Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Businesses of Mechanic Street

Describing what our surroundings on lower Mechanic Street looked like back in the early 1930's, keep in mind that I classify lower Mechanic as running from Cherry Street and Wall Street, on the north, to Chestnut Street as you headed south up the hill.

On the east (or left) side of the street, on the corner of Cherry and Mechanic Streets, stood Lamoureaux Furniture Store. Lamoureaux was considered the largest retail furniture dealer between Worcester and Springfield. Going up the on the east side of the street, the next establishment was a saloon run by Tom Gaffenny. A Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) buddy of my father, Mr. Gaffenny served in the US Navy in the Spanish American War. His saloon, you probably think of as, The All Sports Café.

Next door was Young’s Lunch. (I am not sure, but I think Mr. Young would have been the great-grandfather of the Bengston boys.) The next building going up Mechanic Street housed the little store called Civin’s Specialty Shop. In back of these stores was Burke’s Court, a group of three tenement houses, where the poorest of the poor resided. Among a few of the families living in Burke’s Court was a Mrs. Gregory. The late Allan Gregory would be a grandson and Kenny Gregory a great-grandson. (Todd and Keith, do you remember Charlie Dufault of Little League days? He would have been Mrs. Gregory’s son-in-law.)

Also living in Burke’s Court was Yvonne Elder, with her nieces, Unabelle and Pauline Arsenault, and her son, who we used to call Cookoo Elder. He was huge, maybe 400 lbs. and very badly mentally disabled. I can still picture him standing on the second floor porch of one of the houses, wearing bib overalls, and screeching at the top of his lungs all day long. There was Walter Lareau -- sort of a hobo-- who used to walk around with a guitar slung on his back, and his drunken mother, Angelina. And, there was Mrs. Gagne, our landlady at 48 Mechanic St., who had a terrible wine-stain birthmark on her face. She was the step-grandmother of the notorious Mike Gagne, who was shot and killed 30 years later in the All Sports Café.

Still going up the hill, on the east side of the street next to our store was a vacant lot with a barn sitting in the back. The barn was the headquarters of The Livermore Moving and Trucking Co. (Mr. Livermore was the grandfather of Gail Prouty, Dick’s wife.) I have been told that Mr. Livermore never bothered to register his trucks. After all, he used horses a few years before and he did not have to register them. Nobody bothered him about number plates.

Continuing up Mechanic Street hill towards Chestnut Street was a tenement house. I don’t remember who lived on the upper floors, but in a little basement flat lived an old man by the name of Frank Benway. I called him Uncle Frank. Frank Benway was perhaps 70 years old back in 1934, and I was only 3, but he was my buddy. I remember him as a big, muscular man, with a bushy gray mustache, who wore one of his shoes with a built-up platform, and he used one crutch to help him walk. Years later, I was told that, as a young man, Frank Benway had been a lumberjack, and had been injured in a logging accident.

On the corner of Mechanic and Chestnut, east side, was Cecile Doten’s Beauty Salon. (Cecile Doten was an aunt of Roy Ledoux, and great-aunt of Kevin and Kenny Ledoux.) It was at her beauty parlor that I had my first haircut.

Across the street and down the hill, on the west side of Mechanic and Chestnut was a cottage occupied by retired police Chief John Norton. Until the day he died, he never missed a parade. I have been told that he had an experience when he was chief that should go down in some history book. Right after the present town hall was built in 1928, two strange men entered the police station, and stated that they were state jail inspectors and would like to see his new jail. Chief Norton was honored; no one had ever come to inspect his jail. He made the mistake of walking into one of the two cells in front of the strangers. One of the men shut the cell door in back of the Chief, and the door locked automatically. They proceeded to hold up and rob the Post Office and were never heard from again.

As you went down Mechanic Street, on the west side you came upon a building with two stores. The first store was the barbershop of my father’s buddy, Louis Laurent. My father -- who was known to murder the English language -- always called him “Lawrence the Barber.” Louis Laurent was the first French Canadian to graduate from David Prouty High School. It was a two-chair barbershop, and the other barber was a man by the name of Desjardins. He was killed in action in 1944 during the invasion of the Philippines. His name is on the honor roll at the town hall.

In the store next door to the barbershop was McCann’s Ice Cream Shop. McCann’s was owned by a Spanish American War veteran by the name of Truffle Bosse and his son, Ernest. Ernest Bosse considered himself quite a caballero with the ladies, and he was nicknamed Rudy Vallee, a noted crooner of those days. Ice cream at McCann’s used to be 30 cents a pint, packed in a square box. If you had just 15 cents, one of the Bosses would take a butcher knife, cut the pint in half and sell you a half-pint. Next came a tenement house that is still standing, and then the railroad freight yard. One freight train a day used to come in to town at 10 AM. If you wanted to take a passenger train you had to go to south Spencer.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Memories: The Beginning

I am writing this first part of my story to tell something of what Spencer was like as I grew up in the 1930's and 40's. Most of what I tell you in the beginning is hearsay because, of course, I cannot remember events of the first few years of my life. My brother, Bob, is writing a history of our family going back to 1840's, one I am sure will be better crafted and different than mine. Think of this as my autobiography.

The question has been asked: What brought the Civin family, of the Sea Gate section of Brooklyn, NY, to Spencer, MA, on that Labor Day of 1932? The answer is, times were hard. It was the in middle of the Great Depression. Changes had to be made by my mother and father.

At the time of my birth, my father was a business partner with a man by the name of Mr. Siegel, in a contract dress-manufacturing firm in New York City. The way I understand it, a dress contractor would take the overload of work from larger, and, probably branded manufacturers. It was during the Depression, and I would guess that there were not many overloads of work to be handed out to contracting firms. My Dad’s company fell on hard times, and consequently went bankrupt.

A decision had to be made: My father would stay in New York and look for a job in his trade as a dress cutter, and my mother would take Bob and me, as well as, her friend and boarder, Gertrude Farrington -- to her mother’s house in Warren, MA. I don’t imagine we all were welcomed with open arms. I am sure my Grandmother Israel was not a particularly gracious person. Shortly after arriving in Warren, mother opened “The White Swan Tea Room” in West Brookfield. The building still stands at the site of the tearoom and is occupied by Bousquet Auto Parts.

My mother ran the Tearoom, and my uncles, Max and Nathan, sold “Sinclair Gas” from a pump in front. The money for my mother’s venture, I was told, came from $400 she had saved from table money from our home in Sea Gate. From what my mother used to tell, I guess the food was pretty good at “The White Swan Tea Room”. The only problem was there were no customers to try the food. My mother did have competition down the street from a restaurant known as “George and Ethel’s.” I am told they did all right because they sold bootleg hooch. Of course, there was no way Ethel Civin was going to sell booze. Mother closed the little restaurant, and Gertrude, who  had been acting as our nanny, returned to New York.

With the closing of the tearoom in West Brookfield, there was much despair. What was to be done? We had to eat, and I am sure my mother wanted to get out of the situation she was in, with all of us living with my grandmother. So, Mother and Uncle Nathan decided to open a small clothing store. Nathan had recently graduated from Northeastern University in Worcester. He had a degree in Business Administration, but he had no job.

On Labor Day, 1932, the Civin family arrived in Spencer, and Civin’s Specialty Shop was born. It would be a name in women and children’s clothing in Spencer for the next 30 years. My father had now joined his family in Spencer, but for the first couple of months he was not part of my mother’s and Nathan’s firm. He was looking for locations to open a grocery store in Worcester. Nothing became of Dad’s grocery store plan and thus he joined the business in January, 1933.

You might ask, why Spencer for a location? Both Kleven's Shoe and Allen Squire Shoe Co. were working most of the time and my Uncle Nathan thought Spencer looked like a busy town. He used to come through Spencer on the trolley on his way from Warren to Northeastern. Also, for a very short time, Uncle Max and Nathan ran a small gym on Chestnut Street in the 1920's. I was told it was where the Savageau brothers and a boxer by the name of George Ledoux first put on the gloves. Uncle Max also flirted with boxing, but never entered the ring.

The first location of Civin’s Specialty Shop was at 48 Mechanic St. My brother Bob tells me, it was pretty much a dump. The store was heated by a pot-bellied stove which also used to warm my mother’s and my lunch. I will tell you more about that part of Mechanic Street and some of the people shortly. (Remember, I was only 1-1/2 years old, so everything I am telling you about our arrival in Spencer came from stories my parents told me, or from Bob, who was 7 at the time).

The total investment for the business was probably about $100 for some used fixtures and a month’s rent. To obtain merchandise, Nathan and my mother bought on their father’s credit line. Grandpa and Grandma Israel were divorced. Grandpa Israel lived in Brookfield, and peddled clothing out of a panel truck to area mill towns and farmers.