The story of Rainbow Ranch and what life was like in the Middle Island area - 4

Growing Up in Middle Island in the 1930s

by Anne Ferguson Nauman

Part IV - What We Did For Fun

What We Did for Fun

I mentioned some of the games we played at school, but the rest of the time we three were on our own. We lived so far away from our schoolmates that there were few opportunities to get together outside of school. Sometimes I would walk home from school with Tootsie (Florence) Buniski or Frances and Lucy Depta, and my mother would pick me up later. Or she would drive one of them to our house after school. One of my friends was Beatrice Hollowell, whose father was the caretaker at the Longwood estate. I remember sleeping on a featherbed for the first time in the Hollowell’s cozy cottage on the estate grounds.

Bill and some of the other boys had BB guns and sometimes Joey and Kayo (Rudy) Carrabus would come to our house for target practice. Bill and I had cap pistols and played cowboy. In those days, most parents didn’t object to their children having toy guns or BB guns. Guns were just a normal part of country living and had not become the menace that they are now.

Most of the time, the three of us had to make our own amusements. We played things like marbles, jackknife, jacks, cat’s cradle, jackstraws and hide-and-seek. I liked paper dolls and coloring books. I got a doll house for Christmas one year, and had fun making things to go in it, and making clothes for the small dolls that inhabited it. Bill enjoyed making airplane models out of balsa wood, and Edith was good at all kinds of handicrafts. I think we all three had stamp collections. I still have my big album. We used to send for stamps “on approval,” and then either send them back or send money to pay for them. Edith used to send for chameleons in the mail. They would often escape and climb the curtains, or get into Grampa’s big wingchair where they would get squashed.

All three of us loved to read, and we had a huge collection of books. We were each given a book for every birthday and every Christmas. My mother liked to read to us, even long after we had all learned to read. She had a real knack for choosing new books that were destined to become classics. She got us The Hobbit right after it was published, so we learned to love Tolkien’s writing long before he wrote The Lord of the Rings. She discovered the Mary Poppins books, and The Sword in the Stone by T. H. White. We loved the Oz books, and had several of them. The Wind in the Willows and Kipling’s Just So Stories were favorites. I liked Alice in Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass, and The Secret Garden. I still have our first-edition copies of all four Winnie-the-Pooh books.

Above, Billy Ferguson with Rudy and Joey Carrabus.
Right - Rudy (Kayo) Carrabus takes aim.

Joey Carrabus and Billy Ferguson.
Billy and Anne playing Cats Cradle 1941

Photos from the collection of Mrs. Anne Ferguson Nauman

There were no organized activities, no after-school music or dance lessons, no sports programs. I would have enjoyed the Girl Scouts, but there was no opportunity. Edith and I took piano lessons for a while with Mrs. Eva Stewart, the minister’s wife, but we didn’t last long. Both of us have musically talented children, but they surely didn’t get it from us.

Edith was in an older age group and had different friends and different interests, but Bill and I did a lot of fun things together. We would dig a bunch of worms and walk down to Pfeiffer’s Pond to go fishing. If we caught a six-inch perch, it was a big deal. We would take it home, scale and gut it, and cook it. We ended up with two bites of fish, after a lot of work, but it was delicious. Young Everett Pfeiffer would often go fishing with us. Everett was later to become another victim of that dreaded disease, polio.

All three of us had fun riding our bikes around the farm. We had to “save up” for a long time to buy a bike, but they were not terribly expensive then. Bill and I would sometimes ride our bikes down to Artist Lake and cast for small-mouth bass. We never caught any, and always came out of the water with our legs covered with leeches. They are very nasty, disgusting creatures. But the fishing was fun.

Bill and I had fun making forts. Empty apple boxes made nice big forts that you could crawl around in. We used to wear silly hats. I wore my grandfather’s Hollis Fire Department hat, and Bill wore his “smuggler’s hat” from the West Indies. It was a very tall straw hat that had room enough for a bottle in the crown. I loved the Tibetan hat, a heavy felt and fur hat that was given to us by my grandmother.

Billy and Anne Ferguson. Photo from the collection of Mrs. Anne Ferguson Nauman


The three of us collected parsley worms and kept them in jars. When they were disturbed, they would protrude their orange “horns” which had an unpleasant smell. We would feed them parsley leaves and eventually they would spin cocoons. Several weeks later, we would watch them emerge. They would slowly stretch and dry their crumpled wings, and then fly away as beautiful Black Swallowtail butterflies.

In the winter, we would go down to Pfeiffer’s Pond to ice skate. If it was cold enough to freeze the bigger ponds, we went to Bartlett’s Pond. That was a great place to skate. A lot of people got hockey skates that were three sizes too big, and then flopped around complaining of weak ankles. But if they had had properly fitting skates, there would have been no problem. I was lucky that my grandmother gave me a pair of beautiful figure skates, just about the time that my feet stopped growing. That’s when I learned to do backward crossovers and hockey stops. Edith once fell through the ice on Bartlett’s Pond. She was quickly rescued by Elwyn Bayles and was unhurt, but she lost all her enthusiasm for skating.

After a snowstorm, we would make snowmen or go sledding down the hill between the Richard Bayles house and our house. I remember that Donald Bayles had a really fine sled that he could actually steer, and it would slide for a long way. Our smaller sleds didn’t perform nearly as well. Our winter play clothes were heavy wool snowsuits and rubber galoshes with metal fasteners. No fleece or down jackets in those days.

The two smaller Bartlett’s Ponds were interesting. The ancient Bartlett house, which is gone now, was occupied by the Bartlett sisters, Miss Maude and Miss Agnes. They were friends of my mother’s. I liked to visit them because their house smelled wonderful, and they had a parrot. Eugene Swezey used to work for them as a gardener and handyman. They had beautiful flower gardens and often exhibited their flowers at the Bellport flower show, as did my mother. There was a small pond on each side of the Bartlett house, and in the spring Bill and I would do what we called “treading for turtles.” Box turtles would hibernate in the mud on the shores of the ponds, and if we walked barefoot through the mud, we would unearth lots of turtles. I have always been a turtle lover, and even today there are turtles all over my house (painted, carved, molded, etched, stuffed, on earrings or pendants, or just plain empty turtle shells). We had a turtle pen at home where we would put captured turtles and feed them on strawberries, tomatoes or earthworms for a few days, and then let them go. Whenever we saw a turtle crossing the road, we always stopped to carry it across safely or to take it home for a while.

We had fun as a family. My father taught us to play poker, and of course we played for beans and not money. We enjoyed a lot of board games like Chinese checkers, regular checkers and Parcheesi, and card games like go fish, old maid, casino and rummy. We liked doing jigsaw puzzles. My father was a good chess player and taught us the fundamentals, but I didn’t have the patience to learn to play well.

We went to the beach many times each summer. Bathing suits were made of wool in those days. They were heavy and took forever to dry. Nylon and lycra and all the other quick-drying synthetics had not yet been invented. Cedar Beach was our favorite on the North Shore. We loved to go to the ocean. You could drive to Westhampton and park just about anywhere along the beach road, and walk across the dunes to the beach. My father was a very strong swimmer, and he would head straight out to sea. Of course he would turn around and come back, but I think this caused our mother some anxiety. Our uncle Loring was also a strong swimmer, and once he became entangled in the tentacles of a Portuguese man-o’-war. He managed to swim back to shore, but was in great pain from the jellyfish stings. Edith was also an excellent swimmer, much better than Bill or I, and in the 1980s she became a triathlete.

It was fun to go beachcombing at the ocean after a storm, when you could find all kinds of interesting stuff washed up. I once found a mango pit, which I found totally mystifying. I kept it but never knew what it was until 50 years later when I sliced open a fresh mango for the first time and, voila! There was my mystery object. We often found big skimmer clams washed up after a storm, and they made the most delicious clam chowder. My mother made great chowder, always the kind with vegetables and tomatoes, not the milky kind. My father would sometimes go surfcasting. He never caught anything worth eating, but he had fun.

Of course there was no television, no computers, no CDs, not even tapes. We did have a wind-up Victrola and a few scratchy records. But radio was wonderful. The whole family listened to Fred Allen, Jack Benny, Edgar Bergen, Fibber McGee, and Here’s Morgan. We kids liked the Shadow and the Lone Ranger. During the day, it was Ransome Sherman and Club Matinee. Just before dinner time it was Jack Armstrong, Terry and the Pirates, Little Orphan Annie, and Dick Tracy. We were always sending in cereal boxtops for Jack Armstrong whistling rings, or Dick Tracy decoding rings, or whatever. Of course we always listened to the Hit Parade. There were some wonderful melodies in the late 30s and early 40s. We could buy song sheets with the words to all the popular songs. I’m sometimes startled to hear, 60 or 70 years later, new arrangements of old favorites like Skylark, Stardust, or Tenderly.

We went to the movies in Patchogue or Port Jefferson. My father loved the Marx Brothers and I loved Gene Autry. When we went to the movies in Patchogue, we would stop in the drug store on the southwest corner of Main Street for an ice cream soda. The owner, Jimmy Lephakis, was a friend of my father’s. I remember going to see Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, the first full-length animated feature. I loved the music and the humor, but the evil witch scared me to death. Movies in those days were not full of graphic violence and gore and sex and bad language, as they are now. The censors at the Hayes Office saw to that – they even had a problem with Clark Gable using the word “damn” in Gone with the Wind. I remember seeing that when it first came out, along with a few of my schoolmates. Mrs. Jones had let us out of school to see it. There were no ratings because all movies at that time would have been rated G or PG. Film makers have a lot more freedom now, so parents need to use a lot more discretion.

Hunter Sekine's home in West Yaphank. Photo from the collection of Mrs. Anne Ferguson Nauman

Flowering wisteria at Hunter Sekine's farm. Photo from the collection of Mrs. Anne Ferguson Nauman

My father liked snakes and was always catching snakes in the orchard and bringing them home with him. Fortunately, there are no poisonous snakes native to Long Island. He especially liked blacksnakes and hog-nosed snakes. Hog-noses are sometimes called puff adders because they will puff up their bodies with air when they are disturbed. They also play dead by going completely limp. I learned from my father that snakes aren’t slimy at all, but very smooth and silky feeling. He taught me how to catch them with a forked stick behind the head, and how to pick them up without getting bitten. I even caught a big water snake once, when we were upstate. They are not poisonous but are very nasty. I skinned it and had it made into a belt.

My father used to shoot rabbits in the orchard because they damaged the trees, and I learned to skin them but never quite mastered the art of preserving the skins. I sometimes dissected them because I was curious about their inner anatomy. Sometimes I would bury them and Bill and I would dig them up a year later to study the bones. My mother thought some of this activity was a little gruesome (she called it ghoulish), but I was fascinated.

I liked to climb the apple trees in the orchard, where I would often find robins’ nests and cicada husks. I spent hours rambling around in the woods by myself. My roaming territory covered a huge area, from Pfeiffer’s Pond westward to Biz Miller’s land, and a long way to the north. I learned about the plants and trees in the woods and fields. Wintergreen berries, sour grass and sassafras leaves are good to nibble on, as are huckleberries and wild strawberries. Inkberries look delicious, but are definitely not good nibbles. I knew just where to find May pinks (trailing Arbutus), pink lady’s slippers, prince’s pine and Indian pipes. I knew where to collect ground pine for making Christmas wreaths, but now it is probably on the list of protected species. I collected interestingthings like bones, animal skulls, turtle shells, abandoned birds’ nests, and snakes’ shed skins.

Later in life, when I started running, I returned to the woods. I trained by running alone on forest trails, first in the woods at Brookhaven Lab, then in the magical Prince William Forest in Virginia, and more recently on the high trails through the pine and aspen forests of Mt. Charleston near Las Vegas. In Virginia, I learned orienteering, an exhilarating sport where each individual, running alone through the forest, must find the fastest route to a series of markers using only a topographic map and compass. Prince William Forest encompassed about 18 square miles, so it was ideal for orienteering competitions. Thanks to those early days in Middle Island, I have always felt at home in the woods.

Part V - Special Days


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