Growing Up in Paradise
(On the Wrong Side of the Tracks)

By John Cembruch

Where is Paradise? What is Paradise? Is there a Paradise? The dictionary defines Paradise: “A place or state of bliss, Heaven.” If those words are true, then the only place Paradise can exist is in the mind of each one of us.

Sitting here in my office on a cold winter day, December 2000, reading an old Milford Massachusetts daily newspaper, an article caught my eye. It was asking the question, “What was it like to grow up in Hopedale, Massachusetts in the 20s, 30s, and the 40s. They call it the “Draper years” after the Draper family who started the Draper Corporation.

According to the article, the Government is giving a grant to the Blackstone Valley Region to put together articles on this area of which Hopedale is a big part. They want to preserve its history on the Internet.

The article states that they would love to have people that remember the “Draper years” come forward and tell what it was like to grow up and live there. Since I have been blessed with a mind that doesn’t forget anything, I sat there and thought about those years from the 30s to the 60s. My mind started acting like a 4th of July rocket display; a big explosion falling off a lot of little explosions, all memories of things that happened in those years coming to my mind’s eye like that huge fireworks display.

The very first thing that came to mind was of the few people who would step up and tell their story. They would look at only one side of the story. How good it was to live in Hopedale. Most people who lived in Hopedale then had a pretty good life. So with this in mind, I will try and give you the view of Paradise from the other side of the tracks.

The Dale of Hope was founded in 1841 by Adin Ballou. He was a Socialist and an idealist. Paradise lasted for fifteen years and, for reasons unknown to me, went down from there.

The Draper years (1886-1970) consisted of an idea to build a mill that would make machinery to make cloth. The mill was built. The original building, which still stands, was approximately 20′ x 90′ but later it would turn into hundreds of thousands of square feet, and with it came the homes that were built for the workers. This was common practice in those days. Finally, a full-blown town emerged with amenities not seen in most mill towns. A river is dammed, a pond is formed (300 feet wide and a mile long), schools are built as well as a store, an ice house, and streets. A really beautiful town now existed; the Draper family’s idea of Paradise.

On a cold, windy February 8, 1927, I was born. Not in a hospital, two miles away in Milford, Massachusetts, like most of the townspeople. No. I came into the world at 121 Freedom Street, better known as the “Seven Sisters.” This makes me proud in a sense because my birth certificate shows Hopedale as my birthplace. Most of my generation was born in Milford. This would make me a charter member of Paradise, right?

Not so fast! Did I mention “Seven Sisters”? These were seven identical houses, each with five rooms per side (duplexes), three small bedrooms upstairs, small living room, kitchen and a pantry. Also a small room the size of two telephone booths with a toilet only, and a cellar. No central heat. This was Paradise. And so it was. Every house in town at that time had central heat and a full bathroom. Quit nice for the times except for the Seven Sisters.

The Seven Sisters were alongside the railroad tracks. If you crossed the tracks and walked a quarter of a mile, you were in the middle of my future play yard, the town and company dump. While it was only a quarter mile, to walk to the dump, it was also only a quarter mile walk for the rats to come to live in our house. For years, until I was sixteen years old, I would lay in bed at night and listen to the rats running in the walls and ceiling of my bedroom. It always amazed me that they very seldom came into the house. I always assumed that they didn’t come into the house because they could always go to the dump and get all they wanted to eat. Those days people didn’t have a lot of food hanging around in the house. In the winter it was probably warmer in the walls than in the house. The only room that was heated was the kitchen. On weekends the living room was heated by a separate small oil stove and that depended on my brother, Frank, who was ten years older than me. Since Frank knew about electricity, on most weekends he would jump the electric meter with jumper wires so we could use the lights and play the radio.

It may be hard to fathom, but before 1939 and 1940, the Depression was ending. Hardly anybody worked after 5:00 PM, or nights, or weekend. Most people in Hopedale at least had a job and through the Depression most of them worked at least three days a week.

Around 1941/1942, the Drapers finally brought in a company that exterminated the rats at the dump and in the Seven Sisters.

Paradise came with a set of rules, some spoken and a lot unspoken. To live in a Draper house (over 90% of the houses in Hopedale were owned by Drapers), someone in the family had to work for the company. In the 30s, the price of a Seven Sisters rent was $.75 a week. This included light bulbs and electric fuses. The houses were painted outside every five to seven years. The inside was papered or painted (one room) every year. In the early 40s my sister Stella, who was working in the shop, was paying $2.25 a week for the rental. She broke one of the rules by getting a petition signed by the fourteen tenants in the Seven Sisters. This was to have a full bathroom built in the houses. No other improvements were ever made until the company sold the houses in the 1950s.

The names of the families that lived in the Seven Sisters were the Nurses, Inghams, Hoaglands, Hollands, Barrows, Rowes, Cembruchs, Blisses, Bouviers, Costellos, Kunzs, Reillys and Roberts. They all lived there when I was eight to twelve years old (1935-1939). As the years passed, some of the names changed. Around 1939 the company started moving widows into the Seven Sisters. Draper was good to the people who worked hard and kept their noses clean. You must remember there was no unemployment or welfare from the Federal or State government. The only time anyone received any aid or help was on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day, (i.e. Salvation Army).

Most of the Seven Sisters had small gardens behind the house. Some had extra gardens behind the old ice house. There were several large gardens. The ice house was torn down in 1943, and several years later Tom West built a mansion on that property. Tom West was the president of Drapers. Hopedale was a truly beautiful and clean town. Even though we were poor, we were clean because our parents insisted on it.

Was there discrimination in Hopedale? You better believe there was. Big time!!! Everybody discriminated against everybody else because of their ethnic background. The pecking order, or place of importance, was obvious. Those who ran the shop such as bosses were English. Then people from western Europe came, the Swedish, Danish, etc. Italians, Portuguese, my own people, the Polish, and the Russians came last.

If I had a dollar for every time I was called a “Polack,” I would be living on Easy Street today. The reason I have not mentioned blacks is because Hopedale did not have any. The first black person I ever saw, when I was about nine or ten years old, was a man who was a chauffeur for a rich family. The other kids didn’t call me “Polack” but it was their parents and people who ran things in town. It wasn’t really that bad because everybody was from different ethnic backgrounds. It even amused me when I was young. When some grown person would call me “Polack,” my response was, “I’m an American since I was born in Hopedale, Massachusetts. Where were you born?” Most of the people were imports.

I mention rules spoken, and rules not spoken. One of the unspoken rules was that there were no registered Democrats in town until after World War II. When President Roosevelt died in 1944, Draper Corporation did not lower their flag on the shop and town buildings to half-mast. This drew criticism from Walter Winchell on radio, and from people all over the country. Walter Winchell was the biggest news person of our time. The reason this stayed in my memory is that in the spring of 1943, Hopedale had a serious crime problem.

Draper was going to have a big political rally for the Republicans that was to be held between the schoolyard of the Chapel Street School and the main office of Draper Corporation. The schoolyard was four feet higher than the street surface. The dignitaries could stand in the schoolyard and address all the people at the 12:00 to 1:00 lunch break who were on the road below. The keynote speaker was going to be the Republican Governor of Massachusetts, Governor Saltonstall. The night before the rally, someone painted “Roosevelt” down the middle of Chapel Street in very large white letters which were approximately 15 feet high and 10 feet wide per letter. A pretty impressive sight! I asked John for more details on the prank. Here’s  his reply.

The way we painted the ROOSEVELT sign was, we stole 8 or 10 gallons of paint and I walked with cans and formed the letters. Four or five kids with brushes painted out the letters. We had one kid on Hopedale Street as a lookout. The brushes were stolen also.

By 10:00 PM Drapers had a gang of painters from the shop trying to clean the letters with paint thinner. In those days, roads were not as smooth as today. The cleaning crew found it impossible to remove the painted sign. After several hours, they gave up. By 6:00 AM they had an asphalt truck come from Boston and they covered the sign with tar and sand.

John Cyr and I were picked up and questioned most of the next day. John and I grew up as buddies and hung out together a lot. It seems we were suspects and were questioned for hours. Whenever there was a problem, we were singled out, most of the time with good reason. As kids we learned all the tricks the cops used to get kids to confess.  We knew that Draper Corporation was really upset, because the paint we used was taken out of the Little  Red Shop on Progress Street. Supplies were stored there to repair the houses. Of course this made the crime serious since it would include breaking and entering. (Plus this was bucking the “Man,” an unwritten law.) The Red Shop now stands on the other side of the pond. It is the original Draper Company building, and is an historical landmark.

Well, to this day they never could prove we were the culprits. This type of thing today is nothing, but in the 20s and 30s this was serious stuff. You did not buck the “Man.” If you check the Milford Daily News from that time period you will never find any negative article about Hopedale. If you can’t comprehend the points I’m trying to make, read the story of Sacco and Vanzetti. They were a couple of Italian boys that tried unionizing some shops in the Boston area. One of them worked at Drapers for a while. They were framed, and both were executed.

John Cyr was questioned just one time about this incident. I have to mention that John’s father was boss on the paint crew that spent the night trying to clean up the sign, so you can figure out John’s dilemma. I was picked up every day for a couple of weeks after school. I never admitted anything to Chet Sanborn, who was a patrol officer when this happened. Later, when he was Chief of Police, and I had bought a house at 116 Freedom Street (this was across the street from where I was born), he drew me aside one night at the Town Hall Spa and asked me again if we had painted the sign. I told him “no,” but I guess in his mind, he knew it was us. To this day I’m sorry I didn’t tell him we had done it. Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t lie to him out of spite or other psychological reasons. It’s just the way I grew up, protecting my butt. For the record, as a kid and later as an adult, I always thought of Chet Sanborn as a fair and good man.

Before I go any further, I must explain my position of last on the pecking list. When I was eight years old, my father contracted tuberculosis. He worked in the brass foundry at Draper Company. He was sent to the Boyleston Sanitarium for five years. When he got out, he divorced my mother for reasons unknown to me. This left me fatherless, and with a mother who was shy and unassuming and spoke no English. When she died in her 80s, after living in the country for some 60 years, I don’t think she know 50 words of English. We always had to speak Polish at home. This left me completely on my own at the age of eight in a town where all the people were always sucking up to the people in charge. Most of these people had kids, and all kids get into trouble of some kind. So what can be better than having a scapegoat? Any problem that comes up, “The Polack did it”

By the time I was ten I was constantly in trouble and had an ongoing battle with Draper Company, the police, and most of the adults. I’ll never forget when I was fifteen. A couple of days after Halloween, the Chief of Police, Tom Malloy, brought me into the police station. He must have felt sorry for me and his words were, “John, you’ve got a serious problem. We’ve gotten calls from people all over town swearing they saw you breaking this or damaging that. I know you’re a trouble maker and I know you can run pretty fast, but I know you can’t cover the whole town on foot in a few minutes.”

Between the years when I was ten to eighteen, to this day I really believe they were the greatest days of my life. You probably think I’m nuts. Irrational thinking! How can someone think they are living a great life with the whole town on their case? In those days, the movies came out with a revolutionary new movie about the street gangs of New York City. Basically it was what life was for kids with the country in a deep depression. They were called the “Dead End Kids.” These kids went from getting into minor problems with the authorities in their early teens to serious problems in their late teens, to killing and getting killed. From the time that movie came out, the kids of the Seven Sisters were named the Seven Sisters Gang. John Cembruch was named “Shampoo.” In those days, if you were in a gang, everybody had a nickname. I was the leader but I don’t know why. I wasn’t the biggest kid. As a matter of fact, I was small for my age. Like the kids today, we were always bored. All the kids in the Seven Sisters, and from across the street, would hang out in my yard. Guess it was because there was no man in my house to throw them out. It wouldn’t take me very long to come up with something to get us into trouble. I don’t know of one kid in town that wasn’t told not to play or hang around with me. Kids being no different than they are now, I always had plenty of them hanging around.

Earlier in the story, I mentioned the dump being my play yard. Today, if you go into the old dump area where the Little League field is now, that was the center of the dumping area. Just as you go into the dump now on the left, we had a ball field. My brother’s group, ten years older, had made and abandoned it, so we took over. All the kids that lived in the Seven Sisters were excellent ball players from the ages of seven to sixteen. We played ball in the summer from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. We played non-stop, and everybody played. No supervision. We played, we argued, we had fistfights, and we played. When we had eight or ten kids, we’d pick sides and start to play. As a kid showed up, he would be placed on a team that was short-handed. When kids had to go home for lunch, or if their sisters would come and get them to go home, when they came back, the could be on the opposite team. At times there would only be four or five kids on a team, and sometimes there would be as many as sixteen to eighteen kids on one team. No relief players. We all played. Most of us learned a great lesson from this – how to stand up for yourself. If you got into a fight, when it was over, win or lose, we’d forget about it. We would go home still friends. Now the dump, my paradise. One afternoon around 5 p.m. all the kids had gone for supper. I had an hour to kill until the kids came back. I was ten years old. Without a father, I did pretty much what I wanted to do. I used to come out in summer at 8 a.m. and go home around 9 p.m. Draper had a steam whistle that blew every day at 8 a.m. when the factory opened. It also blew at 12 noon for lunch, at 1 p.m. when it was time to go back to work, and at 9 p.m.. The 9 p.m. whistle meant all kids sixteen and under had to be home, or on their way home. You could not hang out on the streets.

To kill some time, I went big game hunting in the dump, killing rats with 10″ x 10″ pieces of steel. Drapers used to throw the pieces of steel away. You would throw them at the rats, trying to spear them. This was big sport for years. Some of the boys and a lot of men had .22 rifles and spent 


In April 2014, several years after John sent this story, I received the following:

In 1943 when Wendell Willkie ran against FDR, in the street someone, in the dead of night, wrote in 4 foot high letters ” Roosevelt.” This was removed right after daybreak and not seen by many.

Willkie was written in very large letters on the side of the school on the brick and stayed there for years, I think until time removed it and there are probably remains of it  there today.  I was only 12 years old at the time. The Willkie sign was on the one story brick section of the school on the side facing Freedom St, I think it was green.

Thanks again, Your website is always welcome here.
Bud Clement

                                                                John Cembruch, page 2