The story of Rainbow Ranch and what life was like in the Middle Island area - 5

Growing Up in Middle Island in the 1930s

by Anne Ferguson Nauman

Part V - Special Days

Special Days


In those days, each holiday was celebrated on the proper day, not on the nearest Monday the way it is done now. Columbus Day was always special for me because that was my birthday. I never had to go to school on my birthday. Lincoln and Washington each had his own birthday holiday instead of the current Presidents’ Day. Some of the holidays have new names now. Memorial Day used to be Decoration Day, and Veterans’ Day used to be Armistice Day in honor of the armistice that ended World War I, the “war to end all wars.” If only that had been so.

One of the big days of the year for our family was Decoration Day, when they had a big parade in Patchogue. My father was a member of the American Legion, and he always marched with them. He wore his dress-white tropical uniform from his days in the Army during World War I. He had been stationed at the Panama Canal. He was tall, lean, erect, and handsome, and I was always proud to see him marching. The parade ended at the cemetery, where they had a memorial ceremony in honor of those who had died in our wars. It ended with the playing of Taps, such a moving and sorrowful sound.

American Legion parade at Patchogue 1938

Decoration Day parade 1937. Don Ferguson in rear
with white uniform.

American Legion parade at Patchogue 1938. Photos from the collection of Mrs. Anne Ferguson Nauman

Donald Ferguson in Dress whites.


There was also a parade on the Fourth of July, but that was a happier occasion. We used to get a catalog of fireworks that could be ordered by mail, and we were each allowed to spend a small sum. My favorites were snakes and lady crackers. Bill liked cherry bombs but they scared me. We blew up a lot of empty cans, and luckily we never got hurt. After dark, we had Roman candles and sparklers, and my father and grandfather had great fun putting on a show with pinwheels and rockets. What a show they could have had with some of Grucci’s marvelous pyrotechnics. I still love fireworks. One year, after we had already received our fireworks in the mail, they passed a law making home fireworks illegal. My father was strictly law-abiding, so he insisted that we had to dispose of them. With many protests and tears, we buried them in the orchard.

Easter was fun. My mother would hide eggs and Easter candies around the house, and we would have an egg hunt first thing in the morning. Then in the afternoon, we would get together with our three Tuttle cousins, the children of my mother’s sister, Hope Tuttle, who lived in Bay Shore. We would go down to the Pine Woods (Prosser’s Pines) and have a picnic and another egg hunt among the pine needles and pine cones. That was an enchanted forest in those days.

Children were a lot more rambunctious on Halloween than they are nowadays. They would soap windows of cars and houses (a horrible job to clean up), throw eggs or flour, turn over outhouses, and roam around doing a lot of serious mischief. In Middle Island, we didn’t do that, mostly because we all lived so far apart. We did have a party at school, where we had doughnuts and cider and did things like ducking for apples and apples-on-a-string. One year, I went to Yaphank with a friend, and I remember being surprised at all the mischief that was done. The current custom of dressing up for trick-or-treat, and having good clean fun, is a much more sensible way to spend the holiday.

The County Fair at Riverhead was a big occasion for our parents, especially my father. He saved the most perfect specimens of every variety of fruit for the fair exhibits, and never failed to bring home a lot of blue ribbons. I liked looking at all the exhibits, and especially enjoyed visiting the animals and eating cotton candy.

Christmas was probably the best. We would pore through the Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward catalogs and make wish lists. Then we would put the lists in the little copper kettle by the fireplace. We were lucky that most of our wishes came true. We all went out on Christmas Eve to cut a tree. It was always a native pitch pine. We children always decorated the tree. I still have a few of the old glass ornaments. We hung our stockings in front of the fireplace and left milk and cookies for Santa Claus. As we got older, we all had fun putting things in each other’s stockings. There was always a tangerine in the toe and a candy cane sticking out the top. We filled them with inexpensive toys, candies, jokes and useful things. After breakfast, we opened the gifts under the tree, my father handing them out one at a time so that everyone could see. It took a long time. Then we would all go off to play with our new toys and games, or read our new books.

I remember the presidential campaigns when Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected to an unprecedented four terms as President. When he was running for his second term, in 1936, my father was an ardent supporter of his opponent, Republican Alf Landon of Kansas. I remember making a lot of buttons and signs with Kansas sunflowers. Of course, FDR won that election overwhelmingly. When he ran for a third term, my father was outraged, and was an even more ardent supporter of challenger Wendell Willkie. The slogans were “No Third Term” and “Win With Willkie.” He helped the campaign by embellishing pumpkins with Willkie slogans, and selling them. Then when FDR ran for a fourth term in 1944, while we were at war, the rallying cry was “Don’t Change Horses in Midstream.” He won again, defeating Thomas E. Dewey, but died soon thereafter, making Harry Truman the President. Of course this will never happen again because the Constitution now forbids more than two terms as president.

In January of 1934, we had a huge snowstorm that brought everything to a screeching halt. We were completely isolated for 10 days, until the roads were finally cleared. It was not disastrous for us because we had plenty of food, coal, kerosene, and fireplace wood, and did not have farm animals to feed. I was only six so I don’t remember much about it, but I do remember going out to play after my father had cleared some of the snow from the door, and crying because I was stuck in the snow and couldn’t move. I had to be rescued. Eventually my father and Edith were able to walk down to the Stewarts’ for milk, but it was 10 days before any vehicles got through. We just stayed in the house and amused ourselves with board games, card games, jigsaw puzzles and reading, and generally “hanging out” together, until the roads were cleared. Surprisingly, I don’t recall that any of us felt bored.

The hurricane of 1938 took everyone by surprise. Nobody had ever heard of a hurricane in our part of the world. I remember my mother picking us up at school and then driving home through a nightmare of crashing limbs and falling trees. It was a miracle that we made it safely home. I remember that the wind suddenly stopped, and it became totally still. We were in the eye, but did not have a clue. Weran outside to pick up the black walnuts that had been blown off the big tree beside the house. Then before we knew what was happening, the wind started up again, this time from the opposite direction, and it was a nightmare all over again. My sister remembers being in high school at Port Jefferson during the hurricane, and Mr. Kiessling going around from room to room telling everyone that the barometer was at “hurricane proportions.” The rain was coming through the cement block walls. She said, “We made the 10-mile trip home on the bus during the eye, no idea how the bus made it around all the fallen trees all over the road. I guess we just made it home when it came back from the other direction.” The damage was tremendous, but I don’t remember that our orchard suffered greatly. We were especially sad at the terrible destruction in Prosser’s Pines. I remember that the Szuster boys did a lot of work cleaning it up. It has recovered, but has never felt the same.


The early years in Middle Island shaped the later lives of all three of us. I ended up studying biology in college, and spent 20 years working in biology research at Brookhaven National Lab. I also spent many years as a biomedical editor. Edith had an exceptional talent for all types of handicrafts, especially working with textiles and fibers, and she is now a recognized Master Weaver in Vermont. Bill loved to make model airplanes and got his first flying lesson for his sixteenth birthday. He joined the U.S. Air Force where he served with distinction in two wars, Korea and Viet Nam, and retired as a Colonel after thirty years of service. So we each followed a path that was laid out early in our lives back in Middle Island.

Rainbow Ranch is gone now. Our beautiful orchards and my beloved woods have all been devoured by a gravel pit. Badger’s Dutch Oven Inn has vanished without a trace. The old barn burned down years ago. But our house and the storage cellar remain, and are now owned by a church. I can’t think of a better fate for our old home. My sister visited several years ago, and liked the feel of the church’s sanctuary in our old storage cellar. My son Bill visited there a year ago and he noticed that the big catalpa tree by the kitchen door had a horizontal branch that would be perfect for a swing. That was the very same branch where we did indeed have a swing, seventy years ago. So some things endure.

Our parents are gone, and our brother is gone, but my sister and I keep our memories of Middle Island as it was in those simpler and more innocent days. Our grandchildren are growing up in a world that has become a lot more complex and dangerous, but we are confident that they will find ways to make it a better place for their own children and grandchildren.



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