“916 Woodland Avenue”
From the ages of 6 through 13, I lived at 916 Woodland Avenue in Winchester, Virginia and looking back, I cannot think of a better place to have lived those young years of my life.
Woodland Avenue is part of the City of Winchester, and is about 1 mile from “Main Street”, the very heart of town. Woodland Avenue was a quiet street then and I suspect still is, consisting of 1 and 2 story single-family houses, set on decent size lots. The houses were not all alike, like subdivisions often are today, but rather had lots of variety. Some houses were single story brick, others 1 or 2 story wooden and still others, built perhaps at the turn of the century, were large Victorian in architecture and quite majestic.
From being to end, Woodland Avenue is perhaps 1 mile in length with the street starting off National Avenue, which is also Route 7 and a major East and West route through Winchester. Those houses closest to where Woodland Avenue begins were the oldest and largest and as you progressed down the Avenue, homes became smaller and newer until at the very end of Woodland Avenue, the houses were little more than shacks and there were many vacant lots. For a long time, an egg farmer lived at the very end of Woodland Avenue and used to sell his eggs, fresh, door-to-door and there was also a bee keeper who collected and sold honey.
916 sat just about in the middle of the length of the avenue and was a 2 story, walk out half basement, wood sided house, painted white. Although the lot it sat on was large, for some reason the house sat almost on the property line on the down street side so that there was no more than a walk way between the house and the neighbor's wire fence. On the up street side of the house, the yard was expansive and as it bordered up on a vacant treed lot, had no real boundary.
Directly across the street from 916 was one of those huge old Victorian houses with very large, mature trees in the front and side yards and on summer evenings, the grown son of the widow which lived there, would play one of this many guitars (he had a shed containing maybe 30 guitars handling from the ceiling) on the front porch and sing opera in German. It was rumored that he had been a German soldier in the war and had a metal plate in his head and thus was not "all there".
While the front yard of 916 Woodland was perfectly flat, if you wanted to go to the back of the house using the up street side yard, you had to proceed down a good 30 degree incline which then flattened out for maybe 10 feet which was the official “backyard”. Then if you wanted to move to the very back of the property, you had to proceed down another incline of some 10 feet or so, only this incline was perhaps at a 45 degree angle before you finally drifted back to a 10 or 15 degree incline which was often the area we had a family garden. The back property boundary was a creek or dry run.
In addition to all this, in the up street side yard, at the very edge where briars and underbrush started and the 916 property ended, there was a road which was really no more than 2 car wheel ruts cut into the grass, which lead down to an old wooden garage, which had never been painted since it was built.
And now for the best part of all.
On the up street side, I have said there was a vacant lot full of brush but also, behind the house on the other side of the creek, extending up and down the creek for perhaps 6 or 700 yards was a woods which was perhaps 300 yards wide. Beyond the woods on the other side of the creek, lay a large open field which was at least 600 yards wide and was the backyard of the houses on the next street over, National Avenue. So, in the summer, my brother, me and neighborhood kids spent all day long in those woods or the open field beyond, building ground or tree-based forts, making and shooting bows and arrows, making and shooting slingshots, flying kites, trying to catch rabbits, finding signs of other visitors, climbing trees, chopping down trees with axes, throwing rocks at each other, playing war, picking wild raspberries, strawberries, sucking honeysuckle flower stems and eating grapes off the vines, which grew on our neighbor's fence. And when it rained, we would rush to the creek, which was a mighty rush for a short time and using shovels, would create a dam so the water would form a giant pool until the water pressure became so great it would break through our earthen dam and we would hustle to repair the leak.
While I have said that Woodland Avenue was lined with single-family houses, that is or was not exactly true. Down the street 2 houses and one vacant lot from 916 was a large old 4 story, barn-like, apartment building and on the other side of the apartment building was another vacant lot. I don’t think I ever went into the apartment building above the ground level but visited 2 brothers who lived with their single parent mother in the basement, which had an earthen floor and which, they shared with rats, my first glimpse of true poverty.
So besides being woodsmen, the vacant lot on the down side of the apartment building also served as our baseball diamond and many, many pickup games were played there. From home plate, a homerun was anything hit over Woodland Ave, which was a good 100 yards or so. Oh, lots of stories to tell about playing baseball in the summers but perhaps most interesting was that we never had any idea that girls could not play with the boys. The girls were in the neighborhood and just joined in doing whatever all boys did. Can’t say that any of the girls were any good and would never slide into a base, wearing the skirts they still had to wear in those days but they helped fill out teams and we thought nothing of it.
But perhaps the best part of 916 was when it snowed in the winter.
Above, I have gone into in some detail about the topology of the up street side yard of 916 in that it sloped downward through several different stages. Well, when it snowed enough to ride a sled, 916 Woodland Avenue became the center of the universe as every kid with a sled or anything he or she could ride snow on, came to where I lived.
Although I certainly never acted like I owned the place or had any rules or anything like that, still, everyone who visited thought I was cool, special, someone, because I lived at a place with such a neat sled-riding hill.
So, the deal was as follows. A slide rider could start downhill close to the house, hit the “official” backyard and proceed on down through the garden and with luck and enough strength in his arms to steer, turn the sled to the right, avoid the creek and eventually stop in behind our neighbor’s old sheds. If someone got going too fast, like when 2 or 3 people were on the same sled or a rider did not start his turn soon enough after the 45 degree drop off, he, she or they would wound up in the creek and wet and cold. Many a rider had to be taken into 916 to get near the big old coal stove, which sat in the dining room.
Beside the straight down method described above, a rider could start his slide using the old rut road at the up street side of the property which gave him a really sharp left turn to make just after the old garage in order to catch the 45 degree down slope and the garden area below.
So 916 was the sled riding capital of the world for many years and for several years, in the summer time, my brother and I would dig a giant hole, just below the 45 degree incline and fill the hole with anything we could find, to build up a “jump” so that in the winter time, a sled rider would accelerate down the 45 degree incline, hit this "jump" and go flying through the air for several feet before landing. But 916 was more than a sled riding hill in the winter, it was also a place of snow forts and massive snow ball battles.
So 916 had it all for a young boy. A woods to roam in during the summer, a local lot to play baseball in, plenty of neighborhood kids, a mom and pop grocery story only 3 blocks away and no concern on anyone’s part about our safety. Free. Freedom. We were free to roam those woods, the field beyond and with our bicycles, main street Winchester or anyplace in between.
Who could ask for anything more?