sc 159 Happy St. Patty Day Gran’ma Helen!

Back in 2005 I was working on a video project concerning some old community minstrel shows my father was in when he was a kid.  Among many other people, I interviewed my father’s mother Helen — my grandmother — who was then age 94. The sound you hear on this podcast is from the video I took of Grandma Helen in 2005.  A small portion of the podcast features some audio of a minstrel show recorded sometime in the 1940’s on an old wire recorder that evidently someone in the neighborhood owned.  Listen, and you’ll hear my father sing a solo number!

This is probably very similar to the actual wire recorder that was used to record the audio of the minstrel show you can hear in this podcast.

Mostly, this interview with my grandmother concerns her memories of the neighborhood as it began and the community building they built and the activities they did to raise money for it. I wish now, of course, that I had asked her more important questions about herself and her husband and what life was like when she was younger, but at the time I thought all we had was time. I was sure I would be recording her again, but Grandma fell into a decline and just before Thanksgiving of 2007, she passed away at the age of 96.  She was a wonderful person and a fabulous grandmother to me.  I miss her a lot.  I hope this episode of the Smellcast will inspire you to record the words of your own relatives.  Ask them about your family’s history — you’ll be glad you did.

Magnetic wire for the wire recorder!

My grandmother’s maiden name was Nelson, and she was very proud of her Irish roots.  The show art is a photo I took of her in 1977 as she was sitting on a stone fence bordering a farm in Ireland.  My father, mother, brother, myself and grandma traveled there for three weeks and toured the southern part of Ireland.  It was a very memorable and precious family time for us all.  With St. Patrick’s Day nearly upon us, I thought this would be a nice time to present this interview of my grandmother to you.

Write to Toppie at  Leave a comment right here on Toppie’s blog.  Friend Toppie on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.

Click the link below to listen to the Smellcast, episode 159.

The Smellcast/Episode 159

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11 Responses to “sc 159 Happy St. Patty Day Gran’ma Helen!”

  1. Kalvin Says:

    I found this episode really fascinating, Toppie. My liberal knee-jerk reaction is BLACKFACE!? But, as you said, how would they necessarily know, and well, racism is only barely beginning to be reduced probably for the first time in history I would assume. It sounds appealing in a way, those times before so much media. Sure no podcasts, but people actually interacting all the time. I wonder if our brains are just overtaxed by all the info we have sometimes. Even though some people call it non traditional, will you be eating corned beef and cabbage today? The pics also made me wonder about the plant life in pd junction. It looks really treeless in the beginning, but I’ve heard you talk about going through the woods…was that all planted? Interesting show!


    • toppiesmellie Says:

      The community did three minstrel shows between 1944 and 1950, the first one being a full fledged traditional blackface affair. There was only a year between the first one and the second one, but in that time, they definitely collectively agreed that blackface was not to be done again. One man I interviewed insists to this day that there was nothing offensive about the blackfaced minstrel show. He had participated in several when he was in the army during WWII and claimed that several black servicemen participated and THEY didn’t seem offended, and his feeling was that there was nothing racist about it. Of course, if you listen to the audio of this blackface minstrel show, ALL of the humor was derived from racial stereotypes of the day that generally depicted blacks as an affable yet rather slow witted and lazy community. I’m sure you can imagine. Yet I give them credit for coming to the realization that this was no longer acceptable only one year later, and it was never to be repeated. In this way, the minstrel show format of jokes and song was used two more times, but without blackface, overt racism or black stereotypes.

      There WAS something simpler about those years for sure. Radio and newspapers were big, but they certainly did not have the media onslaught we experience today. And most certainly, this neighborhood gathered together regularly with much enthusiasm — and they all knew each other by name. Sadly, I live today in the same house and neighborhood but I can not tell you the names of any of my neighbors — and actually I wouldn’t know them even if I ran into them face-to-face. THAT is a huge change.

      I did fix corned beef and cabbage for my parents today and we ate it up good!

      As far as the pix of grandma’s house, the land was indeed treeless. But before then, it was nothing but old growth forests. Originally the whole area had been surveyed and parceled out by the federal government with the land given to civil war veterans so that they could start their own farms. The farmers cleared the land of trees and it remained cleared for several generations. As farms failed and families moved on, the tracts of land were divided further and split up and sold, and passed on, etc. Abandoned pastures eventually returned to forests. As years passed, there were fewer and fewer farms and more and more property owners who commuted to work and the “new” residents began to plant trees… lots and lots of trees!

      When I was a kid I would walk into the neighboring forests and find the reamins of old rusty farm equipment and barbed wire fences with trees growing through and around them and remnants of fences made of stone cleared from the fields by the farmers so long ago.

      Of course another big difference is that the old road that went through Podunk Junction (so far away from the house in the old photo it can’t even be seen) was eventually replaced by the State of NY, becoming a main state thoroughfare you can see today in the second photo (and hear on my podcasts!!). Guess my grandparents lost a big chunk of their front lawn to the state!

      Thanks for your interesting observations and questions, Kalvin.


  2. Jay Y Says:

    Great episode, Toppie. You are very lucky to have been able to sit down with your grandmother and record this. She sounds like a wonderful lady.


  3. HatM Says:

    I loved this episode and the music in it!


    • toppiesmellie Says:

      Thank you HatM! All the music (aside from the minstrel show) in this podcast is from an Irish group popular on the East coast and their name is “Callanish.” My dad hired them to come to Ithaca and play music at my grandmother’s Irish wake. It was thrilling to hear them live. I don’t know if they are available on Itunes or not.


  4. Mark in Canada Says:

    As I was listening to your grandmother, I thought of how much of a person is revealed by their voice. Pictures only tell part of the story. How wonderful that you were able to capture her voice. She was a delightful lady. I loved hearing her talk about the 2-cent dinners.


    • toppiesmellie Says:

      You are so right Mark. That old video camera of mine did a good job and I’ll be damned the recording of my grandmother’s voice really truly sounds as if she’s sitting next to me talking! I learned about the 2-cent dinners from her for the first time that day. I had never heard them mentioned before. By the time I was around, the community still held dish-to-pass suppers once a month. For years I remember attending them. But they kind of fizzled out — in fact the entire community as a social group — fizzled out around 1978 and never recovered.

      For anyone interested, the Podunk Junction community building plays a role in Smellcast episodes 90 and 117.


  5. Ramble Redhead Says:

    I truly loved this episode so much – your grandmother reminded me of my grandmother and great grandmother by the things she mentioned – thought it was very sweet.

    I have said it once I will say again – you do an amazing job on your show! I hope you are doing well and I look forward to more great shows to come!


    • toppiesmellie Says:

      Thanks very much Ramble. I barely… BARELY… remember one of my great grandparents. My mother’s Grandfather passed away when I was very, very young. But I do remember him. Just curious Ramble — how long did you have your great grandmother in your life? That’s amazing.


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