Secrets of Brooklyn Square

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Van-Lite lighter fluid dispenser, circa 1940s.

Contributing Writer
Joan V. Cusimano Lindquist

The title of this April column may be a bit misleading although the Square undoubtedly held many undiscovered secrets that may still come to light—think the fact that not too many citizens, except old-timers, knew that the Chadakoin River ran under many of the buildings in this once heart of the city. Rather, I’d like to present for my readers’ perusal some interesting and revealing bits of information about people and places in old Brooklyn Square.

Take South Main Pharmacy for instance, a mainstay on the Broadhead Block between Derby and Harrison Streets. South Main Pharmacy at 39 S. Main Street, also known to Lost Neighborhood residents as Spera’s Drug Store, sold “sweet wood,” which is another name for licorice root from the sassafras tree. When chewed in its dried state, it releases a mild, sweet taste of licorice. A soft drink called sarsaparilla is made from sweet wood. My late brother, John Cusimano, once told me that he and the Derby Street boys would often march into Spera’s and demand sweet wood, which probably took a lot of chewing and spitting, maybe mimicking tobacco chewing. Well, boys will be boys!

South Main Pharamcy also had a coin-operated Van-Lite lighter fluid dispenser. Put a penny into the small vending machine, about 18 inches high, pull the lever, and it would dispense a dose of lighter fluid directly into one’s cigarette lighter. Convenient!

The Maddox Machine Company, originally located at 101 Harrison Street in 1920, was relocated to 61-63 South Main Street from1922 through1934. It was solely owned by William J. Maddox, whose larger business was the well-known Maddox Table Company. The residents of Derby Street, especially young boys who played in the over-grown area they called “the Jungle,” often referred to that corner where Derby intersected S. Main as “Maddox”–probably because of the location of the machine company. The Maddox Machine Company, that was located in a large house at the S. Main Street location, manufactured woodworking machines, among which may have been the “stroke” polisher invented by Maddox himself. Later, it was abandoned, and the ruins became a place of exploration for Lost Neighborhood youngsters.

Tony Zerbo, like many of the Lost Neighborhood and surrounding area kids, considered the Roosevelt Theater a mainstay of their Saturday afternoon entertainment during the Great Depression. Many of his fellow theater-goers, like Tony, were the children of Italian immigrants whose mothers would pack lunches and then send their offspring to the Roosevelt Theater to spend the entire afternoon there, watching double features and lots of cartoons! A dime got you a seat. Once ensconced, Tony recalls diving into a lunch of meatball sandwiches with red pasta sauce, melanzani (eggplant) with grated Romano cheese, salami and cheese, or left-over veal cutlet sandwiches—all on homemade bread! Forget popcorn. The aroma of Italian sandwiches filled the air! Never mind the fact that parents got a break from rambunctious kids.

There was a Greek man who had a store in Brooklyn Square who catered to the Italian community, selling dry goods in bulk and items such as baccala (dried cod fish), garbanzo bean flour (Cecci-Cecci), olives from a big barrel, and sacks of wheat flour. He spoke fluent Italian. Tony Zerbo’s father used to call him “Uh Greco,” and he had a large clientele among the Italians in Jamestown. The store Tony Zerbo remembers may very well have been the Italian Olive Oil Company at 43 South Main Street that occupied that location from 1932 to the late 1930s. By 1937-38, the Victoria Olive Oil Company took over that space in the Broadhead Building.

As a child, Tony Zerbo would accompany his father to Brooklyn Square where he would see a group of elderly Italian men, all immigrants, sitting on benches at the lower end of Fenton Park near the water fountain. Many of them would be smoking Toscani cigars! Standing in front of them was another man who was reading out loud to them from an Italian newspaper. Apparently all he read to were illiterate both in Italian and English. This man also acted as a scribe to write letters for them and also translate for those who could not read or write. Just a sign of the times for that era of Brooklyn Square.

The tornado that struck Brooklyn Square and the surrounding residential areas of Jamestown on Sunday evening, June 10, 1945, did significant and costly damage to the Square, as many may still remember. Sam Milioto, however, recalled that midway through the Jamestown Falcon Class “D” Pony League baseball game the fans at Jamestown Municipal Stadium were told to leave because of the approaching storm.

Governor Reuben E. Fenton graduated from Fredonia Academy, a private school of higher education that opened in 1826 as the only institution of higher learning in western New York State. The Fenton mansion, where the two-term governor lived, is in the Lost Neighborhood area of Jamestown, situated on its original grounds once called Fenton Park by local residents. In 1964 it became home to the Fenton Museum and History Center. The original name of the Fenton mansion was Walnut Grove, no doubt indicating its address before numbers were assigned to residences in that area of the city. When the Fenton family ceased living in the mansion, it was taken over by veterans’ associations, and during WW II, it functioned as a recruitment center. In 1972 the mansion was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Victor Hager music studio, where Mr. Hager gave accordian lessons, was located in the Gifford Building in the late 1940s. In 1952 the Victor Hager Accordian School then moved to 41 South Main Street, right next to South Main Pharmacy in the Broadhead Block. Annette Young Waite and her sister Celia, who lived in Randolph, New York, took private lessons from Victor Hager at his Gifford Building studio. Their duet of the “Sharpshooter’s March” was a hit during Randolph High School’s Class Night in 1948! There was also a dance studio located in that area.

And my late brother regaled me with this tall tale in preparation for my 2015 book REMEMBERING BROOKLYN SQUARE: THE 1930s TO THE 1960s– “John (Johnny) Colera, owner and operator of Johnny’s Lunch in Brooklyn Square, paid $100 in the late 1930s to a guy from Texas for the recipe for Johnny’s famous hot dog sauce. It’s a true story, right from Johnny’s lips to my ears! That $100 was a lot of money at the height of the Depression. In the late 1930s, $100 would be equivalent to $1,677.23 in 2015! Just so y’know.”