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Southbridge Recollections:

A Walk through the Flat - Recollections by Jim Tiberii
(recorded on 7-25-05 and transcribed by Suzanne Tiberii)

“The Charlton Street School – the back of the school is where we used to walk under these huge pine trees – it’s not used for that any more – it’s a parking lot, a recreation area – we used to have summer camp here – we used to come and just have arts and crafts activities. Kick ball, punch ball – a lot of things right here where we’re standing. We had swings and other outdoor things – slides, gym sets and that kind of thing. It’s mostly walk ways now – it’s really more paved and a lot more manicured than it used to be.

Let’s take a walk over here. The playground was right here where this addition is – it was the beginning of the hill, it was all pine trees, it seemed at the time like it was all pine trees – there was a mysterious path through the woods. We would stop and put our ears to the ground because we knew if we put our ears to the ground we would hear Indians coming. And we knew that’s what the Indians did. So we did what the Indians did so we could hear buffalo and other animals coming through here. I never saw any deer or buffalo or Indians even.

First, second, third, fourth grades – all of those summers, some of the time we came here for summer camp .It was pretty simple – arts and crafts – lunch and whatever else they did. This little section here, this whole section of the building didn’t exist. That was the school and there were several additions it looks like.

This was a big open area and from that corner of the old building, that was the back stop for stickball. Stickball was a broom handle and a tennis ball and we stayed out here for hours. We’d have big stickball tournaments and we’d decide who we were going to be for the day – Ted Williams or Jackie Jensen or Rocky Colavito. It didn’t matter - you were one of the big time ball players. Saturday evenings – this was in walking distance of the house – I would come here and meet friends – Donny Sisuski used to live in that house right over there. I don’t have any idea where he is now. Ray Trahan, Kenny La Casse, Donny – John Marinelli – there was a small group of us.

This corner was the end of the building, that’s all there was. They had five grades in there, one or two classrooms for each grade. (Looking for a date on the building). Looks like it was built in the 1920’s or the 30’s. This was the main entrance to the building, now blocked off. So this is considered ‘old Notre Dame cemetery’ and St. Mary’s and Notre Dame used the cemetery.”

“This is the old house – 105 Crystal Street. The store front – don’t think there’s been anything in here for years. It’s covered – you can’t really look in. A lot of memories here about the flood of 1955. There were several businesses in this little corner. Leo Bedard’s shoe making shop. There were several doors into the same building. Right over here was Tony Salviolo’s barber shop. It looks like maybe there’s a residence there now. This was kind of a fun place. You would get a haircut and always see people you know here. Then at Leo Bedard’s – Leo was very funny, a very, very colorful character. He was famous for going away for three or four weeks every summer to Montreal to visit relatives, telling great stories about drinking and women. As kids we weren’t really interested in his stories but he got a big kick out of it!

A look down Cyrstal St (left) and 105 Crystal St on Right

There was a furniture store – for years and years - now it’s a dance center. Debbie Sichol– a couple of years older than me I guess – and that’s Aunt Edith’s house right over there - 99.  {Edith and Joe D’Abreau} They lived upstairs so they must have had a tenant on the first floor.”

Debbie Sichols Dance Center and looking up North St - Nov 20, 2008

Walking north on North Street... “Here’s another one of these houses – I believe it’s a six tenement house and they’re pretty small – a typical three-decker – with six apartments. This next building here is Simonelli’s bar – there were three bars within half a block of my house – Benoit’s and Simonelli’s and Al Renna’s. It’s a residence now. In the small neighborhood there was competition for the grocery business with Tiberii’s Market. This was Scarani’s Market right here. There’s Richard’s house – used to be Ritzi’s – the Camelloni’s house.

The Department of Transitional Assistance used to be United Lens Company. This was a factory – Joe use to work there. No, actually United Lens is down on Worcester Street and this was another lens company. I can’t exactly remember the name of it. So Cammie and Leo and the four boys lived in that house on the first floor. Mrs. Camelloni lived upstairs. Ritzi moved in when Mrs. Camelloni died.
This is the Greek Orthodox Church. (We meet up with Richard Tiberii who lives next door and take a break.)

“This is the Quinebaug River – and usually it’s up quite high.” (Richard talks about getting Leo a motorized wheelchair and walking HIM through the Flat!) Tour of Richard’s back yard…morning glories…pears!...flamingo garden…the grapes which grow by themselves.. Rich cuts them back in the spring, doesn’t spray them…”

Back to St. George’s Greek Church. “It’s so little and cute. It’s locked and you can’t see anything.”

 “You can’t sled on North Street – it’s too congested. Dresser Street they used to block off – firefighters would block the end of the street. And you’d start up near the high school and you could go down on sleds down to the bottom of the hill and it was really, really fast. At the left here is the Italian Club. It’s always been the Italian Club It’s where Auntie Gita used to go and play Bingo and win money and she won a microwave or a toaster oven or something. There was always something going on at the Italian Club. Friday nights they had dances. These were for high school kids – some of them were at the Town Hall. There’s a bocce court - it’s nicely kept up – fixed up recently.

This was uptown (because it’s up the hill?). This is the bocce court – regulation size, official scoreboard, a roller to keep the court up – it’s sand. This is the open barbecue pit. Cook up those sausages, play some bocce, drink some wine.

This was a lumber yard and factory – Laliberte {pronounced ‘Lalliberty’ – NOT ‘La Libertay}. The lumberyard was in the back and the water from the flood came and washed out the lumberyard and that was the beginning of the flood. The dam broke in Sturbridge and the water was very high off the Quinebaug River. Just a short distance past Richard’s house is the Mechanic Street Bridge. The lumberyard formed a barrier and all the water came flowing past Crystal Street, floated across the parking lot in front of the AO and that’s where I saw the three-decker come down in the flood water. We were gone for about a week – we couldn’t come back. It was August of ‘55.

Old houses – asphalt shingles, built by hand. Foundation of stones and mortar. The shingles are not in a straight line, they’re special cut and unusual. Not clear how far back they go. Crooked bricks. Five or six different sections.

Down Lens and Dean Street – lots of three and six tenement houses. Originally housing for people who worked at the AO. Little tiny houses. Sabatinellis lived here. Loretta Henault still lives here. Little sidewalks and little driveways. In junior high school I shovelled snow in the winter. Maybe a dollar a driveway. Go down the street and then to Uncle Leo’s - he had a big driveway. You could make $20 which was a lot of money in those days. But I liked shoveling snow!

One of these houses was Nadeau and he had a furniture upholstering business in the garage. We never needed to go uptown – we had everything going on in the Flat! It wasn’t like the Natick Mall – it was a lot more primitive.

Up this hill we went sledding. There’s a giant rock in the middle of the slope! You had to get over the rock and slam right into the fence – no helmets in those days! – this was dangerous sledding!
Up this road was ‘the Grand Trunk’. It’s quite an adventure going up here. There was a path up here. We would walk to school here unless I got a ride – to Wells Junior High. It looks like people don’t use it any more. The railroad tracks are up there. It brings you up to Central Street. No one walks any more. They drive or take the bus or get a ride.

Lens Street. This empty lot right here was Tarky’s Bakery. The best, best hot French sticks and the best hot rolls ever in the history of the world. Materas – he was this emotional, chubby little Greek guy – he’d yell at me when I stole a few rolls running out of his bakery on a Sunday morning. My memory is that the bakery was a pretty big place - a baking area in the back and they had these old metal shelves and it was hot and smelled like you were inside an oven. It was the best bread in the world. It was probably torn down in maybe 1960 – early to mid 60’s.
Lens Court – that’ where Pete Battista lived. Pete’s mother and Rudy Sabatinelli’s mother were sisters. Joe DiDonato lived over here. His daughter, Anna, has a little coffee shop on the Way to Rom’s on Route 135 (sic – 131). Angelo and Peter played football.

What’s now the police station used to be some houses. The big social spot for the Flat was Al Renna’s restaurant. He had the restaurant and took bus loads of people to Red Sox games and used to sponsor softball games. We had big softball leagues – it was a big thing in Southbridge. So right here was Renna’s restaurant. There were two single family houses and a triple-decker. This was a two way street. We played stickball and baseball and softball here. The big old trees were the bases. This was our ball field. There was a practice field and a game field. Over here we practiced football. During the summer we practiced in August – then after school, evenings, weekends, whatever. We had shoulder pads, helmets, we ordered things from Sears – our parents wouldn’t let us play without protection. All of this was without coaching. Older kids would teach us – Ronnie, Bruce, Frannie Allard – how to get into a stance, how to block, how to tackle. It was pretty serious. Just kids from the Flat – no Pop Warner.

Flood of 1955and Nov 2008

There was a practice field and a game field – the game field was used only on Saturday. You’d throw down a sweatshirt and those would be the corners of the field. Kids would come from other parts of town – that’s how I stayed in touch with Dizzy – we’d have games, the Flat versus the Globe. Dizzy had a bunch of kids – parents didn’t bring them. They would walk down. We were totally independent.
When we started playing down here in the late 50’s – some people didn’t have television. We got television in ’56 – fourth grade. There was another team up near Charlton Street School. There was big field, much bigger than this, and we used to have football games there.  We would have eleven kids on each team and kids waiting to get on a team. We’d have 30 - 40 kids playing football on Saturday mornings.

American Optical – was an amazing place back in the 1950’s and 1960’s. I believe over 5000 people worked here. There’s a whole campus of buildings back here. They make parts and lenses and things that were part of the optical industry. I worked at several different departments here for summer jobs and so forth. A lot of jobs that I had here would seriously qualify for sweatshop. Really hot, filthy piece work. One summer I had to dust the dirt off of all the heating ducts for a week or so, then I did painting – maintenance, it was dirty. They created jobs for kids and helped the community - it made you appreciate money and so forth.

(Walking down Crystal Street) Here’s where the Lazo’s lived. The extended (Tiberii) family. They were kept up better in those days. The DiTommasso’s lived here. George Metakis lived here. Maisie Osimo lived in that grey house with the porches. The highlight of this area was the Lakin’s – Alex and Ida. She was the sweetest lady and he was incredibly anti-social. They were Jewish. There were a lot of French Canadians, Italians, Greeks and Albanians in the Flat. What I remember most is that on Saturday mornings there were literally separate aisles in the store {note: Tiberii’s Market} and people were speaking Greek, people were speaking Albanian, people were speaking Italian and it was really weird because I was in junior high and I was trying to be assimilated so that I could go to college and have a different kind of life. But you lose something. It really had the feeling of being somewhere in Europe, of being multi-ethnic. It was much nicer and had a nice connection between people.  Physically it was in better shape, people kept it up more, there were families. There was a great sense of trust. People never locked their doors. No one every broke in or stole anything – they didn’t have much to steal.

There were three houses that got completely washed away in the flood of 1955. There was nothing left but the foundation. There were cars, refrigerators, washing machines – floating by. Right here.

105 Crystal Street – September of ‘55 – Dad planted the tree in the back yard. Grandpa would nurse it – like Fluffy the cat.
The store – a big produce section on the left. The main aisle had big barrels – chick peas, olives, it was like going into the North End. Then you’d get to the meat market – and prosciutto, a few things hanging, read Italian provolone, Mortadella, capacolla. He went to Providence to buy some stuff, made other stuff. You had to bone the prosciutto. You take the bone out and you take another piece of the meat and tie with rope and let it cure for a while. The representatives from Carando and Pastene used to come to the store every week, take your order, hang around and chit chat for an hour. People bought small amounts of things. They knew the kids, they knew the family. A different way of life.

Greeks and Albanians came to buy the fresh meats. The fresh lamb they would cook. No hares hanging in the window. Veal – the key word if fresh. Dad would walk into the walk-in cooler get a side of beef. Slap it down on the counter and get out the big butcher knife and cut a steak. Pre-made hamburger didn’t sell well – people wanted fresh ground hamburger. Something an hour old was too old! They didn’t want stuff in cans! They liked the fresh stuff – even ceci.

We had large cans of olive oil, sugar, flour. People baked. The nicest time of year was in the fall. We had pumpkins, sawhorses – we’d fill the entire sidewalk with produce. There was a narrow passageway for people to walk through.

And my father was ‘the mayor’.

There’s an arbor next to 105 Crystal Street - planted by Tony Salviolo? One of his sons went to some place – Columbia? He studied music and he’d come back in the summer and play music.

This is American Lanes (bowling alley) - this is where Dennis Pappas lived – he was my best friend when I was growing up.  There were three houses here – a single family which got washed away in the flood and two triple-deckers – one of those was where the Tiberii family lived before they moved over near Dean Street. There was Grandma – they let the farm in Charlton and got jobs and moved to the Flat. And then got married and had kids.

I remember a cherry tree growing here. I remember a couple of times sitting in the cherry tree and eating cherries till I got sick. I don’t see anything that looks like a cherry tree anymore.

Over here is where Pino’s was – my father used to go there to eat breakfast. This was the social gathering spot.

And here’s the bridge that got washed out. A lot of things were re-built after 1956.

The Grand Trunk. This was a passageway between the Flat and Foster Street which is just below Main Street. We’d walk through here to go up town, to go to the high school, to go to football games, to just go to the other part of town. Now it’s closed off -  it’s a storage area for who I’m not sure. There used to be rail road tracks here. There used to be a bridge that went over Main Street – that’s now gone. The railroad appears to not have been used for a long time. We used to go on the railroad boxcars when the trains were stopped here. Seemed like a cool thing to do at the time. We used to fantasize about where these trains would go and where we could go if we could get inside one of these boxcars and just take off somewhere.

There was oil and coal storage back here. Railroad tracks are here but grown over – it was probably a trunk line. Doesn’t look like anything is being stored now. Looks like there were electrical lines here – looks like the government owns the land. This runs behind Benefit Street next to police station, looks the same as it did.

Near the Henry Street Field – fields seem to be in great shape – softball appears alive and well - men’s fast pitch, women’s slow pitch ‘lassie league’. There was a pond here where we used to go ice skating. Saturday and Sunday afternoons – night-times during the week – hundreds of people. There was a warming shack with a wood stove, hot chocolate, music on the big loudspeakers,  greatest hits of the 50’s and 60’s, hundreds of people ice skating any night that there was ice. The fire department would come and flood it so that there was good quality ice skating. We used to swim here in the summer – no lifeguard, so it was pretty dangerous. Word has it that there were springs in here – I can’t think of the name of the pond.

Main Street a wide street with big trees, big houses. Shopping was uptown. On Thursdays, the AO employees would get paid as would most people. Thursday night the shops were open and people from adjoining towns would come because we had the best stores. There would be a lot of people out. Before Christmas we would go up town and talk to and wave to other kids we know for a couple of hours. Stores closed at 9:00 and by 9:15 Main Street was like a ghost town.

Footnote (added July 24, 2009)
In Jimmy Tiberii's "A Walk Through The Flat - Recollections by Jim Tiberii", he mentions another lens place on North St. but doesn't remember the name.  It was Universal Blank owned by George Tucci.  My dad, Joseph Yannacci worked there for a while after the war.  His daughter, Mary Jane Tucci was a couple of years behind me in school.


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