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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Time and circumstance has nearly eliminated knowledge and memory of one of the city’s great institutions.
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.
The 1965 American Football League All-Star game was scheduled for 52 years ago this week in New Orleans, but it never happened.
Dave Dixon, who had been trying to bring the AFL to New Orleans, organized the game with promises that there wouldn’t be any problems in the still-segregated city. Players were promised testimonial dinners and golf tournaments, and even told to bring their families. But trouble began as players landed at the airport.
Cabs lined up for the White All-Stars, but the 22 black players weren’t so lucky. A porter called black cabbies from downtown for several players, but there were a few who were picked up by white cabbies — only to be driven out to the boonies before being ordered out of the cab. Bills fullback Cookie Gilchrist was warned by a friendly white cabbie, “Be careful in this town.”
Ten members of the AFL Champion Bills were on the East All-Star team, and Bills Head Coach Lou Saban was East coach. Four of the 10 Bills were black: Cookie Gilchrist, Elbert Dubenion, Butch Byrd and Ernie Warlick.
Bills quarterback Jack Kemp and linebacker Mike Stratton were also among the all-stars, and were joined by their teammate Warlick in the French Quarter. In several different places, Kemp and Stratton — both white — were allowed in, but Warlick was told with hostility that he wasn’t welcome.
In his book “The Birth of the New NFL,” Larry Felser tells the story that Warlick packed his bags after an incident the following morning.
“Warlick was able to order breakfast in the dining room of the hotel, ‘but I lost my appetite when an older woman said loud enough for me to hear, that she didn’t want to eat in the same room with monkeys.’ “
There were many other black players who had similar or worse experiences. Many didn’t want to spent the rest of the week there and play in such an environment.
There were several meetings of players over the coming days. The black players voted at one meeting to skip practice. Then there was a meeting with the game organizers and the NAACP, where Gilchrist did much of the talking.
At a larger meeting, with many players of both races, Bills tight end Warlick was nominated spokesman of the black players. It wasn’t unanimous, but the black players voted to not play.
Immediately after the meeting, Warlick told reporters that the fact that they’d been promised there wouldn’t be any segregation made it that much harder to deal with. Players were told that the better night spots, restaurants and hotels would greet all the players equally with open arms.
“Actually, this came as a complete surprise to us,” Warlick said of the way he and his teammates had been treated. “We were led to believe that we could relax and enjoy ourselves in New Orleans just like other citizens. Maybe if we had been alerted to the fact that we wouldn’t have the run of the town, we could have avoided this unpleasant situation.
“If they had told us this before, we’d have looked specifically for those cabs and sought out our entertainment in those places,” Warlick continued. “But they led us to believe everything was going to be OK. And it wasn’t.”
Kemp was the backup quarterback for the East All-Stars, had just won the AFL Championship with the Bills, and was also the president of the league’s players’ union. He and San Diego Chargers offensive lineman Ron Mix were among the white players at that final meeting. The two agreed to lead white players to stand by their teammates — but not all white players embraced the move. Patriots linebacker (and later Hall of Famer) Nick Buoniconti called the walkout a “raw deal” which “hurt the league a great deal.”
Later a Buffalo congressman, HUD Secretary and vice presidential candidate in 1996, Kemp was also influential in the negotiations to move the game to Houston, where it was played days later.
Immediately following the vote to not play, Gilchrist found a Mexican cabbie to take him to the airport, but snow in the northeast had flights delayed. News of a player revolt came on a TV in the terminal, and “Suddenly, people are all looking at me,” Gilchrist told Murray Olderman of the Jamestown Post-Journal. “I can sense the hostility. For the first time in my life I’m scared. I’ve been brainwashed about the South.”
He finally got on a flight for New York and was comforted that he was among friends when someone asked him for an autograph.
“We weren’t out to correct anybody,’’ then-Bills cornerback Butch Byrd told the Sporting News in 2015.
“We were just thinking, ‘They’re showing us no respect. This is just pure hatred. We have to get out of here,’ ” said Byrd. “We weren’t thinking about making history, so to speak. We just knew we were treated badly, and we wanted to leave.’’
“The stand the AFL and its players took against the city of New Orleans was unprecedented,” wrote Pro Football Hall of Fame researcher Jon Kendle in a piece for the Hall of Fame’s website. “The boycott was clearly a milestone event that went beyond the world of sports and was more of a reflection of American society at the time. It helped shine a spotlight on Congress’s ability to enforce the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and proved that if America was to desegregate, the culture needed to change its mindset and adopt a more progressive view of the human race as quickly as possible.”
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!”
In 1923, there were 181,300 people of Polish extraction living “out Broadway”— the shorthand for what many in Buffalo proper also called “the Polish Colony,” metaphorically centered by St. Stanislaus Church and the Broadway/Fillmore intersection.
For the rest of the half-million plus people who lived in Buffalo, the Polish were at best a very foreign group whose language and customs seemed swathed in mystery. At worst, the Polish were a hard-working but lesser people who – aside from laboring in factories, mills and foundries – were best to stay in “Polacktown, where there are more children in the streets than in the yards.”
“Trouble in Polacktown” Buffalo Evening News front page, 1883. Buffalo Stories archives
Beth Stewart was among Buffalo’s first female newspaper reporters and later became a feature reporter for the Courier-Express. She married fellow Courier reporter Gordon Hollyer and served as the public relations director for the YMCA through most of the 1950s and ’60s.
Among her first series of feature reports was a three-part series on “the large and growing Polish colony of Buffalo.” It was a sympathetic and celebratory look at Buffalo’s Polonia, giving many outside the Polish neighborhoods their first opportunity to have a comprehensive understanding of how their Buffalo neighbors lived.
The Polish people were without their own nation for the entire 19th century. Poland was carved up between the Prussian, Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires.
The first big wave of Polish immigrants to Buffalo came from Prussian Germany after Chancellor Otto von Bismarck made it more difficult for the Roman Catholic ethnic Poles to freely practice their religion.
A wave of Poles from the Austrian province of Galicia started coming to Buffalo in 1882. Russian Poles started arriving en masse in 1905.
Buffalo’s first Polish councilman and later assemblyman James Rozan remembered coming to Buffalo as a boy in 1872. His family was one of a dozen or living in the mostly German Fruit Belt neighborhood.
Fourteen years later, when St. Stanislaus church was built at Peckham and Townsend Streets as Buffalo’s first Polish church in 1886, there were 19,000 Poles in the city, mostly living near St. Stan’s.
By 1923, there were 27 Polish churches for the roughly 380,000 Poles spread across the East Side, Black Rock, Elk Street, Seneca Street, Lackawanna, Dunkirk, Niagara Falls, North Tonawanda, Cheektowaga and Depew.
Without much explanation other than just printing the Polish names without translation, Stewart wrote that the larger Polish community, first built around St. Stan’s, was further split into seven communities that would be readily understood by those who lived among them.
The first was Stanislawowo—members of St. Stanislaus Church. Then was Kantowo, from parishioners of St. John Kanty. Members of St. Adalbert’s were from Wojciechowo, Pietrowo was made up of the members of Holy Apostles Ss. Peter and Paul Church at Clinton and Smith.
St. Casimir’s in Kaisertown made up Kazimierzowo. The community surrounding St. John Gualbert in Cheektowaga was Gwalbertowo. Black Rock was directly translated into Polish as Czarna Skala.
But however far-flung, Broadway and Fillmore remained “the Polish Main Street and Delaware Avenue” for Buffalo’s Polish population. The business district there was equivalent to the main street of a mid-sized northeast city. Polonia boasted 2,930 Polish-owned businesses and 14 community banks.
Right at that intersection was the building created as a hub of Polonia-wide activity. Translated, Dom Polski means “Polish home.” The substantial edifice opened as “The Polish Literary and Assembly Rooms Association, Inc” in 1889, replacing a refashioned barn used for the same purpose for at least a decade before.
Rather than an organization itself, the Dom Polski was the home of the Polish library and fraternal groups like Kolko Polek—the Polish Women’s Circle, Polskich Krawcow—the Polish Tailors, Sokol Polski—The Polish Falcons, Szewcy Polski—The Polish Shoemakers, and the Polish National Alliance.
It was a place on a Sunday night where you might find a half-dozen small family dinner parties in the different rooms and men smoking and playing billiards in the library. It was the Polish equivalent of the clubs on Delaware Avenue which routinely denied membership to most Polish-Americans past the middle of the twentieth century.
Much like their uptown counterparts, the members of the various clubs of the Dom Polski worked together to make their community a better place. One such effort was lobbying for a high school for the 6,000 Polish-American children in the Buffalo School system in 1923. They were fighting against the notion that the educational needs of Polish-Americans could be addressed by the city’s vocational schools. In 1926, East High School opened to serve the children of East Buffalo.
One of the amplified voices of Buffalo’s Polish population was “Everybody’s Daily,” a Polish newspaper with a circulation of 26,000.
“The paper is a force in the colony,” wrote Stewart. “It has enemies and many friends. It proclaims a policy of honest advertising. It fights for community interests—civic, political, educational, and religious.”
One still familiar institution is the Adam Mickiewicz Literary and Dramatic Circle. It still survives on Fillmore Avenue, but it was once one of many such organizations. Singing societies were also a popular element of Buffalo’s Polonia population in the mid-1920s, and one through which a greater number of Buffalonians were introduced to some Polish customs.
The Aleksander Fredro Literary and Dramatic Circle was a Mickiewicz-like group in Kaisertown. The Moniuszko was Polonia’s first singing society, and in 1923, headquartered at 570 Fillmore. The Chopin singers were at Broadway and Lathrop. There were also the Kalina, Lutnia, Lirnik, Harmonia, and Jutrzenka societies among others.
The Poles of 1923 weren’t just joiners of Polish groups—most of Buffalo’s 4,000 Polish-American World War I vets belonged to the American Legion. Adam Plewacki Post 799 was among the city’s “most active and lively posts,” and 98 percent Polish in membership.
Plewacki, who lived on Best Street, was the first Buffalonian killed in World War I. The post named in his honor worked to “cultivate the love of American ideals in foreigners,” working to “Americanize” immigrants beyond just proficiency in English.
If Buffalo’s landed class could appreciate anything about the people of Polonia, it was the way that most worked quickly to buy land, and then maintain and improve property once owned.
“Polish colonists are not merely home owners,” wrote Stewart, “they are improvers of communities. A piece of land is more than a commercial investment to the Polish buyer. It is a plot to be made his own, a place where a home may be built and trees and shrubs set out for beauty.”
“Fillmore Avenue, wide and shaded, set off on both sides by neat residences, is proof of the Polish ability to build up attractive communities.”
Clearly, Beth Stewart thought she was writing to an audience that—if they thought anything at all– thought very little of the Polish people. She wrapped up her 20,000 words worth of reporting with a glowing summary of her expedition “out Broadway.”
“The Poles in Buffalo have achieved much of which they may well feel proud. They built up a great and prosperous community—a city within a city.
“They have given to the city of their adoption distinguished professional men, sober industrious workers, artists, gallant soldiers.
“They have added to the beauty of the city turreted churches, dignified homes, and fine public buildings.
“They have borne themselves in a manner which leaves the city no room for regret that one-third of its population once bore allegiance to a foreign land.”