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

Joseph Prentiss Greiner: wiring the City of Light

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Hey genealogy lovers… ancestry.com has a free trial for UK records this weekend. I don’t pay for “world access,” so whenever there’s a freebie I go and download all the stuff I’ve been stockpiling— like my Great-Great-Great Grandfather’s signature on an English ship crew manifest.

Joseph Prentiss Greiner was born in Wheatfield, but spent many years at sea with Liverpool as his home port. He returned to Buffalo to live in the area now known as the Medical Campus. Apparently adapting the skills he learned as a sailor– as far as I can tell, he was among the first people whose occupation was listed as “electrician” in the Buffalo City Directory, helping bring “The City of Light” to life.

1898 Buffalo City Directory

My Greiners came to Buffalo in the 1820s… and there are several generations of many children who’ve moved all over the country since then. Most of the DNA matches that I can figure out trace back to Casper Greiner— whose daughter was among the first baptized at St Louis Church in Buffalo… and who himself is buried at the small Tonawanda church founded by St John Neumann behind St John the Baptist on Englewood.

Joseph Prentiss Greiner and his wife, Mary Atkinson Greiner.

Jim & June Coyle: a devotion and love that lives on

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Today is Grandma Coyle’s birthday in heaven… But I think she’d be OK with me sharing this great pic of the love of her life which popped up in my Facebook memories today.
eating breakfast in Lackawanna.
The love and devotion they felt and lived rivaled any of the great love stories ever told. How deeply blessed we– their children and grandchildren– are to have had such love and such an example of love in our lives.
Backyard, 841 Tifft Street
 
Somewhere on high, Grandma’s birthday is perfect– her lil body snuggled in perfectly against Gramps’ big frame, his big meaty arm draped around her shoulder, gently squeezing her in tight.
Side door, 109 Hayden Street
It’s just like grandma– giving the gifts of beautiful memories on her birthday.

Buffalo in the ’20s: The Polish colony ‘out Broadway’

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

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.

The author’s great grandparents were a typical Polish immigrant family in Buffalo in the 1920s. He worked as a laborer for Schoellkopf Chemical (later National Aniline), she ran the home they were able to save enough to buy in 1922, after less than ten years in this country. Aside from their ten children, the small house on Fulton Street was also home to boarders and extended family.

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.

St. Stanislaus was established in 1874 with a simple wooden church. The landmark Onondaga limestone structure standing today was built in 1886.

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 community in and around St. John Kanty was called Kantowo.

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.

The Kaisertown Polish community which centered around St. Casimir Church was called Kazimierzowo.

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.

East High School, 1930s. Buffalo Stories archives

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.

The first home of the Plewacki Post was inside “Unia Polksa,” the Polish Union Hall, 765 Fillmore Avenue. Buffalo Stories archives

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.”

Celebrating my ol’man’s birthday

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Happy birthday to my ol’man– who if on this mortal coil to celebrate, might very well have mixed up some terribly weak iced tea in the blue container you can see on the counter in this late 80’s pic.
dad-at-the-sink
He then would have mixed that barely-iced-tea with some turpentine-like cheap blended whisky in that plastic McDonald’s Super Size cup to celebrate this, his 65th birthday.
Dad was always an original, and usually did whatever sounded right to him, no matter what anyone had to say about it. By the way, the look he gave me for taking this picture is also the one he’d give me for writing this nonsense and sharing this photo.
It’s become a bit of a tradition to do a fat shot of Dad’s favorite whiskey on special days of remembrance– like his birthday, Father’s Day, the day he died.
When you go into the liquor store and buy a plastic fifth of Kessler, the assumptions people make about you aren’t great— but anything for my ol’man!
I used to buy my dad a good (or at least better) bottle of whiskey for his birthday so I wouldn't have to do a shot of this crap with him... He'd probably be upset now that he's gone, I'm drinking "the good stuff" without him. "Steveo, that Kesslers is smooth as silk," he'd say. Hahaha. Happy birthday, dad.
I used to buy my dad a good (or at least better) bottle of whiskey for his birthday so I wouldn’t have to do a shot of this crap with him… He’d probably be upset now that he’s gone, I’m drinking “the good stuff” without him. “Steveo, that Kesslers is smooth as silk,” he’d say. Hahaha. Happy birthday, dad.

 

The shot glass is one of the few remaining artifacts from the gin mill he owned at Elk & Smith Streets in The Valley, and if he never drank a shot of Kessler out of it, he’s certain to have lined up the explosive half of hundreds of boilermakers in this indestructible vessel.   You need something indestructible to serve a drink that could also be used to strip varnish off a footlocker and clean rust off a chrome bumper.
dad-jim-beam
Because my dad’s hands didn’t work that great in his last few years, the brand of whiskey I’d buy him was less important than the plastic bottle. He really wasn’t supposed to have it at all with all his medical issues and medication– but how can you not visit the easiest way to bring joy to his broken body and soul. I had to do it.
Of course, dad liked a drink… but I think there was more joy in getting the bottle and “hiding it” from my mother than there was in actually drinking it.
Happy birthday, dad!

Old Tools from Old Guys

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Having old tools around helps connect you to the people who taught you to use them.

Grandpa Cichon would get you all the hammers, work gloves, flashlights, and blanket-lined denim work coats you could ever want from National Aniline. I wish I had saved more of that stuff. I remember donating the work coat he gave me to the Salvation Army when I was in high school. I hope someone is still using it!

hammer
As a tinsmith, Grandpa Cichon used a ball-peen hammer almost every day of his almost 40 years at National Aniline and Buffalo Color.

 

There were always flashlights and work gloves– and we had a bunch of Grandpa Cichon’s hammers at our house– but the only tool I every remember seeing at Grandpa Cichon’s house was an old pair of pliers that grandma kept in the drawer and used for just about everything.

Grandpa Coyle was a union glazier and glassworker who didn’t believe in measuring tapes.

rule

He had at least a dozen rules. I snagged one off the final pile heading to the Salvation Army.

I love the little poch marks made by molten something... I like to imagine it was from plumbing with lead. When I told Gramps that I replaced an old lead drain in the basement with PVC, there was real sadness in his eyes.

Gramps loved rusty tools– his basement was a tool and mismatched piles of junk wonderland. He’d be happy to know that I am happy with one of his rusty, obsolete tools.

More than just a nice day in November

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

To try to define Buffalo and what it’s like to be a Buffalonian isn’t quite a one sentence or one draft beer notion.

Even exquisite paragraphs and emptied pitchers can leave so much unsaid.

Today, November 18, my wife and I cruised through our city with our convertible top down. It wasn’t just a tolerable drive, it was warm– on the skin of our cheeks and the depths of our souls.

Driving our city streets and watching the outdoor smiles and nice weather rolled up sleeves of our Western New York neighbors only helped radiate more warmth.

Down Hertel to Delaware, under the 190 and through the Marina. It wasn’t just about enjoying the day, it was about enjoying Buffalo enjoy the day.

Backup through Canalside and heading for the Outer Harbor, we turned onto Michigan Avenue, back into the low hanging dark orange sun.

It’s a different warmth that comes from the November sun, and as its gentle-yet-thorough toasting rays began their magic dancing on the skin of my face again, the most glorious surprise struck.

With deep breaths, my lungs filled with intoxicating sweet cocoa smells of General Mills baking cereal.

nice-day-in-november

For a few fleeting moments, there aren’t words. Just Perfection. Right here in Buffalo, the kind of which you can’t find on the most beautiful Caribbean beach or the most tranquil Himalayan mountain top.

It’s the kind of perfection it takes a lifetime to acquire the taste for— but I can’t imagine there’s anything sweeter.

On a day that somehow feels stolen yet still very much right, Buffalo brings it all perfectly.

Already buoyed by friendly smiles and the waning-yet-perfect comfort of the sun drenching all that it touches in just enough warmth, the addition of lungs-full of baked goodness was about enough to leave me momentarily delirious.

And in the midst of all this on a glorious warm sunny day, I stopped to buy gas for the snow blower. The weather man says within 48 hours, we’ll certainly be 40 degrees colder– and maybe under a six-inch blanket of the white stuff for which Buffalo is so well known.

And I’m not only ok with that, I’m giddy about it— because this is Buffalo, and I’m a Buffalonian. And I couldn’t have had today without what might come tomorrow.

Buy another pitcher and I’d be happy to explain further.

An appreciation of the sacrifice of veterans

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Buffalo, NY – This is my ol’man celebrating his birthday at the VA Hospital in 2007.

The Ol'man.
The Ol’man.
It’s very rare to have served our country and not have left some piece of your mind, spirit, sanity, or body behind to ensure the freedom and tranquility of Americans and good people all over the world.
 
The sacrifice of those who have served is the cornerstone of America’s greatness. Having never worn a uniform, I can’t fully understand all the complexities of that sacrifice, but I do spend everyday– and today, especially– in awe of what men and women in uniform have done and continue to do for me personally and for every other American, personally.
 
Thank You.