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Memories of Chester: Coal furnaces, attic bedrooms ... and outhouses

  • In this 1950 (8th grade) St. John Lutheran School confirmation photo, Vic Brelje is in the middle of the back row. Byron Grimes is at the far right of the first row.

    In this 1950 (8th grade) St. John Lutheran School confirmation photo, Vic Brelje is in the middle of the back row. Byron Grimes is at the far right of the first row.
    Courtesy of Vic Brelje

  • Vic and his dog, Pal, on the back porch of their Chester home. As a child Vic used his middle name, Lowell, to keep people from confusing him with his father.

    Vic and his dog, Pal, on the back porch of their Chester home. As a child Vic used his middle name, Lowell, to keep people from confusing him with his father.
    Courtesy of Vic Brelje

 
By Professor James Franklin Sharp
Contributing Writer
updated: 1/9/2019 12:54 PM

This is one in an occasional series of essays from Professor James Franklin Sharp, who recently donated $500,000 to Chester High School, where he graduated in 1954. He lives and works in New York City, but has vivid memories of his boyhood home in Chester.

I wrote an "I Remember" essay that was published in the Dec. 12, 2018 issue of the Herald Tribune.

It included several old memories related to my boyhood home in Chester, that was listed for sale in the fall of 2018.

I received some very interesting responses.

Two of the responses were from classmates of mine in the Chester High School Class of 1954 -- Vic Brelje and Byron Grimes.

Vic and Byron each provided old memories related to their boyhood homes in Chester.

So, this essay is not about my old boyhood memories. Instead, it is about old boyhood memories of Vic and Byron.

They have very similar memories about difficult living conditions they both faced in their boyhood homes.

For instance, neither Vic and Byron had bedrooms in the heated parts of their homes. Instead, they had to sleep up in the attic of their homes, that had no heating!

These attics therefore got very cold in the winter. Lots of blankets helped.

A second difficult living condition for both Vic and Byron was that they did not have indoor bathrooms in their homes.

Instead, they had to go outside, and go to an outhouse!

Imagine that on a freezing day in January, getting up in a very cold, unheated attic. And, having to go outside in the freezing weather to go to a very cold, unheated outhouse.

Both Vic and Byron had to manage the coal-burning furnaces in their homes.

If they had had a coal stoker with an adjustable thermostat for their coal-burning furnace, their job would have been relatively easy. They would have just filled up the coal stoker every three of four days, and the stoker would automatically feed the appropriate amount of coal into the coal furnace, at the appropriate times.

Since they did not have coal stokers, their jobs required a lot more time, effort, and skill. They needed to open the furnace door and shovel coal into the furnace in the morning, and again in the afternoon.

Then, in the evening, they would open the furnace door and "bank" the fire by rearranging the coals so the fire would die down during the night, but not go out.

If hot coals remained in the morning, it was not hard to get the fire back up to a more normal level when new coal was added.

Note that neither Vic or Byron lived in what was considered to be a "poor" neighborhood in Chester. Instead, they both lived in what was considered to be a nice, middle-class Chester neighborhood.

I was surprised to learn about the challenging living conditions faced by Vic and Byron. But, I was very impressed by their being able to deal with them without a lot of complaining -- then, or now.

Both Vic and Byron say they had very happy childhoods, with many neighborhood friends.

After graduating from Chester High School, Vic did not wait to be drafted (at that time males were subject to a military draft), but instead enlisted in the U.S. Navy. He enlisted along with three CHS classmates -- Gary Roth, Jim Hardy and Keith Runge.

Byron went to Pharmacy School for two years, and then enlisted in the U.S. Army.

Vic and Byron are both outgoing, and easy to get along with. Byron has been the leader in arranging reunions for our CHS Class of 1954, both the standard five-year interval reunions, and also annual reunions.

So, our CHS Class of 1954 has had more reunions than any other CHS class.

And, we will have our 65-year reunion during the Fall 2019 CHS Homecoming weekend.

Byron usually arranges for three days of activities, with a major highlight a reception in the old home of Mary Mullins Hinz.

After this essay was written, I received a response from our classmate Bill Lofink.

Bill provided some old memories of his boyhood home in Chester, that had some similarities (sleeping in attic with no heating, and outhouse) to the memories of Vic and Byron.