you can go home again
A return to the Boss family home
Have you ever walked through your house and wondered about its past? Who once lived there? What’s behind that odd patch on the garage back wall? What was it like to stoke the coal furnace? It may be your house now, but the ghosts of previous owners linger. If only they could talk.
Kathy Samples and her husband, Carl Kruger, got a rare chance to ask a few of those “ghosts” about their 818 Kewanna Avenue house and neighborhood when they hosted a dinner for six of the surviving Boss children who grew up there from the 1920s through the 1940s. And what verbose ghosts they were.
The evening proved the perfect reunion opportunity for the family, who range in age from 76 to 89: Jack, Bethel Park; Donald, Florida; Lois Creehan, Mt. Lebanon; Laverne Fry, Arizona; Helen McCarthy, Mt. Lebanon; and Thelma Creehan, Peters Township. (Brothers Joseph, Albert, Robert and Leonard have passed.)
Philomena (Minnie) and Joseph Boss purchased the house around 1921 when the street was called Kentucky, the road was unpaved and there were only three houses in sight. The Bosses moved to Mt. Lebanon from Troy Hill with their then family of three boys because they wanted their children to grow up on a farm. Minnie would have seven more children—six born in the house with only the youngest, Donald, arriving at St. Joseph’s Hospital.
That good-natured teasing filled the house during the visit. The boys would make an offhand remark about life in the Boss house only to have their sisters admonish in chorus, “That’s not true!” while shaking their heads and rolling their eyes.
Samples, video camera rolling, listened raptly to the tales of the big backyard—the Boss family owned two lots to the left of the house—filled with quince, cherry, plum, pear, peach and apple trees, an enormous vegetable garden and a large chicken coop. A duck and a dog named Chum wandered the yard.
“We lived off the land,” says Laverne. “There was never any need to buy canned goods.”
Minnie put the girls to work making jelly when they were only 7 and the boys fetched milk in pails from a neighbor who had cows. Minnie canned many of the vegetables, and what few groceries the family did need were purchased at a store in Castle Shannon. Of course not all the produce ended up in jars as the siblings loved to climb the cherry trees, fill their mouths with cherries and compete in pit-spitting contests.
But there are some things you might not want to know about your house—such as chicken beheadings in your basement toilet.
Before you can cook a chicken you have to kill it and the basement bathroom was the room of choice for this nasty deed. “You had to hold on real tight so they wouldn’t flap around,” Jack says. Samples may never use her basement bathroom again.
It’s been decades since the family was last in the house and things have changed, as was quickly noted when the family walked in the door.
“You left this house out in the rain because it shrunk,” Donald declared.
The “kids” pointed out changes—an addition off the back, the long-gone pocket doors and a now linoleum-less dining room floor.
Seeing that floor, Lois recalled how their parents went downtown every Thursday night for dinner and a movie. Upon leaving, the German-born Minnie would admonish her children to be “good little brownies.” Little did she know that soon after the car’s headlights were out of sight, her darlings hosted “skating” parties for their friends by removing the dining room furniture, tossing buckets of soapy water on the floor and sliding around on the suds.
“When they came home, mother was so pleased that we had washed the floors,” Lois says with a chuckle.
There were many hijinks that Minnie and Joseph never discovered—at least as far as her children know and the ones their parents did know about would never fly today, such as the “roller coaster” built using waxed two-by-four boards. Sitting on sheets of cardboard, the kids went shooting down the hill to Vallevista. They also played outside unchaperoned until dusk with friends Jimmy, Adele, Ed and Bill Ryan, who lived on Rockwood. “When the streetlight came on that’s when we had to come home,” Lois says.
Only one story stopped the joking—a missed opportunity that could have made the family very wealthy.
Joseph Sr. owned several lots farther up Kewanna, about where a path to Foster Elementary School is now located, which neighbor Ed Ryan Sr. wanted to develop.
“[Ryan] wanted my dad to be a partner with him,” says Jack. “My dad said, ‘Ed, I can’t afford it because I have 10 children, but I can sign the lots over to you.’”
“Ed used those lots and started building houses,” Thelma adds. “As he sold them, he would pay [Dad] for the lots.” [Note: Ed’s son, Ed Jr., founded Ryan Homes in 1947.]
As it turns out, Ed Ryan built the Boss family’s garage. As to that oddly patched segment in the back wall? Well, Donald once removed some bricks to get his car to fit.
“You don’t expect to have an opportunity to learn history firsthand,” Samples says. “This house has such a happy, fun vibe. Then you meet [the family] and say, ‘no wonder.’”
Indeed as they reached adulthood, the Boss children seemed loath to leave home. Joseph Jr. built a house next door and many of his siblings settled in the Castle Shannon area once they married. And, proving they had not had enough of big families, both Al and Helen had 10 kids. Lois and Thelma married brothers.
The Boss family’s reign on Kewanna ended after Minnie suffered a heart attack in the early 1950s and she and Joseph Sr. moved to a ranch style home near St. Anne’s (built by her children). Minnie died in 1972 and Joseph Sr. in 1978.
“We always got along,” Lois says. “I have people say to me ‘I never met anyone who had such a close-knit family.’ We fight, but we don’t stay mad. That’s how we were raised—we could fight but we weren’t allowed to go to bed without talking.”
Minnie and Joseph probably didn’t have to create that rule, because it’s pretty obvious that in this family nobody would be successful at giving someone the silent treatment.