The house on 15th Street
January 14, 2014
How often have we said, "if only the walls could talk?" The house on 15th Street in the northern section of Philadelphia had a lot of stories to tell, and all of them can't be told in just one column.
It all started in the 1890s when a blond, blue-eyed Quaker named Albert Stokes was visiting friends in Philadelphia. They took him to the Willow Grove amusement park. Stepping into a seat on a Ferris wheel, he sat down next to a dark-eyed brunette. This young woman was a French-Canadian named Annie Lamar who was visiting her sister. Annie never returned to Canada; instead, she married this handsome Quaker. They were my maternal grandparents.
I remember that little row house on 15th Street well, the first and only house the Stokes family ever owned. Back then — when it was first built — it didn't even have electricity. Natural gas jets used for lighting remained in all the rooms for years. People used coal for heating. A coal chute delivered it, down through a window just off the front sidewalk, into a bin in the basement.
The kitchen was, by today's standards, a nightmare. The sink was about the size of a dishpan and they only had cold water. All the years I knew them nobody complained that to do dishes, take a bath, or do laundry you had to heat the water by hand in pans and carry it to wherever it was needed. And the stove for cooking was one of those old-fashioned kinds you see in old movies with the oven up high and accessible.
Right here I want to say something. I liked those old stoves; you didn't have to lean down to bake anything. But Grandma Stokes's stove was an ugly thing. Of course they had an icebox instead of a refrigerator, even years and years after everybody had one of those new gadgets. Only when they could no longer get ice delivered did they buy a much-needed refrigerator. They still did not have a hot water heater.
Albert and Annie stayed in that house with all its warts until they died, Down in the basement Grandpa Stokes had a machine shop where he made paper-hanging tools. Upstairs we could hear the sounds of his machines grinding away, and we could smell the odor of varnish when he hung those tools on a special clothesline thing-a-ma-jig to dry the tools. It was how he made his living for his family.
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Down in the basement was another stove where grandma baked her famous bread and rolls. When the Great Depression hit, nobody was buying paper-hanging tools. So she baked from early morning until noon. Then grandpa drove his old Willis car around to the more affluent neighborhoods, selling grandma's baked goods, keeping their body and souls together. There was no welfare or unemployment or help in those days. Families worked and helped each other or they starved.
The house had a small covered front porch that led to the front door. You entered into a tiny vestibule, then into the living room. Inside was just enough space for a couch, an overstuffed chair, a piano and a Victrolas. Okay you say, what in the world is that? It's one of those contraptions used to play records … that is if anybody remembers what a record is? There were handles and needles and "things" you used to play the records.
Please ask your grandmother … it's too hard for me to explain. And, of course, there were a first floor dining room, three upstairs bedrooms and bathroom with a claw-footed tub. My mother was the first-born. She arrived in July of 1899. Then came Ida, followed by Edith. My mother had my sister and I and just about the same time Ida had four daughters. Edith only lived to be a week old.
Ambrose Hoffman, my father, was a dancing instructor and a secretary for the Navy during World War I. He had a heart condition and couldn't serve in the military. Ida married a man named Walter Scott, someone nobody in the family seemed to like. When Ida became ill, she returned to the house on 15th Street where she passed away while still in her late 20s. My grandparents fought to get custody of my cousins, and won.
Irony of ironies, my cousin's father passed away weeks later. There is so much more to be told about that house on 15th Street. More later.
Edna Van Leuven is a Churchill County writer.