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Interview with Florence Parsons Isenburg

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Isenburg, Florence Parsons ; Wood, Wanda


Florence Parsons Isenburg talks about her family farm in Chenango Bridge, NY and the crops they raised, social activities, and her upbringing. She describes how things were done on the farm, including tasks and chores, methods of cleaning, cooking, and farming and what the neighborhood was like. She discusses how farming changed with the advents of installed water systems, bathrooms from outhouses, mail delivery, the first telephone, and electric service. She describes her education and notes that she attended the Cortland Normal School. She discusses her first teaching positions, how the local school system changed while she was there. She details how methods of teaching changed over the years, as well as, how lifestyle changed over time.




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Broome County Oral History Project


49:06 Minutes ; 10:58 Minutes


Broome County Oral History Project

Interview with: Mrs. Florence Parsons Isenburg

Interviewed by: Wanda Wood

Date of interview: 12 January 1978

Wanda: This is Wanda Wood: interviewer. And our respondent is Mrs. Florence Isenburg of 1216 Poppy Avenue, Warrington, Florida. The date is 12 January, 1978.
Florence: I have been asked to record some of my memories of my early life. I was born May 14, 1889, so I will soon be 89 years old.
Marge [Florence’s daughter]: Go.
Florence: —to a farm family living at Chenango Bridge near the Chenango River. Our family consisted of my father and mother Herbert and Emma Parsons and one sister. The house we lived in is still standing and occupied, but is very old as it was owned by my grandparents and perhaps built or partly built by my grandfather, as he was a carpenter. My father loved the farm, which he purchased from his mother when he married. He raised vegetables, including potatoes, sweet corn, tomatoes, onions, beans, melons, berries and had many fruit trees.This produce he carried to market with a team of horses and wagon to sell to the grocery stores, hotels and hucksters or street peddlers. On the farm we also raised pigs, cows, chickens and had two horses to do the farm work. With all of these vegetables and animals we had plenty of good, nourishing food. We had a grocery store but were not able to buy any baked goods or fresh fruits or vegetables, so we practically lived off the farm.
Mother made butter from the cows’ milk. After straining it in the milk cans, it was set in the cellar until the cream came to the top, when it was skimmed off into a large pail. After a few days it was poured into a wooden churn with a dasher by plunging the dasher up and down for a few minutes until the butter was separated from the sour milk, which was then called buttermilk. The butter was taken out in a wooden butter bowl, washed, salted and packed in jars. Most of it was sold, but we used all we needed. Mother worked very hard as she had no household appliances, no running water, no electricity. She made all of our clothes, washed using a rubbing board after heating the water on the stove. We had a refrigerator cooled by large blocks of ice which was stored in an ice house after being cut on the river in the winter and stored for summer use. The refrigerator didn't keep the food very cold, so most of it was carried to the cellar. But one advantage of having the ice was that we had homemade ice cream, which was delicious.
It was a good life. We did not miss the things we had never had. Everyone did his share of the work. Summers were very busy, but in winter we had time to sit around the fire, or visit with a neighbor, occasionally. Of course usually when we went to the neighbor's home in the evening they popped corn and brought big red apples from the cellar for our refreshments. Mother canned and pickled hundreds of jars of fruits and vegetables which were stored in the cellar for winter. Dad butchered a hog, making sausage and ham for our own use. There was always a ham for Sunday dinner or for company. People now are complaining about their utility bills which are high—are high. We had no utility bills as we had no electricity, no gas, no telephone, no garbage collection, no running water, no mail delivery. And yet, we did not feel depressed or poor. The church was the center of social life. We looked forward to Sunday when we could wear our one best dress and see all our friends. Occasionally there was a church supper when everyone took a covered dish and enjoyed a meal with friends. There were also simple church socials in the summertime. The principal event of summer was the Sunday School picnic, which was held at either Ross Park in Binghamton or at Lily Lake. At the park were animals in cages and a merry-go-round. At the lake were boats and we could go bathing but the water was so cold so the children all preferred to·the park—to go to the park. A bountiful dinner was supplied by all who attended.
The one-room rural school which I attended from ages 6-14 was on a lot adjoining our farm. My sister and I had only to walk across the garden to get to school. That had advantages and disadvantages. It was very easy to get there even in winter when the snow was deep, but in good weather Mother insisted that we come home for lunch, which in our house was called dinner, the main meal of the day. That took too much of our noon hour when we wanted to play with the other children. There were usually 15-25 pupils of all ages and grades from 1-8 with one teacher. This teacher was also the janitor, sweeping the floor, hanging the flag, getting the pail of water, building the fire unless she engaged one of the boys to do it. She received about $8.00 per week and usually boarded with one of the families. In earlier days the teachers boarded around, that is, stayed a week in a place with some of the parents where they paid no board. Then when they paid board it was $2.50 per week. We sometimes boarded—we sometimes boarded a teacher.
There were two doors at school—they were two doors—two doors from a hall—one for the boys, one for the girls. In the center of the room was a large pot-bellied stove, which burned wood in summer and coal in winter. There were four rows of double seats in graduated sizes. The teacher's desk faced these with a large recitation bench between. As the class recited they left their seats and sat on the recitation bench. While one class recited the others were supposed to be preparing their own lessons. With so many classes they were necessarily short and pupils had to do much of the work for themselves without the teacher's help. That had some advantages. Teachers were allowed to punish the disobedient ones—and usually did so to keep order. I well remember several of my teachers and know I had a feeling of fear and admiration for them. They believed in the adage “spare the rod and spoil the child,” so they didn't spoil the child.
It would seem that under these conditions education would have been poor, but we were obliged to memorize tables, to memorize spelling, to study maps and to learn many facts from our reading which are not required today. [Parents] were obliged to furnish the children's books, pencils, and papers. Some slate pencils were used to save paper. Every year the teacher was allowed to borrow 25 books from the state library for use during the year. It was an exciting day when the books arrived to see what we were getting to read. There was a bookcase in our room but very few books. Our blackboards were boards painted with black paint which soon wore off. After a time, one progressive trustee had some real blackboards installed. In the rear of the building—on either side—was a small outhouse or privy, as they were called. One for the girls, one for the boys, with a very high board fence between. In the hall, on a high shelf, was a water pail and dipper from which everyone drank—no fear of germs in those days!
I credit my 8th grade teacher in preparing me to take the Regents Exams which must be passed in order to enter High School. They came from the State and were uniform, used in all schools. I had to go to Chenango Forks on the train to take them, and as I had never been to a strange school, I was frightened. There were exams in all subjects which took two days, but I passed them all due to my very good teaching. Now I had finished our rural school and there was no high school nearby—what was I to do? The high school in Binghamton was the nearest, but we had no way of getting back and forth. We found that there was a train service going north to Whitney Point 15 miles away, so my parents decided to send me there. The train returning at 4 P.M. was a freight train with a small coach for passengers in the rear. It was slow, but it allowed us to do our homework. The D.L. & W. Railroad issued special monthly tickets to students. I well remember my first day at high school in Whitney Point. The building looked very large to me. The lower grades were on the first floor and high school on the second floor. I climbed the stairs and straight ahead of me was the large auditorium where pupils were sitting. Mother had made me a new dark blue dress and I had a dark blue hat. Everyone wore hats in those days. I did not notice the cloakroom at the left, so walked right into the room with my hat on my head. I was so embarrassed as the others laughed, so I have never forgotten about it. High school in those days did not provide so many subjects as they do today. There were no easy subjects like Shop, Bowling, Homemaking, etc. Everyone must take Math, English, History and a foreign language or two—later Geometry, Physics, Science, etc. I remember we had a small laboratory where we dissected several small animals. I did not enjoy that. On finishing a course we were obliged to pass a Regents Examination sent by the State, and after completing a certain number of subjects we were graduated. I was then 18 years old in 1907.
Someone asked me recently why I became a school teacher. I really had not thought about it before. I believe there were several factors which brought it about. My grandmother Parsons had nine children, and sometime during their life, eight of them taught school. I also had several cousins who taught. As I have said our home was the old farmhouse where the nine Parsons children were brought up. In the upper hall and attic were shelves of books they had used and left. I used to enjoy looking at them and reading them. I think these things influenced me to become a teacher, besides I always have loved school. There were several Normal schools in New York State. They are now 4 year colleges. Cortland was the nearest to us and I had some cousins living there.Today it is an easy drive on a good road of about 40 miles. In 1907 it was a long journey on a train. My parents bought me a trunk, which I still have to pack my clothes, as I didn't expect to come home often. I got a room near the college building and took my meals at a home nearby with about 20 other girls. Our studies consisted in methods of teaching, psychology, and review of all other grade subjects. Later we had observed model teaching using students from the grades who attended school here. During one last term we did the teaching under supervision of the Normal teachers. This was the most difficult, as we knew we were being criticized. I joined the sorority Clionian. We had a meeting room in the building and had many good times, however I was very homesick much of the time I was here. Nowadays a student could drive home every week if they desired.
My first teaching experience was in a small rural school similar to, in many ways, to the one I had attended as a child. It was on Upper Front Street, then called Christian Street. I had 12 or 15 pupils in several grades and received $10 per week and did the janitor work. As it was about 2 ½ miles from home, I often drove a horse and buggy in summer or a horse and sleigh in winter. If Dad needed the horse I walked. Sometimes the snow was about to my knees, so I arrived very wet and had to build a fire in the pot-bellied stove before I could get dry. As the children arrived they were also cold and wet, so they sat or stood around the stove much of the forenoon. I can still smell the wet mittens and scarves as they were drying. We opened the school in the morning by a Bible reading and repeating the Lord’s Prayer. Books were hard to come by, but many times some second-hand ones were to be found by an older child who had used them. By using the blackboard it was possible to start work in Arithmetic and Spelling, supplemented by books I had selected. Most parents were willing to provide supplies for their children. The teaching was largely individual as the children were all at different levels of learning. A few subjects could be taught to the whole group at one time, such as Writing, Health and Physiology. I do not remember having any problems with the children as to discipline. In those days children respected their teachers and looked up to them. What the teacher said was right. How different it is today! At noon we used to go out and ride downhill—there was a hill nearby—and then in the evening, after school was out, we used to go skating. That was great fun.
Most of my 20 years of teaching was done in my home district where I had attended school. For several years I taught in the same small one-room building until the population grew—until there were about 40 pupils, just too many for one teacher. A new building was erected and two teachers hired. The salary had greatly advanced from $10.00 per week to $40.00. I taught grades 5 to 8 in the new school. It seemed that this would be sufficient for many years, but in a short time the town had grown so that a larger school was necessary and also a high school.
I will tell you a little more about our neighborhood. We had a few near neighbors whom we saw often in the evening, or if anyone was sick. We seldom called a doctor, but neighbors came to help and always brought food. There was a doctor who made house calls, so in that way we were more fortunate than people are today. Midwives delivered the babies, doctors were not needed. My grandmother delivered dozens of them.The threshers came once a year to thresh the grain and we always had husking bees in the evening which were lots of fun. Mother always had a big dinner for the husk—or for the threshers. At the end of the bridge—farther end of the bridge on the right was a blacksmith shop where Dad took the horses to be shod. I used to go along and watch. On the left was the tollhouse where the man lived who collected the toll from the Chenango Canal, which ran along close to the river. I do not remember when the canal was being used but in winter it froze and made a wonderful skating pond.
Hiram Johnson had a small grocery store near the depot and railroad. Near the door on the left were about 30 boxes for mail. That was our post office. He also sold stamps. We had no daily paper, but a weekly Binghamton Republican came once a week. Dad liked to go to the store in the evening to sit around the stove and hear the news. His excuse was to go for the mail.
Nearly every home had a hitching post and horse block in front at the roadside. Callers usually came with a horse and wagon, so the hitching post was necessary. The horse block was a large stone or else a lot of little stones piled up. It was necessary because the wagons were much higher from the ground than our cars are today. Women wore long skirts so it was quite difficult to get into them. By standing on the horse block and taking a step that extended from the wagon, they could climb into the wagon seat.
Our kitchen was the most important room of the house. It was a large room with a hard pine floor which Mother cleaned and oiled to keep it shiny. A black iron cook stove kept us warm and cooked and baked much delicious food. There was a reservoir attached to one side which we kept filled with—to provide the hot water. It was all the hot water we had except for the tea kettle, because we had no bathroom.
A large extension table had many uses. We ate on it often, although Mother liked to set the table in the dining room. The table also provided a place for us to study, to read, and to sort beans in the winter. Dad raised shell-beans, but before he could sell them they had to be looked over to remove any poor ones and shells. The table was lighted by a kerosene lamp. Often in the evening we had to help Mother sew carpet rags. The only carpets we had were woven on looms—made of rags. They were woven in strips about one yard wide, and sewed. Aunt Celia had one room where she had a large loom. She wove carpets for us and for many other people. At the end of the room was a black iron sink and pump—which—the pump raised water from a cistern. Our drinking water came from a well and bucket in the backyard. Behind the stove was a shelf which held a row of kerosene lamps, which had to be cleaned and filled frequently. On the shelf was a very old clock with wooden works and two heavy iron weights. Father wound it every night as he went to bed.
Bedrooms were very pleasant in summer but very cold in winter. Our house was heated by two stoves—cook stove in the kitchen and a parlor stove in the parlor. As we had no bathroom, bedrooms had a wash bowl and pitcher and a washstand which in the bottom had a little door which held the chamber pot. We had to be sure no water was left in the pitcher in winter as it would freeze. Some of the older beds were called cord beds—instead of springs, a heavy rope was woven across between the side rails to hold up the mattress. The mattress—the mattress was a pad and then ticking filled with corn husks or dried straw and on top of that a feather bed—filled—a bed filled with feathers. Sheets were not bought ready-made—as they are today. Some were made of muslin, often unbleached muslin which was a yard wide, so the sheet always had a seam down the middle. When they began to wear thin women turned the sheet sewing the outside edges together so that they would last longer. Other sheets were made of linen. Linen is made from flax—stems of the flax plant. This was another task that colonial women had to do. There was a small flax wheel and a larger spinning wheel which made the fibers into threads. The thread was then woven on a loom to make linen cloth. Sheets and pillow cases, tablecloths and napkins were made of the linen cloth. The sheets also had a seam down through the middle. I think sometimes the linen was used for fine underwear, such as for a bridal outfit. Sheet-blankets made out of cotton or wool were also used in winter with many bed quilts. Quilting bees were another social activity. When a quilt top was finished the neighbor women were invited in to help put it on the quilting frame and to quilt it with many fine stitches. There are many quilt patterns. Some of the most popular were Wedding Ring, Double Irish Chain, Dresden Plate, Necktie, and Log Cabin. A bedspread or coverlet called a counterpane was woven on a loom using white cotton warp and navy blue, or occasionally red wool for the woof. There were many beautiful patterns. They were reversible and often had the weaver's initials woven in the corner. They also were seamed through the center.
People dressed differently in those days. I have already stated that women's skirts were long. They were also full, covering two petticoats. In winter everyone wore long underwear, that is the long legs and long sleeves of heavy knitted cotton. In summer the underwear still covered much of the body, but was of a lighter weight. Women wore corsets laced in the back and it was the style to lace them tight to have a small waistline. Over these was worn a corset cover, a garment without sleeves and low neck to cover the corset. Bras and shorts had not been invented. Some men working outside in the cold weather wore felt boots extending to the knees and over them a rubber arctic with buckles. My father wore rubber boots with sock slippers inside. Blue jeans did not have the popularity they have today. They were worn by farm laborers and those doing menial jobs. It was unheard of for a girl to wear pants of any kind. Children’s clothing was somewhat like their parents’. Girls’ dresses were well below the knees. I had one best dress for winter made of wool, and one summer best dress for Sunday. The winter dress just before—was made just before Christmas and the summer dress for Children's Day, which was celebrated with a program in our church on the second Sunday of June. Of course we had several other dresses for school but not too many. We were—we wore them until they were—we grew out of them or they were worn out. Bathing suits have made the greatest change of all. How shocked my mother would be to see a present day, bather! Ladies' bathing suits were bloomers to the knees, often with black stockings and sneakers below. The blouse often had a sailor collar. They were made of a material called brilliantine. Oh yes, we also wore a cap to cover our hair. Children wore an old dress and a pair of underpants. Men's shorts—men’s suits were knitted cotton which came to the knees and covered most of the body. We really went “bathing” instead of “swimming,” as it was difficult to swim with so many clothes. The first sewing machine we had was a Howe, propelled by a pedal, but much sewing was done by hand. Ladies would not think of making bed quilts on a machine. They were all sewed by hand and quilted.
Only one home in our town had a bathroom. It was very different from today's bath—baths. The tub was zinc—in a wooden case like a coffin. The water to flush the tub—the toilet—was in a wooden box near the ceiling with a chain extending from it, which was pulled to release the water.
Marge: I don't know what happened here, Wanda, but there's more, so just let it continue to play.
Florence: In summer quite often we had the company of bees and in winter our stay was short because of the cold. Father's farm lantern made a cheery light if necessary to make an evening call. These were called backhouses or privies, and on Hallowe'en it often happened that the backhouse was overturned by celebrators. Speaking of baths—the rest of us who had no baths—bathrooms, used the wash bowl and pitcher in our bedroom in summer, but in winter we filled a washtub half full of water and bathed in front of the kitchen stove on Saturday night.
Father planned an ambitious project to have running water in our house. Our farm extended on the north up a very steep hill where here was a natural spring of water. In order to pipe the water down a ditch had to be dug through a very stony hard soil. It also had to cross over a, quite a long—a big hill which we called the knoll. To avoid freezing, this ditch must be at least 4 or 5 feet deep. Today it would be done by machinery, but at that time it had to be dug with pick and shovel, and with lots of muscle and perseverance. A small lead pipe was placed in the ditch and although the pressure was weak—we at last had cold running water in our kitchen sink. It was several years after that before we had a bathroom.
As population increased, telephone and mail service became necessary. A stock company was formed called the Chenango Valley Company, in which interested people bought stock and a line was constructed with a central office in the little village—at first in a private home. By calling through central we were able to talk to Binghamton. Eventually a rural mail delivery—R.F.D. #4—was inaugurated, but we still, even today, have a post office in Chenango Bridge. Electricity came later, when I was about 25 years old, as I remember giving up my kerosene lamps and having electric lights put in the house. We finally had radio. It was an Atwater-Kent, the first one we had. The program I remember best was Amos and Andy.
Here is a little more about my school-teaching days. You may be sure with 15 or 25 pupils in about 5 or 6 grades, the teacher was very busy and classes had to be short—about 15 minutes each. About the time of World War II some department in education hierarchy decided that Physical Training should be taught in all the schools. In order to teach it, the teachers were obliged to take lessons. So we had several classes where we learned to give the commands for daily drills similar to those given to the soldiers. These we were obliged to do at least twice a day. This was required for several years and then discontinued. I am sure the children got all the exercise that they needed at recess and noon hours. Most of them had a long walk home—there were no school buses in those days.
There have been many changes in schools since my school days of 80 years ago, not in just the buildings, but in the many other ways. There's no doubt that the present buildings are much finer, more convenient, conducive to the health and welfare of the children. Also there is no comparison in the cost of the two buildings, and in the cost of their upkeep. A teacher today may receive in one day what a teacher in an early rural school received in a month. But are the results in proportion to the cost? Are children today so much better educated? I grant that young people are now better informed than in early days, but I attribute that partly to the various ways that news is disseminated, such as radio, television, magazines, newspapers and not entirely to their formal education. Perhaps I'm not qualified to judge the education of today as I have not taught in nearly thirty years, but I have grandchildren who have gone through the grade schools, through high school and two have been to college, so I have had some contact with present day schools in Florida. I know schools differ from state to state, so perhaps what I say about our Florida schools may not apply in Broome County. However I think in a general way all states have their problems in education.
There has been a universal complaint that high school students and even some college students cannot read as they should. Recently all students here about to graduate from high school, had to take a literacy test in order to receive a diploma. What is the cause or causes of this deficiency? It cannot be laid to the teachers entirely, as it is so widespread. I may be wrong, but I think I can see at least partly the causes. About twenty or twenty-five years ago the word method of teaching reading in the primary grades, was introduced. A child was taught word for word by repetition of that word in the stories he read. He was helpless to learn new words until they appeared in his reading lessons. Formerly, children were taught phonics, learning the sounds of the letters so that when he encountered a new word, he had the ability to sound it out and pronounce it. The textbooks used were written to teach the word method, so unless the teacher taught it on her own, they did not learn phonics. Many teachers did use the sound method, and that—pupils became better readers. I saw examples of this in my own grandchildren. At last the phonics method is being taught in many schools, so hopefully there will be an improvement in the reading ability of pupils.
As I see it, another cause of poor readers is the fact that with the popularity of TV children do not read for themselves. Many children haven't read such classics as Black Beauty, Gulliver’s Travels, Prince and the Pauper, Alice in Wonderland and so forth. It is easier to watch a TV program than to exert oneself to read a book. TV has its place and children learn much from it if they watch the right programs, but not for several hours every day to the exclusion of exercise and reading. I discussed the school situation with one of the teachers. She informed me that one of the problems was the lack of interest of the parents. Parents, in many cases, consider that they have no obligation to see that the children are doing well in school or doing their homework or if they have—that they do not have any duty to help the teacher. Instead of taking an interest in the homework, they prefer to watch television. Many children need the encouragement of the parents to do their best work.
As a teacher is not allowed to use any physical means of discipline, and pupils know this, the discipline becomes a problem. In olden days we were allowed and expected to give a child a sharp slap with our hand or ruler, if they deserved it. Now a teacher could be sued or brought to court if she did such a thing. Consequently, like the doctor, she needs to carry insurance to protect herself. And very often a child reports an injury was—caused by the teacher when she had no part in it. One example: a boy was angry with his teacher for correcting him. He had some scratches on his arm, which he told his mother was done by the teacher. After a conference by those involved in the principal's office, the boy finally confessed that the cat had scratched him. In olden days many parents told their children, “If you get a whipping at school, you’ll get another at home.” That was going too far the other way, but it was a help to the teacher. Some teachers sent their children out in the backyard  to get a switch off from a bush out there to bring in to whip themselves. They tried real hard to find a real small switch.
The subject of English also includes grammar. Most teachers require the reading of books and the writing of book reports, but some neglect the teaching of grammar, which I consider very important. How can a person use good English if they do not know the parts of speech, and the declensions, parsing and diagramming of sentences? This may not be true of all high schools, but ours here have had what I consider too many fancy specialized courses, which take time that should be devoted to something more important. Under the name of Physical Education they take pupils on school buses to bowling alleys, golf courses, roller-skate rinks, swimming pools for exercise. So much time is consumed in going and returning that very little time is left for the activity. Also parents are required to pay for their children's use of the equipment. If a child does not have the money for these things, he gets a failing mark on Physical Ed. Homemaking and Woodworking are two other easy courses which are good in their place, if they do not detract from the basic academic subjects. Girls are required to take the Homemaking, but boys are not.
A few years ago a subject called New Math, complete with new textbooks, was introduced in the schools. I have examined the books and have talked with interested people about the subject, but I am not able to intelligently criticize it. I think I understand the underlying principle. It is to give pupils the real meaning of a number. Five is not just a symbol, but means five articles, and “five times five equals twenty-five” is not just an equation, but means five groups with five articles in each group. In other words, to understand what numbers stand for, some of the methods to prove it are time-consuming. So after demonstrating the real meaning of a number, I think tables should be memorized. Ah—now some teachers are combining the old methods with the new. I understand that the New Math carries over into Algebra and Geometry and perhaps makes the three subjects—
I well remember the first automobile I saw. One of the progressive farmers, Eugene Chamberlain, bought it. It looked much like a farm wagon on wheels. It was very high up—it even had a whip-socket. The wheels were hard—no rubber tires—and it traveled rather slowly. My sister and I ran along beside it and had no trouble keeping up with it. It was several years before my father felt that he could afford a car, which was then a Ford. As he has always driven horses, so when he tried to drive the car, he was looking both sides of him to see what was going on along the roadside and when he wanted to stop he said, “Whoa, whoa back," just as if he was talking to the horses.
Marge: And then he went in the river! [laughter]. All right, go ahead.
Florence: Only one home in our town had a bathroom. It was very different from today's bath. The tub was zinc in a case like a coffin. Water to flush the toilet was in a wooden box near the ceiling with a chain extending from it, which was pulled to release the water. The lavatory was of real marble. The rest of us had to visit a little building at the rear of our houses. These contained three holes, one smaller than the others for small children. Instead of toilet paper, which had not been made yet, we used Sears-Roebuck catalogs. That made a trip interesting, as there was always something to look at in the catalog. In summer quite often we had the company of bees and in winter our stay was short because of the cold. Father’s farm lantern made a cheery light if necessary to make an evening call. These little buildings were called backhouses or privies. Now on Hallowe’en it often happened that the backhouse was overturned by celebrators.
Husking bees was another chance for neighbors to get together for a social evening. Corn had to be husked so it could be fed to the chickens. On a warm evening young and old gathered at one of the neighbors' barns, and as they visited and told stories they husked the corn. If a man found a red ear he could kiss any girl he pleased. Usually the hostess served some refreshments, perhaps homemade doughnuts and cider. As I said before the husks were dried and used to fill the bed-ticks. After the corn was husked, it had to be shelled and the corn cobs made wonderful kindling to start the fires in the kitchen stoves. So nothing was wasted.
Bands of gypsies traveled around the country in summer and I remember once when they came to our town. In those days they had covered wagons, gaily colored and drawn by fine-looking horses. Now they travel with cars. They stopped and set up camp on a river flat where there were no houses nearby, but the neighbors were alarmed, fearing what they might do. So the man who owned the property was asked to have them moved on. They unharnessed the horses, started a fire to cook a meal, and several women in gay dresses, lots of beads and long braids, with very dark skins, ah—came knocking at doors asking to tell our fortunes. If they did not move that—as they did not move that night, everyone locked doors and shut up the chicken coops, as they had a reputation of stealing anything they could find. They left the next day. Gypsies originally wandered around—were wandering tribes in Europe, but now they have come to this country and there are quite a few tribes of them around.
Dad had a sleigh with a long box. Once he took our school for a sleigh ride. We had a string of bells on the horses. He covered the floor with a—of the sleigh with straw to sit on. Some of the boys got out and threw snowballs at the ones in the sleigh.
Riding downhill on our sleds was great fun, and also skating. Skates in those days were fastened on by straps around the toes and ankles. They did not stay on very well. Later we had skates fastened to our shoe—our shoe soles, but most people couldn't afford them. Skating was my favorite sport. When the young couples had sleigh—sleigh rides they usually went to a hall for an oyster stew supper and then square-danced and played such games—kissing games. Those days are gone forever, for even if there were any horses and sleighs, the snowplows have cleared the roads of snow.
Of all the seasons, perhaps winter was the one most enjoyed by the young people. The first snowflakes were hailed with delight. It meant sliding downhill, skating on the ponds, sleigh rides, parties, and best of all—Christmas. Preparations for Christmas were made well in advance as there was little money to spend and even if people were able to go to the stores there was not much—so much—in—ah—many inviting things to buy as there are today. At school, with the teacher's help and suggestions, pupils made gifts for their parents such as pot-holders, needle books, pen-wipers and so forth. Also soon after December first the school began preparation for a Christmas program to be given on the Friday before Christmas when school was out for vacation. First they began practicing Christmas carols and songs of which “Jingle Bells” was perhaps the favorite. The teacher was busy hunting up Christmas poems and plays as every one must have a part, either to speak a piece or sing. Then for busy work on cold stormy days, colored paper was cut in strips and pasted together to make paper chains for decorations. Stars were pasted on the windows and snow scenes were drawn on the blackboards. On the last day of school, everyone cleaned his desk to be ready for the guests to arrive. The mothers came to hear the program. Small gifts, mostly from the ten-cent store, were exchanged. Teachers received handkerchiefs, writing paper and pretty—maybe a pretty dish or some homemade article or candy. She gave each child a gift—perhaps something they could use in school, like a box of colored crayons or a pad. Everyone went home happy and the teacher was relieved that it was over. Christmas is celebrated today in the schools, but in a very different way. One thing is—
[TAPE 2]
Marge: On. The main thing that's lacking—in the schools.
Florence: The meaning of Christmas or any religious reference, is forbidden by law. If children do not go to Sunday School, many of them never know what Christmas is all about. Our town had one church, the Methodist, and there was always a Christmas tree and program—some evening just before Christmas. The Sunday School teachers were responsible for preparing the program, so the children were assigned parts and met after school and on Saturday to practice. Parents brought presents for their children so that, so when Santa arrived he could call each child's name. The tree had no electric lights, but was decorated with the packages which the parents had brought and strings of popcorn and cranberries. Santa always presented each child with a bag containing an orange and some ribbon candy. Oranges were quite a treat as we seldom had any in winter. The best part of Christmas was that spent at home or with our families. I was never taught to believe in Santa Claus, but my sister and I hung our stockings and always found something in them in the morning. Dad went up on our hill where there were many trees and brought us a lovely hemlock which we decorated with paper chains, popcorn and hung all small packages on the branches. Some people used candles, but Mother thought they were too dangerous. As we had two families of relatives, aunts and uncles and children living nearby, we all got together at one of the houses for a big Christmas dinner. After the dinner, gifts were distributed. Gifts in those days were different than today. They didn't cost so much and they were a surprise. Nowadays everyone tells what he or she wants and expects to get, even if it is too expensive. I liked the old gifts much better. One Christmas I received a Bible and on another a gold ring. Mother always made us doll clothes for our dolls, and they were beautifully made of scraps of material and lace left from her sewing.
Marge: One thing that Mom didn't bother writing about that—or talk about the church is that—oh—the church was a very important part of our lives. Oh—you didn't just graduate from one department to the next just 'cause you got that age. Ah—my group, when I was comin' up through, we had to go to Viola Noye's and we had to learn the Beatitudes and the books of the Bible and a lot of other memory work and then we had to go during the eleven o'clock service and recite all this in order to get promoted to the next department. And a—I think this is something that children nowadays aren't expected to do in school or Sunday School and that is to do memory work. And that—is a real shame because it doesn't prepare their mind to remember things.
Florence: When I was a child, a lady by the name of Ada Hall had all the young people come to the church, on Sunday afternoon, where she taught us many, many facts about the Bible and we memorized many things in the Bible. These things have always stood by me and been a great help to me in teaching Sunday School class, which I have done for many, many years.

I have tried to recall how our life many years ago differed from our life today. It was a good life and had some advantages over life today. I shouldn't have repeated there. People tried to live within their means. They rarely bought things they did not have the money to pay for. There was not so much worry about debts as there is today. Installment buying was unheard of. Old people were cared for in their ho—children's homes. There were no nursing homes. Very poor people had to go to the poorhouse, which was supported by taxes. Neighbors were more neighborly. If anyone was sick they did not go to the hospital, but were cared for in the home. Doctors made house calls. There is no comparison in the cost of living today and that of eighty years ago, and although wages are much higher today, expenses have increased proportionately. Of course people today buy things that in olden days would not be considered, even if they were available. Luxuries have become necessities. I have criticized the schools and some phases of education, but school buildings of today are beautiful, teachers are well-educated, much money is spent on the educational system. Children are required to attend school. Much of the material used is furnished, so, on the whole, I think we can be proud of our school systems.
One thing I didn't mention about schools was the writing. As far as I know most teachers do not have any formal penmanship classes. Some children write well, but many do not. Our teachers were obliged to take lessons with Palmer Method writing and have regular penmanship classes in school every day. Palmer Method involves using the muscles of the arm while holding the pen or pencil with the fingers, instead of using the fingers to guide the pencil.
On my father's farm is a peat bog which I believe is the only one in Broome County. Peat represents the first stage in the development of coal, from vegetable matter under pressure. It consists of a brown substance, fibrous and woody, saturated with moisture and can be cut easily. My father cut it out in square blocks, dried them on a rack and ground them up. He then sold the peat for horse bedding. In those days there were many horses in Binghamton and peat moss made a desirable bedding material. Today people buy it as a mulch around shrubbery. Where the peat had been cut out, a little pond formed where we used to skate in the winter. Occasionally the peat area would accidentally get on fire. It burned with an acrid smoke that was very annoying to everybody living nearby. It burned very deep and we had no way of quenching the fire. Finally it burned itself out.
Women's apparel has changed greatly. Just imagine a well-dressed woman walking to church on Sunday morning. She has on a hat or bonnet and shawl or cape for a wrap, a long dress, high-bottomed shoes and black cotton stockings. Her hands were covered with hand-knitted mittens or gloves. Little girls were a small edition of their mothers. Mother's hair was long and twisted in a knot on her head, while the child's was in braids down her back—no bobs or short hair in those days.
There are many other things I could tell you about the good old days, but I think I've done pretty well to remember as much as I have, so I think we'll call this finished.

Date of Interview



Wood, Wanda


Isenburg, Florence Parsons


49:06 Minutes ; 10:58 Minutes

Date of Digitization



Broome County Oral History Project

Subject LCSH

Isenburg, Florence Parsons -- Interviews; Broome County (N.Y.) -- History; Chenango Bridge (N.Y.); Farms; Teachers -- Interviews; Cortland (N.Y.) Normal School

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The Broome County Oral History Project was conceived and administered by the Senior Services Unit of the Office for the Aging. Funding for this project was provided by the Broome County Office of Employment and Training (C.E.T.A.), with additional funding from the Senior Service Unit of the National Council on Aging and Broome… More

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“Interview with Florence Parsons Isenburg,” Digital Collections, accessed December 6, 2023,