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.

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