Photo courtesy of Bethlehem Town Historian
Preamble by Michael Hallisey:
BETHLEHEM — The changing of the calendar to a new year turns many of us pensive and causes us to think back on auld lang syne. Such was the case for Ruth McDowell, a former longtime resident of Delmar, who was reflecting back on her days as a “blushing bride” in upstate New York in 1941 when she wrote her old hometown newspaper, The Spotlight.
“It’s winter in Delmar and a new year,” she wrote in January 2005, when she was living in Miami, Fla., after her husband, Authur, had passed away. “It’s time to sit in front of burning logs and let their glow take you back to past years.”
The former educator and freelance writer continued to pen a “once upon a time” story intended to walk readers down the proverbial Memory Lane, to which only former neighbors would recognize and recent residents could make out the ghosts through today’s townscape. As Delaware Avenue, Delmar’s Main Street, is reconstructed to recapture its glory as the community’s center of commerce, McDowell’s letter seems all the more appropriate to share today.
The following is the rest of her letter.
This is a “once upon a time” story because, though true, it seems like a fairy tale now. I was a blushing bride when I moved to Delmar in 1941, and we didn’t even have a key for the little house we rented because nobody locked their doors.
After all, Dave Main, the only policeman in town, patrolled the street on foot and all was well.
With a pocketful of change, I could dash to the store and buy a menu to please a new husband. Bread was a nickel a loaf, but man cannot live on bread alone, as the saying goes. Two lamb cutlets were just 35 cents and Dempf Pastry Shop was
right on Delaware Avenue and specialized in apple squares at just five cents a piece and very delicious.
Waltermire’s drug store was across the street and had a soda fountain with just three flavors available, vanilla, chocolate and strawberry. For a bit of refreshment, you might treat yourself to an ice cream cone for another five pennies. (the last cone I had was at Toll Gate for $2.50. Of course it was a triple-decker and made with an exotic rum flavoring.)
On special days, we patronized Libby’s Restaurant a few doors away and enjoyed a full-course dinner for 75 cents. This included a mid-meal dish of sherbet to “enhance the palate” before the main course. Adams Hardware was a big asset. Earl had stockpiled things you couldn’t buy elsewhere. It was a treasure trove.
We lived on a cul-de-sac so all our neighbors became close friends. Frequently one of them churned a bucket of ice cream, and all gathered for the treat and then harmonized around the piano, just as you see in old movies on television.
There was no TV, so entertainment was mainly homemade. There was a tiny theater “The Pit,” which catered mostly to the young set for cowboy pictures on Saturdays.
In the space of four years, several of us who were already neighbors, moved to larger houses near each other and stayed friends for many, many years.
Later, when we all had children, Dooley’s gas station on Delaware Avenue and Oakwood Place became a haven for them. It was not just the penny candy he sold that was the attraction, but Mr. Dooley would repair their bikes or fill their tires and not charge anything.
At that time the Fireman’s Fair was a big event in the town, a fund-raiser for those loyal volunteers. I still treasure a glass pitcher my son finally won after tossing away so many nickels that he used up his whole allowance, but he knew I collected pitchers, and he wanted to surprise me.
The present site of Bethlehem Central Middle School was the senior high and the annual Christmas festival, later called White Christmas, was held there. It brought the whole town together with 500 people appearing on stage during the evening. There was a Delmar Men’s Orchestra, school choirs, a pageant and Home Scene, which I often wrote and directed
It fostered a great feeling of togetherness with hopes for peace in the near future because war had been declared and made a difference in our lives.
My husband was drafted but was sent back home because an erratic heart beat. Meanwhile, as a member of the Motor Corps, I drove a Red Cross truck during the war, delivering medical materials to all the churches where they folded bandages to be sent abroad. One night, I had to meet a troop train in Rensselaer to dispense boxes of lunches that I had picked up at headquarters.
A whole train of soldiers was heading for New York City to go overseas, and this would be their last meal until they boarded the ships. All lights were off, and they made a quick stop to pick up our food.
Since the candles of my birthday cake could now heat up a room, I have moved to the sunny climes of Florida to be near my son Walter McDowell, who attended kindergarten through graduation in Bethlehem Central schools.
My mind goes back to those thoughts of earlier years. We all look up at the same stars and pray that wars will cease and terrorism ends, and that we may return to that peaceful realm of a small town we once knew those many years ago.
McDowell would see the change of one more calendar before joining her husband in eternal slumber. The ode to her hometown could be adopted by many communities throughout the Capital District; just replace the names.
We’re thankful Ms. McDowell did not forget her old acquaintances.