Ever since Nora posted this morning in the In Box “Well, it used to here…,” an inventory of the Potsdam of my childhood has been running through my head. I am a little unusual, even in the North Country, for never leaving the near environs of the village my family brought me to at the age of four. Having never left, the full impact of change has been softened by gradual accretion over the years. But my map of the old town is still burned deep into my head, and varies wildly from what I see when I walk down the street.
If you were instantly beamed from the Potsdam of 50 years to the village of today, the first thing you would notice was that it looked cleaner and smelled better. Potsdam heated with coal until the mid-’60s. Big chunks of anthracite if you were an old school shoveler, crushed stoker coal if you had a newfangled electric hopper feed. If you have a basement rec room now, odds are it used to be the coal bin (or maybe a fallout shelter). When the weather clamped down, the village stank, and windows were grayish yellow. Curtains had to go in the wash once a month. The old Feed and Coal yard was down by the rail depot (now Mama Lucia’s restaurant). I can vividly recall the roar of a couple tons of coal going down the basement chute, and the sound of the Beeliner, providing daily passenger rail service to Watertown and points south.
Potsdam bills itself as “a unique Victorian village.” It was much more so before the “urban renewal” projects of the mid and late ’60s. Several blocks of downtown were leveled and carted away, replaced by structures that now seem not much better than the 19th-century landmarks they displaced. There was the Albion Hotel on Elm Street (now parking lot) which was typical of pre-motel transient housing throughout rural American villages. Wide multi-story porch for cooling and gossiping. WWI vets and retired bootleggers seemed the dominant denizens. The ground floor was a hotel bar, a barber shop and the original home of Sergi’s Pizza.
Other casualties of urban renewal were the legendary bar at Blanche’s, in a green brick building matching the Roxy Theater next door, and across Main Street were Rodger’s Radio and Electric, Western Auto (where I bought my paper-boy messenger bikes), Tallman’s Grocery, and a Green Stamp redemption store (check your pulse if you remember what that is). The corner by the bridge on that side was occupied by the California Fruit Market, which burned one night around 1960. My dad took us all down to gawk.
By the 1960s there was a supermarket in town, but Mom and Pop’s still dominated. Canned and durables at the Mom and Pop’s, produce at the fruit market, meat from a butcher. Dairy was home delivery from multiple dairy operations in the village. And there was the new department store–Ames–out at the edge of town, but there were also Herbert’s Mens’ Shop and Herm’s and the Alice Shoppe and the Surprise Store for clothing and shoes. And the first strip mall had come–out by Seacomm. My dad had a summer job managing the Triangle Shoe Store there.
On Water Street (now gone) heading toward Ives Park, were two bars of villainous repute. They were the places to go if you required a double with breakfast, and where, if you passed out on a Saturday night, someone might put their cigarette out on your person. And the village’s second bowling alley (with its own bar) was just across from the park where the medical office building is.
Other things that were, but are no more: Murphy’s (full service gas station with mechanic on duty 5 1/2 days a week), Fishman’s (Five and Dime with lunch counter), McGowan’s (drug store with soda fountain), The Moonlight (drive-in theater), a village auditorium, and Signorelli’s (cobbler shop). Things that are now and didn’t yoost’be: fast food franchises (Dairy Queen was the first–now gone, and the Dilly Wagon, a chuck wagon-shaped restaurant across from Clarkson hill campus, also gone), convenience stores (less convenient than having a guy pump your gas, check your oil and polish your windshield), and big box stores (don’t get me started).
I’ve left out nearly everything, I see–the churches, the schools, “tourist homes,” the “R”–most of all, the many memorable odd ducks. Maybe you can fill in the pieces in a comment below, or tell us what yoost’be where you are. If you have any photos of yoost’be Potsdam, email them to email@example.com and I will add to the post.