Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Dancing in Boom Town

My mother has a favorite photograph of herself, which was taken in Richmond, California when she was 25 years old. I recently found out that she (Doris) had been carrying the original around in her purse for years, and I convinced her to loan it to me so I could have professional copies made. Persons involved with eldercare, take note: what unknown and irreplaceable family treasures are being toted around in your mother's or aunt's purse? Better find out--respectfully, of course!

In 1945, Doris was still a country girl getting accustomed to city life, though immediately after leaving her childhood farm home she worked a six month stint at a candy factory in St. Paul, Minnesota. She loved being in St. Paul, but was somehow convinced to join her sister, Phyllis, who had recently moved out to Richmond on the west coast. Doris and her aunt, Mabel, rode the train out from Minneapolis in April 1945. There were so many soldiers aboard that the two women had to sit on their little (and very hard) suitcases near the bathroom during the entire trip.

Doris shared a one-bedroom, second-story apartment with no ice box on Sixth Street near the elevated railroad tracks in downtown Richmond, along with her sister, aunt, and a cousin. They made do. Sometimes they worked the canneries, and several of them tried waitressing. Doris started out as a waitress, but soon gave it up because she was too shy; she had great difficulty with the amount of personal interaction it required.

At the apartment, two of the women shared a double bed, another had a cot, and the fourth slept on the living room sofa. Not having an ice box meant stocking up on canned goods and carrying the heavy bags home on foot, while buying perishables as often as possible. A kitchen cupboard was vented to the outside, but it only kept things as cool as the outdoor temperature. In the Bay Area, that usually wasn't very cold. My grandfather, a custodian at the Ford Motor plant, was in the habit of going down to the Richmond pier on Sundays. After the end of wartime food rationing, he would buy a fresh salmon, or he would get steaks at the market. Then, he would take the groceries to his daughters' apartment and visit while they cooked dinner. I think they had to do his laundry, too, but that's another story.

Richmond,_California is sandwiched between Berkeley/Albany and San Pablo in the East Bay. The town experienced explosive growth during World War II. San Francisco Bay, with its many ports, saw an inevitable increase in military activity. There was also associated growth in existing industries, such as the Standard Oil Company, and the Ford Motor Company, which switched to building tanks during the war years. The Kaiser Shipyards were built along the Richmond waterfront and began recruiting workes from all across the United States. Richmond produced the most Victory and Liberty ships for the war effort, even breaking records in the process. As a result of all this, the once-sleepy Richmond became a hub of activity, with lines forming everywhere for restaurants and bathrooms, which were few and far between. There were all-nite movie theaters in operation for those who had nowhere else to go, and "hot-beds" where a place to sleep could be rented for eight hours.

Doris was especially fond of the outfit she wore in this photograph, which she bought in Richmond because it had a Scandinavian look and reminded her of home. It consisted of a bib and matching full skirt, all pink, which she wore with a white blouse. The pink roses in her hair were probably acquired at Kresses Dime Store or Woolworth's--trinket meccas in those days. Her sister, Phyllis, owned a similar outfit in lime green. I'm sure the girls looked quite cute together.

When the photograph was taken, Doris was at a dance hall in downtown Richmond. Photographers would wander through and offer to take pictures, which any gentleman accompanying a lady was expected to buy as a memento. I say "accompanying" gentleman, because it was common for girls to attend the dances in groups with friends or relatives and meet up with soldiers or sailors on leave, just to dance and enjoy the music. There were also many workers from the nearby Kaiser Shipyards, seeking entertainment with pockets full of newly-earned cash. The atmosphere inside those wartime dance halls was usually quite innocent, since in most places only soda pop was sold. But, as extra insurance, officers from various military branches made sure their enlisted men did not embarrass their country with any unwise behavior.

One place Doris attended frequently was the MacCracken Dance Hall. Steps led down from the street into a cellar-like basement. She remembers that the location was on the list of potential fallout shelters for Richmond during World War II. With the shipyards nearby, that was a very real concern. The dance halls in the Richmond area usually had big bands or country musicians performing, like the Dude Martin Hillbilly Trio in the photograph below. The scene was quite different from the dances Doris attended back in her hometown of Leonard, Minnesota.

The Dude Martin Hillbilly Trio performs at a Richmond dance hall
during World War II. Collection: Dorothea Lange Collection The War Years
(1942-1944) Richmond, California Dude. Oakland Museum of California.

Back in Leonard, dances were held at the community hall in town. For farming folk, most any occasion was also a good reason to hold a dance, and local musicians jumped at the chance to play. There were no formal bands and no one ever got together to practice, but there was always someone's brother or uncle who could do a fair job with a piano, guitar, or accordian. And, it wasn't just the Scandinavians who partied. Doris once commented on the German community near Leonard, who often held their own functions: "Those Germans sure knew how to party!"

There would also be dancing at family celebrations, like weddings or anniversaries. When Doris was very young, she and the other children would stand on the sidelines and tap their toes and wiggle about, longing to participate. At some point in her teens, she was invited to dance for the first time. The man who asked was a cross-eyed relation to a cousin of hers, and a generation older. Doris replied shyly that she'd like to, but she didn't know how. "Come on, I'll show you!" he replied happily, and took her out onto the dance floor to cut a rug.

After that, Doris danced every time she got the chance, and she began attending Leonard Community Hall events regularly with her sister, cousins and friends. Dancing was the most fun she'd ever had, and it was the only way for her to enjoy music back then, since her grandparents' farm did not have electricity for radio. So, it's no wonder she was willing to suffer the crowds of the Richmond dance halls and the attentions of all those eager enlisted men later on. A shy farm girl in the city need never sit at home with her knitting, if she is willing to dance the boom town jig with the best of 'em, that is.

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