Who said nostalgia is not what it used to be?
I like taking an imaginary walk downtown in the early 1940s, trying to draw a word picture of what it all looked like. Maybe this was prompted by watching the movie “It’s A Wonderful Life” with Jimmy Stewart. The small town in the movie was Bedford Falls — with the film actually shot in Seneca Falls, New York.
Well, there is Tom Leahy with his assistant Ms. Skeels, Myron “Rube” Skeels’ sister, tending the Western Union Telegraph Office at 90 Main St. “To send a telegram, cablegram or radiogram, just call Western Union; for all other purposes call 1441”.
When Manny Bernstein, my high school classmate who was the regular telegram delivery boy, was out for a day, I would fill in for him. After school we would go into the office and the telegrams would be stacked in a slotted, upright metal tray ready for delivery: by foot in the winter, by bike in the summer.
Working as a stock boy in the J.J. Newberry’s Store at 65 Main St. was an exciting job. The downstairs stockroom was filled with what looked like millions of items. Newberry’s was located tight against the F.W. Woolworth Store at 61 Main St. They were called the 5 and 10-cent stores because that was the cost of many of the items. Newberry’s had a long lunch counter and a big candy counter lined with glass cases; what a beautiful sight, the candy piled loose in each case and sold in bulk. Grace Finn worked that counter, and a nickel would get you a lot of candy scooped into a small white bag, which was then weighed and passed to our grubby newsboy paws. Joyce Duclos, who I believe was a high school senior, was my boss.
The big, imposing Pontiac Theater was the center of our entertainment world. Two movies, a cartoon, the Movietown News and previews would keep one entertained for hours. It cost kids under age 16 11 cents for a ticket.
Jean Keating was a friend of mine in high school, and we were both in the school band and orchestra. One night after the band gave a concert at the theater, I got to walk Jean home. She lived at 236 Broadway (tel. 645), which seemed like about 25 miles from where my family lived at 5 Pine St. Jean was bright and pretty, and when I said goodnight on the front porch I was walking on cloud nine because I had also just turned 16.
It was about 11:30 p.m. The 9:30 p.m. curfew for those under 16 was well enforced at that time, and before I had reached about where the Kinney Drug store is located today, the local police pull up and ask, “Do you want a ride home?” “No, no,” I stammered, “I’m 16.” They replied, “We don’t care how old you are. Get in, and we’ll give you a ride home.” I slide down in the back seat so no one would see me and never made a peep until I jumped out of the car in front of our house; God forbid my parents would see me getting out of the police car.
The sounds that I remember do not exist today. All of the businesses downtown burned coal, and maybe you can still spot a big metal plate somewhere in a Main Street sidewalk that opened to a coal chute leading to the basement of the business. During the cold winter mornings on the way to school, the coal trucks, which had a scissors-type lift on the box, would be high in the air dumping the coal down those chutes; one could hear the coal banging those metal chutes a mile away.
There was snow packed on all the village streets all winter, no salt. The sand was spread on the streets by a worker standing in the back of a village truck, trying to keep his balance while throwing out shovels of sand in an arc to cover both lanes of traffic; if it was cold and windy, the sand would soon blow away.
The next consistent sound I remember was the tire chains on nearly every car and truck; there was always a broken link on the cross chain. That loose link would hit the fender with every turn of the wheel. The faster the car moved, the louder and more rapid the banging. Drivers used to carry a small box of monkey links that would connect the broken ends. The link would be hooked to the two ends of the broken cross chain and closed tight by slowly driving onto the connecting link.
Phil Gallos spoke at the Artists’ Guild, the former Charles Green Grocery Store at 49 Main, one night a few years ago … remembering what it was like when he arrived in Saranac Lake from New York City. He spoke, as he always does, eloquently (and long – just kidding, Phil) about the scenes and sounds of our beautiful little village. He painted a word picture nearly as good as his great photographs. I have to stay on Phil’s good side because he mentioned me in one of his first books, “By Foot,” about every bush and rock on every trail in the Adirondacks … who knows? He may be cranking out another one — his blockbuster book was on the Saranac Lake cure cottages.
I followed Phil as a speaker that night, and it was a feeble attempt on my part to meet the high bar that Phil had set … even though I know a lot about bars.
I opened with these simple thoughts: When I arrived in Saranac Lake from Norman Ridge, I thought I was in New York City … had never seen a movie, never seen a black person, never tasted a milkshake, never rode a train, never heard of lunch. (We ate dinner at noon and supper in the evening.) When we lived in Gabriels, my older brothers, with my grandfather Billy Keegan, would ride the train from Gabriels to Saranac Lake and back to go to the movies; that is how often the trains ran.
Also worked at Charlie Green’s, the Hotel Alpine, the A&P store (then located in today’s Enterprise building), Denny’s Jewelry Store on Main Street (cleaning and polishing the glass cases), as an Enterprise newsboy and a tray boy at Trudeau and in other cure cottages.
Right now I can’t remember the other jobs.