In 1895, Buffalo Mayor Edgar Jewett floated a novel idea to help feed the city’s growing number of poor.
He called upon the landowners and real estate barons of Buffalo to offer up unused plots of land within the city boundaries to be divided into small plots for the mostly immigrant poor to farm potato patches to feed themselves and their families.
In arguing for the plan, Buffalo’s Poormaster, John Arnold, corroborated that there were at least 300 Polish women who walked 5, 6 or 7 miles to farming jobs just outside of Buffalo for 5 cents a day. Most of the Polish, it was written, had food “absolutely unfit to eat.” Only about one in 10 had work.
Clay Rose variety potatoes, it was decided, would grow plentifully even with little attention. They were planted in nooks and crannies all over the city. One plot was at Seneca and Dole streets – an intersection that no longer exists. It’s now the site of the I-190 on-ramp near Seneca and Bailey Avenue.
There were also plots on Delavan Avenue and on a plot owned by George Urban at Genesee and Doat streets. In Black Rock, the Germania Land Co. offered up land near O’Neill and Tonawanda streets, right at the city line.
The largest tract, however was 90 acres of the old Twitchell Farm in South Buffalo, which was bounded by Cazenovia Creek, Cazenovia Street and Abbott Road.
Mayor Jewett supervised “digging day” along the “shores of placid Cazenovia Creek.”
“Italians from Mechanic Street, Poles from Sobieski Street, Mr. and Mrs. Heine and all the little Heines from the rear houses on Jefferson Street” were there, wrote a News reporter, each of them taking advantage of the “opportunity afforded them to work out their own salvation from a vegetarian standpoint.”
There were also two Jewish families, “along with a handful of Americans.”
Of the 215 plots along Cazenovia Creek in 1896, the average yield was about 30 bushels of potatoes. The farm plots were set up along an imaginary street grid, with small signs placed among the plants.
The dirt streets — named Cumberland, Meridan, Tamarack and others — began giving way to real streets with homes built upon them. The program continued on whatever plots could be found across the city.
In 1899, the mayor’s office reported that the $3,000 spent on the program yielded more than $6,000 worth of food for Buffalo’s poor. But in 1900, a new mayor was elected, and Conrad Diehl thought the job of feeding of the poor belonged to Poormaster Arnold. Diehl abandoned the potato patches program.
A group of philanthropists revived the project again in 1908 with planting in the areas still undeveloped along Cazenovia Creek and in Black Rock.
In 1910, potato bugs invaded Western New York, making the farming of potatoes far more difficult and less cost-effective. The program once again died out, this time for good, but not before thousands of bushels of potatoes staved off hunger for tens of thousands of Buffalo’s most impoverished citizens.
When Michael Shea decided to build a movie house in a neighborhood, it generally meant that the great theater owner saw some promise and some means to make some money there. Many followed him to invest in those areas.
Fast forward a century later, and the story is the same for neighborhoods where the once-opulent Shea theaters have been renovated.
In 1975, Shea’s Buffalo Theatre was a signature away from the wrecking ball. After the Loews movie chain left the once beautiful grand old theater empty, demolition orders were written to tear down the landmark. Buffalo Comptroller George O’Connell, however, wouldn’t sign. He instead intensified efforts to find people willing to help save the place.
The movement to save Shea’s blossomed into the 1980s efforts to rebuild and revitalize Buffalo’s Theatre District. Renovation and reconstruction of Shea’s continues to this day – but one major milestone was the replacement of the 65-foot-tall Buffalo sign on the building’s Main Street façade in 2004, making the theater one of downtown’s most photographed landmarks.
The complete renovation of the Shea’s theater on Hertel Avenue also helped usher in a new era on that North Buffalo strip.
The 2014 multimillion dollar, eight-month restoration of the 1920-built theater underscored Hertel’s rebirth as a trendy spot filled with boutique shops, and plenty of taverns and restaurants with outdoor seating.
The reopening of the Shea’s Seneca theater as a banquet facility earlier this month is the latest instance of a retrofitting of Michael Shea’s notion that a movie house should help create the sense of wonder and amazement reflected in the films being shown there.
The Shea’s Seneca was built in 1929, and after the theater portion of the building was torn down in the 1970s, what was left of it – the still glorious and opulent lobby – had spent most of the last four decades as a storage facility.
It’s all a part of a larger renovation to the attached building that was once home to the Skyroom, Woolworth’s and D & K through the years.
Like so many other great places, any of these three Shea’s landmarks could have been torn down in a past era of Buffalo’s history with a sense of forlorn but also a sense of helplessness. Today, it’s clear, that the buildings that have survived are helping to usher in an era where Buffalo’s future is built on its great past.
The IRC, International Railway Company, was the forerunner of the NFTA in providing mass transit options in the City of Buffalo and some surrounding areas. Caring for more than 400 miles of track and several hundred individual streetcars left the IRC chronically in debt and left the transit rail infrastructure chronically in a poor state of repair.
In 1928, The Buffalo Courier looked around the city at six different areas where the IRC was updating tracks and surrounding pavement around the city. Here’s what those areas looked like then and now.
His only crime was being a member of the Communist Party.
Charlie Doyle’s story is one that I learned not from McCarthy-era newspaper articles, but from sitting in kitchens and on front porches on Seneca Street in South Buffalo.
“He was a commie, but he was always trying to help people,” I’d hear. “A good guy.”
You’d expect that kind of talk from his family — from my family. Charlie Doyle was my grandmother’s uncle. Aunt Agnes’ brother.
I grew up in the ’80s, not the ’50s, but Communists still weren’t good. They were the bad guys, but there was still Doyle, the Communist who caused people to smile when they talked about him.
I didn’t realize until later that the story of Doyle was a bigger deal than just family lore. Though he continually denied it publicly for his safety and the safety of his family, he was a member of the Communist party. He was also a talented labor organizer and helped workers force safer working conditions and better pay at places such as Bethlehem Steel, Republic Steel and Carborundum.
Despite having been a legal U.S. resident for 25 years with an American wife and family, because he was born in Scotland, he wasn’t allowed to re-enter the U.S. after a trip to Canada in 1949.
He spent the next several years in and out of prison based on illegal entry charges before– at the height of the McCarthy era– he was deported in 1953.
Being deported from the US wasn’t the end of Charles Doyle’s trouble.
In London, Doyle picked up where he left off in Western New York– leading labor organization efforts at a nearby power plant.
The resulting nationwide labor slowdowns caused massive power outages, including at London’s famously lit Piccadilly Circus. Those outages came during one of the coldest snaps of weather on record in London, and nearly two dozen people died from the cold. Doyle was tried in their deaths but exonerated.
In 1963, London’s Daily Mirror tabloid front page was filled with his photo and the bold-faced underlined words, “The most hated man in Britain.”
And it wasn’t just America that didn’t want him. Despite having being deported from the US to his native UK, the House of Lords discussed trying to send him back.
Buffalo’s most famous Communist– labor leader and playwright Manny Fried– wrote about Doyle in a piece which was rejected for publication by The Buffalo News called “Democratic Leaders Are at a Fork in the Road.”
When (John L.) Lewis broke with the American Federation of Labor and sponsored the Congress of Industrial Organizations to organize production workers, he said that he hired the communists to organize the workers because communists were the best organizers, idealists sacrificing everything to get workers organized — and when they got the workers organized, he fired them.
Charlie Doyle, the leading open Communist Party activist in Western New York, was hired by Lewis to work for the Steel Workers Organizing Committee. Charlie played a major role in organizing workers into the union at the Lackawanna Bethlehem Steel plant. Then Lewis fired Charlie, and others were credited with
what Charlie had done.
When Lewis subsequently split with CIO leaders and formed District 50 of his Mine Workers Union to organize chemical workers in Niagara Falls, he again hired Charlie Doyle. When Charlie finished organizing those chemical workers into the union, Lewis again fired Charlie.
The CIO Chemical Workers Union then hired Charlie — and the unions Charlie had organized switched from District 50 to CIO. Then CIO fired Charlie. And then Lewis rehired Charlie – and those unions switched back to District 50 with Charlie. AFL and CIO merged into one organization and their AFL-CIO Chemical
Workers Union hired Charlie — and all those same unions of chemical plant workers switched over to the AFL-CIO with Charlie.
Carborundum workers went out on strike in connection with contract negotiations and leaders of the union in Washington held a meeting about the strike across the river in Fort Erie, Canada. U.S. Customs and Immigration wouldn’t let Charlie back across the bridge into U.S. But Canadian authorities looked the other way while Charlie crossed the river back into U.S. in a boat.
FBI and U.S. Immigration then picked up Charlie for deportation on grounds that years earlier when he came here from Scotland he was a communist. Charlie had his first papers to become a citizen, but hadn’t been granted his second papers to complete the process. Jailed for deportation, Charlie staged a hunger strike, but
finally agreed to be deported to England in return for U.S. government authorities persuading his Catholic wife to agree to end their marriage so he could marry the woman he loved.
(Several decades later the Buffalo AFL-CIO Central Labor Council passed the resolution offered by University of Buffalo Chapter of United University Professions recognizing Charlie’s contribution to organized labor in Western New York.)
–Democratic Leaders Are at a Fork in the Road, Emanuel Fried
Doyle died in London in 1983. His obituary appeared in the Chicago Tribune.
In 1932, Buffalo was swept up in the celebration of the city’s centennial, and many groups and organizations that had existed through those 100 years took the opportunity to celebrate their own existence as well.
The Buffalo Academy of Medicine — particularly proud that Buffalo’s first mayor, Ebenezer Johnson, was a medical doctor — wrote a lengthy history of the practice of medicine from Buffalo’s frontier days right up to the most modern advances 1932 could offer.
The most interesting part, however, might not be that dryly written narrative, but the index of hospitals open in Buffalo in the centennial year.
Buffalo Stories archives
The directory offers a glimpse of medical care in a different era: the J.N. Adam Memorial Hospital devoted to the “various phases of tuberculosis.” The Moses Taylor Hospital in Lackawanna “chiefly for the care of industrial accident cases.” Buffalo State Hospital, “a special state hospital of 2,400 beds devoted entirely to mental diseases.”
Several of the hospitals also took out ads in the booklet — they give a look at some of the hospital buildings around Buffalo as they stood 85 years ago.
The buildings in this photo have been modified but are still standing. The look of the Seneca & Indian Church intersection has changed through the years.
What was the Dunlop Tire store was soon to become Babe Boyce’s. It’s been Hong Kong Kitchen now for decades. Babe Boyce eventually took up several storefronts with bikes and exercise equipment on display in the windows, but when this photo was snapped, David Samuels’ cleaners, William Brennan’s variety store, William Ulmcke’s grocery and Phil Magano’s barber served the needs of South Buffalonians a few blocks north of the city line.
Model train collectors in South Buffalo, all of Western New York, and all around the country knew of “Spoonley the Train Man” from ads in The News, the Courier-Express, and dozens of national magazines that catered to the dreams of little boys and train enthusiasts of all ages.
Chet Spoonley’s South Buffalo home on Choate Street, off South Park Avenue, doubled as his model train store – the basement shop was a place where young boys could see their H-O gauge dreams come true.
He started the train business in 1937, while still working as a pressman for three different newspapers: the Buffalo Times, the Buffalo Courier-Express and the Buffalo Evening News.
The Train Man’s attic was really Spoonley’s personal train museum — which also happened to sell and repair Lionel trains. Among the items on display — but not for sale — at Spoonley’s was a lantern that lit the parlor car of President Lincoln’s Baltimore & Ohio funeral train as it rolled through Buffalo in 1865.
Advertisements for Spoonley, which appeared in magazines around the country from the 1940s through the 1970s. (Buffalo Stories archives)
In 1974, Spoonley handed the model train business — by then moved to West Seneca – over to his son, Chester Jr.
Spoonley Sr. died in 1980. The 74-year-old suffered a heart attack while shoveling snow.
Business lagged, and Spoonley the Train Man shop closed in October 1981, and Spoonley Jr. went missing three months later. His body was found in the Niagara River the following spring.
The story of Spoonley, his trains and the eventual dying off of a model train empire, was written in book form by radio newsman John Zach in 1988 and examined by News Reporter Anthony Violanti as the book was published.