Oral history interview with Robert Dixon
This is an oral history interview with Westmorland neighborhood resident Robert Dixon.
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- Tom: This is Tom Martinelli with the Wisconsin History Committee and today is Wednesday, April 18, 2018. I am conducting a phone interview with Bob Dixon, who was born and raised in Westmorland. He has agreed to share these memories with us today. We’ll get started with some basic information.
Tom: When were you born?
Bob: I was born in 1939 at the Madison General Hospital.
Tom: Your father built the family house in Westmorland in the same time frame?
Bob: Yes, he built the house in 1940 and that’s when we moved in.
I lived there from 1940 to 1963 when I graduated from the University of Wisconsin.
Tom: What was the address of that new house?
Bob: It’s 502 Toepfer Avenue.
Bob: While the house was being built, we lived at 334 Glenway Street in a house owned by Mr. Parman, which I suspect is the same Parman that had the adjacent gas station (on Monroe Street).
Tom: What are your earliest memories of Westmorland as a young boy?
Bob: Well, I have a couple. There was one where Santa Claus used to visit at Christmas time. I don’t know if they still do that.
Tom: Yes, they still have that tradition.
Bob: Good, because my folks would put the presents outside and have the light turned on. Then, they would come in and Santa Claus would come in and I was so excited about that—in getting the presents.
Bob: The other thing I remember was going to kindergarten at Dudgeon school (on Monroe Street). That was a big experience for me.
Then, the fourth of July was really a wonderful experience. My mother would decorate my bicycle covered in crepe paper and I would ride in the parade. That was a great thing.
Tom: What were your parents occupations?
Bob: My father was an x-ray technician at the Wisconsin General Hospital and my mother was a secretary at the University of Wisconsin.
Tom: Did you have any siblings?
Bob: No, I’m an only child.
Tom: Let’s talk in more detail about your childhood. Where did you attend school in Westmoreland?
Bob: I went to Dudgeon School for kindergarten thru sixth grade.
Tom: Because Midvale school didn’t exist at that time?
Bob: That’s right.
Tom: Do you recall any favorite teachers?
Bob: I liked the music classes the best and my favorite teacher was Miss Ganter, who was the six- grade teacher, because sometimes we’d get together outside of class.
Tom: What are some of your memories of her?
Bob: We went to visit her a couple of times in her apartment and she welcomed us in and we had a good time.
Tom: Can you talk a little about coming and going to school?
Bob: I walked to school every day and when I got a little older I rode my bicycle to school.
We walked even when the snow was deep. One thing was that we could take a short cut from my house across the Glenway golf course to the school. So, that went on for many, many years until finally the houses along the other end of Glenway Street and the golf course got built up and became someone’s backyard and then it blocked the way and we couldn’t walk (across the vacant lots). That was the end of that.
Tom: Were there any sidewalks?
Bob: I think there were paved roads, but there weren’t any sidewalks to speak of. When the snow was deep across the golf course, I remember going through three feet of snow one winter going across the golf course!
Tom: How would you describe yourself as a young child?
Bob: I would say I was an average kid. I didn’t do anything out of the ordinary. But, I did have a few hijinks I’ll tell you about as times goes on here.
Tom: Did you do chores, and did you get an allowance?
Bob: Yes, I had the chore of mowing the lawn in the summertime. I did receive an allowance, but I don’t remember what it was.
Tom: How would you describe a perfect day when you were a ten-year-old?
Bob: Playing in the park; the park was a big part of my life. We went there almost every day. I played with my friends and other people. I’ll tell you one of my hijinks. We were playing hide-and-go- seek once in the park. At that time, the park was largely woods. The shelter house was there but other than that it was mostly woods. It was not cleared out like it is now. So, we played hide- and-go-seek and I was hiding way down behind some bushes. They could never find me. But, I found the next morning I was covered with jigger bites. That was a mistake.
Tom: Did your family take annual vacations? Where would you go and what would you do?
Bob: I wouldn’t say annual. We did take a few driving vacations in the western part of the United States where we visited various parks, national park and things like that. We had a good time doing that.
Tom: Were you involved in any organizations?
Bob: I was in the Cub Scouts. My mother was a den mother. So, we had meetings at our home every so often and we would wear uniforms. We did certain things to get our little books filled in with awards and you would get special badges.
Tom: Did you play any musical instrument?
Bob: At West High School, I started playing the clarinet and I did that all the way through college. In college I played the bass clarinet. I got to be in the concert band and the marching band at the university. And, I got to go to the Rose Bowl. I had a lot of good times.
Tom: Were there any other undeveloped areas in Westmorland where you might have played?
Bob: The neighborhood ended at Holly Avenue as far as going west. Beyond that were hills, trees, woods. We would play there. Also, the glen on the other side of the tracks was undeveloped and wooded. We would play there and there was a tunnel under the railroad tracks from the glen over to Westmorland. I think the tunnel is still there, but I think it was blocked off on both sides. We were in there often.
Tom: Did you attend church on a regular basis?
Bob: We went to Glenwood Moravian Church. It’s just across the street from Dudgeon School.
Tom: Did you have any pets?
Bob: We always had dogs. One thing I remember, the park had a talent show where we could bring our animals in. So, I took our dog at that time and we would march around the shelter house and give commands like heel and sit and so on. So, I was very proud of that.
Tom: Did you remember getting sick and a doctor coming to your house?
Bob: There was a Dr. Holmgren who also lived on Toepfer Avenue and he would do house calls. He would come to us whenever anybody was sick. One time I was sick. I had to be in the hospital for a while. Then, I was at home and I had to stay in the house for the entire summer.
I was very envious looking out the window and seeing the kids playing outside.
Tom: Did you always feel safe in the neighborhood?
Bob: There was very little traffic and there were never any strange people walking around.
Tom: Do you remember getting your first black and white TV?
Bob: Well, our next-door neighbors were the Cooks (at 504 Toepfer Avenue) who got a TV set and they had it for several years before we ever did, and we would occasionally go over there and watch things like the Ed Sullivan show. The next thing we got our own TV set. When I got a little older, before I became an electrical engineer, I was very interested in that TV, so I climbed up on the roof and put an antenna on the roof of our house much to my mother’s chagrin because she was sure I was going to fall off the roof, but I didn’t. I would have a good time viewing distant television stations and keeping a log of that and taking pictures of them.
Tom: Taking pictures of the screen?
Bob: Yes, the screen, so I could prove I saw those stations.
Tom: Is there anything else you’d like to share about grade school? Bob: Not so much about grade school.
Tom: You want to move on to high school?
Bob: Yes, I went to West High School. I was in an automobile club at that time called the Pacers. I didn’t have a car, but there were my friends who were in the club and some of them had cars. Then, we would go to The Loft downtown occasionally, that was a teenage hangout where we could do things like dance and play ping-pong. In fact, I was the ping-pong champion one year.
Tom: Did you have a part-time job while you were in high school?
Bob: Yes, I worked at the IGA grocery store on Mineral Point Road near the Village Bar. I was a carry- out boy. I had one of the strangest experiences; I saved a car from crashing. As I was carrying out groceries, I noticed there was a car apparently in gear but had no brakes. So, it was backing up slowly across the parking lot. It was halfway across the parking lot when I decided I had to do something. So, I jumped in the car and stopped it and had someone go in to the grocery store to find out who the owner was. They came out and they were grateful that I had saved their car from crashing into something.
Tom: When did you learn to drive?
Bob: I was in high school. The driving classes were taught by our high school gym teacher. The one thing I remember about that is he would get a little panicky. He sat on the right-hand side and there were dual controls, so he could push in the clutch and brakes. So, several times when he thought I was doing something wrong, he would push in the clutch, but he didn’t have the accelerator pedal and the engine would race horribly! I thought that was funny.
Tom: Did you ever go out on dates in high school?
Bob: Well, we would sometimes go to The Loft and athletic events, or there were the bands. We would pal around together after the games and have a good time.
Bob: I met my wife in the University of Wisconsin band.
Tom: When did you get married?
Bob: Just after I graduated we got married and moved to Ohio.
Tom: So, you lived at home with your parents up to that point.
Bob: That’s right
Tom: Do you remember any stories about your neighbors?
Bob: No, there weren’t any strange, unusual persons, hippies or like that.
Tom: Do you remember the war years?
Bob: My dad was in the Naval Reserve, so he was gone at times but not very much. (During WW II) They had air raid black outs. We had to pull the shades and not have lights on. There was a block captain who would go around when the air raid practice was going on he would see if the lights were visible from the outside. He would come and knock on your door if you weren’t doing it right. He let you know that you should change how you were doing things.
Tom: When your father was in the service was he away for a period?
Bob: He was away for a short time, a month or two. Then, they decided that he had flat feet. They discharged him after that.
Bob: During the war my mother had ration books. She could only buy certain things on certain days in the grocery store.
Tom: Did you ever serve in the service?
Bob: No, I never did. I was in college at the time in engineering. I was eligible for the draft, but the government decided having engineers was more important than having soldiers. I had deferments until the war was over.
Tom: Do you recall any major weather events?
Bob: Just the one big snow storm when we had several feet of snow. I had to struggle through the snow to get to school.
Tom: There is not a lot of commercial development in Westmorland. Do you remember anything about the stores?
Bob: Midvale Boulevard wasn’t even there. The only thing that was there were the commercial shops around the corner of Glenway Street and Mineral Point Road. Burke’s Drug Store was there (on Glenway Street), and I remember going in there to get cherry cokes which I always loved. The hardware store (on Mineral Point Road) was there. I played a joke on my mother once. She asked me what I wanted for my birthday. I told her I wanted a metric crescent wrench. Of course, there is no such thing. So, she went to the hardware store and asked them for a metric crescent wrench. Later, she came back home and was very embarrassed.
Then, I played a joke on my father. He used to play euchre at the Village Bar a lot. I don’t know how old I was. I went in there one time when he was in there. I had delivered newspapers to the bar. I walked over to where he was playing, I pulled on his shirt and I said, “Daddy, daddy, please come home!” He was so embarrassed, and his friends laughed and laughed about that.
Tom: What about the bus system back then?
Bob: Eventually there was a route that went up Speedway Road to Mineral Point Road and down Toepfer Avenue and it stopped right across the street from our house. The only problem was that when it got to Midvale Blvd, or somewhere near there, the driver could take a break. He would park the bus and sit there for a long time and all the passengers had to sit and wait. Eventually, he’d start up again and drive off. It was a little slow, but it was convenient and inexpensive.
Tom: Are there any other memories of things you did for playtime in Westmorland?
Bob: We also went sledding on the golf course in the wintertime. There were a lot of people with toboggans and sleds. We made a jump out of some logs and the sleds would go flying up into the air. It was a good time until one time I laid on top (of another boy) and went down on the sled and it went flying through the air and I landed on top of him and was a little bit woozy for some time. I was not too badly hurt. But we survived.
Another interesting thing, when there weren’t many houses being built there (in the 1940s during WW II), there was a house being built on Meyer Avenue and there was a huge pile of dirt. We used to play by that pile. One time I found a cannonball. It looked old and rusty and looked like it was buried for a long time, so I picked it up and took it home. I had it for a long time. None of us had any idea where it came from.
Tom: Do you have any other memories of Glenway golf course?
Bob: Yes, we walked across there all the time, we took that as a shortcut (to school). We played there. When I was a little older I used to collect butterflies on the golf course. One of the things that collectors did was to make a mixture of sugar water and spread it around on the trees and that attracts moths at night. I would go there (the next day) and try to collect big moths.
An interesting memory I didn’t recall until just now was when I spread that mixture on some trees and I was there with my net looking around. The caretaker from the golf course came driving along in his truck and asked me what I was doing. I said, “I’m looking for moths.” He misunderstood, and thought I was looking for balls. He was kind of upset thinking that I was using my net to gather golf balls.
Tom: How about Westmorland Park? You mentioned a little about the 4th of July, any other memories?
Bob: Yes, I guess they called it the Green Box program. The instructors were wonderful. They organized all the games we played. I remember they would sell gimp, little plastic strips that we would weave and make bracelets. I thought that was interesting. One of the instructors stayed at my house because my parents rented out a room and, so she stayed there while she was working at the park.
Another time, one of the teachers at Dudgeon School stayed at my house in the room that my parents rented.
Tom: Do you remember the Christmas decoration contest?
Bob: I remember being in Westmorland at that time, but we never entered the contest.
This is another joke that I played. We had a bunch of Christmas light strings in the house. I leaned out of the upstairs bedroom windows and I created a huge sign with “MC” (for Merry Christmas) strung all across the house. My mother and father almost died of embarrassment when they saw that, but they left it there.
Tom: Anything else you’d want to share?
Bob: I could mention that on the 4th of July, in addition to the parade, when I got a little older they would put up big circus tents on the park grounds and they would have beer and food inside for my parents and other adults. One of the things that we organized at the park was a game where we would throw rubber balls over the tent. We then decided who won or didn’t win, or who caught the ball or didn’t catch the ball. I remember one time somebody threw a ball over the tent and it hit a woman in the face. She got very angry over that, so that was the end of that game. They were just big rubber balls, 6 or 8 inches across, nothing hard.
Tom: So, the challenge was to catch the ball on the other side before it hit the ground?
Bob: Yes, that’s right. Catch it on the other side of the tent. You could never see where they were throwing it, so you had to run furiously to try and catch the ball (when it appeared over the tent).
Bob: I’d like to add a few other memories.
I always liked to read the Westmorland Courier and find out about neighborhood activities. There was a small volunteer fire station located in the northwest corner of Westmorland Park.
Occasionally its siren would blow and some neighbor men would grab their heavy coats and wait for the fire engine to come around and pick them up. Later, the station was abandoned and left standing open and empty, so we would play in there.
I’d like to add to the interview with Butch Meyer on page 5 of “Voices of Westmorland”. Butch and I were friends and shared our hobby of stamp collecting.
The fire they described in the book was a really big deal and the whole neighborhood came out to watch. People never knew how the fire got started until it came out in the book.
The “Voices of Westmorland” book also mentions a clandestine shack built in the field by some older boys. Unbeknownst to any of them until even now, we younger boys discovered a hatchway in the floor of the shack, which let us get in. It was of course thrilling to have discovered such a forbidden place, and we were always in fear of getting caught. The shack was very nice inside, with carpeting and bunk beds.
Tom: This has been great Bob that you shared some of your interesting stories with us. Thank you very much.