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Games and Toys of Montgomery's Yesteryears

In yesterday’s Montgomery, and probably in most little farming villages, spending money on toys was a low priority. Homemade fun was the name of the game.

Way back in the dark ages, there was no Internet. No Facebook, no cell phones, no texting – no fun. Well, not exactly. Even in prehistoric times children found ways to have fun.

What did they do for fun ‘back in the day?’ In yesterday’s Montgomery, and probably in most little farming villages, spending money on toys was a low priority. Homemade fun was the name of the game. With a little ingenuity, children could dream up amazing games and activities.

The idea of making a “play date” was laughable. You just walked down the street and stood outside the front door and called your friend’s name. A child would never knock on a door, or ring a doorbell. That would disturb the parents, and was a breach of etiquette, as you would soon learn.

Card games and board games ruled. Not only were they fun, but also good learning tools. Besides learning math concepts and reading skills, they taught life lessons. There were winners and losers, and if you were a poor sport nobody would play with you a second time. You learned to negotiate, to use certain strategies to win, and accept defeat. Even the smallest children picked this up from the older ones. And you just thought you were having fun! Who knew it was actually “Life Skills 101?”

Churches were always big on family entertainment. In Montgomery there were potlucks, pageants, recitals, as well as the Sunday School picnics. The Methodist church sponsored trips to the roller rinks for every kid in town, regardless of their church affiliation. A favorite memory is of Scavenger Hunts when groups of children, armed with a list of items – (such as a skeleton key, a 1920 penny, or a skate key), would run around town, knocking on doors looking for these items. The first team to get them all would win.

In the 1940s, children were trusted to use the school gym during winter evenings, for games or tumbling exercises, a.k.a. horseplay. This could never be allowed today because of liability, but then it was not an issue. Speaking of liability, how many kids got banged up that old fire escape? It was almost a badge of honor to survive that with just a bloody nose. Montgomery was an independent district and made its own rules. Trust was a privilege to be earned.

Families were generally larger then, and there was always somebody around to play with. If you didn’t have brothers or sisters, you could hang out at another house. Most mothers were home all day, so kids had supervision. In a small village like ours, it was easy to find somebody. There were playmates on every block.

It was a very lucky child who had enough siblings to make up a good card game. I remember how hard it was in our family to keep track of all the little pieces, dice and markers, to the board games. Even when we put together a jigsaw puzzle, our brother would pocket a piece, while we frantically looked for it, so he could be the hero to ‘find it’ and put in the final piece.

We could usually look in the button box and find a few dice to make up new games with them. It was unheard of to throw away a piece of worn clothing without removing the buttons, so everybody had a button box. A favorite rainy day pastime was looking through it to match up the sets of buttons. Other fun items such as foreign coins, medals, monopoly markers, and tokens all found their way in there.

Cootie was a favorite game and all you needed was a piece of paper and a dice or two. Then there was hangman, and tic-tac-toe, with all its variations. And of course, when some checkers turned up missing the button box provided a nifty substitute. Other pastimes were Tiddly Winks, Pick Up Sticks, Monopoly, Sorry! -- and card games such as Go Fish, Old Maid and Authors.

My father was born in 1902 on an isolated farm in Wisconsin. His playthings were even more primitive than ours were 40 years later. As a toddler one of his favorite toys was a big rusty barn hook that he carried in his pocket every day.  He would pretend it was a horse because the curve reminded him of the horse’s neck, and took the shape of a horse’s head. He used his imagination for the legs! Little girls had homemade rag dolls.

Earlier generations in the 1800s had little time for play. Jim Yard, a community leader and early businessman who lived on River Street in Montgomery, wrote about his early life. He was 5 when his mother died, so he went to live with his older sister. His job, at five years old, was to chop enough wood to fill the wood box every morning. He had no time for toys. But he did teach himself to read and write from an almanac someone gave him.

Having the Fox River, and Gillette Lake west of Route 31, there were many opportunities for fishing and ice-skating. I’m sure that at one time swimming was an option, but the river became too polluted when upriver factories and sewers began to empty into it.

Today’s children are involved in organized sports with adoring parents and grandparents watching from the stands.  In old Montgomery, the boys had their own pickup softball games that attracted any audience that happened by.   No pressure – just fun and exercise.

A list of outdoors and after-supper games would include the liberal use of chalk. There was Hop Scotch and Hide and Seek with arrows. Marbles and Jacks, as well as Jumping Ropes were usually springtime pastimes. In spring we looked forward to the arrival of the Yo-Yo man. I remember seeing a young Filipino man in Aurora who would travel around giving demonstrations using a colorfully painted Yo-Yo, and of course he had a supply for sale. It was quite exciting when some lucky classmate would come to school with a brand new Yo-Yo, and we would gather around at recess to watch in awe.

It must be human nature to be skeptical of changing technology. The first automobiles were as awesome as today’s computer technology is. At the sight of a disabled car, people would yell, “Get a horse.” It’s good to look back on simpler times, but the world keeps moving forward.

Those little electronic toys are the learning tools of today and part of the development process. While it looks to us that they are playing, they are really learning by leaps and bounds. Who knows where it will lead.   

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