On Childhood in Old Forest Home
By Randolph Scott Little
Seventy-five years ago I lived in a garage apartment on Warren Road. The upper level was a two-car garage; downstairs was a cozy living space. It overlooked a small orchard behind the Knox house on Forest Home Drive. In May the apple blossoms were bountiful and beautiful. My father was the coach of swimming at Cornell and my mother was a statistician in the College of Agriculture. They enjoyed fishing and back-packing, so I soon became acquainted with most of the Fall, Cascadilla and Six-mile Creek watersheds, as well as the inlet and Cayuga Lake itself. My mother carried me on her back in an Adirondack pack basket.
A few years later, when my first of three sisters was about to be born, we moved to the top of the hill at 120 Warren Road. I got my own bedroom and in the evening enjoyed listening to “The Lone Ranger” on the radio with a fire in the fireplace, while my parents read the Ithaca Journal and tended to the day’s mail. With a younger sibling in the house, I began to learn independence. The back yard had a small flat area, then rapidly sloped downward to the woods above the Short and Whetzel houses.
Those woods had overgrown an older apple orchard and contained a mixture of other kinds of trees. The old apple trees were quite climbable, as was one white pine. Those provided good learning experiences in many regards. It is easier to climb up than to climb back down. Some species make excellent climbing trees; others are brittle or leave you covered with pitch.
On winter evenings I would look out the kitchen window to spot the headlights of cars coming across the lower bridge. If one turned right toward Warren Road, I would run to the living room to watch for headlights coming up the hill. With a bit of luck it would be Dad coming home from the Old Armory for an awaiting dinner. If fresh snowfall might make the hill too slippery, he would take the long way around – across Triphammer bridge, out to the Community Corners, across Hanshaw Road to Warren Road, and down to 120. On those nights it was fun to watch cars trying and mostly failing to make it up the Warren Road hill.
I entered Cornell in 1944 – to attend the nursery school that was part of the College of Home Economics in “Martha Van.” We had only one car, which Dad usually took to the Old Armory on the far side of the campus, so Mom would walk me over to nursery school, carrying my younger sister in a pack basket down the “shortcut” (the Forest Home Walkway), across the lower bridge and along Beebe Lake to Toboggan Lodge, then up to the back of Martha Van.
Summer brought a whole new realm of possibilities, many of which involved Fall Creek. Of course I had learned to swim and respect water at an early age, so Fall Creek from just above the dam by the lower bridge all the way up to Flat Rock was my summer playground. Crayfish and hellgrammites found by turning over rocks in shallow water made, I thought, good presents for my father the fisherman. He always accepted them with tactful pleasure, although his passion was clearly fly fishing. Using live bait was not his preferred style. But, what the heck, he had taught me that crayfish and hellgrammites make good bait, particularly for fishing for small-mouthed bass in Cayuga Lake which he did every fall.
Exploring Fall Creek at other seasons was instructive, too. “Ice out” during the spring thaw was always eagerly anticipated. Just watching the jumble of ice blocks and trees stampeding downstream, virtually unstoppable until they spilled into the gorge behind the Byway, was an awesome experience. Sometimes the build-up in the gorge nearly reached the height of Table Rock and was tempting to step onto. Temptations like that were a significant part of growing up in old Forest Home. One could learn a lot just by watching and contemplating what could happen next. When the water forced the underlying ice out into Beebe Lake, leaving the impromptu bridge to suddenly collapse into the gorge, the lessons could not have been more meaningful and lasting. Old Forest Home was a living laboratory.
Not that the laboratory was confined to the valley. It was not. Importantly it extended to the Cornell campus on the south and across the golf course and extensive fields to the north. After “graduating” from Cornell’s nursery school, I attended kindergarten through third grades in the Forest Home School, which is now the Cornell Plantations headquarters. It had two classrooms on the upper level and a gymnasium below. Mrs. Davis, Nellie Davis, was our teacher. She lived at 214 Forest Home Drive across from what is now the Forest Home Park – the house in which Claudia Fuchs first lived in Forest Home. After school we often explored the campus buildings that overlooked our school.
Three buildings, in particular, captivated my interest. They were: Fernow Hall which housed the Conservation Department, the Floriculture Greenhouses, and the “cow barns.” Each offered endless opportunities to observe, contemplate and learn. A respectful youngster eager to learn about birds or flowers or farm operations was allowed to “tag along” with the faculty or staff or students. Although asking questions was not discouraged, it went without saying that the better approach was to observe carefully and use your own head without getting in the way or interrupting. The one question that proved most effective was: “How may I help?”
Observing the colorful plumages of stuffed hummingbirds in a display case in Fernow Hall may have been what kindled my lifelong interest in birds. Not the hummingbirds themselves, but the welcoming words of Dr. Arthur A. “Doc” Allen who saw my interest and invited me to return and explore further whenever I liked. That I did, often. As he prepared colored slides (no PowerPoint then) for his popular talk on birds during the annual public Farm and Home Week of the College of Agriculture, I was tickled pink to be allowed to load them into the carousel and then to carry them with him to the lecture hall. Just imagine the delight to a 7-year-old kid!
Staff in the Floriculture Greenhouses, particularly Mrs. Wilkins and Prof. Horton, also showed kind attention as this kid explored the premises and sought to learn the names and growing requirements of each plant. Many of those plants, having served in studies by floriculture students, would ultimately be “recycled” to make way for the next set of studies. I was allowed to salvage such plants and give them a new home on Warren Road. Most did not thrive in the dry winter air inside our house, nor in the freezing air outside, so each summer brought a new set of interesting plants.
The Floriculture Greenhouses weren’t the only source of botanical inspiration though, as many Forest Home yards were well endowed and well maintained with perennials that thrived in the local soil and climate. Minnie Whetzel at 206 Forest Home Drive offered me Johnny jump-ups and crocus bulbs. Mrs. Pendleton at 324 Forest Home Drive contributed lily-of-the-valley. They both had gardens with the best looking bottomland soil you could imagine, quite unlike the heavy clay around our house. But that only served better to underscore the importance of preparing the soil before planting, and to inform me on lightening the clay with compost and sand.
Improving the soil reminds me of another childhood experience of that time. Prof. Hertel continued many aspects of the Warren Farm at 127 Warren Road, including a few cattle and many chickens. When a new set of pullets was being raised, there would inevitably be one or two runts in the group. These would not be worth raising as hens, so Prof. Hertel would let me take one home to raise as a pet. That I did, but the soil connection is this: chicken manure was also a good ingredient for improving our poor soil, and Prof. Hertel made sure I had all that I could use.
The farming operations around Forest Home were always a source of interest to children. Whether spring plowing or summer haying, just seeing how it is done was instructive as well as entertaining. I was still too young to lift a bale of hay onto a wagon, but not too young to enjoy rearranging the bales once they had been stacked in the loft. With minor adjustment, one could make tunnels and fortresses. Fun!
Livestock, on the other hand, were more intimidating. So long as they were on the other side of the fence it was fun to watch them graze and interact. One day I was hunting for golf balls that had hooked across Warren Road into Prof. Hertel’s pasture (where the Brittain house is now). Hunting for golf balls around the golf course was a lucrative business for a kid; but I digress. On this particular day I must have been looking too intently at the ground to notice that cattle were coming. They were “bulls” and they were going to get me, or so I thought. An old apple tree offered my only safe escape. I remained treed for what seemed like forever until the curious cows decided it was time to return to their barn.
There were a few experiences of growing up in old Forest Home that I do not suggest repeating. One had to do with transporting hay from fields near what is now the Equine Research Center to the lofts in the cow barns on the main campus just east of Stocking Hall. Trucks stacked high with bales of hay would come to a virtual stop at the top of Warren Road hill in order to shift into the lowest gear. At that moment of distraction, it was possible to climb aboard the back of the stack and work one’s way to the top. When the load was finally backed into the barn on Tower Road, it was equally possible to jump off into the loft and disappear without ever being detected. Again, I don’t recommend trying this!
Forest Homers had most modern utilities by the time of World War II. Electric service was quite reliable, with most storm-related outages lasting only hours. Dialing a 5-digit number would connect you to any other telephone in Ithaca. (Though after my pal Ronnie Kellogg who lived at 317 Warren Road moved to Slaterville, I had to dial Operator and ask for “Slaterville 7Y5.”) It was several years, however, before we got a private line. Party lines were common then and required that you first listen to see if another party is already using the line before you started to dial. Running “city” water was also in every Forest Home household. There were still two windmills, one on the Curtis estate at 110 Halcyon Hill and the other behind the main barn on the Hertel farm, which were reminders of days past when water had to be pumped from wells. And, except for the Byway, Forest Home roads were all paved. Warren Road was paved north as far as Hanshaw Road, and then continued as a dirt road past the Heasley farm into Lansing Township. And all houses had central heating, no longer depending on multiple fireplaces.
Windmills and central heating deserve further comment. First, windmills: whereas the Warren/Hertel windmill was situated on a knoll in an open pasture where surface winds were prevalent, the Curtis windmill needed to be much taller to catch wind above nearby trees. This height advantage allowed the tower to serve an entirely different purpose later in life. Television came to larger cities like Syracuse, Binghamton, Elmira and Rochester in the ‘50s. With a large “yagi” antenna mounted on a chimney or tower and steered by a rotator, hilltop residents could pick up the signals being broadcast from those distant sources. Carl Sundell ran a radio repair business and built a small showroom next to his father’s Blue Dolphin Antiques store in the 300 block of Forest Home Drive. Carl began selling TV sets, too, and was dismayed that he could not get a decent signal at his showroom in the valley. Being quite the innovator and entrepreneur, he asked the Curtis family if he could replace the old, squeaky windmill vanes which were no longer serving any needs with an antenna to receive television signals. He did just that, and ran a twin-lead connection from tree to tree down the bank and across the creek to his shop.
The good signal from that tall antenna bode well for his sales of TV sets to local customers. When several customers complained that their reception was poor to non-existent and learned what it would cost to have Carl install a tower with rotator and antenna, he realized another opportunity. Forest Home had the first community antenna television (CATV) system in the area; perhaps before any other in the state. Even before Anthony Ceracchi brought cable TV to downtown Ithaca, Carl had strung coaxial cable from tree to tree and was delivering service to customers throughout the village. (I might add though that we did not get a television set until 1958 and even then as a freshman in Electrical Engineering at Cornell I preferred to build our own antenna and mount it above our roof. After all, by that time the field across from 120 Warren Road had been subdivided, Crest Lane had been created, and my parents built 111 Crest Lane right next to the Curtis windmill. No cable needed there!)
Central heating meant that fireplaces were no longer a necessary part of living quarters, but were still used for supplemental warmth and atmosphere. Our furnace, like most in the village at that time, was fired by coal. A coal truck would back up to the house, extend a chute through a basement window and fill the coal bin, which occupied a full corner of the basement. In the Fall the fire in the furnace was started with the help of some kindling wood. Thereafter throughout the colder months it became a daily chore to stoke the furnace and keep the fire burning at an appropriate level. No thermostats or automatic starters. A compartment in the firedoor could be filled with water to help maintain humidity in the house. Just as shoveling more coal into the furnace was a constant chore, so was removing the spent ashes – trying not to spill any from the bucket as they were carried upstairs and outdoors to be spread on the driveway or garden. When our coal-burning furnace was finally replaced by an oil-burning unit after the close of World War II, the pilot light and thermostat relieved us of having to constantly tend the furnace. Bedroom temperatures no longer declined throughout the night. And the corner of the basement which had been occupied by the coal bin was opened up so tricycles could be ridden all the way around the perimeter of the basement. Further convenience in home heating, and even in cooking, came after the Korean War, when natural gas was extended through the village. Then even the somewhat smelly oil tank could be removed and more basement play space became available.
While on the subject of utilities, let me add that, while we had running water and indoor plumbing, each home had its own septic system. Every few years many systems would fill up and begin adding an unpleasant aroma to the area. On such occasions it was Herb Snow’s septic service that would be called and his tank truck would come from Varna to pump out an overflowing system. It wasn’t until the late 1960s that public sewer lines were installed in Forest Home.
Mrs. Davis was in my opinion a very effective teacher. She made sure that we had access to appropriate resources and she encouraged individual study. That was probably the only way one teacher could serve all four grades. She was also a disciplinarian. Again, the only way to keep four grades in tow. But she was also very considerate and quick to turn a potential problem into a teaching moment. One example may suffice: My grandfather had a large farm in Connecticut. A fledgling crow had been rescued and raised by my aunt, who knew that I was interested in birds. My aunt and uncle brought “Becky” the crow to me when they came to Ithaca for a visit. Becky quickly adapted to her new surroundings and accepted me as her new parent. She would follow me along whenever I went outdoors (which was much of the time), including when I walked to school in the morning. She would spend the day in the Judd Falls neighborhood, waiting for us to come out for recess or to go home in the afternoon. One warm Spring day when the classroom windows were open I noticed Becky in the trees by Comstock Knoll. I went to the window and Becky came flying right to the sill. Rather than shoo the crow away and chastise me for impertinence, Mrs. Davis welcomed the visitor and Socratically asked me about Becky’s tameness and about imprinting in the animal world.
Mrs. Davis left another legacy in Forest Home. There was a large Black Walnut tree next to the garage behind her house at 214 FHD. The fallen walnuts often made a mess of her driveway and back yard, so she was happy to let us collect them and take them home to feed the squirrels. I had befriended two Gray Squirrels, “Puff” and “Rough,” who would take peanuts from my hand at 120 Warren Road. A third squirrel, “Tough,” never confided in me. Walnuts provided a nice variety to their diet, and it stained their faces a dark green/brown/black. Of course Puff and Rough began burying excess walnuts throughout the area as Nature’s way of ensuring survival of both species. So I give Mrs. Davis credit for all of the Black Walnut trees that are up on the hill now that weren’t there before.
I have been asked about swimming in Fall Creek. Several events quickly come to mind. Our most frequent swimming place was above the dam at Forest Home Park. Before the dam was breached there was ample space for swimming and playing water games safely upstream of the dam. There was life-guarded swimming at the head of Beebe Lake and, although it was not officially permitted, excellent swimming upstream from Sackett Bridge to the swifter water at the head of that gorge. The earliest date I ever swam in Fall Creek was April 21, on my sister Sue’s birthday, at Beebe. A strong swimmer familiar with the eddies and turbulence below the gunpowder factory dam below the Byway could have an exhilarating and refreshing swim in that location. Others less familiar with the currents and the slipperiness of the rocks could quickly get into serious trouble. On at least two occasions impending drownings were avoided when I saw what was happening and intervened to rescue the victims. Swift water was welcome, but jumping or diving off high ledges like Table Rock or Lovers’ Leap were not for me.
We also enjoyed the waters of Fall Creek in spots above the second bridge, though none of the pools was large enough for any real swimming. One such pool, just above that bridge, could be deepened to several feet by piling boulders at its outlet. That pool was actually shaped like a swimming pool, albeit a small one, with nearly rectangular shape, a flat bottom and vertical sides. It was an excellent place for children to become familiar with the basics of swimming. In fact, that is where Charles Henderson learned to swim.
Upstream from Forest Home was and is Flat Rocks, where sun bathing was more usual than actual swimming because the water was so shallow. We left Flat Rocks to the sun bathers. However, somewhat downstream, behind 324 FHD to be precise, the Pendletons maintained a nice picnic area along the creek. I suspect that Dick, “Jipper” (John) and Lou, my classmate Bob Pendleton’s older brothers, had maintained the swimming hole next to their picnic ground, as it was several feet deep and had a fine gravelly bottom. Every year the ice-out would push another set of boulders into their swimming hole, and every year Bob, Pat Riley (300 FHD) and I would rearrange them to create a dam of sorts below the pool. Wrestling some of the bigger boulders was quite a challenge for us, and Bob to this day has a flattened finger as a reminder of one that got away.
The north side of Fall Creek above the second bridge was my favorite hunting ground, both figuratively and literally. Around 1950 the large pasture, the “Horse Pasture,” that occupied most of the hillside and bottomland opposite Flat Rocks was allowed to start filling in with brush and trees. That corresponded to the time when the upper land, which had also been part of the Warren farm, was being converted to nine new holes for the Cornell golf course. Initially the old pasture filled in with a mix of goldenrod, ironweed and other flowering plants that created a butterfly heaven. Charles Henderson and I developed substantial insect collections, thanks to that “backyard” resource. (We also naively used copious amounts of carbon tetrachloride in our killing jars, before that was recognized as a carcinogen.) As goldenrod gave way to honeysuckle and hawthorn, that old pasture became rabbit heaven. When I was old enough to get a hunting license, insect collecting turned to rabbit hunting, but that is getting ahead of the story.
Further upstream, across the swinging bridge, was another large bottomland bowl. Rather than pasture, this bowl was already mostly woodland except for two open areas. These we called the Rifle Range. These had been used for ROTC marksmanship practice, but were no longer being maintained as such. The long-course range was becoming overgrown with brush and small trees. The short-course range, however, continued to be used informally for target practice by local enthusiasts. During many of my ramblings through that stretch of land between Forest Home and Varna, if I heard gunshots, I would cautiously approach the Rifle Range to watch the action. And, when there was no one there, I would search the ground behind the targets for spent slugs. It was relatively easy to unearth a pocket-full of jacketed .45-caliber pistol slugs, many of them hardly deformed by impacting the earthen backstop. At home I would heat the collection to melt the lead and allow it to flow out of the jackets. To this day I have a several-pound lead weight that I cast into one of my father’s tobacco tins and used as a counter-weight on a long wire antenna for my crystal radio, but that is another story.
When I was in junior high school, which was then on West Buffalo Street in Ithaca, I enjoyed locating birds’ nests for “Doc” Allen to photograph. One such nest that I recall was that of an American Goldfinch in a small hawthorn in the old Horse Pasture. But another, more interesting, photo opportunity was a Ruffed Grouse drumming log near the Rifle Range. For those that may not know, the Ruffed Grouse is a chicken-like game bird of the forests whose courtship ritual features the male bird standing on a stump or rock or fallen log in its forest territory and beating its wings against the air to produce a low, thumping sound. This “drumming” performance is most often done at dawn in the Spring, and less frequently at other hours and in the Fall of the year. I had located a favorite drumming log which I showed to Doc Allen, who subsequently set up a blind (a camouflaged enclosure in which he could hide with his camera gear) near that log and photographed the drummer in action. I subsequently attempted to duplicate Doc’s success, but with distinctly inferior equipment. There is a lot to tell about those attempts, so I will continue that in the next segment.
Doc Allen was an inspiration in many ways, one of which was to whet my interest in photographing birds. With earnings from mowing lawns in old Forest Home I had purchased a Kodak Pony 35mm camera. Its fixed lens provided neither enough magnification to photograph birds at a distance nor a close enough focus to photograph them at a nest. However, the latter problem could be easily solved by adding an inexpensive “portrait” lens. Thus equipped, I began emulating Doc Allen by taking pictures of birds’ nests and, while concealed in a burlap feed-sack blind, of birds at their nests.
What I most wanted to photograph was a drumming Ruffed Grouse. After Doc Allen had finished photographing the Ruffed Grouse whose drumming log I had located in the woods by the Rifle Range, it became my turn to try. But without the reach of a telephoto lens, my blind needed to be much closer to the log than Doc’s had been. By gradually moving it closer over a period of several weeks, the grouse accepted the inanimate enclosure and allowed me to get the Kodak Pony just 3 or 4 feet from his favorite drumming spot on the log. This allowed me to get my first pictures of a drumming Ruffed Grouse.
For those who may not know photography prior to digital cameras, in the ‘50s Eastman Kodak was king. Kodachrome® was the gold standard film for color photography. This film came in 20- and 36-exposure canisters. The exposed film would be sent to Kodak Park in Rochester to be processed, and a small packet of slides would be returned to the sender within a week. And, although its color fidelity was excellent, Kodachrome® was slow, meaning that strong light was necessary to “stop” subjects in motion. Kodak had recently introduced a faster color film, Ektachrome®, which tended to accentuate the blues, but I used it for its extra ability to stop action in poor light.
So, after shooting 20 exposures, mailing it to Rochester and eagerly awaiting Earl Sharpe’s delivery of the mail, you can only imagine my disappointment upon seeing the slides. The grouse was there alright, but with mere blurry puffs for its wings. A few pictures taken while the bird was standing absolutely still were in sharp focus and decent color, but that only made me want to find a way to freeze the wings in the midst of a drum.
Doc Allen, seeing my plight, offered a step in the right direction by giving me some old flash equipment that he no longer used. Again, for those whose only flash experience is the LED in their iPhone®, supplemental lighting for photography consisted of single-use flashbulbs which created a bright, brief burst of light that had to be synchronized with the camera’s shutter. A new bulb would be inserted in a reflector which would direct the light at the subject, and after taking a picture the spent bulb would be discarded.
So in this manner I set out once again to photograph a drumming grouse. And once again the slides were a great disappointment. At least three shortcomings were apparent. First, the images reminded me of sepia prints – their color rendition was terrible. I had failed to appreciate the importance of “color balance” when using artificial light with film intended for natural light. Second, nearly half of the bird was in shadow, because the flash unit was to one side of the camera. A second unit on the other side could have been used to fill in the shadows. And third, the wings were still quite blurred. The duration of the flash would have to be much shorter if I expected to freeze the drumming wing motion.
This quest had spanned two years and taught me a lot about Ruffed Grouse, photography, patience, working toward a goal and life in general. It inspired me to mow more lawns and shovel more driveways to purchase a pair of electronic strobe lights, whose color balance and much shorter flash duration should solve those remaining shortcomings. If it seems that the Ruffed Grouse had quite an influence on my childhood, that is because it was so. I shall relate some additional experiences in the next segment.
The Ruffed Grouse influenced my childhood in many ways. For example, one autumn day when I was exploring my favorite grouse habitat around the old Rifle Range, I encountered a dapper gentleman hunting with his dog. My initial reaction was to dissuade him from going after “my” grouse, but he took a genuine interest when I told him of my quest to photograph the resident bird. That amiable man was Harold “Hap” Pratt, proprietor of Pratt’s Flower Shop on Aurora Street in Ithaca. He also learned of my broader interest in the natural world, including floriculture, and subsequently hired me to help deliver flowers at holiday times. Not only that, he later sponsored me to attend the New York State Conservation Department’s camp on Raquette Lake – a most wonderful and enlightening experience.
Attempting to photograph that drumming grouse at the old Rifle Range afforded considerable insight upon the behavior and habits of that creature. The great burst of light from the hand-me-down flash so startled the bird that I could get only one exposure in the dim light of dawn each day. Thus, my schedule that Spring consisted of sleeping overnight in the blind, waking to the drumming of the grouse, snapping one picture, then packing my gear on my bicycle and riding home to get ready for another day at school.
One “experiment” consisted of borrowing the large mirror from my dresser and positioning it so the grouse could see his reflection while he was drumming. The first night I had merely rested that mirror against the front of my burlap blind. The next morning, instead of drumming on the log, I was awakened by much closer commotion at the mirror. The grouse was attacking his “intruder” and uttering vocalizations that I had never heard before – clucking sounds reminiscent of chickens.
By imitating those sounds from within the blind and slightly wiggling the burlap, I duped the grouse into believing that his intruder was inside the blind. Suddenly he lunged at the spot where my hand was wiggling the burlap. This so startled me that my reaction scared him away for the while, so I packed up and headed home for school. The next time, I thought, I should be ready for his lunge.
Well, the next morning started the same way, and I was ready – sort of. When he lunged I quickly lifted the burlap, and the next instant I had the grouse in my hands. Now what? Mark the bird so I could tell it was the same one whenever I saw it again? Sure, but how and with what? I hadn’t prepared for this. But by repeatedly bending the blue plastic insulated copper wire that controlled the photo flash, a “band” was improvised and twisted around one of his legs. I was able to be sure of that bird’s identity throughout the next year, before either the “band” came off or another bird took over the territory.
One other experience with this grouse might be worth relating, as it occurred in the dead of winter. One evening after a fresh snowfall I decided to take a nighttime hike and see if I could find the grouse. With “tinfoil” wrapped halfway around the globe of a kerosene lantern, I made a surprisingly effective flashlight. It lit the scene ahead without shining in my own eyes. Soon enough I located some recent grouse tracks in the snow, and began following them to discover where the bird may have been going. And soon enough the tracks led to the tight space beneath a fallen log and the frozen ground. By tail feathers I could see that the grouse had chosen that cozy spot for its night roost.
OK, now what? Creep up very slowly and quietly and grab it? Worth a try. Well, the “it” that I grabbed was the grouse’s tail, and the grouse erupted from the far side of the log sans tail feathers. Those feathers and one of my poor sepia-like photos became illustrations for a junior high school English paper.
Old Forest Home, nestled so close to Cornell University and its College of Agriculture in particular, offered excellent opportunities for an inquisitive youth to observe research, and to get to know both the professors and their students. I was drawn mainly to the work being done by graduate students in ornithology – students such as Jim Hartshorne studying Eastern Bluebirds, Roger Payne studying Barn Owls, Paul Johnsgard studying waterfowl and Bob Stein studying Traill’s Flycatchers. My knack for finding birds’ nests had been noted by their professors and led to many invitations to assist with that aspect of their studies.
Jim Hartshorne’s quest to determine whether bluebirds inherited or learned their songs involved finding nests from which we could obtain some eggs, hatching those eggs and raising the young in sound isolation, and recording their inherent vocalizations. When it became apparent that their natural vocal development depended on more than inherited templates, Jim introduced tutors by way of pre-recorded sounds, and eventually determined that young bluebirds inherit the ability to learn their song, but cannot spontaneously do so without being exposed to adult song at a critical point in their development.
Jim built a sound-proof laboratory in an aviary building that was on the west slope of Comstock Knoll. He also built a series of individually sound-proofed enclosures inside that laboratory. He enlisted me to be midwife to the hatching bluebirds. That summer’s work allowed me to invest in an Exakta SLR camera, for which Jim gave me a great “spare” 150mm Killfit telephoto lens that he just happened to have. That, and a pair of Hicolite electronic strobe lights that I purchased the following winter, made my dream photograph of a drumming Ruffed Grouse come true the very next year.
Helping Bob Stein with his field work was also extremely rewarding. The Traill’s Flycatcher had two song types which in summer ranged from coast to coast. However, the “fitz-bew” type occurred mainly south of the “fee-bee-o” type, with just a narrow transcontinental band of overlap. Ithaca was in that overlap zone; so Bob could readily study both types around Ithaca. We found many nests and Bob taught me to identify the plants within the survey quadrat in each nesting territory. I learned to “think” like a Traill’s Flycatcher to judge the most likely spot to find the nest within each territory. One morning, using this technique in a brushy field which is now the Ithaca airport, I found seven nests in rapid succession. (Typical nest hunting techniques of carefully watching the birds from a safe distance or exhaustively scouring the whole territory would have taken much, much longer.)
After Bob earned his PhD and took a teaching position at Ursinus College in Pennsylvania, he obtained a grant to continue studying the Traill’s Flycatcher to determine if, in fact, the song types represented two separate species. In 1959, at the end of my freshman year at Cornell, he asked me to be his field assistant to follow the narrow transcontinental band of sympatry all the way to British Columbia. What an experience for a kid from Old Forest Home! And to me the most telling evidence of separate species was near Lac la Hache, BC, when I found two birds of opposite song types amicably sharing a common song perch in their overlapping territories. As an epilog, the American Ornithologists’ Union subsequently “split” Traill’s Flycatcher into Alder (“fee-bee-o”) and Willow (“fitz-bew”) Flycatchers.
None of these precious experiences would likely have transpired were it not for the very fortunate childhood of Old Forest Home. Not that I would have been comfortable if my own children were doing some of those things, but it saddens me to think that today’s climate is so much less amenable to such exploration and self discovery.
A bicycle was a child’s best toy. My parents bought me my first bicycle, one with 24-inch wheels, when we lived at the crest of the Warren Road hill. Learning to ride it there was a scary experience. My pals Bob Pendleton and Pat Riley had already mastered the technique down on the flat of Forest Home Drive, and it was Pat’s father who finally launched me on that first ride on the brink of the hill. Needless to say, any fear was quickly overcome and thereafter I had to pedal furiously to keep up with my pals on their bigger 26-inch bikes.
Rides up Warren Road, past Hanshaw Road and past the Heasley farmstead (there is a school there now) took us to the unpaved northern end of Warren Road and past fields which are now the Ithaca airport. Then, after turning east for a country block, we could return via Sapsucker Woods Road, which then was a continuous, straight dirt road uninterrupted by any airport runway.
After my friend Ronnie Kellogg, who lived on Warren Road halfway between Forest Home and Hanshaw Road, moved to Slaterville, I stepped up to a 26-inch bicycle for those longer rides. The furthest I ventured by bicycle was to the old fire lookout tower on Paddock Hill south of Caroline. It was on that ride that I found my first Ovenbird nest. Funny what one remembers!
The bigger bicycle served yeoman duty during my last years of high school when I had the Ithaca Journal paper route in Forest Home. Nearly every household in the village subscribed to what was then a 6-day afternoon paper that was hand delivered to your doorsteps. It meant foregoing any after-school activities and spending most of Saturday “collecting,” but it was an excellent developmental experience.
Pleasant Grove Apartments for married graduate students were just then being built, replacing the utilitarian barrack-like buildings that had housed wartime students. (The Pleasant Grove Apartments themselves have since been demolished to make way for the North Campus expansion.) In an entrepreneurial moment I decided to knock on every door of the new apartments and offer delivery of the Ithaca Journal. That unilateral annexation of territory did not go unnoticed by the newspaper staff, as it became the largest of all routes and they were concerned that it was too much for one kid to handle. I took great delight in maintaining prompt delivery in all weather and not letting any of the papers get wet or damaged.
Upon graduation from high school, by Ithaca Journal standards, I was required to hand over my route to a younger successor. That is when the newspaper split the route into two, and the Forest Home route became the province of Charles Henderson. That freed me up, so to speak, to resume summer field work for ornithology graduate students. And by that time my photographic goals had been mainly accomplished, so I turned more and more to helping Dr. Kellogg with bird sound recording. Perhaps I can say more about that in another segment.
You may recall several earlier mentions of Dr. Arthur Augustus “Doc” Allen¹ and how he so kindled my early interest in birds. On Saturday mornings in May he, and other members of the Conservation Department at Cornell including Dr. Peter Paul Kellogg, led bird walks in Stewart Park. The public was invited, and the resulting group of perhaps two dozen people constituted the Cayuga Bird Club. The walks started at the Cayuga Street bridge over Fall Creek at 6:00AM and concluded two hours later at the swan pond near the old boathouse. Those people who showed up were divided into small groups, each with a leader, and when they came together again at the swan pond Doc Allen would read the checklist of bird species and note which ones had been found that morning.
My mother kindly rose at 5:00AM on those days to drive me to Stewart Park. I could always count on Dr. Kellogg to give me a ride back up the hill afterwards because he would return to his office in Fernow Hall to prepare for “Know Your Birds,” a 15-minute weekly Saturday morning program aired on WHCU.
In addition to the Stewart Park bird walks, the leaders also had an annual “big day” which covered the entire Cayuga Lake basin. When I was 12, Doc Allen invited me to join in his car for that momentous day. We started at 3:00AM looking for Barn Owls in the A&ME Zion Church, progressed south in the inlet valley and up to the Danby hills as dawn arrived, then returned to the head of the lake and eventually worked our way all the way to Montezuma and Howland’s Island. That invitation was very special and could only have happened from a place as wonderful as Old Forest Home.
While Doc Allen was the master photographer, Dr. Kellogg handled the bird sounds. Together they established the Library of Natural Sounds (now known as the Macaulay Library) in the Laboratory of Ornithology. The photographer enjoyed my assistance in the way of finding birds’ nests and serving as his “go-awayster.” The latter was Doc’s term for a person who would accompany him to a blind, let him get settled out of sight inside, and then obviously go away. He said: “Birds can’t count; as soon as they see you go away, they will quickly resume their normal behavior.”
Dr. Kellogg on the other hand needed assistance of a more satisfying (to me) sort when he was trying to record bird sounds. It took one person to operate the recorder and another to keep the directional microphone aimed at the bird. He taught me to aim his 40-inch parabolic reflector, which served like a telephoto lens to bring the sound a thousand times closer. Aim was critical – more like a laser than a flashlight – and required extraordinary skill to keep the bird in focus without introducing any handling noise.
Historically, Doc Allen had handled the parabola and Dr. Kellogg the recorder. Birds are most vocally active at the crack of dawn, and photography is better later in the day, so this teamwork was not too interfering with Doc’s main photographic objectives. Nevertheless, once I learned to manage the parabola, both of my mentors found welcome relief. From then on I was hooked on recording.
¹ It has been suggested that I explain who Doc Allen was, so here is a brief bio:
Arthur Augustus “Doc” Allen earned his PhD at Cornell in 1911 and was retained to teach ornithology, thus becoming the first professor of ornithology in the United States if not the world. He coined the term “Laboratory of Ornithology” in 1915 when he posted such a sign over his office space in McGraw Hall. Doc retired in 1953 but continued as director of the Laboratory of Ornithology until his death in 1964.
During my childhood in Forest Home Doc’s office was in Fernow Hall, just above the Forest Home School (which is now the Plantations headquarters). After school I often ventured up to Fernow Hall to see the various specimens on display in the hallways. Doc welcomed inquisitive visitors, and soon I began learning about birds and about the research that Doc and his graduate students were doing. Both he and they welcomed my help, be it with finding nests or just carrying equipment. Thus, Doc Allen was a mentor throughout my grade-school years and had a profound impact ever after.
Lest anyone get the impression that Doc Allen ever lived in Forest Home, that was not the case. The Allens lived on the very steep section of Kline Road between Stewart Avenue and East Shore Drive.
A seasonal word about snow might be in order. The hills of Forest Home afforded ample opportunities for sledding and skiing. The Forest Home School playground had a modest slope in the corner closest to Judd Falls Road and the campus. It also had a shorter, steeper wooden slide in the same area. The slope was for sledding, while the slide when covered with snow was for just sitting or lying down and descending without a sled. ( I once learned the importance of good snow cover by collecting a seat-full of splinters that required a visit to Dr. Spahr in downtown Ithaca for removal.)
More substantial hills drew our after-school attention. Caldwell Road (we called it “Horrible Hill”) was merely a seasonal farm lane and made an excellent sledding hill when snow precluded its use as a road. If one turned upstream at the base of Horrible Hill there was a large horse pasture which had a sizeable slope that was excellent for sledding and tobogganing if there were no livestock in the field. The Forest Home Walkway was itself an interesting sledding run. Starting either from our back yard at 120 Warren Road or from Warren Road at the head of the walkway, one could develop excessive speed that made it difficult to negotiate the turn above the barn near the base of the hill. That was the one downhill run that always required braking by dragging one’s feet. We always stopped on the level stretch behind the barn, because it was obvious that the final pitch could only lead to disaster at Forest Home Drive. See; kids did have some sense.
The best hill, though, was the Hertel Bowl. It was good for sledding and skiing. It is where I learned to ski. It is probably the reason that I still can’t make a good right turn on skis. The bowl, if you haven’t seen it, is as if a fence had been strung from rim to rim across the bottom of a regular bowl and half of it taken away. Our access to the bowl put that fence to our right. Thus, I learned to turn away from the fence, but not toward it.
A final bit of snowy life in Old Forest Home pertains to the more level terrain of the golf course and upper Warren Road. Cross country skiing was practiced then with regular downhill skis, but was nevertheless a beautiful way to explore the uplands clear up to Freese Road or the airport. I would also “cross country” ski on trails along the north side of Fall Creek, but that was more like bushwhacking than on the upland fields.
Every so often Prof. Hertel would hitch up “Penny” his horse to a sleigh and offer neighborhood kids a spectacular sleigh ride up Warren Road. This, of course, required just the right timing and amount of snowfall that Warren Road would remain snow covered for a few days with minimal automotive traffic. There were times when drifting snow made it impossible for crews to keep Warren Road open, and those were the perfect times for sleigh rides. On a couple of occasions when drifts became more than the normal plows could handle, we enjoyed several days of zero traffic and then the fascination of watching a rotary plow carve through the drifts.
The drifts themselves were always a source of childhood fun. Many “good” drifts often formed along the edge of the upland fields, spilling over the lip to create wonderful tunneling opportunities. With the wind howling overhead, we could make caves that seemed downright comfortable and secure. Such was snowy childhood in Old Forest Home.
Snow may have afforded Forest Home children the greatest winter fun, but ice played a large part too. Although only the concrete footings of the old toboggan slide at Beebe Lake still existed, the lake itself was still home to winter sports – namely ice skating. The Cornell Athletics Department would assess the thickness of the ice covering the lower portion of the lake and, when deemed safe, would re-purpose a tractor from the golf course to plow and brush the snow aside, thereby creating two large skating rinks. Once that had been done, on subsequent cold, still nights after skating hours were over those rinks would be flooded with fresh water and allowed to re-freeze to perfection. One of the rinks was fashioned for hockey, and the other was made larger and more circular to accommodate the multitude of recreational skaters who inevitably flocked to Beebe on winter afternoons and evenings. Flood lights and music made the night scene quite inviting. The lower level of the Johnnie Parsons Club (which is all that remains now and serves the Cornell Outing Club) became a warm changing room for skaters.
But we who grew up in old Forest Home often yearned to get on the Beebe ice before the university had declared it safe and ready to be enjoyed. The dam above the lower bridge (which was not breached until decades later) created a wonderful swimming area opposite Forest Home Park, but winter currents generally prevented the main stream area from freezing in any way that would be safe to traverse. Not so, however, the quiet backwater arm that extended behind what is now the Mundy Wildflower Garden. We frequently shoveled off a small skating area there before Beebe was ready. And it was there that I learned, the hard way, that the person on the end of the whip can really go flying. Not until I had walked home and shed my frozen corduroys did it become apparent that a small nick on my thigh was actually a large gore from the rear end of a figure skate blade.
Access to that local skating spot was generally along the Gibson (145 Forest Home Drive) driveway and around their front and side lawns. Then it also became accessible from Judd Falls Road after the large gravel hill between the McCurdy (117 Judd Falls Road) and Teale (131 Judd Falls Road) had been removed by W. D. McElwee & Sons in order to build 123 Judd Falls Road. Bob Shaw and his younger brothers, who lived at 116 Judd Falls Road, could simply cut through the side yard of the new McElwee house, and go down the bank to the skating spot.
One other recollection connects this local backwater to the larger Beebe Lake. Cornell celebrated Spring Day each year with various festivities that included a float parade on Central Avenue and boat races on Beebe Lake. Both drew large crowds of onlookers, including most of Forest Home youngsters. The parade floats and “racing” boats were built and decorated by sororities and fraternities ala the Rose Parade. While some of the boats were elaborately decorated in similar fashion to the floats, others were invariably out to raise hob with them and with each other. Water fights were rampant. And, when all was said and done, quite a cleanup remained to be done – but not usually until a day or so later. This gave us the break to survey the detritus and salvage whatever we wanted. 55-gallon drums were plentiful but uninviting. Good lumber and chicken wire could be re-purposed. Then one year there was a real prize to be claimed. It was a wooden kayak with an outrigger for stability. With considerable effort we were able to wrestle it ashore and haul it up the path, across Sackett Bridge, past The Byway, and down the Gibson driveway to where we could launch it above the dam. We “docked” it in the backwater and frequently paddled it around during that summer and fall. When winter came we forgot about it until too late, when the next spring’s ice-out ground it into kindling wood and swept its remains downstream. We had had much fun and safe experience.
Helping Dr. Kellogg and his graduate students to make field recordings of wild birds was a lot of fun. And in the process it is amazing how much you can learn about Nature just by observing. But field recordings aren’t ultimately useful until they have been properly archived, as in the Library of Natural Sounds (now called the Macaulay Library in honor of its major benefactors and contributors Linda and William Macaulay). Those field recordings were made on magnetic tape and inevitably contained a lot of false starts and “garbage” that should be discarded. So the archival process consisted of listening to the tapes in the Fernow Hall studio, and using a razor blade and splicing tape to discard the garbage and add an identifying voice announcement to each selection. At the same time a hand-written log of pertinent metadata was made to serve as a basis for an index to the entire collection. Dr. Kellogg coached me on this entire process and soon allowed me to help with his work in the studio as well as in the field.
However, not all was work. On warm summer afternoons Dr. Kellogg and his fellow professor Dr. Palmer, who had a boat that was berthed at Johnson’s Boatyard at the mouth of Cascadilla Creek, would often take a relaxing cruise onto Cayuga Lake. I was lucky enough to be invited aboard for many of those cruises. My contribution, being at home in the water, was to dive under the hull and give it a good scrubbing out in the middle of the lake, while the two professors floated on the surface in old automotive inner tubes. Cayuga Lake, one soon discovers, can be numbingly cold even well into the summer. Those floating on the warm surface could be oblivious to the debilitating temperature just a few yards below, but of course the professors knew that. They taught me not only about thermoclines, but about navigation, engine maintenance and boatmanship. What a privilege!
Dr. Palmer had already retired from teaching at Cornell. He had authored a large reference book, Fieldbook of Natural History, that covered everything from the solar system to rocks and minerals, plants and animals. I was in junior high school at the time. Homeroom 315 in the Boynton Junior High School on West Buffalo Street. I proudly took my copy of that book to my sixth period science class during the second semester. (All this trivia is not from memory, but from a penciled note inside the cover.) With tongue-in-cheek reference to those lazy afternoons floating on Cayuga Lake, he inscribed my copy “To Randy Little may he never have a spare tube about his middle and continue his interest in natural history.”
His latter wish came true. Although such a single book could not possibly cover every species of plant and animal, even all those endemic to northeastern North America, I used it to help identify everything. I would write the location of each first identification below its account in the book. For example, beneath the Mallard Duck is scrawled “across from Pendleton’s.” Apparently my first Ruffed Grouse sighting was in the “Adirondacks.” And one entry which betrays my youthful naivety is “Wig” appearing under the account for the Blue-winged Warbler. “Wig” would mean Camp Wigwasati, the canoeing camp on Lake Timagimi in northern Ontario where my father was a summer councilor from 1949 to 1952. Such a sighting would have been several hundred miles north of that species’ northernmost range.
And Dr. Palmer, unknowingly, played a much more significant role in my later life. Recall that Dr. Palmer had a boat, a cabin cruiser, that he kept at Johnson’s Boat Yard and that Dr. Kellogg normally piloted. Dr. Kellogg eventually purchased a cruiser of his own, and invited me to see it undergoing work in dry dock at Johnson’s when I visited my parents in Ithaca in the summer of 1964. While there, he also coaxed me to see another cruiser in one of the boathouses. It was, of course, Dr. Palmer’s former boat, now so beautifully restored by its new owner that I hardly recognized it. Dr. Kellogg then introduced me to that industrious gentleman; and he in turn introduced me to a lovely daughter who had emerged from below where she had been scrubbing the bilge. (Think of the TV show “How I Met Your Mother.”)
Part X, above, included recollections of bicycles. Further thought has unearthed additional memories regarding personal transportation. Before learning the art of balancing on a bicycle, tricycles (“trikes”) and wagons were our favorite childhood vehicles. Bob Pendleton also had a 4-wheeled velocipede, called an Irish Mail, which the seated occupant propelled by pulling a lever back and forth. Another 4-wheeler of the day, which I believe continues to the present era, was the soapbox derby. Bob Pendleton and Bob Shaw each built soapbox derbies which they entered in the annual downhill coasting competition held, as I recall, south of Ithaca in the Inlet Valley. And regarding bikes, those were single-speed, balloon-tired bicycles which easily withstood our rough usage and ensured a good workout climbing Warren Road hill or even Judd Falls hill to the campus. I eventually graduated to an “English” bike, which had three speeds and narrow tires, which I purchased from Roger Payne (see Part IX), that made it much easier to ride out to Sapsucker Woods or over to campus until one Spring day when it disappeared while parked on campus. I found it again nearly six months later after the leaves had all fallen, abandoned behind brush beside Fall Creek just above the second bridge. Now I doubt anyone would leave a bike unattended without securing it!
Among other childhood toys that come to mind are Tinker Toys, Erector Sets, and Lionel trains, in that chronological sequence. The wooden dowel-and-hub Tinker Toys offered the same lessons as today’s Legos – learning how to imagine and assemble an endless variety of structures. The Erector Sets used metal girders, bolts, gears and motors to extent the possibilities for construction of innovative contraptions. And the Lionel trains added lessons in electrical circuitry, landscape construction and traffic management. One quarter of the basement at 120 Warren Road became a working model railroad which, in “O” gauge, still left me wishing to have more space to expand. (Later in life I attempted to solve the space problem by dropping to “HO” gauge when sharing the model railroading bug with my children, only to conclude that there is never enough room to implement all of one’s dreams.)
Construction in one form or another seems to have been characteristic of my childhood in Old Forest Home. A tree house in the largest apple tree behind 120 Warren Road is one example. It started innocently enough as a small platform high in the tree and out on a side limb. Soon the small platform became bigger and more complex. And then it began listing when it became too heavy for the limb. Not to worry; find some cable and support the limb from the crown of the tree. That worked, but also demonstrated the futility of building a full tree house in that manner. A full, two-story house with doors and windows demanded a firmer footing. Maybe not up in a tree with a trap door in the floor. Perhaps right on the ground with a conventional door. But where to put it? The land between the golf course and the Forest Home Walkway seemed right for a clubhouse, so a spot was selected where three trees could serve as corner posts for an 8×8-foot structure. Materials were gleaned over the span of several years from scraps at construction sites such as Mrs. Warren’s new house at 105 Crest Lane and the Moakley House. It is amazing how many perfectly good nails get dropped and abandoned during commercial construction, and how many scraps of tar paper, shingles, 2-by-4’s, siding, etc. would get buried in backfill. Enough to build a small children’s clubhouse.
Two notable things happened at that clubhouse. One was in the early Spring. We tapped several sugar maple trees in the area and boiled down the sap outside the clubhouse. With a large cast iron kettle on an open fire you can only imagine how much soot and ashes got into the produce, but it was sweet and it was instructive. The other was somewhat later, when roadside brush had been trimmed way back and the cobbled appearance of the clubhouse had become more visible from Warren Road. I took a picture with my Kodak Pony (see Part VII). Then we completely dismantled the clubhouse and removed all debris from the site. Finally, I took an “after” picture and submitted both pictures to an Ithaca cleanup contest. I do not recall the specific award, but the mere fact of receiving a community cleanup award brought great satisfaction. (Of course the irony of having created the eyesore escaped our childhood consciousness.)
You may recall from Part II that the Floriculture Greenhouses at Cornell were one of my favorite places to explore and find new knowledge. For example, while most plants can be propagated by planting their seeds, the seeds of hybrid plants often produce very different results and cannot be counted on to yield plants like the hybrids. Such lessons take on deeper understanding and appreciation when the young student can plant the seeds from the hybrid plants and, many months later, see what odd results are produced. This I was able to do with beautiful giant orange marigolds, whose seeds produced only anemic, leggy yellow-flowered plants.
While cross-pollination of the original stocks is one way to produce seeds that will produce the desired result, there are other ways to achieve faster results. Chrysanthemums could be easily cloned by taking short cuttings, stripping off the lower pairs of leaves, sticking them into moist potting soil and allowing them to develop new roots. This was particularly helpful with mums because nipping the branches of a young plant not only provided the cuttings but also caused the original plant to develop many additional branches and yield a compact profusion of flowers. African violets could be propagated by sticking individual leaves into moist potting soil. Many other plants could be cloned from cuttings, too. Sometimes I would just put the cuttings into a glass of water on the kitchen windowsill and wait to see if rootlets would develop before actually planting them into soil.
Woody plants such as trees and shrubs like Forsythia and pussy willows could also be propagated from cuttings, and layering was an interesting variation on that theme. Layering, I learned, involved bending a low branch down to the ground and covering a portion of it with soil. After a while some roots would begin to form along the buried portion of the branch. This process could be hastened by first nicking the bark where the branch would be buried. Once the new roots were established, the branch could be cut apart from its parent plant and the layered clone could be dug up and moved to a new place.
And, speaking of digging, bulbs such as those of tulips and daffodils could be dug in the summer after their leaves had wilted, then divided and put aside to dry until Fall, when they could be replanted to produce the next Spring’s lovely blooms. Those were among the practical lessons an inquisitive Forest Home youngster could glean from visits to the nearby greenhouses.
You may also recall that in Part V I wrote of the Black Walnut tree in Mrs. Davis’ back yard. A few years ago during a reunion visit to Cornell I joined a nature walk around Beebe Lake that was being led by a person from the Plantations (now the Botanic). Midway along the bank between McIntyre Place and Plantation Road our attention was directed to a walnut tree. Not a Black Walnut, but a White Walnut. “The only known White Walnut in this area,” we were told. This tweaked my memory to childhood days. Another name for White Walnut is Butternut. I recall finding the oblong butternuts in Forest Home then. That species of native tree was of personal interest because my parents had a splendid dining room chest that Dad always said was “curly butternut,” curly referring to the exposed grain pattern of the chest’s wood rather than implying a specific variety of butternut tree. It is stretching my memory, but I think there was a large Butternut tree along the Forest Home Walkway, at the first corner heading down that path. I also think there were one or two others in the village, although I cannot now recall exactly where. To add a current element to this story, I know of one other Butternut tree now growing in Forest Home – a young tree on the southwest corner of 111 Crest Lane that I had assumed to be just another Black Walnut until it produced its first nut recently and proved to be a Butternut tree.
I will close this trip down memory lane with another “then” and “now” observation. Growing flowers and shrubs around the house, as well as cultivating a vegetable garden, were pleasant tasks which offered ample rewards of attractive blossoms and delicious garden-fresh food. About the only competition came from neighborhood raccoons, and even they didn’t bother much except those ripe ears of sweet corn that we would have picked for dinner the very next day. White-tailed Deer stayed out of the village because their numbers were in balance with their food supply in the surrounding countryside, and the hunting pressure that helped to keep their numbers in check made them very wary of civilization. Fast forward fifty years and suburban development has reduced the amount of huntable land to nil. Deer seeking refuge in isolated woodlots found protection and food which allowed their population to grow, and soon to grow beyond the carrying capacity of those refugia, leading them to over-browse those areas and then to venture outward in search of fodder. Without the hunting pressure they soon became inured to civilization and began helping themselves to many of those flowers, shrubs and vegetables – much to the chagrin of the landscapers and gardeners. How I miss those cheerful tulip blossoms in spring, those delectable home-grown tomatoes in summer and those attractive clumps of variegated hostas through most of the year.
It has been a while since I last wrote an essay on childhood experiences in old Forest Home. “Childhood” in that context included recollections of events in my early life that occurred prior to entering high school and were usually specific to Forest Home and its surroundings. Most of those events involved being outdoors and discovering life’s lessons through intrepid exploration. But even a child needs to stay indoors sometimes, and when indoors a child needs something to capture his or her attention and interest. Here I wish to share some recent thinking about toys of my youth, what they were and how they may have influenced the course of my career.
I have already mentioned bicycles – learning to balance on two 24” wheels, struggling to keep up with my pals’ 26” bikes, extending the radius of my explorations – but I failed to give proper credit to earlier toys. Three in particular which are indoor toys proved to be quite engaging and quite informative deserve mention.
First among these were “Lincoln Logs,” currently marketed by K’Nex. These were basically a set of dowels of various lengths with notches in each end which allowed them to be stacked and interlocked in a multitude of ways. The stereotypical way, of course, was in the form of a log cabin. But it took little imagination to assemble those basic building blocks into garages for toy cars, corrals for toy horses, ramps for who-knows-what toy daredevil leaps, and so many more. These Lincoln Logs provided many hours of indoor entertainment after the snowsuit and wet mittens had been shed to dry.
Those Lincoln Logs either inspired interest in putting things together, or satisfied an innate urge to do so. I am not sure which, but the end result was a desire to build bigger and more complex things; things that required different and more versatile building blocks. Perhaps that is what my parents had in mind for the next year’s birthday present.
And that was “Tinker Toys,” currently made by Hasbro. Again, these were basically wooden dowels of various lengths, but of smaller diameter than Lincoln Logs and without the notched ends. The dowels were of pencil diameter and each end, instead of being notched, merely had a shallow axial slot. That slot allowed the end to be squeezed together so that the dowel could be inserted snugly into a hole, or so that something like a playing card could be stuck into the end like a spatula. The holes were provided by joiners in the form of building blocks that resembled half-inch sections of wooden spools from my mother’s sewing cabinet, with one central hole and eight radial holes into which the dowel ends could be forced.
Tinker Toys allowed much more flexibility in assembly than Lincoln Logs, thus playing more broadly to one’s imagination and interests. For example, a dowel with both ends stuck into the middle holes of two joiners could form an axle, which could itself become part of a larger assemblage such as a wagon. Or short dowels could be stuck into the radial holes in one joiner and playing cards could be inserted into the slots at the outer ends of each spoke to form a paddle wheel or a windmill, depending on the angle to which the radials were twisted.
Thus, Tinker Toys allowed the inventive child to design and construct actual working machinery, albeit still rather simple. Nevertheless, this new toy represented advancement to a higher preschool degree and may have further nurtured any engineering proclivities.
But even Tinker Toys had their limits, which showed after a year or two, and opened the door to wish for even better and more versatile building blocks. In those pre-Amazon days one could browse printed catalogs of large retailers such as Sears & Roebuck and Montgomery (“Monkey”) Wards, and I drooled at the pictures and descriptions of many toys. One in particular that caught my attention and met with my parents’ approval was the “Erector Set,” made by A. C. Gilbert. It consisted of metal plates and beams, each drilled with many holes in pegboard fashion so that pieces could be joined together by putting a small nut-and-bolt connector through the selected holes. Metal rods could also be passed through those holes, and either wheels or pulleys or gears attached to the rods. That became my ultimate formative toy.
As an example of what could be built with the Erector Set, a working model of a construction crane was a fairly easy build. And when using a hand crank to raise the load became too childish, the Erector Set included a small battery-powered motor that could be applied to the task. Perhaps you are thinking “Electrical Engineering?”
These pre-school and kindergarten toys greatly helped set the stage for many of the other “engineering” pursuits of my later childhood. Each successive toy brought safe hands-on experiential lessons in gravity, leverage, friction and materials that made learning so easy, and invited more. I am sure that, at the time, I didn’t think of it as learning or education; it was just plain fun. Today it stands as a lesson of just how formative early childhood toys can be.
I was heartened by “googling” each of those childhood toys to discover that, not only can they still be purchased today, but the consensus clearly considers them to be classics to this very day.
I hope these recollections have been entertaining, instructive and inspiring. Childhood in old Forest Home is to be cherished!
© 2017-2021 Randolph Scott Little