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Houghton life in the 50s

In the ’50’s, the Houghton School had grades K – 12, all in the grand old four-story school on Houghton Avenue between Pewabic and Quincy streets. The stately “old school” was well-designed to accommodate all 13 grades, and even had a large auditorium and gym, both with balconies. Grade school recesses were a highlight of the day – even in winter.

Marbles was a common game on the playground, and getting “skunked” simply meant “losing all your marbles.” Occasionally the boys would actually stoop to joining the girls in jump-rope play. For the high schoolers, the wood shop and mechanical drawing rooms were on the ground floor under the direction of Mr. Garrity and “Pops” Schaefer.

There were two large study halls – one for the junior high level and one for high school. There were too many good, dedicated teachers to mention, but I must recognize that my writing this would not have been possible without the early, hard-driven lessons learned in Mrs. Vizena’s and Miss Vivian’s English classes.

School hours were 8 a.m. to 4:10 p.m. with an hour for lunch. Extra-curricular stuff like band involved a tough 7 a.m. start under Mr. Glanville. After-school varsity sports practice began at 3 p.m., requiring an “early out” from the late study hall period.

The few school busses served only the rural students. “In-town” kids had to walk to school – and back home for lunch – since there was no lunch program at school. If you wanted a hot lunch, the original Jim’s (Vencato) Market, in an old house just west of the school on Quincy, sold hot dogs. Jim’s also had lots of penny candy, including the latest baseball cards – one for a penny and a pack of 5 for a nickel – always with a slab of bubblegum in every pack. Hamburgers and hotdogs were also readily available downtown at Andy’s Restaurant or Newberry’s lunch counter for 25 cents. Fries were 10 cents extra.

In addition to the Houghton School, there was also the St. Ignatius Catholic School on Houghton Avenue, across from the church. It only offered grades 1–8, all taught by nuns. Those students had to make the big transition into Houghton High for their grades 9 – 12. Any hopes that they were escaping the strict nuns to a more permissive environment were quickly dashed by the likes of Bernard Gaffney, the stern principal, and ‘no B.S.’ teachers of discipline like Joe Garrity and Eldena Haaka.

It was a much simpler time then – especially in the Copper Country. Being rather remote from the rest of the world, we lagged behind is some areas – like communications technology. Telephones were still very ‘manual’ in that when you made a call, a real human ‘operator’ (always a female) would say “Number, please,” and you would state the number you were calling and wait to be connected.

Also, for most of the 50’s we were on a “party line,” shared by some neighbors. It was common to have to wait until others were finished with their call to make yours. Of course, one could never assume a call was truly private. Our number was 1172-J, with the letter “J” denoting it was a party line. Calls from Houghton to beyond Hancock or Chassell were “long distance,” a costly “no-no” except for sharing the most important news or emergencies. Later, by about 1960, the manual operators would be replaced by dial tones and rotary dial phones requiring a four-digit number. Party lines became a thing of the past.

By the mid 50’s TV was finally arriving via “Community Antenna Television” (later known as ‘cable’). We were completely dependent on it for our TV, since none of the distant city stations could be received using rabbit ears or even a tall roof antenna. Interestingly, the stations via cable then were all from Wisconsin (Green Bay) and also from Canada’s CBC national network, which carried “Hockey Night In Canada” on Saturday nights. Of course, everything was in black and white. We finally splurged for a TV in ’58 and hooked up with the cable service. Our first TV set, a Magnavox, was kept alive by Ray’s TV Repair. Ray made house calls mostly on a motorcycle and would sometimes be seen zooming around town carrying a TV on the back of it.

Our later Zenith color TV was sold and serviced by Pizzi’s TV Service in Hancock. Mr. Pizzi was another colorful character, and on one house call, I recall him excitedly calling my mom over to point to a burned out tube he was proud to have discovered.

But the highlight of entertainment for us kids was always the Saturday matinees at the Lode Theater. For what amounted to about 10 cents a movie, we could buy a season ticket at school for about a dollar. That pass included about a dozen movies – usually westerns – which always included a “short” serial episode and cartoons – and if we were lucky, a Three Stooges short. Of course, the theater was always packed with a raucous crowd of high-energy kids, giving the stern manager, Hilda, a real handful.

Hancock had two other theaters – The Orpheum (later The Pic) near Hancock High and the beautiful Kerridge Theater next to the Scott Hotel. The Kerridge was one of the grand old-style theaters with a third balcony, and I recall going there with Mom at a very young age for “Cooking School” sessions sponsored by U.P. Power. Sadly, It was destroyed at the hands of an arsonist in the 60’s. What a loss.

Most of the 50’s was the age of radio. Houghton had the Copper Country’s only station – WHDF (1400 AM) – housed in the Douglas Hotel just off the lobby area. “Wiff-Diff,” as we called it, broadcast at a mere 150 watts of power and went dead at 10 p.m. But later at night, on a good car radio, you could usually pick up WLS from Chicago, with Dick Biondi spinning the latest hits with 50,000 watts of power.

Our most popular WHDF program was “Teen Tunes & Topics,” playing “Top 10” requests from 4 to 5 p.m. every day. I listened to it on my high-tech 6-transistor radio as I pedaled my Gazette paper route through downtown. We also could sometimes get a Canadian station from Port Arthur-Fort William (now Thunder Bay) across Lake Superior. Another unique local program was the Finnish News – all in the native tongue by Reino Suojinen. By the late 50’s, a second station, WMPL (920 AM), had set up shop in Hancock, setting the scene for the popular Bob Olson.

The Daily Mining Gazette was the big regional newspaper. (I wrote earlier about the Gazette operation and my important role as a paperboy.) But many people also took the Milwaukee Journal – enough so that both daily and Sunday Journals were available by home delivery.

Between my brother, Bob, and I, we delivered them both, under the guidance of Bill Miller, the Journal’s local paperboy manager. The big Detroit papers with Michigan news were conspicuously missing from Houghton in those days. I always wondered why. With seeing only Wisconsin TV stations and newspapers, it was easy to forget you were a Michigander – and maybe even become a Packer fan!

EDITOR’S NOTE: Roger Smith now resides in California and can be reached at: rdsmith2009@gmail.com.

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