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A nostalgic View of Life in North Adams from the Twenties

Tony Talarico
Bryant College 1938     WOW that's a long time ago
54 Foucher Avenue
North Adams, MA 01247-3129 - Get the News of North Adams - Get to the heart of North Adams thru the eyes of Joe Manning The North Adams Library opens the window to the World
anthonyrt/homepage Here you will find many quotations you can use. = see the birth and progress of the most world shaking museum It's better to light one candle than to curse the darkness - Franciscan University of Steubenville old postcards of North Adams


jimconway inspiring letters

With the exception of the 1940's, I have spent all my life in North Adams, Massachusetts. There is no other place I want to be. What I hope to do on this sight is write about the town and its people whom I love. But first I should tell you of myself. My father Felice Antonio Talarico and my mother Clementina Mariantonia Folino were born in a very small village called Crichi in the Province of Catanzaro,in Italy. A few years ago, I counted 50 people who had come to North Adams from that little village of Crichi. On March 11,1911, my mother left Naples on the ship Italia arriving at Ellis Island March 27. My father must have decided to follow Clementina to America. He sailed from Naples April 3, 1912 on the Cincinnati and arrived at Ellis Island April 17. He was at sea when the Titanic sank on April 12. However the Cincinnati was too far away to go to its rescue. For this information about my parents I searched the files at the National Archives in the Conte building on Fox Drive in Pittsfield, MA.

My parents were married October 8, 1913 in St Anthony Church in North Adams,MA. I was born on the third floor of a twelve tenement block at 77 Holden Street in North Adams. My brother Philip was born on Marshall Street and where he worked most of his life at Sprague Electric Company, his funeral services were at St.Anthony Church conducted by Flynn and Dagnoli on February 12, 1983. My brother Eugene was born on the second floor of that twelve tenement block on 77 Holden Street.

The Cariddi Family also lived in this block. I played with Jimmy. We were both born in this same 12 tenement block owned by the Tomaselli family. I also knew a few of the Sacco boys who lived in Waverly Place. At that time we did not know we were living in a Ghetto. My father had a tailor shop at 9 Holden Street. A few weeks before Christmas I remember as a small child crossing the street from my father's tailor shop to watch by the hour all the moving doll figures in the corner window of the Boston Store. Our playgrounds were the streets surrounding our home. Center Street, Main Street and Marshall Street. Occasionally we went farther afield. At that time we wheeled hoops. They were normally rims from wagon wheels. One hot summer night, Art Gamache and I wheeled hoops that were taller than we were. We went up West Main Street, down to Brown street, over to River Street, then back to 77 Holden street where our mothers were waiting for us. Two tired kids; hot, faces streaked with dirty sweat.

During the hot summer months, we followed the ice wagons. There were few refrigerators, but many iceboxes. Each home would have a poster in the window. Each side of it would show a price, 25, 50, 75, or a $1.oo. Which ever side was on top, that is the size of ice the man would bring. When he broke off the right size from a huge block of ice, he would leave slivers of ice. We would grab the pieces from the bed of the truck. We loved to suck on the ice. It was so cool and refreshing to the taste.

We favored John Hillard. We liked him because on many hot summer nights he would load one of his trucks with children from Waverly Place and 77 Holden Street. He would bring them to State Road to West's Ice Cream store. On the way we all would chant, "One, two, three four who are we for. Hillard, Hillard, Hillard. Five, six, seven, eight who do we hate,****,****. the big fat tub." (I don't want to use his competitors name) At West's store Mr. Hillard would buy us all an ice cream cone. For several years he would load up three of his big trucks with all the children in the neighborhood and bring them once to Willliamstown and the following year to Bennington for a big picnic. He gave us our fill of hamburg, hot dogs and soda. Imagine anyone doing that today.

When the carnivals came to town, they would set up at the Central Playgrounds on the corner of River and Houghton Streets. Art and I would go there to be part of the excitement. Where it was at was usually at the wrestling tent. The locals would be goaded into taking on their wrestler for five dollars if they won or lasted for five or ten minutes.

The streets were lit up by carbon arc lights. There was one across the street from the Grand Army Hall. It hung down from a cross member from the top of a pole. Whenever the carbon burned down low, a man would come around to replace the carbon. We enjoyed watching him lower and raise the light.

We also like to follow the horse-drawn water wagon. Don't remember how often it came. But on a hot summer day the water was very refreshing. Am not sure now whether it was to keep the dust down or to wash the horses manure to the curb.

We made our own fun. Whether it was kick the can. Hide go seek. Try to fly our home made kites. wheel hoops. Play nipsie. Or marbles. When it came to gymnastics, we had the civil war brass cannon in front of the Grand Army Hall. We climbed all over that cannon just about every day. No polish could do a better job of shining that brass than we could with our bodies.

In the winter we would follow the horse drawn sleighs. When the driver wasn't looking we would hop on the rear runners, until he turned around and snapped his whip at us.

July 22,1999, Joe Manning suggested at the Papyri book store that North Adams should have a Tenement Museum.What a museum the twelve tenement building at 77 Holden street would have made. No central heating in those 6 room tenements. Every one had a kitchen range, with a water reservoir heated up by the fire in the box at the opposite end. The gas storage box hung from the ceiling. The gas wss piped to an overhead lamp with a gas mantle. When the light suddenly went out it meant that the gas was all gone. You had to put in a quarter in a meter before you could get more gas.
The closet was the toilet, which had an overhead box filled with water. You pulled a chain to let the water down to flush the toilet bowl. There were no bathtubs. My mother washed us in a small metal tub which she placed on the kitchen table. Joe Pizzi who ran a woman's store on Main Street, had a big buick. On Sundays he would take our family for a picnic to Sand Springs. It had a big swimming pool. It also had little individual bath rooms along the side of the pool. It was a popular spot. It wasn't until recently that I realized why. Most of the immigrants in our area were hardworking laborers and what they needed most was that weekly bath. Sand springs is where they got it.

When I was about 7 or 8 years old I had my first lesson in psychology. Across the street from us lived the Kerwoods in a single house sandwiched in between the Season block and Renton's Bakery. They had come from New York state. Mr. Kerwood was a lineman for the telephone company. There were three boys, Frank, Jack,and Bill. One girl, Rita. I played mostly with Jack. Because my parents were not well versed in the English language, they did not buy the Sunday paper with the comics. But I read them at the Kerwoods.I liked the Katzenjamer Kids and Bringing up Father. Maggie was always swinging a roller pin at her husband Jiggs. One day Jack and I had a little argument. I wasn't speaking to him for several days. Sunday morning I saw him reading the "funny page" on his front stoop. When he was through reading it, he placed it under the welcome mat and went into the house. I had to read that paper to see what happened to Jiggs so I ran across the street took the paper from under the mat and began reading it. After a bit Jack came out. He said something. I answered. Now we were the best of friends again. He keow what he was doing when he placed that paper under the mat.

The Kerwoods had a birthday party for Bill on saturday August 15. It was the first birthday party I had ever been to. Of course I was excited. But what impressed me the most was the jello. At home we did not have dessert. This wiggly, shiny dessert fascinated me so much that I always remembered Bill's birthday party. However, in May 5, 1999's Transcript is Bill's obituary. He died May 4. He was 81. He was born August 14, 1917. I always thought it was August 15. Jack died in 1994 and Rita in 1988.

The Kerwood family must have been sorry for me because our family never went on a vacation. My father could not leave the tailor shop to take one. Anyway the Kerwoods made arrangements for me to go with Jack for two weeks to the St. Francis Church Camp Acusley Macree. I had never been away from home. So this was a great new experience for me. But I was shy. I knew only Jack and Oliver and Lucien Siciliano. I knew them because my parents were friends of their grandparents. In fact they came from the small village of Crichi in southern Italy that my folks came from. Grandma Siciliano was a midwife who delivered an estimated 800 babies, including me.

All the boys went swimming, but me and Oliver. My folks perhaps didn't realize that I would need a bathing suit. So Oliver and I played "mumley peg" with a jacknife most of the two weeks. Once we went for a hike to a small country store in West Hawley. For breakfast we had oatmeal. This was new to me. We ate out of tin plates. We washed them on the shore of the pond. The soap was the beach sand. I did like the meals even though they were not the same as what I had at home. I enjoyed the two weeks I was at this camp. For that reason I never forgot the Kerwooods and the Sicilianos.

The Siciliano's lived on Center Street east of Holden St. Just a couple of buildings towards Lincoln Street lived the Casuscelli's. Louis Casuscelli,3rd wanted me to call his grandfather Don Luigi Casuscelli, with the handlebar mustache,the patriarch of the clan. Their house set back about 75 feet from the street with a tall iron fence and gate enclosing the yard.

Next door was the Bijou. There I attended the St.Anthony Church nursary school I don't remember being inside. Just playing outside with Gus Maglione and other children. Years later my wife Helen told me much about Gus's sister. Helen thought a great deal of her. During the depression in the dead of winter she would walk to work to Sprague's up the Beaver from State Street.

On the west side of Holden Street near the corner of Main Street, taxi cabs lined up their drivers waiting for fares. There were also small trucks, the drivers waiting for small moving jobs. My father's shop was on the same side. He became friends with young Tony Marino. They came up with the idea of making directional lights, a stop light, tail light and a back up light in one unit. They hired a lawyer in Albany to get a patent for the invention. But it seems as if the lawyer always kept asking for money, they gave up the idea. Tony was very young perhaps under twenty and my father had been in this country for only a few years, so it is easy to understand why they didn't pursue the idea. A prototype was made. Paul Marino, Tony's son may have it.

There was a short alley between my father's tailor shop and the rear exit of the Empire Theatre. Every Saturday night about nine o'clock people poured out of that exit. The show was usually a movie and a vaudeville show. It was common talk that if any show could make it in North Adams it would be a hit in New York City.
The week before the 4th of July, Brackleys a news store on Main Street next to the Empire lobby. would put up a large, galvanized shed in that alley. Here they sold fireworks. Some of us would hang around the the buyers to see if they would set off some firecrackers. As we became a little older we would make our own noise. I would get a Brioschi can put a hole on the bottom of the can. Then I would place a few pieces of carbide which I bought at Star's bicycle shop next to St Anthony's Church. The carbide at that time was used for lanterns on bicycles and cars. With a finger on hole, I would spit on the carbide which would make a gas. I put the cover tight on the can, let the gas build up, then remove my finger from the hole and put a match to it. The explosion would make a big 4th of July noise.

For the basefall world series, The North Adams Transcript put up a temporary building in fron of the Civil War monument at the head of Main Street. The side facing Main Street was a diagram of a baseball field. On this field they would show what the plays in the series by having the ball moved magnetically to where ever it was it. The news must have been received by radio. Few had radios then. There would be a huge crowd watching the plays. The trolleys came down Eagle Street turned right to Main Street. The crowd would have to make room for the trolley. Once in a while the rod at the rear of the trolley that reached to the overhead live wire which powered the motor would come off the wire as the trolley went around the corner. Then the conductor got off to replace the rod. In the early twenties, a board was placed over Noel's restaurant facing Holden Street. So many people watched the games that Main Street was impassable. The crowd opened up only to let the trolley through.

About this time the St. Anthony Church parisheners with picks and shovels dug a large hole on the corner of Holden Street and Weber Avenue. They intended to build a new church on that site. Many of us in the neighborhood played in that hole. After a few years it was filled in. I never knew why. However recently Fr. O'Hear at a bible class informed us that the parish had never received permission from the diocese to do that. So they had to fill in the hole.

St.Anthony Church with its basement was the center of the social life of most of the Italian immigrants. The children went to catechism class in the basement of the church. The boys would belong in the St. Aloysios society. Being a shy person I didn't have anything to do with girls, therefore at the present time I don't remember the name of their society. Plays would be put on with a few of the boys and girls as actors and actresses. All I remember of that was that Frank Esposito was the hero and Anita Leonesion was the heroine. They made a handsome looking couple. Later they became man and wife with five wonderful children, Peter, Francis, Donald, Jack and Marie.

Columbus day was a very important day for all the Italians. Therefore they would put on a parade with the Italian band in the lead. I remember being an Indian dressed in an underwear union suit with other small indians on a flat bed truck. There was a small tepee directly in back of the cab. We should have been in it because it was a cold day. And we were cold.

Tony Tomaselli was a young man when we were living on Holden Street. His parents owned the the twelve tenement block in the rear of the two tenement house at 77 Holden Street. He was forever working on a racing car that he had built trying to increase its speed. He raced the car at the Frairgrounds. I never did know how he made out. But he did make repairing cars his life work. In 1939 I renewed acquaintance with him when he would come to Auto Replacement Parts Company on Marshall Street to buy parts. I was office manager. He and his brother-in-law Eddie Trudeau were partners in a repair shop behind the A & P on Ashland Street. They were the only business partners that I knew who got along so well for all their lives. They were loved by all their customers. When they moved to River Street every Thursday night with many of their customers they would have a party. They would cook steaks on an old kitchen stove have a few drinks then sing.

North Adams had been a hot air balloon center for years. Late one Sunday afternoon a balloon soared eastward from the Fairgrounds where it had taken off. Everybody was watching as it came towards town. I was on Holden Street near one of the Williams blocks where Mr. Taskins had a furniture store. In front he had his car. As the air in the balloon cooled off and came out, it began to collapse and drop. It landed on Taskin's car. In the excitement I forgot that it was supper time. My father found me in the crowd, grabbed me. He gave me a good tap on the fanny and dragged me home. (July 7, 1999 a beautiful wednesday afternoon John Velyvis and I drove to the Blue Benn Diner in Bennington. There we met John's neighbors Harold Taskin and his lovely wife. I asked him what the name of his father's car was. He said it was an air-cooled Franklin. To start the car he would have to raise the hood, play with the float in the carburator to flood it, then light the gas to warm the engine. Then lower the hood and crank the engine to start it. It also had an air compressor so that air could be injected into the tires. His father had bought the car from an African American. Mr. Hoover who operated a rubbish removal busines.) The following week I told my Thursday morning breakfast men about cranking the Franklin. Aldo Sartori remembered that his brother had broken his arm trying to crank a car. Joe Fachini also remembered when he was fifteen years old he had broken his wrist the same way. Anyone cranking the engine had to have his thumb paralell to the part that you grabbed instead of around it.

In the early twenties our family often visited Tony and Mary Folino on harris Street. Tony was my mother's cousin. His wifes was the oldest of the DeMarco children. It was at their home that I first saw a washing machine. It ran by water pressure from a hose attached to the faucet. October 8, 1922 Theresa DeMarco married George Babeu. We must have been visiting the Folinos that day, because years later Theresa told me she remembers me as a small boy walking with parents down Harris Street.

I don't remember at what age I began to visit the library. I spent a great deal of time reading while sitting on the floor. The children's room was the first one on the right from the East Main Street entrance. That reading habit remained with me all my life. I wish I could thank the person who opened that reading door for me. Maybe it was the Venerini Sisters who taught at the St. Anthony Parish parochial school. I was there through the 4th grade when the school was closed. After my sister-in-law Teresa Gagnon moved in 1980 to Statesville, North Carolina, Helen and I visited her for 8 years in the spring and in the fall. I made many bible toting christian friends. They all claimed that Catholics did not read or study the bible and knew nothing about it. I didn't refute what they said. But I knew that Catholics believed in Christ through faith.

However now,in 1999, that I am writing about the parochial school that I went to on Weber Avenue, I recall that Sister Rose told us many stories from the Old Testament. I didn't know it at the time, but she gave me my first economic lesson even before I had my lessons in economics at Bryant College in the thirties. It was about business cycles. Do you remember when Joseph interpreted the dream of the Pharoah in Egypt. He told him there would be 7 years of plenty, and 7 years of scarecity. Today some believe that Clinton has caused our present prosperity and Greenspan will do away with depressions.

When the school closed I was transferred to Freeman school. In October of 1923 my parents bought a house on 11 Palmer Avenue. Then I was transferred to Johnson school. However, I was supposed to be in the 5th grade having finished the 4th at St. Anthony's, but my transfer papers said that I was to go into the 4th at Johnson. My mother immigrant that she was knew that I was 5th grade material tore up the transfer papers and dragged me to school. When she told the principal that I belonged in the 5th grade, the principal gave me a brief test and put me in the 5th grade. There I found that I had learned in the 4th grade much of what was being taught in the fifth. For example I already knew long division.

In 1999, Harris Street was rebuilt. It is a beautiful job. It appears much wider. There are concrete curbs setting off the sidewalk on the west side. I thought of how it was Octoer of 1923 when our family bought the second house on Palmer Avenue which ran west of Harris Street near the top of the first knoll. It was a dirt street. It really was more like an alley.

The first contact we with the DeSanti family was Christmas eve. Because it is the vigil of christmas, it is most important to Italians. They have a big dinner with all the timmings. The mothers usually have spent several weeks making preparations for this meal This Christmas we were having my godparents Michael and Mary Partenope Marino and their children Joe, Rose, and Connie for dinner.

My father and Michael were both tailors and worked until nine o'clock. That is the time stores closed on Saturdays and the evenings before holidays. About 9:30 we had a phone call from a DiSanti. It seemed as if my father and Michael were at the bottom of Harris Street and could not walk up the hill because of the slippery condition caused by the rain and sleet which had been falling. They had been struggling for some time. They had even thrown their coats on the ground and tried walking on them. but that didn't help.

In those days we had coal stoves. So Joe and I took a couple of buckets of ashes from the box at the rear of the house and spread it down Harris Street. They walked up without any further trouble We had a great time that night. We never forgot it.

However, for five years or so we wanted the ice and snow on Harris street. We had great fun first sliding down the street on card board and dented gallon olive oil cans. Then when we were bigger on flexible flyer sleds and later jack jumpers. Then for several winters on a barrel stave bob sled that Louie DeMarco made. Then a regular bob sled. Don't know where Louie got it. We would like to use it on those cold winter nights on the "cradle" which was the top of North Street above Hathaway to Tyler Street. It was great fun.