Fulton's Dizzy History

If you regularly read this blog you know I help the Fulton Public Library with its Memoir Project. We started the project to help people write their memories of growing up and working in Fulton. Our goal is ambitious: choose a topic that current or former Fultonians are familiar with, put out the call for them to share their memories, then publish a book of those stories.

In the six years the library has been offering this program we’ve collected nearly 200 memories about our city and it’s been a pleasure to help people dig into their pasts. Over the years, we’ve focused on Fulton schools, successful businesses, community volunteers, and our city’s military veterans. But when we chose our latest topic, the Dizzy Block, our goal became particularly challenging.

For those unfamiliar with what the Dizzy Block meant to Fultonians, let me explain. In the early 1900s, the city of Fulton was a booming industrial town. As more people moved to our area for the promise of a good job, businesses to support them—grocers, hardware stores, pharmacies, etc.—opened, many of them gathered in a one-block area of downtown Fulton. Since people tended to visit that part of our city to shop, it also became a social gathering spot. Diners opened up, as did ice cream shops and even theatres and opera houses. For decades, the Dizzy Block was the place to be in Fulton.

We thought people would enjoy reminiscing about that special section of our city and many did. But before we could get started, our Memoir Project team had to overcome some challenges. First and foremost, in 2018 there is no physical evidence of the Dizzy Block in its heyday. Yes, the streets that created a border around that section of our downtown—South First, Oneida, South Second and Cayuga streets—still exist, but the three-story brick buildings that once housed our favorite shops are gone. Today, there are no storefront signs offering “Foster’s Ice Cream,” or “Wilson’s Stationery.” Woolworth’s and Montgomery Ward no longer face each other on the corner of Cayuga and Second. For those who agreed to dig back to their Dizzy Block memories, their first hurdle was trying to reimage what it all looked like.

Our Memoir Project team was faced with a second challenge when we started reviewing people’s recollections about our downtown. We found that details about the Dizzy Block were often conflicting. Some memoirists mentioned that Woolworth’s was located on Oneida Street; others were sure it was on Cayuga. Foster’s was on the north side of Cayuga, we were told, only to be assured by others that it was on that street’s south side. And didn’t youngsters get their scout uniforms and supplies at McKinstry’s? No, some insisted, it was at Harris’s.

We soon figured out that what people remembered depended on when they spent time on the Dizzy Block. After all, we were trying to cover a Fulton era that lasted from the early 1900s until the late 1960s. Even the most successful stores weren’t around for that entire period. Memories of the exact same section of downtown Fulton, we realized, could be told quite differently.

That’s where our final challenge of putting this book together came into play: how do we write a cohesive story about a one-block section of Fulton that underwent so many changes and that people had such strong feelings about? Listening to our memoirists passionately explain why their favorite store was the best, bar none, was a little like listening to spectators at an Olympic event. People cheer for their favorite team, and when it came to the Dizzy Block, people wanted to make sure we knew their Dizzy Block was the Dizzy Block.

Eventually we determined that downtown Fulton had more to do with feelings than familiar stores. Memories as strong as those brick buildings were made when we stood at storefront windows, dreaming of owning the latest style of dress or the coolest bicycle. The Dizzy Block became of prime importance when we planned to “run into” the boy or girl we had a crush on as we walked the downtown streets. The Block is forever linked to the pride we felt after being offered our first job by a trusting storeowner. Certainly, there can always be discussions about which businesses were located where, or who was the nicest storeowner, but there is no argument that the Dizzy Block has a place in our hearts. It was only after we understood this truth that we editors figured out how to move forward with the book.

Along with capturing stories, we knew that a book about our favorite stores and shops should have lots of photographs of those Fulton landmarks. One of our Memoir Project team combed through old newspapers and scrapbooks to find just the right pictures to match people’s stories. Once we placed those photos alongside the memories of Dizzy Block stores, the book seemed to come alive.

After working for nearly two years, The Memoir Project team is ready to release our Dizzy Block book. On Wednesday, November 14, at 6:00 pm, at Trinity Catholic Church’s Jubilee Hall, 309 Buffalo Street, the Memoir Project team will offer a program on the Dizzy Block. We’ll be sharing excerpts of people’s memories, present a slideshow of those great photographs, and there may even be some theatrical reenactments of those dizzy days gone by.  The book will be for sale at the event, with all proceeds going to support our Fulton Public Library.

There are still plenty of Fulton memories to preserve. At our Dizzy Block event, we’ll be canvasing the audience to get suggestions for our next Memoir Project theme. Maybe you have a memory of our city that you’d like us to explore. Join us on November 14 and let us know!

 Downtown Fulton’s South First Street, once part of a busy shopping and social gathering destination known as the Dizzy Block.

Downtown Fulton’s South First Street, once part of a busy shopping and social gathering destination known as the Dizzy Block.

Coaching Was HIs Life

Football season is in full swing. There are games on TV every weekend, and here in Fulton, when the Red Raiders are playing at home, the high school’s athletic field bleachers are full. Football has long been an important sport in Fulton, and our team has had some influential coaches to lead them. One was Roger Neilson.

When Roger came to teach and coach in Fulton, in 1966, he already had a passion for football. It began when he was a standout player at his Penn Yann, New York high school and the East Stroudsburg Teacher’s College. A stint in the Army put his devotion to football on hold, but by 1957, Roger was Coach Neilson for Pulaski’s Blue Devils. While teaching and coaching there, he earned his master’s degree in education administration at SU.

In 1961, Roger left Pulaski to teach and coach in the state of Virginia, first at the College of William and Mary, and then at Hargrave Military Academy. But by 1966, he was back in Central New York: Fulton had recruited Coach Neilson.

Joining Roger in his new hometown were his wife, Nancy, and their two boys, Tom and Jim. Recently, I talked with the two Neilson boys about their father. What they shared about Roger as a coach they’d learned firsthand, as the brothers spent several years as water boys for Fulton’s football team. While putting out water for practices and setting up dummies for tackling, they got to watch their father in action.

“Dad was a huge student of the game,” Jim remembered. “He studied innovative techniques and tried them out with his teams. One strategy he had was the ‘no-huddle offense.’ Nowadays it’s common, but not back then. He’d call plays at the line, using language the other team wouldn’t understand. Our guys would go to the line with this code and the other team wasn’t prepared.”

My brother, Ed Farfaglia, was quarterback for Fulton in 1970 and he recalled Coach Neilson’s code: “We called those ‘audible plays.’ If coach called the color red, that meant the play would go to the right; blue meant to the left. Numbers would mean which player—the fullback, etc.—would carry out the play.”

Coach Neilson wasn’t just teaching youth football strategies; they also learned appropriate responses to life’s challenges, as his son Tom recalled: “One time, the team was getting ready for a big game and the players weren’t practicing hard. The day before the game they were goofing off, and Dad said, ‘I’m going home. See you tomorrow. I hope you put more effort into the game.’ This impacted the team, and the boys stayed on the field, practicing another two hours without their coach. And they won the game.”

Because of those character-building lessons, Tom said his Dad’s teams admired their coach. “After he’d retired, I heard that a Fulton player said Dad changed his life and had put him on a different path.”

Former Fulton football player Vondell Smith told me this story about Coach Neilson’s inspirational leadership: “The Raiders used to have a Father’s Day game. All the players’ dads would put on their sons’ jerseys, sit in a certain section of the bleachers, and get called out on the field to be recognized. When I was a senior, my dad couldn’t make it to the special day and I was feeling pretty sad. When I got to the game, Coach Neilson asked if my father was coming. I said no and he said, ‘Well, I’m your dad today.’”

Roger’s influence also was felt by the team’s cheerleaders, including Beth Knight:  “I remember Coach Neilson as very kind, polite and sincere. On bus rides back to school after away games, Coach asked if everyone, including us cheerleaders, were all set. He wanted to make sure no one would be left at school.”

How players, cheerleaders and fans felt about Roger even made it into the 1969 Fulton yearbook, when student Bill “Chili” Runeari memorialized him with a poem entitled “Coach Neilson Walks on Water.” Here are a few stanzas of the 32-line poem, which focused on a game against Fulton’s rival, The Oswego Buccaneers:

“The Syracuse papers may call us scrappy,

but they’ll agree we’re really snappy;

and the Buccaneers sure won’t be happy

when Coach Neilson walks on water.

 

The Buccaneer coach is really sick,

cause the Raiders are really pourin’ it on thick;

another score by Tricky Vic

when Coach Neilson walks on water…”

 

Even after Roger retired from coaching in the early 1970s, his interest in the Fulton team remained strong. “On game day,” his son Jim said, “he’d be in the booth with headphones on, communicating with the coaches on the field.”

After ending his teaching career in 1986, Roger and Nancy moved to Seven Lakes, North Carolina. There he got to spend time enjoying his other passion, golf. “Dad had a long retirement living near Pinehearst, the unofficial golf capital of the United States,” Jim said. “He played three or four times a week and ended up with three holes-in-one.”

But football was always number one to Roger. Eventually the Neilsons moved to Williamsburg, Virginia, where Jim lives, and father and son spent many afternoons watching games. “We took in all the Clemson games together. During the 2012 season, Clemsom was undefeated.  Dad’s health was failing and we ended up watching them play while he was in the hospital. During one game, he fell asleep while Clemsom was losing. When Dad woke up, he asked ‘How did they do?’  ‘They won,’ I told him. Dad fell back asleep and he died the next day. His last words were wondering if his team won or lost.”

As we look back on one of Fulton school’s most influential role models, let’s remember how coaches like Roger Neilson taught young people in Fulton a lot about life through his love of football.

 Roger Neilson, a former Fulton Schools teacher and coach, is remembered for his winning ways with football.

Roger Neilson, a former Fulton Schools teacher and coach, is remembered for his winning ways with football.

The Gift of Music

A few months ago I wrote about the Fulton High School band’s 1972 trip to Vienna, Austria. It was a memorable time for those students and for Fultonians. It was also a career highlight for the man who made that trip possible: Richard Swierczek.

As the band’s leader, Dick spearheaded the historic trip. I enjoyed writing the article recalling it, and apparently Dick enjoyed reading it. Shortly after the column ran, I received an email from him thanking me.

Dick and I corresponded back and forth, and I learned more about the man who provided Fulton youth many music opportunities. At 92 years old, now living in Chatham, Massachusetts, Dick hasn’t forgotten his time in Fulton. Here’s more of his story:

“I’m very proud of the fact that I grew up in one of the two or three Polish neighborhoods in Fulton.  My grandparents Stanley and Hanna Witowski’s home was on West First Street, across from the current Polish Home. They had fourteen children, losing four to influenza.

“My mother, Mary, and father, John, both worked at the Woolen Mills, and when Dad got close to retirement he bought a house and grocery store in Granby Center. Mom was to run the store, but she got very sick and was unable to do so. The store ended up burning to the ground and I’m not sure Dad had insurance on it. This greatly affected our lives and we ended up having to move back into my grandparents’ home.”

It was while living with his grandparents that Dick was introduced to music.  “Back in those days,” he recalled, “every home was expected to have a piano, whether or not anyone could play it. When my mother bought one, none of us could play, but my grandfather believed nothing should go to waste and he taught himself by picking out Polish melodies. We would stand around the piano and clap, dance, laugh and sing.

“My grandmother had a beautiful silvery voice and she’d sing Polish songs. As long as she knew no one was listening, she’d sing. I used to sneak into the kitchen to listen and that was the beginning of my musical life.”

Dick may have inherited his musical aptitude from his grandparents, but his family also provided music-related opportunities. “On Saturdays, Edwards Store in Syracuse sponsored the WFBL Children’s Hour,” Dick said. “My mother made sure I listened every week. Also, my Uncle Ed was hooked on classical music and he introduced me to the New York Philharmonic’s live broadcasts.”

When Dick got to high school he became friends with another Fultonian who loved music: Jack Walsh.  When they graduated from high school in 1943, Dick expected to be drafted the following year, “but Jack suggested we go to Potsdam’s music school. It wasn’t expected that anyone from my Polish community could go to college; tuition was $100. But I approached my parents with a plan. If they could cover the tuition, I’d work my way through.”

At Potsdam, Dick immersed himself in music education. Though he was drafted after his first year, he returned to the college two years later, graduating with a music degree.  After teaching five years at various New York State schools, in 1954 Dick was hired in Fulton as an elementary-level band teacher.

“I was hired by Mr. MacDonald, superintendent of Fulton schools. There was no schoolwide music program to speak of and his intention was for me to build one up from the younger grades. To introduce myself to the children, I carried one of each band instrument into fourth through eighth grade classrooms. I demonstrated each instrument and gave every student a chance to try them.”

Dick developed a unique method to teach children music. Using an instrument called a flutophone, sort of a primitive clarinet, he taught them the basics of playing a song.

“By my second year of teaching, we were ready for our first elementary band concert,” Dick recalled. “The gymnasium was filled with parents and all fourth grade classes in Fulton.  After students played one or two short pieces they’d memorized, I announced an “all request” portion of the program. As long as I knew the song, I could lead it. I held my hand up to show the children what fingers to use and we were able to play a few songs. The music program took off from there.”

By the time Dick retired in 1985, Fulton was recognized throughout the state for its premier music education.  He hired other music teachers, including Carol Fox, which Dick told me was “the best decision I ever made.” Carol and others worked to support Dick’s goals and soon Fulton became part of the state’s School Music Association. Through that organization, talented Fulton youngsters participated in music festivals held at the county, sectional, all state, and Eastern United States divisions.  This all led to the Austria trip.

Fulton students weren’t only learning music, but also some valuable life lessons. “I worked out a system with Don Distin, Director of Athletics, who had developed a marvelous sports program. In many schools, music and sports were at odds with each other for students’ time, but not at Fulton. Our students got to participate in both programs. If there was a time conflict, Don and I got together and solved the problem.”

Dick eventually branched out beyond youth programs, developing the Fulton’s Men’s and Women’s Chorus and spreading music throughout the city. But, to me, his greatest contribution to Fulton was the gift of music he gave to our youth. A story he told me is one shining example:

“After I’d left Fulton, a boy I’d taught wrote me a letter as an adult. While driving in his car, a piece of music came on that he said was so beautiful. ‘I pulled over the side of the road to appreciate it,’ he said.”

I wonder how many Fultonians have Dick Swierczek to thank for their lifelong love of music?

 Dick Swierczek, former Fulton School’s music educator, recently talked with me about his contributions to our city.

Dick Swierczek, former Fulton School’s music educator, recently talked with me about his contributions to our city.