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.