Part 2: The Old Neighborhood: Corvallis Fifth Street


This entry continues Steven Shelton’s recollections of life on 5th Street between Harrison and Polk, in Corvallis, Oregon, during the 1930s. For him, as an elementary school child, “Various sports and games were the core of social activities, the more active ones involving a lot of running, particularly for the older kids.  Skinned knees, bloody noses and stubbed toes were not uncommon.  The milder games for both genders included hopscotch, rope jumping, marbles, jacks and charades.  The girls played ‘dolls’ a lot, and if not that then ‘dress up’ with old clothes.”

“The majority of the games involved only the kids living between Tyler and Polk, or those living in the next block between Tyler and Harrison.  Once in awhile these kids from both blocks would combine, augmented occasionally by those from nearby streets.

“The game that many of the boys and girls could and did play with some frequency was Kick the Can, and John Swartley and Bruce Shelton were the most difficult to beat to the tin can in the middle of the street.  Its first cousin, Hide’n Seek, was also popular.  Hiding places among the trees and bushes were many, and it was a lot of fun particularly in the semi-darkness of mid-evening in the warmer months. Beckon Beckon was another popular neighborhood game of early evening, a variation where the captive in the middle of the street was allowed to escape from the kid who was ‘it’ when a wave from someone in hiding could be seen.  Being ‘it’ was difficult.  Run Sheep Run was a team sport played on the street surface only, and the team confrontation took place toward the center of the street.  It involved asking and answering questions, and a correct answer was rewarded by the right to chase and catch the questioner, who would (at the captain’s command) scramble back to the curb before being tagged by the other team, not always successfully.

“Individual outdoor activities centered around bicycling, which served as a personal passport to freedom from the constraints of the immediate neighborhood, and enabled kids from adjacent neighborhoods to mix in to some degree.  Major bicycle accidents were almost non-existent, although minor spills and skirmishes occurred with some frequency…. Bicycles provided great mobility all the way to Monroe past the courthouse, and indeed anywhere in Corvallis.  However, roller skates were even more prevalent.  Though 4th and 5th were well paved, on hot days the tar became softer which made roller skating more difficult. Hockey games on roller skates were sometimes frenzied, and usually highly vocal.  The puck was a tin can, and tree branches or broom handles served as hockey sticks.  Slats were used to outline the goals at each end.

“Softball games were also played, with sewer grates doubling as base markers.  Enemies in highly active games were bees, and also Felix, the Wilson’s ankle-biting terrier….

“Either trench warfare or Cops ‘n Robbers on the Wilson’s vacant lot [by the southeast corner of 5th and Tyler] was a favorite activity of a handful of the younger boys.  They used shaped notched boards then armed by circular innertube strips as ‘machine guns’ and extended with protruding sticks for ‘bayonets’ to reflect the innovations of World War I fighting. The Wilson playhouse served as the fort, and just digging and covering the trenches kept the boys occupied for hours on end.  One unauthorized activity involved wandering down by the Willamette River, and another the occasional shooting of a B-B gun across the road at the postured rump of another boy, the resulting sting softened by the trousers. No eyes were lost.

“One neighbor on the north side of Polk, Leland Spring, made potato chips to sell to the stores.  He permitted the neighborhood kids to watch the peeling, slicing and cooking process utilizing stainless steel machinery. The reward for kids helping to cull the less attractive or flawed chips from the final batch were enticing, in that those kids could have the culls for free.  His wife Maye then sealed the filled packs with a hot iron in the kitchen.  His final Golden Glow Potato Chips product so [sic] to the stores was of very high quality so that repeat business was assured.

“The annual Independence Day celebration usually featured a large fireworks display in front of the Walters house, [520 N. 5th] to the chagrin of the Putmans next door though exciting for the kids.  An autumnal ritual regularly occurred until the mid-1930s either in the flat area between the Swartley garage and the blackberry bushes toward 6th or in the Tyler ditch by Von Lehe’s. With the raking and gathering of the bounteous supply of maple leaves, the coals of the ensuing fire were used for the baking of potatoes or roasting of apples, or both.  At this latter location once in the late 1930s, two mischievous bicyclers, Chick and Steven, momentarily diverted Mrs. Von Lehe’s attention from the blazing maple leaves and each threw a handful of leftover firecrackers on the fire, followed by what the boys thought to be a hilarious reaction just short of cardiac arrest.

“What about the parents…? Did they ever get together?…the answer is essentially in the negative, except for tracking down temporarily missing kids or the occasional ‘borrowing’ of a staple to complete a recipe….In the final analysis, though, the kids themselves were the ‘glue’ of the neighborhood community. 

“Life in Corvallis itself and specifically in The Old Neighborhood was relatively unscathed between the two world wars, however, considering tough economic times a ‘given.’…our parents buffered us from most of the difficulties of day-to-day subsistence. By reinforcing healthy interpersonal relationships among children in nearly crime-free surroundings, this relatively untroubled and almost unique neighborhood community was remarkably secure throughout the Great Depression and played a major part in the formative years of each of the children living there.”

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