Oral History: Katherine Shea Roycroft
Gretchen Grozier interviewed Katherine Shea Roycroft on December 4, 2004 at the June Bug Cafe in Jamaica Plain.
GG: When and where were you born?
KR: I was born right around the corner, at 16 Paul Gore Street, on April 9, 1917. So I have been waiting 86 years for the Red Sox! I was born at home. My mother always mentioned the fact that there was a big snowstorm that day and the doctor had trouble getting to the house. He was traveling by horse and buggy and it was icy. I am the oldest of ten—four sisters and five brothers. Three of us were born in the house, the rest were born in Emerson Hospital.
It was a three decker house. We were on the first floor. It was the Magner family on the second floor, a husband and wife and their daughter. They were great friends. I remember them well. And on the third floor there was a family called Sheridan.
GG: Where did you go to school?
KR: I went to the Cheverus School at Blessed Sacrament Parish through the eighth grade. I was confirmed at Blessed Sacrament and] I got married there too. It was a Father Coyne that married us. He had a brother Bob Coyne, who was a cartoonist for the Boston Post. Blessed Sacrament was mostly Irish. The pastor was a man called O’Connell.
After Blessed Sacrament, I went to Notre Dame Academy in Roxbury. It was all the way down Centre Street, across through Jackson Square, up Marcella Street. It’s the Dimock Health Center there now. [The teachers — the] Sisters of Charity — they lived right there at the school. The building was about 100 years old when I was going to school. It was a beautiful building. It’s been torn down, I think. I think the primary school was the original church, and a wooden building was the school. Then there was a bigger building in back, with the 4th grade up. Then there was another building — a 2-year commercial school.
I had two aunts in convent — the oldest one went into Notre Dame when she was in her late 20s. And then the youngest one, Geraldine, entered Notre Dame when I was about 12. The last year I was at Notre Dame, my older aunt was there too. I couldn’t get away with anything!
After Notre Dame I went to Business School in Boston. There was an annex right next to the State House, on Bowdoin Street in Boston. And the main building was on Warren Street in Roxbury.
GG: What did your father do?
KR: My father and grandfather had a market down on Heath Street—Shea’s market — 112 Heath Street. It was a regular market, with meat and big wooden tables where they cut the meat as people came in and ordered it. They didn’t have display cases or anything like now. These big hunks of meat would be there. There was a refrigerator where they hung all the meat. They sold vegetables, meat, groceries.
They delivered with the horse and teams. That was before trucks and cars. I remember I was about 5 or 6 and my father bought a Model T Ford truck. And they delivered in the truck after that, but they kept the horse and team. My grandfather used to drive it home to lunch every day. There was a barn in back of the store where they kept the horse.
The store was started by my grandmother’s brother, who came from Ireland. And at that time, my grandmother and grandfather were living in Ware, Massachusetts and my uncle wanted to go back to Ireland and open a pub. So they bought the store from him and he went back to Ireland and opened a pub in Cork.
And you know it was thriving until the chain stores came — First National, A&P. Then his business really went downhill. But when he died we were amazed how many people came and said, particularly men whose work was seasonal, like carpenters, that he’d carry them through the winter. But that did make a dent in the business when the chain stores opened. When Tom and I got married, I always traded with private, individual stores because I remembered what a blow it was to them. My grandfather lived in the store. You know, gosh, since he was seventeen.
My Mother stayed at home, washing diapers day after day. She washed everything by hand, hanging them out on the line in the cold.
My grandparents lived on Oak View Terrace, next street over. And at some point my father decided it would be a good idea for me to live with them. And that’s where I ended up living, with my grandparents.
I was about seven. Because I remember I was making my first communion from my grandmother’s house and I fell down in the middle of the street and cut my knee
She had a hard life, my grandmother. My grandfather would go off, she’d have to run the store, and run the house. I could understand why she was cranky, when I stop to think about it. She used to tell me that it was no charity for her to bring me up. Now if she’d taken an orphan in, now that would have been a charity!
But she did take an orphan in once. In those years they used to bring these poor kids to church and parade them around the church to see if anyone would adopt them. I never knew where they came from. It just was so cruel. How did they feel if no one would take them? And she did take one, but the child got very sick. Had some kind of disease, and she didn’t keep her. I think she developed TB or something. That must have been terrible.
My grandmother sold the house after a while - I was 8, 9 or 10. They bought a house on Halifax Street. The house on Oakview Terrace was very big, three stories, and the people who bought it couldn’t keep up the mortgage, so my grandfather had to take it back again. After Paul Gore Street, we moved down to Burr Street, which runs between Paul Gore and maybe, Boylston. But after my grandfather had to take the house back we moved into Oakview Terrace.
When they sold the house on the hill they went to Halifax Street. There were 3 bedrooms there and they built another bedroom for me in the attic. I had to walk through the attic to get to that room! It was over the back stairs, the back entrance to the house, and it was cold in that attic. My grandfather made home brew up there. I used to help him make it.
He was a great guy, my grandfather, I liked him! I remember that when I was about 12, I persuaded my grandmother that in the summer time I should stay at Halifax Street and take care of him and not go down the beach! He died shoveling snow. My brother found him. He was 80 years old. My brother John went to pick him up to take him down to the store and found him lying in the driveway. He smoked a pipe that smelled terrible! My grandmother made him smoke down cellar!
GG: Do you remember your clothing as a child?
KR: I remember long drawers — they went down to your ankles. And they would get all stretched out and you’d wrap them around your leg and pull your stockings up over them. Your legs were kind of lumpy. At Notre Dame Academy we had to wear uniforms.
GG: What did you do for fun?
KR: I remember so much the Jamaica Pond, it was always frozen in the winter and we used to skate a lot. And coast, you know on the corner of Perkins Street. There were hills - they called it the Pinebanks. I don’t know why more people didn’t collide! There was always snow for such a long time and the pond was frozen. I had a friend, Betty Donahue, who lived on Sheridan Street, and we’d go skating every night. We did a lot of roller skating on Paul Gore Street, where it was flat.
In Hyde Square there was a bowling alley, but I was never in there —it was for men only. We used to go to a cobbler’s shop around the corner, Bowells. And there was the Jamaica Theatre. It was right on the corner of Barbara Street and Centre Street. I remember how excited everybody was when they began to have talking movies. It cost about 15 cents. They called it Vitaphone, when they first had talking movies.
GG: Did you have a radio?
KR: I remember the first set that somebody had. I don’t know what you would call it - it was just some boards and a plate that stood up, so if you looked you could see the tubes and the wires. It was just mind-boggling that you could get some sound out of all that! Then the first real radio was a Philco. My mother was entranced with that She used to listen to her stories - they continued from day to day.
I listened to Amos and Andy, which is a no-no in this day and age, but that’s the one I remember the most. It was on every night. I don’t remember that the news was that big. My father didn’t listen to the radio — he was never home. He was always at the store. Once they got a wine and beer license at the store, they stayed open until 10 o’clock at night. He’d come home to eat in the middle of the day, around twelve o’clock, then he’d go back until 10 o’clock.
We used to go to Franklin Park a lot. And we used to go down to Winthrop to visit my father’s aunt (my grandmother’s sister.) She had one daughter, Katherine was her name. They lived on Pleasant Street and there was a boatyard there on the corner. I was amazed to see in the winter how the bay how it froze. There were big chunks of ice. At that point, there was no tunnel, and you had to get on a ferry. You’d drive to Boston, drive your car onto the ferry and it would take you across to Wascausett The first car my father bought was a Reo. The car would never start when we’d get over there. He’d be grinding his feet on the starter trying to get it going. We’d all be crammed in the car and everyone in back was blowing their horns.
And my grandfather bought a Buick, it was an open touring car. They weren’t closed when they first came out, they had these isenglass sides that you put on them in the winter. But nobody drove in the winter, because they didn’t plow the snow just got packed down and people put their cars up in the winter. In the winter they used open sleighs called “pungs” . They just traveled on top of the snow. The milk man had them and the iceman and everybody.
GG: Did you go on vacations?
KR: My grandmother bought a house at Nantasket, on Edgewater Road. You used to be able to take a boat from Boston Harbor to Nantasket. They had five boats and they were all named after old times — Myles Standish, all these colonial names. They were nice boats. It took about 45 minutes to an hour. So they were on a regular schedule, and that’s how a lot of people got to Nantasket. It’s a beautiful beach. And there was quite an amusement park there, which isn’t there any longer, Paragon Park. I used to sneak down to the roller skating rink there and skate. I went on a roller coaster once with my brother John. I got so sick — I yelled “I want to get off” and I never went on a roller coaster again!
GG: What were holidays like in your family?
KR: We always went to my grandmother’s for Thanksgiving, Christmas. Every year there would be another baby and every year my grandfather would stand at the head of the table and say “Oh, the table gets longer every year, God bless it.” It would stretch into the living room! It was just our family, and my grandmother and grandfather and my aunt. A niece of my grandfather’s who worked at LaSalle Junior College out there in Newton.
My grandmother had all the traditional food. She was a good cook. She even made ice cream. We had a big ice cream maker that you had to turn by hand out on the porch in back to keep it cold and not to worry about too much ice. You packed it with ice and salt and you had to turn it by hand and not quit. We had boiled dinner twice a week— Tuesdays and Saturdays. She had a dinner in the middle of the day, and my grandfather would come home to eat. Always fish on Fridays.
My grandmother was a great cook, but I never understood the shortening mixture she used in pie crust and everybody would say what wonderful pies she made. She dried out the fat of meat in the oven — you know cut off of meat that she was cooking in the frying pan. And then she mixed it with I guess, lard and that was what she used to make pie crust. She always made pies on Saturday mornings. She always made bread. Doughnuts, every Tuesday she made doughnuts. They were so thick you could hardly find the hole in them, they puffed up so much! She’d use fat to fry them. Wow, just think of the carbohydrates!
GG: When you went into the city, what did you do? Did you take the trolley?
KR: We took the streetcar. We used to go to Dudley Street and then go on the elevated railway into Boston. But I had a friend Betty and we walked to town! We would just stroll along — we weren’t in any hurry. We’d stop and look in all the windows along the way. We’d just go through the stores, turn around and walk back home again.
GG: Did you ever go to restaurants?
KR: No, never. I can’t ever remember being in a restaurant as a kid. I’m just astounded now when I go to restaurants and see all these little kids. And even my own family, I have 8 children. We’d go out to eat on New Year’s Eve and that’s it.
GG: Since we are talking about your family, how did you meet your husband?
KR: Oh, I met him at work. I was a secretary. I use to transcribe from the dictaphone type — He was getting $15 a week and I was getting 18! Then I got a better job in a law firm. He wanted to travel, he wanted to be a salesman, but he had to train inside to know the stock. Finally did get on the road. He had the state of Maine and he used to go all the way up to Presque Isle.
GG: So what did you do when you went out?
KR: Go to the movies. Oh and we would go to, what was that place up in Norbega Park to dance? It was a beautiful place. They had all these big name bands and couches and the dance floor was in the middle. It was the place to go. Or we’d go into town to the movies or something.
I was 23 when we got married. And then when we got married we had to live with his parents. Because his father was sick, he had Lou Gehrig’s disease. He was an only child and his mother said he couldn’t get married unless we lived with them. After his father died we moved to Kilgore Ave and grandma moved with us. Then gradually she went into an apartment with her sister.
GG: What do you remember about the Depression?
KR: Well, I remember how bad things were in the store. People couldn’t pay their bills. And it just seemed to go on forever.
World War II was when it ended, when every possible business was involved in the war effort. There were so many things you couldn’t buy and you had to have ration tickets for everything — for gas, for meat. Everything changed into a defense business. My husband couldn’t travel anymore because there was no gas, and then there was nothing to sell because everyone was making uniforms or whatever they needed for the war. He was called up in the draft, but they said he had some kind of a spot on his lung and they didn’t take him. So he went to work down at Fall River shipyard as a welder.
He worked the night shift from 3 to whatever. And he had a lot of trouble with his hip in later years, I think it was from lying in the bottom of those ships in the cold, all day long, hours and hours welding. But he joined the Coast Guard Auxiliary and they would patrol the docks at night because they were afraid of German subs coming in. He did that for the rest of the war.
GG: Did the store stay open through the Depression?
KR: It did, yeah. It never closed. Finally my brother sold it — I think it was the 70s. The store was open for over 60 years. At one point the government came in and took the land by eminent domain. Do you know where Bromley-Heath is? Well, that’s were the store was. And they took that — there was the store, there was an apartment above it and there was a barn out back — it was a big piece of property. They had to find another location, so they moved across Heath St, but still on Heath Street.
GG: Did your brothers fight in WWII?
KR: My brother John was in the Navy, he landed up in Brazil. My brother Bill was in the Army, he had just graduated from Boston College in time to go in and he was in New Guinea. My brother Ed was in the Navy and he was in the Philippines. Then in the Korean War, my brother Paul was in the Navy and he was on the Missouri, which is at Pearl Harbor now.
GG: Where were you on the day Pearl Harbor was bombed?
KR: I was home in Arlington and Kathleen was a baby. I remember she was lying on the kitchen floor on a quilt. Some friends of Bill’s mother and father came to visit — the Kingstons, they lived in Brookline and they came up the back stairs in the kitchen and they said “did you hear about Pearl Harbor?” And that was the day. It was shocking. You know it’s clear in my mind, I can see it now, how horrible it was - just the thought of it.
GG: What do you think has changed the most in Jamaica Plain?
KR: Well, it’s just so trendy now. And you know there just wasn’t really much on Centre Street, I don’t know why, Betty and I would walk as far as the Monument and turn around and go back. That was the height of our excitement. I was trying to remember when the library was built. The Mary Curley branch, isn’t it?
GG: Do you remember Mayor Curley? He lived in the neighborhood.
KR: Oh yeah. My grandmother moved to Halifax Street, right next to Moraine Street where he lived. I’d see the governess - his wife had died - and his two younger children, George and Francis. The governess would walk around with the two boys and a big dog, like a wolfhound. They’d all be dressed up in camel hair coats and hats.
He was a wonderful speaker. He trained his voice when he was out at Boston College. My father was a big supporter. Oh sure, we all supported Mayor Curley. And Tobin, was another figure, Maurice Tobin. They named the bridge there after him. I never met him or saw him in person, but he was quite a figure too. Boston politics.
There were so many newspapers in Boston too. You know, Newspaper Row. That building in between where the Post was — they used to call that Pi Alley. It’s where they used to throw the type out — you know the pi type. And that’s how it got its name. The Boston Transcript was there, the American, the Advertiser.
GG: Do you have anything else you want to tell us?
KR: It just was a much simpler time.
GG: Thank you very much.