Little Falls South Side in the 1970s
by David P. Talaba
Growing up on the South Side of Little Falls in the decade of the 70s was a wonderfully unique, cultural, and educational experience. Residents looked out for each other, fed each other, helped raise each other’s kids, and basically loved and respected each other. Most people who grew up there wouldn’t trade their time and experiences for anything. Many families were cash poor but wealthy beyond belief in the things that really mattered.
The following is a partial collection of stories and memories of my experiences as an adolescent in the 1970s on the “South Side.” Some names have been changed to protect the guilty…innocence needs no protection.
The “gang” that terrorized this side of the tracks ranged in age between eight and fifteen years. If you were sixteen or older, you were considered one of the “older guys” and were looked up to because of your vast worldly experience and for protection from physical harm from the forces of evil that lurked on the other side of the tracks, aka “the north siders.” We all considered each other to be good friends, and most likely one person was and still may be your best friend.
Most of the activities that occupied our time took place out of doors on the South Side. There wasn’t much need to travel north of the tracks as everything we needed or wanted was on the South Side. We had grocery stores, a bakery, candy stores, playgrounds, swimming holes, sledding hills, a dairy, and GARDENS!
One activity that you could regularly count on was a hardball game in Columbus Park, usually after supper. About a dozen of us would show up and the appointed captains would choose teams. It didn’t matter if you were picked first or last. We all got to play the whole game, and everyone was a “starter.” “First pick” was usually decided by “throwing the bat.” The captain who didn’t get first pick usually got the next two. Because of the geographic location and modified diamond shape of the Columbus Park baseball field, some unique rules had to be made up for “South Side Baseball.” There were never enough players to field two full teams, so the pitcher was also required to cover first base. The concrete bandstand located about thirty feet behind home plate served as a fairly efficient backstop for passed balls. The batter would pick up the rebounding ball and toss it back to the pitcher. The “diamond” had some unique dimensions. The distance between first and second base could be covered in about three giant steps. However, this made the distance between second and third resemble a middle-distance event at a high school track meet. If after getting a hit, the base runner was struck with the ball, they were ruled out. Therefore, one of the unique rules for South Side baseball was the fact that “killings “were allowed and encouraged by the fielding team. This rule was overlooked if the runner was hit in the head. In such case, they were given the next base. If a runner failed to cross home plate before the ball did, they had to go back to third base. Because there weren’t any sport shops on the South Side, baseballs were pretty scarce. In most cases, we didn’t have a spare ball in case something happened to the “game ball.” This fact necessitated a couple of other unique rules. The center field home run line was Bellinger Street. Directly across the street from center field was the office of the Nash Fuel and Oil company. Most players could reach this structure with a good hit. This required the fielding team to place their best fielder directly in front of the large window on Nash’s office and act more like a hockey goalie than a baseball outfielder. A broken window on Nash’s usually meant a lost ball and the end of the contest, as there were not too many spare balls for replacement. Because of the proximity of the Barge Canal to the Columbus Park baseball field, a couple of other “special rules” came into play. If a foul ball went over the fence near the guard gates the batter was automatically out. If a foul ball went over the fence AND into the canal, it was an automatic three outs. A “canal ball” usually meant game over if there wasn’t a spare ball or the “canal ball” couldn’t be rescued in a timely fashion. A dry ball, one that hasn’t been in the canal before, would usually stay afloat for about seven or eight minutes. During this time one of the younger, slower players would enter the canal with some assistance to retrieve the ball. If the canal ball had been in the canal before and was considered to be a “wet ball,” it would sink to the depths in three or less minutes. This caused the retrieval process to be sped up. Most younger South Side baseball players could either run fast OR learn to swim and dive well!
Another sporting activity enjoyed by many was the game of “stoop ball.” It was usually played by only two people. A soft rubber ball was thrown point blank into a set of concrete steps resulting in a fly ball or grounder. If the ball was fielded cleanly by the other player, the batter was out. Players were given three outs per inning and “shadow men” ran the imaginary bases. The best stoop ball location on the South Side was the massive set of concrete steps of the Holy Trinity Lutheran church on Jefferson Street. An automatic home run was a fly ball that made it onto the front porch of the Anthony George residence directly across the street from the church.
The game of “chase” was played in Columbus Park. It was sort of a modified game of tag. Two teams were chosen with each team taking their turn being “it,” and attempting to catch the other team members before they could reach the safety of the “bandstand.” A night version of this game was played in the alleys behind Lamanna’s store. “The board” in front of the store was safe haven for this location.
During the warm summer months, there was always a “sleep out” somewhere. Our parents were usually told that the location was Lawrence’s front porch on Casler Street. Many times, the location of the sleep out moved to Columbus Park or even “the lookout” just before the “first field” up “Otchie’s” farm. A good sleeping bag was not the most important item for a South Side sleep out. Most of the time we didn’t get much sleep. However, what was essential was a dark-colored outfit, a sharp jack knife, small plastic bags, a flashlight, and a saltshaker. The main sleep out activity was garden raiding! It was pretty easy to determine the ethnicity of the owners of the numerous gardens by the predominance of the crops being grown. Tomatoes, onions, peppers, and garlic meant that you were in the garden of one of our Italian neighbors. These gardens were more fiercely protected and defended than the gardens filled with cabbage and garlic belonging to our Slovak and Slovenian residents. We usually ate best during our mid to late August sleep outs. Other healthy foods were apples, pears, and grapes from Pepine’s, Duga’s, and Josie’s.
During the dog-days of July and August, swimming was a popular pastime. Most true South Siders couldn’t be bothered to make the long trek to the Francis Skinner city swimming pool on the north side’s Monroe Street. We had our own water park, we referred to it as “The Cove.” It was located on the canal…YES, the canal! Down the tracks across from the old milk station. The cove had a high dive platform and a private island covered with wild blueberries that could only be enjoyed by those who could swim. I think that if anyone showed up to the cove with a life vest or “floaties,” they would have probably gotten their butt kicked and would never live it down. We all acted as each other’s lifeguards and the “buddy system” was strictly enforced. Many of the aquatic activities that took place at the cove would have been strictly frowned upon by the city pool’s lifeguards. One milestone of swimming at the cove was the first time you were able to swim all the way to the island (about 70 yds.) and back without assistance. A second and more potentially painful milestone was the first time you got up the guts to “DIVE the wall.” It was a sheer drop of some twenty-two feet from the railroad track level to the pristine surface water of the cove. You learned a lesson on the physics of the surface tension of water, sometimes the hard way. Anything shy of a perfectly vertical entry into the water resulted in some degree of a belly, or back whopper. The resulting redness was usually passed off to our parents as sunburn. Even when you had a perfectly vertical entry, you needed to punch a hole in the water with clenched fists. An open-handed entry meant the diver experienced a phenomenon known to South Side divers as a “skull smasher.” The resulting headache was usually short lived and was overcome by the adrenaline rush you got from “diving the wall.” Those who chose not to risk a skull smasher could get almost the same result by chugging a large quantity of the ice-cold water from the “Lover’s Leap” spring. This was commonly referred to as a “brain freeze” and didn’t come with the adrenalin rush.
In the Fall of the year, the main activity in Columbus Park was hard tackle football. All age levels were allowed to play. The younger players toughened up pretty quickly when attempting to tackle the older ones or trying to avoid the line of trees that made up the sideline of the southern edge of the “football field.” We also played a two-hand touch version of football in the gravel parking lot area near West Shore Street and the railroad tracks. Sometimes during one of these games we were supplied with a source of quick energy food, aka sugar, when a slow-moving train heading West would pass, and the operators would shower us with generous amounts of Beech-Nut gum and Life- Savers that they were transporting from the Canajoharie factories.
The most winter fun was had by sledding on the many South Side slopes that stretched from Jefferson Street to Foley’s gulf. The most challenging run started at the “BB Pole” on the path up to Otchie’s located directly behind the Slovenian Hall and ended on Casler Street near Ida Douglas’ house. The most treacherous part of this run was the dog-legged left turn adjacent to Jefferson St. school. Failure to successfully negotiate this turn could result in a thirty-foot plunge to the West Shore railroad bed below. Fortunately, to the best of my knowledge, everyone always made this turn.
Other notable locations or hang outs that South Siders of all ages frequented included… under the bridge, Jefferson St. School playgrounds, Golden Pin Lanes, Beer Can Mountain, 69 Valley, Moss Island and Green Lake. I have fond memories of all these places and welcome the opportunity to share them with the reader at some future time and place.
In conclusion, my fondest memories took place at the corner of Jefferson Street and West Shore Street at a place known to South Siders of all generations simply as “Lamannas.” This was the premier hang-out and meeting place where most activities got their start. This small, neighborhood grocery store had everything a kid on the South Side could want. Candy, soda, ice cream, twinkies, ho-hos, chocolate milk and other high energy snacks that fueled our activities. Lamanna’s also provided groceries and world class custom-cut meats that supplied South Side families with wholesome, healthy meals for many generations. Grocery orders could be delivered to the homes of people who were unable to get to the store. Bill Cunningham’s green Rambler station wagon was a welcome sight for many elderly South Siders. In my opinion, the best thing about Lamanna’s store was the wonderful, caring people who owned it and worked there. Thank you Tony, Bill, Lucy, and Louise for allowing us kids to hang out at your place of business. It’s hard to imagine that happening today. These people truly cared about us kids and weren’t shy about letting us know when we weren’t behaving in a manner that would make our parents proud. Some five decades later, it’s hard to have a discussion about the South Side without the topic of Lamanna’s being positively remembered. Thanks so much to the Lamannas, Cunninghams, and Cilettis for being a positive influence in our youth.
I could go on and on with South Side memories, but I choose to end here. I look forward to continuing this topic of discussion with anyone interested in the South Side of the 1970s. Thank you for taking the time to walk through memory lane with me.
David P. Talaba is a member of the Little Falls Historical Society.