In search of the last sandy dirt road
Posted at 4:46 p.m. on Monday, August 15, 2022
When Milt and I leave home in the morning for long walks around town, we always come home with a treasure trove of memories. Our recent walk took us to the lot of my childhood that I must have crossed hundreds of times, the corner of Fifth and Bridge streets. I crossed this street to go to school and come home for eleven years.
All the houses are gone now, as is the Shell gas station with the chuck cart and the beautiful magnolias that used to be near that corner. In their place stands a brand new business that will soon be a magnificent car wash. So many old things from my childhood are gone, but there is one precious childhood memory still intact, the sandy dirt road, Mitchell Lane, which stretched from Bridge to Van Norden Streets.
Mitchell Lane was the northern boundary of my family’s property, and was the scene of many running races, hitchhiking, hopscotch and, it’s where so many of us kids , learned to ride a bike. It was ideal for gambling as there was much less traffic than Fourth Street. Most of the streets in our neighborhood were dirt streets when I grew up here, and we all had our favorites. There are still a few in the city today. There is a small stretch of sandy dirt road called Old Second Street between Brown Street and MacNair Street and Davis Lane between West Fourth Street and Fifth Street. I’m sure there are others and I’m looking for them.
As kids we knew where the best sandy dirt roads were because some of them had the best sand on them. Bryant Avenue between Ninth and Eleventh streets had the best sand. The sand was smooth and fine and didn’t need to be sifted before playing with it. It was the best sand for making sand bombs. We filled little brown bags with sand and carried everything we could back to Fourth Street. Then we made our sand bombs. Now the sand bombs were used to be thrown on other kids’ porches. There was no prize for who ended up with the most sand on the porch, but the child with the least had bragging rights. The only problem with this was that some of the neighbors got really upset and some of us got in trouble for making a mess. The other neighbors didn’t care because they could use the fine sand to make sand candles or fill their own little bags to make door stops. People who had chickens swept up the sand and used it in their coops because it helped keep the chicken’s feet clean and it kept the coop cool in the summer and kept warm in the winter. Some of the older neighbors used sand to clean their kitchen floors. They sprinkled the fine sand on the ground and then swept it away. It helped if the fat had made small drips on the floor during cooking. Some men used the sand to clean their rakes and garden hoes as it kept them from rusting.
Fourth Street also had nice sand, but it wasn’t as nice as Bryant Avenue. Milton, who grew up on Bryant Avenue, explained how walking barefoot on this hot sand road in the summer was like walking over hot coals. He too has his stories of the fun he had on that sandy dirt road.
I wanted to thank WDN readers across the country who share with me how much they appreciate my articles, and I want to thank WDN for doing me the honor of sharing my memories of growing up here in Washington. I appreciate each of you very much.
Leesa Jones is a Washington native and co-founder and co-executive director of the Washington Waterfront Underground Railroad Museum.