Growing Up In Branford During the 1940’s & 1950’s
Growing Up In Branford During the 1940’s & 1950’s
by Bob Wood
In the years 1940-50, Branford was largely farmland. There were the Aceto and Barrons’ farms on East Main Street almost in the center of town. There was Jordan’s farm off of Maple Street and Sagal Lou’s covered the entire Branford Hills. There were three beautiful cow barns starting on the hill where Wal-Mart now stands with beautiful pasture land spreading all the way to the top where McDonalds is today.
From Route 1 heading toward Stony Creek on Leetes Island Road were the Lamartra and Richetelli farms. On Route 1 heading toward Guilford, were the Cooks and Kneuer Orchards and just into Guilford, the Bishops Apple Orchard. Medlyns Dairy was on Leetes Island Road in Stony Creek with Soffers chicken farm on Damascus Road.
Martone’s chicken farm was in the center of the hill on Main Street just before Branford Building Supplies. All of Totoket Road, which we called Brushy Plains and North Ivy Streets, were farmland. There were the Johnson’s farm and Greco’s and Santo’s pig farms. At that time the pig farmers collected the town garbage for pig feed.
Osborn’s Feed and Grain supplied all the feed for the farms and also sold coal. Later Mr. Osborn opened Osborn’s Pipe and Pouch selling pipes and tobaccos. As kids we would play on the empty box cars sitting on his siding.
Branford Train Depot
I lived on Elm Street and on the back side of our property was a gazebo that I believe belonged to Robert Friend, a boat builder who lived on Roger Street. My father used to take me there to watch the trains go by below along Meadow Street. Freights sometimes 100 cars long were common in those days. The engines were still steam. I have read that a thousand trains a day made their way through the New Haven Station during the 1940’s.
The Malleable Iron Fittings and Atlantic Wire Companies were in full swing during the war. I remember the Branford River being red from the rusted wire and pollution from the mills.
A very early recollection of mine, I was about 4, was of sitting in our back yard when sirens started to go off continuously. The lady next door, Mrs. Boden, came running out screaming,
“I knew they would come; they are finally bombing us!” My mother scooped me up and we hid in the cellar. Soon my father came home from work as everyone was celebrating the end of the war.
Shortly after that, we moved to my grandmother’s house on Ivy Street at the other end of town. Our neighborhood consisted of all ethnic groups. Until I grew up, I never sensed any prejudice of any kind growing up in Branford.
We started school at Harrison Ave in 1946. We were able to walk to school and soon most of us were able to walk alone without a parent even in Kindergarten. Most of the teachers were all single women that had taught our parents. They still didn’t hesitate to use the switch. I remember their names like it was yesterday. From 7th grade to 12th, we went half sessions because the schools became too small due to the baby boom after the war. The Harrison Avenue School eventually became the Police Station. There was also a corset shop across the street.
At the end of Ivy Street was the Ivy Street Market run by the Ghiroli family. On the right was the Branford Lock Works, which we called the Lock Shop, it’s called Lock Shop Square today. At that time, most of the building was a shirt factory that employed a large percentage of the women who lived in the area. Part of the downstairs was a printing company. In the back was some kind of chemical plant. We used to play baseball back there.
There were a few barns filled with stacked up bails of scrap paper. We used to tunnel under the paper and smoke!
Across from the Lock Shop off of Ivy Street was Silver Street. Each Sunday after dinner all the Italian men, keeping true to their Roman heritage, would gather to play bocce ball in the street. They had no court and made do using the pavement. Sunday dinners were still a large family affair when relatives gathered each Sunday. There was still live music in the streets. Each ethnic group enriched each other with their different unique contributions.
In the front of the Lock Shop facing Main Street was Branchini’s Market with a sawdust floor. Working your way up the hill was the fish market, which smelled terrible all the time, with crates of fish packed in ice in the alley. Desarbo’s Tailor Shop came next, a dress shop, and Rocco Palaia’s Shoe Repair, where my grandfather worked. Then Western Auto, Suval’s Clothing Store and Collins and Freeman Hardware.
Across the street at the corner of Ivy and Main was Palumbo’s Barber Shop, where I learned to play the guitar. The Barber shop is now called Freddie’s barber shop. Martone’s Chicken Farm, Branford Building Supplies and the Post Office were next going up the hill toward the green.
Across from the green were Jim Anastasio’s Candy Shop, Mr. Cooper’s Bookshop, that was once a movie theater, the 5 & 10, and the A & P. I remember the A & P’s open barrels of pickles and olives, with sawdust over most of the floor. Horwitz Dept Store, Castleton’s Bakery, a drug store, Ward’s Appliances and the Phone Company.
The drugstores still had soda fountains then.
In front of our school was Colburn’s Candy store, which was a good place to stop after school. Next door to the candy store stood the largest horse chestnut tree that I have ever seen.
Working your way toward the 4th ward was the Branford Theatre, Dunbar’s Drugstore, the library and Catholic Church. The original Branford Theatre building burned down completely sometime in the late 50’s.
One of the great things about growing up in Branford was that we had a beautiful library, many churches and a great community house, large ball field and a great town beach. There was still a hotel in Indian Neck across from the beach, the Double Beach House, the Owenego Inn, and Nellie Greens. There were many opportunities.
It wasn’t until I left home that I realized that all towns didn’t have a library like ours.
I remember the Bird room and Indian room which were actually like museums within the library.
All the businesses were small and local in those days. My mother would send me to Martone’s for a chicken. He would kill it and clean it right in front of you. The fish market was much the same. There was always fresh fish daily.
We had a rag man who came around collecting rags and singing as he drove by in his old truck, a knife and scissor sharpener who pushed a cart. He also fixed all types of farm tools. And of course, Tony the hermit who walked every day from his cabin on Snake Hill with a sack and sickle on his back to anywhere that the town needed weeds cut along the road. We thought that he took away bad kids in his sack.
A couple of times each summer a truck would come down the street and spray all the trees with DDT. Everyone would play in the fog. It was a big deal that everyone waited for.
Each summer the carnival came to Hammer field. It was a much larger affair than they are today. More like the Circus. The evening ended each night with a diver diving off a tower into a flaming pool of kerosene.
Sampson Medlyn, the milk man, would share his ice with the kids in the summer. Everyone had a large garden and looked forward to the plow horses coming to plow it every year. We had all kinds of fruit trees and grew most vegetables. Each year we canned everything that was needed for the winter. We canned tomatoes putting them in used soda bottles and had a machine that would cap the bottles. It took days to poke the tomatoes down through the narrow neck of the bottle and that was the kids’ job.
Not many people had cars in the 1940’s, especially during the war. It wasn’t unusual to see cars sitting on cinder blocks with no tires because of the rubber shortage during the war.
I remember the veterans that were disabled coming home after the war. The town gave most of them jobs with the town public works for the rest of their lives. There was a wooden monument in the center of green with the names of all the men from Branford who had died during the war. It’s gone now.
Christmas was always a big deal especially when Collins and Freeman would set up their electric train and toy displays and Santa would come. The town was always decorated with lights running across Main Street. There were Lionel and American Flyer Trains, A. C. Gilbert Erector sets, Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys, Microscope Sets and especially Daisy Red Rider BB guns for boys. I guess the girls had dolls, I didn’t know any at the time!
I think somewhere around 1947 we changed from coal to oil fed furnaces. Coal was filthy and it took years to get rid of the black dust in the basements.
Many houses still had an outhouse and some had no heat. I remember my grandparents on my father’s side had a house on Damascus Road without indoor plumbing. It had just a well pump in the pantry, and no heat other than kerosene stove in the kitchen. It was still like that in 1950 when my grandfather died. My grandparents brought up 12 children in that house.
Long after indoor plumbing arrived, I can remember our neighbor, who was in his 70’s at the time, still preferring to use his outhouse.
No one had TV, just radios. The Saturday matinee at the Branford Theatre and comic books were the only glimpse that we had of the outside world. I remember seeing King Kong and being scared for weeks. Keep in mind that at that time no one at our age had ever seen anything like that.
I do believe that I developed a very optimistic attitude toward life because of the serials that we saw at those movie matinees though. Each week the closing scenes would find superman or batman in drastic in peril.
But the next week good always won out over evil. I’ve found that true during my life. As bad as things may seem they always have a way of working out.
Around 1950, Wards put the first TV in the window. People would stand outside to watch an entire show.
Once you were old enough to start working, age 8-9, most started picking strawberries and then caddying by 10 years old. Trucks from different farms would pick us up at 5:30 a.m. to pick the strawberries. It was wet and dark in the fields and was not fun working on your knees all day at that age for 5 cents a quart. A lot of boys used to caddy in Pine Orchard. As a caddy, we rode our bikes to Pine Orchard or walked from the center of town. There were no golf carts and the leather bags were as big as most of the kids. It was very painful to carry them at first. But I think that the result was learning responsibility at an early age which didn’t hurt our generation.
I started to listen to music in the early 50’s. In 1954, One day I had the radio turned to WINS New York when a man came on and said “hello kids. My name is Alan Freed and this is my new show called Rock & Roll Party and I’m going to play a new kind of music called Rock and Roll.” And I think he played something by Fats Domino. It was the best thing that I ever heard. That was the start of a great era in American music.
Soon came Elvis and we were on our way to dancing on American Bandstand. Around 1955 James Dean came along and his movie, Rebel Without a Cause was released, our collars went up and the rebellion started.
Today, I see shows about early rock and roll and how the conservatives didn’t want them playing what they called “black” music. They went so far as having Pat Boone record the music of Little Richard. I think that’s ridiculous because I never ever thought about who was singing. It was the music we loved. It had nothing to do with race! That never entered into our minds. The kids were okay with it, but it must have been the older generation that found it to be a problem. Like making the transition to indoor plumbing, some could not adapt to a new sound of music. I can’t speak for the city kids, but in Branford, we never gave it a thought.
That was the great part about growing up in a small New England town. I think that we were sheltered from a lot.
As a teenager, we held dances in the Branford Community House and at the Italian American Club. I remember one dance when a lady came in with a young kid in tow. She went up on stage and said, “This boy is from Canada and he is going to sing a song for you.” His name was Paul Anka. He sang Diana. No one had ever heard of him but soon we started to hear Diana on the radio.
In 1958, I-95 as opened and the town started to grow. Most of the farms were gone by the 60’s.
Sagal Lou’s had sold their farm to the Sachs brothers from NY. I remember one of the barns burning down and then the Cherry Hill Apartments were built on the land as was J. M. Fields, the first discount store to open in this area. Below that on Route One, Hubie’s Burger opened selling the first 19 cent hamburger.
At that time, I went into the Marine Corps and leaving Branford was a real awakening for me. It was going south that I realized that all people didn’t have the freedom that we took so for granted. Nor did everyone have the Library, schools and churches that made our New England town so great.