As a new grandparent a few years ago, I became reacquainted with the fact that toddlers like to destroy. Build a tower of blocks and they will knock it down . . . again and again and again like mini wrecking balls . . . and laugh at their clever destruction every time. But before long, they discover that building with said blocks can be just as entertaining, if not more so.
With that discovery comes building with anything and everything. Sometimes just a few adjustments to a large box can provide hours of fun.
With even more awareness, children realize the advantages of building little hideaways for the sake of privacy. Why not a little hideout, away from Mommy’s prying eyes in order to snack on animal crackers pilfered from the off-limits kitchen cabinet? Or maybe to test the maxim that “out of sight, out of mind” might keep them from facing the dreaded bedtime.
Back in the 1950’s, my sister Shirley and I built blanket tents inside the house, attaching blankets to chairs and other items of furniture. I suspect that they didn’t last long for they surely would have gotten in the way of my mother’s appointed rounds with the ironing board and vacuum cleaner. My friend Fran Kayatin tells me, “We did the blanket tent outside on the clothesline many times when I was growing up.”
I also remember building a snow fort with my best friend Patty one day back in 1964. We had a rare tw0-foot snowfall, and besides building a “bobsled run,” we doggedly dug until we had a small fort just big enough to fit two kids. Regrettably, like Frosty the Snowman, snow forts melt when temperatures warm up.
Back in the 1950’s and 1960’s, some industrious kids took to building clubhouses or tree houses or hideouts or whatever boomers chose to call them. Suburban and country kids often built them in the woods with whatever discarded materials they could find.
My clubhouse building resume was pretty sparse. Too often a protracted trip to the woods spawned a vexing encounter with poison ivy or poison oak for me. I’ve had poison oak with big oozing blisters. I’ve had poison ivy rash that spread from one small spot to giant blotches that tormented 75% of my body for three weeks. Slathering myself with Calamine Lotion did little to relieve my appearance as a mutant being from the Red Planet Mars. So clubhouse building in the woods was not high on my childhood to-do list. Now I envy those who hold dear the camaraderie that developed from their childhood construction projects.
Maybe boomer kids got the itch for building clubhouses from watching Little Rascals shorts on Saturday mornings. Spanky and the gang had quite an elaborate one, if you recall. Here is a blast from the past:
Having missed my opportunity to build a real clubhouse in my youth, I drew my own vision of what a typical 1950’s/60’s clubhouse looked like. This imaginary hideout had walls of plywood sheets, a door made from furring strips, and a corrugated tin roof. Boys’ domiciles commonly had signs reading “KEEP OUT!” or “NO GIRLS ALLOWED.” Buy yourself a bottle of chocolate pop for a nickel and head off to your clubhouse to trade baseball cards with the boys or leaf through the latest Seventeen Magazine with the girls.
My friend Donna Holliday told me stories of boys and girls building clubhouses in the woods of her small town near St. Clairsville, Ohio. She and three other girls would find a full bush and build a “hut” underneath, making a floor from grass, leaves, or boards. Then, as girls do, they would decorate it with wildflowers. A requirement was that the hut must be built near wild grapevines. Donna recalls, “We would find a vine on a steep hillside and swing out as far as we could.” They loved to imitate Tarzan, reenacting scenes that they had seen on TV.
The boys built their clubhouse from branches, 2 x 4’s, and logs in an undisclosed and hidden location so that the girls wouldn’t find them. For good reason. For when the girls searched high and low and finally came upon the boys’ hideouts, the fellows were inevitably caught smoking.
Then the boys would retaliate . . . .
In his blog The Clubhouse Builder, Lee Mothes tells readers about a clubhouse he built with no money or help from grown-ups in Sunset Beach, California, in 1959. Eleven years old at the time, he erected it in a vacant lot with two friends.
When that clubhouse was wrecked by other kids, they built another in a fenced-in back yard.
Also in that post, Maureen Vel describes building a girls only fort with her sister and friends. Theirs even included a brick stove with a grill inside to cook lunch meat! If you want to see what happened when the neighborhood boys launched an “attack” on their fort, or if you would like to read more entries on clubhouse building, take my earlier advice and go to The Clubhouse Builder.
If you’re a boomer waxing nostalgic over your pièce de résistance of yore, and you would like to share with your children or grandchildren the intoxication of building your own sanctuary, Mothes has written a book titled Keep Out! Build Your Own Backyard Clubhouse, available at Amazon.
Lee tells me, “Keep clubhouse building from becoming a lost art!”
Why was constructing clubhouses more popular in the 1950’s and 1960’s than they are now? Lamentable more and more as new technology abounds, kids of the 21st century are content to stay indoors, obsessed with video games, computers, and a plethora of other electronic distractions, not to mention Netflix and 150+ TV channels. If they want to communicate with their friends, they can text on their smart phones or chat via Face Time. According to the National Wildlife Federation, “The average American boy or girl spends as few as 30 minutes in unstructured outdoor play each day, and more than seven hours each day in front of an electronic screen.”
We boomers had fewer choices for entertainment, and so we had to be creative, and much of the creativity was hatched outdoors. It was common for kids to spend 80% or more of their waking moments outside during summer vacation. With the birth boom of the post-World War II period, families burgeoned, so mothers shooed (or shoved) their kids out the door all day long to give themselves a little respite from the inevitable shouting, crying, whining, fighting, and tattletaling of multiple kids. Did I miss anything?
My friend Donna pointed out another reason why homemade clubhouses and hideouts were more common in the 50’s and 60’s: There were more woods and unoccupied land to build them on. The neighborhood in which I grew up was a perfect example. In 1947, the year after my father was discharged from the Army Airforce, he and my mother bought a house in a newly built plan in the suburbs, as did so many others after World War II. My older siblings remember the swamp across the street, but I was too young to remember. Throughout the 1950’s, the swamp and a large wooded area gave way to more home construction.
Still, we neighborhood kids had places to play. There was a large empty lot catty corner from my house, where we rode bikes and played ball and other games. Beyond the lot were a several acres of woods that had not been developed, and a creek ran alongside the lot and the woods. We neighborhood kids have lots of fond memories of those play areas.
While I was away at college in the early 1970’s, a road was built, which cut through half of the lot, making it no longer usable for ball games and such. When homes were built on the road, the woods were substantially reduced. The creek was covered over with grass and dirt, and the only way you could enjoy the babbling of the creek was to stoop down and put your eyes or ears to the storm grate on the side of the road. I could have cried.
But I digress. My point is that with post-war prosperity came more and more home construction. As the years passed, large new plans of homes and commercial developments continually depleted children’s natural “playgrounds,” stymieing opportunities for kids to play organized games without adults and to build their own private clubhouses. And that kid-sized dilemma continues today.
What else has contributed to the decline in clubhouse building? Sadly, with an increase in violent crimes in recent years, there are plenty of parents who fear letting their children out of their sight for hours at a time, especially in the woods.
As I mentioned earlier, I was never personally involved with the building of a clubhouse when I was young, but I got the opportunity to build one vicariously through my fictitious memoir The Crab Hollow Chronicles (e-Lectio Publishing). My second chapter, “The Ecstasy and the Agony,” revolves around a clubhouse building competition between the boys and the girls.
Alas, there were a few “glitches” along the way. By 9:00 a.m., the winners of the clubhouse building contest would be determined. Would the boys be the victors, or would the girls earn the prize?
Well, let’s see what’s up with my homemade clubhouse drawing in which anything goes because it’s my imagination running the show. Uh, oh. While the cat’s away, the mice will play. Or in this case, while the boys are away, the girls will play. It’s all very innocent. The girls just want to make a slight change in signage. Better be quick!
Do you have any fond, humorous, or frightful memories of building a clubhouse? In my next post, Kid’s Clubhouses and Hideouts—Part 2: 1980’s & 1990’s, I’ll reminisce about my own children’s house building exploits in the 1980’s and early 1990’s.
KAREN GENNARI is the author of The Crab Hollow Chronicles, a fictitious memoir based on her experiences growing up in a neighborhood full of boys in 1961/62. It also explores the merits and challenges of life in a Catholic family of seven.
Join nine-year-old Karen Schmidt in her attempts to navigate Crab Hollow Road amidst the overwhelming male majority who beleaguer her at every opportunity. Does Karen have the fortitude to weather toadnappings, midnight escapades, false impersonation, and more? Along the way, relive the people, products, music, sports, and headlines of the early 1960’s. Virtually every page references the 1960’s. Lots of your favorite toys are mentioned in these pages.