DURING THE DEPRESSION, how did a single mom with two kids support herself in a rural Adirondack community? From the distance of over seventy years, Gloria Stubing Rist recalls her mother as an entrepreneur who built a shack of salvaged lumber and created the Top of the Hill dance hall. “Mim” planned to sell coffee, cigarettes, and home brew to men working on the state road to Schroon Lake from Ticonderoga. But the start of the roadwork was delayed.
Mim didn’t say anything to us kids, but young as I was, I realized we were in big trouble. There we were, a woman and two little kids, no money, no food, nobody to help, and winter was coming. Mim never once considered going to Ti to sign up for “Relief.” What a horrible thing that would have been—pride would not allow it. The New Deal was never going to get us!
Rist’s self-published memoir, Up on a Hill and Thereabouts, is rough around the edges, but it’s a jewel of a book. Readers used to the comforts of modern life may be taken aback by her tales of hardship. In ninety-three very short chapters, she brings back to life a mountain community that existed west of Ticonderoga in the 1930s. A hermit uncle lives out on Bear Pond with pet raccoons. Alcoholic bums gather in the back field and have a feast of purloined food culminating in slugs of “canned heat”— fuel alcohol heated up to liquid and strained through a handkerchief. Gloria often goes hungry, and her friends die of concussion, leukemia, meningitis, tuberculosis, and appendicitis. Eddie, a man with a short leg, runs an emporium where the merchandise consists of puffballs, dandelion wine, worms for fishing, ginseng, and wild horseradish, a root so strong it could “sear your teeth right off.” Rist says everyone ate it with their boiled potatoes.
The black-and-white photos in the book are grainy at best, and many of them are little more than gray smudges. Still, it’s possible to make out an attractive young woman in wool pants, her arms around two little kids, the girl with cropped dark hair. Bubby and Gloria loved their mother and did their best when she would disappear for days at a time. The adult Gloria doesn’t speculate as to where her mother went, and that is part of the charm of this book. Rist presents her memories and doesn’t muddy their impact with analysis. The writing feels vivid and fresh. Here’s a passage from a chapter called “On Swimming Holes and Pigs”.
The fatter the pig the better in those days. It showed what a good farmer the pig’s owner was and that the pig contained lots of grease needed to fry donuts, potatoes, etc. … It was Goof-Goof’s and Oink-Oink’s time to be killed. Bub and I were up at dawn gathering wood and old tires in a pile as Mim told us to do. An awful sick feeling was coming over me. The men came and I could see scorn in their eyes for our long, lean old pigs, not hardly an ounce of fat anywhere. How could they be fat? Bub and I had played with them as horses, round and round the pen every day all summer. They never had time to lie around and get fat.
Young Gloria and her family lived six miles from Ticonderoga on Chilson Hill, in a scattered community of independent souls doing whatever it took to get by. Rist remembers looking for berries to eat for dinner and drinking a saucer of milk that a neighbor had left out for the cats. She has plenty of good memories, too, of parties enlivened by hard cider and fiddle music and of kind neighbors and relatives who took her in when her mother was away. Her mother was one of twenty-one children, and the names of aunts and uncles dot the pages of the book.
By the time Rist was eleven she looked fourteen, and she’s matter of fact when she writes about running from a drunken neighbor, jumping out of the car of an older boy, and escaping the advances of a lumberjack. A few years later, Rist had a crush on a classmate and told her grandmother, a woman who married at age fifteen. Gram Granger said, “Gloria, I can’t make you behave yourself, but remember this: If you burn your ass, you’ll have to sit on the blister.”
The advice kept Rist on the straight and narrow, and she proudly remembers taking the bus down to Ticonderoga to take the Regents exams. Many of the “Chilson Hillers” dropped out of school by eighth grade, but a teacher in the one-room school pushed Gloria to study. Rist excelled on the tests.
Then the important people came up to our farm with a prize check for me—fifty dollars, a fortune in those days. They looked around and I knew they couldn’t believe their eyes. In our living room, there were no curtains and just an old blacked-up kerosene lamp on an orange crate, and no place to sit down as the two chairs were broken. So they just stood there and stared down at our old bare wooden floor.
Rist writes in a conversational style, and the repetition of story after story creates a picture of a childhood where material possessions were few, but a spunky girl found plenty of opportunity for joy. Near the end of the book she writes of a special beach on nearby Eagle Lake. With no adults to interfere, the kids kept a log raft and old cooking pots to make freshwater clam stew flavored with vegetables from home gardens. The kids took off their shoes but went swimming with all their clothes on.
The water along the shore was very warm for about three feet out in the lake from the sun beating down on it. Warm water was a luxury to us. If we had any at home, the water had to be heated on a stove in a pot. So we sat in that lovely warm water in the lake and rolled around in it. The boys wrassled in it and the girls splashed each other. We laughed all the while for the sheer joy of having that warm water. We were so happy on Crown Point Bay, laughing, laughing, laughing all the time.