High school days in Saranac Lake recalled
On eve of huge SLHS reunion, historian recalls times gone by
During the early 1920s our childhood world centered on River Street midway between Sporck's store at the Church Street intersection and Weinstock's store at the Lake Flower intersection. In between these two grocery emporiums then existed the Boy's Club, the Curling club, the old Pontiac Skating Rink, and right next door lived the champion, Ed Lamy.
One block up on Shepard Avenue was Barney's Bakery, where Mr. Natowitz and his two sons, Hermon and Joe, turned out delicious baked goods with a tantalizing aroma. Joe was the neighborhood idol of the small fry not only because he was a prizefighter but because he could also eat a jelly donut in one bite!
Granny Sporck served up the best five cent ice cream cone in town. There were only two scoop sizes in those days, five cents and ten cents, but she would first fill the hollow cone with ice cream before placing the nickel or dime scoop on top. At other times she would stand patiently behind the penny candy counter while great deliberations were made between the licorice sticks and the chocolate bears. Granny loved children.
On those hot summer days when no nickel was available, we would follow the horse drawn ice wagon. When the iceman chopped off a delivery block we were allowed to pick up the chips from the wagon bed; not as sweet as ice cream but not bad as a thirst quencher.
There was no such thing as little league baseball yet we always managed to scrape up a bat and ball for a game of one-o-cat in the vacant lot between Lamy's and the Beardsley Apartment Building, which we called the "grayblock." There was no peewee hockey either, so we simply scraped the snow from the ice on Lake Flower and left a hole in the bank at each end to serve as goals. Our homemade shinny sticks and a piece of coal for a puck rounded out our hockey equipment.
Very few homes had central heat at that time, but the big Andes cook range in the kitchen together with an ornate pot-bellied Quebec heater in the living room kept the house warm. A grillwork register in the ceiling allowed warm air to circulate to the upstairs bedrooms, but on sub-zero nights a "stone pig" filled with hot water helped out as a bed warmer.
It was never too cold for ice skating though, and the famous Pontiac Rink was right next door. Free skating was available both day and night. Fred Perez, skating house custodian, provided pop corn balls or red apples at five cents each. A little spending money could be made by setting pins at the bowling alley in the Boy's club, which later became the state armory.
In the summer of 1926 we noticed a gathering of people in front of the Armory so we immediately went over to investigate. It so happened that Governor Al Smith was making an inspection visit of the facility while in the area to welcome President Calvin Coolidge to his Adirondack summer White House.
The Governor shook hands with all the children and I ran home to proudly announce that I had just shaken hands with Governor Smith. My father, who was a staunch Republican, said "Go wash your hand," I was taken aback until I realized he was only joking. We also stood in front of the Presbyterian Church on Sundays to catch a glimpse of President Coolidge attending services there. I never got to shake hands with the president, however. I guess he didn't know about my father being "Mr. Republican!"
Our parents always cautioned us to be quiet during the hours of 2 to 4 p.m., as this was known as the "rest hour" for the TB patients who spent this time sleeping in their cure chairs on outdoor porches. We always refrained from boisterous activity during this period since there were several cure cottages in the neighborhood. The area of Shepard, Franklin, Front, Helen, etc. was crassly called hemorrhage hill. Many homes in the vicinity were converted to cure cottages with the addition of rooms and enclosed porches. This type of home-health industry proved to be a main source of income for many families during the years of the Great Depression,
In addition to skating, the winter months featured downhill sled racing. Whatever happened to the Flexible Flyer? It seemed every kid on the block owned one of these wonderful snow vehicles. After many years it is still easy to recall, with some agony, how the older boys told us we could get more speed by wetting the cold steel runner with our tongue. Ouch! Our skis had no intricate bindings but rather a leather toe strap to which we added a rubber band, cut from an old inner tube, which went under the toe and around the heel.
Ed LaBounty's horse-drawn sleigh would trot by with harness bells jingling and passengers wrapped in colorful Hudson Bay blankets. Ed had his own brand of humor and loved to tell jokes. He always kept a flock of chickens in the barn and one of his favorite stories had to do with an attempt at economy by mixing sawdust with the chicken feed. "Them darn hens would lay nothing but knotholes." The recital was followed by a high pitched, toothless cackle which was funnier than the story. Ed was always a soft touch for a free ride in the sleigh as he, too, loved kids.
In the summer, when the old Andes cook range created too much heat, most of the kitchen cooking was done on gas burners. The Mountain Gas Company converted coal to gas in its plant located by the railroad tracks just outside the village toward Lake Placid. The company operated a web of gas mains under the village streets and most homes took advantage of the service until the advent of bottled gas and electric cooking. While working on street repairs today village crews still dig up these old gas pipes.
We soon graduated from River Street to the downtown area and our activities took on a more metropolitan aspect. We could now climb in the understructure of the old foot bridge or peek into the jail's barred windows to see who was being incarcerated for public intoxication. On Saturday afternoons ten cents would get us into the Pontiac Theater for Tom Mix or we could catch Hoot Gibson at the "Itch." This latter pleasure palace, which was located on Bloomingdale Avenue, earned its nickname from the velvety plush seats.
On a more prosperous day, when a whole quarter was garnered, we could visit the Pontiac confectionary for a banana split. Seated on a high, wire backed stool in front of the marble soda fountain we would watch Gus Sarbanes whip up that delicious concoction. You never had to ask for a glass of water because with every sundae there appeared that familiar cone-shaped white paper cup in its metal holder containing ice cold water.
Among popular summer attractions were the circus, the Chautauqua and the tent show. In July, the Gentry Brothers Circus would arrive after anticipation was fully aroused by the advance posters. The big parade at noon featured a band and horse-drawn cages containing lions, tigers, leopards, and monkeys. Marching along came prancing horses, plodding camels, and lumbering elephants in a trunk-to-tail formation. Above all of the tumult screeched the steam calliope with its stentorian chords. All the kids trailed the parade for the full line of march and then headed for the show grounds to earn a pass by carrying buckets of water to the elephants.
For six big days in August the Red Path Chautauqua set up its tent in the lot behind the bank on Main Street. For $2.25 one could attend the various presentations taking place morning, noon, and night. The bills for each day offered a selection of plays, concerts, lectures, magic shows and handcraft demonstrations. The morning programs were devoted to "Junior Chatauqua," with the kids taking part in the performances in costumes provided by the instructors of each production. Afternoon events leaned towards lectures and recitals while the evenings featured drama or opera.
When the "Tent Show" came to town it set up under canvas on the same site the Chautauqua occupied. Here popular plays were presented with such well-known stars as Rosalind Russell appearing in the cast (and it had to be a good play, indeed, to take your mind off the hard wooden benches).
Like the five cent ice cream cone and penny candy, many nostalgic events have vanished from our midst. Save for a Charley Green, now deceased, or a Ruth Effenbach, the neighborhood family grocery store has quietly faded into oblivion. Our fathers could buy their stogies from Walsh, Herron, Sullivan, or Daley, but today the cigar store is as extinct as the wooden Indian. Tom Daley's store, "The Humidor," was located next to the bank and featured a curved glass window to display his wares. Obviously he believed all bankers smoked big black cigars.
Also missing from the scene are the once numerous hotels that once were centers of community activities. Gone are the Riverside Inn, Empire, Franklin House, St. Regis, Grand Union, Alpine, Central House, Von Dorrien, and the last to go, the venerable old Berkeley. Associated with these public houses were such popular proprietors as Wall Murray, John and Hugh Morgan, George Downing, Jack Crowley, and William Hennessey. The Hotel Saranac was not built until 1926.
Should you recall some of these bits of nostalgia you will shortly approach that respectable milestone of 70 years. Among those former students gathering for this weekend's Saranac Lake High School reunion, the class of 1935 and before will best represent the right age group to remember "The way we were."