Minnesota's Greatest Generation

Mary Joy Dean Breton: Wintertime Sanity Savers

Living in the country, without transportation, often made farm families feel isolated. Farm children learned to make their own fun, especially during the long, cold Minnesota winters. Mary Joy Breton remembered how she and her brothers passed the time in her story, "Wintertime Sanity Savers."

Story Excerpt

My father took whatever odd jobs he could line up. Each evening he would read to us by kerosene lamp.

One of our favorite books - a gift from a friend - was Rachel Field's Hitty - Her First Hundred Years . The original Hitty (short for Mehitable), a doll carved by an Irish peddler out of mountain ash wood in 1820, now sits in a doll museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Rachel Field's novel, a juvenile classic still popular today, is an autobiography from a doll's perspective relating a series of perilous adventures as the doll travels the world. For example, once she was picked up by a mother crow and dumped into a nest to feed the hungry baby crows. She sailed on a whaling vessel, survived a shipwreck, found herself included in an Indian snake charmer's act, lived with some indigenous tribes in the South Seas, attended a concert featuring Jenny Lind, the famous and gifted Swedish opera soprano. Written in 1929, the book had received the 1930 Newberry Medal.

Through the long winter evenings in the mid 1930s my parents devised many ways to keep us entertained and happy: playing board games such as checkers or caroms, tick-tack-toe, cat's cradle with string, card games like old maid or rummy. We also hooked a rug using narrow strips my mother cut from worn out woolen garments. We hooked them into an English country cottage and garden design sketched by my artist mother onto a burlap gunnysack. We played hide the spool or thimble to see who could find the object first. As well, we played guessing games. We cut snowflake designs from folded paper, and knit string on a spool. Often we perused seed catalogs and the Sears "Wish Book." It was all lots of fun.

Sometimes during the winter evenings my father would repair old clocks discarded by people for whom he had worked. While he fixed the clocks, he listened to classical music and opera. We had only a few phonograph records, but we played them over and over on our hand-crank, humpback model Victrola. One of my father's favorites was the boating song, "The Barcarolle," from Offenbach's opera, The Tales of Hoffman. And he prized his few records of the famous Italian opera tenor, Enrico Caruso (1873-1921).

Another favorite composition of his was Handel's "Largo." When a family friend gave us a used piano and paid for piano lessons for me, I worked hard to learn to play the "Largo" to please my father.

The challenge of building cigar box crystal sets captured my brothers' fancy and helped to keep them occupied during the long, cold winters. Crystal sets provided the first type of radios for broadcast reception. They became popular during the pioneering days of radio. They required no batteries or household electric current to operate. AM radio stations supplied the power. One needed headphones to pick up the faint but clear signals of AM stations. I remember watching my brothers, Bill and Sandy, peck away at their galena crystal detectors with a fine wire probe called a "cat's whisker." Eventually they would locate just the right facet on the crystal to pick up a radio band. Crystal sets remain the simplest form of AM (amplitude modulation) receiver yet devised.

Once we had electricity, a friend who repaired radios gave us a used one. This made winter evenings in subsequent years more fun with such programs as the "Lux Radio Theater", "Fibber McGee and Molly", "The Lone Ranger", and "Jack Armstrong" to entertain us, and H. V. Kaltenborn to comment on the news. My mother and I became fans for a time of one of the first daytime soap operas on radio - "Mary Marlin" with its "Clair de Lune" theme song.



Mary Joy Dean Breton, Wintertime Sanity Savers. Minnesota Historical Society: Share Your Story, 2006.