Uncle Ralph's Autobiography
By: Ralph Cripe

- Preface -

As I sit in my home during the twilight years, meditating on my past life. I began talking to myself, "Cripe, you've had a wonderful life in spite of the disappointments, sorrows, and hardships. You have lived thorough the horse and buggy days, bicycles, automobiles and airplanes. Why don't you write a book about your past experiences and what life really means to you now?"

I realize a book written by me would be of little interest to the general public. However, I am jotting these memories down with the thought that certain ones close to me might enjoy and benefit by learning of my mistakes and failures.

- Early Childhood -

My father Franklin B. Cripe, owned a home one mile north of Goshen Indiana consisting of a house and five acres of land, encumbered with a five hundred dollar mortgage. I was born there on September 21, 1887. Father raised various kinds of berries and watermelons and advertised as A Grower of Small Fruits.

My first recollection was when I was about four years of age. I would accompany father on trips to town where he would drive through the streets calling out his wares. I was impressed by the sight of a laundry wagon that seemed to be traveling all about the town. The driver was neatly dressed including a starched shirt and a high starched collar. I would say to myself, "Gee! that fellow thinks he is smart. I would like to have a job like that." That thought remained in my mind years afterwards.

At times Father would permit me to hold the lines and drive the horse. I was very proud of this accomplishment even though I was carefully supervised. Once I was permitted to drive alone to my Grandfather's house only a few blocks away. I gave the horse a lick with the whip and he gave a jump and started galloping. I was frightened and tugged with all my might on the reins. Luckily, the horse responded and no serious consequence took place.

I also remember early one morning as I lay sleeping, Mother called to me saying, "grandpa's house is burning down!" I hurriedly dressed and watched with fascination while the entire building was being destroyed. Years later, I was called on to debate as to whether the house burned down, or up. I do not remember on which side of the subject I debated but the judges ruled (based solely on the debater's arguments) that there had been no fire at all and that the house neither burned down, or up.

We were very poor as far as finances were concerned and lived about the same as our middle class friends. There were no modern convinces such as we have today. Mother did the cooking on a kitchen wood burning stove. She baked wonderful bread, pies, cakes and cookies.

Since there was no commercial soft water service, some families would have what was called a cistern. This consisted of a well, lined with cement. Water spouts extending from the house would be connected to this well. On rainy days, the water flowing from the roof of the house would replenish the water in the cistern. This was our soft water. Some folks who had no cistern would use a rain barrel. A barrel with the top removed would be connected with the water spout. I can remember how the mosquitos would develop large families around the barrel.

For the weekly washing, Mother would place a water boiler on the stove which remained there until the water became hot. The clothes were scrubbed on a corrugated wash board and hung in the back yard for drying. Flat irons called sad irons were used for ironing the clothes. They were heated on the stove. Mother labored with these irons until the ironing was completed. Her next job was scrubbing the kitchen floor. I sometimes wonder how she survived these hardships.

In our living room, a large round stove provided the heat during winter months. At night before retiring, Father would whittle shavings and place them alongside the stove together with kindling and blocks of wood. He would arise early in the morning, hurriedly start the fire and return to bed. When we heard the stove begin to roar, we would arise and dress around the red hot stove. We possessed no bath room facilities. There was what was called the back house where we would go to make our morning calls. It can be understood why a person did not tarry there longer that was necessary during the cold winter weather. I am reminded of a statement in one of Riley's poems where he said, "The memory of that icy seat would make a Spartan sob."

In those days, peddlers would traverse through the country with packs on their backs containing small articles such as buttons, thread, medicines, etc. that they would offer for sale to farmwives. I recall a blind peddler who would call at our home occasionally. We called him, Old Blind William.

I recall instances when so called tramps would visit our door requesting food. They were itinerants who traveled from place to place on freight trains, with no particular object in view. My parents never turned these beggars away without furnishing them with a meal.

I have stated that our family was poor financially. However, there were families in our community that were really poor. I recall one family that would traverse along the railroad tracks and gather coal for fuel, that had fallen from freight cars while in transit. There were no relief programs in these days.

During water melon season the boys form town would stroll to the country at night for the purpose of raiding the patch. Due to the fact that they were unable to ascertain which melons were ripe they would plug many melons until they located a ripe one. Consequently many melons would be destroyed and it was necessary that the owner patrol the field in order to save his crop. Father would carry a shotgun with shells loaded with small pellets and sometimes grains of rye. The raiders soon leaned to avoid our patch.

Due to the fact that profits form the operation of the fruit farm were not sufficient to provide for all of our family necessities, it was necessary that Father procure employment during the winter months. One winter when I was five years of age, our country home was closed and we took up quarters in town with Mother's Folks. Father worked in a factory. Mother decided I should attend school even thought I was below school age. No primary grades were provided at the time. My Uncle, two years older than myself, accompanied me on my first visit. The teacher ask my age. I told her I did not know, which was probably true. She reluctantly assigned me to a desk and my school career was started.

In this first grade we played a game called Skip to Maloo. A child would stand up in front, beside the teacher and the class would sing, "let your feet go tramp, tramp, tramp, (the kids would stomp their feet) let your hands go clap, clap, clap, (the kids would clap their hands) let your finger beckon me, come dear friend and skip with me." Then the child standing in front would point his finger at the one he desired to skip with. A boy would choose a boy, and a girl a choose a girl. One day a girl asked me if I would choose her when it became my turn. I did and we started skipping. This elated the school and they started shouting, "ha! ha! skipping with a girl, skipping with a girl." I was very much embarrassed and never skipped with a girl again. At least during my childhood days.

I recollect another instance that took place during that first school year. I became angry with a little girl and slapped her. For punishment the teacher took me to another room and requested permission to stand me in a corner where I remained for about one hour. My uncle was a student in this room and could hardly wait until he returned home and tell my parents what happened. (the dirty rat) My folks did not punish me. I assume they thought I had been punished enough.

As the school year progressed, the teacher requested that we learn a poem and speak before the class. My father told me if I would do this he would buy me a little red wagon. Mother taught me a poem. As the days wore on I became anxious for the wagon and decided I would tell my folks I had spoken, even though the time had not arrived. Father was suspicious, probably by the way I acted when I told him. He ask a neighbor boy who was in my class if I had spoken my piece. The boy informed Father that I had not. My parents were hurt. I HAD TOLD A LIE. I received a whipping for this and always remembered, "What a tangled net we weave when first we practice to deceive." I might add, Father kept his word and bought me the wagon after I did finally speak my poem to the class.

One evening my father came home with a bicycle he had purchased for me. I was excited to the extent that I slept very little that night. I never did feel the pleasure and the thrill over a new automobile that I experienced with the possession of my first bicycle.

My Grandfather Cripe resided a short distance from our home. He operated a fruit farm on a somewhat larger scale that my father. Grandmother possessed a loom and wove rag carpets. People would tear discarded linens into strips, sew these strips together and wind them into balls. They would bring these balls to my grandmother and she would weave the material into carpets. The completed carpets were tacked upon the floors of the various homes. A new rag carpet was often times very pretty, depending on the different colors of the rages. I enjoyed filling the shuttles for Grandma and watching her weave while smoking a clay pipe.

I continued attending school in town, carrying my lunch and walking a distance of one mile each way. I remember with disgust, a child might arrive at school before the set time for the doors to open. Regardless of rain, shine, or cold stormy weather, the child was not allowed to enter before the doors opened.

At age nine, I had reached the fourth grade. In the meantime during Grover Cleveland's administration, a depression took place. It was called The Cleveland Panic. As an adult, being a good Democrat, how I disliked being reminded of it. It is my opinion, had it happened during a Republican administration it would have been called only a depression. (example of the conservative bias in the media at that time)

Be that as it may, it was very difficult for men to secure employment. The five hundred dollar mortgage was foreclosed on our home, and we moved five miles farther out into the country where Father procured employment with a man who opperated a drain tile manufacturing plant. We took up residence in a log house consisting of three rooms.

I believe the four years we resided at this place were the happiest of my childhood days. I enjoyed fishing and swimming in a nearby creek. Fishing was good. All I had to do was to gather a few grasshoppers or crickets as I passed through the meadow. I used a home made hickory pole and would locate a place where there was an eddying hole. I had no trouble catching plenty of nice fish. (Since then this stream, along with may others have been dredged resulting in no good fishing places)

Father was strenuously against my going swimming. He gave as his reason, that when he was a boy, one of his friends died with a case of typhoid fever, having swallowed contaminated water while swimming. I was unable to resist the temptation of disregarding his order and learned to swim without his knowledge.

As I relate my experiences, I think of the spring from which we drew water in pails. I can remember how wonderful the water tasted. It was always cold regardless of the weather conditions. One Sunday evening, a neighbor boy and I decided to walk two miles and attend a church. We arrived early and while visiting other boys in the church yard it was suggested that we go swimming before church started. There was an artificial dam a short distance away fed by springs and we proceeded thereto. At that time, I was just learning to swim. The water was deep. A raft was located in the middle of the pond. One of the boys easily swam to this raft. I followed and barely made it. Of course I was frightened, but I knew I had to get back to shore. After a good rest, I started and soon became excited and tired. I became aware that I might drown. How I wished I had remained at the church. I started sinking and, "goodness, gracious, sakes-a-living!" my feet touched bottom and my head remained above water. When we reached the church, services had been dismissed and the people were returning to their homes. I never did confess to my folks what had happened.

I deeply enjoyed attending the country school. The school year consisted of six months. This short period permitted the farm boys to assist their parents with the farm work. Even with this short school year, many of the boys would not enroll for several weeks after school started. However, they seemed to be able to cover the subjects satisfactorily, and were passed from grade to grade each year.

There were two rooms in this school. One provided classes from the first through the sixth grade, the other was seventh and eighth grade. Some of the pupils in the first grade were unable to understand the english language. The parents had taught them what was called dutch, a conglomeration of german and english. Consequently, it was necessary that the teacher could talk dutch. In due time the kids were able to understand and handle english fairly well.

The teacher was hired by the township trustee and paid a small wage. No janitor service was provided by the township. The teacher hired a neighbor to start the fire in a large wood burning stove and sweep the floor each morning. He was paid five cents for starting the fire, and five cents for sweeping. The teacher would arrive early, carry in the wood and pile it around the stove for replenishment of the fire during the day.

Occasionally there would be what was called A Spelling Bee. These functions were held at night in the school house. Folks would gather from miles around. Two sides would be organized with a leader for each side. They would choose spellers and the contest was on. These affairs resulted in many excellent spellers.

One thing I appreciated was the fact that most of the boys and some of the girls, weather permitting attend school barefooted. I became accustomed to going barefoot to the extent that it annoyed me when I was required to wear shoes on certain occasions.

The last day of the school year was a great event. Parents would bring well filled baskets of food. The kids would entertain by speaking pieces and singing. After these exercises, parents and visitors would give talks expressing their opinions of our school and relate their past experiences. One old-timer stated that it was fifty years since he had attended school. He told about hardships they endured during his school days informing us we should be thankful we had it so nice. For transportation, he said they used oxen. I sometimes wonder if our grandchildren will relate to their children similar comparisons.

I enjoyed attending parties in the various homes. In the winter time, sleigh ride parties were in vogue. We would visit a country home, play games such as Post Office, Happy is the Miller, Etc., returning home during the early morning hours.

During maple syrup season, some farmers would have what was called a maple sugar camp, located in the woods. They would gather sap from the maple trees and boil it until the water had evaporated to the extent that only maple syrup remained. This procedure took hours of careful supervision. I visited an uncle's farm during one of these occasions. My cousin and I had the job of boiling sugar water one night. Two of his friends came to the camp for a visit. Near midnight, these friends left for a tour of the neighborhood. They borrowed two chickens form a farmer's chicken coop and some salt taken from a box. We boiled the dressed chicken in sap water and seasoned with salt and thought the meat was very tasty.

After residing at this place for four years, (my teenage years) Father purchased a home in Goshen on a land contract. We still possessed no modern conveniences. I continued my education in the city schools. During my second year in high school, Father became ill and it was necessary that I leave school and help provide for the family. I secured a job in a factory. The work week consisted of sixty hours. We would start work five minutes before the hour, working ten hours and ten minutes each day. Saturday was our short day, closing at five o'clock. The ten minutes we made up each day provided for the extra hour on Saturday. There were no coffee breaks. How I disliked this job. It seemed like a prison to me. We could not start work before the whistle blew and as it neared quitting time, in case a particular job was completed, we were stalled around trying to keep busy until the whistle blew for closing. During the busy season, we worked two hour evenings. No extra overtime pay. Now the thought of the laundry wagon as observed in my early childhood days revived in my mind.

After about two years of factory work, I applied for a job with a laundry and in due time I was a laundry route man. I worked at this position for sixteen years. My commissions were somewhat larger that the average factory wage and I thoroughly enjoyed the work. Hours meant nothing to me. The harder I worked, the higher my commissions.

During this period, Father recovered and returned to work. I was then able to have more money for myself after paying my folks board and room. However, I seemed to find plenty of places to spend my money without saving any part thereof. This annoyed my father and many unpleasant arguments took place. Could this have been the start of a generation gap?

During my early employment with the laundry firm, a horse drawn vehicle was used. Driving strictly on the right side of the street was not considered necessary. In covering my route, I would zig zag across the streets when calling on my trade. The horse was a very intelligent animal. (perhaps more so than the driver) Her name was Nancy. She learned to know the route and would stop voluntarily at each customers place.

Occasionally in the summertime, horse racing would take place at the race track located outside of town. As a special feature, nonprofessional racers would be permitted to enter a race. I decided to enter Nancy and ride bareback in one of those races. When we reached the half mile post, Nancy was slightly ahead. I urged her on. At the three quarter mile, we were still ahead. I was elated. Nearing the home stretch some one hollered, "Laundry." Nancy stopped and we lost the race.

I remember with pleasure, the excursion trips to St. Joseph Michigan, a distance of sixty-five miles. During the summer months the railroad would provide special excursions each Sunday. This was before the event of the Interurban Electric Car. The round trip fare was seventy-five cents. The coaches were always filled, including standing room. I would look forward to one Sunday each summer when I could go to St. Joseph. What a thrill that was, I was going places a long distance away!

The first automobile in our town was owned by one of the wealthier citizens. It was called a horseless carriage. In due time automobiles were being built by several different firms. The prices were such that few people could afford to buy them. It was said, "a poor man will never be able to own one."

About this time, the Ford Automobile entered the market. It was build with as little cost as possible, minus extra fixtures such as bumpers, mileage meters and such. This was the poor man's car. The manufacturer did no special advertising. There were plenty of jokes made about the car. It was called a cracker box, tin lizzy, and more. Booklets were published entitled Latest Jokes about the Ford. Then Henry Ford developed the idea that in order to make his business good, he must pay his employees wages to the extent that they could be his customers. Consequently, he announced wage increases to all of his employees with a minimum of five dollars per day. At that time the average for the worker was $1.50 to $2.00 per day. Later other employers followed suit and Ford sales soared.

As I remember, the car could be purchased for about $500.00 with a $50.00 down payment. There were no paved highways at this time, nor any provision for snow removal in the winter. The tires were not very dependable. Repair kits, including an air hand pump, were carried with car and it was a very common sight to see cars parked alongside the highway while the owner repaired the tire. Compare conditions in those days with the present, (1960's) it seems like a dream.

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