM and go out to the sheep. Once the location had been established, I would take a bridle and three halters and go look for the horses. At night we tied a bell around the neck of one of the horses so we could hear where they were in the morning. After I had found them, I would put the bridle on my horse and the halters on the other three, then tie the halter of each to the tail of the horse in front. That way I could trail the horses back to our camp. I would then stake out the pack horses, saddle up the two saddle horses and ride back to where the sheep were.

At about 7:00 AM I would ride back to camp to prepare breakfast. Breakfast consisted of sourdough pancakes, eggs, bacon and coffee for the herder. I had to drink water. The herder would come in about 8:00 for breakfast and then go back to the sheep, and I was to follow as soon as the breakfast was cleared up. About 10 AM the sheep would “shade up,” remaining so until about 4 PM when they would start feeding again. So from 10 AM to 4 PM, the herder relaxed in the camp, while I took care of camp duties.

We would move camp every three or four days in order to keep up with the sheep. To do so we would load our belongs onto the two pack horses and head off to the new camp site. Before laying down the sleeping tent, I would gather the ends of pine boughs about ten or twelve inches long and lay them in rows in an area equal to the floor of the tent. I would then lay the tent over it and it down. The pine boughs became a very effective mattress. I would then dig a ditch around the uphill three sides of the tent, and cover the edge of the tent with dirt in order to ward off water from the occasional rain storms that we encountered.

Our stove was made by piling a bank of stones on three sides and laying on top the sheet-metal door of an old model T ford that we carried along for the purpose. Our fuel was dead pine branches that I broke into appropriate lengths by breaking them over a log. To hang our saddles up I drove our ax repeatedly into the same spot in a pine tree until I could bury the head of the ax in the cut. I then cut a 1-inch diameter pine branch about a foot long and drove it into the cut. As the tree would swell around the peg it became firm enough for its intended use.

Once a week I would have to go for supplies. I would put the pack saddles on the two pack horses and trail them down to a pre-agreed upon meeting place on the canyon road, where I would meet Heber Lau. I would pack up the horses with the supplies and trail them back to camp.

To find one another when we were separated, the herder and I carried a package of fire crackers in our pocket. If one wanted to find the other, he would light a fire cracker. Upon hear the noise the other would also light a fire cracker. The first person would then follow the sound until we met up, lighting fire crackers as necessary for guidance.

Counting the sheep was an interesting exercise. The sheep had been individually counted back in the stock yard before being trailed out to the range, and the number of black sheep in the heard was identified. When we wanted to count the sheep to see if any were missing, we would herd them into an open meadow, then ride around them on our horses until they were bunched up really tight. We would then get off the horses and walk slowly toward the herd about 20 feet apart. If any sheep would try to break away and run around us, we would shoo them back with our bandanas–but only on the outside. We would pay no attention to the sheep between us. When we got close enough to the herd, some brave sheep would break and run between, then all the sheep would follow. We could then move towards each other until we were only about four feet apart, waving the bandanas on our outside hands to discourage any new attempts. As the sheep would run between us, we would count only the black ones. To do this we kept a number of pebbles in our pockets, and for each ten black sheep we would transfer one pebble from one pocket to another. Since the sheep almost never went off alone, but rather in small groups, we knew that if one black sheep was missing, it would be accompanied with about 20 white sheep. If we found any group mission we would then start a search over where we had been until they were found.

In addition to swimming, a little tennis, playing Tarzan by swinging on our home-trapezes through the trees, and hiking around Chester Hill, our summer activities also included golf. Since no one could afford to buy gold clubs, we made our own. The club would consist of a seven-inch quaking Aspen log about two-to-three inched in diameter shaved flat on one side, into which we drilled a hole with a brace and bit, and inserted the club handle. We actually used real golf balls, but we had to make our golf course in the back yard.

Winter sports included skiing, sledding and ice skating. I tried to make a pair of skis, but they didn’t turn out too well because I couldn’t get the points bent up enough. But I was able to buy a pair. These skis were not used with ski boots–an unheard of luxury; instead we cut one-inch-wide rings from a rubber inner tube (inner tubes were made of real rubber in those days) which we would put around ankles and under our toes in front of the ski strap. That would keep the ski on, but was completely useless for any maneuvering. So we would ski downhill in a straight line. Each person would follow the first and the path thus made would often freeze, making for a very fast ski run.

We would also do down-hill sledding. This was possible only after a sufficiently hard freeze to leave the snow with a hard surface crust. That was often more exciting than skiing, as with a good hard surface crust we could go faster than on skis.

Another fun sledding sport was to hook our sleds onto the runner of a horse-drawn sleigh. In the winter when I was a kid there were very few cars on the road, but there were plenty of sleighs. There was usually a bolt on the back of the runners used to attach the metal runner to the wooden support. We would run after the sleigh, slam down on the sled and slip our rope over the bolt on the runner to get a free ride to wherever they we going.

On occasion, when we could borrow a horse from someone, we would tie a roper to the saddle to which the skier would hold on to, and we would gallop down the road with the skier bouncing over the drifts along the side of the road–the forerunner of water skiing.