In 1880, the spot where Johnnie B. Wiley Stadium – once known as War Memorial Stadium – stands, was on the far outskirts of the city.
The big landmark along Jefferson Street between Best and Dodge wasn’t “The Rockpile,” but was across the street from the stadium where the Stanley Makowski Early Childhood Center now stands.
The school was built on what was once the campus of the Gerhard Lang Brewery. Built in 1875, the brewery was marked as No. 57 on the 1880 map.
It would be another 10 years before there was any activity on the land on the other side of Jefferson Avenue.
In 1880, the Prospect Hill Reservoir was still Buffalo’s primary source for drinking water. Located at Niagara and Connecticut streets, the original reservoir spot has been the home of the Connecticut Street Armory for more than 100 years.In 1893, the new Prospect Reservoir started serving as Buffalo’s stand-by water source on Jefferson Avenue.
A generation later, that second reservoir would be replaced by War Memorial Stadium as a Depression-era WPA project.
Having worked with Van Miller on Bills broadcasts on the radio and then as his producer at Channel 4, I spent a lot of time listening to his stories.
Van was a tremendous storyteller, and always delighted any crowd gathered around him with his ability to spin a tale about almost anything and make it interesting.
One of his favorites was “The Cookie Gilchrist earmuff story.” Ask people who’ve spent time around Van– Paul Peck, Brian Blessing, John Murphy… and they probably know the story as Van told it by heart as well as Van knew it himself.
The story goes, Cookie Gilchrist wasn’t really happy with the amount of money The Bills were paying him, so he was always looking for a way to make an extra buck. One time, he decided to buy a load of earmuffs and sell them as “Cookie Gilchrist earmuffs” at The Rockpile one Sunday.
“Well,” Van would say with a smile, “It happened to be one of the hottest December days on record, and the sun blazing at kickoff– he only sold about three pairs of earmuffs!”
It’s a classic Van story, quick and neat, and leaves the listener smiling.
The problem is, while there’s probably some basis in truth— Van was always more about telling a good story than about getting all the facts straight.
In a quick internet search, I found three different reports of Van telling the story. The temperature at kickoff was either 69, 57, or 60 degrees depending on which version you read. The number of pairs of earmuffs he had changed too– 5,000 in one telling; 3,000 in another; 15,000 another time.
The point is, there were probably earmuffs. Beyond that, it’s tough to tell where the colorful imagination of Uncle Van took over.
There’s another version of the story told to writer Scott Pitoniak by longtime Bills trainer Ed Abramowski. Published in 2007, Abe’s version is Cookie was trying to sell the earmuffs for the 1964 AFL Championship Game at War Memorial, but the headgear wound up getting caught in customs when Gilchrist tried to bring them to Buffalo from his home in Toronto.
The only contemporary earmuff story I could find was in the Ottawa Journal a few days after the Bills won that 1964 AFL Championship Game.
A reporter asked Cookie about the autographed earmuffs he said would be sold at the game. “I ran into problems there, and didn’t sell them.”– Ottawa Journal, December 28, 1964
That game was played December 26, 1964. It was a mild day with some rain and a high around 45.
Van Miller’s story is the only reason I know that Cookie Gilchrist ever tried to sell earmuffs, and that really makes me smile. Knowing the real story about how and why makes me smile, too.
This video clip is about one of the toughest guys to ever wear a Buffalo on his helmet: Cookie Gilchrist.. but for me, it's also about the guy who taught me everything I know about Cookie– Larry Felser. Again, It's a great story about Cookie, but my favorite part is the very end… when Larry Felser lays it all out there finishing the story in grand style… with that devilish look in his eye and big grin on his face. He was one of the best storytellers I've ever known, and one of the most genuine souls. Rest in Peace, ol'pal.
A social media recap of the 48 hours after Election Day 2017, where I was defeated in the race for Erie County Clerk by a margin of 52% to 48%:
The one good thing about no longer running for office is…. I can be snarky whenever snarky is called for. Here’s an email I received tonight, and responded to appropriately. Thank you everyone for your amazing love and support!
I love this photo– captured by the great Derek Gee of The News– because it really says everything I want to say about running for office, the race Team Cichon ran, and even the results. Since jumping into this race in March, I’ve been enriched in friendships new and lifelong…and the process has pushed me to rededicate my intense desire to make the world a better place by serving the greater humanity and the marginalized who need help being heard. The results aren’t exactly what any of us wanted– But my head is held high and my heart is full today. We left it all out there, and are ready for whatever else good is coming down the way.
Breaking news– the election didn’t turn out the way we worked for… but the good news is, no matter what is to come, it comes with the best most supportive partner imaginable. Monica and I got to swing by the Channel 4 studios yesterday, and stop in the room that used to be WBEN Radio’s control room— the exact place where we met as co-workers 24 years ago. As I tell anyone who’ll listen, my wife is the brains of the operation, and the person who makes be better everyday. Thanks Sweetie Pie!!
Drove around today, filling my trunk with Cichon signs plucked from various places around town, including a few that were out in front of the former War Memorial Stadium… where Gramps was a ticket taker for 40 years and where my ol’man took us to Bisons games. My fondest five-year-old memories of the place are of the big metal troughs in the men’s room instead of urinals.
In perhaps my greatest “get off my lawn” moment ever, I was chatting with four friends who I worked with during this election season. I was wearing this ensemble from my “putting the outdoor furniture away” collection, and someone mentioned it was strange seeing me not wearing a bow tie. As I looked down at this plaid work shirt, I gloriously realized that it was purchased when I was in middle school in either 1989 or 1990 and was (quite a bit) older than all four of these friends. I proudly shared with them that bit of trivia, and enjoyed it way too much. Now stay off my lawn.
It might have been the birth of the modern tailgate party in Buffalo.
A few days before the grand opening of the brand new Rich Stadium in 1973, the Buffalo Bills put fans on notice that they’d no longer be able to take their own six-packs of beer into the stadium, as they’d been able to do the previous 13 seasons at the Rockpile.
Noting that the changes were being made “for the safety of the fans,” Bills General Manager Robert Lustig told United Press International that the Bills were falling in line with “almost all other major league football stadiums,” and added that War Memorial Stadium was, in part, bring-your-own-beer because there weren’t adequate concession facilities in the 1937-built stadium.
While the more cynical among us might see dollar signs behind the safety warning, the ban was likely a long time coming after a handful of well-publicized incidents at Buffalo’s city-owned entertainment venues.
In response to what Larry Felser called “one of the most inept performances ever put on by a Buffalo football team,” several hundred fans at a 1962 game showered the field at the Rockpile with thousands of beer cans.
Buffalo Stories archives
Two years later, Buffalo Police called it a “near riot” when fans at The Aud hurled empty beer and pop bottles at the stage and at police when a music act failed to show.
Given those two incidents, Police Commissioner William Schneider requested that city lawmakers pass an ordinance barring people from bringing beer into city-owned Memorial Auditorium and War Memorial Stadium.
When Rich Stadium was built in 1973, there was a proposed law before the Erie County Legislature looking to ban fans from carrying beer into the stadium. A petition against the law gained nearly 5,000 signatures, but the Bills rule made the law unnecessary.
Starting with the Bills move to Orchard Park, if you wanted to have a few of your own beers for the game, you had to have them in the parking lot before you went in the gates. And out in the open farmland country of suburbia, there was plenty of room to have a few beers and spread out.
Tailgating at the Rockpile was different. People parked on city streets or on the tiny front lawns of the people who lived around the stadium. Maybe there were a few kids throwing around a football or older guys chomping on cigars, drinking coffee from a Thermos and reading the newspaper, grabbing their six-packs only as they walked into the stadium — not draining them before.
Over the 43 years since the Bills stopped allowing fans to BYOB, Buffalo’s love of football and beer and Buffaloness has evolved into its own unique cultural experience — the tailgate party like none other.
The Bills’ first and second home games were played in the same stadium — the Rockpile — but that stadium changed names in between.
It was 55 years ago tonight– Aug. 24, 1960– as the brand-new Buffalo Bills played in their second-ever preseason game, that the athletic field known by most as “The Rockpile” was rededicated in “tribute to living veterans and the dead of all U.S. wars” as War Memorial Stadium. Previously, the Rockpile had officially been known as Civic Stadium.
A Congressional Medal of Honor winner from World War I was on hand to speak on behalf of all veterans.
Van Miller was behind the mic as the Bills and Oakland Raiders became the first team to play on the newly christened field. Both teams were only a few preseason contests into existence in the new American Football League.
As seen in this photo, the Bills’ uniforms during the team’s first two seasons are nothing like future Bills uniforms. Among the Bills’ early equipment were cast aways from the Detroit Lions– blue and silver with jersey numbers– but no Buffalo insignia– on the helmets.
Everyday Buffalonians, groundskeepers at War Memorial Stadium, and the mayor (helped by a future mayor) were featured getting outdoor spaces ready for summer in The Buffalo Evening News on April 25, 1969.
War Memorial was the home of the Bisons from 1960 to ’69 and from 1979 to ’87.
Mayor Frank Sedita and the man who followed him as mayor, Stanley Makowski, planted a tree in front of City Hall in celebration of Arbor Day.