Prohibition, Depression, & Wars in Parkside

       By Steve Cichon
       steve@buffalostories.com
       @stevebuffalo

Main Street was the backbone of the Parkside neighborhood that was pretty well built out by about 1920; most structures built after then were built either on subdivided larger lots, or on lots where a previous structure was either burned or by some other means destroyed.

The 1920s were a wonderful time in the prosperous neighborhood. Stately elm trees had started reaching maturity and formed a shady canopy over each of the streets of the neighborhood.

A mix of horse-drawn trucks and motor vehicles carried men plying their wares from house to house. The glass bottles of the milkman clanked; groceries were left on porches; 25, 50, and 100 pound blocks of ice delivered in the summer; loads of coal dropped into basement chutes in the winter. Children looked forward to the more colorful bakery trucks, scissors grinders, and ragmen as they shouted and sang hoping the ladies of the houses might need their services.

One noticeably absent diversion in Parkside (and the entire country) during the 1920’s: The neighborhood watering hole. Anyone desirous of legal booze had to belly up to the pharmacy, like Smither’s Parkside, with a script like this one from a doctor for ‘Spiritus Fermentus.’ Many Parkside homes saw wet bars, if not full blown speak easies, built in basements during this time.

These services were used and enjoyed with the sacrifices of war fresh in the minds of Americans. The Great War, as World War I was known until a greater war 30 years later, forced meatless Sundays, heatless Mondays, coalless Tuesdays, and wheatless dinners at Buffalo Hotels several times a week.

Late in the war, college students drafted into the Army were trained before shipping overseas right at their respective colleges. Canisius College holed up their recruits in special barracks put together at St Mary’s School for the Deaf. Those student-soldiers drilled on the lawn right at Main and Jefferson Streets, on the lawn of the College’s main building. The young men from Canisius were never needed overseas, and were all honorably discharged.

Student Army of Canisius College drill on the College Grounds, Main and Jefferson Streets. From the book “Buffalo’s Part in the World War”
Falchaire, noted French Ace, About to land on Meadow at Delaware Park, 1918

But many did leave from Parkside for the fighting in Europe. A crowd of 50,000 jammed into the meadow at Delaware Park to bid farewell to 3,000 local soldiers on their way to battle with Germany’s Kaiser. The Buffalo Evening News described the scene in June, 1917:

A full moon climbing through the heavy clouds gave the final touch of splendor to a setting which made the Meadow a fairyland. There was a touch of awed surprise in the attitude of the great crowd that filled the meadow to overflowing when the first note of music burst forth and song and light became one harmonious whole. Paths between the trees were transformed into lantern-lined vistas. The lanterns beckoned everywhere. They pointed the way for the throngs that flowed through every entrance toward the flowing center of the celebration.

The years that followed World War I, The Roaring 20s, were indeed a sort of golden time for Parkside even more than the rest of the nation; a prosperous decade that was to be followed by an especially rough decade and a half.

The Great Depression

The Parkside neighborhood of the 1920’s was an upper-middle class neighborhood; just the type of place that was hit hardest by the 1929 Wall Street Crash and the ensuing decade of economic depression. All over the country, the wealthier the individual, the harder they fell as depression struck. Jack and Wally Flett remembered the way the crippling economy changed their grocery business, which they ran on Russell Avenue, one door from the corner of Parkside Avenue, for over 50 years.

The best years of the business were the first years- before the depression– the Fletts remembered, when every home on Jewett Parkway had a chauffeur and a maid. The maid would call in an order, and the driver would come pick it up. That changed quickly, but the Fletts weren’t complaining, knowing they were lucky to not lose everything. “We had a customer on Summit who was a millionaire one day, and a pauper the next. He had a huge account with the store, and though he was broke, he eventually paid every cent.”

And it wasn’t just the Fletts. The elegant, luxurious Pierce-Arrow Motor Company opened its brand new showroom at Main Street and Jewett Parkway just weeks before the market crashed in the fall of 1929. The company and the showroom languished for a few years, the economy had taken its toll, and by mid 30’s, was selling Pontiacs and Cadillacs from the Art Deco automotive palace.

Just as Pierce-Arrow fell on hard times, so too, did many families of the Parkside neighborhood who drove those cars. At one time or another, Darwin D. Martin owned three Pierce-Arrows. By the time he died in 1935, he was comparatively penniless.  Martin’s son, Darwin R., had assumed control of the family’s fortune, and heavily leveraged the fortune his father had created with a lifetime of hard work.

The younger Martin was described by a niece as “selfish,” “a wheeler dealer,” and “a hard drinking man.” He was a real estate developer, who built the very stylish 800 West Ferry Street Apartment building (as of 2009, recently acquired by Canisius High School) and at one point ran the Stuyvesant Hotel on Elmwood Avenue. Within two years of the senior Darwin Martin’s death, in 1937, the younger Martin had moved his mother into one of his apartment complexes, leaving the Frank Lloyd Wright “opus” at Jewett Parkway and Summit Avenue abandoned.

As the property fell into arrears on taxes through the ‘30s and ‘40s, the younger Martin made no effort to maintain the home; worse, he expedited the home’s literal downfall. He removed all the doors and all of the lighting fixtures, as well as other original trappings and accessories from the home. These he installed in his other stylish properties like the Stuyvesant and 800 West Ferry. He also stripped the home of copper electrical wire and copper plumbing.  Nine years after Mrs. Martin moved from the home, the City of Buffalo was the sole bidder at a foreclosure sale. The property was taken over for $76,468 in back taxes, and a $394.53 payment to Darwin R. Martin.

Parkside children of the late ‘30s, ‘40s, and early ‘50s remember the future landmark as a somewhat spooky and dangerous place to play hide and seek. Other kids took advantage of the smooth open floors to roller skate. The now-world-famous art glass windows and glass and tile fixtures were the stuff of target practice for stone throwing kids. The home remained neglected and vandalized until the mid-1950s.

The fate of the Darwin Martin house showed the extreme end of what happened to some of Parkside’s homes during the period between World Wars. The lean times of the Depression, followed by the rationing and requisitioning of materials during the World War II years left many homes much worse for the wear. However, the ones who were in those homes- no matter how worn- knew they were the lucky ones. Parksiders of the Depression Era will remember smoke from hobo’s winter fires wafting up over the bridges in the Park Gully.

Parkside Goes to War… Again.

“I can remember when, as we used to say, the Japs attacked Pearl Harbor.  I was outside playing football,” recalls Jack Anthony, who grew up Greenfield Avenue. “Bob Bickel, who lived at 121 Greenfield, came out and yelled, ‘Hey, did you hear the Japs attacked Pearl Harbor?’ I was in sixth grade, and I said, ‘What does that matter? You want to play football or don’t you?'”

The kids played football that day, but they, too, would contribute to the war effort. Jack Anthony, destined to become one of the founders of the Parkside Community Association, was a lad on Greenfield, and later on West Oakwood Place during the war years.

“We had a gang… We played at the Dewey Playground, and the Parkside Candy Shoppe. It was a real routine, the way real men went to a bar, we went to that candy shop. During the war, the government made us Junior Rangers,” Anthony remembers. “We did tire drives and scrap drives, collecting metal scraps people left out, and newspapers. We filled up the back lot at School 54 with the stuff. The war was a part of our lives, part of my life.”

An interesting time for children, but a trying time for adults. While the Depression years were hard for the Flett Brothers, the most difficult time for the brothers and their store came during World War II. “The government didn’t think our store was an essential service, so we worked ’til 3 in the store, and then worked in a defense plant ’til midnight.”

Mrs. Martha Lang, who lived in a flat on Crescent Avenue for over 50 years, remembered vividly both her own home and her mother’s house just up the street on Humboldt Parkway in the 1940s.  She shared some of her wartime memories of the neighborhood in a 1990 issue of the Parkside News.

During a particularly cold wartime winter, there were natural gas shortages, which sent Mrs. Lang to live at her mother’s coal heated home for a week. Her apartment, however, had an electric range which forced her to shuttle back and forth to prepare and serve meals.

It was after all, wartime. Jack Anthony remembers, “We had an air raid drill here, and we stood out on the porch on Greenfield. I was really amazed at how dark it was, truly dark. No lights on anywhere. That’s stayed with me. And I took a walk once with my father to School 64 on Amherst St, because he had to register for the draft. He was 42 years old.”

Anthony remembers Saturday afternoons at the Central Park show, where Main Street and Fillmore Avenue meet. “I was just a kid, but I sure knew I hated Japs. We’d watch the newsreels, and the American Soldier would stand at the edge of a cave with a flamethrower, and with a woosh we’d cheer in the movie house, Get those bastards! and then we’d go wild cheering when Japs’d run out on fire. I had a job done on me in terms of propaganda, but I never knew it.”

While those newsreels showed the war being fought in exotic locations, little did young Jack Anthony (or anyone else, at that time) know that groundbreaking, top secret Government work was being done right in Parkside, right in the old Ford Plant. 

America’s First Jet Plane: Parkside Built.

With the war at full tilt, and America on the brink of entering on the side of the Allies, Larry Bell had fallen asleep listening to an Indians night game on the radio. He was awakened by his wife with a phone call from Washington. The Pentagon was on the line, and Larry and his top engineer would be on a train to the nation’s capital by midnight.

On September 5, 1941, Bell Aircraft entered into a top secret agreement to begin producing the first American versions of the world’s first jet aircraft. Up until this point, no American plane -ever- had flown without the whir of a propeller. Bell would produce the planes; GE, the engines. With no one sure what the Japanese and Germans were up to, speed was a priority. By the end of the month, a $1.6 million contract was signed to build three of the as-yet-designed jet planes.

The design work on three different aircraft began on the train trip back to Buffalo, and by the next morning, the site for the design and manufacture of the aircraft was decided. The Ford Motor factory, on Main Street in Buffalo, had been mothballed when the company’s manufacturing operations moved to Woodlawn ten years earlier. The last remaining vestige of Ford at the building, a Ford Dealer and Sales Agency on the ground floor, was moved out overnight.

Now the TriMain building, the hulking red brick structure undertook a quick makeover to make in an appropriate home for one of the war efforts’ most secretive projects up until that point. The windows were welded shut; a special pass was needed to get past the sentry which guarded the location twenty-four hours a day. The security was on-par with that surrounding the Manhattan Project, and it was all in Parkside.

As the FBI began screening production workers for the top secret job, “Drinkers, bar-room talkers, and womanizers were ruled out as risks.” 

The ground floor was made into a machine shop, assembly on the second floor. Some components that had to be made at other Bell plants were given false names; an exhaust pipe might be labeled a heater duct.

The work force at Main Street and Rodney Avenue were mostly selected as the best of Bell’s other factories. Donald Norton wrote of it Larry: A Biography of Lawrence D. Bell:

(P)eople began to disappear at the Elmwood and Wheatfield plants. A lathe operator or draftsman would come to work in the morning and find that the man next to him suddenly had been replaced by somebody new.

“Hey!” one machine operator exclaimed. “What happened to Harry?”

“I got told this morning to come over here,” was the reply. “Who’s Harry?”

Men excused themselves from car pools with a standard reply that sounded almost too casual. “Just assigned to a temporary job. No Sweat. Be back in the pool in a couple of months.”  One car pool group went to plant security with the suspicion that a recent dropout may have fled with secret papers.

Employees engaged on the XP-59A project could not tell their families what they were working on or where they were working. If a family emergency arose, the spouse would call an unlisted number. The operator at the Main Street facility would take the information, send it by guard to the employee, and then the employee placed a separate call home.

Work began on the “XP-59A” in early 1942. It was so designated to give the impression that this new venture was simply an improvement of the XP-59 propeller craft.

On August 4, 1942, the first engine arrived at the plant via the beltline railway. Security was ratcheted tighter. On September 10, workers began removing bricks from the wall of the building, facing the rail lines, so that crates containing the aircraft’s fuselage and wings could be lowered onto railcars bound for testing grounds in California’s Mojave Desert.

America’s first jet was successfully flown September 30, 1942. It had been about a year since the phone call during the baseball game.

In March 1943, a second, improved XP-59A was shipped from Buffalo for testing, this one wrapped in canvas, with a mock propeller attached to the front of the craft to disguise the generally unthinkable jet propulsion ability of the craft.

Eventually, 50 P-59 aircraft were built for use by the Army and Navy. They weren’t used in combat, but mostly for testing and training. It was written in the Government’s summary of the program in June, 1945, that, “Even though a combat airplane did not result… the development was very worthwhile, since it proved the principle of jet propulsion for aircraft was sound and practical.” The work in Buffalo provided the ground work for the US’s venture into the jet age.

Planes were moved about with artificial propellers attached, to disavow any thought that the plane was powered by jet propulsion.

As quickly as Bell swept into the old Ford Plant, the aerospace giant left when it no longer needed the extra space. But, in May 1942, the Navy enjoyed the fruits of Parkside’s wartime labor as the Hercules Motor Corporation began building diesel engines at the plant, and did so through the end of the war. After the war, The Trico Products Company manufactured windshield wiper components at the building for the next 3 ½ decades.

A (Vice) Presidential Visit

As the war continued to churn, Harry Truman’s last public appearance before becoming President upon the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt came in Parkside, specifically, at the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd. Truman worshipped there April 8, 1945.

According to “Forth,” the Diocesan news magazine, and as chronicled in A Century in The Fold: A History of The Church of the Good Shepherd, The Vice President was in Buffalo to make a speech at a Democratic Dinner at the Hotel Statler on April 7. Truman’s friend, tour guide, Buffalo Democrat, and Good Shepherd Warden Charles Diebold, Jr, surprised the congregation by bringing the Vice President for services.

After introducing Truman to children at the Sunday school, Diebold asked him to autograph a copy of the church bulletin. But the always wry Vice President responded with, “I usually do the autographing, but this time I want you to do it; and I’m going to present this autographed bulletin to Mrs. Truman to show her that I attended church today.”

Four days later, he was President of the United States. A month later, the war in Europe ended. 4 months later, the war in the Pacific ended when President Truman decided to use atomic weapons against Japan.

Which brings us back to Jack Anthony– he remembers the end of the war as well as the beginning of it. Four long years after it started, he wasn’t busy playing football when he heard the war ended. 

“In 1945, when it ended, I walked all the way downtown from here. For the celebration, I guess, I don’t know. I didn’t kiss any nurses or drink any beer; I just walked downtown to see it.”

The war years were difficult in Parkside, as they were all over the nation. According to the 1947 accounting of Buffalo’s 1,835 war dead in the Buffalo Evening News Almanac, no less than 22 mostly young men who listed a Parkside home address died overseas.

On the home front, it was during World War II that many large single family homes were sub-divided into apartments to meet the growing demand for housing for war-effort factory workers. The Federal Government declared Buffalo a “Labor Shortage Area” in 1942.

But once the war ended, production fell quickly.

Adults were left without jobs, and children were left without the organized activities of the war. In his book Coming of Age in Buffalo: Youth and Authority in the Postwar Era, William Graebner talks about the growing problem of juvenile delinquency in the early 1950s:

In the fall of 1953, Buffalo Police and magistrates began to enforce a city ordinance against “corner lounging,” a relatively innocuous if irritating activity believed to have some relationship to more advanced forms of delinquent behavior. Police made arrests at Cazenovia and Seneca, French and Fillmore, Broadway and Madison, Louisiana and South Park, and the 2600 block of Main Street. (That’s in the vicinity of Main and Fillmore on the east; between Orchard and Amherst on the west side of Main.)

Graebner quotes the Babcock Precinct Captain McNamara as saying, “Bring these adolescent apes into the station and don’t treat them gently. These punks have more respect for a cop’s night stick than for the entire Code of Criminal Procedure.”  He also writes that the church began playing an increasing role in the social needs of postwar youth, sponsoring parish dances and, later sock hops.

In North Buffalo, the Friday-night parish dances rotating among St. Margaret’s Holy Spirit, St Vincent’s, (and St. Mark’s) were the most important social events of the weekend, and not just for Catholics. “Back in those days, ” recalls one resident, the CYO (Catholic Youth Organization) was the big thing.”

As you’ve already read, the powers that be also made sure that the younger set had to snap to strict guidelines. School 54, the public elementary school on Main Street across from Leroy Avenue, started its day with a prayer in the 1950s, but also found it a necessity to ban “slacks for girls, and dungarees for all pupils.” 

And while corporal punishment was still meted out with some regularity, some thought children were “getting away easy” without long-time principal Clara Swartz roaming the halls with her rubber hose, for use on errant students.

What the newly christened “teenagers” were doing didn’t matter to some anyway. By the early 1950s, many men who’d fought in Europe and the Pacific had already graduated from college and other training paid for by the GI Bill. Those better educated men wanted something better than the tired city in which they were raised. The depopulation of the city for the suburbs was underway, and city leaders were literally making it easier to leave– via ribbons of asphalt highway.

This page is an excerpt from The Complete History of Parkside by Steve Cichon

The full text of the book is now online. 

The original 174-page book is available along with Steve’s other books online at The Buffalo Stories Bookstore and from fine booksellers around Western New York. 

©2009, 2021 Buffalo Stories LLC, staffannouncer.com, and Steve Cichon

 

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Steve Cichon

Steve Cichon writes about Buffalo’s pop culture history. His stories of Buffalo's past have appeared more than 1600 times in The Buffalo News. He's a proud Buffalonian helping the world experience the city he loves. Since the earliest days of the internet, Cichon's been creating content celebrating the people, places, and ideas that make Buffalo unique and special. The 25-year veteran of Buffalo radio and television has written five books and curates The Buffalo Stories Archives-- hundreds of thousands of books, images, and audio/visual media which tell the stories of who we are in Western New York.