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Minute Of History: July 19, 2012

Growing Up Rockwell In Farmingdale

(Editor’s note: At the Village Pops Concert at the Farmingdale Village Green on Tuesday, July 3, Jane Schriro Rubinstein delivered this speech. The “Minute of History,” is a series of speeches delivered at the Pops Concerts throughout the summer.)

Memories are probably one of the most personal things we possess, shaped by our own experiences, sculpted over time, molded with age. My memories of growing up in Farmingdale in the 1960s are my own, but I think many of us here today may share overlapping experiences and touch points as we grew up “Rockwell” in Farmingdale.

It’s summer, it’s hot, and it’s the eve of the 4th of July. As a young child in the 1960s, the 4th of July meant fireworks – Farmingdale’s own – shot off from the lawns of Weldon E. Howitt. My family would walk “up to” Main Street carrying small wooden folding stools.

The entire community would converge in the parking lot – just beyond the Village Green (which at the time wasn’t a Village Green but a scary, old house) to gaze upward from behind Bohack’s and Hills Supermarkets (now CVS and the Synergy gym). They weren’t Grucci, but the colors were bright, the bangs and booms were loud, and the crowd would “ooh and ahh.” Farmingdale’s volunteer firefighters from all the community companies would surround the Howitt grounds, poised to respond if needed.

Ice cream treats were routine in the summer—just as they are now. Bollinger’s was VonLesson’s back then where the ice cream and whipped cream were always homemade. I can still taste the summer special—fresh peach ice cream on the tip of my tongue!

During summer months a handwritten sign hung on the big mirror over their lunch counter offering fresh, homemade lemonade and lime rickeys served in tall slim glassware dripping rivulets of condensate. George’s Luncheonette, at the north end of town, was the high school hang-out next to the record shop.

Farmingdale kids rarely went to summer camp – either day camp or sleep away – who had to? We had Farmingdale Youth Council. For pennies a day, our parents could send us to the local elementary school for games, sports, and arts and crafts with our friends, and local teens and college students were our counselors. Each week would be a special activity.

This is the week we’d be decorating our bicycles with streamers in color schemes like patriotic red, white and blue, pastels or psychedelic brights. We’d clip baseball and playing cards to the spokes to make a flipping sound.

Another week would bring the penny carnival where games and treats ranged from one to two cents. The doll show and contest was a favorite as we vied for small plastic trophies for the cutest, prettiest, meanest, smallest, largest doll we could schlep to Youth Council. Troll dolls with their naked bellies, funny faces and spiked hair were the latest rage along with perennial favorite Barbie dolls. And there was always the coveted field trip to Adventureland.

It was rare for families to have a backyard pool and who needed them either? There was always a sprinkler watering the front or rear yard of someone’s house to run through and we all took swimming lessons from Youth Council too at the Howitt pool from the guppies at the shallow end, to the sharks who got to dive off the board. “Free swim” was open to all in the late afternoon. We’d walk there hot in the afternoon and after cooling off with swimming and splashing our dads took turns picking us up to go home for supper in the family’s sole car.

Backyard barbecues meant breaking off supple switches from a bush or young tree long enough and sturdy enough to support double marshmallows over the ember coals. Every evening we’d stay out late, continuing our afternoon games of kickball, softball, volleyball, badminton, croquet, jump-rope, jacks, red light/green light/one/two/three, red rover, hopscotch, and “Miss Mary Mack.” We’d beg to catch fireflies in jars with holes punched in the lids, which kept us out past dark, and we’d carry the jars to our rooms for nature’s night-lights.

Farmingdale was the complete experience! You never had to leave the village. All your wants and needs were met right here. Man, woman or child, you shopped for your clothing at Kagan’s Men’s Shop, Cheryl Ann ladies shop, Farmingdale Children’s shop (where I was allotted two new dresses for the start of school and one special new dress for each birthday) and the iconic Mid-Island Department store who clothed everyone. It was there I practiced my finely honed shopping skills.

The community and Main Street were so safe I was shopping on my own by the time I was 8. I could pick out and try on clothes at Mid-Island and put my selections on the “hold” rack at the rear register, and come back before the close of business to make final choices with mom who, of course, paid – or maybe placed them on the “layaway plan.”

Wolly’s was not just a hardware store – it carried a full supply of sundries and kitchenware and I’ll never forget that August I bought my parents the striped set of sandwich plates with the matching cups that sat in the indented holders. Short by a pesky 38 cents, the clerk wrapped up my gift and told me to bring back the 38 cents when I got my next week’s allowance.

Store clerk kindness took many forms. McCrory’s may have been the larger five-and-ten, but it didn’t have Mamie who ran the toy section at Smile’s up the street. If you were well-behaved, Mamie would slide open one of the doors under the toy “island” at Smile’s and reach for the broken toy box. There she kept gently damaged toys, small treats separated from their package mates. She’d present one and somehow it was more special than something Mom would buy, a medal of honor from the sweet Mamie.

All the children loved to accompany their moms to the butcher. We’d line up sitting on the low chrome sill of the front picture window at the Farmingdale Meat Market, waiting… just waiting … for one of the butchers to slice off those incredibly fresh, delicious slices of bologna and present them one by one from a white waxed sheet of paper.

Joe’s Fish Market – open for several years at the north end of town after he stopped his door-to-door dry cleaning route- was my brother’s favorite. Mom would leave him propped up on a high wooden stool watching Joe scale and fillet the fish while she finished her errands “at this end of the street.” Sometimes Joe would take a fresh crab out from the big walk-in refrigerator and as it would warm up, it would start to move around – what fun!

Door to door vendors were a part of Farmingdale’s charm. Sweet Hollow Creamery would leave glass bottles of fresh milk in the metal box by the kitchen door – bottles clinking in their metal carry-rack at 5 a.m., Charlie-the-egg-man delivered fresh eggs to the door and checked to make sure none were broken, and the Charles Chip route would bring oversized brown tins of chips, pretzles and chocolate chip cookies.

The Farmingdale Village was where you could get your hair cut, buy your insurance, take a book from the library, fill prescriptions from several old-fashioned pharmacies – Moby’s the last to survive - and go grocery shopping.

Everyone had their loyalties—rarely crossing over. Bohack’s or Hills? The little AP with the slopped entrance ramp and wooden floors seemed to attract the older Italian ladies who lived on Columbia Street. I was completely fascinated by the mechanical coffee grinder. Maybe that smell of fresh coffee is what imbued me with my current coffee habits!

Fall would come and … back to school. Chances are you knew many of your teachers from your neighborhood, church, or synagogue. Who could cut English class at the high school when the perennial substitute Edie Ginsburg lived around the corner and had her hair done every Friday with your mother? Who would risk getting paddled in the principal’s office (yes, in those days they paddled)?  When the Main Street Principal Hal Swits was among the first visitors to see you when you were a newborn brought home from the hospital?

And speaking of Main Street, what an incredible place to go to school. Those huge, centuries-old maple trees gracing the front lawn. The double-door, front entrance with terrazzo flooring inside. High ceilings and windows that needed the long wooden pole with a brass loop to pull down the windows from the top. Remember the coatrooms in each class? And that spectacular auditorium! The foot-thick walls kept it toast warm in winter, cool and comfy in summer. It had polished wooden seating – a formal stage with footlights that made the routine school concert feel like you were performing at Carnegie Hall. The balcony where my music teacher Jim Jackwood (and truth be told – one of Mr. Jackwood’s first students was our own Mr. DeMilo’s) would toss our loafer shoes after he pulled them out from under our feet during band rehearsal. We had to lurch one shoe off – one shoe on- up the stairs to retrieve them and get to the next class in time.

As a kindergartner, I was among the last students to attend the old south wing, built in 1911-1912 to replace the original four-room wood school. When a first grade teacher put her foot through the floor, we were quickly reassigned for the rest of the year. I got to take a bus to Northside where Uncle Howie, the bus driver, kept a box of puppets and he’d perform puppet shows from behind his seat while we waited in the bus circle.

Besides it was cool that the kindergarten room opened right out onto a playground and its equipment was newer. But then again, Main Street had Mrs. Duncan, my sister’s Spanish teacher and my playground monitor who named my puppet mittens “tweedle dum and tweedle dee.”

Everybody in town knew you when you were a child. Imagine starting out as a young professional when then-Village Architect George Cook remarked, “I remember when your dad would put you on top of the AV cart and roll you down the halls.”

Fall meant it was cool enough for Von Lesson’s to start producing their homemade chocolates again, building inventory of chocolate Thanksgiving turkeys and Christmas Santas.

My favorites were the chocolate pops – a chunk of dark or milk or white chocolate on a Popsicle stick kept in large glass canisters on top of the candy counter. As fall would pass, the leaves would fall and people in Farmingdale might still pile them up in the back ard and burn them, rather than rake them to the street. That smell was the essence of fall.

Come late November the holiday lights would get strung up on Main Street – never before Thanksgiving. That signaled it was time to take a ride over to the Aggie to see the live crèche filled with real sheep on the great front lawn where the parking now sits along Melville Road.

Santa would also appear, stationed each Saturday in the little red hut on the corner of Main and Conklin handing out candy canes to children while they were out for weekly errands with Mom. Stores closed at 6 p.m. on Saturday, never open on Sunday.

Sunday was a time for families and if you lived in the village in one of the older homes, chances are, time was spent in front of a fireplace with a fire roaring through those winter afternoons.

Farmingdale had families in the new split levels and ranches with the flat smooth walls where home after home was exactly the same, and had those of us in the village living in older homes with stucco walls with “character.” Neither group quite understanding why the others chose to live where they did.

And when snow fell, the best sledding in town was down from Lenox Hill with Fairview Road blocked against traffic by sawhorses at its base at Main Street… and at the village edge was sledding at Bethpage State Park where staff ran ropes to help you climb back up the hill toward the clubhouse.

Spring in Farmingdale brought the annual community Open House at “the Aggie.” It was time to see the new babies of spring, baby chicks hatch in the second floor incubator, huge muddy pigs wallow in their pens, and cows milked in the barn. Not only did we watch milk pumped through the pasteurizer but we got to eat the delicious “frozen custard” made right there. You could even get your portrait done in charcoal or watercolor by a commercial art student.

Spring brought the annual Memorial Day parade, usually a hot clear day. Marching in the Howitt band in uniforms handed down from the High School – heavy wool, old and yellowed with green braided trim took fortitude in that heat.

We’d all brave the heat on those last days of school – no AC, no fans, windows opened wide, blinds closed, lights out, asking permission for a quick trip to the water fountain to quench our thirst and cool the pulse points on our wrists. And in just a few weeks’ time it would be summer again, time for Youth Council, free swim and the annual fireworks just behind Bohack’s and Hills.