Frank Norton's 1940s and 1950s Jamaica Plain
My name is Frank Norton and I was born in Jamaica Plain on May 7, 1943. By the time I came along my parents already had one son named Larry. He was a year and two months older than I was. Unfortunately for Larry, I came along to “rain on his parade.” Both Larry and I were born during the years of World War II, so I can only guess what kind of a world we were living in at that time. My brother Larry and I are shown in the photograph to the right in 1947.
We lived on the second floor of a three decker at the corner of 51 Custer Street and Goldsmith Street. There was a corner grocery store right underneath us that was owned and operated by our landlords Harold and Laura Poppleton. As far as I can remember, the Poppletons didn’t have any children. Mr. Poppleton loved the Red Sox and golf. He had all of these small homemade boxes with holes in the middle of them and ramps leading up to them all over the back yard. This was his miniature golf course. He allowed Larry and me to play along with him when we were old enough to do so. Archie Scott lived on the third floor. The surrounding three deckers were home to the families King, Panos, Duffy, Bowes, Di’Ampolo, Sullivan, Cotter, Sevigny, Burdell, and McPartland to name a few.
Mrs. Poppleton worked at the store most of the time. She would sit behind the glass display case that held my favorite candy treats. Back then, candy really was a penny! She had this handheld device with a grip on the end of it to reach items that were too high on the shelves. In this particular corner store you could get everything from food products to kerosene for the kitchen stove. I can remember many a night my father going to “Poppy’s” for kerosene and coming back with those wax covered liquid treats that you would snap the neck at the top to get to the sweet liquid inside. We had a round washing machine with a clothes wringer. The clothes used to wring into the white porcelain sink. We had a “stack” which was similar to a hot water heater. The “stack” would be lit once a week for hot water for our Saturday night bath. You would feel the side of the stack to see if you had enough water heated. The kerosene can would be tipped upside down and put onto the holder located on the back of the stove.
In the late 1940’s, we used to entertain ourselves by listening to radio programs like The Green Hornet and The Great Gildersleeve, and being told by the radio announcer to “watch for The Cushman Bakery delivery truck that would be soon coming down our street”. Back then, very few people had television sets. I can remember when they did become available that they were small and had a round picture tube. I think the test pattern with the awful buzzing noise was the clearest thing you could really see. The Poppletons eventually bought a television set and used to let us come downstairs to watch cartoons and an occasional Red Sox game.
Almost everything that you needed to buy was delivered to the neighborhood. If you needed ice from Gordon Durning the iceman, you would put the cardboard sign in the window. It had different weight amounts on all four sides of the card. When he would collect, he would reach in his pocket and pull out all of this money to make change. If you needed milk, the milkman would deliver on a regular schedule. If you needed clothes or household goods, Sid from the Green Supply would take the order and deliver them to you. The way people paid for things back then was to leave the envelopes on the door with a few dollars inside of them for each vendor.
The fruit and vegetable man would come down the street with his horse and wagon. He would yell “‘Maters, three pounds a quarter.” He had a scale attached to the back for weighing your purchases. The same was true of the ragman. He had a similar wagon with a scale, and would sing “rags, any rags today?” We were always reminded when we went out into the street to watch out for the horse droppings. The lamplighter would climb his small ladder and light the gas lights early each evening and come back in the morning to put out the light. We had mail delivered twice a day. Three men and a truck that had an opening on the side of it picked up the rubbish. There would be one guy inside the opening and the others throwing the barrels to him. He would empty them and throw them back. There was a separate truck for garbage. One man used to go around to the backs of the houses and collect the swill from the round receptacles that were in the ground and bring them out to the street where they would be picked up by this awful-smelling truck similar to today’s rubbish truck.
Doctors made house calls, and some of our locals were Dr. Sumner Karp and Dr. Melvin Gould. The dentist of choice was Dr. Sarris.
We had Jolly Cholly the ice cream man visit us nightly on Custer Street in the summertime. We could hear his bell ringing as he drove down the street. He would let a few of us go with him on his route around the Arborway and up to the rich section of Moss Hill. We took turns ringing the bell and riding on the running boards. We must have looked like a band of gypsies, but what did we care; we were young and having fun.
In the very early 1950’s we got our first television set and started watching television programs like Life of Riley, I Remember Mama, and Tom Corbett Space Cadet. The heroes of the day were Pinky Lee, Big Brother Bob Emery, Buffalo Bob, and especially Howdy Doody! The older folks watched Queen for a Day, I Love Lucy, Our Miss Brooks, Arthur Godfrey, and during serious times the McCarthy hearings. Senator McCarthy would start each one of his inquiries with the question “Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the communist party?”
In the wintertime we used to go coasting at the sugar bowl which was located on the left-hand side of the Jamaica Way near Mayor Curley’s house. It was called the sugar bowl because it was shaped like a bowl. If you went down one side you’d go half way up the other side during coasting. Another great spot to coast was the Arnold Arboretum right near the Administration building. This was the closest for us to go to. All we had to do was to go to the end of Custer Street and cross over the two lanes of traffic at the Arborway and we were there. The Arnold Arboretum is 265 acres of beautiful trees and historic plantings. In the spring they host Lilac Sunday. The smells were delicious. Bussey hill was the highest point, and if you rode your bike down the winding spiral you would build up momentum with each turn. If you made the entire ride in one piece, you were considered a hero for at least ten minutes or so.
When my brother Larry and I were old enough to venture away from the neighborhood we would go up to Centre Street. That’s where all the great stores were. On our way we would pass Margie’s variety store which was on the corner of South Street and Carolina Ave. There was Doctor Bering’s office on South Street, The Jamaica Plain Library, Curtis Hall, The Monument, the drugstore on the corner of Eliot Street, The First National, Brigham’s, “Ask” Mr. Fowler Real Estate, Mullen’s bakery, Costello’s bar, Mammigon’s restaurant, Kresge’s, and Woolworth’s to name a few.
On the walk back we would go to my favorite toy store The Erco Shop. It was located near the First National and Brighams. Mr. Erco spoke with an accent. If you needed the latest model plane or ship to build, this was the place to come. We had to buy the airplane glue separately. They called it Dope.
Larry and I delivered grocery orders at the First National store on Centre Street using our Radio Flyer wagons. He delivered newspapers for the Jamaica Plain Citizen and walked Mrs. Barnes’ dog, a boxer, for extra spending money. As we got a little bit older Larry went to work part-time for Forester’s Market on Boylston Street near Lamartine Street. He delivered orders in an old delivery van with a driver named John. The owner of the market was Bill Judge.
My first part-time job was at Hailer’s Rexall drugstore on the corner of Seavern’s Ave. and Centre Street. Les Weiler was the owner/pharmacist. Fran Shultz ran the lunch counter. The surrounding merchants were: Wayne’s Dept. Store, Hanlon’s Shoes, Jones’s Card Shop, Metropolitan Furniture (formally the Mohegan Market), Kennedy’s Butter & Egg store, Mike’s donuts, The Shawmut bank, Woolworth’s, Kresge’s, Capital Super Market, Ralph’s fruit stand, Jamaica Flooring and Harvey’s Hardware, just to name a few.
There was the fire station across the street and police station #13 on Seaverns Ave. One of the police officers that worked out of that station loved to sing. His name was Bill Dolan, and he and another police officer were on Community Auditions, the local talent program on Sunday morning television. They won the contest and went on to the Ted Mack Amateur Hour. I don’t believe they won that contest, but they were great!
There was a woman named Mrs. Nixon who lived in the brick apartment block directly in back of Hailer’s Drug Store. Her son was a movie producer or director and was married to the movie star Marie McDonald from the My Friend Irma television show.
My family moved out of 51 Custer Street when I was about twelve years old. The family had grown to four children. Tommy and Joe came along in 1950 and 1951. It was starting to get a little crowded in two bedrooms, and the Poppletons were getting ready to sell the house and store and move to California. Up until that point my brother Larry and I went to school at Saint Thomas Aquinas on Saint Joseph Street. Farrell’s Drug store was on the corner of Saint Joseph and South Street. Further down the street (where the projects are now) used to be the MTA car barns. They were across the street from Bob’s Spa, with Saint Rose Street to the left.
When I was a young kid, you rode in the old fashioned streetcars like you see at the Trolley museum in Maine. I forget how much the fare was, but you could go from the streetcar to a bus, to a train, to a trackless trolley all for one fair by getting a “transfer” slip of paper. Our parents used to tell us to “Don’t forget your transfer.”
Forest Hills housed the train station overhead and the trolleys and buses down below. From the Forest Hills station you could go left to Hyde Park or right to Roslindale. If you went up Washington Street towards Green Street, you would pass Ernie’s Diner, the Forest Hills Outlet Store, the Boston Gas Company, Timmons Liquor Store, and Jo-Ann’s coffee shop which was right beside Ruggierio’s Market. If you went down Green Street heading towards Centre Street you would pass Kilgariff’s restaurant. Further down the street was the Green Elm coffee shop owned by Mike Kalijian. If you took a left on Elm Street you would come to Jamaica Plain High School. If you continued on Green Street you would see the K of C Hall that was once called the Jamaica Club years before. When my brother and I were young, my father would take us to the minstrel shows that they would have there. The K of C also used to have Christmas parties with Santa handing out presents and small boxes of hard candy.
When we moved, we went to 14 Haverford Street that ran between Cornwall Street and Montebello Road off of Washington Street. My parents bought a three decker and our back yard abutted the convent that belonged to Our Lady of Lourdes parish and housed the Saint Joseph nuns. We were one block in back of the overhead train tracks and when we first moved in; I thought I would never sleep again. The trains went by about every 10 minutes or so during rush hour and it was quite noisy.
After a few days we adjusted to the sounds and started fitting into our new surroundings. Mrs. Gallagher lived on the second floor of the house. She was very Irish and she and her husband had a beautiful, well kept apartment. They had a gorgeous black cast iron stove in the kitchen. This heated that section of their apartment. Mrs. O’Connor lived on the third floor. I attended Our Lady of Lourdes Parochial school for the sixth through eighth grades. The Principal was Sister Joanita, and she was tough as nails. The story was that she came from a school for deaf students, and was a real disciplinarian. I got suspended for a day because I had a duck tail haircut. I had to bring my mother to the school. My mother was a scrapper, so it was an interesting war of words between the two of them. My brother Larry continued at Saint Thomas Aquinas parish. The nuns were tough, but overall the education we got was good. I graduated from Our Lady of Lourdes in 1958.
The Haffenreffer brewery was down off of Amory Street and each day around noontime you could smell the hops being brewed. The apartment we had was heated by coal, so it was interesting to see the truck deliver the coal down the chute and into the coal room located in the cellar. The furnace would be stoked daily, and the ashes would be used on the snow to give us traction.
We found our way around the neighborhood rather quickly. Up at the corner of Washington Street and Montebello Road was Buddy’s Spa on one side and Madden’s drugstore on the other. If you wanted a chocolate or vanilla coke, Madden’s drugstore was the place to go. If you wanted a 25-cent Italian sub pre-wrapped on the counter, and a bottle of cream soda, Buddy’s was the place to come to. Buddy let all of the parents in the neighborhood run a tab. He would give you a small spiral notebook and kept track of your purchases until week’s end when it was time to settle up. We had the Boylston CafÈ on Washington Street. They had the best barroom pizzas, and if you wanted to play a number with the bookies, you just had to go to the end of the bar and see the man. The Boylston bowling alley and pool hall were right next door to the Boylston CafÈ. Tommy Smith was the manager of the bowling alley. Dottie’s Donut was on the next corner. Across the street from there was DW Dunn Mayflower storage. The JA Club (actually a barroom) was beside that. We had Jerry the barber who charged 50 cents for a haircut and gave you back 25 cents so you could go and get a treat. There was the Chinese laundry beside Madden’s drug store. Across the street from that was Waterman’s block. There was a grocery store on the street level. It was on the corner of Forest Hills Street.
At the time the most memorable movie on television was the Fighting Sullivans. Television was really progressing at that time, and some of the shows were Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca, Red Skelton, Jackie Gleason, Uncle Milton Berle, and Ed Sullivan just to name a few.
If you came down Montebello Road off of Washington Street the brick apartment building on the left belonged to the Walsh family. All of the sons were tradespeople so they built their parents a ranch house in the back yard of the apartment building. It looked strange when they were building it, and I’m sure if you rode by there today, it would look just as out of place.
When my brother Larry and I were old enough to go for our driver’s license we went up to Station #13 on Seaverns Ave. for the “dreaded” road test. Larry got his license right away; I failed the first time. I hit a curb while turning around on Gordon Street. The second time around I got mine too. Larry’s first car was a primed but unpainted 1949 Ford. My first car was a 1949 Plymouth. We went through cars every other year it seemed. It was in this neighborhood that we were introduced to the “I shoveled this spot out when it snowed, and put my chair or barrel in its place when I had to leave” unwritten law of Haverford Street. Smaller versions of World War III were argued over who took a parking spot after a snowstorm. God forbid a stranger came into the neighborhood; everyone would gang up on whoever the offender was.
As my brother Larry and I got older we both started branching out further and further away from the house and the friends that we had gotten to know from the neighborhood. By that time we were both out of school for good. Larry had graduated in 1959 from Jamaica Plain High School. If you happen to see that particular yearbook, he’s on page two. He was involved with some of the writing of the yearbook and the opening pages.
I went to Jamaica Plain High School in 1959 and had to repeat the year because I wasn’t able to go to the required 13 weeks of Agriculture School in the summer of that year. I went to the Mary Curley School the following year. I found public school quite different than Parochial school. The structure wasn’t the same and I became a horrible student. It was my own doing, so in order to take on a full time job at Radio Shack on Commonwealth Avenue in Brighton, I quit day school and spent 2 years going nights at Roslindale Evening High. A few years later I became a milkman for H.P. Hood & Sons on Anson Street that was off of South Street. We used to garage our stand-up Divco milk trucks across from Anson Street in a brick garage. Driving the Divco was a challenge. The clutch and the brake were on the same pedal, so it you stepped down too hard you would be thrust forward towards the windshield. Being a milkman, and working for Hoods Milk was not only a great job at the time, it was a lot of fun.
My brother Larry moved out of Jamaica Plain in 1961 and got married. I moved out of Jamaica Plain in 1965 and got married. Unfortunately we both ended up being divorce statistics years later.
When we went back to visit our parents it wasn’t the same anymore. You could notice the differences taking place and the decline of the neighborhood. When my parents sold the 3 decker in the 1970’s, you couldn’t give them away for $13,000. The insurance companies were redlining the neighborhoods and not selling fire insurance. My parents bought a house in Weymouth and lived there until they passed away. My mother died in 1978 and my father died in 1985. My beloved brother Larry died April 25, 2002, at the age of sixty. He had a 35-year career with a great company named Roche Brothers Supermarkets. He was in management. He was my hero, and I miss him terribly. As for me, I just wanted to write our story.