The early to mid-20th century was an exceptional period of change and growth for Arlington, and the expansion of the Federal economy from New Deal programs and World War II was one of the largest catalysts.
Over little more than a decade during the 1930s, Arlington began to transform from a country town to a bustling suburb.
Walter De Groot provided our Center with one of the most comprehensive interviews about that time in Arlington’s history, totaling 180 transcribed pages. In this clip, Mr. De Groot remembers not only the technological and infrastructure changes that the war years brought to the area, but also the complicated social implications of war and expansion.
Narrator: Walter De Groot
Interviewer: Sara Collins
Interview Date: June 30, 2004
SC: Were most of the houses in that time, let’s say in the thirties, most of the houses in that neighborhood have outhouses?
WDG: We were probably, as I recall, one of the first houses that had indoor plumbing built into the house. Now that I’m thinking about it we were not on a sewer line, we were on a septic field. But I don’t ever recall any service of it while we were there. And I do not know when they had tied into the road but I’m going to assume it’s probably about the time of World War II because that’s about the time they paved Columbia Pike. That was done with German war prisoners. Columbia Pike, Arlington Boulevard, Lee Highway. All these east-west highways were being covered using war prisoners.
SC: Where did they stay? Where were they housed?
WDG: They came from Arlington Hall.
SC: That’s where they were incarcerated?
WDG: Well, they had some in camps around but I believe they were stationed, held, incarcerated at Arlington Hall area. They had a place over there. In fact, that takes to the story when I was stationed in Germany in ‘54.
We as kids, we used to take things from home like maybe cigarettes or candy or stuff like that and we’d go over to this prison camp. We kids called it the “Cracker Jack Box.” These prisoners in their off time didn’t have anything better to do and they would cut up tobacco cans and tin cans and they’d bend them and twist them and make them like something, like a horse or a bird or a carving. They would carve things. So we never knew if we threw and it was sort of like, “okay it’s your turn.” I’d go over to the fence and one of the prisoners would sort of meander over that way and let’s say I had gotten a few cigarettes. I would throw it over the fence and then he would show up and he’d throw something over the fence. We never knew what we were going to get. So that’s why it was called the “Cracker Jack Box.”
Now when I was in Germany I met a man who it turns out he had been incarcerated there
and he had a young wife. Many of the young German girls spoke English. Why I don’t know other than they got that much of an education as a second language. But I had mentioned to this fellow, I said something and he said, “My wife does not speak English but I do.” And then we got talking about how did you learn to speak such good English and he said, “I was a prisoner in America.”
And I said, “Oh, where?”
He said, “Oh, you wouldn’t know this place. It was a little town called Arlington.”
I said, “Oh my goodness. You came from the Cracker Jack Box.
He said, “You know the town.”
SC: Isn’t that amazing. What a story.
You can find Walter De Groot’s oral history interview in its entirety in the Center for Local History – VA 975.5295 A7243oh ser.3 no.193 – or read it online.
Photo: Boy Scouts Scrap Drive 1940’s; Source: Photographs of the Arlington Historical Society, PG 230-2326
The goal of the Arlington Voices project is to showcase the Center for Local History’s oral history collection in a publicly accessible and shareable way.
From June 2017 – May 2018, we will post one oral history clip and transcript each month, focusing on Arlington’s history, culture and identity.
What is the oral history collection?
Oral history is a popular method of research used for understanding historical events, actors, and movements from the point of view of people’s personal experiences.
The Arlington Public Library began collecting oral histories of long-time residents in the 1970s, and since then the scope of the collection has expanded to capture the diverse voices of Arlington’s community. In 2016, staff members and volunteers recorded many additional hours of interviews, building the collection to 575 catalogued oral histories.
To browse our list of narrators indexed by interview subject, check out our community archive. To read a full transcript of an interview, visit the Center for Local History located at Central Library.