from Portville, New York
What it Was like Then - 1935-1954
by Richard Allen Rice - 31 December 1988
I can't seem to recall that dark night of April 30, 1935, when Dr. Duncan L. Wormer was summoned to our house at 114 Brooklyn Street to help usher me into this world. It was around 9:00 P.M. when I first breathed Portville air, and I tipped the scales at a not-so-whopping 8 pounds, 3/4 ounce. I joined my brothers: John who had been born near Olean on December 28, 1928, Robert who was born February 8, 1930, (died of meningitis on January 25, 1936), and James who was born on July 10, 1932. Our sister, Marilyn, was born on November 4, 1933. All of us except John, and later David, who was born at the Olean General Hospital on July 5, 1941, (died of Leukemia on June 21, 1950), were born on Brooklyn Street.
Those were difficult years for my parents. The Great Depression had hit soon after they were married, and the complications of increasing family size added to their plight. About 1933 my father found work as a pumper for the Forest Oil Company just across the state line from Knapp Creek, New York. Although the pay apparently was not great, it was steady and he worked there until several years after World War II.
I do not remember living in the house at 114 Brooklyn Street as we moved down to 94 Brooklyn when I was an infant. That's where my conscious world began. One of my first memories was of hearing a nearby blast that killed several people and shook Portville. I remember looking out a side window and seeing our next door neighbor's (Mrs. Irma Roulo) mop on the ground and concluding that the blast had knocked it from its usual perch on the porch hand rail. When I got older I learned that the blast was at a Powder Plant near Eldred where several had been killed and many injured. That was about 1939.
I remember the house at 94 Brooklyn as a very nice and comfortable place to live. It had a large basement, a kitchen, a dining room, a living room, an enclosed rear porch, and a sun porch on the first floor. There were three bedrooms and a bath upstairs. Dad put wood or coal in the basement to fire the furnace which heated the entire house as well as the hot water for bathing, laundry, etc. The house was always warm throughout, which I cannot say about the house my parents purchased several years later at 110 Brooklyn Street.
The house at 94 Brooklyn was rented from a kind and gracious lady, Mrs. Maude Winegardner. We would see her occasionally, and I have fond memories of her. She was a sister of Mr. Claire Ludden, a building contractor who lived at 22 Maple Avenue.
Next door at 96 Brooklyn lived Mr. and Mrs. Raymond Roulo, Sr., who were very good neighbors. On the other side now occupied by Goss Avenue was a fire house. It was a small building about the size of a two car garage and was constructed with a raised pattern type of concrete block. Behind the building was a fire tower about thirty to forty feet high with a bell at the top. Some of the bigger boys in the neighborhood (I can only remember Doug Hewitt and Raymond Roulo, Jr.) would climb it when no adults were around. I tried it a few times but was afraid to go very high. The tower became scrap iron for World War II and the fire house was torn down to make way for Goss Avenue sometime in the late 1940's or early 1950's. At one time we could look in through side windows and see several strange looking assemblies consisting of two large wooden-spoked wheels attached to a hub two to three feet wide. In days gone by fire hoses rolled up on these assemblies could be rolled to the scene of a fire by firemen.
Across the street from us at 91 Brooklyn lived Mrs. Exilier (Roulo) Sies, a widow, and Mr. Frank Cole, bachelor. Mrs. Sies was an old woman, and I do not remember very much about her. Mr. Cole, not much younger, did some part time barbering and later cut my hair (for $.35) after my maternal grandfather,John Nagel, got too old to do so. Next to the fire house at 90 Brooklyn lived the Glady family for a while; then the Bill Goss family bought it and lived there several years.
Kindergarten started for me in the fall of 1940. The school system was experiencing growing pains so I attended at the Portville Fire Hall, or Firemanís Club, that year. Classes were held on the second floor, and I think there was also a first grade class in another room. I barely remember my mother walking me to school the first day or so, and from then on I was on my own. Today (1988), it would be considered cruel and inhuman punishment to make a five year old walk nearly a mile to school. In defense, however, of modern kids and parents, that was a different time. There were fewer dangers and mothers, most of whom were at home, tended to look after kids enroute to and from school.
I got "turned off" to school in kindergarten because another student told the teacher that I had broken a toy. I was kept after school and spanked even though I told her that I had not even played with the toy. The teacher did not like me for some reason, as I have looked back over the years and recalled other incidents where my treatment by her was not fair or just. Perhaps I had some actions and/or mannerisms that irritated her. The injustice of her actions, however, taught me the valuable lesson of never accusing or punishing someone under me until there was proof-positive that the individual was indeed guilty, and deserved the punishment.
First grade found me in Mrs. Bernice Waterman's class at the old school across from Pioneer Memorial Park on North Main Street. Mrs. Waterman's room was on the second floor in the old part of the building. This was the end of the building constructed about 1905 closest to the Presbyterian church. The other end was built about ]922 and from the front it was so well joined with the older structure that one could not tell that they were constructed at different times.
There were four rooms in that section and students advanced to the room behind Mrs. Watermanís for second grade. Third grade was across the hall, while fourth grade was across from first grade. At that time some of the country schools (Main Settlement, Bedford's Corners, etc.) were still in use and there was only one class per grade in that building. During or shortly after World War II the school system was centralized and renamed Portville Central School.
Mrs. Waterman was tough, demanding, thorough, and fair. One thing Inremember very clearly occurred on December 8, 1941. She pulled down a map and pointed to a speck in the middle of a large blue area and said, "That's Pearl Harbor." We didn't know anything about it except that some "Japs" had bombed it on Sunday, of all days. We would learn to hate Japs, Germans, and others who were killing our 'boys" overseas. We would also learn to do without the benefit of the many things that were rationed, e.g. gasoline, tires, sugar, meat, etc. I thought Mrs. Waterman was old then, but she was still teaching several years after I graduated. Of course at the tender age of six, anyone over seven looks old.
Advancing to Miss Lenore Carrís second grade room in the fall of 1942, I found myself learning some practical things. Miss Carr had a large dummy clock with movable hands that she used in teaching us to tell time. I remember that Miss Carr was the daughter of Mr. & Mrs. Heston (Het) Carr who lived next to the railroad tracks at 58 Temple Street.
Sometime during the school year Miss Carr got married and became Mrs. Conrad. Mr. Conrad came into the classroom one time in military uniform but I do not remember anything about him. Also that year, the entire school was dismissed one afternoon to collect scrap metal for the war effort. Anything that was metal and not attached found its way to a large scrap pile in the area behind where the bank now stands. I think some of the good citizens of Portville "donated" metal to the war effort whether they wanted to do so or not. We also saved toothpaste tubes and tinfoil to be recycled for war use.
Backing up a little in time to July of 1942, I remember vividly the flood. We were still living at 94 Brooklyn Street, and standing in our front yard we watched a raging torrent of water race down the street. Dodge Creek had overflowed at the turn just below where the big bridge is presently located. There were no steel pilings or dikes and that section of Brooklyn Street was washed out, allowing some of the overflow down the street, while some of it completely washed out Fairview Street. The big bridge was then where Fairview and Brooklyn Streets intersect. The footbridge was damaged and ultimately replaced at a location a hundred feet or so upstream.
Virtually everything imaginable came down the street, including chickens, chicken coops, barrels, logs, boards, etc. When the rains ceased and the flood reached its high water mark, that point was right at our driveway. The 1972 flood reached an even higher mark as I was visiting Portville when it occurred.
As a seven year old boy I had the interesting experience of walking over the hill with my father and brother, Jim, to our grandparents (Mr. and Mrs. A.R. "Burt" Rice) farm near Main Settlement to get milk. Coming back, instead of walking over the hill, we walked down the Shawmut Railroad tracks to their intersection with the Pennsylvania Railroad (now Conrail) at Whitehouse Tower. From there we walked along the tracks to Brooklyn Street where a young man in a boat took us almost to our doorstep.
There were many people walking the tracks and it was a hot day. Our milk was in tin pails and thirsty people thought we had cold water because of the condensation on the pails. About halfway between Whitehouse Road and Elm Street a bridge under the railroad had washed out leaving only the ties and rails suspended. Since the flood waters covered virtually everything, but the top of the railroad grade, it was a mighty scary feeling for a seven year old non-swimmer walking across those suspended cross ties.
When the waters receded, Jim and I decided to build a shanty behind Grandfather Nagel's machine shop at the rear of 46 Temple Street. The creek banks and nearby areas were littered with everything imaginable for our project. Aside from an abundance of lumber, we found doors, windows, wood shingles, and everything else we needed. Grandpa didn't particularly like what we were doing, but the ownership of the materials could not be determined, hence, he tolerated our project.
Advancing to Miss Joan Schnellman's (Mrs. Dick Johnson) third grade class was a pleasant experience as I remember it. She seemed friendlier than the teachers I'd had so far. I think that was the year we were first allowed to use ink. Each desk had a 1 1/2- to 2 inch diameter hole near the upper edge of the writing surface to hold the ink bottle. We dipped the straight pens into the ink and wrote until the ink was gone and a fresh dipping was required. Although I have heard a lot of stories about girls having their pigtails dipped in ink by the boy behind them, I did not see it happen. The desks were all fastened to the floor and aligned in straight rows. It wasnít until years later in Junior high school that we got movable desks.
Miss Derianís fourth grade room was behind the third grade room and just across the hall from first grade. My memories of that year are not too clear, except that Miss Derian was quite strict. Sometime during the year Coach Milton Latimer came into the classroom dressed in his military uniform. By this time the war had been raging most of our conscious lives. We were steeped in patriotism and to see our admired and respected coach in uniform was awe-inspiring to fourth graders.
Meanwhile outside of school other things were happening. In the fall of 1943 my parents bought the house at 110 Brooklyn Street. It had belonged to a brother and sister (Frank D. Fox, 1855-1939 and Ida M. Fox, 1865-1943) neither of whom was ever married. The house was in good structural condition but it took years to complete the modernization process. Some building materials were either not available or were of poor quality because of the war, and some work had to be deferred. The house initially was cold and uncomfortable compared to the "old house" but ultimately things got better. It was two doors down from where I had been born.
Our neighbors next door at 112 Brooklyn, a two-family house at that time, were my Aunt Marjorie (Nagel) Fox who was the widow of Frank Fox, a nephew of the previously mentioned Frank Fox. They had a daughter, Kay, who was born 25 days after I was, and much of my early childhood was spent playing with her. There were other families who lived there from time to time; including the Cregos, Eatons, Willovers, and others. On the other side at 108 lived Mr. And Mrs. (Hazel) Homer Wray. Homer worked at Portville Mills on Temple Street and they had a son, Howard, who saw action in the South Pacific during World War II. Mrs. Wray's mother, Mrs. Peckham, lived with them in her declining years. Directly across the street at 109 Brooklyn lived Mrs. Armstrong, a widow. Her house was without electricity and the glow of her gas lights was eerie especially when power failures left the rest of the neighborhood dark. On a few occasions I spent the night over there and remember groping around trying to find my way upstairs. The second and subsequent times found me armed with a flashlight.
The war was always on our minds. If it wasn't concerning shortages at home, we were being bombarded with news, reports, radio programs, etc.óall designed to inform us of the need to conserve and do other things for the war effort. As an example, we could save our dimes and quarters and buy defense stamps. The stamps (red 10 cents, green 25 cents) were sold at the Post Office and then put in a book. When the book was full it could be exchanged for a war bond, and buying bonds was very patriotic. Unfortunately dimes and quarters were hard to come by and many of us had our patriotic instincts overwhelmed by the few "goodies" available in the confectionery cases of local mercantile establishments.
Occasionally we had air raid drills. When the fire bell (located next to the Fire Hall) rang we all had to go inside and turn off all lights. Any light emissions from any source could result in potentially severe penalties for the offender(s). I remember one particular summer evening where my brother, Jim, and I had ridden our bicycles to Bedford's Corners to visit some friends. We stayed a little too long and on the way back it became fairly dark. Then we heard the air raid signal. My fertile imagination heard the drone of enemy bombers and of bombs falling not too far away as we hurried toward home. I was not jerked back to reality until we reached the village limits where an air raid warden (Dick Monroe, I think) told us not too gently to go home and stay there.
Downtown Portville didnít look much different then, except for the Post Office. Unfortunately some short-sighted and unimaginative community leaders did not appreciate the beauty of and the architectural uniqueness of that vintage 1904 structure. They had it destroyed in the early 1970ís and replaced with the square, sterile, functional, modern structure that now houses the Post Office and municipal offices. Portville was scarred beyond repair with the destruction of that unique and imposing monument admired by so many.
The old building housed, in addition to the Post Office, the Portville Theater, where we all flocked as often as possible to be thrilled by Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, The Durango Kid, Sunset Carson, Hopalong Cassidy, and many other cowboy actors. We were doubly thrilled to see Gabby Hayes on the screen as occasionally he visited his brother, Clark Hayes, who lived at 31 Temple Street. Portville then seemed like such a small isolated secluded community: to see someone as popular and well known as Gabby Hayes was a rare privilege. Admission to the theater was 11 cents and if one had a few extra pennies, cokes, candy, etc. were available in the Colonial adjacent to the theater entrance.
Since the Portville Opera House, Mersereau Hall, or whatever that imposing structure was called over the years played such a dominant role in my "growing up" time, I feel it important to further describe it. The front steps and entrance were at a 45 degree angle to Main and Temple Streets. One could stand on the steps and see a long way down North Main Street as well as observe all of the traffic passing through the village. The white brick exterior walls sat on a stone base about four feet high. The roof was of slate with a large hexagon-shaped dome, or cupola, at the center. It was the heart and center of Portville. a place that to many of us was Portville. Turning half-right just inside the main entrance was a small room on the right housing the Carl Holcomb Insurance Agency. Straight ahead was the Post Office which had windows facing South Main Street. The double doors leading into the theater faced the front entrance, with a ticket window to the right. Turning half-left inside the front doors was an open stairway to the second floor,then the stairway to the basement. The door to the Colonial Quality Shop, or as we called it, "The Colonial" was straight ahead. The second floor consisted of two rooms, a lobby for the theater balcony, and the balcony itself. The roon at the 1eft of the stairs (over the Colonial) was hone for the American Legion and later housed a beauty shop. On the right of the stairway across the lobby was a room over the Post Office where I spent part of my 5th grade school year. We were rarely allowed to watch movies or high school plays from the balcony. The old school did not have an auditorium so school plays, operettas, etc. were held at the theater. I have been told that the theater had been used extensively in years gone by for locally produced and professional road shows, as well as Vaudeville productions.
My Grandmother Nagel referred to that building as the "New Post Office" and reflected upon the inadequacy of the previous facility. She and many of her contemporaries would probably mourn the loss of their grand "new" facility. Wouldn't it have been nice if some of the village officials had sought federal funds to restore the "Opera House" instead of tearing it down? Perhaps summer stock could have been brought in, the theater reopened, or some other imaginative use of it found. What an unnecessary loss for Portville, Town of Colonial Beauty.
Other memories of those early years on Brooklyn Street include Acre's stores. The first location was in a building across from the intersection of Brooklyn and Fairview Streets, which for many years has been used as a residential garage. My cousin, Kay Fox, and I would get on our tricycles and armed with a penny or two proceed up there and splurge it all on something sweet. Later Mr. and Mrs. Acre moved their business down to 49 Brooklyn, near the railroad tracks. We weren't allowed to go that far at that age, so the Acres had to suffer the loss of our business. That store was still in operation when I was in high school, but I do not believe the Acres owned or operated it at that time.
Church was a significant part of my earlv life. My maternal grandfather, John F. Nagel, was recognized in 1942 for 40 years of perfect attendance in Sunday school at the Portville Methodist Church. When I was two years old he began picking me up, along with my brothers and sister, each Sunday morning and taking us to Sunday school. Subsequently we all had lengthy perfect attendance records, mine ending at about 12-13 years. Grandpa would get out his "Sunday car", a mint condition 1937 Buick sedan that had been given to him by his sister, Mrs. Olin (Tillie) Devore. We all thought his car was the epitome of luxury, style, and elegance. It was certainly better than his old work car, a 1925 Essex coupe.
At Sunday school I remember Some very dedicated adults who taught, sang, and/or played the piano. Among them were: Jane Greenman (now Miller), Bernice Champlin, Byron McCullough, John Barber, Mrs. Coleman, Madeline Parish, and Helen Parish. There were others, however, these are the names I remember most. Pastors I remember are Reverends Mabuce and Wilson. Later as a teenager I remember a sweet, dear Christian lady, Mrs. Rose Holcomb, who taught my class.
The church was laid out differently then than it is now. We entered through a large door at the front of the building which faced North Main Street. Inside was a vestibule with places for hanging coats, hats, umbrellas, etc. We entered the sanctuary from there through double swinging doors. Standing in the back of the sanctuary facing the front, this was the doorway in the right corner. Immediately to the right as one entered through the swinging doors was the choir loft and to its right, the pulpit. Both were elevated two to three feet as I recall. A large pipe organ with pipes reaching nearly to the ceiling was behind the pulpit area. The organistís back was toward the congregation.
The pews were laid out in a circular pattern with a small pew in the opposite corner from the pulpit. This is where one of the ushers sat and would take the offering plate down the aisle to the pulpit area. Sometime after World War II a building improvement program eliminated the front entrance, new pews were installed at right angles to the side walls, an addition was added on the side toward the library, and other changes were made. Everybody was proud of the changes at the time, however, I have become a traditionalist and looking back, the church was prettier before the changes. The modifications did, however, eliminate the often-treacherous uncovered front steps, increased seating capacity, and provided easier access.
I remember the winter of 1944 very vividly. My brother, Jim, had an "Olean Times Herald" newspaper route which started at the foot of Brooklyn Street, went down South Main Street, and ended at the railroad overpass on the road to Main Settlement. Along the way papers were delivered up Finch and Elm Streets, around Pine Street/Mersereau Place, up Whitehouse all the way to the Spring Hill Farm, then back-tracked to Anderson Road and proceeded to the overpass. From there it was back toward the Old Toll Gate, up South Main Street to the point of beginning. That winter was particularly severe and Jim developed something akin to rheumatism and for a long time could neither go tonschool or deliver newspapers. Although our sister, Marilyn, helped some, I remember many cold, brutal, blustery, snowy nights that I was alone and didnít get home until 8:00 or 9:00 P.M.
The route was hard to deliver since so much back-tracking was necessaryn and during much of the winter it was almost impossible to walk from house-to-house across front yards or to ride a bicycle. Usually I would proceed down South Main Street, deliver Finch and Elm Streets, go around Pine Street/Mersereau Place, up Whitehouse and Anderson Roads and then back toward the village. The last people to get their papers were those living on South Main between Pine Street and Mersereau Place.
Occasionally I would by-pass Pine Street/Mersereau Place, go straight down South Main all the way to the overpass and generally reverse that end of the route. Coming out of Whitehouse Road I would cross South Main, deliver Mersereau Place/Pine Street, and end at the intersection of Pine and South Main Streets.
I remember one particularly bad night that I delivered that way and received a good "cussing" by a man on Pine Street because his paper was late. I had started out as soon as the papers arrived and never stopped until they were all delivered. I got home after 9:00 P.M. The snow was eighteen to twenty-four inches deep, which made it impossible to use a bicycle, cut across lawns, or take other shortcuts. When I got to the intersection of Whitehouse and Anderson Roads, I discovered the road to Spring Hill Farm had not been plowed. The snow had drifted considerably and the wind was blowing quite hard. It must have taken 20 minutes or so just to deliver that one paper. Each delivery of the 80 plus papers was a challenge due to the cold, snow, and darkness. Perhaps that man didnít realize, or care, that a nine-year old boy had just about reached his level of physical and emotional endurance. Experiences like that, however, tend to prepare one for the rigors of the adult world to come.
Each Saturday morning was collection lay and we made a complete "run" of the route to collect the 18 cents per week subscription charge. I remember a French "war bride" who lived in an apartment at the Mersereau house. She was attractive, even to a young kid, but could not speak English. When the newspaper rate went up to 24 cents per week I had a difficult time trying to explain the increase to her. Finally she held out a handful of change and I took a quarter and returned a penny. After that she knew the correct amount.
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