As Oneontans turned over their calendars to January 1919, they soon learned that the city had a problem of bad behavior amongst some of their youngest citizens. News was abundant and reported in The Oneonta Star, and by February a crusade was called for to turn the tide on juvenile delinquency.
“There appears to have developed, especially of late, much petty thieving on the part of very young boys of the city, and for weeks the police have been puzzled by many thefts from milk bottles, not a few citizens, until they learned by experience that it was unsafe, being accustomed to leave change and not infrequently a bill for milk or tickets in the bottles placed upon the porches,” it was reported on Friday, Jan. 10. “These offences (sic) have been committed for the most part in the center of the residential section, although numerous complaints have come from River street.”
This was a time when milk was delivered door to door each day very early in the morning, so customers were used to leaving money for deliverymen to pick up from area dairies.
A trio of young boys, ages 10 to 12, were before Judge Shove the day before and when questioned admitted their guilt to emptying cash from the milk bottles and confessed to numerous offenses. The 12-year-old was sent to the State Agricultural and Industrial School near Rochester. The institution wouldn’t accept any boys under 12. Those under 12 were described as “bright, but seemingly quite apt at wrongdoing.” The youths were using the cash to go to the movies.
“Judge Shove is finding it no easy task to make a just decision relative to them,” the report continued.
Another 12-year-old boy broke into a Walnut Street home on Jan. 21, took some money and an air gun from the owners. When reported, by the end of the day an Oneonta police officer had taken the boy into custody and arraigned him before Judge Shove.
The father of the boy also appeared and admitted he had been unable to keep the boy in school. The father agreed it would be best to admit the boy to Industrial School, where it was reported the next day, “He will be given strict discipline and instructed in some useful occupation while there.”
“While the court is adverse to taking boys away from parents unless circumstances warrant, the increase in juvenile delinquency is necessitating some drastic action before the youths become serious offenders,” the report added.
Bad behavior wasn’t limited to thievery by Oneonta’s youngsters. It was reported on Jan. 27, “Another phase of the juvenile delinquency problem was brought to public attention on Saturday when Officers Fox and Stapleton of the D. & H. force arrived at police headquarters with seven boys ranging apparently in age from 7 to 12 years, who had been apprehended at East End, while engaged in the dangerous pastime of jumping on moving trains and playing about the track.”
The boys were sent home with instructions to report at police headquarters Monday afternoon with a parent. “It was the conviction of the peace officials that the parents are largely to blame for the boys being engaged in such dangerous sport and it is probable that the parents will be given a warning of drastic action should the practice continue.”
The Star added, “It would seem that company employees could help in this manner materially if they would put their boots with some force against the trouser seat of all boys found about the tracks and trains, for doing which any father should thank them.”
Getting parents more involved with their youngsters, but in gentler and more constructive ways, was exactly the theme of a new crusade, begun on Sunday, Feb. 23, 1919, called “Our Indebtedness to the Boy,” held at the First United Methodist Church of Oneonta.
Dr. George J. Dann, then Oneonta’s Superintendent of Schools, called on adults to improve American boyhood, “something of greater importance to us than the league of nations or the Bolsheviki, the future of our city and country being in their hands.”
Dann said adults should be getting youths involved with the YMCA, Boy Scouts, their church and Sunday schools.
“The adult generation finds in American boyhood its great task, its most important problem, its most important opportunity. May we be conscious of the greatness and glory of the opportunity.”
On Monday: A walk to school in darkness in January 1974.
Oneonta City Historian Mark Simonson’s column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area during the Depression and before. His Monday columns address local history after the Depression. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or email him at email@example.com. His website is www.oneontahistorian.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/marksimonson.