RICHARD (DIGGER) VOGT
Class of 1950
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Reminisces by Richard T. (Digger) Vogt
Class of 1950
I remember “Finktown” as a place that typified what America stood for: The residents were mostly uneducated European immigrants hoping to get a slice of the American pie. There were Italians, Germans, Jews, Portuguese, Blacks, British, French and many more that I just can’t recall. Most couldn't write their name in English or speak it very well for that matter, but communication wasn't a problem. Some gestures and words are universal. They were by and large hard working people who found their proverbial hole in the fence and were determined to create a new world for themselves.
Finktown abounded in characters, from "The Candy Man" who dressed to the nines in derby hat suit, and overcoat and gave pieces of candy to any kid whose path he crossed. There was "Danny Smith" an old black guy who was inebriated most of the time, he would do a little soft shoe routine whenever he was asked. We had "shoemake" a really old Italian man with his little dog "ruffee". He would grab the hair on the back of the neck of any kid who ventured too close to him and give a tugthen he would giggle, We all took pains to avoid him, Tommy Boy DiDanato , while retarded, played right along with the rest of the kids, He could bend his fingers back to touch his arm, amazing!! We had lots of tough guys who would fight at the drop of a hat.
Grocery stores were plentiful. Nicolinas’ grocery on the comer of Lincoln Terrace and Grant avenue where cigarettes were available for a penny apiece for teenagers ready to move up to the big time. Brunos on Lincoln Terrace where we would try to get in the store and out with a pack of cupcakes before he could react to the store buzzer as he lived in the back room. Charles DeReveres’s on Main Street, where I got my introduction to gambling. He had a slot type machine in the store where a penny was inserted and it bounced around between pegs on the way to the bottom. If one of the center Three slots stopped the penny, that was a win. If the penny went through the other slots to the bottom out of luck son!! Queens store on main street was also a gas station. Tommy and Jimmy Verderosa had stores on main street, side by side. I never did figure that one out? The Royal Scarlet store on the corner of Main and Grant was well stocked and I believe was part of a chain. My father had a store in the basement of our house in the 1920’s.
Elmer Pataki (Governors uncle) used to peddle fruits and vegetables grown on the farm up on Frost Lane down at the bottom of the hill with a horse and wagon. Detriech used to have a pushcart. He used to buy old rags. We would place a few bricks inside the bag of rags for added weight on occasion, but he always caught us. He later moved up to a horse and wagon. We would harass him and he would chase after us with the horse and wagon. I never thought of it then, but it was probably fun all around. Charlie Ingersoll would bring his team of horses down Lincoln Terrace pulling his wagon or disc harrow and we would always try to hitch a ride, but Charlie was pretty quick with that long blacksnake whip. One crack of the whip usually dislodged us quickly. The iceman would always chop us a sliver ice on those hot summer days, and believe it or not, it was a treat to us.
We had Penelope Park where we could sit on the stone wall and watch a ball game one day and then the next we could go to one of the many carnivals that performed there. The carnivals always had those hootchiecootchie girls and I as a young boy usually fell in love with one of them. On one occasion, I was smitten by a particular girl who looked lovely under the nite-lites of the midway. I saw her down to DeRevere’s store the next day and bam, my love affair was over. Daylight really injects a lot of reality into life. The carnivals usually had a "geek" who would be placed in a pit of some sort and would kill a live chicken and chew on it. Up the street, Penelope Pond gave us unending pleasure with swimming in the summer and ice skating in the winter. The pond was really nice, with a float in the middle and a diving board by the waterfall. It had a very basic chlorination system. A fifty gallon drum filled with liquid chlorine, wh was placed over the brook at the entrance to the pond, and a spigot let a drop of chlorine out at intervals, and that was it. The Pond had plenty of snakes, frogs, and fish.
And there were nicknames galore. Names like Jumbo Carano, Steamboat, Ducky Devine, Meatball Marks, his brother Ape Marks, Shocky Weinger, Dip Depew, Dirty Dan, Digger, Pit Daletto, Wumpy Daletto, Scootch DiDanato, Duke Shields, Buster Shields, Beansie Vogt, Tunafish, Dosey Lamando, Suttie Vogt, Buck Petit, Brownie Young, Doggy Brown, Buck Eisner, Jocker Vogt, Smiley Varella, Popeye DiMao, Chickenhead, Dutch DeRonda, Snookie Phipps, Blackie Miozzi, and Moose Hyde. Girls weren't usually given nicknames, I guess we must have held them in higher regard in those days.
We had the forty thieves who had a clubhouse down on the bottom of Grant Avenue. It was located in an old barn on an unoccupied lot at the foot of Grant Avenue with a sign over the door that read "we steal anything that isn't nailed down" The robin hoods of Finktown! On that same empty lot, medicine shows were held quite often with Indians selling elixirs that would cure anything from flat feet to baldness. Step right up ladies and gentlemen!!!!! An old wrecked house on that same lot was called the "madhouse" by the old timers in the neighborhood, I never knew why?
Donny Gerow had a bar/diner on the comer of Armstrong Ave . and Main St where a guy could get drunk on the beer and sober up on the coffee. (Fried egg on a hard roll for 15 cents was high on the food chain for the Finktown Boys) Abe Etner had the Peekskill Bottling Works on Main St, Stanton Brewery was in the back. Osborne had the studebaker dealership on Main St. A classy car! Music from the black church adjacent to the Park St. School would thunder from the building on Sunday mornings with everyone adorned in their finest attire. There was the Peekskill City Laundry on Main St., across from Armstrong Avenue where I once applied for summer employment on school vacation. After a Mr. Behringer gave me a tour
of the facility, I was relieved that I didn’t get hired. The place was at full steam and it was hot! hot! hot! I don’t know how the ladies that worked there could take the heat. (air conditioning wasn’t yet available).
We didn’t need television or video games for entertainment in Finktown. The neighborhood provided all the fun we needed. There were always lots of people on the streets, parents yelling for their kids, girls skipping rope or playing hop scotch, boys playing ball in the street, hanging on the comer with a soda and a drakes cake for a snack, roller skating or riding bicycles. The pungent smells of Italian cooking filled the air. You could smell the oregano and fennel at supper time, and the aroma of grapes being readied for wine making. As a kid in Finktown, we never went hungry. Just about everyone
had a garden and the fruits and vegetables were ours for the taking, Cherry trees, apple trees, grape vines, pear trees were all within reach. We took just what we needed for the moment and I'm sure it was never missed.
Finktown is gone now, but it will always remain in the hearts of the people who lived there through the greatest era this country has ever known. The buildings are still there, the streets are the same, many of the trees are still there, but it was the mix of people who made Finktown the unforgettable place that it was. It was a once in a lifetime experience that I and many others had the pleasure of enjoying. It was one of the highlights of my life. Through the paintings by Robert Barthelmes, Finktown will live on forever and future generations will have the opportunity to to see what life was like in the good old days".
When reminiscing about my young days in Finktown, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the role that Dains Farm played in the life of many of the Finktown youth.
Dains farm was located on Rt. 6 at the outer edge of the city limits. It encompassed probably 25 or 30 acres. A majority of the young boys in Finktown spent some portion of their years working on the farm. The foreman of the farm was one Skip Marro, who most all of us referred to as Skip Dain. His real name was Lawrence and was only called that by Mrs. Dain, as I recall. The older, bolder boys sometimes called him Baldy which he was. Skip ran the farm with an iron hand, and it was either work or
V.T.P.I. (vacate the premises immediately). When there was absolutely nothing left to do among the many chores necessary on the farm, it was time to grab a pair of grass shears which we called dew clippers and start trimming anywhere the grass needed trimming. A job most of us despised.
The farm was owned by the Dain family who owned two lumber yards. One was in Peekskill and the other was in Katonah, N.Y. They lived in what we called the Big House which was located right on Main Street, Rt. 6. (The house is now used as a clubhouse for the condominium complex that is located on the farm property.) The entire farm including both the grounds and the barns were meticulously maintained. They had, I believe, two children which I myself never saw. In fact the only one in the family that was ever seen by me was Mrs. Dain when she infrequently came down to the farm area to give some special instructions to Skip. I remember that she drove a late 30's or early 40's Lincoln Zephyr and it really was an impressive car.
It was sort of a Finktown rite of passage for most of the kids I knew to serve an apprenticeship on the farm. It was really an enjoyable place to be. We were given work to do which taught us responsibility. We tried to perform the chores satisfactorily so as not to get on the bad side of Skip. Looking back now, I can see that Skip was a great guy. He gave us jobs to do that were consequensial and required use of the thought process. We didn't received any monetary compensation for the work we did, we just enjoyed being on the farm, working with the animals and enjoying the comaradarie of each other.
All the heavy labor on the farm was performed by draft horse. The first horse was named "Bunk." He lived to the ripe old age of 29 years. I don’t think I have ever seen a more gentle animal than "Bunk". Two or Three of us would get on his back and ride him from the barnyard up to the inside of the barn where his stall was located. When he died, the hole which was dug to bury him was not wide enough for him to fit in as rigor mortis had set in and his legs were stiff. My brother jimmy ran up, got a saw, and sawed his legs off. Now it was a good fit! I often wondered how "Bunk" got around up there in horse heaven? His replacement was "Harry" a six year old draft horse. To say "Harry" was spirited was a slight understatement. He would really get to feeling his oats, especially on cool mornings. Skip used to let us hook him up to the wagon for chores around the farm which made us feel older than we were. He would sometimes just take off for no reason and we would have a job retrieving him. There was a piece of equipment used on farms known as a "Stone Boat" which was constructed of oak timbers about 6 inches square. It was flat with the front raised up a few inches like the prow of a ship. It was probably 15 feet long and about 5 feet wide. It was used to clear the fields of large stones, which produced the many walls that are found in the middle of nowhere. We would take the "Stone Boat" with Harry pulling it down to what is now a ball field, but was then a hay field, and slide all around with that sled like apparatus. We sure had a lot of fun doing that. We did stuff like that on the sly and Skip never knew what we did. Or maybe he did, who knows? Like I said, he was a really good guy to us kids.
The farm had a huge vegetable garden which we were expected to keep weed free, there was even an asparagus bed which would go to seed with shoots about six feet high, and I remember the huge spiders which used to lounge on the plants. Skip grew all of the plants in the garden from seed in the greenhouse on the property. It was located down below the barnyard. On a warm day, the atmosphere in the greenhouse was stifling. Skip probably gave away more of the plants than he planted in the garden. Occasionally I would find a parsnip in the garden and would take it home and my mother would fry it. To a Finktown kid, that was a delicacy, believe me. The garden always flourished with the fresh supply of manure available from the livestock.
The farm had three milking cows and an occasional calf, pigs, chickens, geese and many, many cats. Whenever anyone’s cat, among the kids who hung out there, had kittens, those that couldn't be adopted out to a neighbor, ended up on Dains farm. Many times when Skip was hand milking the cows, he would squirt a stream at the cats who gratefully opened their mouths for it. As you can imagine, there were very few rats around the place. The cow barn had an aroma that I remember to this day, nothing like it. On a cold winter day when the cows weren't put out to pasture, it was always toasty warm in the barn. Being a kid, it always amazed me how the cows would always go to their own certain yoke when we brought them in from the pasture at night. I do remember that a steer was raised on the farm and the day came when he was slaughtered. It still sticks in my mind how that poor animal was hit in the forehead with a sledge and then had its throat slit. I think that is one reason I am a vegetarian today. But I realize that it was simply the way of farm life.
I was given the job often of collecting the eggs. Frequently I would find a double yolker and Skip would let me take it home with me. I remember being extra careful on the way home with that egg and cupping it carefully in my hand. In those days, that was really a special treat, being given something like that. It wouldn't mean a thing to a kid today. Such are the times. Occasionally, a laying hen would get the urge to sit on her eggs to hatch them. We would take the hen and put her in a box about 4 ft square with a hinged lid on it for a couple of days, and then she lost the desire to sit on the eggs.
Haying was a busy time on the farm. The weather had to cooperate or else the hay crop could be ruined. Cutting and raking the hay was done with horse drawn equipment (sickle bar for cutting and a rake with two large wheels and a foot operated device to raise the rake at certain intervals to form rows.) It was then tossed on a flat wagon with pitchforks and taken to the main barn where it was hoisted up into the hayloft with pitchforks. It was tough, labor intensive work. One of the days while unloading the hay from the wagon, my brother Johnny got a pitchfork through his arm. Mrs. Dain took him to a doctor to be sewed up and then to our house, and notified my parents. My brother rode back with Mrs. Dain to continue haying and that was that. (Lawsuit? What the heck is that?)
The hayloft was a pleasant place to be with the sweet aroma of the dried hay assailing ones nostrils. It had a chute going from the loft to the cow barn which was two floors below. To replenish the hay supply to the cows meant just dropping the hay down the chute. I can still remember the wood timbers on the sides of the chute were polished to a high finish from all the hay being sent through it over the many years. We would get roughhousing up in the hayloft and invariably one of us would get shoved down the chute. Luckily there always seemed to be a big pile of hay at the bottom of the chute to break the fall.
The farm had two apple orchards. One was located down below the main barn next to the pasture for the horse and the area which was also known as the "chicken yard", where we deposited all the grass clippings and tree prunings to form a large compost heap. The second was north of the big house where the Jewish synagogue is now located. I don’t know where all the apples went, but there had to be many bushels produced by those orchards.
The property had a pool which appeared to be non-functioning for many years. It was filled with fouled water and was originally filled by diverting the flow from the brook which ran through the farm which I think was Magreger Brook. It was, at one time, a pretty fancy pool for those days, with metal posts spaced at intervals around the perimeter through which a metal chain was threaded. It was constructed of poured concrete.
Alongside the pool, there was a wall that supported the roadway up to the barn. There was a root cellar built into the wall and I can still recall going in there and being overcome by the dark, dank, mustiness of that place. I don’t think it was used for any purpose.
Most kids of my time didn't have much to hang around the house for, so in effect, the farm sort of became a home away from home. There was always a group of our peers and bad behavior wasn't tolerated. Theft was non-existent because theft on anyone’s part meant banishment forever. And certainly no kid wanted that. I don’t know for how many years the farm was a haven for the Finktown boys, but it certainly wasn't long enough. I'm sure anyone who spent any time on the farm would agree with me when I say that it was an unforgettable experience in their life and that Skip was really a great guy. Unfortunately most of us don’t realize that until the time has passed and we look back. Such is life!
I remember that on December 7th 1941, I came home from a trip to the farm and my mother informed me that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. I was 9 years old. Many of the Finktown boys went into the service and the crowd dwindled at the farm.
Some time after that, the Dain family sold the farm to a man named Louie Turner who was a manufacturer of glass containers. He made it known that he really didn't want a bunch of "Finktowners" hanging around the farm and we just sort of stopped going up there. I'm sure Skip missed us and we certainly missed his guidance and friendship. Many of the boys went up to visit Skip when they were home on leave from the service, and I'm sure that he appreciated that.
I reminisce quite often about the good times on the farm and I'm sure that my wife gets tired of hearing some of the stories about the place, but the good times of the past seem to stick to us like some sort of adhesive and it's hard to let go. I hope that whoever reads these ramblings gets some enjoyment out of them and that it leaves them with a feel for what life was like in the good old days in Finktown.
Richard (Digger ) Vogt ~ PHS Class of 1950 ~ January 29, 2009
Click HERE to continue the Finktown saga by Digger: “Wintering in Finktown”