Before Facebook, We Had the Valley News

Whenever I’m researching local history I read a lot of old newspapers. I’ll scan their pages, looking for articles that relate to my topic, and sometimes I get a little distracted by a news item from days gone by.  This was the case for me recently, when I was reviewing a past issue of The Valley News. Something I found in it made me think that Fulton’s newspaper used to be a lot like Facebook is today.

Why would I compare our hometown paper with an internet site that reaches six billion people worldwide? It has to do with a regular feature The Valley News used to run. They called it “Personals.”

The Personals weren’t like regular newspaper columns that cover events happening at churches, schools or sports arenas. They were short “announcements” spread throughout the paper, sometimes a dozen or more on a single page. Here’s a sample of what I found in the August 25, 1971 issue:

Mr. and Mrs. Gus Dormeyer, the Baldwin Road, and Mr. and Mrs. Robert Ives, the Streeter Road, have returned home after having visited the Amish Country of Pennsylvania.

Miss Ann Luke of the County Line Road, was a counselor last week at the Methodist Church camp at Casowasco on Owasco Lake.

Mrs. Joseph Zizzi of South Sixth Street is a patient in Lee Memorial Hospital.

A few pages later, there were more Personals:

Mr. and Mrs. Luther Bryan, West Second Street, were among those who attended the recent Sealright clambake at Silver Lake.

Cherie Morgan of Phoenix visited her grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. William Rill of Phoenix, last week.

Mrs. Arthur Hallstead of Cayuga Street was a dinner guest, last Sunday, of Mrs. Catherine Knapp, Oneida Street.

And so on, page after page. I ended up reading every Personal (There were 85 in that one issue!), looking for names I’d recognize, curious if I might remember the events described. It turns out lots of people did the same thing back when Personals was a regular feature in The Valley News. We caught up on who was doing what—you know, kind of like why we log onto Facebook today.

But there was no Facebook all those years ago, so it wasn’t as easy as hopping on your computer to find out about people’s lives. Who came up with the Personals idea and how did The Valley News keep it going twice a week, year after year? I asked that question to some longtime Fultonians, including my friend Paul McKinney, who had this to say about our hometown paper’s unique feature:

“Personals was the brainstorm of Vince Caravan, longtime editor of The Valley News. Vince hired someone to make regular calls to people throughout the city, including my mother, Helen. The office worker would regularly ring up Mom and ask, ‘Do you have anything for Personals?’”

Paul thinks one of the reasons the regular feature in The Valley News was such a big hit was because “people loved seeing their name in the paper. For many years, it was the first thing subscribers would read when they got their latest issue.”

To find out more about Personals, I got on my computer and headed to Facebook, logging onto the page called Fulton New York Memories. There I put out a request for information about The Valley News’ Personals and received over 40 comments. Here are a few:

Rusty Okoniewski responded to my question by telling me about his Great-Aunt Caroline Bateman: “She lived in Volney Center and was a ‘paid’ reporter for The Valley News. Each week she made note of the ‘Personal’ items she learned by simply talking (on the telephone or face-to-face) with her friends and relatives. She was paid a fee (I think 10 cents) for each item.”

That pay-per-item system was confirmed by Alice Doss, who also gathered Personals stories for the paper. “I remember it well!” Alice said. “I was paid 10 cents to type up stories about visits, riding snowmobiles, birthdays, etc. It was fun to do, and I liked reading others’ ‘reports.’”

Those Personals weren’t just read in Fulton. City residents who’d moved away or were temporarily out of town didn’t want to miss an issue. Stuart Wilson mentioned that “My mother had The Valley News sent to me at college so I could keep up with local goings on. My college friends were really amazed at Personals. They’d never seen anything like it.”

In fact, if you weren’t a Valley News reader back then, you’d probably never seen anything quite like Personals…at least until Facebook came along. I have to admit, reading about someone having dinner with someone else seems a bit gossipy to me. But the more I think about it, the more I believe there’s something important beneath all those shared stories, either from 50 years ago in a newspaper or today on the internet.

In some ways, isn’t our curiosity about people really about our concern for one another? Isn’t it a way of making sure our friends are doing okay? Of course, as we’ve seen, comments on Facebook can sometimes be hurtful or too strongly opinionated (something you’d never have seen in the Personals), but if you scroll past all that, you’ll probably read something about a friend you haven’t seen in years. Wasn’t it nice remembering them?

I got nostalgic after reading those Personals, pining for days gone by. It made me wish some people on Facebook wouldn’t be so cruel or quick to judge. But it doesn’t have to be that way. It can be, as one of my favorite Fulton historians, Grace Lynch, always said, “the way it used to be.” The next time we share something on Facebook, let’s take a lesson from local history, when a small-town newspaper made a big difference by printing good things happening to our family and friends.

The Valley News’ “Personals” feature was once the first thing people read in their hometown newspaper.

The Valley News’ “Personals” feature was once the first thing people read in their hometown newspaper.

A Merry Musical Christmas

If you’re a regular reader of this column you know I enjoy writing about history. But there’s a second topic I have a big interest in: music; specifically, the singers and songs that were popular in the 1960s and ‘70s, when I was growing up. So, on the rare occasions when those two topics meet, I’m in a kind of writer’s heaven. That’s the case with today’s column, in which we travel back to a time when some special songs made my childhood merry.

Christmas in the 1960s was an enchanted time. Like other middle class families in a small town, the holiday promised a welcome change to my family’s routines. Our living room was rearranged to welcome a freshly-cut tree, the picture window sparkled with snow sprayed from a can, and our AM radio was always on, awaiting Christmas songs. (This was before stations played holiday music 24/7 from Halloween ‘til the new year.) I’d keep an ear out, and if the deejay announced a Christmas classic, I’d turn up the volume.

Among my earliest yuletide favorites is “White Christmas.” From time to time, my older relatives discussed their memories of our country’s involvement in World War II, and at Christmastime, when Bing Crosby crooned this song, their conversations paused. Only later in life did I understand why. Though Irving Berlin composed his nostalgic tune in 1928 (written while he was grieving the death of his three-week-old son), it wasn’t until 1941, as our country entered the global battle, that the song gained popularity. Our soldiers fighting overseas said that, each December, dreaming of a white Christmas was really about dreaming of home.

Winters in Upstate New York pretty much guaranteed us a white Christmas, but snow-packed roads meant there weren’t a lot of trips in the family car. As the holiday neared, though, Dad would pile us kids in and we’d head out for Christmas shopping. If we were lucky, we’d find a parking space in the busiest section of downtown Fulton and when we opened car doors, holiday music welcomed us. One song I surely heard was “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” which was playing almost nonstop outside Montgomery Ward. Here’s why:

Rudolph’s fanciful story of flight came to life in 1939, after our country had endured a decade of the Great Depression. The joys of Christmas were in short supply and Montgomery Ward wanted to change that. One of Ward’s ad men created the Rudolph character as an illustrated poem, and it was featured in that year’s catalog, better known as the Children’s Wish Book. Many baby boomers remember spending hours flipping through its pages, making their list for Santa.

Rudolph was an immediate hit and a children’s book followed. By 1947, songwriter Johnny Marks set the legend of Rudolph to music, and Bing Crosby, already strongly associated with the holiday, was offered the song. After he turned it down, Gene Autry, America’s Singing Cowboy, recorded “Rudolph” and its popularity soared as high as a team of flying reindeer.

There was more magic from Rudolph, as well as from Johnny Marks’ songwriting abilities. Once Montgomery Ward had struck gold with its magical reindeer, television wanted in on the fun, so, in 1964, an animated Rudolph TV special aired. Marks wrote a bouncy tune called “A Holly Jolly Christmas” and Burl Ives’ folksy version played like a sleigh ride down a snowy hill, delivering us right into the arms of Christmas joy.

Johnny Marks made one more contribution to holiday melodies with a song that older kids at school were crazy about. There were lots of “groovy” dances in the 1960s, and when the holidays drew near, teens were “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” Brenda Lee was only thirteen when her perky voice made our radios pop, and highschoolers everywhere—including my hometown of Fulton—were shimmying and shaking to it.

Another youngster caught America’s attention at Christmas. Though the same age as Brenda Lee when his song became a hit, young Jimmy Boyd was singing about something entirely different when he informed the world “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” When the song was released in 1953, the idea of a married woman having an affair with Santa was a little too risqué, even if Saint Nick was really Jimmy’s good old Dad in disguise. Radio stations banned the song for years, but luckily, by the time I came along, all had been forgiven and “I Saw Mommy” was nothing more than an innocent holiday novelty.

Throughout my childhood, TV offered a new Christmas special every December and we kids wanted to watch them all. “Frosty the Snowman” was first recorded by Gene Autry, but it was Jimmy Durante’s razzmatazz version in the TV special that had us singing along. Frosty also gave moms something to hold over our heads when we couldn’t contain our Christmas excitement: “Be good or there’ll be no Frosty on TV tonight!”

I paid special attention to Mom’s warning when I learned that, in 1965, Charlie Brown was going to have his own Christmas special. I was ten that year, young enough to still believe in animated stories that brought holidays to life, but old enough to appreciate the sentiments of a gentle yuletide song.  “A Charlie Brown Christmas” had both.

Comic strip illustrator Charles Schulz and the creators of his TV special wisely added a Christmas soundtrack to the show.  They hired composer Vince Guaraldi to provide piano-driven jazzy numbers, which kept the story moving. Then Guaraldi paused with a song that captured the wonder of the holidays. “Christmas Time is Here,” was sung by the angelic choir of Charlie and his gang as they skated across a pond, caught snowflakes on their tongues and discovered the true meaning of Christmas. Today, when I get too busy to remember the joy of the holidays, I only need to hear the opening piano notes of that song and everything I love about Christmas music comes rushing back.

Holiday shows liked “A Charlie Brown Christmas” have provided memorable yuletide songs for over fifty years.

Holiday shows liked “A Charlie Brown Christmas” have provided memorable yuletide songs for over fifty years.

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.