Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Spencer and the War Years

As World War II raged on, life in Spencer also raced along for this growing boy. As soon as I reached the age of 12, I became a member of Boy Scout Troop 115. The other two Boy Scout troops were 149, which met at the Cherry Street Fire Station, and Troop 116, sponsored by St. Mary’s Church. My Troop 115 met every Tuesday Night at 7 p.m., with Ralph Warren as scoutmaster -- the best scoutmaster a boy could have. 

He took us on weekend camping trips, taught us scout and outdoor lore, and for many years gave up his yearly vacation from the Spencer Printing Co. to escort his Scouts to Treasure Valley. Some of my fellow scouts were Al Stebbins, Scott Gerrish, and a tall, lanky kid by the name of Eddie Budnik. It was a wonderful time of my life; I truly enjoyed scouting.

For three years I went with my troop to Treasure Valley Boy Scout Camp on Browning Pond. I would save the $7.50 it cost for a week from my paper route money. Treasure Valley Camp was one of my favorite places in the whole world. Each troop had their own campsite, where we lived in large wall tents. We did our cooking as a troop, and learned boating, canoeing, swimming, and other activities. 

One day, on my first year going to camp, I was sawing wood with a two-man cross-cut saw. I was kneeling on one side of the saw, and the scoutmaster was on the other side. I let go of my side when Ralph Warren was pushing on his side of the saw. I won’t go into detail as to what happened, but I did learn a valuable lesson that is, never let go of your side of a two-man wood-cutting operation. I still have the scar above my right knee to prove that theory, 56 years later.

Earlier in the story I shared that Luther Hill Park had been destroyed by the Hurricane of 1938, with not one of those beautiful, tall evergreens left standing. The storm had just devastated the park. It was during my time of scouting that the Boy Scouts of Troop 115 -- with the help of Spencer’s strong man, George Willey -- re-planted all the trees. To this day, the pines that we scouts planted back in 1943 are the ones that still provide shade and beauty.

Another one of my favorite pastimes in the summer was to walk to Alta Crest Farms to visit and play with my friend, Richard Sagendorph. Alta Crest Farms, as I mentioned before, is where St. Joesph’s Abbey is now. It was a four-mile hike, but I did not mind it at all; in fact, I found the trek fun. There were two ways I could get there. I could hike along Route31 to the road, now blocked off, beside the Guaranteed Fitness Center. That road would take you by Kerlin’s Chicken Farm -- run by Nathan Kerlin and his son, Isaac -- over the hills and past the Town Poor Farm, run by the Wilsons. 

Do you remember Mr. Wilson, the pony ride man on the East Brookfield flats? When I was a kid, he was the warden at the poor farm. Before the state of Massachusetts took over supervision of welfare, the cities and towns were in charge of taking care of their citizens in need. All towns had a poorhouse or poor farm. It is where the authorities sent their real down-and-outers. The town farm, I can assure you, was not a very nice place to be. It is good that they are part of history in Spencer and New England, and are no more. Anyhow, over the hills to a great day playing at Alta Crest Farms.

The other way my hike to the farm was up Northwest Road right past the old Proctor Farm. I would get a ride home on a truck that used to come into Spencer to pick up the milk at the Alta Crest Village Farm. This was a smaller farm the Sagendorphs owned on the west side of Pleasant Street, right above Smithville Road. The pastures of Alta Crest Village Farm were where the housing development is today, on Smithville and Old Farm roads. The overseer of that farm was a Scottish immigrant, Bill Gibson.

At the beginning of World War II Alta Crest Farms was awarded the milk contract at Lowell General Hospital in Fort Devens. On Sundays, so that the milk truck driver could have a day off, Dick Sagendorph, Sr. used to take the run to deliver the milk at the Fort. One Sunday he invited my friend Richard and me to accompany him on the trip. It was probably the biggest adventure of my life to that date. Imagine riding in a big yellow truck, hauling a load of milk all the way to Ayer and a real Army reservation. This was not a story my father had told me about the Army; this was the real thing, me, Marty Civin, at Fort Devens. What a thrill it was!

On the more academic side of those days, my love for US history might have started with a boy who had moved from Harlem, New York City, to Spencer. Lauri Ahlbom was sent here by his alcoholic father in New York City to help with the chores, in exchange for room and board, on the farm of Erick Johnson and his wife. (Mrs. Johnson was Jim Grant’s grandmother.) The farm was located where the Klem Dept. Store is in the west part of town. Lauri was quite proud of his estranged father, and with good reason. His father, a world-class sprinter, had been a member of the, I believe, 1928 Olympic Team from Finland. Lauri’s dad had immigrated to the United States to ply his trade as Henry Ford’s personal tailor.

Unfortunately, booze had done him in, and he was now working at his trade in New York. Lauri, who was my age, came to David Prouty Junior High at the beginning of the seventh grade. He was the smartest kid I had ever met, and he excelled in everything. Though he was rough around the edges, he must have been a teacher’s dream. Our history teacher, Miss Silk, gave extra credit if you could memorize the summary of each chapter in our history textbook. A competition began between Lauri and me, with both of us memorizing the summary, word for word after each chapter. I don’t remember who won, but I do recall that we both memorized our whole history book. After he returned from visiting his father (on the corner of 125th Street and Lexington Avenue in Harlem) over Christmas vacation our seventh grade year, there wasn’t a boy in our class who didn’t envy Lauri. While in the Big Apple, Lauri and one of his Harlem friends went to Chinatown, to Charlie Stewart’s tattoo shop. For 25-cents my buddy got a sailing ship tattooed on one of his biceps, with seagulls flying above the sails. Lauri Ahlbom was my friend until he moved to Florida a number of years ago.

Jimmy Bogle was another good buddy -- known as a tough kid, but a good kid. He lived upstairs at One Valley St., the house next to the Spencer athletic field. His mother did housework, and his father, Scotty Bogle, worked in the dairy at Sibley Farms. My mother was not at all happy with my friendship with Jimmy, whom she was sure was going to lead me astray. Besides attending school most of the time, Jimmy Bogle was a striker on Sibley Farms’ milk truck.

The summer of 1944, when I was 13, I gave up my paper route, and Jimmy got me a job as a striker. You were paid $7 for 7 days’ work, $1 a day and breakfast. I worked for a driver from East Brookfield by the name of Don Wagner. He would drive the truck around the route, and I would run door to door putting the glass bottles of milk on the doorsteps. My day started at 5 a.m. and usually ended about 2 p.m. I haven’t seen or heard from Jimmy Bogle in years, but I do know what happened to him. He quit David Prouty in his junior year and joined the Navy 1947. After boot camp, he became a pigboat sailor. Pigboats were World War II-class submarines. It was like going to sea in a sewer pipe. He ended his seagoing career on atomic subs. Jimmy retired after more than 30 years’ service, with the Naval rank of captain -- that would be the same as an Army colonel. Not bad for a dead-end kid from Valley Street.

It was around 1943 or 1944 that Civin’s Specialty Shop moved from 10 Mechanic down the street to 20 Mechanic St. My parents went all-out in designing this store: They finally had a fashion shop. They had their fixtures built in knotty pine, which was the trend of the day. No more makeshift racks; it was a real women’s and children’s shop now. My parents were now drawing $42 a week out of the business, a sum they would draw for many years. My mother -- who could at times be quite frugal -- used to boast that they managed on a $42 weekly salary for years. What she did not mention was that the business paid all their expenses, with the exception of food.

In the autumn of 1944, I entered David Prouty High School as a freshman. My subjects were English, Latin, Ancient History, Algebra, and Science. My marks stunk; I just got by with five Cs. Most of my time in classes I sat and dreamed, and when I got home I did very little studying. I dreaded report card time, because I knew there would always be yelling, lectures, and punishment from my parents. I also became quite introverted and withdrawn. It took me many years to come out of my shell.

Scott Gerrish and I got a job in the fall that year for the whopping sum of 40-cents an hour. I am serious; we thought that was darn good money for a couple of 13-year-old kids. The job was with Johnny Ficociello’s vegetable farm on the East Brookfield flats, across the road from Petruzzi Farms. (Johnny was the brother-in-law of Sandy Petruzzi’s grandfather.) Our job was to walk behind the tractor and plow as it dug up the carrots, pull the foliage off the vegetables, and throw them into bushel baskets. It was all stoop labor; talk of earning your money. Wow. From that period of my life until 1996, I have had some interesting and varied positions, but it was topping carrots for a few weeks where I started to learn that a dollar did not come easy.

In November 1944, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected to his fourth term as president, with Harry S. Truman as his vice president. Roosevelt, though only 60 years of age looks like death warmed over in his pictures. The war in Europe is beginning to wind down, or at least everyone thought it was winding down. In December 1944 the Nazis made a desperate last attempt to reverse the tide of Allied advances. The Battle of the Bulge in Belgium turns out to be one of the bloodiest battles of World War II. Fortunately, the Germans’ last great push failed, but not without crushing casualties on both sides. The Allied advance now resumes across the Rhine River and into Germany. From the east the Soviet Army, which had held the Nazis at Stalingrad for over three years, was making the Germans pay for the 30 million Russians -- both military and civilian -- that had been killed in the war.

Franklin Roosevelt did not live to see the end of World War II. He died in Warm Springs; GA, in April 1945.The greatest leader of the 20th century was dead at the age of 61. Harry Truman was sworn in as the 33rd President of the United States. The beginning of May of that year troops of the US and Red armies linked up at the River Elbe. The war in Europe was over, but there was very little celebration, because there was still a bloody war to be won in the Pacific.

The war in the Pacific rages on in the spring and summer of 1945. The battle for Okinawa turns out to be extremely bloody on both sides. The US and her allies are preparing for the invasion of the Japanese mainland. Casualties are expected to be catastrophic. Japanese kamikazes (suicide bombers) are hitting our ships one after the other. Meanwhile, off the coast of Okinawa, a young radioman third class in the radio tower shack on a destroyer gets a relief to get a cup of coffee. While he was in the ship’s dining room -- or galley, as it is called -- drinking his coffee, a Japanese kamikaze pilot crashes his plane into the radio shack, killing the radioman third class’s relief. The radioman was someone familiar to you Civins: R.M3/c Kenneth (Mookey) Bernstein.

On Aug. 4, 1945, President Truman makes a weighty decision. He gives his consent for a B-29 bomber, called Enola Gay, to take off from the island of Saipan, and go on a bombing run to drop its load on Hiroshima, Japan. The first atomic bomb is dropped, and a couple of days later another A-bomb is dropped on the city of Nagasaki. On Aug. 14, 1945, the Japanese Imperial Government surrenders to Army General Douglas McArthur, aboard the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Harbor. World War II is over, the Atomic Age is born, and the world will never again be the same.

I will never forget V-J Day, the day World War II ended. What a celebration it was here in Spencer! Scott Gerrish and another friend, Richie Lilystrom, went downtown that evening of Aug. 14, 1945, to watch the parade. I can remember a drunken sailor coming down the Town Hall hill lickity-split on a tricycle. People were dancing in the street, horns and whistles were blowing, and it was a night like none I had ever seen. After a while, Richie went to his grandmother’s house and stole a jar of homemade peach brandy. The three of us went out to Scott’s backyard on Cherry Street and downed the brandy. It must say, that was my first time that I did any serious drinking, and I did have quite a shine on. We three celebrants then borrowed Scott’s father’s 12-gauge shotgun, and we each fired off a few rounds. We all then went home, and went to bed. I will never forget that night. I was 14 years old.

Behind the Memories
Medical Miracles —Yet to Come

It is easy to forget that some of today’s routine tools — especially in medicine — had yet to be developed. Take Richie Lilystrom, who lived at 95 Main St., the house on the east corner of High Street.

A year younger than me -- and a little on the wild side -- Richie was one of my best buddies. He looked like someone in a Norman Rockwell painting, a skinny kid with blonde hair hanging down over his forehead, and a freckled face. However, Richie had a bad problem; he had a bad heart. Today, most likely some surgery and a couple of days in the hospital would have fixed him up. Back in the 1940s open-heart surgery wasn’t even a dream. Richie died of a heart attack at age 15. My pal knew that he should have restricted his activities, but – such is a teenager -- he refused to do it.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

1939: At The Edge of War

The nation was on the edge of another major world war in 1939, but I continued to enjoy my boyhood in Spencer. In September I transferred from Grove Street School to Pleasant Street School. My fourth grade teacher was Miss Viola Hastings, whom I liked very much. She married Frank Devereux a few years later. Because female teachers were not allowed to marry back in the 1940's, she left her profession. Mrs. Devereaux has been deceased for many years. (She was the mother of Jim Devereaux, owner of the Oakwood Christmas Barn on Route 31.

Sitting in the seat next to me in the fourth grade was a farm kid from Wire Village. He was small like I was, but a lot tougher. I immediately took a liking to Al Stebbins. He became perhaps my closest buddy until 1947, when he quit high school to join the Navy. 

It was Al who taught me to drive when I was 14, in an old Model A truck in the pasture of their farm. Al’s mother was a colorful character who chewed snuff and used to tell me, when I would get a little to big for my britches, that, “You ain’t stopped pissing yellow yet.” Al moved to the Iowa a couple of years ago to be close to his daughter, Debbie, and her family.

The 1939 World’s Fair drew my parents and Uncle Bob out of town. I have often wondered why, but I was not included in the trip. I guess my mother and father thought that I was too young to enjoy the festivities, so I stayed home with Uncle Nathan and Aunt Gertrude. Among others wonders, new phenomena called television was introduced there to the public for the first time. 

I sometimes find it hard to believe that I grew up in a world without television. Uncle Bob, a paperboy for the Spencer Leader, launched his journalistic career that year. I remember the picture of Bob sitting on his bike with a paper-carrying bag over his shoulder. The article he wrote was entitled, LEADER NEWSBOY’S IMPRESSION OF THE WORLD’S FAIR.I followed Bob into the “newspaper business,” getting my first paper route in the summer of 1941. It was a morning route starting on the corner of Mechanic Street and Main, going down Mechanic and up the hill to Prospect Street, over to Maple Street, down the hill, finishing on all the streets around Muzzy Meadow. 

I peddled the Worcester Telegram, The Boston Record, The Boston Globe, The Boston Post, and The Springfield Union. I did all this for the whopping sum of $3.50 a week, but I suppose that wasn’t bad for a 10-year-old kid. The best tipper on my route was J. Henri Morin, who always gave me 3-cents, “To buy a stamp to send your girl a letter, and 15 cents for you self.” Most customers only tipped 1 cent.

I always used to collect for the paper at Mahan’s Café on Friday nights, because the bartender, Scotty Thompson, would pay and give me a nickel tip; after all, it wasn’t his money. If Charlie Mahan, the owner of the saloon, paid me, it was only a penny tip. One of the more interesting people on my route was old man Savegeau. Once a bare-knuckle boxer in the Army in the Philippines at the turn of the century, he had the biggest hands I think I had ever seen. 

He was short and squat, with one eye. The old man used to scare the hell out of me when he would come to the door to pay me. People over the years have told me that he was as gentle as a lamb. Four of his sons were pretty respectable professional boxers during the 1930s. (One of the boxer sons was Cathy Savegeau, who was in Melanie’s class, father.)

That fall I had saved enough money from my paper route to buy a bicycle from the Eastern Cycle Co. on Portland Street in Worcester. I purchased a brand new bike for the grand sum of $18.95. It was a beautiful bright red, Harvard brand, with balloon tires, a light, a carrier on the handlebars, and -- best of all -- I bought it myself. 

Uncle Bob’s 16th birthday was Oct. 8, 1941, and that evening Mother sent him downtown to buy some ice cream. He borrowed my new bike to run the errand. He couldn’t stop on the bottom of High Street, crossed Main Street, and crashed head-on into a car coming up Elm Street. Bob’s leg was broken and his thighbone was shattered. He had to have a steel plate inserted in his thigh to hold the bone together. It has been almost 60 years since his accident, and he still has the steel plate. After the accident my mother said no more bikes for us. But, a couple of months later, my father surprised me by having my bike repaired. How happy I was!

Meanwhile, the winds of war are encompassing both Europe and Asia in 1939. The Austrians welcomed Hitler into their country with open arms. The Germans invade Czechoslovakia and Poland, and in June 1941, Hitler makes the mistake of invading the Soviet Union. It is the beginning of a long struggle between good and evil, but the war is still a long way from peaceful Spencer. Roosevelt is supplying Great Britain with a lot of the tools of war, but the United States has avoided committing troops to the struggle.

On Pearl Harbor Day, Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese Naval Air Force bombed US installations and most of the US Navy’s Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Honolulu, territory of Hawaii. I can visualize it as if were yesterday, although it was 59 years ago. We had a large console radio situated against the wall in the dining room. 

As the report of the air raid was broadcast, I can see my father leaning on the radio with his head bowed down on the top panel. The next day, Monday, all the students at Pleasant Street School were let out of their classrooms, and we stood on the stairs between the two floors as we listened to President Roosevelt declare war on both Japan and Germany. We heard the President’s speech on a little radio we students had earned from the school the previous spring by selling seeds. The world would never be the same again. I was 10 years old.

Shortly after the war started, as his contribution to the war effort my father became an air raid warden on High Street. His responsibility was from Prouty Street south to Pleasant Street. If I remember correctly, Charlie Putnam was the air raid warden on the other half of the street. Remember, at the beginning of the war the people did not know what to expect. We Americans did not know if we would be subject to the same kind of bombing that England was enduring. 

During air raid drills the entire town would be blacked out; not even the light from a cigarette was allowed. Air raid wardens would patrol the darkened streets to make sure everyone was inside -- preferably in their cellars -- for shelter, and adhering to the blackout. Once in a while Gordon McMurdo and I would sneak out of our houses during a drill, and hide in the bushes. I guess it wasn’t too smart, but boys will be boys. Mom has told me that her father was also an air raid warden in Worcester. 

I believe it was on Thursday nights that my mother and a group of ladies, headed by Miss Cruickshanks, would do their part by rolling bandages. The bandages they constructed were sent to the theaters of the war to dress the wounds of the men injured in battle. Do you remember the framed citation that Grandma Civin had in her den from President Harry Truman? The citation was for her effort in making bandages. She never missed a week during the war.

A terrible tragedy hit our family in August 1942: Uncle Nathan Israel died of a massive heart attack. Nathan was just 40 years old. He left behind his wife, Gertrude, and his 5-year-old son, David. It took a long time for us to adjust to life without Nathan. 

David was badly afflicted with asthma, and a few years later, Gertrude asked my parents to buy out her share of the business, and she and Alice Duggan -- who had also recently become a widow -- moved to Florida. Gertrude felt the warm climate would be better for David’s health. David was more like a kid brother to me than a cousin. I lost my buddy forever.

Through the sadness, Spencer was on a war footing. Recycling came into being for the first time. We would pour bacon and other meat fats into tin cans and bring them to the A&P or First National markets to be shipped out, to be used to manufacture, I believe, nitroglycerin. The food stores would pay a penny a pound for bacon grease. 

There were scrap metal drives. I remember when most of the yard at Kleven Shoe was full of scrap iron. We bundled out newspapers, loaded our wagons, and took the paper to Tower Box to be recycled. Over 800 of our town’s young men and women served in the armed forces. Over 20 young men made the supreme sacrifice.

Service people from Spencer served on every front, from the beaches of Normandy to the bloody islands of the South Pacific. Arthur Gendreau was lost on a submarine in the Pacific. Bob Agard, the son of the superintendent of schools, was killed in a tank in Italy. Bob Begin, a US Marine (and Melanie’s classmate, Vicky Begin’s, uncle), was killed in action on Iwo Jima. Pliny Allen, the son Allen Squire Shoe’s owner, lost his life as a gunner on a B-24 bomber in one of the bloodiest air raids of the Second World War, the oil fields in Polesti, Romania. 

Also perishing in that raid was Arnold Krause, a boy from Brooklyn, NY, the son of one of my mother’s girlfriends. Arnold had come to Spencer to spend a couple of weeks with us around 1940, but he was so homesick that he went back to Brooklyn after a couple of days. All of the boys that were killed in World War II had so much to live for, but the evil in the world had to be stopped.

I could not mention events in Spencer during World War II without telling you about Elton (Jed) Prouty. Jed Prouty wrote a column in the Spencer Leader detailing the life and adventures of Spencer’s sons and daughters serving in the military. He personally corresponded with all the people of Spencer who were serving their country, telling them about events in their hometown. When I say all, I mean ALL; if Jed could get a service person’s address, he wrote to him or her. 

Jed was probably one of the most dedicated people I knew during the war. Jed’s wife, Annetine, worked for Grandma in the store as a salesperson for many years. There is a sad story that I must tell about Jed Prouty. He had been an alcoholic for many years, but kept so busy during the war years that he stopped drinking. I guess Jed was so busy writing he did not have time to drink. When the war ended, ex- servicemen returning to Spencer started buying their friend drinks. It was sad; Jed Prouty would go on benders. He would start his toot drinking at the Massasoit, which was the best bar in town. As the days of his bender went on he would keep lowering his standards as to where he drank. 

He would usually end up in Pete’s Café or the Windsor, two of Spencer’s less desirable saloons. One night, shortly after Mom and I married, we were coming back from Worcester, and we rescued Jed, who was staggering up Main Street in the middle of the road, and we took him home. Annetine used to tell Grandma that he was a wonderful, talented man, but when he drank he was no different than any other drunk. It is such a sad commentary.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Main Street Merchants

If you start down Main Street, next to where Apple Blossoms is now located you will notice a narrow little candy store. Years ago, that narrow store was the location of Quinn’s barbershop, one of -- I just counted, and I can think of, eight barbershops. I am sure there were more than that, given most men used to get a hair cut every two weeks. The cost was 25-cents. No one tipped in those days. Some men also used to also get a shave every day, costing 15-cents. Incidentally, there was nothing more luxurious than a barbershop shave. I once got a shave at the railroad station in Chicago when I was in the Army, and I was waiting for a train to New York City. The barber would first put hot towels on your face to soften your whiskers, then give you a real close shave with a straight razor. You felt like a million bucks after that treatment.

Burkill’s Drug Store was where Susan’s Hair Salon is now. Norm Burkill -- a chubby, jovial man -- was the proprietor and pharmacist. He was assisted by another pharmacist, Frank Reavey. Frank had never been to college. You could at that time serve an apprenticeship in pharmacy, take an exam, and if you passed the test, you became a registered pharmacist. Burkill’s also had a very active soda and ice cream counter, serving sandwiches and light lunches. (Melanie, Norm Burkill was the husband of your teacher, Gertrude Burkill.)

Chef Sau, Spencer’s Chinese eatery, now occupies the location of Dufault the haberdasher’s store. I am told Dufault’s carried the best in men’s clothing. I remember Mr. Dufault as a very dapper man who dressed beautifully. My father used to tell me that Dufault would go to New York City to buy his personal suits. When a prospective customer would come into the store and comment on the nice suit Mr. Dufault was wearing, he would always say he had just taken off the rack in his store. He retired and sold the store in the 1940s to one of his salesmen, a Mr. Gregorie, who ran it for quite a few years, still carrying quality men’s clothing.

The Spencer Fashion Shop was the other major women’s clothing store in Spencer, hence Grandma’s and Grandpa’s competition. They were located where Mike’s Pizza Shop is today. Ella and Sam Hyman ran the store, also carrying a quality line of dresses, sportswear, and accessories. Every Monday, Ella would drive to Boston and return with a fresh supply of fashions from the garment wholesalers at 75 Kneeland St.

Next to Mike’s Pizza, where Charley Martinez has his appliance repair shop, was Giard’s Stationary Store. Edmund Giard and his wife sold stationary, office supplies, candy, etc. The store was sort of a mixture of many fast-selling items. The Giards had twin sons, Ronald and Donald, who were high school classmates of mine. At that time they attended a private Catholic school in Canada, with the financial help of an uncle who was a priest in Ware. Donald Giard died in Hartford, CT, a few years ago. Ronald is a retired head social worker for Catholic Charities, and lives in Leicester.

The First National Store was one of Spencer’s two chain grocery stores. (Recall that there was no such thing as a supermarket.) Located where the Spencer Travel Agency is now, the First National was managed by Napoleon O’Coin. The store shared equal billing with the A&P next door as Spencer’s largest and busiest grocery store.

Where Whitco is today, the Main Street A & P store was one of two in Spencer, with a smaller branch store on Mechanic Street. Though I don’t remember it, I am told there was once also a branch on Chestnut Street. A very charismatic gentleman from Worcester, Fred Hattinger, managed the A& P. George Bernard, a VFW buddy of my Dad’s (and Vickie Hopkin’s grandfather), was the butcher. One of my early memories of the A & P was purchasing a large dill pickle out of the wooden barrel next to the vegetable counter, for 4-cents.

The next block going down the street housed Jack Rosenthal’s Puritan Restaurant. The Puritan was where the two stores are that Whitco now uses for storage. Civin’s Specialty Shop also was located in one of those stores, before ceasing business in 1960. Back in the 1930s the Puritan occupied the entire first floor of 138 Main Street. It was where the action was; on a weekend night there usually were three men serving customers at the long bar, and as many waitresses waiting on the trade in the numerous booths. When people ate out in those days they dined at the Puritan, Jack’s Lunch, or the Kenwood Diner, but the Puritan was the biggest and busiest of the restaurants.

A narrow little store was hitched to the end of the building where the Puritan was located. The narrow store housed the one-stool shoeshine parlor, run by a man named Dumas. I don’t remember his first name, but I was told he had been a violinist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in his younger days. People also called him crazy because he purchased all that land where the Big Y shopping center is in the west end of town. People used to say that nothing could succeed that far out of the center of town. Who in the world would go shopping way down there?

The Crowley Block, on the corner across from Pleasant Street, had two stores on the first floor. The store on the east side of the building housed the Collette Drug Store, one of three pharmacies in Spencer, the other two being Burkill’s (that I just detailed) and The Carpenter Drug store that I will get to shortly. Most of all, I remember the marble soda fountain in Collette’s. The soda fountain was run by a man named Hector Plante, assisted by a teenager named Albert Laroche. Hector and Albert were probably two of the most enthusiastic Boston Braves fans around. When they would get a vacation they would follow the Braves on the train, attending some of their out-of-town games. When the owner (Mr. Collette) died, Hector Plante purchased the store, turning it into a store selling patent medicines, ice cream, soda, and light lunches.

Sharing the building in the other store was White’s 5 & 10, run by Morty White and his brother, Jack. Morty reported to his father, who owned four other 5 & 10's in Worcester. He ran the store until the beginning of World War II, when he left to go in the Army, leaving his brother in charge. When he came back to Spencer after the war, Morty moved the store across the street, bought it from his father, and changed the name to Morton’s Department Store.

Down the driveway of the Crowley block was a little factory formulating cough syrup. Faveau and Mathew’s Cough Syrup was sold on patent medicine counters throughout New England. There also was a bakery selling delicious pastries and bread, both wholesale and retail. Lamoureaux Furniture used the second and third floors of that building to warehouse their extensive inventory of furniture.

Let us cross the driveway to the building that’s now home of the Uptown Beauty Salon and Cormier Jewelers. Hitched to the end of the building on the driveway side was a diner run by Jack Mulcahy, called Jack’s Lunch. Jack’s had an about a 12-stool counter, with a few tables against the wall. The cooking was done in the basement, and the meals would be sent from the kitchen to the upstairs on a dumbwaiter, a little elevator-type contraption behind the counter.

Next door was Webster’s Package Store, one of Spencer’s two liquor stores. The other liquor store was Berthauime’s Package Store, across from Muzzey Meadow on Maple Street. Berthauime’s was run by brothers Henry and Fat Berthaiume. Fat was probably the most obese man to ever live in this town. He weighed, I was told, over 500 lbs. Among other things, Fat had a special double seat in the Park Theater. One of my favorite stories of Fat Berthaiume has to do with the Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling heavyweight championship fight of 1937. Fat loved boxing and traveled by train to Chicago to see the bout, which was no short journey back in those days. He arrived in the stadium just as the two pugilists were shaking hands. Louis knocked Schmeling out in the first 30 seconds of the first round. Fat stood up, immediately went back to the railroad station, and returned to Worcester. With all that weight, Fat still lived well into his 80s.
Fleming’s Jewelers was where Cormier’s is at present. Franklin Fleming was a rotund, dapper man that I guess you could say looked like a jeweler. Many watch repairmen back in those days were physically handicapped, because they could do their work while seated. Fleming’s used to have a watch repair man by the name of Putnam who was very badly crippled with either polio -- a disease that claimed a lot of victims in those days -- or with birth defects.
Next to Fleming’s Jewelers, rounding out the business tenants in the building, was a branch of a new hardware company with a home base in Fitchburg. Spencer’s Aubuchon Hardware was managed by Norman Belanger. After World War II, Mr. Belanger left Aubuchon and started his own hardware store. He also became quite successful in a real estate business he operated with his wife, Yvette. Norman Belanger died in
Marty Civin 63
the 1970s, and his widow married Dr. Henry Lareau, one of Spencer’s medical doctors. They moved to Florida, where they resided for a number of years. Yvette Belanger Lareau passed away a few years ago.
A fruit store and meat market occupied the block on the other side of Wall Street, where Dick Adams now has his paper goods store. The Crimmins brothers, Mark and Tim, owned the fruit store on the corner. Crimmins also was also the home of a weekly poker game in the back room. In addition to the Crimmins brothers, some of the participants were men that I have mentioned in other parts of this story; Dutchy Meloche, Sam Kanen the tailor, Sam Hyman of the Spencer Fashion Shop, Fat Berthuime, and many more of the illustrious male population of Spencer. The other store in the block was a meat market run by a gentleman named Mike Kelly. Mike’s two daughters were Rita Kelly, a long-time biology teacher at David Prouty High School, and Miriam Mc Court, a long-time teacher and former Spencer selectman.
Do you remember Ray Rich of the Spencer Sea Food Restaurant? Ray Rich had just come to Spencer and with a partner by the name of Mr. Laporte, and opened Spencer’s first fish store. The Atlantic Fish Store was located where the Karate studio is now. The store sold fresh fish daily and, only on Fridays, fish and chips to take out.
Next door to the fish store, where the Christie and Thompson auto parts store now conducts business, was Meloche’s Garage. It was run by Freddie and George Meloche, and owned by Dr. Meloche the veterinarian. Freddie and George were brothers of Chief Dutchy Meloche, and sons of Dr. Meloche. In addition to repairing cars, the brothers also sold Gulf gasoline from two pumps in front of their garage. In the early 1940s, George Meloche became despondent and committed suicide. (He was the husband of Grandma’s friend, Evelyn Morin Meloche.) After World War II Freddie Meloche opened an auto dealership in the garage, selling Kaiser and Frasier cars. (Keith, Freddie was the grandfather of your first love, Christine Letendre.)
On the east corner of Elm and Main streets was Hodgerney’s Garage. On the main floor people rented space to garage their autos, and in the basement of the building that you entered from Elm Street was Spencer’s largest auto repair shop, employing about half a dozen mechanics. Hodgerney’s sold Sacony Gas from two pumps in front of their garage. Sacony Gas was the predecessor of Mobil Gas. One snowy night, Proprietor Everett Hodgerney was filling a customer’s car with gas when another car heading west on Main Street skidded across the road, hitting him. Mr. Hodgerney had to have a leg amputated due to the accident, but he still conducted his business for many more years walking on an artificial leg.

Let’s cross Main Street and head east. Before I undertook the writing of this story, I had forgotten how vibrant downtown used to be. I have turned up so many pleasant memories, and yes, so many ghosts of people long gone, but I am happy to have known.

The Kenwood Diner was where it is now, but it was a different diner. The old diner was much smaller and moved to Rochdale during the later part of the 1930s, replaced by the present diner. The Kenwood was a very busy place, open to the wee hours of the morning. Many truck drivers on the way to Albany used to stop there when they went through at night. During the late 1920s and early 1930s, I have been told that truck drivers would eat at the diner, and then go into their trucks to catch a little sleep. Before leaving the eatery the driver would tell the diner counterman what time he wanted to be woken up. A teenager would then walk down the street and wake the driver at the appointed time. Now that is service.

The Massasoit Hotel not only gave downtown Spencer a unique character, but it was where the town’s social life transpired. The Quinn family owned the hotel, and John Clarke presided over the bar. The Depression brought John Clarke to Spencer. I don’t know where he came from originally, but here is the story I was told many years ago. Mrs. Quinn (who was the mother of the late Senator Phil Quinn, and owner of the hotel) was working in the kitchen, when a young black hobo appeared at the back door and asked for something to eat. Mrs. Quinn offered to exchange a meal for some chores she needed done. John Clarke never left the Massasoit. The hotel became his home for the rest of his life. He was a husky, jolly man who presided over the hotel bar with help of Joe Bouley, Al Bouley’s father. John Clarke died suddenly of a heart attack while still in his 40s. He is buried in his adopted town, at the Pine Grove Cemetery.

The Sugden block had four stores as it does today, but the occupants were different. Heading east from Pleasant Street, the first two stores competed with each other -- both Warren’s Store, which was the store on the corner, and the store of W. Harry Vernon, were in the dry goods business. Harry Vernon also made custom window shades and drapes. I don’t know if any of you remember the late Wyman Adams, who sewed Mom’s and my bedroom drapes. Wyman Adams got his start with Harry Vernon, then bought the drapery part of the company.

If you wanted to buy a newspaper in this town -- whether it was a Worcester Telegram and Evening Gazette, a Boston Globe, or Boston Post or Record -- it was distributed by the A.M. Latour Company, which was located where Ernie’s Newsroom is today. Mrs. Anna Latour and her sister, Miss Elizabeth McCarthy, had a monopoly on all papers sold in Spencer. Whether you bought your newspaper from a newspaper boy or over the counter anywhere in town, these two old gals got a piece of the action. Both Uncle Bob and I did stints as paperboys for Latour’s.

The US Post Office was in the next store where The Brickyard Restaurant is now located. The Post office did not move to Mechanic Street until many years later.

Heading east on Main Street after the Sugden block were two houses, one that is still there, which in 1939 housed the office and home of Dr. John Fowler. The other house, a tenement, house was torn down about 1940.

Kleven Shoe Co. was the lifeblood of the town, occupying a large wooden building where the Price Chopper shopping center is now located. Before World War II, the majority of people in Spencer worked in Kleven’s as shoemakers on women’s shoes. If they did not work in Kleven’s, they worked in Allen Squire on men’s work shoes. Back in the late 1800s the Kleven building was considered the largest wood frame building in the United States. Part of the character of Spencer of 50 years ago was the smell of leather as you walked along the downtown streets.

Carpenter Drug was in the little building beside Kleven’s, now occupied by the Mid-State Insurance Co. The pharmacist and owner was a nice gentleman by the name of George Perrault. He kept company with Adrienne Kasky; he finally did marry her, after going out with Adrienne for about 40 years. You could get a good-sized cone of Hood’s Ice Cream for a nickel at Carpenter Drug.

Speaking of ice cream, every merchant had his particular brand, a source of pride. A small cone was 5-cents and a large one a dime. A hot fudge sundae, if you could afford it, was 15-cents. Hood was around, then Fro Joy by Sealtest. Louie Piagintini sold Velvet Ice Cream, and there was McCanns Ice Cream, at 30-cents a pint. You could go to the Puritan or either of the diners and purchase a hot dog and drink for twenty cents, or a big slab of apple pie and coffee for a quarter. A baked sausage diner with peas, applesauce, and mashed potato with gravy was sixty-five cents at the Kenwood, with a cup of coffee thrown in.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Back to the High Street Neighborhood

It’s time to return to Main Street, and back up High Street on the Civin side of the street. The house where the Cormier's live was not a house, but an auto repair shop run by a man by the name of Leslie Hodgerney, who was killed in an automobile accident shortly after we moved to High Street. Jerome Cormier bought the garage, converting it to a house a few years later.

The next house going up the hill belonged to a man by the name of Thibault. I don’t remember too much about him. It seems to me that he was an executive in the shoe industry.

Going up the hill, the following house belonged to Jack Baker, his wife, Gertrude, and their son, Sherman, who was at that time a student at Harvard. Jack was a very rich man, accumulating his wealth in the retail shoe business. People traveled from all over the East Coast to buy the reject shoes from Kleven’s that Jack sold in a shop in the Kleven shoe building. J. Baker’s, as the business was called, was probably one of the first discount retailers in the country. Sherman Baker, Jack’s son, was listed a few years ago by The Boston Globe as one of the 100 wealthiest men in New England. He is still active in the shoe business, trading under many national names.

Jack Baker was a drunk, gambler, and profane, but with a heart of gold. Originally, Jack “Baker” was Jack Goldstein. Mr. Goldstein ran a poolroom in Chelsea before meeting and marrying Gertrude Kleven, the sister of Archie Kleven, a sharp young Jewish salesman from Boston who was employed by the Harris Shoe Co. (Harris was Ernie Roberts’ uncle.) A few years after arriving in Spencer, Archie managed to buy the I.H. Prouty Boot and Shoe Co. that was on the verge of, or in, bankruptcy. Kleven brought Gertrude and his brother-in law-, Jack Goldstein -- now “Baker” -- to Spencer. Gertrude was to be the office manager for Kleven Shoe, and Jack would work in the factory being taught the skilled shoe laster’s trade. After a few years of working in the factory, Jack made a deal with his brother-in-law to buy the reject shoes from the factory. The rest is history.

I believe that George Cournoyer, owner of the White Star Laundry, also owned the next house. He went door to door picking up and doing people’s wash, if they could afford a laundry man. George Cournoyer was the brother of Dr. Romeo Cournoyer. At times my mother used the services of the White Star Laundry, until she purchased a round, wringer-type washing machine. Mom and I also patronized the White Star Laundry when we first got married.

Ambrose and Irene Tower lived in the house now occupied by the Weninger's. Ambrose was an electrician and the brother of Dewitt Tower, owner of Tower Box Co. Irene used to spend hours on her porch not missing a trick. She was the neighborhood gossip and busybody. The Towers had two grown children; Ambrose, Jr., also an electrician, and a daughter, Marjorie. 

For a short time Marjorie was married to a man by the name of Charley Green, who made his living in Spencer as a wood chopper but was originally from Maine. She had two children with Charley Green before they split. Rumor has it she then had quite a few more kids by Shortline Bus drivers. (Marjorie loved uniforms, and was most generous with her charms.) Ambrose and Irene brought up her children. She called all the kids by the last name of Green, except for the final one; who was named Luke Tower.

Mr. Beaulac, the Spencer tax collector, lived in the next house with his wife. I don’t remember much about him, except that he was already quite elderly back in 1939.

The Spencer Broom Shop on lower Cherry Street, the largest manufacturer of corn brooms in the United States, belonged to a gentleman by the name of Leroy Latown. He either had built or purchased the cottage on the corner of Prouty Street -- you may remember it as the Sundburg house -- for his aged mother.

In the home on the north corner of Prouty Street was the home of Dr. Raymond McMurdo, his wife, Inez, and two sons, Raymond and Gordon, all on the first floor. Raymond was Uncle Bob’s age, with an unbelievable passion for trolley cars and trains. Raymond died about a year ago at the Masonic Home in Charlton. He was in his 70s and still talked about little other than trolleys. Gordon was a year older than me, and was the leader of the High Street kids. The second floor apartment was occupied by Sam and Ella Hyman and their only child, Marilyn (who you all know as our friend, Marilyn Budnik). I hope she will not slug me for telling this, but I remember her as a nice kid -- but most of all, I was quite impressed with her hair always being fixed in baloney curls.

The next house was ours. If you proceeded down the street there was, of course, no Art and Linda White home. There was just a large vacant lot, overgrown and full of poison ivy. My mother sold the lot in the late 1950s to a home builder by the name of Huckins.

On the other side of our lot we were fortunate to have the widow, Emily Roberts, and her two sons as our neighbors. Emily’s whole life was wrapped up in her sons; Ernie, age 26 and machinist at Kleven Shoe Co., and Zane, a high school senior. My parents first met Ernie when he came into our store on 10 Mechanic Street to welcome us to High Street. We were also invited to Zane’s high school graduation that June, which I am sure was done as a welcoming gesture. As you all know, Ernie was my neighbor for 60 years. No one ever had a bad word about Ernie Roberts, and Ernie never had a bad word for anyone. Ernie was among my dearest friends, a beautiful human being. I miss him very much.

Bordering the Roberts house on the south side was the Methodist parsonage. The Rev. Mr. Fulton, his wife, and two daughters occupied the church residence at that time. One daughter married a man by the name of Vernon Jones. The other daughter married Norman Kenwood, the son of the Sagendorph chauffeur. Norman Kenwood made his living as the projectionist at the Park Theater, and by building quality rowboats in a woodworking shop on Wall Street.

We had a busy neighborhood. I have memories of the milkman and the iceman coming to the door every day. On the kitchen wall facing the porch, there used to be a little door where the iceman could put a chunk of ice in our icebox without coming into the kitchen. We used to buy our milk from Cottage Farm Dairy. Frank Parker owned Cottage Farm, but his son, Roy, delivered the milk with the help of a teenager.

Good old raw milk, none of this stuff they call pasteurization -- everybody knows that boiling milk kills the taste. When we finally did start to drink pasteurized milk, it took me a long time to get used to the taste.

Very few families owned cars before World War II, so people depended on all types of peddlers and tradespeople to bring necessities to their homes. There were the Dion brothers, riding on the running boards of their truck, shouting out the merits of the fruits and vegetables they were selling. Bob Gregoire’s father, also a fruit peddler, had a pretty healthy set of lungs. Mr. Menard sold meat from a truck going door to door. There was a gentleman by the name of Mr. Raymond, nicknamed “Celery,” who sold celery and other vegetables grown in his garden, out of a Model T Ford.

When we still lived on Cherry Street a man by the name of Harry Pasov -- also known by us Civins as “Grishka” -- used to come to our house and sell us fresh mushrooms that he and his wife had picked in the woods of Spencer. Grishka was Russian, and his wife, Agnes, was an immigrant from Estonia. Quite ample in size and of much larger stature than Grishka, Agnes was given the nickname “Ignatz” (ANY IDEA WHAT THIS MEANS? BET IT’S FUNNY! by my Uncle Nathan.

Spencer had all sorts of colorful characters -- alcoholics and just plain nuts -- wandering the streets. Remember, television wasn’t around to keep these people at home. It was at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York that the wonderful medium of television was first demonstrated for the public. It would be at least another 10 years before it started to appear in homes. There was Mary Jantos -- known as “Crazy Mary” -- who lived with her alcoholic husband, Walter, in an old trolley car that had been converted into living quarters on Valley Street. On this street, there were four old trolley cars where poor people resided. Crazy Mary was a little bit of a woman, standing about 4’10” tall and probably 80 pounds. She always wore a long dress, and a kerchief over her hair. Mary, a Polish immigrant, made her meager living doing house cleaning for Spencer’s more prosperous residents. When I think about her today, she probably was not crazy, just a poor, illiterate Polish peasant women who could not speak English.

“Vos Maste,” translated to English means “how are you.” I know I am spelling it wrong. Unfortunately, I cannot speak or spell in Yiddish. (I wish I could. It is one of my regrets.) Into my adult hood that was the greeting I always got from Bill Lareau, alias “the Chicago Kid,” a.k.a. “Billy the Kid,” or just plain “Crazy Billy.” I’m smiling as I write this; in fact, ask any old timer in Spencer if they remember the Chicago Kid, and watch the person break into a smile. Bill Lareau was also very small in stature, perhaps 5’ tall and 90 lbs. He always wore a suit and necktie. Bill wore cheap rings on most of his fingers, three or four wristwatches on each arm, and played the meanest harmonica you ever heard. Bill lived in a shack, where the former Hodes Market was located. 

When he needed money, he would chop cord wood for local residents. When not chopping wood, Billy would be seen picking the dump. Billy had a retarded daughter by the name of Alice, whom he got caught having an incestuous relationship with. He was sent to the old state prison in Charlestown, where he served three years. When he was paroled, people would ask him where he had been. He would always say he was in Chicago; consequently, he began referring to himself in the third person as the Chicago Kid. Alice married an old coot by the name of Charlie Keene, who was 40 years her senior. They lived in a barn down on Valley Street near the athletic field. Charley Keene used to drink and beat the hell out of Alice. She was a poor, unfortunate soul.