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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 Marguerite (Peg) Cordwell Brown about her memories of growing up in St. Lawrence County. Peg, 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.

——

“I go back now and the stores are empty/Except for an old coke sign dated 1950/Boarded up like they never existed…” —Alan Jackson

Urban Renewal—too long to be a four letter word—but its impact was no less dramatic. Beginning after World War II, urban renewal was largely an effort to revitalize inner cities across America that had fallen victim to neglect and the flight to suburbia in an era of an expanding economy. For the Ogdensburg of the 1960s and 1970s it was the beginning of the end of my home town. I am ashamed to say that as a reporter for the Journal, I wrote several strong editorials in support of this change.

The Ogdensburg of my youth was all about the little man and a vibrant commercial community organized largely around Ford Street—or “downtown” as we called it. Ford Street, then open to two- way traffic, was where we got fitted for our shoes, purchased the first important piece of furniture, shopped for that special dress, or combed the aisles of J.J. Newberry’s for the perfect gift for under a $1.00 to give to our parents for Christmas. Most of the businesses were family owned. The Dobisky Family ran The Surprise, a department store that cornered the local market on Brownie and Girl Scout uniforms, Ginny dolls, linens, clothes and underwear. Along with the smell of those creaky wooden floors, I can almost hear the pneumatic tubes that carried your money to the central office upstairs and magically returned your change and sales slip.

There was Hackett’s Hardware, founded in 1830; Fisher’s Clothing, established in 1901; Hulett and Sons Jewelry, in business since 1910; Sperling’s Furniture store on the corner of State and Ford; Empsalls; Jessie Ann; The Photoshop; the local high school hangout, the Judy Rose; S&H Green Stamp where you turned in the books of stamps you saved religiously from grocery and other purchases for merchandise; Milia’s Shoes where if you were very lucky the handsome Milo measured your foot and retrieved the appropriate stock from the back room; hair salons, a barbershop, The McConnell Hotel and the Busy Corner, the prototype of today’s Cumberland Farms.

One former resident recalls that on Easter mornings, after you gathered your eggs and went to church, you would walk downtown, and join an impromptu Easter Parade, showing everyone your new Easter outfit (in the days you always dressed for Easter, complete with straw hat and ribbons!)

J.J. Newberry’s brought the first escalator to Ogdensburg, moving stairs that took you to the girls’ department on the second floor. There was much angst as we approached those steel rotating steps, hoping to jump on at the right moment and avoid having a foot caught in the process. (Of course, there was no real danger—it’s just that we were used to elevators which actually had attendants who pushed the buttons for you.) A Watertown Daily Times article, published October 3, 2012, discussed the Ogdensburg City Council debate about whether or not to fund repairs on the J.J. Newberry building. Constructed in the late 1800s, it was described by the interim city planner, Andrea L. Smith, as “one of the few buildings in that area with historical value and architectural character.” I don’t know what the final decision was.

Much began to change as the passion for “modern” replaced historic. The completion of the Arterial Highway and the opening of the Seaway Shopping Center began to turn attention away from Ford Street as the heart of Ogdensburg’s economy and marked the start of a decades long decline in the commercial heart of the City—and maybe some decline in community spirit.

It wasn’t that Ogdensburg didn’t have a discount store that hinted at the Wal-Mart’s of the future. Ames Department Store, located in a white industrial brick building on lower Ford Street gave us all a hint at what shopping in Ogdensburg in the future might be.

There are a few pockets of that old camaraderie still there—Phillips diner is still the place for coffee klatches and morning gossip. (I understand that MacDonald’s and the Donut King host coffee clubs of their own—largely male dominated.) A few businesses like Carbino’s have held firm. But for most of us expatriates, one can stand on Ford Street and expect to see tumbleweed blow through the cavern as the facades echo the voices of the past.

Over the past 50 years there have been ongoing discussions and both formal and informal plans of how the downtown might be brought back to life. I read with interest what might be the most recent effort to bring life to this part of the city—the “Downtown Improvement/”Main Street” Revitalization Strategy plan, a 67- page document prepared and published by Dadras Architects, July 1, 2011. The report begins with the following comment: “The revitalization of the City of Ogdensburg’s historic downtown is important to the revitalization of the entire City. The historic downtown (centered on the main intersection of Ford and State Streets) has historic building stock, the existing infrastructure, and the key location required to serve as the ‘Hub’ of all revitalization and re-development activities.” The strategy outlined three stages: intermediate steps (actions to be taken in the next 12 months); short-term steps (actions to be taken in the next 1-3 years); and long-term steps (more complex actions/studies to be taken in the next 3-5 years). Based on the timeline, Ogdensburg should be well into the second year of implementing the plan.

Author’s Note: In doing some research for this article, I discovered the web site, www.ogdensburg.info, a digital archive of historic photographs of Ogdensburg, created and maintained by Ted Como, now residing in Tennessee. Ted, a former employee of the Ogdensburg Journal, and his sister Mary Catherine were members of the Class of 1964. The site features over 3,000 images. Also helpful was the revision of Historic Ogdensburg by Persis Yates Boyesen, Ogdensburg City Historian, published in 1995. In addition, Tyndall Edwards, who has a map of Ford Street from 1967, jogged many a memory of long forgotten stores along the street.

Readers’ Feedback: “The Park”—several readers remember when the fountains in the park were wading pools, with a spraying fountain in the center. Another suggested that the fountains were drained during the polio scare of the early 1950s. “The Menu”—many corrected my memory about the lack of fast food establishments in Ogdensburg, citing the A&W on Patterson Street. One reader remembers ordering Swamp Water—a delicious mixture of orange soda and root beer (apparently aptly named)!

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