Memories of The Highland Park Neighborhood – Part II
Dan Cragg is a former resident of the Highland Park Neighborhood and the author or co-author of over a dozen books. Recently he sent us a remembrance of his life, his family and his times spent in the area before he left in 1958. During his first of several careers, while with the United States Army, Dan travelled the world: including two tours of duty in Vietnam, and tours of duty in Germany, Italy, and South Korea. But even if he has never returned here to live, as the stories he shares reveals, the Neighborhood has always been with him. In the second of three parts of his wonderful contribution to our archives, Dan takes us back to the part of Mt Vernon Avenue with which he was most familiar as well as the family, neighbors and friends who shared that time and place with him
Mt. Vernon Avenue
One aspect of the neighborhood in my youth that may seem odd today is that it was all white. No black or Hispanic people lived in our part of the city back in the 1950s, there was no ethnic diversity in the neighborhood or our schools (I understand the student body at Monroe today is predominantly Hispanic). Black people were employed at the Highland Hospital and I suppose others seen passing by worked as domestics in some households, but our everyday life was one of de facto segregation.
I only remember black people coming to 340 Mt. Vernon once, a preacher in a southern branch of grandmother’s sect with his wife. Grandmother held a lawn party in their honor. I remember he had a big bandage on his head where someone had hit him with a rock. But I had no idea why anyone would’ve done that because to us who lived at No. 340, the social issues of the day were of little interest. Maybe that is why when the riots came in the 1960s we Rochesterians were dumfounded that “our” Negroes could act so destructively. After that event was the first time I ever heard my father, whose National Guard unit was mobilized during the crisis, use an ethnic slur. We were just not used in the ‘50s to having much contact with black people. They appeared rarely on that great integrator, our TV screens, sometimes as entertainers but never in the commercials which were aimed at ordinary (white) consumers.
Of those who grew up in my grandmother’s house on Mt. Vernon Avenue only my sister Virginia and I were born at Highland Hospital and we are the last of the clan. My father, James (1912-1990) was born in Irondequoit, my uncle Robert (1908-1990) was born in Morgantown, WV. I forget now where my Aunt Jo (1906-1967), my Aunt Virginia (1903-1920) and my Cousin Jack Gallagher (1933-2004) were born. My grandmother Villa Aspy (1877-1965) was born in Geneva, IN, and after living in other sections of Rochester, moved to Mt. Vernon Avenue in 1917 where she built her house at No. 340. This was two years after my grandfather Joseph (1871-1915), born in Baltimore, died.
About 1920, my Aunt Virginia died at No. 340 and her wake was held in the living room there. She, grandmother, Aunt Jo, are all buried at Mt. Hope along with my grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-grandmother. The Cragg line settled in Baltimore, MD in the early 1820s while my grandmother’s people, Aspys, all came from Indiana.
Grandmother Cragg was the matriarch of our family on Mt. Vernon Avenue and while she was no bigot her 19th-century rural, English Protestant American outlook was firmly impressed on all of us who grew up in that house.
Grandmother came from a staunch English Protestant background. Her favorite reading when a girl back in Muncie, Indiana, was The Pilgrim’s Progress and the King James Version of the Bible. But she never forced any of that on the rest of us. She firmly believed no child should be baptized until old enough to understand what that meant and so I never was because by the time I was old enough to understand its doctrines I knew I didn’t want to belong to her sect. Grandmother had her prejudices but they were against institutions, not individuals. When I’d ask why the bells at St. Boniface were not chiming the hour, as all proper clocks should, she’d whisper confidentially, “That’s because they’re on Vatican time.”
My mother was Irish Catholic but Grandmother accepted her into the family as one of her own with the simple condition no child born of that marriage should be baptized Catholic. Mother’s family rumor has it that when my sister and I were infants Mother took us surreptitiously to Buffalo and had us baptized in the Church of Rome. Maybe that’s why we both married Catholics. But my sister really violated our family tradition. She married a sailor instead of a soldier.
I deeply regret now that I never learned more about our family history when grandmother was still alive and could talk about it. When she died I was in Germany and my Uncle Bob cleaned out the house. He tossed out dozens of old family photographs and letters (“Who’d want all those old photos anyway? Nobody remembers who those people were,” he once explained). He did rescue my great-grandfather Benjamin Aspy’s GAR medal which I still have (as far as I know the Cragg men all somehow managed to avoid service in the Civil War). In a sense I grew up in the 19th century surrounded by artifacts from that era to include my great-grandmother’s spinning wheel and a wonderful example of “folk” art, a copy of the Lord’s Prayer my grandfather carved in wood when he was a boy, heirlooms I’d love to be able to pass on to my own grandchildren.
My uncle also tossed all of grandmother’s preserves, dozens of Mason jars filled with fruits and vegetables she’d cook up each fall for our winter’s fare. Those jars alone would be worth something as antiques these days. Of course sometimes you’d hear a loud “Pop!” from the basement as the jars exploded from the fermented gasses inside.
My mother, Margaret Gertrude nee Finucane (1913-1947), was born in Buffalo. She died of TB at the Iola Sanitarium. I remember her well but my sister, born in 1943, has hardly any memory of her mother because we were taken in by grand mother when mother went into the Iola near the end of WWII.
The last time I drove by the Iola it was an abandoned ruin but in my youth it was a going concern with hundreds of patients and a huge medical staff. For some time after my mother died in 1947 I had to go there to see if I’d been infected. I remember one young man sitting across from me in a waiting room. He had dark circles under his eyes and looked pale. My grandmother leaned over and whispered in a sepulchral voice, “He’s got TB.” I did too, but more on that later.
Of all those people only my sister, Virginia, and I are still alive.
The Smith place, just to the north of 340 in those days at 337 Mt. Vernon, was divided into apartments. One family that lived there was the Crandalls. Their daughter, Sue, was a playmate of my sister who was a bit older than she; a family named Malkin moved in sometime before 1958. They had a young son named Saul. There was also a Jerry Frieze (?) who lived alone. He was an X-ray technician at the Highland. I remember one other tenant, a cantankerous old man, who didn’t like us playing around the place, but I forget his name now. This old man wasn’t the only resident who discouraged us kids. My sister and Sue Crandall used to play on the porch along the north side of the house where Mr. Frieze had his apartment. Apparently he worked nights and resented the noise the girls made so he’d lean out a window and throw water on them. They took that as a challenge and played all the louder.
Our neighbor on the north side of 340 was a Mrs. Lehman and her sister. Both women were from Switzerland and spinsters. Mrs. Lehman worked as a technician at the Highland but I don’t remember what her sister did for a living. They once had a rat infestation at the Lehman place and Mrs. Lehman got my father, who was an expert marksman with a rifle, to shoot them from the sleeping porch at the back of our house. I was impressed by Dad’s skill and his rifle, a bolt-action, single-shot .22.
That sleeping porch, by the way, was a wonderful place to, well, sleep, but also to lie about and enjoy the weather. In the winter we’d pile on blankets and put hot water bottles at the foot of the huge bed up there to keep our toes warm
Next to the Lehman’s was the Corisses. They were generous, amiable people who often helped my grandmother in various ways. Their son, Bob, I believe his name was, lived on Rockingham Street. He was an entrepreneur whose various enterprises never seemed to do very well but otherwise was well respected in the community.
At the corner of Rockingham and Mt. Vernon lived the Lezottes. Their son, Ted, was several years older than I. In my teens I earned extra money raking the leaves off their yard.
By the way, Rockingham Street, as far as I can tell, hasn’t changed one bit in the last 70 years. Oh, improvements have been made to many of the houses over the years but driving down Rockingham today it’s just like it was when I walked to and from PS 24 as a child.
And just across the street from us was Highland Hospital. In my day an extensive lawn bordered the hospital on its Rockingham side. At the corner of South Avenue and Rockingham Street was a private residence that sat way back from Rockingham. I recall a family name Schutt or Schott (?) lived there. All that is now gone, absorbed by the hospital’s expansion. My Aunt Jo was an RN who worked at the Highland.
My grandmother’s house was a sturdy frame structure with a full basement and a large attic. Her lot was narrow but long and terminated in a three-car garage that allowed access to the alleyway that runs between Rockingham and S. Goodman Streets. In the winter of 1957 heavy snow caused the roof to collapse, severely damaging a neighbor’s car parked in there.
About 25 years ago, my father, my sister and I were allowed by the owner of 340 to go through the house. The improvements made to the place since grandmother died are impressive. In my day the house was heated by a coal-burning furnace. Later that was replaced by both a gas furnace and gas kitchen range. But in the 1940s the house was heated by coal. Periodically a truck would come by, back up to the south side of the house and unload coal into the bin in the cellar. In the winter keeping that furnace going was a real chore. It had a rapacious appetite and had to be fed and the fire tended periodically. Then the ashes had to be hauled out. That was heavy work. Sometimes we’d spread them on the walks to prevent slipping on the ice but otherwise a man would come by and take them away for what purpose I’ve now forgotten.
During WWII kitchen grease was a valuable commodity for the war effort and grandmother conscientiously saved it in tin cans which would be taken away periodically; the cans not used to hold the grease were also given up to industry and I remember helping her flatten them by jumping on them. During the winter of 1944 or 1945 I remember German (or Italian) prisoners of war shoveling the ice off Mt. Vernon Avenue. These men were confined in a camp at the Wide Waters off Culver Road and I remember seeing them playing basketball behind the high chain-link fences that surrounded their camp.
Grandmother’s house had a milk box, a receptacle built into the wall on the north side of her house. It had two little doors on hinges that could be fastened and the full bottles would be placed securely inside at delivery; empties went in to be taken away. My father worked at the Bartholomew Dairy down on St. Paul Street so we knew all the milkmen (ours was named Jerry). My father often worked the graveyard shift at the dairy and early one morning as he was in the kitchen preparing his lunch my Uncle Bob burst in on him with a drawn revolver, mistaking him for a burglar.
My Uncle Bob owned one of the first TV sets in our neighborhood, a tiny thing that received only black-and-white images. As I recall we could only see one channel and that did not broadcast all the time. That was the early 1950s and those were years of great TV fare as everyone acknowledges today, but at the time I thought the nighttime variety shows were boring. And something we’re not accustomed to on the televisions of the 21st century is the ads for cigarettes and alcohol that were ubiquitous in the 1950s. But the entertainment and communications technology we have today was a thing of science-fiction in 1950. I firmly believed then that by the time of the 21st century we’d have colonies on Mars but nobody then could possibly have imagined the digital revolution we’re living in today with tiny, hand-held devices that hold thousands of books, or satellite communications that offer live broadcasts from places like Doha.
Grandmother had an old radio in the living room, one of those antique models in an ornate wooden case so big it had to be mounted on a table and was full of glowing vacuum tubes. It had a short-wave capability and during the Korean War when grandma wasn’t listening to an episode of “Stella Dallas,” I could pick up Radio Peking’s (not yet Beijing in those days!) English-language broadcasts and listen to this sweet feminine voice predicting the UN forces would be driven into the sea at a place called Pusan. I never dreamed that one day I’d see that far-away place for myself. In our freshman year at Monroe High Dienbienphu was in the news. I never imagined then either how that event would affect so much the course of my own life.
When my cousin, Jack, went into the army I got his room in the attic at 340. Of course the house was not air-conditioned (I don’t remember any that were in those days) so in the winter it would be freezing up there and in the summer oppressively hot but I was allowed to decorate it as I wished and it was a delightful refuge. So was the entire attic, stuffed as it was with the lifetime accumulations of the people who lived in that house, my Aunt Jo’s nursing textbooks, the paperback novels my father read and then tossed in a pile. I took one, about the Spanish conquest of Mexico, to school in the sixth grade, Mrs. Rowland glanced at the first page, handed it back, and announced, imperiously, “You shall not read that book in my class!”
In the front of the attic were windows looking out over Mt. Vernon Avenue and in the summers I’d lie by those windows and read in the breeze that came through. That’s where one summer I read Prescott’s histories of the conquest of Mexico and Peru, a dictionary by my side so I could look up words like “consanguineous.” Prescott proved a lot more interesting than that novel. Those books taught me the difference between the discipline of history and the license of fiction.
My Uncle Bob was a Jack of all Trades. He and my Aunt Nathelene lived with us for a while in the early 1950s, while their house on River Road was being built. Uncle Bob was a state employee at the Culver Road Armory for a while and later a maintenance man at the County Hospital. Both my father and Uncle Bob served in Headquarters Troop, 121st Cavalry Regiment in the 1930s and rode their horses all over Cobb’s Hill and out even to the Mendon Ponds. Father served in the Guard for over 30 years and as a boy I spent many weekend hours running about inside the vast spaces at that armory. I enlisted in the Guard myself in November 1956 and before enlisting in the regular army, served 18 months in Headquarters Battery, 105th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Brigade with my father who was the noncommissioned officer in charge of the battery’s meteorological section. I spent one summer camp on Lake Ontario not far from Oswego. The whole battery was mustered there and spent the entire two weeks shooting at remote-controlled targets out over the lake. They never seemed able to hit anything with all those guns but that proved the most exciting summer of my youth. And I got paid for it.
Marksmanship training was conducted at a range in Rush and usually occupied one weekend a year. Camping out there was fun and shooting was even more fun but the place was alive with snakes. Many of the men in that unit were from places like Churchville and Avon but most were from Rochester so the unit had the homely composition of an old-time militia where all the men had known each other most of their lives. Jerry Flye enlisted with me in 1956 and we trained together, such as it was, until I went into the Regular Army. Years later Jerry succeeded to the position of Command Sergeant Major of the 209th Artillery Group at the Main Street Armory.
Today the Culver Road Armory has been converted into a shopping mall housing boutiques and other businesses. In the old armory foyer once hung memorial plaques with the names of deceased guardsmen engraved on little brass plates. I knew many of those men. During renovation the plaques disappeared and despite my best efforts contacting various officials, nobody knows what became of them.
The National Guard was not my only source of income while in high school. I also worked at the Syracuse Bakery at 793 South Goodman Street. It was owned and operated by Harry Rubinson and his wife, Sarah, a real mom-and-pop enterprise. The Rubinsons made bagels, mostly, for sale to Rochester’s Jewish delicatessens & restaurants. I worked in the bakery with members of the Willis family (all experienced bagel benders) nights and helped deliver the bagels in the mornings. On Sundays I’d wash down the bakery. I was paid $1.25 an hour. I’d go in near midnight Friday, work until the deliveries were finished Saturday morning, and repeat the process Saturday night into Sunday morning.
Old Mr. Rubinson did the mixing of the dough and the baking; I cut the dough and rolled it into the bagel shape and got it ready for the oven. He was the hardest-working man I’ve ever known. Years of bending over a hot oven had bleached his forehead white. I couldn’t believe the abuse he accepted from his customers who always argued vociferously over his bills but they always paid because Harry Rubinson’s bagels, while fresh, were the most delicious in the world. But because he used no preservatives, when they got to be a day old, they turned as hard as cannon balls. His most frequent remark to me was “Dan, vot you are doink?” I’ll never regret that job or forget walking into a hot restaurant down on Joseph Avenue on an early Saturday morning in winter to be met by the invigorating aroma of fresh-made coffee, a sensation Starbucks can never match. And I’ll never forget Harry Rubinson’s fresh bagels either. Harry took his secret recipe with him and we’ll never see it or a man like him again. (Years later what was once the Rubinson’s living quarters was turned into an ice cream parlor which I think has now gone out of business.)
The Willises, Phil and his father, also worked for the Rubinsons. They lived at No. 438 Caroline Street (now a parking lot). Their house was my second home. Phil’s parents, his older brothers, Matt, John, Jim, his sister Martha, they’re all gone now. The last time I was up there Phil and I had our pictures taken in front of the PS 24 façade, two ponderous old men hobbling up the steps we used to take in a bound when boys.
Back to the Smith place. It is a late Victorian brick mansion that sits opposite Highland Hospital’s Oncology Ward along Mt. Vernon Avenue and was known to us as simply the “Smith Place.” (My father was a patient in that oncology ward and once, being told his options for treatment he simply remarked, “This is the hand I’ve been dealt and I’m going to play it out.” He did.) In my youth there was a gradual sloping lawn between the Smith mansion and my grandmother’s house at No. 340. About 1957 the house that now occupies that space was built. But before that time we used to play on that lawn. The mansion itself was surrounded on the west & north sides by a porch with wrought-iron railings all of which have since disappeared. The back part of that lawn was graced by an enormous oak tree that has since been cut down. That tree had to have been over 300 years old judging by its height and width and I played under its spreading branches for years. I used to try to imagine what it might have seen since it was a sapling, perhaps the Marquis de Denonville’s army as it marched up from Irondequoit Bay against the Senecas at Victor in 1687?
The grounds were maintained by a handyman we called “Emil,” who spoke with a vague accent although I do not know his real name or where he came from. He lived on Oakland Street.
In my day the Smith place was also rented out for apartments. The Crandalls, as I mentioned, lived there and their daughter, Susan, was a friend of my sister’s. I earned twenty-five cents a week for taking out the Crandall’s trash for them.
We children firmly believed the Smith place had been a station on the Underground Railroad. It looked old enough to have pre-dated the Civil War. One day I got curious and wrote to the Rundel Memorial Library asking for information on the history of the old mansion. The reply was that it was built in 1870 by a “Major Smith,” so that was the end of its romantic Abolitionist past. However, Frederick Douglass did live within easy walking distance of where 340 Mt. Vernon Avenue now stands. There’s a modest historical marker on the site of his home, near the Highland Bowl Amphitheater, and his house really was a stop on the Railroad.
On the south side of the Smith property stood, and still did when I was last up there, an old two-story red wooden barn that in the 1950s served as a garage with storage space in the loft. I’d often sneak in there with Bill Corlette who lived just down Mt. Vernon from us, where we’d smoke cigarettes by candlelight. One night someone locked the only door to the stairs leading to the loft and we wound up trapped inside. We finally managed to get out through a trap door opening out over the drive. Dangling out the opening we dropped the remaining several feet onto the gravel and made our escape. That was the end of our nocturnal candlelit smoking parlor.
Between the Smith Place and the Jamison’s property at 428 Mt. Vernon there used to be a small open patch of land. About 1956 a house was built there but in the late 1940s my father had permission to grow vegetables on that property. One day, stumbling over the newly plowed furrows, I cut my left knee on a shard of glass. My father carried me to the emergency ward at the Highland, just down the street. I can still remember the blood running down father’s arm. The wound was about 1 ½ inches long and I still have the scar.
The Jamison Place
The big mansion at 428 Mt. Vernon Avenue was known as “the Jamison Place” in my childhood. I believe the family that lived there in those days was named Jamison although I had only very brief contact with them. In the late 1950s the place was sold to the Catholic Church as a home for the Sisters of St. Joseph but has since been converted into very attractive and comfortable bed-and-breakfast where I’ve stayed several times on visits to the old neighborhood. In my day the Mt. Vernon Avenue side was bordered by a high wrought-iron fence. Right across the street stood the quarters for the nurses employed at the hospital. At night we boys would climb that fence and attempt to peer into the windows of the quarters in the hope of seeing something interesting. It is sad to report we never did.
The last time I stayed there I had a hankering for a snack at night when I realized there are no convenience stores located in that section of the neighborhood. In Maryland and Virginia fast-food emporia, coffee shops, supermarkets, are everywhere and many are open at all hours. In my boyhood we did most of our shopping at an A&P on the corner of South Avenue and Linden Street and I remember a neighborhood grocery very close by the A&P that was open late. There was a Wegman’s on S. Clinton and the Highland Diner as well as an ice cream parlor next to the Cinema Arts Theatre. Down on South Avenue and Gregory Street, across from the old Rexy theater, was a place called Greco’s where my cousin hung out and a bit farther north on that side of the street a grocery store whose name I have forgotten, but we ate all our meals at home and whatever snacks we had came out of grandmother’s refrigerator. Anyway, that night at 428 we had to drive to a mall south of town to get a hamburger.