In Buffalo we seem to start thinking of winter the moment the Erie County Fair ends. A generation or two ago, winter was something that needed a bit more preparation than it does in 2015—especially if, back then, you were getting your brother or sister’s leaky hand-me-down boots to wear every day from November to March.
Putting on socks, then bread bags, then boots was a routine of chilly Western New York winters for decades.
In my neighborhood, we looked to tell something about kids from their bread bags. Colorful polka dots on a white background meant you were wearing Wonder Bread bags on your feet. This was basically the Lacoste alligator emblem of dry feet.
Yellow, orange and brown bags sticking out of the tops of your boots meant that your parents drove an extra couple of blocks to shop at Bells.
But most kids—including my brother, sister, and me—always had the red, white and blue of the Tops bags shown below, on sale this week 40 years ago for 39¢ a loaf.
Even with the jamming of every spent bread bag in that special drawer in the kitchen for the whole year-round, there never seemed to be enough bags for all of our playing and walking to school all winter.
Like so many of our great cultural traditions in Buffalo, trying to pin down the concise history of our collective amber-hued fuzzy memories of Downtown Christmas shopping is difficult and can even get combative.
For many of us, all those warm recollections seem to get lumped into a generic category of “AM&A’s Christmas windows,” and to imply anything else is often met with side eye looks, and sometimes with outright hostility.
Through the decades, some stores moved, some changed names, all eventually closed. Taking the fuzz off memories and bringing them into focus with the actual names and dates can be dangerous business, but that’s the dangerous business we’re in. So here we go.
The tradition of decorating downtown stores for Christmas dates back before anyone reading this can remember. Downtown’s department stores were fully decorated, for example, for Christmas 1910.
Since those stores—some with familiar names—decorated their windows more than a century ago, plenty has changed along Buffalo’s Main Street, especially in the areas where generations did their Christmas shopping.
The most tumultuous change came between 1965 and 1985, the time when most of our memories were forged and influenced. The buildings we shopped in for decades came down, new buildings were put in their place, and traffic was shut down with a train installed in place of the cars.
The one constant through all of that, our collective memory tells us, is those wonderful AM&A’s windows.
Adam, Meldrum, and Anderson was a Buffalo institution between 1869 and 1994, when the Adam family sold the chain to Bon-Ton. That being the case, for as long as anyone can remember, people off all ages would line up along the east side of Main Street, looking in those big AM&A’s windows, before going inside and taking the escalators up to AM&A’s Toyland starring Santa himself.
Well, here’s where the hostility sometimes comes in.
If you remember looking at windows in that spot before 1960—you weren’t looking at AM&A’s windows, you were looking at the windows of JN Adam & Co.
For more than 90 years, AM&A’s was located directly across Main Street from the location where the store’s flagship downtown location was for the final 34 years of the chain’s existence.
JN’s closed up in 1959, so AM&A’s moved into the larger, newer building. Soon thereafter, the original AM&A’s was torn down to make way for the Main Place Mall.
Adding to confusion is the similar name of the two stores. JN Adam and Robert Adam—the Adam of Adam, Meldrum & Anderson—were Scottish-born brothers who founded department stores which would eventually compete with each other across Main Street from each other.
Both stores also took their window decorating—especially Christmas window decorating seriously. But so did all the Main Street Department stores. On the same block as JN’s and AM&A’s, Kobacher’s, which had a location in a spot now occupied by the Main Place Mall, had a memorable giant animated, talking Santa in its window. Hengerer’s, a bit further north, always had well decorated windows.
Still, AM&A’s and JN’s made the spot just south of Lafayette Square the epicenter of Christmas décor in Buffalo. As early as 1949, JN Adam was promoting “animated Christmas windows.”
AM&A’s decorating team, eventually headed by Joseph Nelson, started adding animated displays as well, although it wasn’t until the 1960s—after AM&A’s moved into JN Adam’s old space—that AM&A’s made the presence of the windows a part of their Christmas advertising.
It’s tough to tell even if the “AM&A’s window displays” which have popped up around Western New York over the last couple of decades were originally created for and by AM&A’s. AM&A’s took over not only JN’s building, but also many of its traditions, and quite possibility the actual displays and accoutrements of those traditions.
Another JN Adam yuletide tradition which also became an AM&A’s tradition after the move was the full-floor Toyland.
All this is to say, if you walked down Main Street in mid-December 1955, the magic and wonder you were filled with was only partially Adam, Meldrum, and Anderson-inspired.
But AM&A’s was the survivor—which is why we remember. But just keep in mind– it’s very likely that 1955 window you remember was a JN Adam’s window.
But no matter which store displayed these windows when, they have always been a universally beloved Buffalo institution, right?
Well, once again… not exactly. As traditional Main Street retailing was gasping its last breaths in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the Christmas windows were often derided as a part of the larger problem—rehashing the same ideas instead of trying to appeal to a new generation. The dated, tired animatronic scenes seemed out of place and woefully out of date in the Nintendo age.
When this snarky review of AM&A’s holiday decorating efforts appeared in The Buffalo News in 1993, the writer probably didn’t realize he was looking at the penultimate effort of a nearly-dead Buffalo institution.
In the AM & A’s window downtown, the same (manger scene) figures are placed in front of a set of free-standing Baroque pillars, all marbleized in green and gold. Lofty, that. If Gianlorenzo Bernini were around today, that’s what he’d be doing for a living: AM & A’s window displays…
(And) at AM & A’s downtown, the other holiday windows display a charming mixture of images, though if any community actually tried to build like this, folks would be petitioning for a design review board before the developers knew what hit them: New England covered bridge here, rough-hewn alpine furnishings there. One window features a frilly pink Victorian cottage that looks as if it could have been plucked off a side street in Allentown.
Since AM&A’s flagship downtown store was closed shortly after selling to Bon-Ton in 1995, the legend of the window displays—and the actual displays themselves—have spread far and wide.
In the mid-90s, Buffalo Place refurbished and displayed the most-recently-used scenes along Main Street. Some of those, along with older scenes as well, have appeared around Western New York in holiday displays in the Village of Lancaster and in Niagara Falls, as well as around Rotary Rink near Main and Chippewa.
The actual displays are interesting, but seeing them out of context—or even worse, trying to pry an iPad out of the hand of a toddler so she can appreciate them—seems to miss a bit of the point.
A Victorian man carving a turkey or a big white bear handing another bear a present isn’t what make those memories so wonderful—it’s the way the memory swells your heart.
Here’s to whatever makes your heart swell this Christmas season.
It’s almost difficult to imagine Western New York and especially a Western New York snowfall without the phrase that Jimmy Griffin joked would wind up on his tombstone. But while Buffalonians have likely been drinking their way through snowstorms for as long as there have been people here, we’ve only been “staying inside and grabbing a six-pack” for the 32 years since a blizzard descended on Buffalo in January 1985.
It had been only been eight years since the Blizzard of ’77 and Western New Yorkers were still a little jumpy with memories of being stranded, 12-foot drifts, and people freezing to death in their cars.
Heading into a late January weekend in 1985, forecasters were calling for as much snow as the city had seen since ’77. Ultimately, three feet of snow fell in three days, but the weekend timing was actually perfect. One of the lessons learned in ’77 was to keep people off the roads so you could keep the roads cleared.
One would expect the mayor to be out front with snow emergency communications, but during the Blizzard of ’85, Mayor James D. Griffin was Buffalo’s acting Streets Commissioner, coordinating snow removal efforts from City Hall and the heavy equipment depot at Broadway Barns.
Why? The Common Council had repeatedly rejected the mayor’s nomination of Joseph Scinta as Streets Commissioner. After the fifth rejection, in November 1984, Griffin told Buffalonians to “blame their councilmen when the snow was piling up” on city streets.
When the blizzard hit two months later, Griffin was determined to show Buffalonians what he was doing personally to get the streets cleared. He even rode a few shifts on the plows. The mayor issued a driving ban and ordered the police to enforce it. But he also encouraged people to stay home and watch the 49ers and Dolphins in the Super Bowl that weekend, maybe with beverage in hand.
Police enforce a driving ban during the Blizzard of ’85. Buffalo News archives
“Stay inside, grab a six-pack, and watch a good football game,” Mayor Griffin was caught saying on a Channel 7 camera. “Have a six-pack handy so you can enjoy yourself. Don’t take this too seriously.”
The consensus was that most Buffalonians liked seeing Don Shula, Dan Marino and the Dolphins beat up in the Super Bowl, and most liked the job Griffin did in beating back the Blizzard of ’85. The News later gave Griffin high marks for his handling of the blizzard and its aftermath, saying he did “a good job” acting as his own commissioner.
1985 was a mayoral election year, and the Blizzard of ’85 was a central campaign issue. Common Council President and primary opponent George Arthur questioned the city’s preparedness and overall plan for snow fighting.
“When you get 45 inches of snow, I challenge anyone to come up with a plan that works,” said Griffin.
Others attacked the six-pack advice as “unbecoming a mayor.” Griffin would have none of it.
As quoted by Brian Meyer and David Breslawski in their 1985 book “The World According to Griffin,” the mayor hammered back with, “I’m proud of the statement. You get a blizzard here in Buffalo, you have to get off the street. I’ll probably use it again. I don’t see anything wrong with it. It was a humorous statement.”
Griffin was elected to a third term in 1985 and a fourth in 1989.
Did we grab six packs?
But did people heed Mayor Griffin’s advice, that first time it was suggested Western New York grab some beers and relax?
Delaware Avenue, The Blizzard of 1985. Buffalo News archives
In the days following the Blizzard of 1985, The News checked in with a handful of stores to see how they fared.
The Tops Market at 2226 Delaware Ave. – today the spot is Big Lots— and the 7-Eleven on Sheridan Drive—now Romeo & Juliet’s Bakery & Café—reported big runs on junk food and beer as Western New Yorkers apparently dutifully followed the mayor’s advice.
Forty years removed, it’s still evident if you think about it — despite all the death, destruction and jokes, Buffalonians enjoyed the Blizzard of ’77.
On the storm’s first anniversary, University at Buffalo researcher Arthur G. Cryns released a report that outlined the results of a detailed survey of 104 random Western New Yorkers.
By now this anniversary week, you’ve become reacquainted with the numbers. There were at least 23 deaths, 13,000 people were stranded away from home and 175,000 workers lost $36 million in wages.
“The blizzard furnished a considerable proportion of area residents with a welcome reprieve from the routines and obligations of everyday life,” Cryns told the Associated Press in 1978. “Others found occasion in the storm to celebrate and have a good time.”
Cryns’ survey also found that while Buffalonians still held a generally positive outlook on area weather, it was also clear that most people would be more cautious and more vigilant for future predictions of snow emergencies. That prediction has proved true.
The survey might now even have been necessary, as on that first anniversary of the blizzard, Buffalo held the first Blizzard Ball.
Allentown antiques and art dealer Bill Eaton was one of the founders of the Blizzard Ball, which ran for every year for a decade and a few later anniversaries of the storm as well.
“Maybe the blizzard was lousy for business and plenty of other things, but it brought out fellowship in the people of Buffalo,” Eaton told The News in 1978. “Most of us had fun. Got to know one another better.”
Exactly two weeks after the blizzard had started, an editorial in the Buffalo Evening News wrapped it up this way:
“The fact remains that the people of this area were put to an extremely rugged test, which they passed with courage, character and good humor. And that, too, ought to become a permanent part of the Buffalo legend and image associated with the Blizzard of ’77.”
Just what exactly happened to the animals at the Buffalo Zoo during the Blizzard of ’77 has become one of those great stories that everyone seems to have some faded recollection of having heard before, but nobody knows for sure.
So, as you sit around waiting out a heavy snow squall in the warmest corner of the gin mill, everyone throws in details until a story emerges that is fanciful enough to have happened during one of the most fabled events in Buffalo’s history.
The real story might not live up to the craziest version concocted on Buffalo barstools over the last 40 years, but it’s still pretty fanciful.
Two days into the storm, on Sunday, Jan. 28, the giant 8-foot snow drifts that had blown up against their habitat allowed three Scandinavian Reindeer to easily traverse an area usually filled with fences and moats and make their way past the Delaware Park meadow, up towards Buffalo State College.
That’s about where one of the three 500-pound deer was hit with a tranquilizer gun. The excitement caused the others to scatter.
Word of the animals on the loose was broadcast, and good Samaritans helped triangulate the location of the deer, one of which was captured in a Buffalo backyard. The other was lassoed on a Village of Kenmore side street.
Not all the stories ended so happily.
Two sheep wandered out of their pen in the petting zoo. One was safely returned, the other apparently made it over a drift and was never found.
With doorways and paths enveloped in massive amounts of snow, in most instances, food and hay for animals were dropped in from roofs of buildings.
Despite zookeepers’ doing the best they could, 16 birds — including two black swans — and seven mammals — including one of the escaped reindeer and an antelope — died as a result of the storm.
They didn’t starve, acting zoo director Terry Gladkowski told the media as the city was still cleaning up after the storm. It was mainly stress and the cold that killed the animals, many of which were initially caught outside and died later after being brought in from the cold and snow. He said the birds “just basically froze,” and other animals couldn’t receive the daily medical care they needed.
The storm also caused about $420,000 damage to the zoo’s buildings and grounds.
There is a fictionalized version of life in the Buffalo Zoo during the blizzard, written in 1983 by Robert Bahr in the form of a children’s book. According to the New York Times Book Review, the basic plot of “Blizzard at the Zoo” is exactly what you might expect.
“Many of the animals romped and frisked, some stoically endured, and others, like the waterfowl, had to be rescued from freezing ponds.”
Over the last week or so, most Western New Yorkers have turned on the furnace for the first time since opening up the windows to air out the house last spring.
With the heat on, tobogganing can’t be too far behind — but probably not in this spot in Delaware Park.
As the bronze-cast exact replica of Michelangelo’s David looks on, this 1930 image shows dozens of winter sport lovers enjoying a permanent sled track.
Eighty-six or so Buffalo winters later, this hill is still park land, but for the last 60 of those winters the top of the hill is a bit more difficult to get to as the Scajaquada Expressway and its on ramps have cars whizzing by.
Some of us ski, some of us snowmobile, but most of us dislike Buffalo’s winter weather, and have absolutely no use for it at all. Period.
Sure, that first snow fall is cute, and it’s nice to have a little right before Christmas, but that’s it for snow. And the cold is almost entirely useless.
Yet here we are, living in a place where we don’t really like the weather 5 months out of the year, and we wouldn’t leave for anything.
All of us spend from November to April with a dry cough, a low-grade sinus infection, and chapped, cracked hands and lips.
The cold, colorless landscape can wear on our moods. Prolonged cold and snow can wear on our bodies as we clear our driveways and windshields, and can wear on cars as they try to chug through, too. Even our heartless, soulless machines need an occasional jump or a push to get themselves going when it’s like this.
But that’s how winter makes us who we are.
We’re ready with the knowledge of rocking a car– wheels straight– before a gut-busting almighty shove, and standing by with a pair of jumper cables, ready to hook the black cable to some bare metal in the engine block of the car with the dead battery. We don’t have this arcane knowledge just for ourselves, but also to help bring brightness to someone else’s cold, gray day. We don’t even question that it’s everyone’s responsibility to get everyone else out of the ditch and on to where they are going.
If you don’t have jumper cables, maybe you have supply of cough drops, tea bags and tissues your desk drawer. They are ready, of course, for when your month-long almost cold turns the corner to full-blown sick. They are also there, however, as an apothecary for friends and co-workers, ready to soothe their aches with a little understanding and help get through not only the day, but the howling, frigid winter with which we all grapple.
Maybe after a lifetimes’ worth of clearing the neighborhood’s sidewalks, the next generation is now clearing yours. We all understand that winter is a group effort in Western New York, and that understanding permeates who we are year ’round.
A Buffalo winter is not like a tornado or a hurricane. There’s no hoping and praying that it skips us. We know it’s coming, and we know it’s going to be long, and we know it’s going to be rough at times. But the thing that’s different about a Buffalo winter– is not only how we deal with it, but how we all help each other through it.
People fortunate enough to head south during the winter months know the feeling of having red, chilled cheeks walking on a plane, and sunny warmth on your face as you disembark.
As good as 80 might feel in Miami today, it couldn’t beat a 52 degree day at the end of January, when you walk outside, feel thoroughly warmed, and smile at the neighbor with whom you were shoveling the side walk only a few days earlier.
Sure, it’s only January, and there is more gray, thick winter to come, but our shared experience, our love for our city, and our love for one another, keep us moving in anticipation of when we can change the sound of howling wind for the sounds of birds chirping in the lush green trees, and change the taste of chapstick for the tastes of our favorite ice cream and hot dog stands.
This page originally appeared at TrendingBuffalo.com
I’m not the biggest fan of winter, and I hope it’s a mild one. I’ll take warm over cold any day of the week.
While sometimes I might say I do, I don’t hate winter. Winter is part of our deal here in Buffalo, so I accept it and try to make the most of it.
What really bothers me– what inspires something closer to hate– is the speed with which it all seems to go by.
In the last week, I made a pot of scratch chicken noodle soup, gassed up and started the snow blower, and got the furnace ready and turned on the heat. Mundane chores that bother some people, but for me it’s not that chore, so much as it’s just that it literally could have been last week that I was grilling on the 4th of July, sharpening the lawn mower blade for the season, and getting the fans out of the attic.
Really. All of that could have been yesterday. But right now, I’m wearing 4 layers as I type in the back bedroom of our drafty old house, thinking that I won’t be warm until May. Again, it’s not the layers as much as it seems perfectly reasonable that I should be wearing shorts to take the dog for a walk today, not pulling out the peacoat for its 21st Buffalo winter.
It’s not that I don’t stop to smell the roses. I do, literally. I love nature, and enjoy taking it in. But the seasonal differentiation device in my brain is like an old VCR constantly flashing 12:00. I have no good sense of time, which means time is always flying by.
Flying by, in fact, like a tractor trailer on a dark road in the middle of the night.
When you see those little pinholes of light in the rear view mirror coming over that hill way behind you, it seems like that little spec of yellow might never catch up to you.
Daydream (or night dream, as it were) for a moment, and all of the sudden, that truck is right next to you, loudly rattling past, whooshing and reeking of diesel for about 6 seconds. Then it’s tail lights, until they get small and disappear– Just as two more little white pin pricks of light appear in your rear view mirror again.
Not just seasons, but all the things of life. All that time looking forward to something, only to have it whoosh by and turn into tail lights before you even realize it was there.
I’m not sure if it comes with age or if it’s because we change the way we live as we age, but it wasn’t always this way. I find myself being one of those annoying people who have tell people who are younger than me to take the time to enjoy… time. I don’t put it quite that way, but that’s what I mean. And make sure you enjoy time while standing somewhere other than my lawn.
I wouldn’t want to return to youth. The wisdom and knowledge of age roundly outweigh the creaks, groans, and grays for me.
The one thing I’d love to get back is time that goes by like a Countrytime Lemonade commercial– with twangy music, hazy sunshine hanging just above the horizon, a breeze gently swaying the willow tree,and the feeling that none of it will ever end.
This page originally appeared at TrendingBuffalo.com
Originally appeared on WBEN.com, February 18, 2013
I’m a Buffalo guy, born and raised. All of my great grandparents called Buffalo home. My Buffaloness runs deep, which is probably in part why I was having a familiar conversation just last week…”Man, this winter’s been pretty easy!”
Not easy like last winter when we didn’t really have winter, but an easy real winter. With plenty of real snow and real cold. And there I was on Valentines Day, like, “Meh! No problem!”
But the temperatures last week were in the high 20s and mid 30s, and there was still snow on the ground. Conditions that are truly winter, but– the best case scenario winter. You can’t get much warmer or get much less snow and still feel wintry.
And though it was certainly subconscious in my case, I’m certain now that there was some element of, “Well, the worst has to be over now!”
Of course, it wasn’t. My pleasant winter of 2012-13 came to an end at 8:36am on Sunday. I saw a little snow on the car out the window, but I wasn’t concerned. Weeks of non-stop snow can be annoying, but generally, snow doesn’t bother me. Certainly hasn’t this year. The end of the cheery face about this winter came as I cracked open the opened the front door and was sucker punched with a windy 16 degrees.
I didn’t expect this rage against winter to happen, but it happens every winter. You’d think after 35 Buffalo winters, I’d be standing square, ready for that haymaker right from Ol’man Winter. It’s true every time. I can stand in for 7 or 8 rounds, but winter just waits for that moment my guard slips. KO. Glass jaw shattered.
Every year, I’m like the President of the Chamber of Commerce until that day arrives. I’m our winter’s biggest backer from the first snow of November through sometime into the New Year.
I’d rather have warm, but, “Hey, this is Buffalo.” I snow blow my whole block. I wear warm-but-silly hats. I poke fun at ex-pats and out-of-towners on Facebook gripping for when 2 inches of snow shuts down their non-WNY communities.
But this time, since I got through January and half of February, maybe I was being a little cocky. I’m not sure. But all I know is right now, I can’t write the words I have for winter on a family friendly website.
And yes, I know, I know. Spring is technically one month from today. “Just around the corner.” Well, what’s here right now is my desire to leave winter behind. I want spring Veruca Salt style. NOW!
I’m done. Get me outta here. I can’t take it. I’m a cold, broken man. At least until April or so.
I’ll probably take it in Buffalo stride when that inevitable Bisons home game gets snowed out. By May, you’ll probably hear me reflect on Buffalo’s great four full seasons of weather. Come November, you’ll probably even see a smile on my face as I yank the pull start on the snow blower for the first time.
Until then, however, shut up. I’m done with “our beautiful winters.” And please be kind, because if your break hasn’t happened yet, it’s probably right around the corner.