A direct descendant of a Signer of the Declaration of Independence and her husband start a 114-year food and liquor enterprise in Jamaica Plain.
Based on interviews with Joe and John Patterson in July 2010. All photos courtesy of the Pattersons.
By Peter O’Brien
Beginnings in Plymouth, NH
John William Patterson was born in 1859 in Plymouth, NH, about 120 miles north of Jamaica Plain in the White Mountains Region. Incorporated in 1763, the town saw many notable visitors, including in later years, Babe Ruth, who visited a sporting goods wholesaler there for his equipment. Logging, farming and leather gloves were the sustaining industries in the town. Now home to Plymouth State University, the town was named for Plymouth, Massachusetts because several of its residents moved there and founded the town.
Jamaica Plain gets gerrymandered
John moved to Jamaica Plain around 1880. The family does not know why he chose Jamaica Plain and he, John William, certainly had no idea that one day, according to family legend, he would win the hand of a direct descendant of one of Massachusetts’ governors who lent his name to one of America’s most famous, or perhaps infamous, political processes. It’s with mixed feelings that voters and politicians alike view “gerrymandering,” or the redistricting of a given political constituency to keep a party or individual in power. The first manipulation of a district’s boundaries by Massachusetts’ Governor Elbridge Gerry in 1811 produced an odd shape resembling a salamander, thus it was called a “gerrymander.”
It started when Governor Gerry redrew electoral boundaries around Amesbury and Haverhill to benefit his own party, thus lending his name to a process that, for better or worse, has been with us ever since. Governor Gerry not only gave us a long-lived political process, he also helped win our freedom as one of the five Massachusetts signers of the Declaration of Independence along with John Hancock, John and Samuel Adams and Robert Treat Paine.
In 1882 John Patterson married Governor Gerry’s direct descendant, Mary E. Gerry, who was born in Roxbury on October 10, 1861, and together they started a retail food and liquor enterprise, J.W. Patterson & Company, that prospered for 114 years in Jamaica Plain.
A modest start in the grocery business
It all began when the young Patterson couple set up their home at 104 Jamaica Street, at the corner where Jamaica Street meets itself, looping back after failing to gain access to the Arborway. Soon after moving in, the industrious young man opened a store in the cellar of 104 Jamaica Street. It was not uncommon for people to open stores in their homes, long before the need for permits, health inspections, licenses, zoning variances, public hearings, etc. You just set up your shop and stuck up a sign.
While Mary ran the store during the day, John found work as a mechanic at the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad’s Readville Car Shops. In the evenings, he would be on duty in the store.
The business grows
The small cellar store soon needed more room so, in 1890, the couple opened a more substantial store a short distance away at 23 Jamaica Street, at the corner of Woodman Street. Soon after the store was opened, the family moved their residence to 35 Woodman Street, next door to the store. Note the staff of five people in the photograph of this store. For a neighborhood corner market that’s unheard of today but back then, service was paramount and help was needed to provide it.
It’s thought that John became a full-time grocer at about this time. He also obtained a liquor license and actually bottled his own whiskey in “guaranteed/registered full half-pint” bottles under a John W. Patterson label. Eighty years later, empty Patterson whisky bottles would be found in the rafters of the St. Thomas Aquinas grammar school during its demolition. The school was just a short walk from the market at Jamaica Street and during construction the workmen no doubt needed a little something to warmup or cooldown, whichever the need at the time. Long after the Pattersons moved on, the Jamaica/Woodman Street store remained in operation under the Pappas family’s ownership.
In 1908 the Pattersons left 35 Woodman Street and moved to 15 Custer Street. The eight Patterson children were put to work in the market. In those days, before telephones were in every household, they went door-to-door soliciting food orders which would be delivered by horse and wagon. The eight children (five boys and three girls) in descending order were: John W. (Jr.) (who was a clerk in the family market), Matthew G. (who became a Realtor at 707 Centre Street from 1910-1948), Edward J. (who worked for Schenley’s liquor distributors), Joseph A. (operator of the market and whose sons, Joe and John, were the last operators of J. W. Patterson’s liquor store), Frederick (who worked at Boston Gas Company), May (a single lady whose long working career was in the market and liquor store), Alice (who worked at Grove Hall Bank), and Marguerite (who married Dr. J. Ignatius Shea, a dentist upstairs at 707 Centre Street).
In 1905, by now a full-fledged and very successful grocer, John W. Patterson joined the Boston Wholesale Grocers Association. He would later become President of the Association and he remained active in it for many years.
In 1906 John bought the land at 128 - 136 South Street lying between McBride and Boynton Streets, from the owner, Eliza J. Henderson. The parcel is shown on the 1905 City of Boston Street map. The site was formerly the long-time location of a carriage shop that had burned down. Early proprietors of the carriage shop were Blackburn & Henderson. Later records show a Peter Henderson of 31 Orchard Street, as a carriage builder at the site.
John saw the potential of the property, opposite the Boston Elevated Railway’s Car Barns, with multi-family houses being built all along South Street and its many intersecting side streets, and a streetcar line connecting Forest Hills all the way to Dudley Street. He built a block of stores on the site with eight garages in the rear. Initially used for storage, the garages were later rented out to neighbors. In 1912, almost immediately when it became available, Bob Ristuccia, the Pattersons’ first tenant, leased 128 South Street, the end unit nearest McBride Street. Ristuccia started Bob’s Spa there and it stayed in the Ristuccia family for 90 years before being sold in 2001 to the Fernandez family who presently operate the store as Fernandez Spa. The Ristuccia’s long term rental arrangement with the Pattersons aptly reflects the solid business and personal relationship between the two families.
That same year, 1912, saw John Patterson opening his own store in the remaining space at the corner of Boynton Street. The pictures of the interior of the new store show a fully staffed and stocked store typical of the full-service markets of the era. They maintained a fleet of two trucks delivering food orders throughout the area.
May 10, 1912 marked the passing of John’s wife, Mary, whose obituary reported her to be one of the best known women in Jamaica Plain. Her funeral at St. Thomas’ was one of the largest ever seen in Jamaica Plain with over one thousand people attending.
As his business grew, John’s reputation as a businessman grew too. In 1914 he became a Director and the first Treasurer of the Forest Hills Cooperative Bank. He remained actively connected with the bank for many years.
1920 saw the implementation of Prohibition, a failed public policy whose benefits were greatly outweighed by the violations of the enabling statute. John lost his liquor stock and a significant portion of his retail business. Beer and wine were regularly consumed by the many European immigrant families who were moving into all of Jamaica Plain’s neighborhoods, and J. W. Patterson & Company had met that need for many of them. Prohibition also took down the Coffee Tree Inn, around the corner on McBride Street, undoubtedly a Patterson’s food customer also. However, there was an upside for a few entrepreneurs as local enforcement of the Prohibition statute produced several speakeasies on and near McBride Street, including one at the location of what many years later would become Woody’s Variety Store.
Expanding to Roslindale
In 1926 John bought land at Poplar and Washington Streets in Roslindale Square and opened a market at 4256 Washington Street. When Prohibition was repealed in 1933 he obtained a liquor license for a retail liquor store called J. W. Patterson and Sons at 4268 Washington Street, a few doors away and next to the Pearl Shoe Repair shop. Patterson’s Market, at 4256 Washington, later became a Co-op Food Store.
Louis W. Pearl, the cobbler next to the liquor store, lived at 219 South Street, Jamaica Plain, in a building known as the Bride’s Block located opposite Fordham Court, just before the Arborway crosses South Street. We can find no reference to the Bride’s Block and don’t know why it’s so-named but it’s thought that many newlyweds lived there when it was first built. Louis Pearl’s father, J.M. Pearl, had also operated a shoe repair shop at 62 South Street in a store later occupied by Valenzola’s barber shop. Long after Mr. Pearl had gone, Sam Klass opened a shoe repair shop next door at 66 South Street.
John’s growing family helped with the various businesses as they flourished in the fast-growing south end of Jamaica Plain and the Roslindale Square area. The work was hard and hours long but the rewards included steady employment for all and a lovely summer home at Nantasket, which the family enjoyed for many years.
Death comes too early
In 1928, a heart attack took the hardworking businessman at just 69 years. His life was his family and the family business and his devotion to both provided livelihoods for many during the tough years of the Depression and World War II. He was buried in a family plot at Old Calvary Cemetery. His perseverance and solid business practices had put in motion a food and liquor enterprise that eventually ran for 114 years.
John and his wife Mary were memorialized in 1929 with a beautiful stained glass window depicting The Holy Family in St. Thomas Aquinas Church. The window is on the St. Joseph Street side of the church but the Patterson name has been removed. Two chalices were also donated that year to St. Thomas’ pastor, Msgr. Roche, in John W. Patterson’s name.
Another stained glass window, dedicated to their oldest son, John W. Patterson, Jr., who died very young, is located on the Jamaica Street side of the church and remains there today.
Joseph and May Patterson take over
After his death, John’s son Joseph and his daughter May took over the store and ran it from 1928 to 1945. During this time the Head Cashier was Mamie English of Jamaica Street. The store managed to survive the Great Depression and later, World War Two with its rationing, which, like Prohibition, spawned a “black market” of rationed foods and other goods. They extended credit to local families who faithfully settled their accounts, more or less on time. State law prohibited extending credit for liquor so that remained a strictly cash-only operation. Their two trucks were kept busy, when they could get scarce gasoline, delivering food orders throughout the southern part of Jamaica Plain.
A word about rationing during the war. It worked like this: families applied for and received Ration Books for each family member. Each book contained stamps to be redeemed for rationed items like meat, coffee, butter, sugar, shoes, etc. The intent was to fairly distribute the limited stocks of such items. Although the stamps had no cash value, there were tokens, small fiber coins, issued as “change” for fractional stamp purchases of rationed items. Gasoline was also rationed on the basis of one’s priority in the war effort. An “A” windshield stamp on the car got the owner 4 gallons per week while a person with a higher priority job, say in defense work, had a “B” windshield stamp and got 8 gallons. “C” was for Doctors, Ministers, mailmen, and others who were allowed even more, “T” for truckers and of course “X” for members of Congress. There was a 35 mph speed limit to conserve rubber. All whiskey production stopped in 1944 and throughout the war 30% of all cigarettes went to the military. The rationing rules grew more complicated as the war wore on, so for most, it was a great relief when almost all rationing ended in August 1945. Throughout the war, abuses of the rationing system were widespread.
The third generation
In 1930 Joseph Patterson married Mary J. Costello of 290 South Street. Their four children, Joseph, John, Matthew and Anne all attended St. Thomas’ grammar and high schools.
When business was somewhat slow at the market during the war, Joseph took a job as a shipfitter at Bethlehem Steel’s Fore River Shipyard in Quincy, leaving May in charge of the market and liquor store. Among others, Joseph worked on the second USS Wasp carrier. May never married and lived nearly her entire life on Dunster Road. She later moved to St. Patrick’s Manor in Framingham and died there at age 104. Alice occasionally helped out at the store as her time allowed.
In 1945, as the war ended, the market was leased to Tom Burke of Quincy for a few years. Burke renamed the store “Arborway Market” as it was known from then on. Then, Tom Bohan, Jim McDevitt and then the Kelliher Brothers ran it, and finally Donald Fennel managed it until 1981 when it closed forever. The 1953 construction of the housing project at the old Car Barns site across the street had significantly boosted both grocery and liquor sales, but the purchasing power of the large chain stores was too much for a corner market to overcome. Thus ended, after nearly 100 years, one of the longest runs of retail food businesses in Jamaica Plain and perhaps Boston, with the exception of the famous S.S. Pierce Company that ran for about 141 years.
With the market leased out, Joseph took a job at the Massachusetts blood center, later run by the American Red Cross, which was then located at Bussey Institute on South Street. When the Red Cross moved to Dedham, he took a job as a campus Police Officer at Boston University. He died in 1958 at 60 years, while his wife Mary passed in 1999 at 93 years.
During their school years, from 1946-51, Joseph’s sons Joe and John began their retail business careers by operating the lucrative Sunday newspaper stands at the side and front entrances to St. Thomas Aquinas church, where the crowded Masses every Sunday generated sales of hundreds of papers. Paul Lennon operated a fourth stand, just outside the Rectory. These stands were never sold, just passed on to new operators with never a dispute or turf war among the owners, nor an attempt to consolidate the operations. The nearby Farrell’s Drugstore didn’t sell papers so the four sidewalk stands did very well. James Kearney took over from the Pattersons in 1952.
About 1954, Joe and John, having completed military service in the Navy and Marines respectively, worked at Patterson’s Liquor Store, which was then a separate entity located between Bob’s Spa and the renamed Arborway Market. Joe had been on the plane catapult crew aboard the newer USS Wasp and John was in the Marine Honor Guard in Washington, D.C. John had the distinct honor of participating in the dedication of the famous Iwo Jima Marine Memorial.
Joe married Jean O’Hara of South Street. Jean’s mother, May Mudge, had been Miss Boston of 1926. John Married Anne Logue, also a St. Thomas graduate.
The brothers recall that they once were nearly arrested as teenagers out delivering orders in one of the trucks driven by their Uncle Fred, when a concerned local resident called the cops to report them riding the running boards! They also recalled the popular beverages during their time were Four Roses, Seagrams, Ballantine, Pickwick and Croft Ales. And, probably unique to liquor stores anywhere on this planet, one could buy a Mass Card issued by Don Bosco High School at Patterson’s Liquor Store. It was certainly not a reflection on the health implications of the products sold there; it was simply that one of the brother’s kids went to Don Bosco High.
In 1979, May Patterson turned the liquor store operation over to Joe and John. And in 1981, when the market became vacant and with not a clue of operating experience, and after a long wait for a natural gas connection, the brothers opened an unattended Laundromat in the former Arborway Market next door. They were able to monitor operations in the Laundromat from the liquor store and had many unusual events unfold there. For example, once they looked in and saw about 20 young kids standing around in their underwear. They questioned the two young women in charge and they said they had been on an outing at Lars Anderson Park and got caught in a downpour, and they didn’t want to bring the kids home in wet clothes! Another time, Joe found a young neighborhood boy out in the garages behind the store and during their chat the youngster proudly proclaimed “we got bedbugs!”
With the large population of apartment dwellers across the street, and fewer restrictions about water usage and discharge, the Laundromat business took off and soon an attendant was hired for the weekends. The Laundromat is still running. The brothers worked in the liquor store until retiring in 1996, thereafter working alternate days at the Laundromat until it was sold.
The Patterson era ends
Finally, in 2004, the Patterson family sold the South Street retail property they had owned since 1906 to the Fernandez family who was the tenant operating the old Bob’s Spa store.
The continuous run of over 114 years operating food and liquor stores and a Laundromat, along with the exposure to so many customers, has established Patterson’s reputation and historical significance in Jamaica Plain, and being run by descendants of a Signer of the Declaration of Independence is a distinct honor unlikely to be matched by any other Jamaica Plain enterprise.
Higher resolution of photographs shown in this article may be viewed in the gallery.