by Milt Huntington
Our family moved from Belfast to Augusta when I was a mere 10 years old. I knew Augusta was the capital of Maine, because every time we drove through town to visit out-of-state relatives, my parents would wake me up to see the State House dome.
The only other thing I knew about Augusta was the fact that it was the home of a mental hospital which, back then, was commonly called an insane asylum. I experienced a few nightmares before moving here about crazy people walking the streets. When our moving truck pulled up at our new home on Swan Street, my bicycle was the first thing to be unloaded. That drew the attention of the kids in the new neighborhood who would soon become my childhood friends.
I was small. My bike was a 22-inch affair compared with the 31-inch bikes most kids had. That seemed to fascinate the Swan Street gang with the exception of one guy who didn’t accept this new kid on the block. That was OK with me. I didn’t accept him either. He was a grammar school football hero who became bigger than life when he broke his nose. We got into a fight over some exchange of words, and a lot of fists were flying back and forth. I don’t remember any of them making a serious connection, and we never fought again. He became my closest friend from that day on.
What a neighborhood! A family with five kids lived next door. Down on nearby Gage Street, there was another family with five, plus another Gage Street boy who would also become a life-long friend. We played street hockey using a tin can for a puck; All-y, All-y Over, which involved throwing a ball over the roof of a house and Ring-A-Lebo which was sort of like hide-and-seek. We also played Mother, May I, which involved taking giant strides or baby steps when you remembered to ask: “May I?” and Red Light, a game where the person who was “it” shut their eyes and counted to ten while the others tried to sneak up and tag him before the “it” person said: “Red Light”.
We stole apples, broke a few street lights on Halloween and played football on the approach road to the new Memorial Bridge before it got paved. As a matter of fact, while the bridge was under construction, a few of us walked out on the steel work one night and made our way across the river. After making it safely to the other side, I remember remarking to my friends: “Hey! We beat the governor across!” A KJ reporter heard the remark and printed it in the next day’s news.
Swan Street was located right behind the Hartford Fire Station, and provided a neat short cut through its alley on the way downtown. The fire whistle sounded loudly every night at 9 p.m. to signify curfew time for the younger set. There were times when we would be cutting through the alley way when the whistle would blow and frighten us about ten feet off the ground. There’s no curfew anymore. I wonder why the 9:00 whistle continues to blow? Right beside the fire station, two nice men named Frank and Howard worked at a small shoe repair shop. We hung out there because we liked it when they teased us half to death. We thought we were kind of tough. They laughed and called us “pansies.” We were also firemen wanna-be’s, and pestered them a lot.
I always liked walking down Rines Hill when the trains passed under the bridge. Once, we stood there as a smoke-spewing locomotive went underneath. We were covered with black soot as we leaned on the soot-smudged railing, and we had to go home to get cleaned up. The marvelous old brick railroad station at the bottom of the hill would see some of us come and go from the Korean War. The next place down Water Street was Frank Turcotte’s shoe repair and shoe shine parlor where “Our Gang” would go on Sunday mornings after getting all gussied up for church or some such thing. Next to the shoe shine shop was the coolest store in town–the Depot News. A really nice guy named Joe Kaplan ran the place and provided a second home for all us kids who played his pin ball machine for a nickel a game. All the downtown merchants were good to us kids.
We always stopped at Joe’s on the way to the movies at the Capital or the Colonial theater to load up on candy bars. It was also the place to buy comic books. Between the Depot News and the Capital Theater was a nice little store that sold fruits and vegetables. When I was flush, I used to buy a quarter pound of cherries there to eat in the movie theater.
Next to the fruit store was Partridge’s drug store, where we pigged out on ice cream sodas and chocolate malts or milk shakes, often referred to as chocolate velvets. In my high school days, I would work there as a soda jerk. I even took two years of Latin at Cony High in preparation for a career as a pharmacist. Didn’t happen! My high school year book prophesized that my writing would take me far in the literary world. Yeah, right! All the Way to the Capital Weekly and Kennebec Journal, in Augusta.
Getting back to the movie theaters, the Capital provided all the B-Class movies, westerns and such in black and white. It did have a weekly serial, however, which drew us in every weekend without fail. The serials ranged from Superman to Flash Gordon to Tom Mix and The Shadow. The feature was often Gene Autry, Roy Rogers or the Three Musketeers, starring John Wayne as Stony Brooks and Bob Steele as Tucson. I forget who the third one was – somebody very funny, but forgettable. My first ticket at the Capital cost me 12 cents. What a shock one day when it jumped all the way to 20 cents. We used to horse around noisily a lot at the movie theaters, and it was something to brag about to get ejected at least once during our young lives.
Down at the other end of the street was the old Colonial Theater where Class-A pictures were shown. On Sunday, after week-long previews of coming attractions, we would be rewarded with musical extravaganzas starring Esther Williams, Bing Crosby or Jane Powell in living color or flicks like Casablanca, The Wolfman or war movies like Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo. The Colonial played their movies continuously so we could sit through a good movie twice for the price of a single ticket.
Once in a cowboy thriller, an Indian chief, played by blue-eyed Jeff Chandler, stood in the middle of a pow-wow session, folded his arms and dramatically declared: “I walk away!” “Our Gang” had seen the movie once, but we stayed for a second showing to get back to that pow-wow scene again, when we stood in the theater, one by one, folded our arms and declared to the rest of the audience: “We walk away. People call them punks today. We were harmless “hooligans” then.”
On the way home from the Colonial was Ed Houdlette”s Drug Store which was known to have a particularly vulnerable pin ball machine. We hung out there a lot because Mr. Houdlette was also nice to us.
Water Street is what I like to call a street of dreams because it conjures up so many memories of shops and businesses that vanished with our youth. Remember the five- and ten-cent stores that anchored the center of down town Augusta – McLellan’s, Kresge’s and Woolworth’s. We had ‘em all. I was a stock boy and soda jerk for the Kresge operation, but it suvived anyhow for awhile.
Then of course, we had JCPenny, D.W. Adams, Chernowsky’s, the Army-Navy Store, Lamey-Wellahan, Montgomery-Ward and Sears & Roebuck. A jewelry store graced the corner of Water Street and Bridge Street – A.J. Bilodeau’s. Another one sat on the corner between Farrell’s Clothing Store and the post office. It displayed a sign with a picture of a diamond ring. The caption stated: “I came here to talk for Joe,” a popular World War II love song. Speaking of Farrell’s, it once boasted just a single aisle between two counters with a little space downstairs where I bought all my Boy Scout gear and a tux for the senior prom. Nicholson & Ryan Jewelers was always there, it seems.
Near the botom of Rines Hill was a liquor store where my father and grandfather liked to surreptitiously shop. They would always leave their change with the Salvation Army lassie who parked out front. Once, running an errand for my mother, I dropped some change into the lassie’s tambourine. When my mother questioned me about that, I replied: “That’s what Papa and Grampy always do.”
On the other end of Water Street were the beer parlors which gave the neighborhoods a shoddy reputation. Across the street was Allen’s Grocery Store. a fish market and Berry’s Cleaners. Depositor’s Trust Co. on Haymarket Square was on the ground floor of a six-story affair which is now the site of the Key Bank building. We’re talking ancient history, I know, but who can ever forget Stan Foster’s Smoke Shop next to the old Hotel North. He specialized in meals, smokes and some real great pin ball machines. Near the Depot News was Al’s Barber Shop which took care of ducktail haircuts and crew cuts in the early years. His partner and relative bought him out and opened Pat’s Barber Shop at the other end of Water Street near the lights.
Swan Street and Water Street have undergone a lot of change in the last 60-plus years or so. Downtown was the main thoroughfare to all those movies, and it was the pathway to Cony High before the new bridge opened up. Most of those downtown places are now long gone, but the memories (some a little fuzzy now) will remain forever. I wouldn’t swap those memories for anything. Growing up in Augusta was as good as it gets.
Milt Huntington is the author of “A Lifetime of Laughter” and “Things That Make You Grin.”