Home Cooking in Downtown Fulton

In my last blog, I wrote about Fulton’s neighborhood grocers. Years ago, you could find one of those small stores every few blocks in our city. The same was true of restaurants and diners. Fulton once had dozens of establishments where you could get a meal or cup of coffee. Some offered ethnic specialties and were often found in neighborhoods where immigrants from the same country gathered. Other eateries didn’t specialize, but they still offered good food at reasonable prices. One of those places was Fry’s Diner.

Located on Fulton’s east side, Fry’s was a favorite destination for a good meal from 1951 until 1977, the years it was owned and operated by Glen Fry. Glen’s two daughters, Rosemary Scott and Glenda Abbate, have shared their memories of their father and his lifelong dedication to the restaurant business through the Fulton Library Memoir Project. Here’s some of what they remembered:

 “In 1951, Dad acquired the equipment of a restaurant that had been damaged in a fire,” Rosemary explained. “He opened his own place on East Second Street between Cayuga and Oneida. In 1953 or ‘54, when the city decided to widen East Second, Dad moved his restaurant up the hill on Oneida and worked the rest of his life there.”

 Glenda talked about the long hours associated with the restaurant business: “Fry’s was open seven days a week, serving three meals a day, until shortly before Dad died. Six days a week, he’d go in at 7 a.m. and work until 8 p.m. Each day, he would come home around 2 or 2:30, take a nap, and then head back for the dinner hour. A waitress would cover while he was gone. On Sundays, he’d go in a little later and close at noon.”

 “People still talk about his home cooking,” Rosemary reflected. “When Dad started the restaurant, Ann Truel was his cook, and when she retired he took over her recipes. Dad had a special every day of the week and Fry’s was famous for his baked beans—people loved his bean sandwiches with ketchup.  He was also known for his rice pudding, milkshakes, and ice cream floats made with Hire’s Root Beer. Aunt Edna, his sister, made pies that people loved.”

 When both Glenda and Rosemary mentioned how their father kept the restaurant open during the Blizzard of ’66, my ears perked up. I’ve heard hundreds of stories of how central New York survived that storm and wanted to know how someone managed to keep a restaurant in operation during and after it.

 “When the snow finally stopped,” Glenda said, “Dad walked to the restaurant. How he was able to get there, I don’t know; the streets hadn’t been plowed yet. But Dad had a lot of regulars who depended on him for their meals, and there were also people who were trying to clean up the snow—the city workers and all—who needed a place to get food. So throughout that storm and its cleanup, which lasted the whole week, Dad never missed a day.”

 Both of Glen’s daughters worked for their father; Rosemary began at age 11, and Glenda while she was in high school and college. They got to know Fry’s regular customers. “A lot of the old bachelors, some who lived at a boarding house nearby, would eat at Dad’s restaurant,” Glenda said.  “One of the reasons he opened on Sundays was because those men would have had no other place to go for their meals.”

Glenda ended up marrying a SUNY Oswego student, Joe Abbate, a New York City native who’d never experienced small town life before attending the college. When Joe got to Fulton, he was introduced to Fry’s Diner, and he wrote about his impressions of that Fulton mainstay for our Library Memoir Project:

“I will never forget the first time I walked into the place. It was like a Norman Rockwell painting come to life, a throw-back to the days of the past; simple and to-the point. This was a mirror reflection of its owner, who always said what he felt in a direct, no-nonsense way. You knew where you stood when you talked with Glen and that’s how he ran his restaurant.

“As you slid into a booth, atop the weary vinyl that had cushioned many a hungry client over the years, the feeling came over you that you were home, and that someone was going to serve you a good meal—not because he wanted your money, but because he cared about you.”

Joe went on to write that he never had the chance to get to know Glen really well, because his father-in-law suffered a stroke right before he and Glenda were married. “He died a few years later,” Joe explained, “but I did learn something about Glen that summed up his life and the way life was in Fulton. When the family was cleaning out the store and settling Glen’s affairs, they discovered a pile of cards underneath the drawer in his cash register.” 

Joe and others learned that the stack of cards were meal tickets that Glen had issued to people on fixed incomes. “They were like their ‘tabs,’” Joe said. “They were punched whenever a person could not pay.  Then, when they would receive their monthly check or a bit of money, they would pay whatever they could, little by little. Many people never paid. The cash register till may never have been full, but the stomach of everyone Glen met was. He made sure of it.”

 For many years, Glen Fry served pies and much more from behind the counter at his popular restaurant, Fry’s Diner.

For many years, Glen Fry served pies and much more from behind the counter at his popular restaurant, Fry’s Diner.

Neighborhood Grocery Stores

With Tops Supermarket recently closing, I’m reminded how grocery shopping in Fulton has changed over the years. Before Aldi’s, Price Chopper or Wal-Mart’s mega store, our favorite grocers were right in our neighborhood.  For younger folks, that may seem hard to believe, but some longtime Fultonians know it’s true.

“There used to be 72 grocers operating in Fulton at one time,” remembered Fran Mirabito, a member of the family who once operated several neighborhood stores in and around Fulton. “This would have been during the 1930s,” Fran explained. “There were bigger stores, like A & P and Acme, but in addition to them, every neighborhood had their own store that sold a little bit of everything.”

Fran shared this with me a few years ago when I was having lunch with him and several of his friends. In that group were other Fultonians: Bob Green, Vince Caravan, Don Ross, Bart Chalone, Wally Auser and Dr. Kenneth Kurtz. These men used to meet weekly to share a meal, discuss local and national news, and reminisce about their days working and raising families in Fulton. (I was informed that other men and women would join them from time to time.)

Meeting with those friends got me thinking about the neighborhood of my youth. I grew up on the west side of the city, north of Broadway, and the two neighborhood stores I remember were Manitta’s and Sieron’s. Through my work with the Fulton Public Library’s Memoir Project, I’ve had the privilege of meeting and talking with two people who know a lot about those stores: Jean Sieron Niver and Dominic “Doc” Manitta.

The story of Sieron’s, which was located on West First Street, begins with Jean’s parents, John and Genevieve Sieron, who opened the store in 1929. Jean came along several years later and remembers growing up in the store.

“I had various jobs throughout my childhood,” Jean said. “I learned how to correctly bag groceries, stock shelves and eventually progressed to waiting on customers when I had learned how to make change (the old-fashioned way). 

“As a preteen and teen, I was given the privilege of taking on an important department in the store: the candy counter!  The three-shelf square stand was the home to a large variety of ‘penny’ candy and chocolate candy bars.  I loved neatly arranging the bars on the stand by size: Snickers, Milky Way and 3 Musketeers on the bottom, Nestlé bars in the middle and the tall Mars varieties on top.   They were surrounded by numerous boxes of individually-wrapped candy and gum.”

Jean’s responsibilities at the store continued to grow, including regular visits to the nearby Stanley Tobacco Company where she selected the candy Sieron’s sold.  “Walking into their stockroom (their converted living room) was like walking into Candy Heaven,” Jean remembered. “The wooden shelves were stacked high with hundreds of boxes. What would I select? What would kids like the best?” 

I imagined that Jean might have been the envy of Fulton children and she confirmed that in her memoir: “For years, many of my Phillip Street classmates had me shopping for those treats with their ‘extra’ lunch money.  I returned to school from lunch carrying numerous tiny brown paper bags with their choices.”

One block further north of Sieron’s on West First was Manitta’s, with its famous tag line “Fulton’s Biggest Little Store.”  Founded in the mid-1930s by Angelina and Salvatore Manitta, it soon became popular not only for the neighborhood, but throughout the city. Whether it was their display of fresh produce out front, their renowned meats cut fresh by the Manitta’s older son Phil, or the great conversation you could expect while you shopped, everybody knew about the store. Here’s a memory from the younger Manitta son, Doc, about one of the store’s most popular items:

“I bought my produce in Syracuse at the Farmers Market.  All of us would be there at five in the morning, our trucks lined up, ready to go in and buy the best produce from the big retailers. We used to pick up bananas in huge bunches that would hang on a rack.  For a long time we sold them for 11 cents a pound, and when I raised it to 12 cents my customers wanted to kill me!

“I used to buy anywhere from five to ten 40-pound boxes of bananas at the market. At times, they would save the ones that were going bad and I would buy them for $2.00 a box. One time, I got a call from the produce guy, who said, “Doc, they gassed the bananas too much (They used to make bananas ripen faster by gassing them) and these are gonna get soft and ripen too quickly. We’re not going to be able to sell them.”

“I said, ‘How many boxes you got?’

‘A hundred fifty. And I’m gonna send my grandson down with them. I want a dollar a box.’

“No, I’ll give you fifty cents a box,” I said, “and I’ll be responsible for them. Well, everybody who came in the store got a box of bananas for a dollar. I had people lined up out the door. Within two days, they were gone.”

Today, the supermarkets where we shop have specials and sales, but when was the last time you saw people lined up outside a grocery store to take advantage of a huge discount? But people didn’t make regular visits to Manitta’s and Sieron’s just for good prices and high-quality food. They also knew that they’d be greeted by storeowners who were part of their neighborhood, and who welcomed them into their stores.

 Manitta’s grocery store, one of many neighborhood stores that were once found in Fulton.

Manitta’s grocery store, one of many neighborhood stores that were once found in Fulton.

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.