Storrs in the 1930s

From the Mansfield Historical Society Newsletter, Vol. 35, No. 2, April 1999

The Carter’s Early Days in Storrs

Joan Carter presented this delightful chronicle of her experiences in Storrs in the 1930s at the Mansfield Historical Society’s Annual Meeting, September 1996. 

In the summer of 1931, my fiancée Harrison Carter was offered a job teaching economics at the Connecticut Agricultural College, in Storrs.  His advisor at Harvard recommended that he accept it.  He said it was a small school with excellent men and promise of growth.  With that and the knowledge that he was one of the seven men in his class that year of 1931 to be offered a job, he took it.  We were married in August.

So in September we arrived in Storrs.  Harrison had grown up in Queens, New York City, and I in Amherst, Mass., population 5,000.  Neither of us was prepared in any way for Storrs.  All I knew about it was that it had an egg-laying contest.  As reference librarian at Massachusetts Agricultural College, a one-page sheet from the Storrs Egg-Laying contest had arrived regularly at my desk.

When we came here, Storrs had a general store on the edge of Mirror Lake.  You could phone in an order in the morning and it would be delivered to your kitchen table that afternoon.  No one locked doors, the grocery man just walked in.  Ice was also delivered.  We had a card to put in the window indicating how much ice we needed.  Our icebox was in the front hall so he didn’t have to come in the house.  Milk was also delivered, either from the college or a local farmer.  And I remember a man who peddled meat now and then.  Storrs had a post office in the basement of Beach Hall where there was also a drug store – mostly, I think, it sold ice cream.

The road to Willimantic had just been paved, and Smitty drove the high school bus.  You could ride with him if you didn’t mind waiting for the afternoon return.  On the other hand, you could phone, say, the Boston Store, for perhaps a spool of number 80 blue thread – and Smitty would bring it up and you could collect your parcel at Walker’s garage.  Hartford stores like G. Fox and Brown, Thompson as well as others made regular deliveries to Storrs.  So, although we had no car, we actually managed very well, and we did not have to spend a lot of time driving here and there for things.

Harrison had jumped in with both feet and was soon coaching debating with Andre Scheneker and acting as Faculty mediator to the fraternities and giving a weekly radio talk on business and, of course, teaching economics.  Professor Williams had been right.  The Economics Department as I remember it those first few years consisted of  “Prof” I. G. Davis and Doc. Gumbart, Al Waugh, Perregaux, Cecil Tilton and Don Hammerburg.  Perhaps there were others, but these men you don’t forget.

We were warmly welcomed in Storrs.  I joined the Thimble Club, a purely social club for the purpose of meeting and getting acquainted.  Then I joined the Woman’s Club which over the years has been a joy in so many ways – learning, and doing, making friends and just having fun.  We both joined the Congregational Church here.  The then-called Community House was a social center with club meetings, dinners, dances, and lectures.  Before other churches were built, other denominations used that church and the community house for all their activities.

Whitney Hall
Whitney Hall photograph courtesy of Archives & Special Collections, Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut

But our living conditions were not what we had expected!  We lived in old Whitney Hall. This was the original school for Civil War Orphans which had been condemned in the 1800s as a firetrap and was finally torn down in 1932.  Meanwhile, we lived there and my mother-in-law said the only good thing about it was the address.  She thought Whitney Hall sounded elegant.  It was a rambling wooden building two stories high on the corner of the campus across from the Congregational church.   The center section contained two large apartments.  That year the Boyds lived upstairs and a Captain Ritter, head of R. O. T. C., had just moved to the first floor with his wife and baby and baby’s nurse.  When a large bureau followed him across the room they were made aware of one peculiarity of the building – the floors slanted.  The east wing was occupied by a professor and the Kinseys.  Above them a happy and congenial group of secretaries.  In the West wing Mr. Dole’s secretary and her mother lived, and we were upstairs over them.

Our apartment was sunny and looked toward the church.  Previous to its becoming an apartment, it had been the offices of the economics department.  This probably accounted for the floor plan – each room opened off a central hall.  Also the walls were only one thickness so if we put in a nail in the living room to hang a picture on we could make use of it in the next room also.

While the layout was surprising, perhaps the most unusual thing about it was the fact that when one opened the entrance door one immediately stepped down – a rather deep down also.  As long as I lived there, no one ever fell but it was a distinct hazard.

We had to purchase all our own furniture including stove, icebox, dish cupboards, washing machine, etc.  The only place for the washing machine was in the bathroom.  Here a small window over a radiator gave access to a pulley clothesline.  So our clothes hung over the courtyard in view of the North Eagleville Road.

There was one room that did not open into the hall but only into the bedroom.  We called it the “what not.”  It housed Harrison’s desk and chair, a bureau, and a large packing box that held blankets and pillows and winter clothing, etc.  In one corner we had hooks for clothes (there were no closets in the apartment) and we had also put up shelves for groceries.

This “what not” room was the source of many a tale.  My brother-in-law slept in there one night on an army cot that squeaked so it kept the women below awake all night.  And when we used the typewriter, and we did use it, for we were copying Harrison’s Ph.D. thesis for submission that spring, it nearly drove the women below crazy.  And there was one night – have you ever been awakened by mice in a box of macaroni?  It sounded like a full orchestra tuning up.  But most of all, I remember the grape juice!

My well-meaning mother-in-law arrived one day with grapes for grape juice.  She was surprised that I had no equipment for this but we drove to Jordan Hardware in Willimantic.  Here we bought a big dishpan.  We could wash the grapes in it, cook them in it, and afterward I would have a pan to wash dishes in instead of the sink.  We also got bottles and all other needed things.  We came home and made the juice.  When we were filling the jars, mother said she had always left a space empty at the top of the jars but her young son had just had a course in physics or chemistry – she didn’t remember which – anyway he said we should fill the bottles to the very top.  She had done hers that way this year and we did also.  We put them on the floor in the “what not” room where they did look lovely.

We were eating lunch a few days later when they blew up.  For years I had blankets and pillows with purple stains on them and when we moved I found a piece of glass as big as my fist behind the storage box.

We had a minimum of furniture but I had scrubbed all the walls and floors and with rugs and pretty curtains, it was clean and sunny, if sparse.

One night we had a young man as a dinner guest.  I used my very best damask tablecloth (I remember I had to put a hem in it because it was too big for our table) and, of course, my new dishes and silver, and I made a good dinner.

But that young man sitting at our table looked around and said, “If this was in a city, you would call it a slum.”

What would he have thought of Oil Can alley and E building years later?

Storrs has always seemed to me to show its worst side to newcomers.  But when you overlooked some things and stayed here – it has always been the people that have made it loved.

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