Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Other Side of Mechanic Street

Let’s take a trip up the other side of Mechanic Street and meet some more of the business people. Starting at Cherry Street and going up mechanic on the right-hand side towards Main, The first store was the occupied by the Laplante 5 &10. Those were the days when 5 & 10's really did sell a lot of items for a nickel and a dime. Joe Hamelin’s grandmother owned Laplante’s. The head salesperson was Mrs. Laplante’s daughter, Leone. Next to Laplante’s was The Ben Franklin Store, also a 5 &10, run by some people who had moved to Spencer from Illinois. 

This was Huestis Mills and his wife and two children; Donald, who was a year older than me, and a daughter, Susan, who was a year or so younger than me. The family lived in an apartment in the back of the store. When the Mills became a little more prosperous they moved to the house on the south corner of Prouty and Pleasant streets. Donald Mills, the last I heard, lives in Florida, where he was a traffic controller at the Miami airport for many years. His sister married a boy from Spencer by the name of Larry Dennis, who graduated from WPI. Larry and Susan Dennis, I believe, settled in New Jersey. The Spencer Pizza Shop now occupies the former Ben Franklin Store.

Here is the name Lamoureaux again, the next store being occupied by Lamoureaux’s Gift Shop, and managed by Donat Lamoureaux, whom Dad always referred to as “Doughnut.” It was in the gift shop that the founder of the company, Moise, Sr., sat in a chair by the window, and held a meeting every morning with his dutiful sons.

The next building is still in use by the by the telephone company. When I was a boy there was still a local telephone operator, a woman by the name of Mrs. Chamberland. You could call locally, but if you wanted to call out of town you had to dial 0 for operator and she would forward your call through her switchboard.

Going up the street from the telephone building was Morin’s Gift Shop, run by J. Henri Morin with the help of his daughter. If there was ever a man of taste, class, and compassion in Spencer, it was J. Henri Morin. He came to Spencer from the province of Quebec at the end of the 19th century to tend bar at the New Windsor Hotel at Chestnut Street. Shortly after the beginning of the 20th century, he became a licensed embalmer and established the Morin Funeral Home, still operating to this day and run by his grandson and great grandchildren. Henri Morin told my father that the first customer he had was in East Brookfield, before East Brookfield was a town. East Brookfield was part of Brookfield until 1927. He had to bring the body back to Spencer, on a snowy night, by horse and sleigh.

The upward mobility of the Civin family in Spencer was due in many ways to this fine gentleman. I do hope you remember the incident I wrote about earlier regarding the house dresses, when our family business moved to 10 Mechanic St. When the Spencer Savings Bank in 1939 would not grant us a $2,900 mortgage to buy our house, it was Henri Morin -- who was on the Board of Directors of The Southbridge Co-Operative Bank – who had a mortgage for us in hours. He told the bankers that we were “honest, hard-working people.” Henri Morin’s word meant something: They just had to hear from him. When Henri died in the early 1950's, and his wife gave up housekeeping, my parents bought his dining room set. It is the set Dorothy and I still own. When I think of my boyhood, I so often think of him.

The next store walking up Mechanic Street, sharing the building with the Morin Gift Shop, was Berthiaume’s Shoe Store. It was as well stocked with shoes for the entire family as any shoe store in Worcester. Proprietor Bill Berthiaume also served a term as the Republican state representative from the area in, I believe, the early 1940s. His youngest son was the late Capt. Paul Berthiaume, a graduate of Norwich University in Vermont and a professional soldier. He was killed in action in Vietnam in the late 1960's. Paul’s name is etched on the Vietnam Wall in Washington, DC.

A driveway, and then the long building known as the Marsh Block, its frontage on Main Street. It is where the Bagel Inn is now housed. The “Bagel Inn?” Back in the 1930's, I bet 99% of Spencer didn’t even know what a bagel was. Mrs. Fortier ran an electric shop in the first store after Berthiaume's. She had a crew of electricians who worked for her on various jobs throughout the area. Her son, Edward -- who I guess would be called mentally challenged today -- helped her in the store. She owned the house on High Street that’s now owned by Eddy Gallant.

Most of the downtown business people ate next to Fortier’s, at Bob Young’s Doughnut and Sandwich Shop. He used to have a machine in the window turning out doughnuts. It was quite an attraction. Bob Young -- who ran the shop with his spinster sister -- was originally from Pennsylvania. I haven’t the faintest idea what brought him to Spencer.

On Friday and Saturday nights Teddy Slota’s Shoe Shine Parlor jumped; you had to wait for a seat.. Teddy didn’t have the only shoe shine shop in town -- there was a two-seater on Main Street, run by an ex-symphony violinist by the name of Dumas-- but Teddy’s was where the action was. Teddy shined shoes during the week in Kleven's as they came off the line, and on evenings and weekends he plied his trade in his shop on Mechanic Street. The shoeshine parlor had six high seats, with a brass spittoon beside the arm of each chair. No self-respecting man would ever go on his date, or for some dancing at Wedge’s Café, without first going to Teddy’s and having that rag snapped across his gleaming shoes.

Teddy used to live in the back room of his shop until the late 1950's, when he built a little house on Thompson’s Pond and gave up his shop. I remember that, when I asked him why he was closing his shop, he said, “Marty, there just ain’t enough sports left in the world.” Do you think that maybe he had it right? Teddy passed away a few years ago. He was close to 90. He never married, and was survived by his nephew, Martin, a Webster selectman. During World War II, though he was in his 40's Teddy served in the Army, and his brother and Martin ran the shoeshine parlor.

The last store in the Marsh Block was the barbershop of Mr. Menard. (Melanie, he was the grandfather of the Valerie Menard who lived on the corner of Pleasant and Lincoln streets.) He was a very stout man, with a thin hairline moustache. I think I got a haircut from him once. All I remember about him was that he used to grunt as he cut hair.

We will return again to Mechanic Street, but let’s move on.

Behind the Memories: Meet Dutchy

My mother told me that when my father first started to drive, his skill maneuvering a car left a lot to be desired. One Friday evening back in 1933, my mother was alone in the little store at 48 Mechanic Street. Into the store walked the most handsome police officer she had ever seen. My mother froze; she was sure that the officer had to notify her that my father had met with an automobile accident. No, there was no accident. It was just the newly appointed chief of police, coming around to introduce himself. Louis Grandmont, Spencer’s former Police Chief, had just been appointed bailiff at the Worcester Superior Court, and the Board of Selectmen had appointed Charles (Dutchy) Meloche the new police chief, a post he would hold for the next 35 years.

I have often said that Franklin Roosevelt was the right president for the times. If Dutchy Meloche were chief of police in today’s fast-paced and violent times, he would be eaten alive. Like FDR, Dutchy was the right man for those slower and quieter days. When my mother first met Dutchy that Friday night over 65 years ago, he was just 30 years old, but he looked like a matinee idol out of central casting. He was about 6’ tall, with a muscular physique. Though still young, he had hair that was prematurely white, his eyes were sky blue and gentle, his skin was soft, and his cheeks were rosy.

Most of the time you could find Dutchy in the center of town, in front of the Kleven Shoe Factory. When the factory closed at noon for lunch Dutchy was there to direct traffic. When the whistle blew in the morning to come to work the chief was there, and at closing time he was there to get his people across the street. Not a kid would pass Dutchy without greeting him with a big “Hi, Dutchy,” and you can bet he greeted the kid by his first name. These were his kids.

In the ‘30s there was a lot of vandalism done by children on Halloween Eve. Dutchy put a stop to it asking the Spencer merchants to contribute to a large parade and a stage show at Town Hall. Duchy was parade marshall for the next 30 years. He marched right in front of his favorite Worcester Kiltie Band. Everyone loved that man, both law-abiding citizens and people who weren’t so law abiding. I used to hear people say that if you broke the law, Dutchy would lecture you and give you a second chance. If you still didn’t behave you were punished, but once you had served your punishment, your misdeed was forgotten. Rehabilitation seemed to work in Dutchy’s town. Dutchy retired in 1968 and died in the late 1970s. He was a part of everyone’s life in Spencer.

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