The Icemen Cometh

A few months ago, I replaced my refrigerator. It had more than fulfilled its duty, having given my family over 25 years of service. Other than coming up with the money, switching the older model for a new one was about as easy to do as reaching into the fridge for last night’s leftovers. I never really thought about what a luxury it is to have a refrigerator in my home until I learned about the workers who used to deliver ice in our city.

My opportunity to meet the descendants of those “ice men” came as a result of our library’s Memoir Project. For the last five years, the project’s goal has been to find people willing to share local history in the form of a memoir, which we publish as a keepsake book. The Project’s team selects a theme, and in 2014 we chose Fulton businesses.

Shortly after deciding to focus on Fulton commerce we got word from two people who had similar memories to share. Virginia Messerschmidt offered to write about her father, Joseph Growe, who once owned a delivery business known as Growe Brother’s Ice. Shortly after we heard from Virginia, three members of the Cavalier family—Fred Cavalier Jr., Mary DeLong and Pat Hine—came forward, willing to share their story of Fred Cavalier, who had a business known as Gardner’s Ice. Here’s how Virginia began her father’s story:

“Joseph Growe was an ice delivery man in the Fulton area from 1932 to 1948. At the time of his business, homes had no refrigerators and relied on delivery men to fill their iceboxes with 25- to 50-pound ice blocks that keep their perishables cold. My father had a 1934 Ford panel van with two doors in the rear that swung out to facilitate removing the ice for door-to-door delivery. In 1937, he formed a partnership with his brother Earl. It was known as Growe Brothers Dependable Ice and the brothers remained partners until Earl died.”

Virginia researched old newspapers to learn more about the Growe Brothers’ business. One advertisement showed Growe Brothers located near the current Towpath Towers building; another listed it a short distance from there, at 78 South Second Street. Further documents indicate its home at 158, 159 or 162 South Second Street. Virginia’s cousin, Clara Atkinson, remembers the ice house being in an alleyway next to Quirk Theatre. Virginia had an idea why there were so many Growe Brothers addresses: “My brother, Ed Growe, thinks he remembers the ice house being set on skids so it could be moved.”

Shortly after World War II ended, Virginia’s father got out of the ice business. At the time, metal was becoming more available to make refrigerators, so many people retired their iceboxes. Virginia’s uncle, Mert Gardner, took over the ice business in the same address, but with a new name: Gardner’s Ice. Mert’s family continued Fulton’s ice delivery story.

Mary DeLong: “My father had two trucks: a smaller truck, which he used for making his deliveries, and one for picking up ice at the ice house in Oswego, where the Foundry is today. That was a red pickup truck with a tarp over the back, and sometimes Dad would let us ride with him to pick up more ice. That ice house was huge and it was colder than cold in there. It had a chute that we used to slide down, and in the summertime we thought it was the greatest thing to go there.

“Dad would pick up 100-pound blocks of ice, which had a groove down the middle both ways so they could divide the blocks up into 25-pound pieces. He would fill the back of the pickup truck and put the tarp over it. The ice house also sold small ice cubes. They were too big for a glass, but you could hold one right in your hand. We’d always take one and suck on it while he was loading up the truck.”

Pat Hines: “His delivery truck had high sides so he could fill the whole thing and just peddle all day long. He used ice tongs to take the ice off the back of the truck, however much someone wanted.”

Mary: “On Monday morning Dad would take off and start his first route, going from house to house to ask if they needed 25 or 50 pounds. He had different routes, going to certain sections of the city on certain days.  He might have to go on some routes a couple of times a week.”

Virginia explained how customers could put in an order a delivery: “People would put a sign in their window for how much ice they wanted.”

Once orders were placed, ice men filled them, as Mary described: “I remember Dad chopping the ice, which he could do in a matter of a few minutes. Then he’d use his tongs to put the ice on his shoulder and carry it in.”

Virginia mentioned a friend, Anne Bodwich, who once lived on the Growe Brothers’ ice delivery route. “She remembers my father carrying ice on his shoulder up the steps to her second floor apartment. When my Uncle Mert owned the business, his son, Bob Gardner, said he remembered that his mother, Vivien, could find her husband by following the trail of melted ice on the street.”

My thanks to Virginia and the Gardner family for giving us a trail of ice-delivery memories we can follow back to our city’s history.

 Fred Cavalier and his wife in front of the truck he used for years making ice deliveries to residents of Fulton.

Fred Cavalier and his wife in front of the truck he used for years making ice deliveries to residents of Fulton.

A Lifetime of Teaching

Every so often, we hear about a teacher who has achieved a career milestone. Someone devotes 25 years to the education of children; another puts in 30 years teaching the same subject or grade level. These are certainly noteworthy accomplishments and recently I learned about one Fulton teacher who has reached a particularly impressive milestone. As this school year comes to an end, Renae (Cealie) Vehrs completes her 40th year as an educator.

I have known Renae since we were classmates at G. Ray Bodley High School. After graduating in 1973—hard to believe that was 45 years ago!—Renae earned her teaching degree at SUNY Oswego. Shortly after that, she began her 40 years as an Adult Education instructor. Today, Renae’s program is known as TASC, Test Assessing Secondary Completion, but most of us still call it the GED program. When it began in Fulton in 1978, Renae was its first teacher. Here’s how she remembers GED’s startup in our city:

“We first held the program at the old Fourth Street School building, and for a long time I was the only teacher. Then, in 1984, when I was expecting my first child, the district hired someone to take over. When I returned, they kept her on as a second teacher, and it was the two of us for a long time. After she moved away, the district approved hiring an aide, and we chose a student who had graduated from our GED program to fill that position.”

Eventually, Fourth Street School closed and Renae’s program was moved to the old Fulton Junior High, which today is the school district’s administration building. Over time, the school district brought on a second teacher, and then, in 1994, a third. As the program expanded, Renae and her co-teachers were serving more and more students.

“Because we are federally funded, there has never been any cost for our GED classes,” Renae explained, “and the process for adult learners to get help has not changed much over the years. We can take students as young as 16 and most people begin by stopping in or making a phone call to us. We register them and then they come in for diagnostic placement testing, which gives us a reading level and math level so we know where to begin. It also gives us a little bit of an outline on their specific math and reading skills.

“Almost every student I’ve worked with has told me how hard it was to make the initial appointment. For some, it has been many years since they were in school and it might be a bit embarrassing. Others aren’t sure what to expect if they do start. Will it be just like high school? How much time will they have to put in? Will they be able to keep up? But, once they enroll and register I tell them, ‘The hard part is over. Everyone is in the same boat here. This is an Adult Education Program and you will be treated like an adult.’

 “People always want to know how long it is going to take for them to pass the GED test. This is hard to determine. It depends on their level when they start, their effort, and the amount of time they can put into it. It could take a week or it could take years. There is never any assigned homework, but a student can take work home if he or she chooses. The more time and effort people put into it, the sooner they can take the test and be able to pass.”

For many years, Renae and the other GED staff have sponsored an annual Adult Literacy Recognition luncheon. Not only are people who have received their diplomas honored, but those currently in the process are also recognized. “It shows those who are still working that it is possible to complete the program,” Renae explained. “We also always honor one student with a special award. This is not necessarily someone who has received his or her diploma, but someone who has done exceptional work or, perhaps, has overcome some obstacle.”

I was curious how many students have been through Fulton’s GED program and Renae had the numbers for me. “As of 2018, we have graduated nearly 2,100 students, which averages out to about 52 per year since the year we started. This total is equivalent to about eight G. Ray Bodley High School graduating classes. In 1998, a record 114 of our students graduated in one year.  My youngest student who earned a diploma was 16. My oldest student was 73. She didn’t do it for employment or for college admission. She just wanted to achieve this for her own satisfaction. Occasionally, people call and tell us how much they have appreciated our help. They let us know what they are doing with their lives now. And, in recent years, we’ve been getting the children and grandchildren of people I had when I first started.”

Local service organizations sometimes recognize a teacher’s contributions to Fulton’s education system, and in 2011, our city’s Noon Rotary Club awarded Renae with their Pride in Workmanship Award. “The award was quite an honor,” Renae said, “but I do like people to know that this job has been a great fit for me. Because it was only part-time at the beginning when I had small children, it was perfect. It has stayed a great fit because it has always been about helping people achieve their goals.  That is certainly the best part of the job.”

Here in Fulton we are fortunate that our residents, young and old, have an opportunity to better themselves, as well as a staff of caring teachers to guide them. Congratulations to Renae Vehrs for her long career of giving to others so they can pursue a better life.   

  Fulton teacher Renae (Cealie) Vehrs recently reached a milestone in her career.

Fulton teacher Renae (Cealie) Vehrs recently reached a milestone in her career.

He Made Fulton a Better Place

With summer fast approaching and school days coming to an end, kids will be spending a lot more time outdoors. In Fulton, youngsters will be visiting our city’s green spaces, including Recreation Park. New playground equipment at the park is being installed for older teens, ballfields await sports enthusiasts, and, of course, there’s our beloved Lake Neatahwanta. With the cleanup of the lake continuing and ongoing speculation about the reopening of swimming at the lake’s Stevenson Beach, I’ve been thinking about John Stevenson, a Fultonian who made Recreation Park possible.

I was not familiar with Mr. Stevenson and his role in the betterment of Fulton until I started working with our city library’s Memoir Project. The Project’s goal of helping people preserve their Fulton memories caught the interest of G. Ray Bodley High School’s English Department and a few years ago our Project coordinators were invited to attend one of their educational programs. What an interesting night it was.

Students of the high school’s English 10 Honors class had spent the 2014-15 school year working on a community project that addressed issues or concerns they had for their hometown. The class split into three groups to come up with “action plans” as possible solutions to the problems. One of these groups focused on creating awareness about Fulton’s history and a student in that group, Makhali Voss, mentioned John Stevenson in her presentation. Makhali described Mr. Stevenson as an inspirational Fulton citizen, mentioning a few of his accomplishments. Curious to learn more about him, I spoke with Makhali after the program and she agreed to join our Memoir Project.

A few weeks later, the Fulton Library’s director, Betty Mauté, and I met with Makhali and her mother to explain the Memoir Project and find out if Makhali would be interested in writing a more complete memoir of Mr. Stevenson. She readily agreed to do so, and the Memoir Project was happy to have its youngest memoirist. (Makhali was between her sophomore and junior years when she wrote for the library project.)

We met with Makhali a couple times over the summer months as she wrote her reflections on John Stevenson. Though she has known since her childhood years that she loves science (she’s planning a career in the medical field), Makhali also showed a talent in researching history. Here’s some of what she was able to find out about John Stevenson and why he was so important to Fulton:

“John William Stevenson was born in 1866. He was one of ten children and therefore experienced first-hand what it was like to have little money. That may have been a reason why he became such a generous man. Even before his years as mayor – 1920-1927 – he was well-known, mostly for his generosity, once donating a ton of coal to a family during a rough winter.

“As Fulton’s mayor, Mr. Stevenson started improving the city, having many new miles of streets paved; 26 miles to be exact. He constructed a new high school, which is still standing today. It served as Fulton’s Junior High for many years and is now Fulton’s Education Center. John did not stop there though; after the school was built, he enlarged the hospital. He implemented a garbage and ash collection system, with the cost of $1.25 a year. Before that, it was 20 cents a week. He made Saturday movies free to any child or an adult with a child.”

Makhali also found out that Stevenson did not spend his whole life as a politician. As she noted, he worked for many years at Fulton’s American Woolen Mills, which provided uniforms and other cloth-related supplies for the U.S. Army in both of the World Wars and also the Spanish American War. Makhali explained how he turned his work at the Mills into a major benefit for Fulton:

“After John Stevenson resigned from the Mills, he did not cease to have a say in their operations. He convinced them to buy 28 lakeside acres to turn it into a recreational park. The 1,500 employees of the Mills were welcome to enjoy the park, which featured a merry-go-round, auditorium, an open air dance pavilion, and an athletic field with grandstands. The auditorium stood three stories high and could seat 3,200 people. It was built mostly by the Mills’ workers. The park was very family-oriented and drew the city’s people in as well as many tourists. On the weekends there were baseball games for families to enjoy. There was also a Recreation Park Band that would play from time to time.”

Mr. Stevenson’s recreational contribution to Fulton flourished for many years, but eventually it became a financial burden. When the Mills shut down in the early 1950s, the park was neglected. Makhali explained what happened next:

“It took a while, but after four years, the Mill decided to lease or sell the park. In 1933, they sold this property to the Fulton Board of Education for $25,000. They, in turn, gave it to the city, but retained the right to use the park for school recreational purposes. In 1942, the buildings burned and the spot is now marked by a new War Memorial Building.”

What a pleasure it was to work with Makhali on the Memoir Project. Not only did she enlighten me about a Fultonian who did much to improve our city’s physical attributes and recreational opportunities, but she stood as an excellent example of today’s ambitious young people who are willing, when they are invited, to take part in capturing our city’s history.

 A postcard image of Stevenson Beach, once a recreation haven for young and old because of a Fultonian's dedication to our city.

A postcard image of Stevenson Beach, once a recreation haven for young and old because of a Fultonian's dedication to our city.