The following is a short autobiographical story by Mary Jane Sheldon Barrett, mother of Sheldon Genealogy member Jan Barrett, recounting the first 18 years of her life. While reading through the story I am researching for additional details. Where I have notes I am adding a number, with my notes included after the story with no further edit to her original text. She wrote this story in 2005 and named it “Connecting the Dots” 1921-1939. Thank you to Jan for sharing this with us!! – Dale Sheldon
Note: image above is Mary Jane Sheldon Barrett with the family pit bull, Jack.
Two days after the 4th of July in 1921, I first saw the light of day in the hotel my mother and father managed in Morrisville, New York (1). Morrisville is a small town about 30 miles southwest of Syracuse. While still a baby, our family of six moved to manage a hotel in Weedsport (2), which is also near Syracuse. There I napped in my carriage on the front porch with our faithful pit bull, Jack, nearby. The story oft repeated was that when I awoke Jack would walk in the kitchen and try to alert someone that I needed attention. If he got no response, he would return to my carriage, pause and then go around again until he was satisfied that I could be cared for.
The hotel was within easy walking distance of a grocery store, and I remember making many trips there with my father and Jack. Daddy enjoyed grocery shopping. He said the best time to shop was when you were hungry! Few things come to mind from those days, but I recall my first flower recognition was of Iris growing in clusters by a small stoop on one side of the hotel. There was also a barn at the rear where Daddy kept, at least for a short time, a little piglet that I was allowed to visit in a horse stall lined with hay.
I was three years old our family with the exception of my oldest sister, Thelma, who had married Leo Silvernail nearly a year before (3), traveled by car to Florida. Of course Jack went with us! The purpose of the trip I believe was for my father to scout around for a possible new business. We went to the Gulf side, and while on an outing to St. Petersburg Beach I wandered away wearing my red bathing suit and became lost. Worried parents and probably annoyed big sisters searched the crowded beach until I was found. Then my tears were torrential.
Apparently no interesting opportunity presented itself, so we returned home. This turned out to be quite fortunate as the next year would find Florida in deep financial trouble with the end of the real estate bloom. Back in Weedsport there were few playmates but one little boy whose name was “Buddy” Gross, was a companion once we were in kindergarten. Buddy and I looked alike with our sun-bleached hair, and we were once in a parade as King and Queen.
I found the door to the school too heavy for me to open so I waited for bigger children to arrive and enter with them. When my mother learned of this she hired a neighbor girl, whose name was Sylvia, to stop by on her way to school and walk with me to I would be assured of getting in the building promptly. For this Mamma paid Sylvia 25 cents a week.
In the Weedsport hotel there was an archway between the office and a small room at the side, and Daddy fastened a pulley in the top of the woodwork with a cord threaded through which hung down to the floor.
It was a toy for me. I could sit on the floor, fasten my dolls or teddy bear to one end and pull the hapless victim to the ceiling! Quite a sense of control. Since the days of prohibition were upon us the old bar room once used in the hotel’s early days now was no longer used as such. It was in the corner of this room that my father had a very large cage built for a friendly raccoon which had been someone’s pet. I remember there was a tree placed in there with a box in the top near the ceiling where the ’coon could hide. Guests were always intrigued. One exciting event happened when someone captured a raccoon and thought our big cage would be a nice home for it. (Never giving a thought as to how the raccoon felt about it.) Well, this was definitely not a good idea, and the new ‘coon made that very clear by chewing his way out of the pen and causing quite a commotion before he was released back to the wild. Our ‘coon probably happy at the departure of the young rebel, was content to remain in his quarters and take tidbits from time to time from visitors.
With twelve years difference between my closest siblings and myself you can see I was brought up much as an only child. (“Spoiled”? I don’t know.) My sisters, who were called “the girls” often invited their teenage friends to gather around our upright piano in the evening for a songfest. I recall being picked up and seated on top of the piano as they sang songs of the 20s including, “Four Leaf Clover” which was the first song I learned to sing. All of my sisters played musical instruments—actually they each played more than one (4), and they were allowed to play in a band with Daddy directed at the Morrisville College before I was born.
Before we moved to Sodus my health became a concern when I developed a kidney problem, I was taken to a specialist in Auburn, and I remember when I asked the doctor to show me the needle with which he intended to give me an injection, he tried a slight-of-hand trick and showed me the handle of an instrument instead. In spite of this I had no fear of doctors. Of course, I was praised highly when I swallowed huge pills and accepted a diet which limited my sugar and fat intake. I still have little interest in candy or soft drinks which I was denied.
For whatever reason, we moved a mile out of town to small bungalow—my first experience in a “private house”, but I’m not sure how long we lived there, Daddy bought a small bus line with a route to Syracuse—probably in an attempt at a new business venture, but the decision was soon made to return to hotel management, and our next move was to Sodus, New York. Sodus is mid-way between Rochester and Syracuse.
The hotel in Sodus, being three stories high was the largest of the stage coach inns built in the 1880’s. There was a full length porch on each of the floors at the front which makes it unique. Of course, I didn’t appreciate that fact when I was in first grade. The school year had already started when we moved to town, and the teachers assigned me a desk directly in back of Mary Margaret Kanpp. She lived even farther than I did from the school, so it was a long walk for us. Many times, especially in bad weather, Maggie, her mother, would pick me up and Mary Margaret and I would ride to school together in Maggie’s polished, black Ford. From then on our relationship was cemented and has held up for nearly 80 years!
In second grade Miss Simms summed up my personality by writing on my report card, “Mary Jane is such a quiet mouse it’s hard to get anything out of her.”
All of my toys were kept in my playroom on the second floor over the hotel kitchen. Behavior was different where the public always had to be considered. Toys couldn’t be left everywhere; there was never to be any screaming or ruckus and conduct in general was restrained. There was one frightening time when a fire started in the kitchen area, and I was taken across the road and watched over by someone as the fire truck pulled up and the sirens blew. Fortunately, the damage was mostly from water, and my playroom remained intact!
When I was very young I had a bed in my parent’s bedroom, and my father came up to bed and found I was still awake he would carry me down the back stairs to the kitchen where we would have a snack—usually warm milk or Ovaltine for me. Often my mother would read to me at bedtime, and sometimes she resorted to reading her novels aloud which perhaps qualifies as, “killing two birds with one stone” as I was satisfied and soon asleep. On other occasions she would make up long and fascinating stories which I loved. I was required to take naps though they were not always successful. In those quiet afternoons I would be left alone in my parent’s room, and I found time to do considerable investigating of the contents of their dresser drawers. One time I even found a series of storybooks which had been purchased with the bright idea of giving them to me one at a time as gifts when the occasion arose. I ever told anyone of my find, and I felt quite smug later as one by one the books appeared as gifts! And you think children can’t keep secrets? When I was older I had a bedroom of my own on the third floor where my sisters, Evelyn and Burta also had bedrooms.
Still a quiet one in the 4th grade, I yearned to be chosen to distribute the mid-morning milk and graham crackers (for which I think we paid 25 cents a week), or to be allowed to “clap” the chalk dust out of the felt backboard erasers outside the building. However, those chores went to the boys! There was a family of five or six children who lived on the other side of the fire station near the hotel, so I was provided with three little girls as playmates. I recall being invited to their home for “supper” once, and we had fried potatoes and “cold cuts”. As I think of it now I realize it could not have been a very nourishing meal for their hard working mechanic father nor for the mother of all of those children, but I enjoyed it. We children washed, dried and put away the dishes after supper and I expect they were delighted to find me so eager to help. I had never had such an important job! Meals at home were vastly different. Our family table was reserved at one end of the long dining room, but we never all sat down to eat together for regular meals. Daddy usually ate with me, my plate having been prepared for me by my mother who had control of the hotel kitchen. Holiday meals, however, were festive events shared with friends as well as family. In those days in small towns people didn’t go out for meals very often and certainly not at holiday time. Sometimes we even had placecards made by my sister, Burta (5), and her boyfriend, Jerry, who was talented as an artist.
I never knew my grandfather, and I feel very sorry about that. My maternal grandmother, whose maiden name was Selena Dana, had been widowed and remarried. So I could have three grandfathers, but they all died before I was born. Both grandmothers lived some distance away, my maternal grandmother in Weedsport, NY and grandmother Sheldon (6) in Brockville, Ontario, Canada. When we visited her one time we went by boat across Lake Ontario, and I was seasick the whole time. I was given lemon juice and wintergreen candies. I doubt that we returned by boat!
My best friend, Mary Margaret (also known as Mog) and I had birthdays only 12 days apart. She was an only child whose father and uncle owned a drug store on Main Street across from the hotel. My father was forever trying to find interesting things to occupy our time. He bought a trapeze which was installed on one end of the porch with a mattress below it in case we fell; he made stilts and taught us how to walk on them properly. When he learned there was a basketball court over one of the stores on Main Street he bought a basketball and arranged for us to use the court. He suggested we form a club (we only had three or four members) and we met weekly, paid dues, and learned about black-balling would be members.
Mary Margaret and I made up a code of the alphabet so we could write secret notes to each other. I wouldn’t be surprised if she remembers some of the characters today. I know I do. For pets I had Guinea pigs and outdoor cats, while Mary Margaret had Angora rabbits. One time the rabbits dug holes and escaped from their specially made outdoor pen. Maggie, Mog’s mother, called the school and asked that we be excused to come home and catch the rabbits. Imagine that happening today! Though the rabbits could really kick and were skilled at hiding, they were no match for the two of us, and we were thrilled at the idea of missing an afternoon of school.
To introduce me to the business world my father said I could order the cigars which were for sale in the hotel office showcase and keep a percentage of the profits. It was a fun task for me, and the names of many of the cigars remain imprinted in my memory today.
In the hotel our only phone was at the front desk and I remember calling Mary Margaret from time to time. Our phone number was 45! Speaking of phones, I recall Maggie calling Theda Lucas the one telephone operator and asking, “Theda, where is the fire?” when she heard the fire siren. Theda knew everything!
I was given a weekly allowance of fifty cents, half of which was to go in the bank. It distressed Daddy when all the banks failed and my money disappeared after I had followed his advice about the importance of saving.
My second sister, Evelyn (7), married Harold (Hike) Furber, and they rented their first home which was a beautifully furnished old house on Maple Avenue in Sodus, NY. It was a treat for me to spend a night there in a big bedroom in a “private house”! Her first baby was to arrive in December when I was 10 years old (8), and I was excited when Mama took me to the hospital, which was just down the street from the hotel, to see her and baby Sheldon. However, we were rebuffed by the head nurse whose doctor/father owned the hospital. She was firm in refusing to allow me to visit the floor because of my age. Mama took me home where I cried bitter tears, and held that nurse in contempt for years. Evelyn was so upset that when her next child was expected she made arrangements to give birth at home. Hike’s cousin, Dr. George Esley who was a new doctor in town delivered the second son, Harold George in April 1933.
By this time Thelma and Leo had a son who was born when I was about four years old. They named him Leo Darwood, but we called him L.D. Eventually they moved to Sodus from the Weedsport area. Daddy bought L.D. a kid goat at one time, but I don’t think it was much appreciated especially when it got in the habit of jumping up on top of their car. L.D. went in the Army directly from high school. Tragically he was hastily trained, shipped overseas and was killed by short arms fire in the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944, two months after his 19th birthday.
By 1933-34 the depression made a noticeable difference in activities at the hotel. Oh, there were the local Chamber of Commerce dinner meetings and a few couples came for Sunday dinner (restaurants were few and far between), but those seasonal fruit buyers who were a constant year after year were disappearing, and the construction men who lived at the hotel while building roads, including route 14 from Alton to Sodus Point, dropped out of sight. Times were getting hard. My mother who loved clothes was not shopping in Rochester where she would buy yards of fabric to have dresses made for us, and she was definitely not buying expensive three-piece suits like the knitted one I remember so well. Daddy had to make some drastic changes. We packed up and moved to a house on Gaylord Street in Sodus. There Al Harris, who was the father of a family friend, moved with us. He had been a resident of the hotel for many years and just seemed to go along with the territory. Since Daddy had learned the barber trade in his youth, he fell back on that skill as a summer barber in the Adirondacks where a few wealthy people still owned vacation homes. After that he opened his own shop on Maple Avenue in Sodus, and it was a successful venture. Mary Margaret and I went there for haircuts and shampoos which included a scalp massage complete with hot towels! In the meantime, Mama let some of our former Sodus Hotel guests know that we had moved and had a couple of rooms to rent. An early “bed and breakfast” you might say, but I think they were called “tourist homes” in those days. These people had become friends over the years and responded happily as they were experiencing difficult times as well. One man, Lee Barnes, was like a son to my mother, and, in fact, always called her “Mother Sheldon”. When Lee married Mary Lou from Alabama, she became part of the family. It was in the basement of this house that I found an old bicycle. Though it had no tires I learned to ride on it, and soon Daddy managed to buy a new bicycle for me which I rode to school every day.
It was during this time that my third sister, Burta, was married to Gerald Burke on January 1st 1937. Burta discovered many years later when she applied for a passport, that there had never been a name listed on her birth certificate, so she simply registered her name as “Burta Mary”. We were amused to think that she named herself! Their son, Vincent, was born in Ogdensburg, NY in August 1942. Having just obtained my driver’s license, I drove Burta to the hospital in their Plymouth as Jerry was stationed in Greenland.
From the time we were in the 8th grade, Mary Margaret and I spent many nights together either at her home or mine, We laughed at silly things sometimes till our sides ached We took long bicycle rides in the country making our own detailed maps. We rode the ten miles to Lake Ontario where we cooked hot dogs, and on occasion we rode to a nearby town, Alton, for a spaghetti dinner at a diner. We played cards, Chinese checkers and monopoly; we studied together, we shared birthdays (only 12 days apart) in July and took many pictures. We had little time for boyfriends. Our interest in music came at the urging of my father, and we played our alto horns in the band and in the high school orchestra for 5 years. Glen Waldorf directed bands in several nearby towns at the end of the year a choice band was assembled from these schools. We were pleased to be chosen for this “pick band” which gave a special concert in the new Wolcott school. There were the usual holiday parades and sometimes band concerts at which we proudly wore our white shirts and skirts, black ties and purple capes and band hats. Daddy, who loved band music, told me that it brought tears to his eyes when he heard us playing in those parades. Was it sentimentality, or were we really that bad?
Sodus was a Republican, Protestant town, so being Democrats and half-Catholic, our father was in the minority. I say half-Catholic because Mama had attended a Catholic school, Daddy said he had taught Sunday school in a Baptist church when he was young. However, we did not attend church. Perhaps influenced by a Catholic girlfriend, I started going to Mass with her (Mary Margaret was Presbyterian and she went to the Presbyterian church regularly with her grandmother Knapp.) Several Saturdays of instruction prepared me for my Confirmation. I don’t remember Confirmation day, but I certainly have a memory of the white dress that Mama made for the occasion. I didn’t like wearing white, or red for that matter, as I instinctively knew they would draw attention, and I preferred to avoid the spotlight. My Catholic friend had a Rochester cousin, and he and his parents were frequent visitors to her home on Sunday afternoons. What a cute and funny Dutch boy he was with his blond hair and brown eyes. I made it a point of being at my friend’s house on Sunday afternoons! Sparks flew one time when we stole away from the family gathering for a walk in their farm meadow. Suddenly there was a happy surprise with the magic of the first kiss!
In high school I became more outgoing and self-assured. In our Junior year three of us girls decided to become cheerleaders. There had been none that we knew of before, so we simply went ahead and organized a program for ourselves without any supervision or direction. We wore white outfits with a purple and gold letter “S” on our capes. We cheered at basketball games and sometimes even traveled on the bus to out-of-town games. We were spirited and athletic and nothing like the girls in the class ahead of us with their lipstick and silk stockings! We played sports, we pushed for the after-school gym time to practice tumbling on the big mats, and we sang in the Glee Club. The Senior prom didn’t hold much attraction for me. The boy I would have accepted didn’t invite me, and I refused the one who did.
However, I enjoyed helping with the decoration of the gym where the dance would be held. For me the boyfriend department was at a standstill, but Mary Margaret attracted one of our soccer players and they became a twosome. I was repeatedly sent to the principal’s office one year for being late for the several minutes dedicated to “study and guidance” before the regular classes began. I think that allotted time was determined a failure and eventually disappeared. I expect that our physics teacher, Mr. Arnot, had a struggle with me, but I surprised him by getting a good grade on the NY State Regents exam. Mary Margaret and I were the only two girls in the class. Apparently I could apply myself when pressured. (I should have been pressured more often.) For two years I was the class treasurer and helped with the purchasing and selling of candy at sports events to raise money for our Senior class trip to Washington, D.C., and New York City. It was my responsibility to sign the huge check (about a thousand dollars) made out to the tour company for the trip.
Sobering business for me. The trip was a success with the usual tours. We stayed at the Willard Hotel in Washington and the Taft in New York. We didn’t get to meet the president (O.K. who was it in 1939?) but we saw the newly-built platform in Washington where black Marion Anderson was to sing. (A very controversial event.) And in New York we saw Judy Garland on the stage.
While my father was busy at his barber shop my mother became a homemaker in our “private house” on Belden Avenue in Sodus. Mama excelled at dressmaking, making dresses for herself and me. She also made draperies for our dining room windows and slip covers for the living room furniture. She painted a breakfast room set for our kitchen and bought our first electric refrigerator—a “Cold Spot”. Daddy always kept in touch with his siblings in New York State and Canada. Two of his brothers lived in Gouverneur, north of Watertown, NY, and they interested him in an available hotel which they felt was a money-maker.
Mama was not thrilled as she grew up in St. Lawrence County and didn’t look forward to those frigid winters. My uncles, however, made it sound too good to pass up, so she went along with the plan if Daddy would limit their stay to five years, which he did. Even though as he said, “there are more cows that people up there”. So after I graduated from Sodus High School it was adventure time again, we were off to still another hotel and the excitement of college in Brooklyn for me.
I went to Pratt and Mary Margaret went to Albany School of Pharmacy At first we wrote to each other every day and mailed that fat envelope once a week. Thus we kept in touch even though separated by miles. New worlds, new friends, new experiences filled our lives but the bonds of “sisterhood” remained strong.
- Samuel E. Sheldon (1879-1966) was the proprietor of “Burden House” in Morrisville. He purchased this property from H. S. Etson in Oct 1920. On 24 Jun 1922 Samuel testified in a petition in which he described himself as being the proprietor of Burden House in Morrisville. See transcriptions of three newspaper articles (1920/1) and the petition testimony below.
- By May of 1923 Samuel had taken over the management of Willard House in Weedsport. See 1923 newspaper transcriptions below.
- Thelma Pearl Sheldon (1904-1975) and Leo A. Silvernail (1898-1960), were married in Fulton, Oswego, New York on 28 Aug 1924 by clergyman Albert Ernest Legg.
- On her marriage record in 1924, Thelma was noted with the occupation of “musician”
- Albert “Burta” Sheldon (1909-1998) married Gerald V. Burke sometime before 1940.
- Mary Christen Lago Sheldon (1849-1933), wife of Harvey Sheldon (1847-1920). They had 10 children.
- Evelyn Ouida Sheldon (1906-1960), married Harold Neil Furber (1907-1974) on 5 Nov 1930 in Sodus, NY.
- Sheldon Neil Furber (1931-2022), was born 3 Dec 1931 in Sodus, NY
Cazenovia Republican – 21 Oct 1920 – Page 7
“-H. S. Etson has leased his hotel at Morrisville, the Burden House, to H. S. Sheldon of Rockdale, and possession was given this week. Mr. Sheldon is an experienced hotel man”. [note by Dale Sheldon: “H. S. Sheldon” is printed in the original article but was an error, the writer confusing him with “H. S. Etson”. He was actually S. E. Sheldon]
Cazenovia Republican – 2 Dec 1920 – Page 6
“The high price and scarcity of coal has no terror for Landlord Sheldon of the Burden House, Morrisville, who recently purchased a ten-acre side-hill wood lot of A. L. Howe on the Swamp road north of the village and is engaged in getting out a winter’s supply of wood, swinging the ax himself occasionally.”
Cazenovia Republican – 24 Nov 1921 – Page 3
“One day recently Landlord Sheldon of Morrisville ran his new Ford up a steep incline at the Burden House barn, through a heavy door and almost clean through the rear end of the building before he could make her stop.”
The Advertiser-Journal (Auburn, NY) – 23 to 28 May 1923 – Ad
COOK FOR SMALL TOWN HOTEL – previous hotel experience not necessary. S. E. Sheldon, Willard House, Weedsport, N.Y.
The Advertiser-Journal (Auburn, NY) – 23 May to 4 Jun 1923 – Ad
ELDERLY MAN FOR CHORE WORK around hotel. S. E. Sheldon, Willard House, Weedsport, NY.
Petition – 24 Jun 1922
The Petition of Walter M. Aldrich for a certificate of public convenience and necessity for the operation of a stage route by autobusses in and between the cities of Norwich and Syracuse. Hearing – June 24, 1922 at the Court House, Binghamtom, NY.
SAMUEL E. SHELDON, being duly sworn, and examined on behalf of the petitioner, testified as follows:
- Q: Where do you reside?
- A: Morrisville.
- Q: What is your business?
- A: I conduct the Burden House there.
- Q: Proprietor of a hotel at Morrisville?
- A: Yes.
- Q: Do you know Walter Aldrich?
- A: Yes, sir.
- Q: Have you seen his buses from time to time operating along that road?
- A: Yes, sir.
- Q: How long have you lived at Morrsville?
- A: Two years.
- Q: How far are you from the railroad station?
- A: Two miles.
- Q: What road is that on?
- A: The Ontario & Western
- Q: Does the bus of Aldrich pass by your door on the way direct to Syracuse?
- A: It stops there every trip.
- Q: Do you know the people of Morrisville?
- A: Yes, sir.
- Q: Seen them get on and off the bus?
- A: Yes, sir.
- Q: You may state whether or not you can go from Morrisville to Syracuse and return more quickly by this bus than you can by rail connection?
- A: Yes, very much quicker.
- Q: You have ridden on the Aldrich bus?
- A: Yes.
- Q: Frequently?
- A: Yes, sir.
- Q: You have ridden to Syracuse on it?
- A: Yes, sir.
- Q: And to points this way?
- A: Yes, sir.
- Q: You may state whether it has been a matter of convenience to you?
- A: It has, yes. It has brought me a good deal of business.
- Q: from time to time is it necessary to ride on this bus?
- A: Yes, sir.
- Q: State whether or not in your opinion, it is convenient for your neighbors to have this bus line?
- A: I have seen any amount of it.
- Q: What is your answer?
- A: Yes.
Mr Sullivan: We don’t waive our objection to that line of questioning. Commissioner Blakeslee: You can have a general objection to that line of testimony and an exception. Cross-Examination by Mr. Thorn:
- Q: You keep a hotel at Morrisville, Mr. Sheldon?
- A: Yes.
- Q: How long?
- A: Two years.
- Q: You are in favor of this bus line as a business proposition?
- A: Yes.
- Q: That has a whole lot to do with influencing your judgment?
- A: Yes, a good deal.
Re-Direct Examination by Mr. Flanagan:
- Q: Isn’t it true that other people are benefited in Morrisville same as you are?
- A: Yes, sir, the whole town is.
Re-Cross Examination by Mr. Thorn:
- Q: You never saw this bus line from the first of December to the first of April?
- A: I saw him make some hard attempts to get through.
- Q: He didn’t get through, did he?
- A: Not always.
End of testimony.