Close-Knit Communities

Both homes and businesses adapted to wartime responsibilities while continuing to serve as places of community gathering. These sites of gathering reflected the importance of small-town social connections, evidenced by the clientele of James Mears’ family barbershop—who accepted haircuts from a 9-year-old standing on a box of shotgun shells—and the lively celebrations at the Deaton’s local tavern. The families of Douglass Gates and Louise Widdup both opened their homes to strangers, meeting defense workers and teachers from across the country, who quickly became akin to family themselves. Even as they expanded, these social networks remained intimate and were vital to sustaining the American war effort.

A Family of Barbers—James Mears

I started working in the barber shop as a shoe shine boy at the age of probably nine. And then during the war, I helped prepare people to be ready to get their hair cut. We put the barber cloth around them, and it would be just my father,  [he was] the only one who cut the hair. And there was two other boys besides myself, three of us, that weren’t tall enough to work on the people. We had shotgun shell boxes that we stood up on so we could reach the customers. We would get them ready then my father would cut their hair. Then we would shave their necks, give them their tonics and shampoos. Back in those days, we gave a lot of tonics and shampoos and also shaves. Many people came in for shaves. And finally, we got so we could shave too. Of course, this was straight razors. But my father did the main work. He trained us, and finally some customers would let us do it. They had the option. Some didn’t feel comfortable with us little fellows. But they finally came to the place that did cut hair. But I didn’t really care like that. Worked like my father and the rest of my family. There was four generations of our family that worked on some of the people in town. My great-grandfather was a barber, my grandfather owned the shop and had died by then and then my father and myself. So, actually, there was four generations that worked on some of the people in town. And they would tell us that.

Father’s Tavern in the Community—Ralph Deaton

My father’s tavern also served as an outlet for most of the people in the community because in 1947, he bought a television set. Well, on up in Church Hill, there were only so many places that you could go and you could come to the beer garden. They used to have Wednesday night fights. They had fights on Friday nights in Madison Square Garden. I think Monday nights, they had fights in a place called United Arena over in D.C.

But during that time, the tavern served as an outlet. The men came in. Plus, he had a couple of pool tables at the back of the beer garden. They came in. They shot pool. They watched fights, ball games and that type stuff. Well, see football hadn’t gotten into the way it is now.

He had something usually for mostly everybody to do. Like the older men. See the men that were fifty, sixty years old during that time, they used to do what they called a promenade. It was something like a dance; it was a male and a female, but it was done to accordion music. Or the guys that were in the 20’s, 30’s, younger guys, they used to like to do what they called a spot dance. Up in the walls, you would have these pin-ups made out of crepe paper, and I think it was like fifteen bucks or twenty bucks or something. You put twenty bucks up on one of those things and they would play music on a jukebox. And then after a certain time, they would say, “Stop!” So when they stopped, the person that was under or nearest to where this spot was, where the money was, they would get the money. So this was different types of outlets that the beer garden was used for back during those times because it was probably the only place in the neighborhood you could go as an outlet.

Female Defense Workers—Douglass Gates

Probably the most influential thing that I can remember is that we had a fairly large house, and we took in defense workers—females. I think one male we had at one time, but they were generally females. They worked in ship building in Wilmington. They had small plants, and they had other things too, I guess. I can’t remember. But the thing that is most memorable for me is that in the evening (you know, no television in those days), we’d get down in the living room, and we had a piano. And the girls—there was always a piano player, there seemed to be. The girls would get down there and gather around the piano with me because I always stuck my nose in there and sing songs. As a result of that, you know, my head right now continues to be full of nineteen twenties, thirties, forties songs. That’s what we sang, and that’s what I memorized with those gals, and it was wonderful. You know, this little twerp standing there and they’re having a grand time, and I’m having a grand time too. I loved it [laughs]. And they’d pat me on the head, “Oh, Dougie, you’re such a cute little kid,” [laughs] and I knew I was, of course [laughs].

Teachers Boarding in the House—Louise Widdup

We had these teachers that graduated from McDaniel. So they both came from there, and they become teachers at our small community high school. And we had no motels, no places to stay. So the community came to my mother because she was a young woman and they thought maybe she could do it, would she please take in two school teachers which she did. There was time when we had five women and one man in our house with one bathroom. [laughs]. My father got up and went to the defense contract early so he got out of the house. But there were two teachers, me, mother, and another girl at that time in the house. And mother did that through—this was before the war —it started—it’s ’38 or ’39, and she continued to do that until ’45. And we had some wonderful teachers, and my parents were great folks so we kept in contact with almost all the teachers. That’s why I know where they went, and what they did.