Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Jan. 25, 2008
"Green River Ordinance Enforced"
While we were traveling with Art's family in northern Wisconsin, a sign at the edge of a small town caught my attention - "Green River Ordinance Enforced." I had seen the signs before, but for some reason, had never bothered to find out what they meant.
When I asked husband Art, he launched into a tale about how he had first noticed the signs when he moved to Kansas. He was curious, so he asked several of his co-workers and quickly discovered they didn't have a clue. Next he called the Overland Park city hall and they didn't know what the signs referred to either. After that, he tried the Overland Park police department with similar results. Art, being the way he is, could not let it go, so he called the attorney general's office. The people there put him on hold, but finally came back with the answer - the Green River Ordinance prohibits door-to-door solicitation without a permit.
With Art's family, any topic can quickly lead to a lengthy discussion and so, his mother Donna, brother Tommy and Art began relating their memories of door-to-door salesmen when they were young.
Donna remembered a "rag man" who would go house to house to pick up rags, which, along with wood from the area, was processed into high-quality bond paper in one of the Fox Valley's many paper mills.
All of them remembered Jake Golper, who went neighborhood to neighborhood every couple of weeks with a moth-eaten horse pulling a rickety wood trailer.
"He took everything - rags, newspapers," Tommy recalled. "He was the resident recycler of Appleton."
Another fellow who made periodic visits in Art's hometown sharpened knives, scissors, saw blades and anything else that needed sharpening.
They also remembered the fellow from Lutz Ice, who supplied chunks of ice to homes that couldn't afford electric refrigerators. Row upon row of ice blocks were stacked on the horse-drawn trailer and covered with a tarp. Art said the neighborhood kids followed closely behind on warm summer days, knowing where he would stop. Most people couldn't take the large block, so the driver would break them into smaller pieces and the kids eagerly scavenged the ice chips.
Art's Dad Tom was the ice man in his small Wisconsin village for a time when he was young.
"He hooked the block with a pair of tongs and threw it over his shoulder, went to the door, knocked once and entered. He came early in the morning and part of the job was knowing how much the people needed and where to leave it," Art said.
"Dad said that sometimes you saw some pretty interesting things, too," Art added with a grin. "But his job was to just go about his business as if he hadn't seen a thing!"
Even after the discussion with Art's family, I had to know more. I did a quick Internet check, which revealed the Green River Ordinance is named for Green River, Wyoming, the first city to enact it back in 1931. It seems that night-shift railroad workers and their wives had marched on the Town Council, demanding that something be done about salesmen who showed up at their doors during the morning hours, interrupting their sleep.
The interruptions came frequently during the Depression, when thousands of people began moving from town-to-town and then house-to-house hoping someone would buy their wares. While many of these men worked on their own, others represented companies such as Jewel Tea, Cook's Coffee, Fuller Brush, Watkins and W. T. Rawleigh. A wide variety of goods could be bought at a person's own front door - goods ranging from pots and pans to soaps, magazines, brushes and even medicines.
And it wasn't just city folks that were visited either. When I asked Mom and Aunt Edith if they remembered peddlers coming to their farm when they were young girls during the Depression, they both said they did. Mom remembered that the peddlers unrolled cloths, displaying cow balm, medicines and vanilla flavoring.
Edith recalled the medicine men or salesmen that came around with their cases of goodies.
"The liniment and cow spray were important to Dad," Edith said. "Mom enjoyed the vanilla and sometimes the face powder, and the subscription to The Capper's Weekly. The salesmen would take chickens or eggs in payment."
A friend, who was a young girl in Kansas during the Depression, remembered that the Rawleigh and Watkins men would come by their farm with spices, particularly black pepper for making sausage.
But after World War II, more and more people had cars and drove to the store to buy what they needed when they wanted it and so the number of door-to-door vendors began to decline. The upswing in the number of families where all adults were working during the day was the final straw.
The peddler, who once provided desired wares, services and a break from the daily routine, became an unwanted interruption. So now, only the occasional Girl Scout selling cookies or high school student hoping to sign people up for magazine subscriptions rings the bell. They are among the few left doing what was once a way of life for many, not just in Green River, but in the entire country.