They're not as prevalent now as they used to be as in the late 50’s and early 60’s. Many have gone the same way as hula hoops and Queen For a Day but there was a time when all the churches held a big church festival, a Lawn Fete, to raise money to pay off the church mortgage, a new roof or outstanding bills. Ours had one, too, every July and it was a huge event held on the church grounds that encompassed practically a whole city block.
The men in the Holy Name Society ran the beer tent, sold raffle tickets for baskets of cheer, organized the bingo game, the ring toss and other games of chance. Another hired the Ferris wheel and rides like the Bullet and Swings as well as a merry-go-round for the younger kids. There was popcorn, cotton candy machine and candy apples, and on Sunday the Mother’s Club was in charge of the Ten Cent Supper.
We kids were there when the carnival people showed up to drive in the stakes and haul up the tents. We watched Koch's, our local brewery, roll kegs down the ramp into the beer tent. We picked out the teddy bears we wanted to win, looked for lost money and were there early Saturday morning as a steady parade of women from the Mother’s Club began making their way to the back of the church to the steps that led down to the church kitchen. Some arrived on foot in their slippers wearing sleeveless housedresses, their hair in pin curls, dishtowels slung across a shoulder, carrying cakes and kettles from their homes just across the street. Others came by car, emptying trunks filled with potatoes and celery and bags of groceries in preparation for the Ten Cent Supper.
If you think, as I did the first time I heard it, that you could buy a whole supper for ten cents, it wasn't that way at all. The way it worked was that each item purchased was priced at ten cents. One pig-in-a-blanket - ten cents. One scoop of mashed potatoes - ten cents. One dinner roll - ten cents. A square of pineapple upside down cake - ten cents. A cup of coffee was ten cents, too. It seems a pittance now but back then it was still something.
If the weather held, the supper was always held outside in the back of the church by the door that led down to the basement where a large kitchen accommodated dozens of women checking ovens, stirring pots and washing dishes. The food line was set out on tables alongside the sidewalk that eventually led to the basement door. That way, it wasn't far to go when toting heavy pots up the basement stairs. There was also a huge elm tree back there, one of a long line that ran along the length of the church. Its leafy branches spread out far enough to shade the food line and the tables on the long driveway where supper-goers sat down and ate.
Starting at about 4pm, garbed in Better Dresses, but sensibly covered with aprons fit for "company," and hair nicely curled, four or five of the mothers stood behind the food tables, ladling out mashed potatoes, gołąbki (the pig-in-a-blanket made of rice and meat wrapped in a cabbage leaf), meatballs or sausage, trying to strike a balance between generous and not overly so. No one wanted the word to circulate that the portions were "cheesy."
Faces flushed and hair drooping from their exertions, the steaming food and the hot July day, the women kept up a steady stream of chatter with the patrons. The physician and his wife always came, as did the local bookie, lawyers and other pillars of the church. Parishioners that could afford supper out also came. Men in short sleeved white shirts with bow ties, their wives in purple dresses and rhinestone earrings moved along the supper line choosing this or that for their plate. The women dishing out the food swatted away flies, quelled our antics with belligerent looks and kept on serving from the never-ending supply of turkey roasters and trays that kept emerging from the basement until the last of the stragglers had eaten and the supper hour officially ended. By that time the sun was setting, the sky casting shades of purple and blue across the sky. The Ferris wheel turned on its lights, as did the merry-go-round, its music reaching even behind the church where it remained dark, with only the street lights shining through the branches of the elms.
Under cover of dusk, the women slipped off their pumps, rubbed their feet and checked to see if they'd run their stockings. The women who worked in the basement wandered up to sit with them and catch some air. They'd fill cups of coffee or one of them went to the beer tent and brought back a round of highballs. Sitting at tables still littered with crumpled napkins and half empty birch beer glasses, they'd review the food failures and successes. Most who sat there in the evening dusk, watching us catch lightening bugs, were already probably thinking of the work that awaited them the next day, both at home, at their cleaning jobs or at the Van Raalte silk mill.
I didn't know all the women. Mostly, they were the mothers of the kids that attended the school. Of the women who sat there, many had been born in America, daughters of immigrants. The Depression had caught many of them on the brink of womanhood. I knew enough of their stories to know that instead of the giddiness of adolescence, many were working steadily by the time they were fourteen. And if they mourned lost opportunities, they never said. Unlike Queen for a Day, they didn't air their troubles and would have been ashamed to rate highest on the applause meter for worst situation ever.
I’ve often thought that the women were much like the trains that passed through the neighborhood, looking ahead, trying to stay on course, hoping that the tracks ahead were safe. Some husbands and fathers had left during the Depression to look for work and never came back. Some husbands were lost in the war that followed. Some came home but were never themselves again, either physically or mentally. Children had to be raised and bills had to be paid. These women waited in the dark for the bus to take them to their jobs while their elderly mother or mother-in-law got the kids off to school. They worked at the silk mill, streaming out by the hundreds at lunch time in their pink polka dot dresses or white blouses and skirts, looking as lovely as the hollyhocks that grew along the sides of the tracks. And yet, here they were, giving their Sunday and most likely the previous day, too, to cooking and baking to contribute to their church community. These women were my role models. They were the women that showed me how to handle what life dished out, who taught me what a woman can do. You worked hard. You prayed. You went on.
When the tables were cleared and the kitchen put to rights, the ladies freshened their lipstick, straightened the seam lines on their stockings and plunged into the bright lights of the festival, heading to the raffle booths where they spent their hard-earned dollars trying to win pillowcases that they had embroidered and the doilies they had crocheted.
Photos from St.Hedwig's Jubilee Book 1952
One of the biggest moments in my life was being able to sign for my very own library card. When I'm not reading, researching and writing I'm riding my bike, sewing or gardening. I love flea markets, folk art, and traveling to Poland.