2007-03-29 / Little Old Canarsie

Living Out Of The Well

Up until about the year 1918, folks living here at the time didn't have water supplied by the city and depended on a hand pump to bring water up from the ground.

This was a hard job and first you had to use your right hand and then switch over to your left to fill up pails for cooking or drinking.

The hardest job was late Sunday afternoon when mom had to have big tin tubs of it to wash all the week's dirty linen with a tin boiler full on top of the coal stove in the kitchen and then into the washtub where each piece was scrubbed on a washboard by rubbing up and down with a large cake of Kirkman soap to get them good and clean (no machines or soap powder in those days). Then came the job of hanging all the wash out on the lines to dry. When it was brought in, the next job was to iron the fancy pieces with flat irons that were placed on top of the stove lids to heat up.

But despite all this, people enjoyed life during that time. Those who didn't have a pump to get water had a well all bricked up from about eighty feet down in the ground, with two large wooden buckets on a large pulley with a long rope so that when you let one down to fill it up with ice cold water, the one on the top had to be let down to bring the other one up. For safety sake, there was a large shed that was boxed all around about five feet so that children playing in the yard could not fall into the open well.

Many folks that had no ice box would let one of the buckets down into the cold water during the summer months to keep butter and meats from spoiling.

When they wanted these items, they would just pull up the bucket that stood in the cold water and take them out to cook the meat and use the butter for the family dinner.

Most of families ate plenty of seafood from the clean Jamaica Bay waters before sewage ruined it. We had delicious clam chowder, fried clams, oysters in season, baked blue or weakfish, soft shell crabs, and, for those who like them, smoked or fired eels or an eel stew.

Some folks ate what comes out of a large shell we called, "conks" but now they call it "scungilli." The shells are sometimes used when they are emptied as knick-knacks on shelves. When you held the empty shell up to your ear, they said you could hear the ocean roar inside of it.

The people of this generation can't get the delicious seafood that came from Jamaica Bay, but it's available from Long Island, New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts.

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