It's A Sweet Memory

As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, the Fulton Library is collecting memories of the Dizzy Block, a section of our downtown where people once congregated to shop and socialize. We’re hoping to get enough stories to publish a book about the Dizzy Block’s popularity. We’ll start with the early 1900s, when horse-drawn carriages brought farm families into Fulton to stock up on supplies. We’ll also cover Fulton in the 1930s, when our city’s industries remained strong despite a countrywide Great Depression. We’ll even cover the late-1960s, when urban renewal changed the look, and many say the feel of our unique downtown.

For me, a baby boomer born in the mid-1950s, the Dizzy Block was a place to spend the few dollars I’d earned topping onions on my uncles’ farms or from tips I made on my Herald-American paper route. Maybe it was downstairs to the Montgomery Ward sports section or over to Woolworth’s for just about anything I thought I needed. (That store was the Wal-Mart of my youth.) I may have had serious purchases to make, like new pencils for school or food for my goldfish, but I always made sure to save a few coins for a stop at Foster’s.

Luckily, the library already has some stories about how special Foster’s was for many Fultonians. In 2014, when the library’s Memoir Project was gathering recollections about successful Fulton businesses, I was hoping we could track down some about the original Foster’s, a tiny establishment that sold everything from magazines to hunting equipment. Best of all, they served great ice cream.

It wasn’t just the hot fudge sundaes or milkshakes I wanted to remember about Foster’s. It was also the feel of walking in that store, which in my memory seemed no bigger than an extra-wide hallway. I couldn’t put into words what I was trying to recall, but luckily the library tracked down two people who could tell us exactly what being in Foster’s was like.

I’m talking about Will and Jim Chapman, whose father, William J. Chapman, ran Foster’s for many years. Their father has passed on now, but since the Chapman brothers spent much of their youth working and “hanging out” at “The Store,” as they called it, they agreed to pull together their memories of that establishment, including how they managed to offer customers so much in such a small space. Here are Will and Jim’s memories, which take us back to Foster’s in the 1960s:

“We can remember every inch of the first store at 122 Cayuga Street. (Foster’s moved to the opposite side of Cayuga after urban renewal.) As you entered the store, the comic book rack was to the left of the door. Behind the comics were magazine racks, an ice machine and then the counter and cash register on the right. Behind it was the ice cream freezer, where the cones were made and dispensed.  Next was the long counter on the right – we forget how many stools exactly, but are sure it sat 25 or so.  Behind that counter was the soda fountain equipment, starting with the Coke machine, then ice cream freezers with various syrups over the freezer doors. 

“We would make soft drinks from syrup and charged water. Cherry was the biggest seller, but others preferred vanilla.  It would be interesting to know how many Cokes and cherry Cokes got poured in those years.  Doctors sent their patients in to get pure Coke syrup to calm a bad stomach. Then came the Pepsi machine, and about halfway down the counter was the industrial-sized Bunn coffee machine, with a minimum of two urns working at all times.  As with the Cokes, we wonder how many cups of coffee were served. 

“Adjacent to the coffee machine was the hot dog steamer, with the lemonade or orange drink dispenser on the counter. Across from that, the toaster and then the same ice cream freezer and fountain mixes on the far end.  At the end of each of the fountain mixes was a container of Nestlé hot fudge.  The hot butterscotch and hot marshmallow would be located on the far end. 

“Just after the magazine and newspaper rack (We can still hear Dad saying to some lingerer at the magazine rack, ‘If you want to read, the library is on First Street!’), on the left was the cigar rack, followed by a candy rack, then a register and display cases filled with pipes, Zippo lighters, smoking paraphernalia and gift items, followed by another display case with sporting goods.  Behind the cigar rack and along the wall were cherry storage cabinets that stored extra cigarettes and cigars.

“Behind the display cases on pegboard walls were sporting goods.  This is before the big box stores put the little sporting goods retailers out of business.  Shakespeare fishing rods, reels, Wilson golf clubs, golf balls, bats, balls, ball gloves and even BB guns, 22 rifles or shotguns could be bought at Foster’s. At this register, many a hunting and fishing license was issued…”

If you’re like me, reading those memories by the Chapman brothers felt like I was walking through Foster’s. Thanks to Will and Jim Chapman, a favorite part of the Dizzy Block and of Fulton’s proud past is forever preserved.


Lessons From a Factory Line

In my last blog, I featured writing by local historian Jeff Gorton, including information about Fulton’s Birds Eye factory. Though today it is known as K & N Foods, USA, and it specializes in processing chicken, those of us who grew up in Fulton in the latter half of the last century well remember when it was a frozen food factory. Much like how Fultonians knew it was going to rain when they smelled Nestlé chocolate in the air, those who walked to school or work could tell what vegetable the plant was processing at its Phillips Street location. I was not a fan of brussel sprouts day.

Despite my displeasure with certain vegetable odors, I worked at Birds Eye while I was in college. After my sophomore year, I’d had a change of heart regarding my career goals and took a semester off to figure myself out. My parents let me stay at home while I rethought my future, but I knew I wasn’t on vacation. I needed a job. When I heard they were hiring at Birds Eye, a five minute walk from my house, I put in my application, hoping to be offered a job on the packaging lines.

Birds Eye’s personnel office noticed I’d already earned a two-year degree, so they offered me a position of weighing trucks delivering produce to the plant. I considered myself lucky; I wouldn’t have to come in contact with those horrid-smelling brussel sprouts and I got to apply my math skills in the real world. Three months later, my college plans back on course, my work at Birds Eye ended without once getting a peek at those processing lines. It was only through the Fulton Library’s Memoir Project that I got to learn about them.

In 2014, the Project was looking for stories about successful Fulton businesses and Birds Eye was certainly in that category. In our search to find people willing to write a memoir about their work in one of Fulton’s many industries, we found Vance Marriner. Though Vance is a research analyst and a part-time faculty member at SUNY Oswego, I know him as a fellow writer. He and I have participated in a number of classes and programs over the years, and when I asked if he’d share his literary talents with the Memoir Project, he readily agreed.

Vance’s memoir focused on his father, Howard Marriner, who was a manager at the Birds Eye plant. But he also wrote about the year he turned sixteen, in 1984, and it was time for him to get his first job. As might be expected, Vance ended up working at Birds Eye, but just because his father was plant manager didn’t mean he was going to get a cushy office job. Here’s how Vance described his entry into the working world:

“I spent that summer as one of the legion of seasonal “casual” workers that swelled the plant’s workforce during the busy months. Technically, my father got me the job, but frankly, no string-pulling was necessary. During peak season in those days, Birds Eye hired almost any person who was willing to work.

“On my first day, I was issued a yellow helmet, a hairnet, a pair of earplugs, and employee badge # 1647. I was then placed on the “inspection line.” Inspection consisted of standing (never sitting!) along with maybe ten or so other people at a conveyor belt and watching beans go by. We were tasked with picking out anything that wasn’t a bean. That might be a branch or a leaf, or it might be a bug or a snake. Sometimes you weren’t quite sure what you pulled out of there, only that it probably wasn’t edible. The job was as boring and generally awful as it sounds, and all the worse as it was often a ten-hour workday, broken up only by lunch and a pair of 15-minute breaks. On the plus side, we were being paid a princely $3.40 per hour.”

Vance worked at Birds Eye for a few summers and eventually got to move beyond the inspection line, advancing to, as he described it, “more glamorous jobs like placing boxes into metal trays, stacking cases onto pallets and loading steaming hot trays of spinach onto a cart. My father later admitted that he made sure that I got assigned the most humble jobs in the place, partially to avoid any suspicion of favoritism, but mostly because he wanted to toughen me up and teach me some life lessons about what hard work was all about.”

Vance’s father’s plan must have worked.  As Vance tells it, over thirty years have passed since he spent his summer job working at Birds Eye. Like many people, he’s never forgotten what it was like to work on a factory line, but also what it did for him as a youngster growing up to be a man. He captured that feeling in a way we can all appreciate:

“The memories of walking home from the plant after a long shift, legs aching, soaking wet from both sweat and steam vapor, clothes stained and stinking of green beans, and faced with more of the same the next day are as vivid as if they had happened yesterday. And that scene has flashed in my mind any time I’ve been tempted to complain about a hard day at one of my subsequent desk jobs…”

Thanks, Vance, for sharing a memory that many in Fulton have had – some for a summer, some for a few years, and some for life.

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History Was His Passion

After spending the last several years writing about local history, I’ve started getting calls from people in our community who are also interested in our past, some who have devoted their lives to preserving Fulton memories. Jeff Gorton was one of those people. Though Jeff was probably best remembered as a teacher and school administrator when he passed away in January of 2016, he also spent much of his life collecting local history memorabilia. A few years ago, I got a firsthand look at his passion for the past.

In 2014, Jeff contacted me about writing a story for the Fulton Library’s Memoir Project. Since his knowledge of Fulton history covered many areas, he invited then-Library Director Betty Mauté and me to his home to discuss which topic he should focus on for his memoir. Walking into Jeff’s home was like walking back in time.

Most of the Gorton home’s common living area was devoted to displays of local history. In his kitchen, den and living room were cans, bottles and cardboard packages from local food industries, such as Nestlé and Sealright. Moving from room to room felt like we were on a museum tour. Each display had a story, and behind each story was something Jeff learned about his hometown – and himself. That’s when we hit on an idea Jeff could write about.

As we talked, Jeff expressed his strong feeling that the many Fulton businesses and industries he’d had the opportunity to work with helped him develop a strong work ethic. For example, here’s an excerpt from Jeff’s memoir describing his first job, delivering newspapers:

“When I retired, I saw on my Social Security profile that I starting paying into the system when I was 11 years old. This was for my first job in the city of Fulton, peddling papers for The Fulton Patriot. I had one of the longest routes for delivering The Patriot in the city of Fulton. My route started at the V where Utica Street meets Emery Street, then went out Emery, around the Fulton Housing Project, over to Broadway past the cemetery and back down Seventh Street to the V at Utica and Emery.”

Jeff’s next job was with The Syracuse Herald-Journal, and his responsibilities included both delivering papers and working in its Fulton office, further developing skills that, as Jeff noted, “I would use later in life: interacting with people, accounting and administration techniques. I’d be remiss not mentioning my first boss, Oney Stoddard, who ran the Fulton franchise of The Herald. He was a man short in stature, but had a very big heart. His office was up a long flight of stairs between the Avon Theatre and Foster’s soda spot…”

When our meeting with Jeff had ended, he offered me a document he’d written about the history of some Fulton businesses. I readily accepted a copy and learned a lot about the factories and stores I had only ever heard about. I still refer to this document when I’m writing about a certain industry in town.

I was especially eager to learn about one of those businesses because it was right in my childhood neighborhood: Birds Eye Foods. From Jeff, I learned the food processing plant on Phillips Street didn’t start its history with the Birds Eye name. In his writing, he took us back to the plant’s origins, and along with describing how the plant got its start, Jeff also gave us a little lesson in food preservation:

 “The process whereby food was heated and sealed in cans to preserve it evolved in the early nineteenth century. By 1888, advances in technology led to the formation of the Fort Stanwix Canning Company in Rome, New York. It was dedicated to providing high-quality canned vegetables and its product was shipped throughout the country by rail, commanding top-dollar in the marketplace.

 “Just after the turn of the twentieth century, the company was looking for a location to place a new factory for the processing of peas, corn, beets and spinach. Fulton proved ideal for their purposes since it already possessed the required power and transportation networks, in addition to close proximity to farmland suitable for crops of the target vegetables. One of the primary reasons why the company’s product was considered the best was that it went rapidly from field to can while still fresh.”

Jeff went on to explain how the Fort Stanwix Company chose the eleven-acre site on Phillips Street for its new plant, where it would preserve and package food for over a century. Through the years, the factory was operated by different companies, and in the late 1920s, Jeff noted that a major change took place in the food industry. It would also alter how the Fulton canning factory did business. Here’s how Jeff explained the change:

“While trading and trapping in arctic Labrador, a man named Clarence Birdseye discovered that fresh-caught fish quickly freeze in the sub-zero temperature. These could then be thawed and cooked months later, still maintaining a fresh taste. After much experimentation, Birdseye developed the Belt Freezer that duplicated the natural process he saw at work in the far North. [He found that] quick-freezing didn’t destroy the nutrients the way that a slow freeze or heating did. This would soon revolutionize the processed food business.

“General Foods Company bought the rights to his system and developed in-store cooling equipment and insulated railcars to make marketing of the product possible. Anxious to get the new idea on the market, General Foods purchased the Fulton plant in 1943, reequipped it to support the quick-freeze process and began selling vegetables under the ‘Birds Eye’ label.”

I’m so fortunate to have worked with Jeff on his memoir and to have read his summary of Fulton businesses. In fact, learning about how Birds Eye evolved in Fulton led me to track down another local writer who knew the insides of that factory firsthand. In my next blog, we’ll get to hear his story.

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