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Southbridge Recollections:

A Long Walk, Broken Glass, and a Grape Nehi - SEN Paper route 20A
By: Edward Brousseau

The Town of Southbridge is very fortunate in that it has had the continuity of a local newspaper to record the daily life of its residents for over 153 years.  The name on the masthead has changed, along with the content reflecting the changing norms, civic and social leaders, and the type of retail establishments of the area.   Its importance, however, as a primary source of the town’s history has remained constant.  And while the newspaper may be used as an outlet for social, governmental, business, and sports news on every level, to some of us it was much more than that.  It was our first taste of responsibility outside of the home.

There were some boys and girls fortunate enough to lug The Southbridge Evening News all over town.  While the monetary rewards barely paid for a long-playing record at Eddie’s Record Shop on Elm Street, there remain some wonderful memories.  Every facet of The News at that time was located in the same building on Elm Street across from the Fire Station.  From Leo LaFortune and Roger Beaudry’s linotype machines and Gerry Tavernier’s cameras and dark room, to Ray Hebert’s sports desk, V.V. McNitt’s editorial desk on the second floor, and Joan Paquin’s reception desk by the front door, it was all there in that brick building.  And if those departments were the brain and soul of the newspaper, its heart had to be the huge press.  With clattering cylinders it spit out a finished product using ink, paper, and lead.  That was the domain of the pressmen, Ken Gravel and John Moriarty.

From the sharp peal of the bell announcing the start of the daily press run, and the bubbling cauldron of molten lead in the back corner of the pressroom, to the creaking of the ancient floor under the weight of the huge rolls of paper, the noise was both constant and reassuring.  Add the sweet aroma of machine oil, the acrid smell of photo developing chemicals and the black smudge of newsprint, and the recipe for vivid lasting memories is complete.

The production/distribution transition was the long counter where the papers for the various routes were counted, bundled, and passed out to the waiting carriers.  And the manner this occurred was in no way a democratic process. First, we all had to wait until Rene Valcourt had collected his numerous bundles for the retail outlets. Then Richard Domijan would cross out route numbers from his list without rhyme or reason or seniority.  And woe to those who weren’t there to respond. Here is where my long walk began.  My route number was 20A.

My sister Lorraine and I inherited Route 20A from our next door neighbor Joe Lombardi, who received it from Norman “Mousey” Yvon.  Lorraine’s section ran down Mechanic Street from the bridge to Lippe’s corner, along with the smaller side streets.  My longer portion began at the Library, where Mrs. Tien ruled over the hushed voices, ending at the Mechanic Street Bridge, after moving through Main, Coombs, Crystal, and lower North streets. Like today, all the routes had substitute carriers ready to deliver the news when we were unavailable for whatever reason.  Ours was our wonderful Mom.  And we didn’t have to give her any of the weekly collection monies.  How wonderful was that?  Southbridge certainly was different in the late 1950’s, and being a 13 year old then seemed much easier than it is now.
With my canvas newsbag filled with the daily edition, I rounded the corner at Bernier’s Pharmacy and headed towards the Rotary.  Bill Swiacki’s real estate office, Petinelli’s barbershop and the Gas & Electric office.  Across the street, Dr. Harwood had her medical practice where the Credit Union is now located.  Then down her driveway to the Peloquins, and on to the Cutler’s home in what is now the YMCA parking lot.  Dr. Dresser’s house at the Arts Center was always a tense delivery.  He had two very large black retrievers that were allowed to run loose on the extensive property.  One was named Thurber, the other’s name lost to time.

Then down one side of Coombs Street and back up the other side.  The 2 and 3 story houses and their porches were where a carrier could really show his/her stuff.  The News was thin enough that it could be rolled up, transforming itself into a nice projectile to be deposited onto the appropriate location, announcing its own delivery with a thud.  But only when thrown with accuracy.  On some occasions, said delivery was accompanied by a different sound, that of glass shattering and the following rebuke of the angry resident. This caused a serious negative cash flow on Friday, collection day.
Friday was a dreaded day due to the abovementioned weekly collection, as this required climbing all those stairs.  It also meant that there would be the expected small talk concerning family and relatives common to both parties.  And rolling all those loose coins into tubes that were turned in to Joan Paquin on the following Monday.

But there were some rewards as well.  Tips were always graciously accepted.  Christmas was always welcomed.  And conversations with Dr. Tillyer, the brilliant optical scientist from the AO.  Rumor is that he worked on developing the Atomic Bomb.  Who can remember his beat up new Buick passing perilously close to parked cars?  Mr. Benvenuti, who still lives in the nearby house on Maple Street, could probably entertain listeners for hours with his neighbor’s eccentricities.

This being the halfway point of the route, a stop was needed at Desautel’s Market, which is now occupied by Colonial Travel.  Operated by elderly sisters who lived in the attached house, they always were good for interesting conversation along with a candy bar no longer available—a Forever Yours.

Looking back, the whole route was downhill or flat, except for the short climb on Chestnut Street up to the Poor Farm at the corner of Cisco Street.  The large rambling building was also home to the Franco-American club and lately the Southbridge Youth Center.   The climb was made easier by taking only the needed number of papers, leaving the bag hanging on a fence post, much like the current day postal carriers leaving their vehicles parked and walking small sections.

This was especially welcomed on Wednesday, when the paper almost doubled in size. Thursday was the big shopping day in Southbridge, and the pages were filled with ads for the many local grocery and retail stores.  Continuing onward past Anderson’s Market—now the Flower shop, McGrath’s TV—now Margaux’s, Renna’s—now the location of the Police Station.    Steven’s Market and Tiberri’s Market with the salami and cheese hanging in the window no longer tease the senses with sweet aromas.  Shopping in huge superstores cannot replicate the sensations of those small neighborhood groceries with the brine filled pickle barrels.

 Whole blocks of triple-deckers between Crystal and Mechanic streets and the Quinabaug River are gone. Replaced by the Police Station, parking lots, and the bowling alley.  Even Jack’ Café was recently closed.  Lemoine’s furniture store preceded Conrad’s furniture and the Dance Studio on North Street, next to Simonelli’s cafe.   And on the corner of Crystal Street, Leo Bedard’s shoe repair shop. With very few exceptions, all those establishments are gone.  Even something seemingly as permanent as the railroad bridge at the Rotary, fell to the wrecking ball not too long ago.

     Rounding the corner at North and Mechanic at the AO gate signaled the final leg of my route.  The last toss was up to Mrs. Ethier’s front porch, just above the entrance to Pete Theodoss’ restaurant, Pino’s, now the Panda Garden.  Finally, with an empty bag and my mother’s warning not to spoil my appetite for supper, I’d joyfully stroll into DiFederico’s Market for a bottle of Grape Nehi soda, savoring its sweet cool, soothing bouquet.  Then a stroll home across Brochu Street to wash my dirty hands with a heaping handful of Borax soap.

     With the transition to high school, a paper route seemed too unskilled for the many talents of a 15 year old.  The position of bagboy at Lippe’s Market appeared more appealing and with higher pay.  And it was not subject to inclement weather.  So without much celebration, route 20A was passed on to another neighbor, Alfred and Emily Tiberri’s oldest, David.

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