21 Aug 2014
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Penny Candy Shops, Neighborhood Barbers: The Heart of South Farms

Buildings are disappearing and changing so quickly, and the memory of some of these places is fading with the passing of generations.

Penny Candy Shops, Neighborhood Barbers: The Heart of South Farms Penny Candy Shops, Neighborhood Barbers: The Heart of South Farms Penny Candy Shops, Neighborhood Barbers: The Heart of South Farms Penny Candy Shops, Neighborhood Barbers: The Heart of South Farms Penny Candy Shops, Neighborhood Barbers: The Heart of South Farms Penny Candy Shops, Neighborhood Barbers: The Heart of South Farms Penny Candy Shops, Neighborhood Barbers: The Heart of South Farms

Last week’s provided a background for the development of the South Farms area beginning in the 1830s with the establishment of the Russell Manufacturing Company. The mill prospered for 150 years, making elastic webbing originally used as belts to power machinery and later for suspenders and cartridge belts during the World Wars.

With the influx of workers to the mill, many of them immigrants from Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Italy, the smaller neighborhoods with South Farms grew into vibrant communities that provided the residents with virtually everything they needed.

There were three basic neighborhood centers that developed: One near the intersection of Silver and East Main streets; another at the crossroads of Saybrook Road (Middlesex Turnpike) and East Main; and another at the intersection of Russell Street, Hillside Avenue and East Main. The map to the right, from the 1920 Price & Lee Middletown Directory, shows the area, but the street names will be confusing for the modern reader. 

I purposely loaded the photograph upside down for it to make sense. “East Main Street” running toward the top is Saybrook Road and “Main Street” bisecting the map is currently East Main Street. Some of you may also remember that there was a rotary at this intersection until the early 1960s.

I am deeply indebted to my readers for sending me extensive information about South Farms during the past week.  Several readers, most importantly “Mr. Fixit,” provided me with extensive data to allow me to piece together the history of the neighborhood stores.

THE HEART OF SOUTH FARMS

The earliest school was at the center of South Farms. It was on Saybrook Road, in the triangle formed by Baer and East Main streets. The structure still stands and is shown here. It was converted to a residence when Hubbard School was built in 1908. This neighborhood also offered a branch parish of Christ Church (Episcopal).

Over the course of 100 years, several stores and businesses were opened to meet the needs of the local residents. The first retail store to open was Smith’s, a grocery store owned by Albert and Mary Smith. When it opened in 1868, it was in a small building on East Main Street. In 1890, they built a large brick structure on Saybrook Road nearly opposite the old school. In the vintage postcard of South Farms, taken facing northeast from East Main, Smith’s store is on the right edge.

As the advertisement from a late-19th-century city directory illustrates, Smith’s sold much more than groceries. It was more of what was then called a “mercantile.” After Smith’s closed, c. 1915, the building housed Elliot’s, which many readers wrote to me about.  Elliot’s was not a grocery store, but must have had toys, or at least candy, since so many people remember it from their childhood!  The building was torn down before 1980.

Adjacent to Smith’s/Elliot’s, to the north, was Tavel’s store in the wood-framed house visible in the center of the old postcard. Mary Tavel operated this store as early as 1920 with her husband Joseph. They were Jewish immigrants from Poland. In the 1930s, his occupation in the federal census is listed as “peddler,” of farm products, so the store may not have been open consistently for a period of years.

Many of my readers, however, remembered it in the 1950s as a “variety store” that they stopped into on their way home from Hubbard School. This building was dismantled in the 1980s and rebuilt in the Maromas section of town. I have included a photograph of the Tavel’s house and store as it looks today on its new rural lot.

At this intersection along the Middlesex Turnpike, which was the main route south toward the shore, there were also several small businesses located in the triangle formed by Baer, East Main and Saybrook Road. Red’s Barber Shop was run by two Italian brothers in the building at the northeast corner, shown here, during the 1950s.  In the same space was a small smoke shop. Anyone remember the proprietors of these two businesses?

At the intersection of Wall and Saybrook Road, on the north side, there was a small candy store run by Joe and Janet Brenner in the 1950s. He also tinkered in back with a radio repair shop. Across the street, and a little south, was a large boarding house that was originally built for workers at the nearby mills.

Eventually it was converted to several apartments and a bar was located in the basement, the Rathskeller. This was still open in the 1980s (don’t ask me how I know that), and the building was torn down to make room for the entrance into Stop & Shop.

Next week, I will cover the South Farms neighborhood to the north at Silver Street and East Main. The week following will be about the stores and businesses on the southern end of East Main Street at Russell Street and Hillside Avenue.

For folks who lived through these time periods, and for those of us who only have a glancing recollection of them, it is satisfying to get this information written down for the record. The buildings are disappearing and changing so quickly, and the memory of some of these places is fading with the passing of generations. It feels good to be getting it all down.

See you next week.

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