David T. Portman: Part I

Part I. Story was originally written by David Portman in 1979 and submitted by David’s daughter-in-law, Carol Portman.

I am David Portman, 80 years of age. I arrived in St. Louis about 1905. A year prior, I landed at Ellis Island as an immigrant from Russia, together with my family members, consisting of my mother, an older brother, a younger brother and a sister. My father had emigrated from Russia a few years earlier and had settled in Kansas City where he had found employment as a tailor with Lord & Taylor, a woman’s apparel shop. After we moved from Kansas City to St. Louis, another brother and five sisters were born to our parents. Our first home was a flat at 11th and Washington Street, what is now Cole Street. We lived there for a few years before moving to 11th and Carr Streets, which residence can best be described as a tenement, housing about 20 families. There were 10 families on the first floor and 10 on the second floor, with a common porch for entering and leaving. Each flat consisted of three rooms. There was a water line in the middle of the floor on the outside porch where the tenants from one faucet, obtained their drinking water, clothes-washing water, and bathing water: clothes and body washing were both accomplished in the same galvanized tin tub. We had to keep the faucet running in cold weather in order to avoid freezing. There were no electric lights (or electricity) so we used kerosene lamps which had to be fitted every day, buying the kerosene from a street peddler who supplied the entire neighborhood from his tank filled with coal oil. The glass of the lamp had to be cleaned daily so that we could receive the maximum amount of light; we had a special jug just for the oil. For heat, we bought coal from a peddler which was used in the range that was also utilized for cooking. These needs were purchased daily.

Neighborhood stores abounded. There was a baker who supplied bread, bagels, sweet rolls and on Friday, chala. Across the street from the baker was “Raskas” who sold milk, cheese and dairy goods. We bought milk from a large container, bringing along our own pots and pans to carry it home in. The milk had to be boiled at home since it was not pasteurized. During the boiling process, a skim formed on top of the kettle which was considered a great delicacy. Ice was not available in those years; we didn’t even have ‘ice boxes’ to keep food cold; this advance was yet to come, although it wasn’t too long before we had an ‘ice box’.

The “out-house” was outside in the center of the yard. There were 10 or 15 partitions which were used in true community style by all the tenants year long. We had no flush bowls or fancy soft tissues and not much privacy.

Across the street on the west side of 11th Street, was the Fire Department. On alarm, three horses were led from their stalls to the steam pumper which was always ready to respond to the alarm of the fire and which was always stocked with straw shavings and cord wood. This fuel was used to generate steam to pump water from the hydrant closest to the site of the fire. The three horses ran abreast at full speed to fire, clanging their fire bell, with the firemen hanging on to the side of the engine or on the back of the boiler at the rear of the pumper. A supply wagon loaded with more cord wood and coal would follow the engine as a back-up measure in case the fire was a really bad conflagration requiring extra fuel.

The streets at that time were paved with red granite blocks or compacted rock. For transportation, street cars ran from all parts of the city, leading to the downtown area. The fare was then five cents, including transfers!

About this time, the City of St. Louis started buying a whole block of property from 10th to 11th Streets and Carr to Biddle Streets. This area included a salt warehouse, homes, tenements, stables and houses. It was to become Columbus Square, which would be a recreation spot for the people who lived in that area. There were ball grounds, a concrete wading pool for youngsters, stands for musical concerts, craft rooms and teachers who helped in various crafts. It would serve the poor people in this community who consisted mostly of Italians and Jews and who lived in very close harmony. There was a “Shul” on 9th and Wash Streets, also another one on 11th and Biddle, and another at 14th and Wash Streets where the people went to worship.

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