Growing up in Great Times

Growing up in Great Times

The years following WWII saw unprecedented growth all around the country, with the countryside around urban centers sprouting new housing developments. Our neighbor Judi tells of her growing-up days in the booming new 1950s suburbs of  southwest Denver. The days of such great freedom… 

By Judi Puncec

My parents moved us to Denver in 1953, and the following year they found the perfect place to live. It was a brand new development called Mar Lee. The majority of the homes were already occupied. However, at the time my parents were looking at homes a builder in the development had gone bankrupt. The remaining, unoccupied, homes were then sold at a reduced price. My parents were lucky enough to purchase one of those homes. It was on South Newton Street.

The house on South Newton Street. I lived there until I got married.

The neighborhood was mostly occupied by young families. It was what you would call a blue collar neighborhood. Because everyone was basically a new buyer it was a very friendly area with everyone eager to meet each other. The street we lived on had many children, some younger than me, some older and a few my age. There wasn’t an elementary school nearby so we were bused to a school out of the area.

First day of school, 1953

An elementary school did open a year after we moved in and it was within walking distance of our home. This is when I met and became friends with three other girls in my class. It was nice to have girls my age living nearby. On our street there was only one boy who was in my grade at school so I was very grateful for the girls!

By the time summer arrived that first year, because it was a new housing area there were no big trees and many houses still were in the process of planting lawns. Kids playing outside were restricted from new lawns so we mostly rode bikes or played jacks and hopscotch on the driveways. There was always something fun to do.

We did have an indoor swimming pool, Progress Plunge, about 8 blocks away and by the time I was ten I was allowed to ride my bike and go swimming without a parent accompanying me. It was great freedom during the summer months. Also by then a strip mall shopping center had been built four blocks from our house. I was allowed to go there by myself or with a neighbor girl. We eagerly looked forward to trips to Hested’s dime store to buy 10 cents worth of candy or going to the drug store to buy a milkshake at the soda fountain.

By the time I went to junior high our neighborhood was showing the signs of permanency with the trees and shrubs getting bigger and change of ownership in many of the homes. Also, the undeveloped land to the south of us was now all homes and growing fast with new builders coming in every year. When we first moved to Mar Lee we were on the very outskirts of the city. Now we were well within the city and developing suburbs to our west. We even had bus service to downtown. The bus stop was two blocks north of us and one had to change buses at Broadway to get to downtown Denver. I was allowed to take the bus downtown when I turned 12 years old. The girl next door was 14 then and my parents trusted us to venture alone into the big city! Oh, how we loved to shop by ourselves. We felt so grown up. We now also had the first McDonald’s in southwest Denver and were thrilled to be able to buy hamburgers and cheeseburgers. The hamburgers were 15 cents and the cheeseburgers were 19 cents! It wasn’t quite close enough to walk or bike to so we depended on a parent to take us.

When I was in high school (10th grade) we had a new school that had only been open one year. I was in the second graduating class from the school. It was really too far to walk to and there was no bus service so we had to take a public bus or depend on a parent or older student of driving age to take us. By 11th grade I had a driver’s license and my Grandma Rosie had bought us a second family car which was mainly for my use, getting to and from school.

The house now. My parents planted the elm tree.

I lived with my parents in that home until I got married in 1966. My parents lived there the rest of their lives. My father died in 1975 and my mother in 1996. A lot changed in the neighborhood during those years. Houses were added onto or remodeled, the trees grew to majestic heights, and families from all over the world became our neighbors. When I go by there now, the neighborhood of my growing-up years is recognizable only in my memory.

Judi Puncec was born in Rockford, Illinois and lived there until the summer she turned 7 (1953) when her parents moved to Denver. They lived in an apartment until February of 1954 when they bought the house in Mar Lee. Now she lives in Southern Gables with her husband Harry, who told us about their move to a different new development, Memories of Early Southern Gables.

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Back in 2017 our neighbor Harry told us what it was like to be one of the first homeowners to move into the farm fields that became Southern Gables. Now we asked him to go back to an earlier time, when he was a kid growing up in Denver. We asked, “How has the country changed during your lifetime?” 

By Harry Puncec

In thinking about how things have changed in the wider world it occurred to me to describe what I remember from when I was a kid and you’ll have some of the answer.

In the 1940s my Mom was a stay-at-home wife who coped with three young boys, cooked meals from scratch ingredients on a gas stove (eating out was unheard of), washed, dried, and put away the pots, silverware, and dishes, washed clothing and bedding in a Maytag wringer washer and hung them out to dry on a clothes line in the back yard, made the beds, and performed all the other thousand and one chores that came her way – and they all did.

Before refrigerators, iceboxes looked like this.

During the summer we all suffered from the heat and relied on a couple modest fans to move the air. We did have an ice box that required blocks of ice to keep food cold. Every few days a truck would come up our alley and the driver would chip away a square block of ice from a massive “iceberg” in the back of the truck, hook the ice with big tongs, and carry it up to the back porch where he put it into the ice box. While he was doing that us kids were climbing into the bed of the truck to gobble up slivers of delicious and refreshing ice. Ahhhh!

Our first house was heated by a coal furnace in the basement that had to be fed a few times a day during the winter leaving a film of coal dust everywhere, and which belched black smoke from the chimney. Every week or so a truck would deliver fresh coal that was sent down a chute into the basement and, of course, created its own dust cloud. There were no thermostats so you either got too much heat from the very hot burning flame or none if, God forbid, you forgot or slept in and failed to add coal on schedule.

We had one quite large console radio in the living room which took a minute or two to warm up and begin broadcasting. During the day Mom might have had it on, I can’t really recall, but every evening Dad would flop down onto his easy chair and listen to “his” shows, mostly a 15 minute news broadcast followed by radio plays and comedy shows. He ruled the radio. We boys were expected to entertain ourselves which we did mostly by picking on each other.

After we moved to Emerson Street in the late 40s we’d get up early in the summer, have breakfast, and then headed out to Alamo Park a block from our house where we would spend the day. No kidding, we’d spend many hours there on the swings and slides, doing crafts (if mom had given is some money and the counselors were working), play tag or hide and seek in the shrubs, or head over to Cherry Creek to catch minnows. Sometimes we’d organize all the kids into baseball teams and play with only a ball and bat, no gloves or bases. This was before we had 911 to call, so injuries were shaken off.

Something missing from the park were moms. I can’t recall any parents lurking around; they had too much work to do at home. Looking back I think the theory was that if you couldn’t remember where you lived you deserved to wander off never to be heard from again. I know my brothers and I never missed a meal.

In February of 1955 we moved from Emerson Street to South Clarkson and things changed. Dad had died in 1951, Mom had struggled, but by ’55 a couple good breaks had finally come her way. Friends of hers had helped get a house that she could own, we were enrolled in ADC (Aid to Dependent Children) and the welfare checks were keeping us afloat. We even bought our first TV, a 17” black and white set, which we all could watch. There was even a bus stop at the corner so we could go downtown to shop or see the Christmas displays in the windows of the department stores that lined 16th Street.

Yeah, life was different back then. Even in the small things like answering the phone. You quickly picked it up when it rang because it was always family or friends or, if it was late at night, something terrible had happened to somebody you knew so a call was always important. Now it’s with us everywhere, unbound from its wire leash, and for lots of people we know talking has become a nuisance so they would rather text.

Changes. Some are for the better, but sometimes we miss the things that were tough on us. Whatever we think of the old days, good or bad, we are grateful for them getting us here.

Harry and Judi Puncec are some of our good neighbors in Southern Gables. If the names seem familiar, you might have met them before. Meet Harry and Judi Puncec, January 2021.


Lost and Found

Lost and Found

This week our neighbor Harry Puncec tells another tale of almost-forgotten local history. Last year he told us about a long-ago orphanage in Denver, and now we learn about another bygone institution. Did you know there was an organization for young boys in Denver called the Highlander Boys? Although it was built on a military theme, its core principles were about building character. Its precepts were: Be Kind – Live Pure – Speak True – Right Wrong – Defend the Weak – Play the Game Square. It was started in 1912 by George W. Olinger. The Highlander Boys trained with rifles and learned military skills such as getting around up in the mountains. Thus begins our story… 

By Harry Puncec

Have you ever been lost, really lost and scared? Well, I have. The story requires some background that begins with the Highlander Boys, a pseudo military organization for boys that existed in Denver for a few decades in the mid-1900s. My involvement began around 1950 and lasted for a few years. The drill company I was assigned to would meet after school a couple evenings for an hour or so, practice the manual of arms with our replica World War I Springfield bolt-action rifles, and march around the then parking lot behind the old Colorado National Guard armory at Speer Blvd. and Logan St. That building, along with the Highlanders, is long gone and is now the home of Denver’s NBC Channel 9.

What really made the Highlanders fun was the summer encampment outside of Estes Park that lasted a week or two. The whole battalion would camp out in squad tents, eat in a community mess hall, and do military-like things like marching, polishing brass, and inspections. I can’t remember specifically but I’m guessing we also did crafts, took hikes, and stuff like that.

Highlander Boys Camp – Glacier Basin, Estes Park, June 1950

One thing I clearly recall doing was standing guard. First off what you need to know is that you don’t “stand” guard, you are assigned a guard post that you march back and forth over for an hour or two, and that’s where my story begins.

I was assigned to walk a path from a well-marked tree to the camp latrine and back. I remember that end of the path because it really, really stunk. While I was walking my post my orders were something like “don’t let anyone run away.” How I was to prevent that was vague, but I was a kid in a uniform carrying a fake rifle and by golly I was going to do my duty. So I’m walking my post when suddenly an older boy in an officer’s uniform ran across the trail I was on and vanished into the woods. Whoa, we can’t have that, so I took off to follow and catch him. The problem was that he had quickly disappeared and I was confronted by forest with a very limited range of view. There were trees everywhere.

I walked where I thought he might have gone but after a while, a couple minutes or hours I don’t know, two things began to happen. I needed to go back to my post as I was suddenly hungry. The other thing was that I had no idea where I was. Every landmark was gone and all there was were a million identical looking trees. That’s right, I was lost!

The first rule when you are lost in the woods is to stay where you are. Don’t wander off and get yourself even further lost by making the area you’re lost within even larger. I, it should go without saying, wandered off.

I became aware that I seemed to be climbing up a hill and I knew that was bad because the encampment was on flat ground. Then I got my brain storm, of course I should keep on climbing!!! At some point I would see our camp down below and know which direction to go. The problem was the trees. I could see maybe twenty yards no matter how high I climbed. Then I realized I could go on for miles. Now I was truly scared.

God looks after the hopelessly foolish sometimes and this was my time. I suddenly came upon a well-defined heavily trotted path. It was clearly purposeful and would take me back to civilization… eventually. With that I began walking the path toward or away from salvation.

And then lightning hit again. A group of horseback riders appeared on the trail. The rest of the story can be quickly told. The guide knew where we were and where the camp was, and he walked me through the woods in a different direction than I expected. Soon we entered the camp area and he wished his tearful charge – yes, me – good luck as he turned to rejoin his party.

The end was a thundering anticlimax. I quickly learned that nobody had noticed I was gone.

In case you missed it, Harry’s story about the Orphanage is here. You can also find his other stories by clicking on his name at the top of the page.