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The Women of Main Street

Ruth 0. Richards

Originally published in the Emmitsburg Dispatch
Republished in the Emmitsburg News-Journal

The Women of Main Street. This sounds lewd, doesn't it? I can assure you, or very nearly assure you, there was nothing lewd about these women. In fact they didn't even think of themselves as women--They were "ladies." That is not a point to be argued by me. The women I write about were all good citizens of Emmitsburg and went about their womanly duties in much the same way as did each of their neighbors with few variations: cooking, cleaning, washing, ironing, tending children.

What did these women look like? How did they dress? I shan't try to describe their faces nor their bodies. I couldn't if I wanted to. But I can describe their clothing, which very nearly was generic. Women all over America wore "the housewife costume" while going about their womanly duties at home.

The daily costume was a house dress, the term so common that it rated an entry in the Unabridged Webster Dictionary of the 40's. The dresses were made of printed cotton fabric, with perhaps a touch of rick rack or bias tape here and there to perk them up. They were short-sleeved, self-belted and were worn below the knees. Some of the dresses were sewn at home, others were bought ready-made, probably at Houck's, a family clothing store on the northeast corner of the square. Over these dresses was a washed, starched and ironed apron, a clean one every day. On their feet women wore either black or brown tied shoes, oxfords, with either white ankle sox, or lisle stockings. (Lisle was a kind of strong cotton thread.) Nylon, a relatively new kind of synthetic thread was being used for parachutes in the war effort.

How do I know this? I know it, because I became a ‘house wife’ in 1940 when I came to Emmitsburg.

You might ask, "Why didn't we housewives wear slacks?" Such attire was not common and did not become common until after the war. The women who worked in defense plants did wear pants and finally after the war, nearly all women wore slacks, except in Emmitsburg where, for a short while, there was a law prohibiting women from appearing on the street in slacks. Wow! I wonder whose idea that was?

Housework wasn't the only job that the women of Main Street had. Some of the women had babies and others were providing care of another kind, seeing to the needs of an elderly parent or other relatives who for one reason or another needed extra attention.

Among the women who had children were Charlotte Eyster, Margaret Wilhide and Tess Stinson. Charlotte had two babies in 1940, Georgie and Susie. A "stop in" visit to Charlotte would always find her in one or another baby tending modes, and she might say, "Help me with my homework" and then she would hand over diapers that had been dried outside on the clothes line and needed to be folded. No disposable diapers then.

Margaret's baby was a bit younger. Tommy, I believe was born in 1941 and he was the darling of the neighbors, and I might be invited to "come in and see the cute tricks"of Margaret's baby.

The woman that I got to know best in 1940 was Tess Stinson whose husband was Dr. Stinson, the only dentist in town. Tess was just a great person, with a marvelous sense of humor. She was kept busy with five children, four girls and a boy. Her rapport with her children was to be envied.

Tess had done many things for me as I was trying to settle in to living in Emmitsburg and I decided that I must try to repay her. I invited her and Oscar for a chicken dinner. Chicken was a treat in those days. (Oh for the time when chicken was scarce and not thought to be good for you.) I cooked the chicken --one hour--two hours--it never did become edible. It was just plain too old and tough. We pretended that the main meal was over and went immediately to dessert. Tess and I had a good laugh about my first effort at entertaining in Emmitsburg.

Edith Nunnemaker was another kind of caregiver. I never got to know her very well, in fact I was intimidated by her tall stately manner, her precision in walking step by step with a basket on her arm. She was caring for her brother, Guy, who I believe had suffered an injury in World War 1. Although I was never privy, as others had been, to a showing of the contents of Miss Edith's cedar chest, I was told that in that chest was "her hope" of marriage as evidenced by her trousseau. I hope that she didn't care that I knew this. It made me very sad since I was in Emmitsburg because my "dream" had come true.

In a gloomy looking house built of cement blocks was the Rowe sisters, Carrie, Elizabeth and another whose name I either didn't know, or have forgotten. Elizabeth was a nurse, and that is about all I knew of them, except for their love of their brother Chick's children, a boy and a girl. I was never in their house but would speak with them at the grocery store or at the Post Office.

Across the street from the Rowe's was the home of Mr. Shuff, who had once been a funeral director. His daughter "Miss Ruth," (many of the unmarried women were spoken of or addressed as "Miss.") cared for him. She was also the organist for the Lutheran Church. "Dar", Ruth's sister and her husband. Bill lived in the same house. Bill ran a little 'A&P’ grocery store near the bank.

I have previously written of Ruth, also Miss Ruth Gililean and her little notions shop. She too, was a part of a group of sisters who lived together. I had an excuse to frequent her shop since I both sewed and knitted, and so got to know those women fairly well. There was Carrie, who was a bit naive, Ruth outgoing and helpful and Rhoda who had been a nurse overseas during the first World War.

"Tude", I believe she was called, was a sweet, frail looking black woman who lived in the west end of town and literally served other women. I mostly saw her when she was helping at a tea or a luncheon. She then was dressed in black and wore a white apron. She walked to the stores to shop, and carried her groceries in a basket on her arm. When she was working for others, she came in and went out the back door.

She wasn't allowed to do otherwise. (I often wondered how much she was paid.) All of the above women lived in the west end of town In 1943 John and I moved out to the Esso gas station, and then Just a few months later we moved again, to a house known as Minnie Eichelberger's house, owned by the Emmitsburg Water Company.

Our move was made necessary by events not of our own making. It was a horrid house--hand fired smokey furnace --termites-- and other things not of our liking, but housing was scarce and we had to move.

With that move we had as our neighbors, the Harners, Charlie and Edith. They owned the store in the square where the Ott House is now. Mrs. Harner, like Mrs. Frailey, spent long hours working in and for the family store.

Mrs. Harner was wonderful to me. I was pregnant with our first child and needed a lot of encouragement. She brought us lovely things to eat and encouraged me all through my pregnancy and then after Kathy was born Mrs. Harner became a kind of grandmother to her. Kathy 's own grandmothers were a thousand miles away.

Another women who impressed me deeply was Adelaide Shaughnessy, who with her husband Charlie lived in an apartment on the second floor of Mrs. Patterson's house. Charlie was a language professor at the Mount and Adelaide was a belle from Chestertown. At the time I thought them to have the most beautiful of apartments with their antique furniture, silver and china.

Charlie didn't drive, but Adelaide had a Ford of current vintage. She considered that car to be the only way out of what she said was "dull Emmitsburg," and into the social life of the Station Wagon crowd of the Eastern Shore.

On one of the rare occasions that Adelaide parked her car in front of the house, a run-away horse and wagon belonging to Bill Frailev ran into Adelaide's car and rendered it "out-of-commission." We heard her yelling angrily and crying. John went out to check on the commotion and when I got to the door there was Adelaide in John's arms crying on his shoulder as he comforted her. I think he was as surprised as I was.

Adelaide's main concern was of how she and Charlie would get to Chestertown for the upcoming vacation. They never ever had spent one vacation in Emmitsburg. Adelaide was good to me, and it was partly because of her that I occasionally played bridge with her "town" players.

One of her friends of bridge, was Helen Annan, wife of Ned Annan. They lived next door to the Andrew Eysters who lived in Frank Weant's house. She really was "society" at least in her opinion. She always looked elegant, and as David Frailey wrote me recently, she emerged from her house every day all clean and fresh and went ----------- ? Somewhere. I can see her, in the winter time, in a gray fur coat with matching hat, tiptoeing around in very, very high heels. Alas she was only a woman of Main Street, although she definitely considered herself a LADY.

Marion Rosensteel was another bridge player of Main Street, a very proper woman who lived with her brother, Norman Hoke. One day as I was playing bridge at their house, someone mentioned the exorbitant price of Capons (a male castrated chicken). Never one for letting well enough alone, I asked, "What is a Capon?" Silence--Card fumbling--throat clearing-and then back to the bidding. John enlightened me what I got home.

Two sisters lived kitty-corner from Mrs. Patterson, Emma Jane Miller and Sarah Hoke. Someone told me that sometime in the past these sisters had quarreled and didn't speak to each other. They even cooked their separate meals and ate them alone. Emma Jane was chatty, very chatty. She was always looking for a bit of time to talk and when she did manage to corner me I found her conversation a bit limited. Was she lonesome? One would have to conclude that she was indeed lonesome.  Sarah, on the other hand had something to talk about with me. She had a grandson, born on the same day as that of my Kathy. Sarah often stopped me on the street to tell me about this baby boy and I have to confess that it sounded as if he were almost as wonderful as my baby girl.

Next to the Miller sisters were Pauline Baker and her mother. I have previously mentioned that Pauline worked in Frailey's store. Her mother, like other women in town had a talent that helped enhance their income. (It might even have been their only income.) On weekends Mrs. Baker made and sold potato chips There were never any potato chips lighter and crispier than hers.

And then, there was Helen D. Now where do I go and how do I describe Helen? Helen was larger than life, both physically and in her conversation. I truly must confess that I was intimidated by her and exaggerated claims about one and all. Helen lived with her mother and both women did needlework; her mother doing alterations, and Helen knitting and crocheting. Helen's work was beautiful. When Miss Ruth died Helen bought the inventory of the notion shop and moved it to her house.

Do any of you remember the telephone office? Do you remember that it was in a private residence? all the wires of communication in and around Emmitsburg were housed in the Felix home. I got to know three of the operators, Ms. Felix and Ann Thompson. I didn't know Miss Felix very well. I did know Ann as she was a bridge player. She was a sweet and petite woman probably in her forties. Her husband was Chemistry teach at St. Joseph's College.

Another of the operators was Miss Warthen, a most efficient woman who once thought I was listening in on other people's conversations. There were several families on the same line. This was at the time I was walking the floor with a baby that screamed and cried for three months. I had very little time to do anything but tend to that baby.

The telephones at that time were the crank kind . The crank on the side of the box summoned the operator to make the connection to the person being called.

I was reminded, not long ago that there were indeed young women in Emmitsburg in the 40's. Loretta Addelsburger told me that she was 14 when I came to Emmitsburg. She also told me that I was the first pregnant woman she had ever seen. That must have been a treat. I had gained 35 pounds.

As I think back over all these women of Main Street, I muse and wonder how they would feel if they knew of the ways I have remembered them. I have tried not to be unkind in my recordings. I know they were just women trying to make a life in their surroundings at a difficult time in history and I was trying to carve out a life for myself in a place miles from home where I knew no one except the man who had brought me to Emmitsburg.

Have your own memories of Women of Emmitsburg?  Send them to us at history@emmitsburg.net

Read other stories by Ruth Richards

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