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Two-Legged Alley Cats

There was a time in Wheeling’s developing years that many neighborhoods were identified by their ethnicity. Our dad grew up in the mostly German enclave of homes in Center Wheeling. In particular, his home sat where the former Ohio Valley Medical Center stands today.

He often spoke of walking home from St. Alphonsus School and experiencing the sights, sounds and smells he encountered in the alley behind those homes. Some of the houses actually faced the alley. He said it was commonplace for many of the immigrant families to bring their recipes for delicious and aromatic foods with them. He bragged about certain baked goods his mother would produce to the delight of his family.

He also realized his first taste of home-brewed beer in that alley. The garages and outbuildings in the alley served as mini breweries for the self-made crafters. The alley was a busy place.

When my parents moved their growing family to the Woodsdale area, it was a world much different from that of our dad’s upbringing. But the good thing was there were and still are many alleys in the Woodsdale neighborhood.

Since our garage was at the far end of the yard and faced the alley, we spent a good deal of time exploring the “back sides” of our neighbors. On rainy summer days, our dad would pull the barbecue grill into the garage, open the large door and cook chickens on the spit. He would sit there for hours with a transistor radio, the family dogs and several curious kids for company. It must have reminded him of his childhood spent in the alleys.

My siblings and I loved the alleys in our neighborhood. The alleys held a curious collection of garages, sheds and even a few barns left over from the area’s original designation of farms and orchards.

A few neighbors were lucky enough to still maintain apple and pear trees on their properties. A few of those trees were within reaching distance from the alley and we often dodged the deer and property owners to grab a few pieces of fruit.

A portion of the alley behind our Hamilton Avenue home was built of bricks. It made for a bumpy ride on our bicycles. When I was a young teen, I would take my littlest brother and sister for walks up and down the alley. Early in these walks we discovered an old, abandoned mail truck tucked between two garages. It became our secret destination where we sometimes packed a bag lunch and enjoyed a picnic at “the truck.”

In that same alley, we would spend hours in the summer watching in awe as the construction workers operated their diggers and cement mixers and built Peterson Hospital. Little did they know that as soon as they left for the day, we crawled in and around the scaffolding to see what they had accomplished each day.

We were found out and made to end our after-hours hijinks when the neighbor’s basset hound followed us and fell into a basement well. He was safely rescued by city firefighters but we were banished from the job site thereafter.

The alleys were pretty safe in those days except for an occasional interaction with a neighbor’s not-so-friendly German shepherd. Yet walking or riding through the alleys could prove profitable at times. Since trash collections were made from the alleys, we always knew when someone got a new refrigerator when a large cardboard box was put out with the trash. We would pilfer the boxes and use them to build forts down by the creek or use them as makeshift sleds in winter.

The alley trash was telling in other ways, too. It always amazed us when we would find a treasure amid the trash. We wondered why someone would throw out a perfectly usable bean bag chair (covered in duct tape) or a doll carriage missing only one wheel. We were always dragging things home to the chagrin of our parents.

Later I would learn the alleys in my hometown through my work here at the newspaper. I walked the 15th Street Place alley to the City-County Building nearly every day for 10 or more years. I learned alleys as shortcuts to fires and other newsworthy events. For me, alleys will always have a place in my book of memories. I bet they do for you, too.

Heather Ziegler can be reached via email at hziegler@theintelligencer.net.

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