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Southbridge Reminiscences...Ellen Zepp    02/07/11


Tales My Parents Told Me


AO Summer – A Life Shaping Experience

      My Mom, Harriet Maddocks ( Freeman ) , made the considered decision to take a year off after high school to care for the grandmother who had raised her. During the summer when her older sister ( Auntie – Marie Maddocks)  had vacation from her teaching position, Mom worked at American Optical .

           Every day the routine was the same. Her sister would pack her lunch – always a BLT – and she would board the trolley in Brimfield for the ride to Southbridge. She was assigned to the area where eyeglasses were assembled. She attached the side pieces to eyeglasses frames using tiny screws – all day long, all summer long. Needless to say, her BLT lunch was the day’s highlight and she resolved to make this her first and last summer at AO. 

         After her grandmother passed away and she was free to pursue her dream, she was graduated from the Memorial Hospital School of Nursing in Worcester and used her R.N. and nursing skills throughout her life. She never outgrew her love of BLTs.


Unexpected Hawaii – Southbridge Connection

      In the late 1940s - early 1950’s My Dad, Wesley ( Pat ) Freeman, worked at Southbridge Finishing . This was located in Saundersdale ( across the street from The Golden Greek where the housing complex is now. )

       During this time, my aunt ( Marie Maddocks ) used the summer school vacation from her teaching position in Whitinsville to travel. She went to Arizona to visit her aunt and then flew to Hawaii. She returned home with tales of coconut palms and tropical seas and Waikiki Beach and souvenirs from this far-away exotic land. For herself she bought two made in Hawaii  dresses. One was a long fitted holomuu for dress-up parties and the other was a short muumuu.

      When my parents went to pick her up on her return she wore her newly purchased muumuu – red cotton loose fitting dress in an aloha print of Hawaii themed items. The distance between Hawaii and Massachusetts collapsed as my Dad took a look at her dress and said, “That fabric was made at Southbridge Finishing. I loaded bolts of that onto a trailer truck last winter.


What Does It Take to Impress a Kid – Southbridge – 1950s

 Big Bunny  -

       In the late 1950s, just after Big Bunny had moved to its present location they held an Easter Egg hunt for the children of its patrons. It was held very early in the morning ( 6am if I’m remembering correctly ) so that the event would be done by the time the store opened on the day before Easter.

       They used pastel coated marshmallow candy eggs that had numbers written on them and hid them by the hundreds in plain sight on the grocery shelves. The kids were turned loose to find an egg of their choosing which they took to the registers where it was redeemed for an Easter candy surprise.  Since my family always shopped at Big Bunny, we were part of the endless stream of kids who took part in this event. It may have been held more than one year but I can only remember going once and though I can’t recall what I got for a prize I remember it being great fun!

       We would shop there once each week as a family and always included both bologna and swordfish in our among our purchases – they both cost about the same and were the least expensive sources of protein. Boy, how times change.

        Since I was the oldest, I got to take my grandmother’s shopping list and use a separate cart to do her shopping. She always put the money to pay for her groceries – and then some- into an envelope and gave it to me with the instructions, “ buy a treat for yourself too and bring me back the change.” What a treat for a little kid! 


Strand Theater –

      Other than the Sturbridge Drive-In, the Strand on Elm Street was the closest “movies” to where I grew up on the Brimfield / Warren line. It was there that I saw the Disney classics. I teased to go see The Shaggy Dog – we finally made it just before it’s run in Southbridge was done. It was there that I saw my first time lapse photography – a pre-movie filler showed a film of blossoming flowers that still is etched in my brain. And it was there that I was handed a long rectangular package of gigantic pastel coated M&M like chocolate candies from the refreshment concession. I’ve quested for the last 50 years for the like of them until Hershey’s came out with their 2011 line of new releases. Chocolate drops are just like I remember them as long as I close my eyes- they’ve got a brown rather than pastel exterior but the taste is just like I remember and each time I have one I’m 10 years old again.


     It’s ironic that the Strand ‘s golden moment for me has nothing to do with movies. In the mid-late 1950s the manufacturer of Ken-L-Ration dog food had a brainstorm for promoting their product. They came up with a Kids Kennel Club and had Ken-L-Ration sponsored dog shows in small towns of Massachusetts. This may have been a nationwide promotion but my world was small at that time and I never heard of these events outside of the state. Kids would bring their dogs to the event and compete for trophies and prizes ( dog food / leashes/ brushes / Ken-L Ration logo t-shirts). In retrospect the whole event was laughable ( The trophies were 6” tall and made of plastic. The class breakdown included dog with the shortest / longest tail,  biggest / smallest dog, best trick, best behaved, oldest / youngest dog…….). Still, all these years later, the memories of this event have outlasted the product. I took a newly weaned German Shepherd puppy named Connie. She was leash trained but froze up in the backstage chaos so I was encouraged to carry her out for judging. She won smallest dog and dog with the shortest tail. The big prize that day was awarded to a Weimerainer named Gretchen. Can’t remember what the prize was or who her owners were but that lovely “gray ghost” made an indelible impression.


   Waiting backstage with all the dogs through all the classes gave me plenty of time to look around. It was like a time-warp “ behind the movies” and the feeling which I had at the time is best summed u by the word “vaudeville” a term I didn’t have in my vocabulary at that time – gray, dusty, faded cement and stone and grandeur of long ago. Too bad it’s gone but delightful that the mind’s eye can still capture the magic.


A Kid’s Eye View of Southbridge in the Early 1950s - Ellen Zepp

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