Dona Chilcoat Alexander Cover Sheet:
Interviewee:Dona Chilcoat Alexander
Place of Interview:Lions head, 87 Canaan Road, Salisbury, Ct.
Date of Interview:July 29, 2013
Summary of talk:Family background, education, best friends at SCS, high school music trip to Vienna, pie baking fund raiser, the trip itself, articles in Hartford Courant, adolescent memories ages 12-13 of the Grove and sock hops, Roberts property became a town farm, Community Service, the Gentile’s drugstore, Harney Tea, Noble Horizons, lack of prejudice toward race relations and handicapped people here .
This is Katherine Chilcoat interviewing my daughter on July 29, 2013, at my home at Lions Head in Salisbury.
KC: Dona, give me your full name birthdate, where you were born, those kinds of things.
DA: My full name is Dona Chilcoat Alexander. I was born in 1955. I have a brother Richard and a sister Susan. My parents are Katherine Chilcoat and my father who is deceased was William Chilcoat.
KC: You were born in Sharon.
DA: I was born in Sharon Hospital. At the time my parents lived in Lakeville on Deep Lake Farm.
KC: Where did you go to school?
DA: I began my schooling at a nursery school that was in Lakeville in the house I eventually lived in which is the big white Victorian (A. E. Roberts, Nelson, Chilcoat, Heck house, 56 Sharon Road Ed.)) at the top of what used to be called Montgomery Street, but is now called Sharon Road, right at the Catholic church where this road and Wells Hill Road separate. (The nursery school was run by Ellen Nelson and eventually was sold to Jeanne Wardell and became Little Scholar School. See 132A Ed.) After nursery school I went to the Town hill School which was located on the campus of Hotchkiss School and was a three room elementary school that went from Kindergarten to third grade. The kindergarten had one room, then the first, second and third grades were all separated into the two classrooms. I was there until the end of second grade. Then I went to Salisbury Central from third grade through eighth grade. Then I went to Housatonic Valley Regional High School and from there I went to Gettysburg College, Gettysburg, PA.
KC: When you were at Salisbury Central, who were your closest friends in Lakeville? Whom did you play with?
DA: My closest friend was Paula McGivern who lived down, I could cut through the Catholic Church parking lot and a little tiny dirt road and then we’d be on what they called Muck Alley (Farnam Road ED.)This is where the McGiverns, the Whalens, the Stantons, and the Seitz’s- a whole lot of the families whom I hung out with. I hung out with Barbara Peck, Nancy Pollock who was the local Methodist minister’s daughter and my best church friend, Sandy Gomez whose family had the big farm on the top of Wells Hill Road, and Sandy Sisson whose mother worked at the Hotchkiss School. Sandy lived a few houses up Wells Hill Road from me. Those were probably my best friends.
KC: When you were at the high school, I know of one significant occurrence during your high school years which was your trip to Vienna. Could you tell us a little bit about that trip?
DA: Sure. First a little background I got into the Music Department, actually a close friend of mine Mark Alexander talked me into trying out for the Music Department at the high school. He is the younger brother to the man I just married a year ago, Rick Alexander (See tape #162) whom I have known all my life. Mark talked me into going and talking to Gary Parmalee, Director of the Music Department at that time at the high school. I auditioned and accepted into the department. Gary Parmalee was a musical genius; he worked with the chorus at the high school until he got us to a level where during my senior year we were invited to sing at the Festival of 3 Cities in Europe. The three cities were Vienna, Budapest, and Prague. We worked really, really hard my senior year of high school to raise enough money to go to Vienna. We had to pay our own way, so to speak. In those days it was a huge cost, not only to our parents, but to the town in general that raised money and contributed toward us going.
One of my favorite parts about raising the money was that same group of girlfriends that I was just talking about decided that we would bake pies and sell them for Thanksgiving. This was something we knew how to do. We had learned how to do it in Home Economics class at the high school. We figured that maybe we would sell 75 to 100 pies to raise some money. Now keep in mind that these were the days when you couldn’t buy a frozen pie crust. We had to hand roll out all these pie crusts; we offered people apple, pumpkin, and mincemeat. I think those were the three that we made. Unfortunately or fortunately, at least as a fund raiser, we ended up with orders for more than 700 pies. We had about one week and half to create these 700 pies. We had every oven in Lakeville baking pies. We were up until all hours of the night rolling out pie dough down at Paula’s house on Muck Alley in her little tiny kitchen. It was a very good experience in seeing a project through to completion, no matter what direction it goes in, we still had to go with it. That was a great experience.
We all flew off to Vienna which was dazzling. We sang at the palace. The first night we were there, we ate in a private dining room. It must have been a government something at the palace. We all remember very well that the waiters were all dressed in tuxedoes, something that most of us small town kids had never seen before. If we dripped an ice cube or something, the waiter would pick it up and put it into his pocket. We all wondered what they did to empty out their pockets at the end of the night. It was the first time all of us were served soup as a first course. We were all relatively horrified to find that each bowl of soup contained a chicken foot. But we adapted; we were so exhausted and hungry that we would have eaten anything. Performing in Vienna was beautiful.
As we moved on to Hungary and Czechoslovakia it became very different. At that time those countries were still behind the Iron Curtain. Once we got over there, all the promises of the Festival of the 3 Cities changed. We were told we could only hold public rehearsals; we were not allowed to perform publically. People who came to hear us sing were very brave. We learned what it was to be in a country where no body looked up from the sidewalk; everyone kept their eyes down. There were people in uniforms on the street corners with machine guns. Somehow the people found a way to entertain us. In Hungary they took us all out in the country to a Hungarian rodeo. We learned a lot about the people and their culture and we were all very relieved to come back to the United States.
KC: Now you wrote a series of newspaper articles about that trip.
DA: Yes, I did.
KC: What paper did you write them for? 3.
DA: I wrote them for the Hartford Courant. I had spent the summer of my sophomore to junior year of high school writing a little bit for the Lakeville Journal. When the time came that the Hartford Courant wanted somebody to be their eyes and ears on the trip, somehow I got chosen to do it. They published three very lengthy articles that I wrote about the trip which are still available in some archive somewhere.
KC: Tell me a little bit now about things you did, not so much at the high school age, but at the early teen age, everything from going to fairs to sock hops at the Grove, and whatever you remember doing as a 12-13 year old.
DA: Growing up in the Lakeville-Salisbury area in the 1960’s and early 1970’s was very different from growing up there in 2013. It was a very safe idyllic place to grow up. I could get on my bike on a summer’s morning at the age of 10, 11, and 12 and take off for the day; my mother’s parting words would be, “Be back before the streetlights come on.” We rode out bikes between each other’s houses, to the Grove. We basically spent our summers roaming. We were perfectly safe doing that because there were eyes and ears all over town keeping track of us. If we were to get into any kind of mischief, my mother was going to hear about it before the mischief was complete. We were able to come and go as we pleased. Summers were spent lying on towels at the town Grove, listening to our transistor radios which no body has a transistor radio any more, and drinking ice cold bottles of Coca Cola that came out of the cooler at the little store at the Grove. If we needed money to buy another Coke, we walked around the beach and talked other people into giving us their empty bottles because you could return the empty bottle at the Grove store and get either 2 cents back which you could use toward your next bottle of Coke or you could get a pretzel stick. I remember those days jumping off the raft, swimming under the little raft, doing things that today parents would be appalled at the danger of what we were doing. Between the little raft and the big raft was something called the log. It was a log that was probably 5 feet long and maybe a foot and one half in diameter and it just floated there. It was chained to the bottom. You could seesaw on the log, ride the log and roll the log. We would go out and tread water and watch the boys do stupid things on the log. Obviously the log was removed many years ago because it was dangerous. Today’s kids don’t know anything about that.
We would go to sock hops on Friday nights down at the Grove. Our parents would drop us off at the Grove building up on the hill. Somebody would spin 45’s. For those of you who don’t know what 45’s are, they were little tiny records; all the big hits came out on 45’s. We would buy our 45’s with our allowance down at the Ben Franklin store which no longer exists. It was right in front of the entrance to the ball field in Lakeville. (It was formerly Barnett’s Store which Bill Barnett sold to Darwin Miller. Ed.) They stocked a full selection of 45’s and they cost us in those days 49 cents apiece. They had an A side and a B side. We danced to 45’s at the sock hop which we dressed up for; we would put on stockings. The biggest thrill of the sock hop was walking home on evening and Michael Hickey who was the bad boy of town and also the cutest boy in town threw me into Factory Pond. That made me so special in the eyes of my girlfriends that I rode on that for months afterwards. It really was an idyllic time in my life and the life of the town.
KC: You lived with your parents and your brother and sister in what was called the Roberts House right by the Catholic Church. That house had a significant amount of property with it in what we thought of as significant in downtown Lakeville. Tell us a little bit about your father’s farming background that prompted him to turn that property into a mini farm and teach you what it was like to be a farm girl.
DA: Well, I was really blessed with the parents that I got because they were so totally different and from such different backgrounds. My mother came from New York society and knew all there was to know about shopping at Saks 5th Avenue, Lord & Taylor, art museums, classical music and all of those wonderful things that come out of an urban culture. My father was born and raised dirt poor down in Sparks, Maryland, down on the Mason-Dixon Line, the son of a farmer. He was born in 1913; he was significantly older than my mother so as I grew up I got the best of both worlds. From my mother I learned about good quality clothing, history, and those sorts of things. From my father I learned a love of the land, patience and tolerance that comes from living a farm life. I could switch back and forth very easily. One day I could be with my mother down in White Plains shopping, and the next days I could be mucking out stalls with my father on one of the local dairy farms. As you say we had a big Victorian house at the top of the hill which came with a big barn. Moving to town was probably difficult for my father. We moved off Deep Lake Farm in Lakeville, so he slowly but surely starting putting together a town farm. We had a pony named Tar Baby who was probably the most obnoxious animal that ever lived. If you went anywhere near him, he bit you. I assume he bit everyone, not just me. We had chickens down in the basement of the barn, little Bantam chickens. You had to gather 4 eggs for the size of a normal chicken egg. We had dogs, cats and a rabbit named Half & Half. The story behind the rabbit is that every Easter the department store over in Millerton, New York, then called Delsons, for years now it has been a big antique center right on Main Street. They would do a window display and in that display they would put live chicks and baby bunnies. When you went shopping at Delsons with your parents, you could enter to win a chick or a bunny at Easter. One year we won a bunny and he was half black and half white. He was a very little bunny when we brought him home, but he grew into a monster bunny, as I recall as a child. I think he weighed 40 pounds. We kept him out in the barn in an old baby crib. Half & Half didn’t do much except lay there and eat stuff, but he was part of the menagerie. My parents raised Morgan horses. My dad drove at the track up on Wells Hill Road. I rode at Lucy Drummond’s over in Salisbury through a lot of my childhood. As kids even though we didn’t live on what would normally be considered a farm, we still had barn chores; we learned what it was to care about living things for their own sake. My dad had a huge vegetable garden, and I remember that my job was always to pinch the suckers off the tomato plants so they would produce more tomatoes. When I was in Maine with my brother I was slicing a store bought tomato, I looked at him and I said, “What ever happened to real tomatoes.” You cannot buy a real tomato anymore; the tomatoes my father grew were so luscious that as kids I can remember just plucking one off the vines warm from the sun, standing in the garden and eating it as it was. I can remember pulling an ear of corn, shucking it right there and eating it. My job was to pull suckers off the tomato plants, my sister’s job because she had such tiny fingers, she would get down on her knees and weed. I made sure I was no good at weeding so that I was never required to do that. It was a true blessing to have been able to grow up that way.
KC: After you graduated from college, married and stayed in Gettysburg, PA for a number of years before your marriage dissolved and you came back to Salisbury. When you and your daughter Sarah came back to Salisbury, where did you work?
DA: I had an assortment of jobs over the years that I was back in Salisbury. The first job I had was for Community Service. You all at this point in time know it as Herrington’s. It was the local hardware store and lumberyard. When I moved back, the main store had just burned to the ground, a horrible loss to the community. The store was operating out of a very small building on the same property, just basically trying to provide as much service as possible until a new store could be built. I came back and went to work for Mike Ternure who owned Community Hardware and Lumber. I was really just a clerk; I had just gotten divorced, I had an 8 year old daughter whom I was raising on my own, I really just wanted to stand at the register and ring people up. As it turned out, when they were ready to set up the new building, they asked me if I would be the manager of it; it was a fabulous experience. I became well versed in lumber and hardware. I traveled to Florida, Nashville, Tennessee; I got to go to a lot of places for hardware conventions. I was one woman in a male-dominated industry. There were very few women who worked in lumber and hardware at the time. It was a job I loved; I knew every contractor in the Northwestern corner. It is a job I miss to this day.
KC: Speaking of jobs and going back a little farther than Community, you were in on the very beginnings of Harney Tea.
DA: That’s right. I had known the Harneys all my life; Michael Harney and I are the same age and went all through elementary school together. Actually when I left Community, I ran into another old friend of mine and who was also a childhood buddy, Patty O’Loughlin. I am just going to do a little aside here before I move on to Harney Tea. Speaking of Patty O’Loughlin she grew up in the neighborhood that was across from Lincoln City Road going up to the elementary school. Patty and I walked back and forth; we had to walk to school, we did not have a bus. So from the way home from school every Monday because we had both gotten our allowance on Friday, we stopped at the Lakeville Apothecary which today in 2013 is a Chinese restaurant. In those days it was the local drugstore. Patty and I would go there after school on Mondays and sit at the counter, at stools at the counter. The Gentiles who ran the Lakeville Apothecary made fabulous hot fudge sundaes. Patty and I would spend our allowance on a hot fudge sundae which we would share and we would each get a comic book. In those days comic books were huge. The Gentiles had the best selection of comic books anywhere. This was the time when not only were comic books of super heroes, but there were just as many comic books that were romance comic books, they were love stories. Patty and I would each get a love story comic book, and we would sit at the counter with Mrs. Gentile, eat our hot fudge sundae and read our love story comic book. I remember that like it was today.
When I came back, I ran into Patty on the street and I said I was looking for work. She said that she worked at Harney Tea; they were just then thinking about bringing on another person. I said that I didn’t know anything about tea and she said, “Neither did I when I started working there.” It was the very beginning of what people know today as Harney Tea. It all took place in one room back of the Harney’s house in downtown Salisbury right across from the White Hart Inn. At that time we were selling tea to William Sonoma. They had their own private label which was actually Harney Tea. We also sold to big hotels and restaurants all over the world; the Plaza in New York, big hotels in London. They would buy tea from overseas and it would come delivered to Salisbury in these huge wooden chests. We would pry the lids off them, and blend tea out in the driveway. The only other employee was Sally Lawroski. I knew Sally from my childhood on Deep lake Farm. The Lawroskis were another farm family. Sally Lawroski, Patty O’Loughlin and I would be up to our armpits blending tea for the Harneys. This was the very beginning of their mail order business which I continued to help them develop for the next several years until they had gone from a trifold piece of paper that they would mail off to about 20 people to a four color glossy catalogue as you may have seen it today that goes out to several thousand people. I learned to appreciate fine tea, to know the difference between teas and different gardens, green tea, brown tea, black tea, and flavored tea. One of the things I remember the most was the Chamomile tea would come to us directly from Egypt; it was unlike anything you get in a regular store-bought Chamomile tea bag. We would open that box and the scent of those flowers was just incredible. We would find all kinds of stuff in the tea because the workers in Egypt really didn’t care. If they were getting rid of something, if they had a wrapper from something, they would just throw it right in the box with the Chamomile. Today the Harneys have a huge center over in Millerton; they produce bottled ice tea. It is really a very different thing than it was in its infancy in that little room at Harney’s house.
KC: Thank you, that’s an interesting story. Tell us about Noble Horizons.
DA: I went to Noble Horizons and applied for a job as the front desk receptionist. I had seen the job in the Lakeville Journal and I thought, “Oh I love people; I love elders. I have a deep and abiding respect for the wisdom and life experiences of elders. I think that is a job I would really enjoy.” Well, the minute I walked in the door, I was redirected to another childhood friend, Joanne Erickson who is today Joanne Moore in what was then called the Recreational Therapy Department at Noble. We had known each other for many years; she heard that I was applying for a job as a receptionist, and she needed somebody in her department. So she came and pulled me out of my interview and said, “No, I want her in my department.” She proceeded to train me in recreational therapy which is basically bringing life enrichment to the residents of a long term care facility. I worked Wagner Terrace which was a unit where people needed nursing supervision. They needed somebody to oversee their medication, and to be right there if they needed them. This was for people who were still truly intellectually and physically independent. I learned how to provide programming for spiritual, physical, emotional, intellectual enrichment. I loved my years at Noble. It was there that I felt my first call to go into the ministry. I loved the fact that Noble provided a chapel. Very, very few long term care facilities provide that anymore because the populations have changed so much. I went from doing therapeutic recreation to pursuing certification in clinical pastoral education which certifies someone to be able to provide spiritual care in prisons, long term care facilities, drug rehab and places like that. I started investigating where I could study for that certification. It turned out that there were only two places in the state of Connecticut that provided that. One of them was Noble Horizons sister facility, Avery Heights in Hartford, Ct. So I went from working fulltime at Noble Horizons to working half time at Noble and half time at Avery Heights in Hartford while I studied for my CPE. Eventually when I finished that certification Avery heights hired me as their fulltime chaplain. I began spending four days a week in Hartford, living on the Avery Heights campus and commuting back to Salisbury on the weekend. At this point my daughter had gone on to living independently. She was going to school at Southern Connecticut State University to become certified to work with autistic children. I began splitting my time between Salisbury and Hartford at that point.
KC: Dona, in the years you were growing up, tell us a little bit about race relations, your friends among the black community.
DA: Well, as I was growing up in Lakeville, I really had no idea that there was a difference between myself and someone who had darker skin. I had a lot of black friends, the Branche family, the McArthurs. We all grew up together, played together, went back and forth to each other‘s houses. I grew up with black families in the Methodist Church where my father was very active, the Fowlkes. It wasn’t until I went away to college that I realized that there was any different. I went to a college that wasn’t in the Deep South, but was right on the Mason-Dixon Line. Of course I went to college in the 1970’s which was a socially radical time. There was a lot of change going on in the country. When I arrived at the Gettysburg College campus, I was a little nonplussed that there was a black student union and a white student union. I at first couldn’t quite figure that out. It wasn’t because of enforced segregation; it was segregation on the part of the African-Americans students; they were quite radicalized at that time. Most of them dressed in dashikis, Malcolm X was a revered figure. It took me about my entire freshman year to get my equilibrium as far as that was concerned. I would come back home and nothing had changed here in bucolic Lakeville, Ct. Everybody still grew up together, played together.
Besides the difference in the race relations in town, I also encountered my first work living with handicapped people. There was a boy in my class growing up who was in a wheelchair, Randy Wilson. So I also learned to not think any differently of somebody who was physically challenged. I really grew up in a place with very little prejudice. It wasn’t until I got to the outside world that I realized where I lived was different.
KC: I thank you very much Dona for giving us this good view of what Lakeville was like when you were growing up. Do you have anything that you haven’t touched on that you feel needs to be said? We still have a few minutes on this tape, otherwise…
DA: I think what I really want to convey on this tape is that I know you have collected many oral histories from many generations that have lived in the Lakeville-Salisbury area. The community is always evolving; when I came back here a lot of New Yorkers had moved into the area and there was friction between country people and city people. I don’t want to give the impression that it remains stagnant. It grows and changes over time. I will go to my grave saying that the years I grew up here the best of the years.
KC: Thank you very much, Dona.
Property of the Oral History Project: The Salisbury Association at the Scoville Memorial Library, Salisbury, Ct. 06068