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Reflections Of A North Country Girl At Heart

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EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is an occasional column contributed by Ogdensburg native Margaret (Peg) Cordwell Brown about her memories of growing up in St. Lawrence County. Mrs. Brown, daughter of Vivian and Benjamin Cordwell, worked as a reporter for The Journal while she was a college student in the 1960s, and currently lives in Rhode Island where she is the director of development for Button Hole Golf Course and Learning Center, Providence. She hopes her column will serve as a reminder of a kinder, gentler time in the north country.

——

Actually, THE park was not anywhere near Franklin Street. The park of my earliest years was bordered by New York Avenue, Ogden Street and Ford Street. It was a full square city block, a model that was repeated in every ward in the city. One would imagine that the early city planners had conscientiously chosen to preserved some open space in the growing city and, by adapting the plans of architects of the time, replicated the square, well-laid out plan that we often associate with cities more indigenous to the mid-west. There were very few streets in Ogdensburg that did not run at 90 degree angles, until, of course, “urban renewal in the 1960’s”—but that’s another story.

Anyway, back to the park. Largely populated by significant oak trees, the park was, to a kid, a source of mystery and wonder. Located slightly off-center was a large structure, possibly about 20 feet in diameter, four feet high, made of concrete and painted white with a flat green ridge that highlighted the circumference. I was always told it was supposed to be a pool, but I have to admit that in all my rears as resident and ex-patriot, I never saw it filled with anything but small puddles after a good rain. It was, however, a place to practice marching at what seemed at the time, very high in the air—or a place to hide—or practice tumbling in the leaves that inevitably gathered each fall in the basin. While the perimeter of the park was also bordered with concrete side-walks, the diagonal paths that crossed each way through the center of the square were but worn batches of dirt and black asphalt, the eventually connected you with your destination.

Anchored by the large Congregational Church, always with red doors, the Nichols Funeral Home, Madill School and a private residence, the park had very clear boundaries. The best part of living near the park was that my Grandmother Cordwell’s house was just a half-block down Ogden Street. One of my first memories of the park was being allowed to cross the diagonal path on my own; my Mother would bring me to the church corner and watch as I shuffled my feet through sticks, acorns and leaves to the opposite corner where my grandmother waited with watchful eye. I don’t remember ever hurrying, for the park provided a quiet interlude even then.

The park was not without opportunities for adventure. There was an above ground pipe, still in evidence today, on which we could practice our balance beam and money bar routines. And then there was “Swampy.” I never knew Swampy’s real name, but he was the caretaker of the park, and, at that time, seemed very old to me. He had a small structure on the east side of the park that contained his maintenance tools and assorted other treasures.

Swampy never seemed to mind us tagging along after him on his rounds. And it seems like he could always spare a nickel for us to go to the nearby mom and pop store to buy a Popsicle—the kind you could split in half. I always picked orange, but was often forced to settle for a blue one chosen by a less savvy partner who occasionally controlled the nickel. We would split the popsicles, suck the flavor from them and leave a clear ice spear pointing off the stick. While my grandmother never liked the fact that Swampy treated us, I don’t remember any concern or paranoia that would undoubtedly accompany a similar gesture by a park caretaker today.

At Christmas time, Nichol’s Funeral Home would place a small-scale replica of a church, complete with steeple, near Swampy’s shack. At night, it would be lighted and would play Christmas carols with intermittent sounds of pealing bells. I would often lie in bed in my grandmother’s spare room at the front of the house and through windows etched with frost (there was no heat in the upstairs), I would listen to the bells as they played in what seemed like a true silent night to me.

There were great discoveries to be made around the park as well. When I was a bit older, and was allowed to roller skate (not through the park, but around it) to grandmother’s I found that all sidewalks were indeed not created equal for skating. Across from the park was a patch of beige sidewalk blocks, with a symmetrical dotted pattern, that were so smooth, the skates glided. On this patch I never had to stop and tighten my skates with the key dangling from a white string around my neck, because there were no bumps to shake the fittings loose. In later years, I noticed a small bronze plaque in the squares, with the initials WPA. I was a long way from identifying those initials with Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s infrastructure initiatives, and for years I thought these labels were purely to indicate where the best skating must be.

The park remains, Madill School is gone—replaced by the every-expanding Hepburn Hospital medical buildings. The pool is also gone, replaced by a basketball court and upscale playground. The benches remain the same green and white color scheme, and Swampy’s shack has been rebuilt several times, but still stands in the same location. The church—with those same red doors—and the funeral home, albeit under a different name, still stand as sentinels over the sacred piece of my childhood quilt. I don’t know what happened to the magical Christmas church, and the super skating surface, while still there, is creased by cracks that host growing clumps of grass.

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