A Grandma's Memories


by Dorrie's Mom, Ellen Dorothy Van Cleef


The Beginning

1871 - 1938


 The 21st Century came in with a bang.  TV showed the fireworks and highlights of every country around the world.  It was exciting and historic for all to see how small the world has become.  This was quite different from the way the 20th Century arrived, which was probably very quiet in comparison.


 Of course, I had not been born yet, but my great grandparents, John and Margaret Fagan, arrived from Europe in 1871 and were living in Fall River, Massachusetts. He and his wife had 10 children.  My grandfather, Thomas Patrick was their first child.  My   father, John Francis was born in 1895, the first born of my grandparents Thomas and Ellen (Nellie) Fagan.  Fall River was a large textile-manufacturing city with many huge mills all over the area.  People came over from Europe to work.  My great grandfather worked as a gasman in the Wampanoag Mill until he died in 1905. Most of the mills had Indian names.  At one time Fall River was where the Mohawk Indian tribes lived. 


Nearly everyone had electricity in their homes.  A few well-to-do people had cars and some had telephones.  The city did have trolleys that traveled all over the city for a nickel.  The men worked and the women stayed home to care for the children.


My father was the first of six children.  He had four brothers and one sister. Chris was the last baby born and his mother became very sick and died of spinal meningitis about three weeks after he was born.  Because of their mother’s death, the family separated and two of the boys went to live in New Jersey with their mother’s people and the others stayed in Fall River with other relatives.


When my father was a teenager, he went to work in the mills in the Flint area of Fall River where he was living.  That is where he met my mother who worked at the same mill for a very short time.  When he changed jobs to work for Firestone, he remembered that my mother lived in the South End of town.  He had no problem finding her because it was only two blocks away from the mill, and her father was the druggist in the local store.


My mother, Laura Marie Poirier was also one of six children.  She had two sisters and three brothers all named after royalty.  Louis, Alphonse, Charles, Amanda and Wilhelmina.  Her father, Damien Louis, and mother, Delphine, came to Fall River from Quebec, Canada.


My mother and father went together for a few years.  World War I began in 1916 and my father was drafted into the army even though he was in the Naval Reserve.  In 1917 they were married in St. Anne’s Church in Fall River. When the war ended in 1918, they lived on Bay Street near her folks in a small apartment where I was born, until a vacancy occurred in the 3-tenement house her parents owned.  My four brothers, John, Leo, Thomas and William were all born there.   



Ellen's parents, John and Laura 1917


Thomas, Margaret, John & Ellen



Ellen with parents 1920



Ellen as a baby


The house was big, high and lots of stairs.  It had a porch on all three floors that covered the back of the house and part of the side entrance.  It was a great place to play when it rained and to sit and read on the porch swing.  It had a fence across the entrance so that the babies could play with no danger.


Every summer we would go swimming down at the river.  Our neighbor owned a boathouse. The bottom part of the house was like a garage where the boat was kept with lots of storage space.  All the kids in the area would go to the boathouse.  The neighbor fixed an area where we could change into our swimsuits.  I guess we must have been well behaved.  I don’t recall any problems and they let us come every time the tide was high.  Near the shore were three huge rocks, which we called the 3-sisters.  The neighbor’s children had won all kinds of awards for distance swimming.  Every summer there would be a 6-mile Race from Sandy Beach to Bliffen Beach. The neighbor tried to teach me to swim, but I was a hopeless case.  When it was time to go home, Auntie, who lived in the second floor above my family, would call my cousin, Georgie.  We could hear her all the way down at the river and then, about l5 minutes later, she would see all the heads coming up the hill.  Summers were very enjoyable for me.

Laura and Ellen in 1920


 One vivid memory that comes to mind was to go “down shore” as we called it.  We had to cross the railroad tracks when we reached to bottom of the hill. There were several tracks so the train could go to a siding there.  We were very careful not to touch any tracks and we’d step over them.  We also listened for the trains and the trainmen knew about all the kids going to the shore in that area and they would blow the train whistle to warn us.  No one was ever hurt or careless in the many years we crossed those tracks.  We moved from Bay Street in 1936 and in 1938 Fall River had a hurricane and all the boathouses were demolished.


We did not have all the conveniences at home that we have today.  To keep food cold, we had an icebox and in the summertime the iceman would come with a big truck full of blocks of ice.    When my mother needed a block of ice, she would put a card in the window and the iceman would deliver it.  And every night, my father would have to empty the pain of melt water from under the box.  In the wintertime, he built a box that was placed outside the pantry window and it kept the food cold all winter.  Milk was not pasteurized yet and the cream would push up from the neck of the bottle.


My father was working for the electric company and before we moved, we had an electric refrigerator.  He worked a 12-hour shift daily, changing monthly from days to nights and vice versa.


We did have an electric washing machine, but dryers were not invented yet.   We finally got a radio and listen to the news and stories.   My father received a telephone for his birthday from Aunt Rosie, but no one I knew had a phone. We also went to Sandy Beach.  We could take the trolley on Bay Street, where we lived, right to the beach.  It had all the rides and also a roller coaster that everyone liked but me.  It made a nice outing and not too far from home.   The beach was located right on the Rhode Island and Massachusetts State Line.  Several years before we left Bay Street, they built huge gasoline tanks nearby and the beach was ruined but no one paid attention to complaints back then either.


In the wintertime, it used to snow a lot and we would go sledding on the side street by the house.  There were not too many cars then so we would really have a good time.  My mother was a good sport and would come out and slide with us.  She was one of the younger mothers and all the kids loved her.  We also went ice-skating on the millpond not far from home.  It could get real cold and you never seemed to be dressed warm enough even though we had ski pants and heavy jackets.  One thing about the pond, you could only skate on the far eastern part of the pond because near the building the water was warm.  I don’t imagine they let anyone skate on that pond today.  We didn’t have too many rules and regulations like they do now.  But we were careful and had fun and lived through it all.


One of the boys owned a bobsled.  It was a long board that seated about ten people and the leader would steer the sled down the road with one ice skate.  Some one would direct traffic at the bottom of the hill because there was no way of stopping the sled.  Now as I look back, it was very dangerous, but very exciting and lots of fun.


We had to make our own games to play. We played dodge ball, marbles, jump rope, jacks; jackknife. etc., and I did a lot of reading, especially when I could borrow a Nancy Drew book.  The porch swing was a great place to read and behind it was a honeysuckle bush that smelled so good all summer long.  Also, since I was the oldest and the only girl with four brothers, I did a lot of brother sitting.  Johnny was the oldest, and then came Leo, Tommy, and Billy.  Leo and  Tommy were no problem, but Billy could always find some mischief to get into.  He was a handful to watch.     You must remember that we did not have TV in those days. Before we got our own radio, my mother and I used to sit on the back stairs in the entryway and listen to the radio coming from my aunt’s tenement.  When we did finally get a radio, we could listen to all the news and found many stories and comedians that we enjoyed.

The four brothers

Shopping, except for groceries, was no problem.  We would just take the trolley to where the department stores were on Main Street. McWhirrs and Cherry & Webb were the main stores where clothing of any kind could be found.  My Uncle Al Poirier had his Optical Office in McWhirrs for many years.  McWhirrs was very old fashioned, but it had everything you could possible need.  Then there were F. W. Woolworth’s 5 and 10 cents store, and J.J. Newberry’s where I went to work when I was in High School.  It was fun just to walk around any of these stores.  They had just about anything you can imagine to buy for a nickel. 


Grocery shopping was something else.  We had a little red wagon just for grocery shopping.  My father would go about once a week with a long list to buy.  He would take the wagon and either Johnny or I. with him and pull us in the wagon about a half a mile to an A & P Grocery Store. (A forerunner to a super market.)  The Store was very narrow but quite deep.  My father would take his list out and tell the clerk each item and the clerk would get it.  Some times he had to climb up a ladder if the item was high up the wall.  Everything went into a box and in the wagon.  And with a candy treat, we would go home.


It was in 1930 that my father bought his first car.  It was a Model A Ford, stick shift, isinglass windows that you could roll down when it rained.  The tires were very skinny.  You could count on a rough ride, as the car had few springs. To get the engine started, you had to crank the engine from the outside in the front of the car.  It was always an adventure when you went for a ride.  After my father learned to drive, we used to go to Newport Second Beach, about 20 miles from home.  We would drive on the beach at low tide and we had to stay until it was low tide again to drive off the beach.  My mother cooked hot dogs for us on a Sterno stove.  With five kids, it wasn’t much fun for her, but my father really enjoyed the ocean and relaxation.  And we kids sure had fun playing in the surf of the Atlantic Ocean at Newport, RI.


When I was about 13, my mother’s mother, Mimi came to live with us.  At the time, I was sleeping on the couch in the dining room.  My folk had to replace the dining room set for a single bed for me. Mimi had her own bed to bring down from Auntie’s who lived on the second floor.  Mimi had a disagreement with Auntie and decided she didn’t want to live with her anymore.  Well, Mimi stayed about three months, decided my father was too strict, made peace with Auntie and moved back upstairs to her apartment.  That bed of mine is still around, it’ll be an antique if we keep it long enough.


For two summers, 1934 and 1935, we spent a month at Ocean Grove across the Taunton River.  We rented a tiny cottage with everything furnished.  It was great.  The water at high tide would come right under the house, which was built on pilings.  I was only a teenager and it was just wonderful to get away from the city and to go swimming every day.  We didn’t live near the river anymore like we did on Bay Street.   We met lots of other teenagers and had a wonderful time.


One summer, my grandfather, Tom Fagan, came to spend time with us.  He loved to paint and he painted dozens of quahog shells with pretty scenes that we gave away to everyone.  I wish we had kept just one as a memento.  Those were carefree days that the whole family thoroughly enjoyed.  In 1938, the hurricane arrived and destroyed the whole area, nothing left.  The railroad owned the land and after the hurricane, they would not allow anyone to build on the beach again.


Young Laura

Grandpa painting shells

updated: 20.11.2011