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August 21, 2014, 8:05 am

Backyard ‘junk’ was our elders’ treasure

If you are more than 50 years old and still have the opportunity to visit the homes of your father, or especially your grandfathers, consider yourselves extremely fortunate. For many of us, visits to our father’s home ended many years ago when they departed this Earth.

I never had an opportunity for such visits to my grandfathers, as they passed long before my birth. However, in the midst of many great moments with my father, I learned a lot about my grandfathers. There is no doubt I would have had equally fond moments of life’s experiences with my grandfathers. Many of the trips taken by my peers and me to those row homes in neighborhoods where our ancestors lived were invaluable. Today many of us stand on the shoulders of our fathers and grandfathers. They have greatly influenced the men we are today. Even if they did not live long enough for us to know them, their actions instilled values and touched our lives in ways that greatly influenced the home environments that many of us enjoyed while growing up.

Modern day fathers and grandfathers tend to live a much different lifestyle than those in the ’50s and ’60s. Words uttered by my father many years ago are still with me and guide my thoughts and actions. After I became an adult and moved away, visits with him continued to yield life lessons. But it was not just the lessons, guidance, inspiration and values that have remained with me; it was those intangibles that came to mind from my visits to the 600 block of 43rd Street in West Philadelphia as I sat down to write this column. Many of our fathers and grandfathers had “pack-rat” mentalities; they seemed to hold on to everything on which they put their hands. You might wonder what happened to the items that had no permanent place in their homes. Others may recall how the backyards and basements of our fathers and grandfathers became a haven for junk, odds and ends and unused items back in the day.

Now, I do not want to suggest that the backyards and basements of most homes were unsightly storage areas in the past. I recall elderly men who were as neat as one could possibly be. They took pride in the appearance of their homes and their surroundings. Their habitats were immaculate. But then there was at least one or perhaps more who lived on a block close to yours, whose middle name could have been “junky.” I can still see my backyard and those near my home. Those with junk usually had an empty wheelbarrow propped against a fence. I can still see the rusted metal wheelbarrow that my father frequently used until old Father Time slowed his pace. After all, it was quite a task to push a metal wheelbarrow which was significantly heavier than the aluminum types used today. If it was a matter of hauling cement from the front of our home to the rear, this wheelbarrow was used. If it was a matter of moving debris from the rear of our home to curbside for trash day, nothing could replace the wheelbarrow. But when it became obsolete because of its size and weight, it did not go out in the trash. Its resting place was the backyard, with many other things that no longer had a use but would not be discarded. Such items, like the wheelbarrow, remained not out of need, but simply because of a personal attachment. There was just something about an elderly man and his wheelbarrow, back in the day.

If you have visions of backyards with unsightly, rusty, wheelbarrows, I know that you can visualize old automobile tires, rims and hub caps close by. I have tried to understand why these items ended up in backyards or basements when they should be in the junkyard. This is particularly difficult to understand since most people removing these items from their automobiles did the work at curbside or in their driveways. Logically, such items would be left at the curb for trash. So, why did they take them to the backyard or the basement? A colleague pointed out that you never knew when they might be needed. Pack rats disposed of nothing! Still, it is hard to understand why someone would store an abandoned automobile, with the hood up clearly showing that the motor had been removed. For some of our older generation, this was their creative way of having their own home, self-service, automobile parts center.

Other “pack-rat” things found in backyards might include old washing machines. I especially think of the type with the roller attachment to wring water out. You often saw old furniture of all types, in particular, bedroom chests, dressers and headboards. I am sure you recall the popularity of box springs standing alongside a fence. Can you think of any reason to save these items? Sometimes there were old water heaters, radiators and even parts of coal-burning furnaces. Backyards were also havens for old windows and old lawn furniture. At least one extension ladder could be found chained to the fence; this was one item that easily “walked away.” Furthermore, you did not want to have such a ladder lying around that could be propped up to a window to enter your home.

Quite often, junky backyards led to disagreements among neighbors. No one wanted to live within sight of backyards that were eyesores. Complaints were filed with the city, bitter arguments ensued and friendly neighbors became unfriendly neighbors and even stopped speaking. Some of these items were perfect for yard sales, but I do not recall yard sales back in the day.

My father’s woodpile was a memorable item in our backyard. This was not wood for a fireplace. It contained lumber left over from the many projects around our home. As you can imagine, lumber stored outside was subject to the elements; in a relatively short period of time, it was useless for future projects. Yet my father kept adding to his backyard woodpile; which had its origin in our cellar. Yes, our cellar was unfinished with a dirt floor, no heat and pipes running everywhere along the ceiling.

For many families, the backyard was not the only place where junk was placed. The cellar was the storage place of choice for some. The better wood was stored there. This was the place of storage for old radios, old televisions and old mattresses, so they were not exposed to the elements. Leftover bags of cement and unused paint were also stored there.

So, where did baby items go? At some point most families had a bassinet, crib or baby carriage that were stored just in case there would be a new addition to the family in the future. Boxes of glasses, dishes or fine china were stored in the basement, too. Where were the old toys; bicycles, wagons, scooters, sleds, even the handmade go-carts? They too ended up in the cellar.

Today as you look around at backyards in your old neighborhood or go into a basement where someone’s grandfather or father used to live, you may wonder happened to the junk that was so prevalent in the past. Well, cellars have been transformed into finished basements; backyards now have sheds that are sold by many home improvement outlets. Some families have moved to homes that have garages. Others rent self-storage units. In cases where items have not been sold at flea markets or yard sales, believe me, the junk remains. The junk that had been seen in backyards or cellars may be quite visible if you peep into one of these sheds or someone’s garage or storage unit. It is highly likely you will see much of the same type of junk that you used to see in your father’s and grandfather’s backyard or basement, back in the day.


Alonzo Kittrels can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or The Philadelphia Tribune, Back In The Day, 520 S. 16th St/, Philadelphia, PA 19146.