A walk along Newport’s Main Street on Labor Day 1942

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by Norman Rioux 

copyright the Chronicle 8-29-2012

Photo of Main Street in Newport from the Richardson-Cartee collection, courtesy of Scott Wheeler and the Vermont Northland Journal

In 1942 at Labor Day, America was not yet even one year into World War II.  As a ten-year-old fourth grade student about to enter Belle Coan’s class in West School, I wandered along Newport’s Main Street seeing and greeting, killing time, and doing a lot of window shopping.  I left my Outlook Street home, came down the Prue stairs to West Main Street, waved at Annie Brooks on her front porch, admired Bob Clement’s well-mown lawn, and hurried by the Prouty’s wall.

A bully in the eighth grade had attacked me in front of that wall the previous spring, and even a few months later it still was a scary spot for me.

Helen Foster, the piano teacher, was going into her apartment.  Inez Miller’s Oldsmobile with number plate 111 was pulling out of her driveway.  (I knew she had to be important, quite aside from the Prouty and Miller connection, because how could one have a number plate as low as that without being a somebody?)

One of the Landrys was standing in the bay window of their living room waving at me, and Helen Burdick, as usual, was in her front window of number 99 apparently reading.  I was tempted to go up the two flights of stairs to rap on Iva and Toots Conley’s door on the third floor because they had known me since I was a toddler living on the ground floor at 2 White Place, just behind their building.  Iva had a beautiful collection of very old things in her apartment, including wallpaper that she had removed from its original home and brought to her apartment.  Even for a ten-year-old, its beauty and theme was quite enthralling to say nothing of all the old toys that she had collected, which I could play with in that childless home.  But I didn’t have the nerve, so I continued past the Tydol Station on the Third Street corner.

The St. Germaine ladies were sitting on their front porch — weren’t they always, except in winter?  Nobody seemed to be stirring at Dr. Emmons’ house, the courthouse clock had the wrong time as usual, and I glanced across the street to see Benware’s Furniture and the Armory.  On the previous Thursday, I had stood in front of that Armory watching husbands and wives, boyfriends and girlfriends, mothers and fathers and sons all embracing and hugging before they boarded the Greenwood Bus that would carry them off to war as draftees or enlistees.  Even as a kid, I knew that for at least some of them, it would be the last time they ever saw their loved one alive.  That memory when, 70 years later — thinking of Austin Beebe, Raymond Blake, basketball games played by Newport High School — I pass by the same armory, still haunts me.  On that 1942 day, Gene Bryant, the chief of police, was walking down the steps on his way to solving some very minor crime, the theft of coins left in the milk bottle, for the Palins to collect when they delivered their product, perhaps.

The post office was by far and away the most classic building on Main Street, then and now.  On that day it would, of course, be closed for the holiday.  The same Bob Clement whose lawn I had admired would not be dispensing stamps that day, nor would Mr. Skinner be post mastering, nor would Winston Hunt be running the elevator, one of three lifts that existed in Newport 70 years ago.  The other two were in the Hotel Newport and the Orleans County Memorial Hospital on Longview.  When I would go to my dad’s customs office on the second floor, probably much to the consternation of Mr. Hunt, I would march into Win’s elevator and peremptorily demand, “second floor, please,” as if a ten-year-old were not healthy enough to climb one set of stairs.

Molly Williams’ Amoco station appeared to have a new coat of very dark green paint.  The Goodrich library, the second most imposing structure on Main Street, was closed for the holiday, but I spied Laura Stone looking out the window from the reading room, probably there to do some chore which required the peace and quiet she demanded from her patrons but didn’t always succeed in achieving.  I popped downstairs to Alberghini’s basement to buy a pack of Wrigley’s spearmint gum for a nickel.  I caught proprietor John peering through his very thick eyeglasses at a piece of paper money, asking the customer, “Is that a five, Bill?”  The aforesaid Bill assured John that it was indeed a five, and got back the proper change.  Passing Mr. Brochu’s barber pole which led to his basement parlor under the Treasure Shop reminded me that I was supposed to get a haircut before school resumed the next day, but luckily I had managed to avoid that nuisance.  The latest novels and gifts were on display in the Treasure Shop window.  That particular season they were featuring an historical novel that one of my pals told me had a very racy section in it which his parents had forbade his reading.  He, and subsequently I, were determined to get our hands on that book somehow, but, of course, we couldn’t afford to buy it.  The going price for the hard book copy was $1.98, and at 25 cents a week allowance it would take eight weeks with absolutely no other expenditures to save up that much, assuming that they would have even sold it to me.

Hamblett’s store and bakery was open even though it was Labor Day.  They had recently expanded to combine space with the adjoining building.  Their business phone hung on the wall between the two parts of the business (Newport 404 was their phone number).  Anyone, without as much as asking permission, could pick up the phone to make a call, and one of the operators at the switchboard over at the National Bank would ask, number please.  I decided to call Dean (193) Burns to see if he wanted to ride down on his bike from Raymond Avenue to join me.  Nobody answered.  He was probably at the Methodist Church on Third and Summer Streets, practicing the organ.  I decided I’d check later.

The Royal Café was open, doing a lot of breakfast business, and Frank Curran, holiday or not, was in the little squeezed up building where Western Union functioned.  Across the street, Montgomery Ward was closed for the holiday as was Grant’s and the American Clothing Company.  Joel Needleman’s parents owned the clothing store, and he and I had spent many hours at 25 cents an hour in the basement of that building, now a Thai restaurant, making up cardboard boxes for use in the business.  Stores like L.J. Needleman’s kept their help for longtime careers like Ken and Wayne, Isabelle and Eglantine.  I was surprised to see that True and Blanchard was open; perhaps they were having a sale.  Mr. True, well along in years, was still alive and living in his house on the corner of Third and Prospect Streets, but Jay Carr was truly running the store these days.  Their bargain basement was a place to shop in Newport in terms of great prices for great merchandise, a true mercantile institution on the street.  The door to Phelps’ Pharmacy on the corner of Central Street was ajar, and if Dean or Joel or Bruce or David had been with me, I could have gone in to spend a nickel on one of their super cherry cokes.  Phelps’ Pharmacy was, of course, a drug store, and both Molly and George, mother to David and Anne, were pharmacists.  Much later on, both of the children also became pharmacists, and it may well have been that they were the only pharmacy in Vermont where mom, dad, and the two children were all in that profession.  However, for me at ten years of age, the nickel cherry cokes were the real deal, but I couldn’t go in by himself to occupy a booth, and counter seats seems reserved for the local tradespeople because young folks never sat in one of those seats.  I was always amused when Gertrude Albee would write in her Locals column in The Daily Express that a Mr. and Mrs. Box from Salem, Massachusetts, were visiting their daughter and son-in-law, Mr. and Mrs. George Phelps at 9 and one-half Third Street.  It was the combination of the fame and notoriety of the Witch City and the surname of “Box” which, so very British, got me every time.

After passing the pharmacy, I glanced down Central Street where I had lived until 1938 when we moved to Outlook Street, to a house which had just been vacated by a shoe salesman named Tony Pomerleau who was moving on to Burlington to seek a bigger and better career.  I guess it would not be presumptive to say that he succeeded.  Central Street was kind of unusual because while it bore a name implying some kind of greatness it was, and is, about one block long.  However, in that one block were the Handy’s of ice house fame, the IOOF Hall, the Daily Express building, the Reid’s Bricmanor Hotel, the Kenerson, Reese, and Cass families (in that order), the vacant lot, and Dr. Somers’ (then deceased home/office), now occupied by his widow and their two children, Joyce and Homer.  The doctor’s space in the back of the house at number 37 had been converted into an apartment by Dorcas, and it was there that my family and I lived from 1935 until 1938, enjoying the company next door of Winsome and Earl Lewis — who also had a pharmacy on the Main Street — their two children, Carolyn and Jeanne, and Grandpa Jones, Win’s elderly but still very eccentric father.  Beside them was a Mr. Hellman who managed the Burns Theatre, and on the corner of Eastern Avenue was Dr. Gilman, a chiropractor.  At that time, I had no idea what a chiropractor did, but the honorific of Dr. in front of his name was enough to impress me.  The other side of Central Street had Myrtle Lamphere, the Moloneys, the Williamsons, Norma Carder, Josie Centerbar, Sisco’s dry cleaning, and later on the building to which Gladys Carr moved her cosmetology shop after renovation, but that all took place much later than this Labor Day in 1942.

I decided to take the risk of crossing Main Street at the Central Street corner to gain a little sunshine because the southern side was in the shade, passing Penney’s, Endicott Johnson shoe store, Cy Searles’ jewelry emporium, and the Crawford block.  Dr. Crawford was one of Newport’s three dentists (S.W.F. Hamilton, Perry Fitch, and Dr. Piette) but he and his wife, Shirley, operated a furniture store called Newport Home Supply on the first floor of their block on the corner of Lane Avenue.  It was where my parents purchased for me my first bicycle.  (It later on became the A&P where one was allowed, on a limited basis, to actually pick off the shelves what one wanted to purchase instead of instructing a clerk what it was by name and waiting while he or she went to retrieve it and brought the item to the counter.  It also had the first frozen foods department in Newport (all Birdseye products).

My mother, who had a sense of fashion herself, said that red-haired, beautifully coiffed Martha Needleman had the best taste in women’s clothes in the state of Vermont.  She and her husband, Ed, across Lane Avenue from the Crawford block, owned and operated a clothing and shoe store which could best be described as a skinny city block long and an extremely skinny quarter of a block wide, crammed with first class merchandise which Martha had hand picked on her frequent trips to the garment district in Manhattan.  As I walked by their store I remembered a telephone call to my mother of just two or three days earlier.

“Gladys?  This is Martha Needleman.  I just got back from New York, and I found a perfect dress for your high waist problem, and I bought it just for you.  It’s a rust color, which is perfect for your skin type.  When can you come in to see it?”

It’s no wonder with that kind of service 70 years ago that there is still a Needleman’s almost exactly where it sat so long ago.

I crossed back over Main Street again, gaining the corner where Louis Desautels managed the Orleans Trust Company next to Joe Bonneau’s men’s clothing store.  Cheek to jowl with that business was Abe Arkin’s shoe store which had another one of those long, longtime employees, Shelly Gardner.  They also had the only x-ray foot machine, which allowed you to look at how your feet were encased in a new pair of shoes that you were contemplating to purchase.  It was spooky but fun to buy shoes at Arkin’s with that machine.  I walked by Bly’s Pharmacy, the National Bank, the Antetomaso’s fruit store, and back up to Central Street, remembering that since Wheeler’s Cut Rate drugs across the street was open I could have bought one of their ice cream cones which had pre-packed rectangular shapes of ice cream placed in the cones instead of scoops, but, alas, their store was so small that I had fled right by it without noticing.

Perhaps I was ten years old, perhaps there was a new war just starting, perhaps rationing and hardships, scarcities, and even death of loved ones was all in the future between 1942 and 1945, but all of those were in the unknown.  To a ten-year-old, the future is limited to tomorrow, the past is just yesterday, and as a little boy growing up in Newport, even in war torn years, life was as good as it gets.  My compadres now are largely in their 80s, if they are even still alive.  Whatever we may have achieved in our individual lives, aside from the personal talents we may have brought to the altar, lies, in my opinion, in large measure to old Newport, the smallish city by the beautiful waters.  I walk that Main Street in memory every day of my life.

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