Blackout drills were a way of life during World War II, and the first came the day after Christmas, 1941.
Radio stations set aside their programming to help conduct the drill. The following account was in The News the next day, and shows a tremendous overview of radio in Buffalo at that time.
“Only lights burning in most Buffalo homes Friday night were tiny dial lights on radios, while the radio stations that poured out a stream of information about the blackout were lighted themselves by small blue bulbs not much larger than those on listeners’ sets.
“Although most stations possess “inside” studios which have no windows and thus could be kept as brilliant as possible, all preferred to switch out all lights except tiny blue ones near their microphones and technical-control panels.
“WBEN, whose studio windows in Hotel Statler were covered securely by wallboard shields, kept only a dim safety light burning in its inside “standby” studio where other announcers remained on duty while Ed Reimers described the blackout from a 20th-floor vantage point in City Hall. Control room windows were likewise covered and dimly lit.
“Blinds were drawn completely over all studio windows at WEBR in Broadcasting House, 23 West North Street. A lone bulb glowed in one studio in use, and a tiny green light illumined control room switches and dials.
“Blue cellophane was fastened over control room lights, tiny meter bulbs were changed from white to red and only desk lamps were in use in two inside studios of WGR-WKBW, which linked to carry a description by announcers Jack Gelzer and Bob Sherry from an 18th-floor parapet of the Rand Building of Buffalo blacking out.
“Tight-fitting cardboard covered WBNY’s windows in the Nellany Building and one blue bulb glowed in the control room and another in one studio.
“Visible from vantage points about the city were red warning lights on WBEN’s transmitter towers on Grand Island, WEBR’s tower on the Larkin Terminal Warehouse, WGR-WKBW antennas in Hamburg and WSVS’ towers on Seneca Vocational High School.
“These warning lights must be kept burning at all times under federal law, unless ordered out by military authorities. The Civil Aeronautics Board ordered that aeronautical lights such as these must be kept burning during test blackouts. WBNY’s tower in East Eagle Street carries no signal beacons, not being so required because of its location and height.”
In 1944, Buffalo’s War Emergency Radio Service radio station signed on.
WQWT was part of a nationwide network meant to operate using portable transmitters in the event of emergency.
WEBR engineer Ray Lamy oversaw the operation, which, had it ever been used, would have employed amateur operators using their own equipment—all in an effort to save resources for the war effort.
“Junked radio sets and parts, salvaged from cellars and attics, are being rebuilt by amateurs and professionals into two-way stations and operated for the public good,” reported Popular Science in 1943.
Nominally meant as a means of communication during natural disasters, the system was built in anticipation of air raids on American targets. It was disbanded at the end of the war.
In 1946, the long-standing Buffalo Broadcasting Corporation partnership of WGR and WKBW was broken up, as WGR was purchased by a group led by longtime Buffalo radio man I.R. “Ike” Lounsberry.
Lounsberry was there at the very beginning of radio in Western New York, as one of the engineers/operators/announcers who put WMAK on the air in 1922.
As he explained in 1931, “In 1922, it was one and the same person who operated the technical equipment, announced the program, booked talent, did janitor duty and numerous other tasks.”
He stayed on when WMAK was absorbed into the Buffalo Broadcasting Corporation, and stayed with the BBC until he broke it up with the purchase of WGR for $750,000 in 1946.
Shortly after Clint Buehlman left WGR for WBEN, Smilin’ Bob Smith followed. With Esther Huff, they co-hosted “Early Date at Hengerer’s” live from the downtown department store. While Buehlman’s pace was fast and his persona was slapstick, Smilin’ Bob was more laidback and homespun.
Smith’s routine caught the ear of NBC executives in New York City looking to build a team for the network’s Big Apple flagship station.
Shortly after Smith left WBEN for the New York’s WEAF Radio in 1946, longtime News and Courier-Express radio critic Jim Trantor wrote:
“Buffalo’s Smilin’ Bob Smith, who’s become one of NBC’s fair-haired boys on the New York scene… is going great guns at the head of a television show for youngsters down there and looks to have just about the rosiest future imaginable.”
The show would become “The Howdy Doody Show,” and Smith was destined to become one of the great early stars of television.
The “gay and charming hostess” of the show, Esther Huff, began her radio career at WGR in 1927 with an afternoon show for women discussing fashion, homemaking tips, and Hollywood news.
Through the mid-40s, she was a regular on several WBEN programs.
This page is an excerpt from 100 Years of Buffalo Broadcasting by Steve Cichon
The Office of Price Administration was actually established several months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, as the country prepared for the possibility of war.
Weeks after the declaration of war, price controls and rationing were implemented on all manner of consumer goods except agricultural products.
Ben Dykstra, butcher and grocer at the corner of Main and Merrimac in University Heights, shows off the full March, 1943 ration of canned goods for a family of four.
Buffalo News archives
Families had to register for ration books, as Mrs. EW England was doing at School 16 on Delaware and Hodge in 1943.
Women jammed markets when they knew they could get good meat. Such was the case at Neber & McGill Butchers on William Street in 1943.
Additional ration points could be earned by turning in food waste, like grease, for the war effort. Mrs. Robert Bond of Hampshire Street collected four cents and two brown ration points for turning in a pound of rendered kitchen fat to Anthony Scime, of Scime Brothers Grocery, at Hampshire and 19th on the West Side.
Even after the war, shortages continued. This is the scene at the Mohican Market on Main Street near Fillmore in 1946, on a day when butter was available.
The News called it “a mob scene” inside, where Office of Price Administration rules dropped the price to 53 cents. Some markets, confused by the change in rules, were selling for 64 cents.
The OPA was dissolved and price controls ended in 1947.
Most of what was written in the paper in 1944 had to do, in some way, with World War II. Even if not directly about the fighting, the backdrop of the war was apparent in every day-to-day task in Buffalo and around the country.
Thomas Webster was an orphan of the London air raids, and he moved into his uncle’s home on Weyand Street off Seneca Street in South Buffalo.
April 28, 1944: Boy who lost parents in raid likes new home
“Deprived of parents by the Germans’ ruthless bombing of London …”
Sattler’s, meanwhile, was offering ideas for helping those with eye strain brought on by second jobs for the war effort.
April 28, 1944: A second front for your eyes!
“If your eyes are feeling the results of extra wartime use …”
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.
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.
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
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.
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
one machine operator exclaimed. “What happened to Harry?”
got told this morning to come over here,” was the reply. “Who’s
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.
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
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.
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