This is an oral history interview with Westmorland neighborhood resident Maureen Rooney Welsch.
Oral history interview with Maureen Rooney Welsch
Interview with Maureen Rooney Welsch on her memories of the Westmorland neighborhood Location: Sequoya Commons Condominiums
Date: May 8, 2017
Interviewer: Tom Martinelli
TOM: Were you born when your parents were living in Westmorland or were you born somewhere else?
MAUREEN: I was born in 1947, and at that time my parents lived on East Washington Avenue; then we lived for a couple of years on Upham Street on the east side. It was near the firehouse on Fifth Street at the end of the block, near Emerson (School) where my sister attended kindergarten through second grade.
We moved on August 27, 1951 to 4001 Tokay Blvd. I remember the exact day because my little brother was born on that very day. The house had been built that summer and was in the Parade of Homes that fall. There were seven houses on that little stretch of the block which was called Tokay Street at that time. My dad seeded our big yard. He reminded us that our yard had been a farm field only a few years before.
TOM: How long did you live in that house?
MAUREEN: I lived there until I got married in 1969; then, my parents lived there until 1982 when they sold the house.
TOM: What are your earliest memories of Westmorland?
MAUREEN: I guess the earliest memories were of the train track behind our house. The Illinois Central Line and the trains going by twice a day. The noise of the trains never bothered us. We used to count the cars. Once we were lucky to see a circus train! Then there was the gully; it ran from Westmorland Park under Tokay Street, and behind the seven houses. We spent hours down there and exploring the tunnel under the tracks. When there were heavy storms the gully filled completely and washed everything in its path. The woods up in Westmorland Park was the other favorite play area. The woods were thicker than it is today and there were lots of hidden trails.
TOM: Were there still a lot of vacant lots?
MAUREEN: Yes, there were a few vacant lots. The lot just to the east of us was vacant and that first winter of 1951 my dad flooded the lot for a small skating pond. I learned to ice skate that winter. There were also empty lots up on Odana Road which was gravel up past Midvale Blvd.
TOM: Did your parents let you run around freely?
MAUREEN: My friends and I never were accompanied by adults. At four years old I walked with a friend up to the park. My sister and I walked together up to the drug store on Glenway (Street). I believe it was called Burke’s. As we grew older we walked everywhere in Westmorland. Nobody drove us anywhere and we just went off and spent as much time as we wanted. There was no end to it.
TOM: More about your childhood, where did you attend school?
MAUREEN: We attended Midvale Elementary School. My sister, Marianne Rooney, was in third grade in the 1951 opening year of Midvale School. I started in Kindergarten in 1952. I had Miss Kjelsen for my teacher. There was only 1/2-day Kindergarten then and I went in the p.m. I do remember the little kitchen and the painting easel! We all had a 15-minute nap time too.
TOM: Midvale school was how many grades?
MAUREEN: K through 6th grade.
TOM: Who was your favorite teacher?
MAUREEN: I loved school and I loved my 4th grade teacher, Ms. Gaffney, very much. I also liked my 6th grade teacher, Mrs. Punzel. My favorite teacher there was the librarian, Mrs. Steffen, she was such a kind lady and the first story I ever heard her read was one of Dr. Suess’ first books, “Bartholomew Cubbins and the 500 Hats.” I loved that!
TOM: What classes do you remember the best?
MAUREEN: I remember first grade, I had Ms. Werren. She was quite strict...a bit too rough for first graders I think... I guess I really liked 6th grade. I liked the spelling bees and reading the Weekly Reader. I still remember some of the stories.....especially the one about the 1959 terrible Chicago fire that killed many children in the Holy Angels Catholic School. Another story that comes to mind is the building of the Aswan Dam in Egypt. In fact, I saved all the weekly readers for many years. I think I still have a few.
TOM: I’m assuming your parents allowed you to walk to school, were there sidewalks, and were there shortcuts?
MAUREEN. Yes, there were sidewalks but I’d often cut through the park. I remember one time, in first grade, there was a lot of deep snow. It was up to my knees. Since all the kids at Midvale went home for lunch, we made four trips each day going to and from school. After lunch I remember crossing the skating pond in the park then trudging up the hill through the deep snow. It was so deep that I lay down and nearly fell asleep. Sometimes my sister and I would take a different route to Midvale. We would walk up Toepfer to the walkway between the houses west to Park Lane. Then over to Westmorland Blvd. and up to Birch (Avenue). Then take the walkway between houses to Midvale School.
TOM: It was a different time back then.
MAUREEN: Yes, it was.
TOM: How would you describe yourself as a child?
MAUREEN: Carefree. I never felt afraid just going out on my own up the street. I don’t think I had ever heard about kidnappings. In first grade I took the city bus from where it stopped right behind Midvale School all the way across town to my Aunt Laurine’s on Winnebago Street. It was a time when you knew and trusted all your neighbors. The only place we weren’t supposed to go was up on the tracks. Of course we did.
TOM: Thinking back when you were ten years old, describe a perfect day.
MAUREEN: It would be in the summer, for sure. My friends and I would go up to the park to the playground director and his/her green shed to buy gimp, a plastic lace that we braided into lanyards and bracelets. I think it cost a penny a yard! Another craft available was basket weaving. We would soak the wooden reeds in water before weaving them around the wooden bases. At 25 to 75 cents it cost a bit more than the gimp. Other activities included practicing for a play or talent show on the Stagecoach; a traveling stage than made the circuit around all of Madison’s playgrounds.
Another fun activity involved my good friend, Lynn Goodrich. By 10 years old we were good buddies. She and I would often go to the Glen (Glenwood Children’s Park on Glenway Street), a sandstone-studded little park behind her house on Glen Drive. We had fun running up and down the steep cliffs and playing on the sandstone. Back then we didn’t really spend much summer time indoors or watching TV. Fun was just being with your buddies. We would often have sleepovers often sleeping in tents.
TOM: Did you have chores; did you receive an allowance?
MAUREEN: No, I never got an allowance and I never had specific things I had to do, but I did lots of voluntary things like weeding the garden or cleaning my room. When I got to be around twelve I would cut the grass or wash the car for my dad.
TOM: How would you know if you had done something that your parents didn’t approve of?
MAUREEN: Oh, boy! I had a very strict father. We never lied. But I did get spanked. That’s how he was taught. I think my parents’ generation parented more that way than we do today. We were an Irish-Catholic family and were expected to always show respect to our parents.
TOM: We’ll talk about something a little more fun now, did the family take any vacations?
MAUREEN: We had our first vacation starting in 1956. We drove up old highway 51 to Manitowish Waters in northern Wisconsin. It was just a 2 lane highway back then! My parents rented a cabin for a whole week! It took forever to get up there, stopping at every little town. The windows in our 1951 Plymouth were always down as we tried to stay cool. We stayed on Rest Lake and had access to a little motor boat. That started a tradition. For many years we continued to spend a week or two in that area.
TOM: Did you belong to any organizations?
MAUREEN: I was in the Brownies, and then, the Girl Scouts. We always met in the basement of Midvale Lutheran Church. I enjoyed making little projects; glitter studded Christmas trees out of feathers! Every week somebody would bring a treat. And you had your dues; it was 10 cents every week. Later in Girl Scouts I sold cookies. My first year they sold for 25 cents a box! I always tell the young girls today, when I see them. I tell them it was 25 cents, and they all can’t believe it. I remember selling cookies all the way up past Midvale Blvd. to the streets behind Midvale School. The only choices back then were thin mints and the sandwich cookies.
TOM: Did you attend church?
MAUREEN: Yes, Queen of Peace (Catholic Church). We’d usually go to either 9:00 or 11:15 mass. Masses were always packed. There were times when people had to stand for lack of seating. There were no 5:00 Saturday night masses at that time. We’d always go to confession on Saturdays. In July of 1955, I was in the last class to receive First Holy Communion in the old church which was in the basement of the school. The new church opened in the fall of 1955. I also remember meeting Father McDonnell when I was four years old. I don’t remember if he was a Monsignor at that time. My dad and I called on him at the rectory which was a house on Mineral Point Road at the corner with Holly Avenue. Dotty Hanson ended up living there. I remember going in with my dad and sitting in the parlor. My dad then registered our family. My sister and I started in Sunday school which was held every Sunday at 10:00 a.m. We would go to 9:00 mass before Sunday School. In the summer we would have two weeks of religious training at Queen of Peace School; it was fun because I met a lot of kids. Some of them were from Midvale but many were from the country (west of Westmorland).
TOM: Did you play a music instrument?
MAUREEN: No. But we had an old upright piano in our basement given to us by my grandparents. My sister, Marianne could play beautifully. She taught herself while I danced to her music.
TOM: Any pets?
MAUREEN: Nels was a wire-haired terrier that we got as a puppy in 1961. He had to be hooked up always or he would run away.
TOM: Do you remember getting sick and the doctor coming to your house?
MAUREEN: When I was in kindergarten in 1952-1953, we all got the chicken pox, including my baby brother. Shortly thereafter we all got the measles. I had them both at the same time. I remember missing weeks of kindergarten. I still have reminder scars all over my body from chicken pox because I scratched them. Our family doctor, Dr. Wheeler, came to the house. Because we were all so sick he quarantined us. He actually had to put a sign on our front door. My dad was the only one in our family to not get sick. All the drapes in our house had to stay closed because we were told the sunlight affected our eyes. Shortly after that episode my sister and I contracted the mumps, a painful disease of the neck glands. We did not have a TV at the time. It was pretty dark and dreary in the house with some very unhappy kids.
TOM: There was the polio outbreak in 1955. Do you remember how that affected your family?
MAUREEN: I just know there was a lady up on Toepfer (Avenue) that had died. We didn’t know her, but that’s what we heard. The mother of a classmate as well as a friend up the street had polio. At an earlier outbreak, my uncle Ralph, born in 1917, had polio and had to wear a brace on his leg because one leg was shorter. I believe our principal at Midvale, Paul Olsen, had suffered polio at some point because he wore a large brace that heightened his left leg. It was a hot summer as I recall and we couldn’t go swimming in the lakes or even run through the sprinkler.
TOM: Do you remember getting your first TV set?
MAUREEN: Our first TV was given to us by my aunt and uncle. They were getting a newer model. This would have been in 1955. This thing was huge. The wooden case that held the TV tubes and electronics was 3 ft. wide x 3 ft. high x 3 ft. deep. The screen had a hexagonal shape and was 8-10 inches in diameter. We could get Rockford, Channel 13 and Channel 4 in Milwaukee. Of course, it didn’t come in very well but Howdy Doody, my favorite, was on every weekday after school. I have a picture of that huge TV but it’s very dark. I wish it was a better photo.
TOM: Let’s move on to your teen years. What was your social life like?
MAUREEN: For junior high I went to Cherokee Junior High. Some days I walked but most days I would get a ride with either my dad or our next-door neighbor, Mr. Bailey. His son, Jim, went to Cherokee also. I always walked home. In 8th grade, I had a really nice teacher named Mr. Moran. He was probably one of my favorite all-time teachers. The dances in Grades 7-9 were highlights for all of us
TOM: How about your social life?
MAUREEN: The dances at Cherokee were great. Forty-five rpm records were spun in the slightly darkened auditorium/cafeteria by the art teacher, Mr. Reinhardt. Other fun events for my girlfriends and me were slumber parties. We always played our 45 rpm records. We listened to Elvis, Jack Scott, Roy Orbison, Frankie Avalon. We would sometimes sneak out at night [laughs]. One night, I think it was at Nancy Evans’ house, we snuck out and walked way over into the Midvale neighborhood on the other side of Midvale Blvd. Another time all of us tried smoking. Trying to inhale, luckily it didn’t work for me, so I never tried again. Junior High years were crazy.
MAUREEN: For high school I attended West High, graduating in ’65. I enjoyed those years more than junior high. My favorite teachers were Mr. Hable, US History and Mr. Osness, Chemistry. My friends and I had lots of fun attending football and basketball games at Breeze Stevens Field. We also spent lots of time driving around on weekend nights. I actually met my future husband, Dennis Welsch, doing just that by meeting him with other friends at the old McDonald’s on University Avenue.
TOM: He was in the same class as you? What would you do on dates?
MAUREEN: Yes, I really didn’t go out on many dates in high school. But I did go to our senior prom with Dennis. Another time I went with a boy in my home room to a road rally. I just did a lot with my girlfriends. Several of us belonged to a high school sorority called Tri High. We had dances and held fund raisers.
TOM: Do you remember The Loft (a high school social club located on Fairchild Street in downtown Madison)?
MAUREEN: I didn’t go there but I had heard of it. I think guys from Central (High School) went there.
TOM: Do you remember when you learned how to drive?
MAUREEN: Yes, I do. My dad was a driver’s ed. teacher and I was his student. Everyone at that time had to drive around the square during their test. I was very nervous young driver and flunked my test twice! Apparently, I was too cautious! However, the third time was the charm.
TOM: Did you parents let you have any jobs in high school?
MAUREEN: I had a job over the Christmas break during my senior year at Rendall’s (Clothing Store) out at Westgate (Shopping Mall). Then the summer after graduation I worked on the Madison playgrounds.
TOM: Talking about fun times, favorite memories in Westmorland Park?
MAUREEN: Fireworks, it definitely was the 4th of July. The tents were always set up on July 3rd. There was an adult tent with beer, hot dogs, etc. The kid’s tent offered games with prizes to be won. I saved one of my prizes. Compared to today’s cheap plastic junk it’s pretty nice. It’s a little wooden pin. It says “Made in Japan.” I think I got it at the fish tank. Somebody was on the other side of a curtain and they put the bagged prize on the hook.
TOM: Looks like a duck, it’s an original bobble head!
MAUREEN: The 4th of July was probably the most exciting day of the year. On July 3rd the tents were set up by volunteers from the community. The fireworks were set off around 9:45 pm. My friends and I brought our blankets and sat on the hill overlooking the baseball field. We were really quite close to the actual site of the fireworks. My parents would sit on our front steps with several of our neighbors to watch as we lived only a block away.
Another memory during those years before driving is walking to and from friend’s houses at night. I often walked up Toepfer (Avenue) to Nancy Evans’ house, I had to be home by 10:30 of course but I was by myself. During those years there was a story going around that there was some man exposing himself near the corner of Birch or Meyer (Avenue). We just laughed. We all thought that was so silly. Even in junior high I don’t think we knew or understood much about sex. We just laughed about it and thought the guy was crazy. How stupid.
TOM: Do you remember, in the summertime, when they had organized activities for the kids and the theater at the park?
MAUREEN: Yes, I remember the traveling Stagecoach (Theatre) which was carried on a flatbed truck. That is one of my favorite memories from Westmorland playground. One time the playground director and some of us kids put on a little show to the tune of “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” Then there was always the lantern parade near summer’s end over at Vilas. As I recall the parade was held one evening during the final week of the playground season. Each of the Madison’s playgrounds entered a theme-based, cardboard-crafted and flashlight-lit lantern. Several kids along with the playground director carried the lantern in the big parade held at Vilas Park. Several years later when I was the playground director at Vilas (Park) I was able to participate in the parade.
Another memory of the early days at Westmorland Park is the night movies shown on a screen next to the shelter house. At that time, it was up on the hill, not down close to the ball field. I remember seeing Gene Autry black and white movies and some cartoons.
TOM: And teen dances in the shelter?
MAUREEN: I remember street dances that were held on the short street section that ran into the park at the end of Westmorland Blvd. I was quite young and tagged along with my big sister who was four years older than me. She danced and I just watched and followed her around while Rock n’ Roll music played on a record player.
TOM: Did your family decorate outside of the house for the Christmas decoration contest?
MAUREEN: We had an arbor vitae tree by our front door that my dad decorated and we had our Christmas tree in the front window. We never won the contest, but we did have Santa come to our house with a stocking full of candy. I think it was one or two years that they did that. (This tradition still continues every Christmas season).
TOM: They still do that in the neighborhood.
TOM: Do you have any other memories?
MAUREEN: I remember one year the circus train went through. That was a really big deal. The train was entertainment. Kids were drawn to it. We weren’t supposed to play on the tracks, but we did. If we heard a train coming and someone had a penny, we would leave it on a rail and then dash down the hill to wait for the train to pass. Finding the flattened treasure was a big thrill.
Another memory concerning those train tracks was the annual spring burning of the vegetation on the hillside. With hoses nearby, the neighbors, on Tokay (Blvd) and Glenway (Street), would burn all of the grasses. The blackened hillside encouraged the new growth of the native prairie grasses. Milkweed along with other native prairie grasses would eventually come up. The train track hillside was beautiful all summer and fall. Now a whole new ecosystem has taken over with mature trees covering the hillsides.
TOM: It’s interesting you mention that because now with the old railroad track being a recreational trail, there is a group in the neighborhood, they call themselves the Green Team, that maintains the green spaces in the neighborhood, the park and the boulevards, and they also have been doing prairie restoration along the trail.
TOM: The Midvale gym floor story?
MAUREEN: I’m not sure of the year, but I believe in 1955 or 1956, there was a leak in the roof over the all-wood gym floor at Midvale School. A heavy rain and a leaky roof caused severe water damage to the floor. The wooden floor actually expanded in giant bubbles across parts of the floor. These huge bulges were close to two feet high and three to four feet wide. They had popped up in random locations on the gym floor. Our teachers allowed us to see this strange sight as we all lined up and carefully walked around them. It was amazing to see how the wooden floor expanded but the individual boards stayed connected. Today, children would never be allowed to do anything like that because of safety regulations. It was a very memorable experience for me.
TOM: Anything else about the neighborhood?
MAUREEN: I do remember ice skating at Westmorland Park, especially in my junior high years. The shelter house was boarded up and turned into a warming house for the winter months. There was always hot chocolate in the warming house donated I think by generous neighbors or possibly the Girl or Boy Scouts. The hockey players were at the upper rink. There was always a story that one of the hockey players was gouged. I remember Butchie Caruso, a neighbor on Glen Drive got cut badly.
It was a wonderful time growing up in Westmorland and I have so many good memories.
I want to thank you, Tom, for documenting those years in the 1950’s and 60’s.
TOM: And you now live where?
MAUREEN: In 1970 after attending the UW, my husband and I moved to Connecticut where he went to school for two years. Then we came back and moved up to the Minneapolis area. We’ve lived in Northfield, Minnesota; Stillwater, Minnesota; Red Wing, Minnesota; and now in White Bear Lake, Minnesota. We both are retired. I was a teacher for 37 years. My husband was a city planner and community development director for 38 years.