The AO Park by Don Croke May 2000

I can recall some of the scenes of my school days when I lived at 121 North St. This was about 5 houses down from the Main gate of the AO. We had moved there just before I started the first grade and we lived there until I graduated from high school and 3 months later the flood of 1955 moved us out. Across the street from me was the AO park. This was not an official name but that's what everybody called it. This was to differentiate it from the AO Field which was behind Brochu St. where the softball teams used to play and where there were two tennis courts.
 

The park was directly across the street from the main building of the AO complex. In the 1940's it actually consisted of two parts, one a green, grassy area and the other a parking area and housing area.Between these two sections was Lens St.
I only have a dim recollection of the park down around when I was in the first grade. That would be about 1943, during World War II. At that time there was a ring of houses that took up the section from North St., up Crystal St. , to Lens St. almost to Mechanic St. Just prior to those years, there had been a couple of long dormitories along the Mechanic St. side from Lens St. to North St. but now these were gone and a large chunk of the park was open space and used for parking.

My earliest firm recollection is of the park being unpaved and having several Elm trees in it and the part of the park that I have just described, had enough open area in it for small boys to fly kites on good days. The Elm trees were so tall that most of the time we didn't get them that high anyway.

This part of the park towards North St. was not grassy but dirt, and was good for playing softball or baseball for little boys. And it was long enough so that only rarely did we hit one far enough away where it went out of the park. I do remember though, that Pete's Café was on the corner of Mechanic St. just as you came out of the AO gate and Pete for several years had a great big boxer dog that would every now and then chase the baseball and once he'd gotten it, would roll it around and around in his mouth.By the time we got it back, it was so full of slime and so gross that no one wanted to touch it until we'd rolled it through the grass a dozen or so times.

Since cars did park there, we had to play between them and pick our playing formation. Also, there was a solid wooden fence between the houses that remained toward the Crystal St. side. It was about six feet high I would guess and often a ball would get hit over the fence. That would usually be a foul to the side of the baseline or a backwards foul over the batters head. Often we didn't have a catcher, and the fence was the backstop against which the pitchers threw.

The fence was just high enough that most of us could jump up and reach the top, then pull yourself up and over to go and look for the ball.When you got big enough to be able to climb the fence, that meant you weren't just a little kid anymore. The one bad thing about it was that there were some places where nails came through and they angled downward. I remember getting one of these right in my knee as I climbed it. It got badly infected and it took some treatments of soaking in creoline disinfectant to overcome the infection.

On the other side of the fence lived the Jolins who had a horse barn and a couple of horses. Next to them were, at least for a period of time , the Rennas. A couple of people had gardens up against the fence so they weren't too keen on us tromping around looking for our ball. It wasn't too long before all of the Elm trees had to be cut down because they had the Dutch Elm disease. Later, around when I became a teenager, I think, the park was paved with tar. This made it better in some ways because we played stickball and the rubber ball or tennis ball was great on that surface. Also, it was our version of todays roller blade parks because we could ride our bikes there on this great tarred surface. The only problem was that we had to be careful not to scratch any cars because there were usually some scattered around even after five o'clock and some Saturdays and Sundays.

Today the kids use a board for an incline ramp to ride their bikes up and make a big jump. In our day, there was one tree right at the edge of the park, right across the street from my house, that had a root that was above the ground and the ground made a natural ramp of maybe six or eight inches. We would come flying down at this root section and we could clear the entire sidewalk landing in the road (North St.). Fortunately there wasn't a great deal of traffic like today and it was relatively safe as we could see quite a bit on both sides.

In the winter time, when the AO personnel plowed the parking area, the piles of snow were about 5 feet high and backed up against the fence. We could climb along these man made piles (small mountains as far as we were concerned) and even get right to the top of the fence and over it. They were great for building snow forts in.

The part of the park that I've described so far is only the section up to Lens St. Actually there was a small section just before that with a cluster of blue and green spruce trees. They butted up against what was for all that time, up until the flood, Valmore Therriens's Grocery store. At the time it seemed to have everything that we needed to eat including fresh meat which was cut as you ordered it right off the hanging shoulder or haunch.
 

Next to that, and part of the same building was Joe's (Therrien's) Bar. For years, I would go over and buy a bottle of beer to bring home for my father, even though it was not legal and I was probably not more than 9 or 10 when I started doing this. And it was a pretty regular thing for a lot of years, even when the bar changed ownership and became Renna's. Blanche Picard was the waitress or bar-tender and she was a very jovial person whom everyone liked. She lived in one of the houses next and to the rear of the bar and market.

In front of these buildings was Lens St. On the other side of Lens Street was the rest of the park. This was where the front of the police station is today and extended up to the rotary just as it does now. It had a whole bunch of different kinds of trees. It appears that the Wells' must have loved diversity because there are a real variety of trees all over the AO property. There were a couple of Elm, several maple, several spruce, and I particularly remember that there were two chestnut trees. These were not eating chestnuts but we called them "horse chestnuts". I don't know if that was the correct name or not. They were a real treasure because when the chestnuts came out they had these really prickly outer coverings and when you pried them off, the nut inside was really shiny and smooth as polished furniture. We would spend quite a lot of time throwing sticks, stones or balls up into the trees trying to dislodge the nuts. That was something every single boy did. Sometimes when we got them we'd make an "indian necklace" by stringing them together. The other thing they were good for was as the weight on a home made
parachute.

Then there were two maple trees that had a lower branch that was just high enough so that we could climb into the trees and just sit up in the branches. One in particular had a branch that you could sit on with your feet stretched out and your back against the trunk. Then there were two other branches in just the right positions to put your arms upon just like the arms of a rocking chair. Talk about your boyhood memories!

We also played ball in this part of the park. This was all grass and for softball it was great with one elm tree being first base and another for third base. We used a stone or a bare patch for second base and home plate.
 

When we played here there was one thing that sometimes happened. In those days the lower floors of the main plant toward Mechanic St. had windows in them below the street level and there was a large open area just off the sidewalks. These had pipe fences to keep anyone from falling in and they extended for a large section in front of the main building. Occasionally we'd hit a ball toward the AO building and it would roll into the open sidewalk section and we'd have to climb down into this area to retrieve the ball. This was not easy and I think the AO people worried that we might get hurt. My guess is that this is why they eventually filled these sections in and leveled off the sidewalks in front of the main plant.

That about covers my memories of the AO park but I'd like to mention some names of the people who lived either in that section or immediately adjacent to it. In my building on North St. lived the Skarani's, the Topi's, the Yanka's and the Croke's, of course. Behind us were the Pollone's, the Monaco's and the Rousseau's. Others in the area were: the Brousseau's, the Osimo's, the Tiberii's (Tiberii's Market), the Lazo's, Lakin's Shoe Store, the Payant's, and the DiBonaventura's. Across from the corner of the park near the AO main gate was Pete's Barber Shop and on the other corner at North and Crystal streets was Salviolo's Barber Shop and Bedard's Shoe Repair. Unfortunately, I can't remember all the people who were there so long ago.

This was the park, these were the people and these are some of my fondest memories. I just wish thatmy grandchildren will be able to look back with the same fondness upon their growing up days!
 

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