Sunday, June 7, 2009

Remembrances of a Childhood (Installment #2)

Setting the stage: Dad meticulously introduces the geography of his childhood neighborhood.


By Lynn Harrington

Part I: 1918 – 1927

1. Beginnings

My earliest memories are of life in the house at 145 Cannon Street, located in what would now be called the inner south side of Syracuse. Our family moved there from the Hubbell Avenue house in which I was born. The Cannon Street house was to be home to me until the late spring of 1927. That house, during my earliest remembered years, seemed a very large one, always crowded with people. As I think back on it now, I realize that it was quite small, and that it was indeed crowded. On our arriv­al there our family consisted of our two parents and eight children. The oldest child was our sister Mar­garet, born ,in 1899. Over the 18 years following her birth, she was followed by four more girls, and then by three boys, of which I was the second.

Houses in the 140's on Cannon, Syracuse, today. Google street-level view. -- Ed.

As this is not intended to be a family history, I shall not dwell on the changes that took place in the lives of the members of the household while we were tenants in that and succeeding homes. It is enough to say that the Cannon Street house was always busy - busy with living and laughter, happiness and sorrow, and with all the changes common to the development and aspirations, the hopes and the dreams. of all the individuals making up so large a family.

There extended through our family life one consistent thread of concern of which I became aware very early, and of which I remained conscious during my childhood, my adolescence, and on into my working years. That concern was of money – how scarce it was, and how hard to come by. I read, not long ago, a passage in my mother's diary where she wrote of those early, difficult years. She made mention of the many times when she awoke in the night and lay awake, trying to figure how she could earn a little money to supplement my Dad's weekly pay of $12, which at that time he earned by laboring six days a week at the Brown-Lipe-Chapin gear factory. Even as little as two dollars more in a week, which she could earn by finding an occasional day job housecleaning for someone, was a blessing that meant a pair of new shoes for one of us boys, or a dress for one of the girls. Taking such work, when she could find it, meant keeping Mildred or Florence at home from school for the day, to take care of the younger ones not yet of school age.

2. The Neighborhood

Let me offer a sketchy account of the neighborhood in which we lived. During our early years at school that experience and our home life made up for us boys the only social world we knew. Our neighborhood comprised an area extending five or six blocks in each direction from 145 Cannon Street. Second to our home the building with which we were most familiar was Brighton School, which stood at the southwest corner of the busy intersection of South Salina and Colvin Streets. It was a substantial brick building, with two floors of classrooms and a basement, in which the boys' and girls' lavatories were located. (Years later, when I was in Junior High School where there were lavatories on each floor, I would as often as not refer to the lavatory as the “basement.” The teachers understood, and made no comment on the usage.)

Annotated, present-day map (from Google Maps) showing some of the places Dad mentions; 145 Cannon Street is circled in red. This should be viewed at full size (just click on the image) to read the street names. -- Ed.

Brighton School, when I entered there, was a kindergarten through sixth grade facility, recently truncated by transfer of the seventh and eighth grades to the new seventh through ninth grades Roosevelt Junior High School. The Brighton School of my child­hood was a large structure of vast hallways, big classrooms, and very high ceilings. Only when I made a return visit several years later, just to look around, did I discover how small the classrooms had become as I grew larger, and how much narrower the hallways looked.

A Mysterious Room

In one end of the basement was a dim, mys­terious room, into which we kindergarteners could peer only by standing on tiptoe to bring our eyes to the level of a window in the door. Inside were rows of benches and machines of' large bulk and unfathomable purpose. No one entered there, where a hushed silence prevailed. Along about the time I entered the second grade I mustered the courage to ask the teacher what was in that room. She explained that it was the sloyd shop where eighth grade boys in former years had been taught to work with wood, and with the machines that formed and shaped it. That teaching was done now in the Junior High School, she said. And that set me dreaming of the time when I would be old enough to enter such a shop class.

The next building south on Salina Street was a glamorous one -- Engine House No.8 of the Syracuse Fire Department. We boys were fascinated by that installation, by the two bright red fire trucks stationed there, and by the uniformed men who staffed it.

On the opposite side of Salina Street, across from the school and the fire house, was a block­long row of commercial establishments. I do not remem­ber all of them, but a few stand out in recollection. On the southeast corner of Salina and Colvin was a red brick building which housed at least three businesses: On the corner was a drugstore, complete with soda fountain and a tobacco counter. Back of that, entered from Colvin Street, was the Arcadia Theater. Upstairs was a school for morticians, about which I was curious but concerning which no one at that time would enlighten me. Next down Salina Street was a bank building, res­plendent with very impressive granite facing stone and columns. I don't remember ever entering that building, but I always regarded it with something like awe.

A little way down from the bank was Mrs. Searle's dry goods store. The business strip continued south along that side of Salina, including a variety of small shops -- a grocery, a hardware store, and others that I have forgotten. But there was one that became a special favorite of mine. That was the Elk Bakery, about which more later.

Other sites in the neighborhood were import­ant to us in those formative years. There was another small business district centered several blocks south of Colvin Street, at the intersection of Salina Street and Brighton Avenue. Several businesses in that area played a significant part, one way or another, in our childhood. One of these was the People's Ice Company distribution center. Ice was not made there, but the company used the small, thick-walled building for storage of large blocks of ice for distribution to customers in that section of the city. The men who delivered the ice picked it up there, loading it into their horse-drawn wagons, and, using their ice picks, separated the great blocks into manageable proportions. On a hot summer day, that ice house was very popular with boys from a considerable area. As the ice men worked at the blocks, chips flew, and all the boys scrambled for the choicest chunks.

Another site significant to us was the Plaza Theater, a small movie house on Salina Street, especially popular with the small fry on Saturday afternoons, when it ran matinee thrillers we could attend for a nickel. Still another attraction was the Kelley Brothers coal yard, one block up Brighton Avenue to the east, just beyond the Lackawanna Railroad over­pass. Coal was a very important fuel at that time, as it was the heat source of choice for most of the homes, factories, and other buildings in the city. Numerous coal companies competed for the business, but Kelley Brothers pretty much dominated in our neighborhood.

A few blocks northwest of our Cannon Street house was another focal point in our young lives. This was Kirk Park. That was our first really large public playground. As we grew a little older our range of exploration and adventure extended up the hill to the west to Onondaga Park, with its more diversified play­ground equipment and a large swimming pool. That pool had once been a city reservoir, and carried the rather romantic name of Hiawatha Lake.

A few blocks southwest of home, within sight of Roosevelt Junior High, an otherwise vacant lot was the site of a very large pit, a sand and gravel bed from which those materials were always being loaded into wagons and hauled to construction sites, for fill and for mixing into concrete. The steep banks of that pit and the huge piles of sand accumulated there made an exciting place for kids to play.

One further feature of the neighborhood, very important to all, was the system of electrified street­car lines. Two of those lines, one on Salina Street and the other operating parallel with it along Midland Avenue two blocks to the west, were the ones with which we were most familiar. Streetcars were the prin­cipal means of local transportation for the grown-ups as they traveled back and forth between home and work, or downtown shopping, or to the theater. They also served as the carriers of families bound for the var­ious amusement parks located (not by coincidence) at the ends of the lines extending out to the suburbs. There were also electric car lines radiating out from the heart of downtown as far as city streets extended, and then moving over their privately owned, railroad­-type rights of way to more remote locations. These were known as interurban lines, and they offered fast, frequent, and relatively inexpensive transportation between the city and various destinations, including Rochester, Utica, Auburn, Baldwinsville, Oswego, Man­lius, and Oneida Lake points.


Next -- A Working-Class House in the 1920s and a Dry Goods Valkyrie


  1. What a terrific essay by a talented writer (or talented writer and editor). So evocative of the man and his time. And I learned a new word: "sloyd." So that's a good day's reading for me. Thanks.

  2. Thanks, Brian. The talent was entirely on my Dad's side of the effort. My main dragon in this project is getting the OCR hardware and software to behave.

    "Sloyd" was new to me, too, but Dad was obviously educated in part later on with that philosophy and practice, since he was always a master at fabrication of wood items large or small, even though his professions were in education and, later, pharmaceutical corporate administration. Our basement was devoted in large part to a woodshop as I was growing up, but I never took advantage of it. That's one more thing for me to do differently next time 'round.

  3. Basement? I thought it was a bomb shelter.

    Are either of the houses in the Google Earth inset THE house? The photo says "approx 146 Cannon" which leads me to believe that the homes we see are across the street form the one Granddad grew up in.


  4. Adam, I wish I had a definitive answer. The Google street-level view goes in pretty large address increments, and 146 was as close to 145 as I could get. The frame I reproduced is of the East side of the street, but the "approx 146" legend remains no matter which side of the street you look at. Unless someone can actually go to Cannon street and see which side is the odd-numbered side, I guess we'll never know whether one of the houses pictured is THE house.

    And, you know, even if one of those does have the 145 Cannon address, I'm not sure the chances are very high that it really is the same structure.