Interview with David Meekison, Attorney at Law
Interviewed by Charlotte Wangrin, June 12, 2002
DM: I was born Dec. 12, 1913. At that time Sheffield Ave. was almost the western boundary of Napoleon. There were cornfields mostly from there to the cemetery. The golf course was pasture. The golf club was not established until probably 1927. They had sheep on the golf course originally to keep the grass down . Farmers called it 'cow pasture pool'. "Did they play golf on it?" "They did and every once in a while someone hit a ‘sheep ball'. (laughs) It was kind of rough those days.
Of course the Depression came around about 1929, starting with the fall of the stock market but it wasn't known so much here until 1931. In 1932 President Roosevelt was elected President of the United States. We had all the banks closed in 1933 and that's when the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation was started to give the people some faith in the banks. A lot of the people in Napoleon had gone to work for the automobile factories. This industry was badly hit. Men were out of work here in Napoleon and about 6 o'clock in the morning they'd go down to the Mayor's office hoping they could get a job working for a dollar a day, if you can imagine that. The men that didn't get hired would sit on the courthouse lawn, just to get out from under their wives' feet I suppose. Uh, Roosevelt established the Civilian Conservation Corps, known as the CCC of course and that was primarily for young boys, probably about 14 to 18 and the boys as I recall lived in the Fair buildings. It must have been very cold in the winter but they were getting three meals a day which was probably more than they could get anyplace else. Some of them liked the place so well that they married and lived here.
CW: Where did they come from?
DM: A lot of them came from down south, not so much from around here. Then all these men that were out of work… Roosevelt put the WPA, Works Progress Administration, into the government and those people did a lot in the way of cleaning creeks, logs, etc., and they built the shelter houses. We have two here in Napoleon.
CW: Was it Ritter?
DM: Ritter Park was part of it. Actually the State wanted to name that General Scott Park, but the town raised sort of a hubbub, and so at the town's request, primarily the Kiwanis Club etc. the State named it Ritter Park, uh…
CW: Where was the other one?
DM: Well the first one is right down here on the river and the second one is just about a mile and a half, two miles, west of that one.
Originally, Washington Street and others were all brick. In 1934, ‘35 or ‘36 the WPA dug the brick up, which had gotten rather rough, put a new sand base under it and re-laid the brick, all the way from Perry St. to Sheffield. That was quite an undertaking but they did an excellent job.
In all those years we had two main newspapers, which were weeklies, one was the Signal and the other was the Northwest. My office is where the original Northwest was. Later on Don Orwig moved the Northwest to Perry Street. At his death the Signal bought out the Northwest and became just one family newspaper.
CW: Is that when Nat Belnap was there?
DM: Nat Belnap and John Orwig were at the Signal. Things were closed here until about 1936 when they re-opened. We had just one bank here, the Community Bank. Frank Gilman was President of the bank at that time and a lot of people were very bitter about the closing of the banks and they wouldn't put any money into it. I don't think the attitude of the county has changed too much over the years. Now of course we have Campbell Soup which is the largest employer. The town and the county are strongly isolationist in my opinion. In 1930 to 1938 the county was primarily Democratic. Roosevelt made a speech condemning Italy from, uh, Ethiopia in 1937 and in 1938 the county went Republican and it has been Republican ever since. Frank Niffin was the last Democrat to be elected from the district and he was defeated in 1938.
CW: Do you know anything about this rumor that they were approached about locating Bowling Green University here?
DM: There was a question as to where it was to be placed, in Napoleon or Bowling Green. One of the things against us was the fact that we had 19 saloons, whereas Bowling Green had none. They had voted to go dry. They regarded not getting Bowling Green University as a great loss but personally I think we were lucky we didn't get it, as the town remained pretty much the same and we weren't invaded by a large university which upset all the valuations and would in effect take over the town. But that was the principal reason we didn't get the college in 1919, I think it was, or 1917.
When I was a child there were a lot of automobiles, but there were still a lot of dirt streets in the town, and in the winter time farmers would come in in the bobsled or sleigh. Seemed as though we had more snow in those days than we have now. There were hitching posts in the downtown; in fact there was one right in front of this building -- 123 West Washington Street. I can remember as a child taking a ride in a horse and buggy from our home with another boy. We were taking the horse out for some exercise from our home with another boy and the horse ran away. He ran all the way to downtown. Somebody else jumped in and held me in the wagon and finally they got the horse turned in right here in front of this office. The horse broke a leg and they had to shoot the horse. I didn't realize it right away. I climbed out and said, "Thanks for the ride."' They took a picture of it since it was right in front of the Northwest. I suppose it's still on the front page of the Northwest.
They had two watering troughs for horses.
CW: Where were they?
DM: One was right over here where Sterling’s is now. That ran fresh water all the time, and the other one was right in front of the jail. The horses would get water.
CW: What happened to them in winter?
DM: I don't really know, but I suppose they turned them off. They were frozen. Of course the old Miami and Erie Canal still had water in it. There were no canal boats those days, but it would get stagnant in the summer time. A couple of times they would blow it up in places where it was very narrow between the canal and the river. That was against the law.
CW: How did they do that?
DM: With dynamite.
CW: Put dynamite in the ground to get it?
DM: Uh huh. And there was a regular fight going on about what to do about the old canal. It wasn't used any more and finally 424 here in Napoleon downtown and out past Anthony Wayne Restaurant was the old canal bed. So they finally got it drained. (laughs)
CW: I remember Joe Wolff said that between here and Grand Rapids was a turn-around place and that building's still standing, and you can see the doors where the boats would unload from the canal.
DM: That's right. And there was another west of here where the shelter house is.
CW: Joe also said that when it was time to drain the canal for winter they'd have all the neighboring farmers stand around in a circle. As the water drained someone would stand in the center, grab a fish and throw it to the first farmer, the next to the second and so on around the circle.
DM: Could be. I never heard that. We'd have ice on the canal in the wintertime and I guess it would get thick enough they could have horses on it. And I guess out there by Anthony Wayne the farmers would take the ice out, cut it up and take it home to keep meat, potatoes, and so forth. They'd cover it with sawdust so they could keep vegetables and stuff over part of the winter.
CW: How long would that ice last?
DM: I don't know. It would last quite a while through the winter and into spring. I suppose it was gone by summertime. Ice cream was a delicacy, so I suppose we didn't have it in the summer. People out in the country didn't have iceboxes, and that's before we had refrigerators, electric refrigerators. Don't know whether they could drive into town and get it back for the threshers before it melted.
CW: I liked your story about the runaway horse when you were a boy. These stories are fascinating, especially for young people now because everything was so different. Do you remember anything else that happened?
DM: Oh, groceries were delivered by grocery wagons. The grocers would be busy in the morning getting calls on the telephone and they would load each order in a basket onto the wagon for delivery that day. There were six of those. I forgot who owned them but we had three stables right downtown when I was a child. One was where Hanna and Fisher law offices are now. That burned down. And another was across the street where the filling station on North Perry Street is, before you cross Front Street. So those were all gone. And we had two blacksmiths. One was Shorty Theobald who shoed horses and the other was Mad Peper.
CW: Did you play ball as a boy?
DM: Oh yes. (laughs) We all played baseball. We didn't have any Junior League or anything, but we all played baseball and football. After all there was no television and the only recreation we had was to go swimming.
CW: Where did you go swimming?
DM: Well you had Aubaus Beach, can't think of the street that went down there but it was a block east of Monroe Street, and, uh, you'd either pay ten cents for swimming or you'd buy a season ticket. And then you could go swimming without any clothes on up by the first culvert, or the second culvert on the north side of the river.
CW: So both these swimming places were in the river?
DM: That's right.
CW: Was the river pretty clean at that time?
DM: No, I don't think it was because they dumped raw sewage in at Defiance and raw sewage in at Napoleon at that time. They always found that it cleaned itself in 16 miles or something like that. (laughs) But, ah, so we swam the river. Of course they didn't have commercial fertilizer in those days. The thing about the river, that had a hard bottom and in the winter time the ground would freeze, making a rather hard bottom. But in the summer you'd have all that top soil running into the river. Some of the most fertile ground was right down there by the city of Toledo at that time.
CW: Washed all the way down there…
DM: Washed all the way down there.
CW: Did they fish in the river much?
DM: Well, they fished, but I think there's probably more fish in the river now than there was then. The state has dumped fish into the river. A lot of people fished but they caught primarily carp or sheepheads. One of the places where the retired men fished was at the old waterworks. They'd have long bamboo poles that they'd throw out in the river, and you could see them walking west on Haley Avenue, and a lot of them took their dinner and spent the day there.
CW: Did you go sledding in the winter?
DM: Yes, what, the golf course was, that was the gathering point. And they had sleds or skis or both, and at times you could find 200 children there. They'd ski down the hill or sled down; you'd have to pull it back up there, but that was their entertainment. I had a pony when I was about 10, 11 or 12 years old. He was called Snowball. He was all white except he had a black head and a white spot right on the front and that's how he got his name Snowball. He lived to be about 40 years old. I didn't sell him but gave it to people on the farm. I had it fixed so I could ride around in a snow boat.
CW: What was that like?
DM: Well it had runners on it and a little box.
CW: Sort of like a bobsled?
DM: Yeah, except it was a little smaller, for a pony, could take one or two people at the most. Then I also could hook up my sled and he'd pull me around. In fact, I got bitten one time by a dog. I was lying flat on it. The dog was owned by Chalmer Moose. He built that house where Moden had his dentist office. He had a big dog and it bit me on the leg.
CW: You wouldn't forget that!
CW: You'd go up and down the streets, I suppose, with your little pony.
DM: That's right. Then of course we had a saddle and a two-wheeled cart which we'd put on in the summertime. I had bronchitis once or twice. I had my two front teeth straightened. There were only two dentists in Toledo who did that. They put bands on them.
CW: Rubber bands?
DM: No, copper bands of some kind. They pulled some of my baby teeth too soon, so they grew in crooked. It cost $200, which was a lot of money in those days. One reason I never learned to chew gum. I could never chew salt water taffy, ‘cause it would get caught in my teeth.
We just had the one library at that time. A lot of kids would gather there in the child's room. I think Fred Tuttle built that for $7,500 if you can imagine that. Of course that was back then.
CW: That was the one on Woodlawn, I suppose?
CW: That's a nice sturdy building.
DM: Well it only cost $7,500. Of course Fred Tuttle was one of the main builders in those days. Sodas cost a dime in those days. Mark Schaff had a drug store across the street. He had ice cream parlors.
CW: That was what you did after school I suppose.
DM: (laughs) If you had a nickel. And the kids went to the picture show on Saturday afternoon. It cost a dime.
CW: When did they start having movie houses here?
DM: Oh they had them when I was 5 or 6 years old.
CW: Oh, they've had them a long time!
DM: The State Theater, which burned down, was built in 1926. They had an air conditioner. They had a big block of ice up there and fans blowing across it to cool it down some. And during the War, 1941 to ’45, gasoline was, uh, you had to have coupons in order to get gas. They ran three shows and that was the entertainment in those days. You didn't have radio and, uh…
CW: I remember when I was a girl we used to gather around radios. You know, not all people had radios, and so people from the whole neighborhood would gather around one when they broadcast important news in those days.
DM: Yeah, and it was amazing how few people had telephones.
CW: What was your first telephone like?
DM: It was on the wall. My mother and father always had telephones; they were one of the first ones. Long distance was rather expensive in those days.
CW: Did you have a system where you had to crank to get on line?
DM: No. That was in the country. They had operators here. The telephone office, well, we only had a town marshall and a town lineman, and their main job was to go around and turn the lights on, then turn 'em off about midnight or so.
CW: What lights? Inside?
DM: No. Those in the windows where they had displays. And the night operator of the telephone line--well there was this place above the five-and-ten-cent store on the alley, then there was the picture show on the other side of the alley, then there was a stairway to the telephone company and they had a red light, not a traffic light, and when they'd telephone in to the night watchman she could turn that light on and they'd know where the trouble was. They had no policeman. They had to monitor their own cars. Fred Freppel I think was the night watchman in those days and he was the town marshal a number of years.
CW: And Central usually knew where the doctor was?
DM: You bet. They were a fountain of information.
CW: What kind of lights did they have in the stores? Electric?
DM: Yes. My grandfather was very instrumental in getting the electric system and the waterworks. They said he couldn't stand the financing but he was able to go to Chicago and get the financing, the bonds. Then the people of the town said Dave Meekison just got the water in so he could have a bathroom in the house. (laughs) They had a terrible fire here. It was called the Dutch Row Fire. These were all row buildings here, most of it was downtown.
CW: Would you rather go to high school here in those times or now?
DM: Well, looking back I'm glad I went to high school and college in those days. They weren't as crowded. The school is really too big right now and the colleges, you're just a number, and I don't know how the kids get an education, they're so crowded in there, the dormitories. When I went to college I had my own room, my own bath. Since then they've doubled and tripled the enrollment.
CW: What college did you go to?
DM: Harvard. And we had a living room with a fireplace in it, three bedrooms and our own bath. After World War II they had six people living in the same thing. We all had our desks in the bedroom in those days and now they have so many students. It wasn't that 'sleepy' setup we had in those days. It's better in a way, the more education you can get the wealthier the country is, but it wasn't that sleepy setup that we had in those days. (laughs)
CW: More relaxed.
DM: More relaxed, that's right.
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