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Historical Ramblings: Charles Michaelson remembers Chatham, pre-World War II

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    Kline Kill Day Camp, 1937
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    Charles’ fourth-grade report card at Chatham Union School from 1940-1941 while a student in Mrs. Wadsworth’s class.
July 11, 2018 11:36 am Updated: July 11, 2018 11:37 am


My parents, Alex and Carol, my younger sister, lived at 18 Jones Ave. at the end of the built-up street from June 1937 to October 1941.

Our landlady was Bessie Jones — the daughter of the man for whom the street was named. Our rent was $20 a month.

The house was built in the 1870s or 1880s and was not well insulated. My father told me there were months when we spent more on heating the house than rent. If I recall, pea coal was $7 a ton.

My father was a U.S. Post Office railway mail clerk on the New York Central. He got on Train 14 a the Chatham station at 7:30 a.m. and sorted mail like a clerk in a fixed post office

The difference was the railway mail crew picked up mail sacks, sorted mail and dropped off mail for post offices along the way. The train arrived at Grand Central Station at about noon.

After lunch, he sorted the mail until Train 15 left Grand Central about 4 p.m. on the way to Chatham, where it arrived at 7:30 p.m. That was an 11- or 12-hour work day, so the crew of four or five men worked six days one week and had the next week off.

My father’s salary was about $2,000 a year, which was a substantial income for a family of four in those

Great Depression years. As important, it was a government salary and steady in an unsteady time.

I have always been grateful I spent four boyhood years, from ages 5 to 9, in Chatham. It was a wonderful time to be a young boy in a small American town just before the war.

I was close to nature and changing seasons. There were jonquils beside the house in March — indicating spring was on the way; a big Colorado spruce covered with snow was in the front yard and sledding down the back road from Austerlitz Street to Jones Avenue; climbing the maple in the yard beside the house; playing football on lovely fall afternoon; planting and picking flowers and vegetables in our garden; walking home from school with my face frozen in place one day when it was 16 degrees below zero at 3 o’clock in the afternoon.

A memory of the friendliness of the village is the railroad watchman’s shack where Austerlitz Street met the New York Central tracks. Louie Chapman was the watchman. His niece was Marguerite Chapman, Chatham’s then-most famous native — a Hollywood actress in the 1930s and 40s.

There was a pot belly stove in the shack, and on a cold day, I could always stop off, chat with Louie and warm up before finishing my walk one from school.

I started school in September 1937. My first-grade teacher was Miss Smith, who is shown with her class in 1900 on page 98 of Around the Village of Chatham. My good friends in school were Bobby Bowes and John Diskin. My neighborhood playmates were Johnny Moore and Sammy Bailey, but apparently, I wanted more of them.

I asked my father why he had chosen a change of work route that started from New York that moved us back there in October 1941. He told me part of the reason was I often complained of having no one to play with.

Other children in the neighborhood were Janet Loomis, who lived next door at 16 Jones Ave.; Janet Kavanaugh, who lived at the southeast corner of Jones Avenue and Austerlitz Street, shown in another photo in the book; Jack Seaman, who was several years older; Gretchen Harmon, who lived on a road uphill and east from Austerlitz Street; and Ernie Mesick, who lived further south on Austerlitz.

I am now 86 years old and live with Ruth — my wife of 50 years — in Florida. In my work life, I was a journalist for trade unions. For the last 25 years of regular employment, I was on the staff of the state United Teachers headquartered in Albany.

The value of obtaining and retaining oral history is key to preserving the unique characteristic of communities. My sincere thanks to Mr. Michaelson for sharing his insight into boyhood in our village pre-World War II.

Questions or comments? Contact Chatham Village Historian Gail Blass Wolczanski at