For many people the neighborhoods where they spent their young years, the houses they lived in and the things that happened there become an indelible part of their childhood memories. As folks get older, with more time behind them than there is ahead, those remembrances seem to come to mind more and more often. My recollections are of the Thomas and Ellicott avenues neighborhood where I spent my years between ages 1 and 10.
My parents, Jim and Anna Newhouse Reilly were married in April 1944. Dad was serving as a lieutenant in the Army Air Force during World War Two and was stationed at Mitchell Field in Long Island. He had wanted to be a flier but was too tall for the cockpit and at the age of 33 a bit too old. So he had to settle for piloting a desk.
After their wedding in Batavia at St. Joseph's Church ( mom was not Catholic, but agreed to convert) and reception at Young's Restaurant on Main Street the newlyweds lived in Long Island until dad got shipped overseas for mop-up duty at the end of the war. Mom returned to Batavia to stay with her parents at 25 North Lyon Street until dad was discharged after the war ended.
When my father returned to Batavia he and my mom rented an idyllic spot at what they always referred to as “The Mill” on Seven Springs Road east of town. In a wooded expanse, there was a stream and a pond. The pond emptied over a small waterfall and a small grist mill had been built there in 1811 with a waterwheel for grinding grain which continued for that use for 80 years. From the early 1900s until the 1940s it was owned by a family named Gubb and used as a riding camp and stables. Today it is the Chapin Mill Retreat Center used by spiritual groups for meditation.
The Mill on Seven Springs Road where my parents lived when I was born (photo courtesy of Ed Kademan)
The sale of the Mill property to the Chapin family and my parents' desire to own their own home with room for kids led to them buying their first house at 26 Thomas Avenue in the City of Batavia. Located off West Main Street that was where I spent my early years and where my brother Dan was born in 1949.
The Thomas Avenue house had plenty of room with three bedrooms, a basement (with a cistern which is still there but not used), and an attic. Upstairs was a cedar closet that had a nice aromatic fragrance. I used to hide out in there and read Hardy Boys books. There was also a detached one-car garage which might have fit a Model T, but it was too small for the long finned and big bumpered monstrosities of the '50s.
One downside, which resulted in us eventually moving, was the tiny back yard which wasn't even big enough to play catch in. About 20 yards behind the house was someone else's garage on Dellinger Avenue the next block over.
Dave (right) and brother Dan (left) on porch of 26 Thomas Ave. 1955
In 2011 I happened to drive by my former home and noticed a for-sale sign with notice of an upcoming open house. On a Sunday afternoon, I showed up and probably made a mistake by telling my real purpose of the visit to the realtor. Once she found out I wasn't a buyer she kept trying to hurry me along when I wanted to browse around and reminisce.
It was kinda like the twilight zone to be walking around in a house I hadn't been in since 56 years ago. Subsequent owners had changed a few things (the cedar had been removed from the closet), but mostly it was the same. The one thing that really surprised me was how small my childhood bedroom was. My little kid self had seen it as a lot larger.
Dave on the porch of 26 Thomas Ave. 2011
In 1955 my parents sold the house because they wanted a big yard for us kids to play in and for my mom to garden. But, they couldn't find that house right away so for two years we moved one block to the west. If you cut through a couple of back yards (which we often did) it was literally a move of a few hundred yards. We rented the top floor of a huge house at 20 Ellicott Avenue, a wide street with many expansive and beautiful homes. So, new and smaller living quarters (I grudgingly had to share a bedroom with my brother ), but same neighborhood, same kids. One cool thing was we had a second-floor screened porch and I remember sitting out there watching tree limbs fall when the winds and rain from a hurricane moved through. We also had a bigger yard with an apple tree.
20 Ellicott Ave. 2021
Thomas-Ellicott was a good place for kids to grow up. Two blocks north was State Park (now Centennial Park) where we'd play and go sledding in the winter. A few blocks to the East was Austin Park which had a wading pool. On the corner of Thomas and Washington avenues was a vacant lot ( a house is there now) where we'd frequently play, so the small yard didn't deter us kids too much.
If mom needed a quart of milk (in a glass bottle) or a pack of smokes ( Viceroy) Corrigan's grocery was around the corner on Main Street. Mr. Corrigan's daughter was pretty good about letting a kid look through some comics if you didn't bother anyone. Since this was just post-World War II and the Korean War my favorites were what we called “army comics” and I had quite a collection. Like a lot of other things I should have saved which became valuable, I wish I had kept them.
Next to Corrigan's was J. Frank Dicke's bike shop where my parents bought my first bike. My mom was a worrywart though and wouldn't let me get a two-wheeler until I was 10. So, until then I was reduced to tooling around on a big trike. My friends teased me that if I got a dog in a basket I'd look like Margaret Hamilton in The Wizard Of Oz.
Across from Austin Park was Washington Elementary School ( currently it's RRH Reed Eye Associates.) I attended Kindergarten there until I switched to St. Mary's for first grade when it opened. For some strange reason, I remember virtually nothing about that year. My mom kept a class photo and I don't recall the teacher or the kids.
Across Main Street was the Holland Land Office Museum where I spent a lot of time when I got a little older and my mom would trust me to cross the busy thoroughfare. One of my earlier stories was about how I tried to hoodwink the museum director into displaying a fake artifact I supposedly found ( I failed).
Kitty-corner across the street was the residence of our family physician Doctor Biagio Mansueto. He made house calls so that was pretty convenient if you needed him or you could go right to his house like my mom did with me when I managed to get a dime stuck in my nose at church.
Next to the Mansueto's lived an elderly woman named Gladys Foster. She had a bunch of red currant bushes behind her garage and I tormented her by constantly picking them. If I was more clever I could have used the excuse that I was just keeping up with currant affairs.
When we moved to Ellicott there was a widow downstairs named Midge who was raising a couple of kids (older than me) on her own. My mom, who easily made acquaintances with almost anyone, became fast friends with her. For some reason, I recall being downstairs with them when Elvis made his swivel-hipped appearance on the Ed Sullivan show in 1956. Midge wasn't too impressed.
I have remarked before that it's odd that you often remember quirky things that took place rather than all the big occasions like Christmas, Halloween, etc. I certainly have my warm memories of family times, but also some vague recollections of little weird or funny incidents that happened.
We had a bully in our area whose name I can't recall, but at Christmastime when I do my annual viewing of “A Christmas Story” on television the bully being described as having “yellow eyes” always makes me think of him. One time he caught me alone on Dellinger Avenue and believe it or not he tied me to a tree and left me there. Did the kid carry rope with him just in case he came across a victim? More unbelievably though, that was the day I had sneaked a paring knife out of my mom's kitchen drawer. Why? Little boys do stuff like that. So, I was able to cut myself free. But, I couldn't even tell my mom about it (it was embarrassing anyway) because I had to surreptitiously get the knife back without getting caught.
On Ellicott Avenue was the residence of a well-known Batavia photographer. He had a son my age and one day I went over there to play. For some reason, we were up in the attic and the kid locked me in there and went away. After I pounded on the door for a while his mom let me out. Are you seeing a pattern here?
But, I wasn't always a wimp. I've only been in two fights in my life, both when I was a kid. One day we were playing at a property on Thomas where there was a big iron fence (it's still there). A kid from Lincoln Avenue named Billy was picking on my little brother. Of course, I tormented Dan every single day. It's almost a requirement of big brotherhood. But I couldn't let someone else do it. So, I took the kid on. I think I won but had a couple of scrapes to show for it. And my brother owed me.
So if I wasn't a fighter was I a ladies' man? Near the corner of Washington Avenue and Dellinger lived a little girl named Nora Ann. We were friends and played together until inevitably the teasing began. “Dave's got a girlfriend!” I would have been glad to hear someone say that in high school, but at age 7 or 8 it was the kiss of death. Luckily, we went to different schools so I could avoid her and the needling.
Little kids have vivid imaginations and my friends and I were no different. On Dellinger lived an elderly woman. Due to her wizened appearance, we conjured up in our feeble brains that she was a witch. One day I got up the nerve to go into her enclosed porch, I think with the intent to peek in her window may be looking for a pointy hat or a bubbling cauldron. . My friend waited by the sidewalk. Suddenly he yelled, “Dave, the old witch is coming down the street!” and took off like he was shot out of a gun. I froze and then spotted one of those cushioned porch swings. Quickly, I crawled underneath and waited, shaking and trembling. Hansel and Gretel's images involving me in an oven flashed through my head. I heard the porch door open and saw some black shoes and heard a key in the lock. The door closed behind her as the “witch” went inside. I scrambled out from my hiding spot and seemingly in seconds was halfway down the street and didn't stop running until I got home. The poor woman who had probably gone to Corrigan's to get a few groceries had no idea that any of this took place. Nonetheless, when we went trick or treating on Halloween we gave that house a wide berth.
One time when I was little, our neighbor, Dr. Mansueto's son Freddy (who was older than me and went on to a lifetime career as an FBI agent), decided to take me along on an expedition to some wooded property his family owned out on Walnut Street. This wasn't good for a number of reasons: he didn't tell anyone where he was going, we had to cross Main Street and a bridge over the Tonawanda Creek and some railroad tracks and I was about 3 or 4 years old. A frantic search ensued and four parents were pretty upset until we arrived back home. I don't know what punishment Freddy might have received, but my mom wasn't going to let something like that happen again. She bought a harness that fits a child and tethered me to our backyard clothesline so I could no longer wander off. I suppose you could say mom was fit to be tied so she made sure I was too.
In the summer of 1957 when I was 10, my parents found their house with a big yard at 122 North Spruce Street and we moved to the east side of town. This resulted in a bunch of changes and new opportunities for kid capers as I and my friends got older.