Finktown in the Winter

Richard “Digger” Vogt
Class of 1950
continues his reminisces of that unique Peekskill neighborhood,
known as Finktown

The smell of burning leaves, withered cornstalks and tomato plants in the gardens, sand barrels being placed on all the steep hills in the neighborhood. Getting ready for Winter in Finktown,

The smell of burning leaves permeated the air almost every day. Kids and grownups all joined in the fun. If some woman had her wash out on the line, usually the pyromaniac was told in no uncertain terms to extinguish the fire. Most of the burning took place in the gutters of the road. There were blackened gutters all over Finktown.  Kids would make huge piles of leaves in the yards and jump in them for hours.

Life was quite different in the Winter than in the Summer in Finktown. Getting prepared for and enduring those cold winter months took a lot of doing and a lot of change in routine for most of the inhabitants. The ice man didn't make his frequent trips to sell that 25 cent or 50 cent piece of ice. Most people just put their perishables outside in the elements to keep them from spoiling. In our house, we just moved the whole ice box out on the back porch or "back stoop" as my father used to call it. I guess a "stoop" was a little smaller than a porch". When the ice man did have occasion to deliver a piece of ice to a house, he didn’t have any accurate way to chop off a 25 cent or 75 cent piece really, just shove that ice pick into the cake of ice and lop off a piece. Usually some housewife would argue whether or not the size of the piece was undersized. He would usually give us kids a sliver of ice and we considered it a real treat.

Winter was the time for the coal man to come and pay a visit. The coal man didn't leave any doubt in anyone’s mind just what his occupation was. He was usually covered from head to toe with coal dust. The big feature of the coal that we burned in our stoves and furnaces was that it burned blue, that’s right , a blue flame. I mean, what’s the difference? Heat is heat! We had a room in the basement of the house where the coal was stored. The coal man usually shoveled the coal from his truck into canvas bags and then carried them to a chute where he dumped them into the "coal bin".  If he was real lucky, he would chute it into the bin right from the truck. I'm sure it was really tough, hard work done by tough, hard men. At Christmas time, if kids were not well behaved , they were given a threat o "coal in their stocking" if they didn't modify their behavior.

Coal supplied what heat we had with an occasional kerosene stove added here and there in some houses. Most houses had a central furnace and a cook stove in the kitchen. When we went to bed, my father would "bank" the furnace. That is to slow the rate of burn to a point where there was no heat coming out of the central register. I mean, man, it was cold in the bedrooms. I was visiting my cousin on Howard Hill one time and when we were in his bedroom, I saw a glass of water on the dresser and it was frozen solid.   Sleeping time in large families like mine usually meant three in a bed. We would throw anything on the bed, like coats an such, just to keep warm. Here boy!  Jump up here! Dogs were always welcome. When we would get up in the morning, it was so cold that we would all run down to stand on top of the central heat register which by now was starting to put out some hot air after my father had opened up the damper. For a real luxurious treat, a kerosene stove, usually a two burner type would be added to the floor of the house that had the bedrooms. It made it warmer, but usually everything we wore smelled like kerosene including us. I don’t know why we weren’t put to sleep permanently due to lack of oxygen because I don’t think the stoves were vented. But we survived.

To supplement our coal supply, my father used to take a burlap sack and go up to the Villa Loretta on Crompound Road and pick "coke " from the slag heap to burn in our furnace. Coke was a byproduct of the soft coal that they burned in the furnaces up there. Finktowners always referred to the Villa Loretta as “The Sisters" because it was run by the nuns of the catholic church. They housed homeless or troubled young girls there. I believe all the buildings there have been converted into condos. Kindling wood was needed to start the fires in the house and a good source for the kindlingwas the grocery stores in the business section of the city. Oranges, lettuce and such was transported in wooden slatted boxes in those days and they were discarded after being emptied. My father would pay me 5 cents a box to retrieve them. I would go downtown with either a wagon or sled and bring home a few piled high on my mode of transport. Sometimes, when pickings were scarce, fights used to break out for salvage rights among the boys on the prowl for boxes. I tried to avoid that. I had four older brothers so that was sort of an insurance against anyone trying to pummel me.

All this burning of coal in the homes resulted in barrels of ashes to be disposed of. But first, the ashes had to be sifted and the unburned "clinkers" of coal had to be salvaged to be burned again. The asheds were shoveled into a makeshift screen and shaken vigorously and what would remain would be the unburned pieces of coal, which were picked out and reused. The rest of the residue was saved to be placed on the sidewalk after a snow or ice storm in order to provide traction for pedestrians.

When an ice storm hit the area, getting down "off the hill" from Grant Avenue was a challenge. One time, after a particularly bad ice storm, I backed out of the driveway of my home not knowing how treacherous the pavement was and the front end of the car just slid down the hill and kept going. I rammed into the sand barrel in front of Colao"s house and just sat there. I ended up getting Bill Pettit to lower me down the hill with a cable from his tow truck.

The snow and ice storms produced great conditions for sledding down Grant Avenue. Now that was quite a ride!  We would post a lookout at the corner of Lincoln and Grant and also Park and Grant. Some of us used what we used to call "dummy" sleds which were homemade and not maneuverable. Due to the lack of steering. Sometimes, when we were about halfway between Lincoln Terrace and Park Street , the lookout would yell "here comes a car   Man, that was the time to dig in with the toes or abandon ship. Many auto owners put their cars away for the Winter, so there really wasn't much traffic. When the city workers would come up and sand Grant Avenue so the traffic could make it up the hill, we would just get our shovels out and cover the sand in the middle of the road with snow and continue our fun after they left. In those days, there were no mechanical sand spreaders attached to the back of the trucks. A laborer would stand on the sand in back of the truck and the truck would slowly back up the hill while the laborer threw shovels full of sand on the road as fast as he could. On a real slick day, a sledder could make it across main street and into the garage of the Westchester Lighting Company, on Main Street. The old timers in Finktown used to refer to that garage as the "car barn" due to the fact that the electric trolley cars were stored in that building when they were in use in the City of Peekskill.

The snow wasn’t carted away in those days, on the secondary streets. There would be huge piles along each roadway and the kids would always be constructing forts and igloos. The forts would be a safe haven during the many snowball fights that took place.

Penelope Pond was the main source of recreation during the Winter. It was a great place to ice skate and just about everyone in Finktown used to go there. Everyone would bring along shovels when it snowed and a skating area was cleared in no time. We used to call what we did "ankle skating" because the skates in those days didn't give much support to the ankles. A favorite game to play on the ice was "crack the whip", where a long line of hand holding skaters would get going in a straight direction until the desired speed was achieved, and then the lead skater would stop or change direction which would cause all the rest of the skaters to tumble into one another and create a pile of tumbled down skaters on the ice. A huge bonfire was usually roaring on the edge of the pond with a never ending supply of wood obtained from an abandoned house across the street. It was a great place for those boys interested in the fairer sex to meet their possible life mate.

Listening to the radio was the main form of entertainment in the Winter with an occasional movie at the Paramount Theatre thrown in when it was affordable. Such shows as "The shadow Knows, (with Lamont Cranston) Gang Busters, Lux Presents Hollywood, Jack Benny, Fibber McGee and Molly, Amos 'n Andy, Gillette Cavalcade of Sports, (with Don Dumphy counting for the knockdown at the bell), The Fred Allen Show, and many more, provided many hours of pleasure as we all crowded around the radio on those cold Winter nights, and went to those faraway places in our minds.

My father always bought baby chicks as Winter was nearing its end and raised them to sell as pullets; to the neighbors. He would house them in a "coop" in the back yard and usually had a kerosene stove in the coop to keep the little buggers warm. On a Palm Sunday morning, the stove must have malfunctioned in some way and the "coop" burned down with all the chicks inside. 

A sad day -- to say the least. The next Sunday (Easter Sunday), Nicolina Fotino called me and my sister Janet to her store and presented each of us with two dyed, live chicks in colorful boxes. Gestures like that are what made Finktown such a great place!

Nothing was wasted in the Finktown homes, times were tough and we all had to survive as best we could. I remember that we used to get oleo in a one pound square brick and it was packaged white in color. A cellophane packet of yellow dye accompanied each brick of oleo and that dye was sprinkled on the oleo and mixed into it until a yellow color was evident. Presto chango! Now we had quasi butter. One time when my father was painting the kitchen, we somehow lost the dye packet. That meant we ate white oleo which was like eating lard on your bread. That wasn't bad enough, the paint my father used to paint the kitchen was, as all paint was then, lead based paint. The white oleo which was stored in ice box absorbed the lead and we had to eat white oleo that tasted like lead. Waste not, want not!

Yes, wintering In Finktown required a certain amount of tenacity and a lot of covers on the beds, but we always survived and had a lot of fun taking on the elements that mother nature thrust upon us. Does anyone remember "toe punk"? What the heck was that? I look back and wonder what the kids of today would have thought of the Finktown of old. Would they have been able to cope? Would they have as much fun as we did? We certainly had a lot of fun growing up through the years. I'll never know, but I do know that I will always cherish the good days there and my memories of "Wintering in Finktown " will always be with me.


    Richard “Digger” Vogt, Class of 1950.
    71 Crane Prairie Way
    Osprey, Fl. 3422                          published April 5, 2009

    click HERE to continue Digger’s memories of “Finktown Goes To War”

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