Sign of the times

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

When I was a kid at Holy Family grammar school in South Buffalo, I loved election season. Watching the news with my dad every night, I got to know all the players on the local scene, and through my ol’man’s instant, savage analysis, I always knew who was a good guy and who was a chump.

That was fun, but just as exciting for me was driving around and looking at all the big colorful lawn signs.

We never had a sign on our lawn, but like a lot of South Buffalonians in the 80s, my grandparents usually had one for Mayor Griffin or one of the Keane brothers (Assemblyman Dick or Councilman Jim) stapled to the front of the porch.

Some kids liked to drive around looking at Christmas lights or spooky Halloween graveyards— but during political season, Dad would take us the long way to grandma’s house, maybe down McKinley Parkway, to look at all the political signs on the big lawns.

In some kind of simplified kindergartner way, I loved and appreciated the artistry in the varied designs and executions.

“Fahey At Large” might as well have been by Rembrandt or “LoVallo” by Monet.

Well done paint on wood was always eye-catching, but far more rare than it’s sloppy-stenciled cousins which seemed to be everywhere. But the printed signs were like works of art to me. The color choices. The fonts. Was it plain or well designed? How did they look after rain? Did the staple job detract from the sign?

Something, too, about three houses in a row with the same sign in the same spot. Or the uniqueness of a single sign among dozens of signs for “the other guy.”

Then and now, no where does all this drama play out better than Potters Road between Mount Mercy and the city line.

Unlike the manicured and rolling expanses of green on wide and open McKinley, houses seem almost on the street along some parts of Potters.

And it seems like just about everyone on Potters is in the game, maybe even why they moved there in the first place. The manic jumble of lawn signs make the tight ride even more claustrophobic if not thrilling, with the dozens, even hundreds of signs over those few long blocks next to the creek, including many that you wouldn’t see anywhere else in South Buffalo.

Potters during Election time has always felt like the lights of Times Square or the Vegas Strip to me… and this time, it’s my name out there… on a great sign designed by my friend Jake Wagner.

Wow, ya know? Kneeling next to a sign with my own name on it on Potters Road, 14210.

It’s really a lot of work and easy to get caught up in the grind of running for office– it’s nice to be reminded of how amazing all this is every once in a while.

I can’t wait to serve as your next Erie County Clerk. More on my plans at steveforclerk.com.

Remembering “Cheap Gourmet” Doug Smith

Doug & Polly Smith, c. 1985, WIVB-TV

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

I got to know Doug Smith while we were both working at Channel 4, but I loved him long before then. Thinking of him makes me think of my grandmother.

Grandma Cichon rounded up us kids and we took the bus from Seneca Street near the city line all the way up to Hertel Avenue for the first Italian Festival in North Buffalo after years on the West Side.

In perfect Grandma Cichon fashion, we prettyquickly walked up and down through the rides and games –it wasn’t much different from the Caz Park Festival we were used to… And then, eschewing the pricier Italian Sausage or ravioli, we ate lunch at the Burger King at the corner of Hertel and Delaware.

And since we were so close to K-Mart, Grandma couldn’t resist running in, which we did (probably for air conditioning, I’d guess, more than anything else.)

In the parking lot leaving K-Mart, heading for the bus stop, I think I spied him first. A real-live celebrity from Channel 4. Doug Smith! Right there! The guy with the convertible Beetle! In the flesh!

As if that wasn’t enough, Grandma– in her breathy, asthmatic voice– started moving toward him shouting, “Doug! Doug! Oh Doug!”

She knew him in her role as the longtime President of the South Buffalo Theatre on South Park Avenue.

“Oh Marie, how are you my darling,” he said, overacting the part, maybe even kissing her hand.

Italian Festival, Burger King, Doug Smith, and Grandma knows him! What a day!

Doug Smith would have made me smile even if I’d never met him… but that he was always great— and that he always makes me think of my grandma is really a bonus.

Then again, I think Doug’s the kind of guy that evokes layers of memories for plenty of people around Buffalo.

He was one of a kind– and warmly touched so many lives. He died today at 81. Rest in Peace, Doug Smith.

Polish Buffalo in the 1930s: Gramps on Easter & Dyngus Day

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Long before Dyngus Day was the celebration of Buffalo culture it has become over the last decade, it was, as most know, a day of celebration and fast breaking in the Polish community.

My grandfather, Edward Cichon, was the seventh of ten kids born to Polish immigrants who lived in Buffalo’s Valley neighborhood (nestled between South Buffalo, The First Ward, and The Hydraulics.)

Grandma & Grandpa Cichon. Edward V. Cichon and Marie T. Scurr-Cichon.

His memories of Easter and Dyngus Day went back more than 70 years when I interviewed him for a news story back in 2006. He’s giving us a first-hand account of Dyngus Day in Buffalo in the ’20s & ’30s.

Born in 1926, Gramps grew up on Fulton Street near Smith on a street that was, at that time, half Irish and half Polish. Most of the men on the street, including my great-grandfather and eventually Gramps himself, worked at the National Aniline chemical plant down the street.

On Dyngus Day, he’d go behind his house along the tracks of the Erie Railroad—the 190 runs there now—and grab some pussy willows to take part in the Dyngus Day tradition of swatting at girls on their heels, who’d in turn throw water at the boys.

For Easter, Babcia would cook all the Polish delicacies like golabki, pierogi, and kielbasi.

The sausage, Gramps explained, was all homemade. “Pa” (as gramps always called his father) would get two pigs, and they’d smoke them right in the backyard on Fulton Street. The whole family would work on making sausage at the big kitchen table, and then hang the kielbasa out back—but they’d also butcher hams and other cuts of meat as well.

While he was in the frame of mind, I asked him about the Broadway Market, too. In the late ‘20s, His mother would wheel him the two miles over to the market in a wagon, and park him next to the horses while she shopped for food and across the street at Sattler’s.

Reading these stories is great, but listening to Gramps tell them is the best.

My ol’man, pizza, and the Dukes of Hazzard

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

It’s my favorite Dukes of Hazzard moment.

I was in First Grade, and “The Dukes” were just about the most popular thing in the world. Maybe tied with Michael Jackson’s Thriller album. The early ’80s were a tough time in South Buffalo– and my dad had a tough time finding work.

Billboard outside of City Hall in the late ’70s, placed there by Bethlehem Steel’s union workforce.

Plants closed and he sold the bar at Elk & Smith. He tried teaching middle school history but couldn’t get in full-time, so he lived and worked in Massachusetts for almost a year while we lived on Allegany Street off Tifft near South Park.

Of course we missed dad– and money was tight. There were more 20-cent letters flying than $5 long-distance phone calls being made. I can’t imagine what it was like for my ol’man to be away, and for my mom to be home with us three, a full-time job, and no car.

It was a Friday night and we took our baths early to be ready to watch those Duke boys. We were sitting at our little plastic table in the living room—all ready for “Tic-Tac-Dough” and “Jokers Wild” to end and Waylon Jennings to sing about “two good ol’boys, never meaning no harm…” when the front door burst open.

Dad with us kids just inside the front door of our house on Allegany Street…. probably taken just as he was leaving for Massachusetts one time or another.

Not only had my ol’man pushed our AMC Spirit to the limit speeding home from Massachusetts, but he had the sense to stop at Mineo’s South (when it was on the corner of Tifft & South Park) on his way home to pick up a large pie. Pizza, like long distance calls, wasn’t often in the budget and extra special.

I’m not sure a six-year-old heart could be any more full.

This glorious Friday night was probably about the best night of my life up until then… Dad was home, we were eating pizza, and we were watching the Dukes. All was right with the world.

That’s me (left) with my Dukes of Hazzard big wheel, c.1982

January 28, 1977: 40 years ago today, a new identity for Buffalo

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Maybe it was right up until January 27, 1977 that Buffalo was known as a blue collar town. A hardscrabble steel making town. A simple, shot-and-a-beer, look-a- guy-in-the-eye town. It was known as a place with long winters and a string of rotten luck— getting hit hard by the changes in the world through the 1970s.

You knew that OJ Simpson played football in Buffalo and Howdy Doody’s pal Buffalo Bob Smith was from there– but you probably didn’t know about chicken wings yet, because it was a 1980 article in the New Yorker that really put the Buffalo wing in the national spotlight.

Then, starting on January 28, 1977, Buffalo began appearing on the national TV news every night for weeks as the city dug out from The Blizzard of ’77.

Trains being loaded with snow to be taken south to melt, a week after the storm first hit.

The first question of Buffalonians at conventions or in airports was no longer about OJ or Niagara Falls or steel.

“Did the snow melt yet?”

It was always one of the things Buffalo was known for, but 40 years ago today, it became the thing.  Even losing four straight Super Bowls and having the longest playoff drought in major league sports hasn’t been able to shake the Blizzard of ’77’s  stranglehold on our national identity.

Here it is, 40 years later, and we’re just starting to wholly embrace this wintry identity which Mother Nature foisted on us, and hopefully making more and more people aware that making the best of the cold, snow, and ice is something we’re great at.

Buffalonians welcoming the world to our annual celebration of winter. (canalsidebuffalo.com photo)

Even though a few winters have really kicked us in the teeth, we sure know how to do winter in Buffalo.. and we even do the winters that have done us.

When the snow really wallops us, take care of each other and have fun. During the “Snowmegeddon” storm of 2014, firefighters carried a patient a mile up Abbott Road to Mercy Hospital. We also make beer fridges out of the snow drifts blown against our doors.

In the days following the Blizzard of ’77, both Tops and Bells ran ads telling Buffalo they had food left.

Having the Blizzard of ’77 notched in our belts makes us bad ass. We’ve seen the worst of it and know that we mostly survived. But our hearts often turn to those whose death in 1977 made us more careful as a people.

We’ll never forget the ten people who froze to death in their cars– their awful fate is our permanent warning.

We learned lessons of neighborliness and what it truly means to be a Buffalonian. One tragic example of a the kind of Buffalo guy we all strive to be was Officer Carl O. Reese.

Officer Reese worked for 25 straight hours at the beginning of the blizzard, pushing cars to get people on their way and bringing people stranded just south of downtown medicine and food, putting their health and comfort before his own. After more than a full day on his feet, he went back out to help free cars stuck on the Skyway.

Officer Reese collapsed of exhaustion and suffered a heart attack upon arriving home after that marathon shift– he was only 38 years old, and survived by a wife and small child.


From the pages of the Courier-Express: a day-by-day recap of the Blizzard of ’77:


Coming this week with BN Chronicles’ look back at The Blizzard of ’77:

Johnny Carson and how Buffalo became a permanent punchline:

More on Monday at BN Chronicles


Tuesday at BN Chronicles:

Separating the fact from the fiction:

A look at how the Buffalo Zoo made it through The Blizzard, which animals escaped and were caught, and which one animal escaped and was never heard from again.

 


A classic page updated with new information and photos:

Newspaper, radio & TV broadcasts bring the storm back to life…

See the front pages of the Buffalo Evening News and Courier-Express, watch a full-half-hour broadcast of the WBEN-TV Channel 4 news, and listen to radio around the dial in Buffalo at the height of the Blizzard.

 


More Blizzard Memories:

[termposts]

 

 

Buffalo in the ’20s: YMCA branch was heart of black community

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Between the world wars, there was no greater unifier of Buffalo’s growing black population than the Michigan Avenue YMCA.

As late as 1920, unique circumstances made gathering as a community in a single space difficult. Overt racism made many civic gathering places, and most private ones, off limits. In other marginalized and immigrant communities within Buffalo, a place of worship also acted as a place of assembly for non-religious activities – but unlike the Irish, Polish, Italian and Jewish populations, there wasn’t necessarily a unifying current among the many different churches of the larger African-American community.

The organization of a YMCA branch specifically for Buffalo’s black men and boys started in 1924. By 1927, $225,000 had been raised and plans were drawn up for the building by John Edmonston Brent. He was one of the founding members of the branch, as well as Buffalo’s first black architect. Brent would go on to work for the City of Buffalo, where his design work remains on display, most notably along the gates and fences of the Buffalo Zoo.

On April 15, 1928, the new building was dedicated in “devotion to the uplift and advancement” of the 10,000 members of the black community it served.

Aside from the 20-by-60-foot swimming pool and gymnasium, the building boasted a barber shop in the basement, a lounge for men fronting Michigan Avenue, and a lounge for boys on the side of the building. The second floor was filled with classrooms, club rooms, a cafeteria and a women’s area. The third and fourth floors were dormitories with room for 70 men.

More than just a club, the Michigan Avenue YMCA became the heart of the community. Famous speakers, performers and human rights activists such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Count Basie and a young Jim Brown all visited the building.

William “Pops” Jackson (left) began running a YMCA program for Buffalo’s black population in 1923. He oversaw the building of the Michigan Avenue building. When he retired in 1947, he was widely acclaimed as the driving force behind the YMCA and much of the good happening in Buffalo’s black community. (Buffalo Stories archives)

Perhaps more importantly, the building was home to fostering ideas and a sense of purpose from within the black community out to the rest of Western New York.

Following the appointment of the Rev. D Ormond Walker, pastor of Bethel AME Church, to Buffalo’s War Council in 1944, Michigan Avenue YMCA chapter president A.J. Smitherman felt that the YMCA had helping bring people together. He spoke about it at a Y gathering that included the fire commissioner, the Democratic Party chairman and the president of Western Savings Bank.

“It is gratifying that our people and other groups may mingle at ease on terms of human brotherhood and friendship. That’s the kind of unity and brotherhood the world is seeking and it is Buffalo’s answer to those bigots who would raise the red flag of race hatred.”

The Michigan Avenue YMCA building was torn down in 1977; the site remains a vacant lot just south of Sycamore.

Buffalo in the ’50s: Neon signs along the Peace Bridge

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Lines at the Peace Bridge are nothing new, but the scenery has changed through the years.

Buffalo Stories archives

Even when the toll was a quarter and the most evasive question you’d be asked was “Where do you live?,” the backups still felt like forever after a weekend of fun at the cottage or on the Comet.

While the cars were queued up in the 1950s, they were bathed in the glow of neon.

Monstrous iconic signs from Texaco Gasoline and O’Keefe Ale and Old Vienna Beer greeted international travelers to and fro during an age when crossing the bridge was a friendlier and less intrusive experience.

As Texaco shouted “Welcome to Buffalo” in light, O’Keefe and OV advertised what were then two of the Dominion of Canada’s most popular beers. Old Vienna remained a blue-collar Buffalo favorite through the 1980s, with many taverns offering specials on OV splits — Old Vienna beer in 7-ounce bottles. An O’Keefe sign also graced the top of the Hancock Building in Niagara Falls.

Buffalo News archives

 

What It Looked Like Wednesday: Elmwood Avenue bridge, 1895

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Reconstruction of the Elmwood Avenue bridge over Route 198 is nearing completion after several years of work.

Elmwood Avenue looked a bit different in 1895 when the bridge was first built over Scajaquada Creek. The Buffalo State campus was farmland behind the “State Insane Asylum,” and none of the museums surrounding the bridge had been built yet.

This view looks north. In today’s terms, the photographer would be standing on the Buffalo State campus, and those trees on the other side of the bridge would be where the History Museum—built five years after this photo was taken for the Pan-American Exposition — now stands.

Buffalo Stories archives

Torn-Down Tuesday: The Elk Street Market

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Time and circumstance has nearly eliminated knowledge and memory of one of the city’s great institutions.

West Market Street, Elk Street Market. Buffalo Stories archives

In 1904, the Elk Street Market was “the largest fruit and garden truck market in the United States.” The traffic in commodities sold rivaled any similar market on the continent.

Buffalo Stories archives

The market’s size and success was attributed to so many of Buffalo’s immigrants holding onto centuries-old ways and their “adherence to village customs.” German, Italian, and Irish traditions played out all over the four-block long market that ran parallel to Michigan Street, in an area now largely taken up by the Buffalo Creek Casino.

Trying to understand where the market was offers up several red herrings. The first is the name. The market is nowhere near today’s Elk Street.

The part of Elk Street where the market stood is now South Park Avenue. Elk Street once ran from Seneca Street almost to the foot of Main Street. In her blog about Buffalo Streets, Angela Keppel writes that in 1939, South Buffalo businessmen thought it would be a good idea to have a street that runs from South Buffalo to downtown. Elk Street was one of five streets that was carved up to create South Park Avenue.

Buffalo Stories archives

Another red herring is the Elk Street Terminal. Famous now as one of Buffalo’s early reuse condominium projects, it was built at the northern tip of the market and used for the loading and unloading of trucks and trains. The actual market stretched several blocks into the First Ward from the back door of the terminal.

Buffalo Stories archives

It’s actually a double red herring because not only was the terminal a small part of the market away from most of the buying and selling the market was famous for, it’s actually several blocks away from where Elk Street was. It was named after the market (which no longer exists) which was named after the street (which no longer exists.)

Buffalo Stories archives

Thousands of wagons laden with fruit and vegetables paid 15¢ or 25¢ for a spot on the market or took their wares to the terminal to be loaded on trains to be sold around the country. The farmers themselves came from as far as Orchard Park or further south, or as far north as Clarence — but rules prevented Niagara County growers from selling at the market.

During the height of the fruit season, 10,000 bushels were sold a day.

Buffalo Stories archives

The main building also was home to a meat and poultry market, and the fish market was the city’s busiest.

Michigan Avenue just outside the Elk Street Market. Buffalo Stories archives

A fire in the late 1920s and then railroad maneuvering to have most of the larger business of the Elk Terminal moved to the Clinton Bailey Market mostly spelled the end of the Elk Street Market, which continued to hang on as a farmers market through the 1930s.

These views show a 1906 and 2016 view near what is now South Park and Michigan avenues.

Buffalo Stories archives

Buffalo in the ’20s: Elbert Hubbard’s Ali Baba, East Aurora’s village philosopher

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Anson Blackman was a farmer and horseman, born in Marilla and later working the East Aurora stables of CJ Hamlin. He was a heavily bearded gentle old man who was a friend to small children and animals.

Roycroft founder Elbert Hubbard hired the unlettered farmhand him to take care of the horses and do handiwork for his burgeoning Arts & Crafts community in East Aurora. Blackman’s job grew to include picking up visitors at the train station, sometimes in an ox cart. It was all a part of “the buildup” for what people might expect at Roycroft, and what would pass as marketing today.

Blackman also helped care for Hubbard’s kids—who when small called him Baba. After filling his pipe with another man’s tobacco, Blackman earned the nickname “Ali” Baba, as taken from the Forty Thieves story. Hubbard began writing about Ali Baba as a sage and salty philosopher, and Blackman’s responsibilities grew from taking care of the animals to being a personal valet and travel companion for Hubbard, who mixed Blackman’s earthy image with plenty of his own thoughts making the character a sort of Hubbard alter ego. Ali Baba appeared on Roycroft postcards, and was a constant presence on the campus for more than three decades.

The tales of Ali Baba first started appearing in print in the 1890s. By the time this photo appeared in The News in 1922, Blackman was world-renown, and throwback to an earlier halcyon time at the East Aurora campus.

Buffalo Stories Archives

Well into his 80s, Blackman was a familiar face in East Aurora, and sought out by visitors. In 1924, The News said he “exemplified the Roycroft spirit.”

Ali does all the talking, you merely listen. He takes you info his den and shows you pictures of the early Roycrofters, the Hubbard family, letters and pictures that men and women famous in art and literature have given him.

One minute he tells you Elbert Hubbard in writing that book has made a burlesque of his life. The next he readily admits he actually said all the quaint bits of philosophy Fra Albertus attributed to him.

Another News article described him this way:

Ali Baba is a great man. There is some reason to believe he regards himself, and not without reason perhaps, as the only sane man associated with the Roycrofters. He was Hubbard’s hired man in the early days of the stock farm. He is a hard headed, broad shouldered, grizzled farmer on whom has grown a great sense of responsibility as he has pondered on the seeming irresponsibility with which he is surrounded.

It’s difficult to parse the Hubbard created anecdotes and the actual item as far as Ali Baba is concerned, a look one story in particular, shared at the time of his death, offers a look at the rough-hewn charm of the real man.

“One day as he was busy around the plant a nice elderly lady came up to him and adjusting her eyeglasses looked “Ali Baba” over and asked: “My good man, will you please tell me what denomination this church is?”

“Baba” whirled around, nettled at such crass ignorance, and exclaimed, “Holy smoke, misses! This ain’t no church. This place does more good than all the dam churches in town—this is the Roycroft Shop!”