Sunday, June 14, 2015

My Neighbors on High Street

In spring 1939, it was decided that I would finish the third grade at Grove Street School with Miss Miriam Kelly, a teacher I was quite fond of. She is still alive, though quite infirm and afflicted with Parkinson’s disease. (You probably know her as Miriam McCourt, a former selectman of Spencer.) Though it was a walk from Grove Street to home, I used to come home for lunch. We used to get one hour from 12 noon until 1 p.m. The route from the school took me down a small gravel road off Grove Street into some woods, past Angel’s sawmill, down to the rear of Kleven’s, a jump over the brook in back of the Sugden block and up Pleasant to Prouty Street.

Let’s take a walk up High Street on the west side from Main Street. The first house was a duplex inhabited on one side by Frank and Anna Mahar. They owned a food market in a building destroyed by fire on the site, where the Cumberland Farms store now is located. On the other side of the duplex lived Jack Mulcahey and his wife, Mae, Anna Mahar’s brother and sister-in-law. Jack was the proprietor of Jack’s Lunch; a diner hitched to the end of the building where Cormier’s Jewelers now is situated.

The next house going up the hill was the Arthur and Martha Sagendorph mansion (the former owners of Alta Crest Farms). Mr. and Mrs. Stan Kenward and their grown son, Norman, lived in the cottage in back of the mansion. Stan Kenward doubled as both chauffeur and butler for the Sagendorphs.

The Dennisons lived in the next house. Gretchen Dennison was the daughter of the Sagendorphs. She had two children; Patsy, who lives in Pennsylvania, and Allan, a retired Air Force master sergeant.

Mrs. Fortier and her mentally challenged son, Edward, lived where the Gallants now live. She was the Mrs. Fortier from the electrical shop on Mechanic Street. Dewitt Tower, one of Spencer’s industrialists, lived on the first floor of the next house going up the hill. Mr. Tower owned the Tower Box Co., manufacturer of shoe boxes. His factory was located in a building in back of Kleven’s. His daughter and son-in-law, Tom and Alice Duggan, and their son, Dick, occupied the second floor of Dewitt Tower’s house. Tom Duggan was probably in his late 20's, but he was dying. A short time later he passed away, leaving his widow and young son. (Tom and Alice were the grandparents of the Duggan kids you Civins grew up with.)

I could not write this story without all of us spending some time with the person who resided in the next house going north on the west side of High Street. I have met a lot of memorable people in my years, but Miss Mary Cruikshanks would have to be on the top of the list. She was born during the Civil War, the daughter of the Rev. James Cruikshanks, minister of the Congregational Church. She was straight out of the Victorian age, slender and ramrod straight, with high lace collars and wire-rim glasses. When she was younger she had been a companion for wealthy women traveling Europe and the Middle East. When she related stories of her travels you almost felt that you were along.

I remember when I was a high school freshman; and one of my courses was Ancient History. I asked Miss Cruikshanks if she would talk to our class about her travels in Egypt. I can still picture her, though she was probably in her 70s, down on the floor on a prayer rug that she had brought from the Middle East, praying to Allah. She wrote a social column for the Spencer Leader for many years, advising the people of Spencer about the events taking place -- some very important, most just good reading. I could go on forever about this wonderful lady from an era long gone by. The last time I saw Mary Cruikshanks, she was well into her 80s. She was walking down High Street on a snowy winter day. I said to her, “What are you doing out on a day like this?” She answered, “Marty, when I put my feet down, I put them down like I own the earth.” You know she did. A month later, she fell down in her apartment and died from a broken hip. (Damn, here come those tears again. Miss Cruikshanks, I have never forgotten you.)

Continuing along the street, the mansion that now belongs to Rick and Gail Lacaire was owned by a wealthy widow by the name of Mrs. Prouty. (I don’t think she was related to Dick Prouty. If she was related, she was a distant relative.) James and Grace Seymour and their three children occupied the cottage in the back of the Prouty mansion. The children were a little younger than I -- Jane, Ann, and Peter. Mrs. Seymour was Mrs. Prouty’s daughter.

The owner of the next house was Dr. Alonzo Amasa Bemis and his wife. Dr. Bemis was the great uncle of Richard Bemis, owner of Bemis Nurseries (and, of course the great-great uncle of Todd’s classmate, Eddie Bemis). He was also very proud of being a direct descendant of Samuel Bemis, the first settler of Spencer. A few years later he would be listed as the oldest practicing dentist in the United States. It was quite an experience to have him do some work on your mouth, because he had Parkinson’s Disease in his later years, and his hands shook. The tenants on the second floor of the Bemis house were the manager of the Worcester County Trust Co.,”-- then situated on the southeastern corner of Main and Maple streets -- and family; Charlie Putnam, his wife, Evelyn, and their two daughters, 5-year-old Connie and two-year-old Judy. 

The house across the street from ours had been vacant for a few years. It belonged to some people by the name of Wiggins, who had moved to either New York State or Pennsylvania. The house across the street (where Gary Wood, the state cop, now resides) belonged to Harris and Louise Gray. The Grays had two children, Harris, Jr. and Shirley, Harris’ younger sister. Shirley lived with her maternal grandmother in Leominster. Harris was much older than his wife, who taught dancing. A few years later, Louise left Spencer with a male dance teacher by the name of Bill Jarvis, deserting her husband and 5-year-old son. She never again got in touch with her family. On the second floor of the house lived Mr. and Mrs. Raymond Hodgerney and a son who was my age, Raymond, Jr. In the early 1940s they moved to Pennsylvania.

Next door we go, heading down the hill to Raymond Tower’s house. A brilliant Worcester Tech graduate, Ray Tower managed Tower Box Factory for his father, Dewitt Tower. During World War II, Ray would leave Spencer every night to go work at a think tank on secret war projects. Ray and his wife, Olive, were known to all the kids in the neighborhood as Uncle Raymond and Auntie Olive. Auntie Olive was also known by a couple of generations of neighborhood kids as the “cookie lady.” Her elderly mother, Flora Hazelhurst, lived on the second floor of the house with her bachelor son. Flora was a very pleasant little lady, and her son, Harry, was a shoe worker, very quiet, and a loner. I do remember sitting on our porch on a hot summer night and hearing beautiful music coming from across the street, as Harry sat by his upstairs window playing his violin.

Where the Graves now live was the residence of Mr. and Mrs. Walter Sibley. Mr. Sibley worked for the L.D. Bemis Coal, Wood and Ice Co. In the winter he delivered coal to heat Spencer homes, and in the summer he delivered ice door-to-door. (Remember that very few people had electric refrigerators.)

Behind the Memories

Five Uncles and an Aunt
Well, here’s a good time to have you meet your great uncles and aunt and their families on the Civin side. Thinking back, they were pretty nice people. Solomon and Rose Civin had eight children, all born in a shtetl near Slutzk in what today is Belarus. Six of their children survived and came to America. Two died, one of small pox, and another son drowned in a pail of water while still in Europe. I will introduce them to you by approximate birth date.

Samuel Schultz -- who took the name of the uncles he lived with when he came to Worcester -- was the oldest, born around 1888. In his youth he was known as “Sam the dancer.” I am told he loved the ladies and was also a terrific dancer. Like my father, he learned the dress cutter’s trade when he first came to this country, but after he married his wife, Eva, he ran a grocery store. Uncle Sam and Aunt Eva -- who was a very beautiful woman -- had two children The first, Julian, became president of New England Wholesale Grocers -- now out of business – and now writes the wine column for Worcester Magazine. Miriam died a number of years ago. She was married to Gurson Levine, also deceased, and they had two daughters.

Nathan Civen was born in 1889 and married to Aunt Anna. No, I did not spell Civin incorrectly; two of the Civins spelled their name “Civen” instead of “Civin.” Nathan graduated from Clark University and became a chemist for the US government. During the Coolidge administration there was a big cutback of government workers, and Uncle Nathan lost his job. He took a one-year course in optometry and set up a practice on Blue Hill Avenue in Dorchester, which in those days was inhabited by mostly Eastern European Jews. Nathan was a very quiet, gentle man, whose health was always quite fragile. I understand he had promised his dying mother that he would do everything possible to keep his brothers and sister close, a promise he tried his best to keep for the rest of his life.

My father was born next, in the spring of 1891. Uncle Oscar Civen was born about 1893. Born Isaac Civen, he changed his name to Oscar; my Dad said he wanted a more American-sounding name. (He sure picked a good one, didn’t he?) Oscar was a nice person, but one of most important things to him in life was status. Uncle Oscar was also taught the dress cutter’s trade, but he didn’t ply for long. When they worked together in the garment industry in New York, he used to say to my father, “Israel, working in a dress factory is alright for you, but I am going to be educated someday and be a somebody.” Shortly after he left New York, Oscar went to Boston and worked his way through Tuft’s Dental School doing menial jobs. He also started his practice on Blue Hill Avenue in Dorchester. He later moved his practice to Boylston Street in Boston, next to where the Colonial Theater is now located, and became a very prominent and wealthy orthodontist. Uncle Oscar met his wife, Eva, at Tufts. She was a MD, though she never practiced. They had two children; Morton, a PhD and a professor at UCLA (I am sure now retired), and Sherman, who lives in Wisconsin. It’s sort of interesting how wealth and status change a man. My father once told me the Oscar was a Communist during his days in the garment industry. In 1968, he was singing the praises of Barry Goldwater for president. He had a lot to lose by then.

Bernard Civin, born in 1898, was the youngest of my Civin uncles. “Barney” was a master salesman. My father used to tell me that, even in the darkest days of the Depression, Barney made big bucks. Well-tanned and beautifully dressed, Barney used to spend more on a necktie than a lot of men spent on their yearly wardrobes. Barney traveled New England representing a manufacturer of women’s fine slips, and a sportswear company. When not traveling he boarded with his brother, Sam, and his wife, Eva. He did marry in his later years to an underwear buyer from the G. Fox department store in Hartford. As a member of the Boston Polar Club, Barney went for a swim in the ocean every New Year’s Day – something he was quite proud of. 

The youngest -- and only -- Civin female was Aunt Miriam, born in 1900. Miriam became a registered nurse way back when nurses were expected to scrub floors. She became a private duty nurse working at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston. I am told she made and lost a fortune in the stock market. Aunt Miriam was estranged from my mother and father. I only remember meeting her once in my life, and that was at Dorothy’s and my wedding, in 1955. My mother used to blame the divide on my father -- because he helped support her and sent her lots of presents -- and when he got married he could no longer afford to dote on his sister. (I tend to think their estrangement had to do with more than my mother cared to admit.) When Aunt Miriam was well into her 80s The Boston Globe ran an article about her, still jogging along the streets of Framingham. I am now going to tell you something that I have never mentioned to anyone. About 20 years ago, I was driving along route 9 in Framingham, and I saw Aunt Miriam walking from her daily jog. I wanted to stop and tell her who I was, but I didn’t. Sad isn’t it?

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