Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Merchants of Mechanic Street

As first grade got underway for me in 1936, Mechanic Street no more resembled the depressed street that you see today -- with its vacant and boarded-up stores -- than an apple resembles a hot dog. The street was teeming with people on their way to work in the shoe factories, or doing their shopping at noon and walking in the evenings after a hard day plying their trades in the shoe industry. 

Mechanic Street was where you met your neighbors and shopped and socialized. If a person was more comfortable speaking French than English, so be it. You used to hear as much conversation in Canadian French back in those days as you did in English.

It was during this period that Civin’s Specialty Shop moved to a new location. A store at 10 Mechanic St. had just been vacated by Morin’s Gift Shop, which had just moved across the street to a newly remodeled store. To survive, our family store had to move from the little hole in the wall to larger and more centrally located quarters. Ten Mechanic St. was a large business block situated where the Post Office is now located. I will tell you more about the store and building shortly when I take you on a trip up and down the rest of Mechanic Street, introducing you to some of the business people along the way. 

Many years later my mother told me she was very reluctant to move to 10 Mechanic St., because Mr. Morin was such a nice man and we sold competitive merchandise. She did not want to offend him. My father and Uncle Nathan felt that business was business, and the move was made. On the morning of the opening of the new store, the first person to greet my mother was none other than J. Henri Morin. Mother said her heart sank as she did not know what to expect. During the Depression $2 house dresses were a big part of a clothing store’s sales. J Henri Morin wished my mother luck by saying, “If you people do as much business in this location as I did, it will make me the happiest man in Spencer. I have also decided to stop selling house dresses; I will send my house dress customers to you.” I will tell you more about J. Henri Morin later; he was quite a man.

In the 1930's, 40's, and 50's, Spencer had two main business streets; Main and Mechanic, with Chestnut following in third place. The stores opened at eight in the morning and stayed open until six in the evening Monday through Thursday, and until nine on Friday and Saturday. Main and Mechanic Street were always busy with shoppers. People would occasionally go to Worcester on the Shortline Bus that ran on an hourly schedule, but as a rule they did most of their trading in Spencer. There were not many automobiles in those days; not every family owned a car. Noontime in my parent’s store was always a busy time, because the factory girls from Kleven's Shoe would have time to kill on their lunch hours. Friday was the busiest day. That was payday, and the workers were paid in cash. Mechanic Street of 1936 in no way resembled the Mechanic Street of today.

Let’s take a walk down the street, starting on the west side. On the corner of Mechanic and Main streets, where the flower store now is, was Peter Richard’s hardware store. Peter Richard was quite elderly at that time, and his son, Hugo, ran the day-to-day operations. Hugo was a big man, about my father’s age. He had just one son, Charlie, who was a year ahead of me in school. He graduated from Worcester Tech moved, to Seattle, and I believe became an engineer for Boeing. (Peter Richard was also the grandfather of registry inspector John Cote.) Next going down Mechanic, on the same side, was Saldini’s Fruit Store. It was a combination fruit and candy store, plus a soda fountain. Mr. Saldini worked there with his daughter, Gina. Gina never married, and I am pretty sure she is still alive and well into her 80's. Going down the street, next was a big part of the social life of Spencer, The Park Theater. There were three Park Theaters, one at Webster Square in Worcester and another in the Greendale section of Worcester. The Spencer theater was managed by a gentleman by the name of Charlie Kane, with a woman by the name of Mrs. Collette selling tickets. Movies changed three times weekly, with a continuous cowboy serial every Tuesday night. In addition to movies every night, there were matinees on Saturday and Sunday. A ticket for a kid was 15-cents.

Going down the street, next to the Park Theater was 10 Mechanic St., one of the biggest business blocks in Spencer. I don’t remember any of the tenants in the upstairs apartments back in the 1930's, but I do remember most of the businesses in that block and their proprietors. In the first store in the block, next to the movie theater, was The Spencer Fruit Co, owned by Luigi Piagentini and his wife, Edith. Louie’s -- as we kids called his store -- is where we always bought our popcorn for the show at the Park. In addition to fruit and popcorn, I bought my first smokes from Louie a few years later. Louie used to accommodate us kids by selling us cigarettes for a penny apiece, if you did not have the price of a full pack, which sold for 15-cents. You could buy Wings and Marvel brands for 10-cents a pack, but we used to say that they tasted like ground horse manure. Louie Piagentini was also one of the most henpecked men I ever knew. Edith was constantly brow beating him in Italian. Many years later, when we were teenagers, Louie said to Scott Gerrish and me; “It’sa no good boys, I’ma sorry I marry that someama bitch.” So it went with the Louis Piagentini the statue maker from Italy, who now made his living selling fruit and popcorn. Once in a while I will ask some of the old-timers in Spencer if they can remember the brand of ice cream Louie sold. If anyone is interested, it was Velvet Ice Cream.

Meet Sam Kanen, the tailor, whose shop was between Spencer Fruit and our store. Sam used to do his hand sewing sitting on a table with his legs crossed, and the garment he was sewing lying across his legs. He used to send his customers’ clothes to Worcester for dry cleaning, but they were sent back to Sam for pressing on a huge steam-pressing machine. A teenage boy then delivered the cleaned and pressed clothes to his customers. The boy would walk to the customers’ homes, carrying the garments on his back. If you had the money, Sam would make you a suit, and believe me, he was a master tailor. Sam also had the reputation of being the snappiest dresser in Spencer. I never saw Sam unless he was clothed in a suit, shoes shined to a mirror glow. Old timers in Spencer still mention Sam’s diamond ring, yellow gold with a beautiful blue/white diamond. A confirmed bachelor, he lived in one dreary room on the third floor of the Massasoit Hotel for more than 40 years.

The late State Senator Phil Quinn, who owned the Massasoit and watched out for Sam in his last years, told me the story that Sam was confined to the Memorial Hospital in Worcester, and Phil went to visit him. Sam -- who seemed to be doing pretty well in his recovery.-- said to Phil, “Call Perlman the undertaker, and tell him I want to see him right a way”. The undertaker came to Sam’s hospital room, Sam told Perlman exactly how he wanted his funeral, and then asked, “How much is it going to cost me?” Perlman gave the price, and Sam -- who was illiterate -- took his checkbook out of the end table next to his bed, and said, “Phil, write him a check for the amount of my funeral.” Sam died the next day. That was about 30 years ago. He is buried in the B’nai B’rith Cemetery in Worcester.

Let us leave Sam Kanen and go to the store next door 10 Mechanic, the home of Civin’s Specialty Shop. The family store was now rising up in the world and starting to do business. It was supporting two families, I’m sure not in style, but we were eating. Uncle Nathan and my Dad were still peddling on the road, and my mother and Aunt Gertrude were holding everything down on the home front by putting in long hours at the store. I do not remember an awful lot about that store except that it was long and narrow, and also heated by a potbelly stove.

The next store in the block was one that was vacant a great deal of the time. The Spencer Flower Shop occupied the last store in the building. Leo Hebert, nicknamed “Flowerpot,” and his wife, Antoinette, established the company that is still operating today with a different owner. The Spencer Flower Shop is now on Main Street and owned by Timothy Lee. When the Hebert's first started their business, they were so poor that they lived in the back room of their store. Leo later became one of the biggest landlords in Spencer, and he became extremely wealthy. However, he was known for his stinginess, hating to spend money. Leo has been dead for many years, though Antoinette is still alive and is in her 90's.

As you crossed the driveway leaving 10 Mechanic and headed towards Wall Street you came to Wedge’s Café at 12 Mechanic, run by Ludivic Aucion and his wife, Nellie, known as Ma Wedge. Wedge’s Café was a vital part of the Spencer business scene. As a kid, I used to see my father and Uncle Nathan sneak into Wedge’s occasionally -- maybe Nathan more frequently than my Dad -- but they both used to go there for a cold one. Ludivic Wedge, I am told, ran a speakeasy next door in the basement of 10 Mechanic and, according to his son, also ran bootleg liquor from Canada during Prohibition. Twelve Mechanic went legal when Franklin Roosevelt repealed Prohibition, after taking office in 1933. (The Wedges were the grandparents of the McNamara's. Ma Wedge also would have been the great aunt of the Ensom boys.) In addition to serving beer, ale, and booze, Wedge’s Café used to serve lunches to many of the shoe workers at Kleven's and Allen Squire. It was the social center on Mechanic Street, featuring a band and dancing on Friday and Saturday nights.

Of course, there was no television back in the 1930's and 40's; consequently, heavy drinkers did their drinking in bar rooms. I have been told that Ma Wedge was always happy to take care of some of the men with drinking problems via their pay envelopes. On Friday night, after being paid the alcoholic would buy a meal ticket at The Puritan Restaurant on Main Street, pay for his room for the week at either The Windsor or Waldo hotels, then give what was left of his wages to Ma Wedge. He would drink from what was left of his wages until it was gone. Let me explain meal tickets. A restaurant would sell you a ticket for a certain amount of money. It worked like a pre-paid telephone card. Every time you would eat, the waitress would punch your ticket for the amount of the meal. The Windsor Hotel was on Chestnut Street and on a slightly higher social plain than the Waldo, situated on Wall Street. Men with drinking problems occupied both hotels. The Windsor had a bar, where in the 1940's naughty women were known to take off their clothes. The Waldo had rooms to rent, but it also rented cots in an old store in front where probably 10 or 15 men resided.

Continuing down Mechanic Street, next to Wedge’s Café was the A & P (The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company), the food market giant throughout the United States back in the 1930's. Spencer had three A & Ps; one on Main Street where Whitco is now, another store on Chestnut Street, and one store next to Wedge’s Café, in a building no longer standing. There was no such thing as supermarkets back in the 1930's; supermarkets did not start to appear on the American scene until the late 1950's and early 1960's. When you made your food purchases, you stepped up to a counter, and a clerk waited on you.

There was a driveway separating the A& P and the Lamoureux Hardware Store, and no story of Spencer during my formative years – or of Spencer commerce -- would be complete without this honorable family. Moise Lamoureaux, whom I remember quite well from when I was a boy, came to Spencer from Quebec in the 1880s. He established a crockery business on the corner of Cherry and Mechanic Street, later expanding into the largest furniture store between Worcester and Springfield. (Keith, Moise was the great-great grandfather of Billy Rock.) The Lamoureaux retail enterprises consisted of the hardware store, the furniture store on the south corner of Mechanic and Cherry streets, and a separate gift shop across the street from the hardware store. They also owned many business blocks and tenement houses throughout Spencer. My parents rented a retail store at 20 Mechanic St. in the 1940s and 1950s. My mother used to say that they were just wonderful landlords.
To help manage the Lamoureux holdings, Moise’s sons -- who were part of my parents’ generation-- ran various segments of the business. Moise, Jr. ran the furniture store. Donat, a World War I, veteran ran the gift shop. Hector, if I remember correctly, was sort of an all-around man. (He was the grandfather of Lionel Lamoureux, the proprietor of Lamoureux Ford.) The hardware store was managed by his son, Etienne, and Hector’s grandson, Lionel. (Etienne is the father of the architect, Richard Lamoureux, and the schoolteacher, Miss Susan Lamoureux.) Ernest Lamoureux, a bachelor and another of Moise’s sons, did odd jobs and ran errands for the business.

Twenty Mechanic St. started the next building with a dry goods store, run by two elderly ladies whose names escape me. Next door in the same building, a shop was occupied by a barber by the name of Berthauime. He ran the shop with the help of his son, Gerard. These were the Depression years: Though Gerard worked as a barber, he was college-educated and trained as a teacher, but could not find a job in his profession. I remember that there was something about Gerard that used to puzzle me, a six-year-old boy. Why did Gerard carry an umbrella even when the son was shinning? He had a girlfriend, but on his meager salary he could not afford to marry her. Gerard’s girlfriend, Miss Mary Madden, was a very beautiful young lady in her early 20's who taught first grade at Pleasant Street School. This was 1936, the first year Mary taught. At the outbreak of World War II, Berthauime was drafted into the Army and shipped to England. He married a British woman. He came back after the War and became a teacher in Vermont. Gerard is now retired, and a Spencer friend of his recently told me that he is again barbering in Swanton, VT, a small town on the Vermont-Quebec border, so that he can be close to the culture in Montreal. I wonder if he still carries an umbrella on sunny days?
Walking down on the west side of Mechanic Street you came to the building occupied by Mahan’s Café on the first floor. On the second floor was a boarding house for single men, run by a Mrs. Thompson, wife of Scotty Thompson, the bartender at Mahan’s. This Mahan’s looked like something out of an old-time western movie. It had swinging louver doors, a highly polished, dark-wood bar, and shiny brass fixtures to draw draft beer. On Friday and Saturday nights many a drunken shoe worker staggered home to his wife and kids after blowing his week’s pay.

On the corner of Wall and Mechanic was the shop of Ferdinand Phaneuf the haberdasher. (Mr. Phaneuf was the great grandfather of Billy Breault, whom I believe was a classmate of Todd’s.) My mother once told me that when she, Uncle Nathan, and Grandpa went into business at 48 Mechanic St., Mr. Phaneuf took bets that their business would not last a month. One of the things I remember about Mr. Phaneuf was his liking of a raw egg in his beer. Mr. Phaneuf would walk up the street, heading to Wedge’s café, carrying a raw egg to put in his glass of beer. I don’t know if he would not buy an egg from Wedge’s because he did not consider their eggs fresh enough, or that he was too frugal to purchase an egg.

Behind the Memories: The Millers: Such Beautiful People

How do I describe the Millers? Let me start with Mrs. Miller, considered the ultimate Jewish cook and mother. (The proof: Mrs. Miller tried very hard to arrange a romance with the Dr. Daniel Sidenberg and one of her daughters.) On Sundays, thanks to Mrs. Miller, her home was a gathering place for Jewish guests from all over Worcester County. But the story of the Millers and the Civin's began with my grandparents.

As I mentioned before, my grandfather and grandmother (Israel) on my mother’s side were divorced. (My Grandmother Civin died shortly before I was born, and Grandfather Civin was killed in 1932 by a car while crossing Blue Hill Avenue in Boston. I was a year old.) Grandmother Israel ran a clothing store with the help of my Uncle Max in Warren, where they also lived. Grandfather Israel had a few rooms upstairs in the Miller residence on Maple Street in Brookfield. He had one room for sitting, one for sleeping, and another to store the merchandise for his peddling business. In the barn he kept his Model T truck with sliding doors. Thinking back, though I am sure he was satisfied, it was a pretty drab existence. Grandpa also ate all his kosher meals at the Millers’.

Joe Miller was a junk man. I guess there aren’t any more junk men. They started to disappear from the American scene after World War II. Junk men used to go house to house and buy old metal, rags, burlap bags, and other scraps from home owners for a few pennies or dollars, fill their trucks, and sell to what we would call re-cyclers today, for a profit. Dorothy’s grandfather, Jacob Sigel -- known as “the giant” -- was a ragman. He did his business in a horse and wagon. Dorothy has told me that sometimes when she was a little girl, her grandfather would drive her to Belmont Street grammar school in his wagon. She said she used to be so proud riding way up high beside him.

Getting back to Joe Miller, at best he made a meager living driving his old Chevrolet truck house-to-house collecting junk. Joe Miller was a very simple man, but he used to brag to his customers about his $7 million. His riches were Irene, Goldie, Hilda, Miriam, Beatrice, Edith, and Nancy — the seven daughters of he and his wife, Sarah. In addition to the Millers’ seven daughters and my grandfather was Bubbe Miller, Joe’s mother. Bubbe Miller used to live in a room off the barn, where Fannie the Guernsey cow was stabled. I remember Bubbe Miller as very old, and wearing a wig. It was the custom of religious, Orthodox Jewish women from Eastern Europe to shave their heads at the time of their marriage.

Come Sunday afternoons Mrs. Miller fed her many Jewish guests in style; I don’t know how she did it. They had very little money. I suppose with their large garden and their cow, they somehow managed. She made her own farmer cheese that she would also barter with merchants on Water Street in Worcester for groceries. She made pickles, strudel; I have yet to ever taste potato or lokshon kugel (noodle pudding) as good as her’s. Her blintzes melted in your mouth.

The Millers’ seven Depression-raised daughters did okay in life. Irene, the oldest, worked in Kleven Shoe in Spencer for a few years, then went to Washington, DC, where she obtained a job with the Federal government. She married late in life, retired from government service, and is deceased. Goldie married a man from Boston, was widowed recently, and still lives in Boston. She is 82 years old.

Hilda graduated high school and went to work in Kleven Shoe. At the beginning of World War II Hilda enlisted in the Army, and served for the duration of the War, being discharged as a sergeant. She married a Worcester taxi owner by the name of Morris Witkas. Long ago widowed, I believe she had three children, one of them now a rabbi who lived quite a few years in London, but now resides in New York City.

Miriam was the first Miller girl to graduate from college. She graduated from UMass Amherst about 1940. She went on to teach at The College of William and Mary in Virginia. She is now deceased. Edith became a cadet nurse during World War II, graduated, and married a man by the name of Sam Sadowsky, who managed retail discount stores. They have lived in Baltimore for over 40 years. The Sadowskys had three sons; a doctor, a lawyer, and an accountant. What more could a Jewish mother want?

I almost forgot Beatrice, who came between Miriam and Edith in age. Beatrice was a secretary for Chicago Dressed Beef, a large Worcester meat packer now out of business. Now widowed, she and her husband ran a janitorial contracting business. Nancy, the youngest Miller, graduated from UMass and is married to a very successful attorney in Boston.

Joe and Sarah Miller ended their days in The Jewish Home in Worcester. Sarah suffered from Alzheimer’s and died in her early 80's. Joe Miller lived to be well into his 90s, running a little convenience store in the Jewish home. I have many fond memories of the Millers. While I am writing this, please don’t anyone look; there are some tears running down my cheeks.

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