Reminiscences of the Highland Avenue neighborhood, 1920s and 1930s
I recall going to grocery stores from our house on Highland Avenue. There were two stores: Kerl’s on University Avenue just west of Highland (2507 University Avenue), and an A&P (2427 University Avenue) located comparably east beside the Rennebohm Drug Store on the corner (2433 University Avenue). In some ways I preferred going to Kerl’s store because its antiquity made it mysterious – long, dark interior, with open containers of bulk food near the front, shelves along one side with packaged and canned foods while the other side held hardware and stuff, a messy butcher area at the rear, and all focused on a short length of open counter partway back equipped with a roll of paper, a suspended ball of twine, and an ancient cash register. Most intriguing to me was a large, open, horizontal tray with myriad partitions into which were placed copies of sales slips of purchases done on credit. I supposed that each compartment held the record of purchases charged by a single family and I remember thinking that there were a lot of them during the hard time of those days and wondered how Kerl’s got paid. We never charged anything and our cash purchases were reckoned with prices written in pencil on the side of a paper bag. I marveled at how fast the clerk could add. The cash register indicated only the total price of the transaction, not the change due. Whatever the virtues of modern education, I conclude that it does not produce clerks who can match the arithmetic ability of those elders who attended one-room schools.
An archaic gasoline pump still stood beside the curb in front of the store; cars parked in the street to be fueled. Gasoline stored in a tank below ground was pumped by hand into an elevated glass cylinder marked to show the contained volume at various depths so that a desired number of gallons could then be drained by gravity into he tank on the car. I thought it an ingenious system, but I also realized that it seldom was used because service stations existed that provided more service and had repair facilities. It is interesting that the service station with attendants who washed windshields, checked fluids and tire pressure, and pumped the requested amount of gasoline have now reverted to a place where the customer does all of the work and has a “convenience” grocery store beside the pump.
I remember that my mother preferred the A&P store, doubtless because it was more sanitary, especially the meat department, and probably had more brands at lower cost than Kerl’s. Whatever the reason, it was to the A&P that I was sent most often to obtain something my mother needed. I still remember the ratio of veal, pork and beef that she instructed me to have the butcher grind for meat loaf. I also liked the A&P because the employees did not tease me in the way that was common at Kerl’s, but more important because they allowed me to scavenge empty apple and orange crates from the rear of the store. The wood and nails from these crates were the treasured raw materials for my “inventions.”
Ordinarily my mother purchased groceries only one or perhaps twice a week because she baked all of our bread, rolls, cakes, pies, etc., as well as canned innumerable jars of fruit, tomatoes, certain vegetables, and jellies. These were stored in a “fruit cellar” partitioned from the rest of the cellar. Bulk quantities of potatoes and onions also went there. Milk was delivered form a horse-drawn white wagon on some sort of schedule: I think daily except weekends. Meat was the only perishable that required refrigeration. We had an ice box kept for some reason in the basement; perhaps to retard melting of the ice. Ice also was delivered from a horse-drawn wagon and was a great attraction because while the delivery man was carrying blocks of ice into a house we children could climb onto the rear step of the wagon, stick our heads under the heavy, canvas curtain, and enjoy the odor of wet, cold wood and collect slivers of ice left when the iceman cleaved the large blocks into smaller sizes for delivery. The weight of ice desired that day by the household was indicated by a colored square of cardboard divided into quadrants marked with large numbers (25, 50. 75, 100). The cardboard was placed in a window with the desired weight uppermost.
We bought ice only during the summer. My father converted a basement window into an insulated storage cabinet in order to use the free refrigeration of Wisconsin winters. It was accessible from inside but also had a compartment with a lid on the outside for the milkman to use and thereby prevent the milk from freezing. Milk was not homogenized and the cream would separate into a layer at the top. Our milk came in a bottle that had a bulbous chamber above a constriction to facilitate removal of the cream; a special spoon was provided to cover the constriction and allow the cream to be more easily decanted.
I used to marvel at how the horses of these delivery wagons knew their routes and how, especially, the horse that pulled the milk wagon anticipated the move required by the milkman as he moved to and from or between houses.