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  • Rita McMahon

What Kids Did on Summer Vacation, 1940’S to 1950’s

Often our first school writing assignment in the fall was to write two or three paragraphs on what we did during summer vacation. It let our friends and teacher know what fun we'd had all summer, and for the teacher, how much we had forgotten over the summer.

One thing we learned very early was to keep ourselves and our younger siblings entertained, and never complain about being bored. Our resourceful parents had all kinds of suggestions of chores that needed to be done, and occasionally we got nabbed before we could get out of the house in the morning. By midsummer our big garden was thriving so there were always peas, beans, corn or tomatoes to be picked and prepared for canning. Pulling weeds or picking off bugs were additional chores that even children were capable of doing. If we had done a particularly good job on a work day, Dad would often take us to the local lake to swim or to get ice cream cones in town.

Our parents belonged to a generation that would have been considered "free range" parents by parents today. There were no cell phones to check on our whereabouts every few minutes, nor organized sports activities or camps to keep us closely supervised all summer while parents were at work. The older siblings were considered the "big kids" who were charged with taking care of the "little kids” wherever we went. We had many other kids our own ages in the neighborhood so we roamed from one house to the next using whatever play equipment each family provided. We might choose to play croquet, softball, tag, Red Rover, hopscotch, jump rope or other active games if the morning was cool. One favorite activity at our house was climbing the tall ladder to the hay loft and swinging down on the big hay rope. As the summer day warmed up we often played card or board games indoors. The older girls often played "house" on one of our big front porches with throw rugs, rocking chairs and small tables brought out from the house. We had plenty of younger siblings to play with.

As we got older we might take a bike ride uptown to buy penny candy from the grocer's big display case, or take long bike rides into the country. We were all involved in at least one 4-H project during the summer. Crafts, baking, canning, or sewing projects were favorite choices. Our projects were always shown in our Club's booth at the County Fair. Those ribbons and cash prizes were much coveted incentives.

All of the kids in the neighborhood saved most of their earnings from chores, looking forward to our town's annual carnival and the County Fair. I remember riding the mail train that stopped in every small town to exchange mail bags to the County Fair that was about fifteen miles down the tracks.

We also looked forward to the day each week the County Bookmobile came to exchange the books we had read for new ones. Reading was often a rainy day diversion from our more active pursuits. I loved to read and often spent many hours under the shade trees in the front yard reading Zane Gray westerns by the time I was in 5th. Grade.

When Labor Day signaled the end of summer and the start of the school year, our focus changed from play to work, and seeing all the friends we had seen very little all summer. All the girls had to wear dresses to school in those days, so there was a flurry of excitement picking out what we needed from the Sears or Penneys catalogs. Aside from Sunday School, none of us had worn shoes for most of the summer. The boys all got new jeans and shirts that felt very stiff compared to the ones they had been wearing. Since chemical sunscreens had not been invented yet we were all suntanned and our hair was several shades lighter, but in general we felt pretty subdued yet excited and ready for the school year ahead of us.

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