White nights and black potatoes: Remembering winters in rural Madison Township in the 1950s

Scott Jacobs

Recently, I was reminded that young people today have a hard time imagining what it was like growing up all those years ago. They never used a rotary phone, don’t know what a church key is, how chicken eggs are collected, or what it means to shoot marbles. That got me thinking that perhaps they also missed out on white nights and black potatoes.

Back before telephones were carried in our pockets, before we could send videos of our singing dogs instantaneously around the world, before we had maps and music at our fingertips, before we could text friends while pretending to be listening to our teacher, and before we could play electronic games wherever we went, communicating with the world outside our home depended on electric wires strung on poles.

A winter storm with blustery winds and swirling white snow could snap an electric line and leave whole neighborhoods without power. Our parents probably worried about food in the refrigerator spoiling, but for us kids it was a time of excitement and adventure, of flickering candles that made the house scary and fun at the same time.

No electricity meant no TV and no heat, and that was a bummer. But that’s when the fireplace took center stage. Crackling logs warmed the living room while we played cards or board games in the glow of its crimson ballet. Work crews, hampered by cold, snow and raging wind, made slow progress and electric lines were often down until morning.

Luckily, we usually had a five-pound bag of potatoes on hand. Wrapped in aluminum foil and tossed in among the flames, it wasn’t long before the room filled with the mouth-watering aroma of roasting potatoes. The intense heat of the open fire baked them quickly and scorched their skins. With iron poker and shovel, finding the now coal black prizes among the charred logs and mounds of ashes became a treasure hunt. And what a treasure it was! Peeling away the aluminum foil, cutting through their crusty black skins, topping their steamy insides with melting butter, we couldn’t wait to scoop out the soft creamy center. Warm and comfortable, our bellies full of rich fire-roasted potatoes, we’d return to our games until it was time to follow the beams of our flashlights to our beds.

Once the winter had passed we’d forget about the powerless night and settle back into our routine of laying on the floor in front of the TV watching the Mickey Mouse Club and American Bandstand, the Beverly Hillbillies and The Ed Sullivan Show—that is until spring came. That’s when we would clean the fireplace and laugh at the tiny black relics of potatoes that had eluded capture.

On behalf of the Madison Township-Old Bridge Historical Society, we wish you all Happy Holidays.

We would also like to invite readers to share springtime memories of Old Bridge,such as farming, gardening or grade school activities. Send stories to history@thomas-warne-museum.com or mail to Madison-Old Bridge Historical Society, 4216 Route 516, Matawan 07747-7032.

Sam Rizzo
Madison-Old Bridge Historical Society