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The Way it Was: Tales from the contractor's boarding house in Akron

by John Straka Published: September 7, 2016 12:00 AM

Leonard and I graduated from high school together in 1935. He was not only my classmate, but also a friend and neighbor. We had a Shopping News route. Shopping News was delivered to every household, free, and it was full of advertising. That is all done now by mail.

Having a partner was highly recommended, so the delivery could be made in case the carrier was not able to do it. There were two deliveries a week, plus extras. Hardly a week went by without at least one or two extras and sometimes there were as many as five. The route paid 75 cents for the route owner, and if he had a partner, they split 40 cents for the owner and 35 cents for the helper.

Leonard wanted to be able to run a mile in under 5 minutes, a reasonable time for a high school student. Sometimes, after we finished our route, he would leave me and run home, which was a distance close to a mile. I don't think he ever got very close to 5 minutes. It really bugged him that his younger sister Rita could beat him in a foot race.

I liked Leonard's father. He was like an Uncle Joe to me. He was a Bohemian carpenter working for a contractor. You negotiated with a contractor, and he sent a crew of workers out to do the work. In those days, any job more than a few miles from home presented a problem. The men did not have automobiles, and going back and forth to work by bus was expensive and time consuming.

There was a time when the contractor won the contract for a really big job in or near Akron. It would last all summer, so he rented out a whole boarding house, and he and his men lived there for the length of the contract. The Irish lady who owned the place provided the men with meals, laundry and a comfy place to sleep. After a long day of work, there wasn't much need for entertainment or socializing. At mealtime the men would gather at a big dining room table and exchange ideas, stories and small talk.

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Much of that was in Bohemian, and the landlady could understand only some of it. She would hear them making comments about the food she served. It was always good, but they seemed to be wishing for something special. They wanted knedliky.

In English, a knedlik is a dumpling, a staple everyday food for Bohemians.

For a hard working husband to go two weeks without dumplings would not be good. The men did not know what to do. They didn't want to impose on their landlady, but they needed some subtle way to ask if she could serve dumplings once in a while. Eventually the lady had heard enough about their problem, and came right out and asked them if they would want her to serve their favorite food, dumplings.

She informed them that she could cook anything they would like-all she would need was a recipe. That wasn't as easy a solution as it might seem. Those old-time husbands knew next to nothing about cooking. Adding to the problem was the fact that hardly any two cooks used the same recipe, with different ingredients such as farina, bread, raw or cooked potatoes, etc. But that didn't change their appetite for knedliky.

They got together and assembled as best they could, a recipe. When the lady saw it, she said it would be no problem, and they would have knedliky for dinner on Saturday. That was almost the equivalent of declaring the day a national holiday. The boss gave them the afternoon off, and the men washed up, changed clothes, and some even wore neckties. They came to the dinner table early and hungry.

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As bowls of food came to the table one after the other, the men looked at what was in them, then sat back and waited. At last she brought out a larger bowl, put it in the center of the table, and stood back with a big smile on her face. They sat there, looking at her, and she stood there looking at them. There were no dumplings. What a disappointment! What happened?

The men neglected to include in the recipe a big note saying that after the dumplings were in the boiling water, they were not to be stirred. Dinner was late, but with their help, the men did get to enjoy their second batch of knedliky.

I remember Joe telling me about an on-the-job incident. Carpenters worked in an environment of wood shavings and sawdust and that was not a safe place to smoke. They worked with both hands, and did not have a hand for holding a cigar or cigarette, so many of them resorted to chewing tobacco.

One man was chewing all day, but not his own tobacco. He "borrowed" from his fellow workers. When he borrowed without asking, the men set a trap to catch him.

Every man, except one, hid his pouch of tobacco. The one man that did not, had his pouch out in the open, and the borrower helped himself as the men expected he would.

He had a mouthful of a mixture of tobacco and dried horse manure. From that day on, he bought his own.

Editor's note: Straka can be reached via email at wenceslas88plus@gmail.com.


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