Tuesday, July 26, 2016

V for Victory

From Derek Watt:

These photos were taken recently, with permission, at the Victory Theatre in Holyoke, MA. Built in 1919, the nearly 1,700-seat Victory hosted vaudeville shows and movies until it closed in 1979, according to the Internet. Now owned by the Massachusetts International Festival of the Arts (MIFA), the theater may be returned to its former glory, or something approaching it, if the group can obtain sufficient funding, per an article in the Starts Wednesday blog.

Victory 2016 - 03 Victory 2016 - 04 Victory 2016 - 07 Victory 2016 - 02 Victory 2016 - 10

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Tobacco Road

From Dave Brigham:

When I was a kid, tobacco barns like this one dotted the outskirts of my suburban neighborhood, and teens could earn money during the summer working the fields in the area. My hometown, Simsbury, was (and to a much lesser degree, still is) part of what was called "Tobacco Valley," a fertile area stretching from Springfield, Massachusetts, south along the Connecticut River and its tributaries to Hartford, Connecticut.

Beginning in 1640, farmers imported seeds from Virginia, according to ConnecticutHistory.org, and for a long time after tobacco farming was the largest industry in the Valley. By the time I was growing up, from the late 1960s through the '70s, the industry had shrunk but was still a vital and visible part of the local economy.

A decrease in cigar smoking, combined with the availability of cheaper, mass-produced cigar wrappers, led to the demise of the tobacco farms. In the 1930's, total acreage in the Valley dedicated to growing tobacco stood at 30,000 acres, according to ConnecticutHistory.org. By 2006, the land for farming had dwindled to less than 2,000 acres. For more on the history of tobacco farming in Connecticut, read this article.

East Granby is just north of Simsbury, and was also part of the tobacco industry. My cousin's wife once mentioned an old building along a relatively new bike path (read: old railroad tracks) in that town. Recently, I got around to checking it out.

As you can see, this humble structure used to be a church.

Located in the Floydville section of East Granby, the church was built by a very determined religious woman in order to serve the spiritual needs of her small tobacco farming community.

Floydville Plantation, as it was once known, was owned by American Sumatra Tobacco, which I believe was a successor to the Connecticut Tobacco Company. The latter company counted among its executives one Marcus Floyd, according to this excellent article about the Nutmeg State's tobacco industry. Taking a wild leap: this plantation was probably named after Marcus Floyd.

"Floydville did not have its own town hall or post office," according to a memory posted by Dave Bergeron on RootsWeb, a community on Ancestry.com. There was a "warehouse where they sorted broadleaf during the summer. A.S.T would bring in Pennsylvania (workers) to work the fields. They would sleep in barracks in the Warehouse.”

Many of those who picked tobacco in Connecticut were African Americans who migrated from the South, or arrived with college groups for the summer (Martin Luther King, Jr., spent time in Simsbury picking tobacco in the 1940's, during his time at Morehouse College). Others came from the Caribbean islands. When I did my initial research online about Floydville, I checked out Google Maps, and saw a beautifully worn-down yellow barn along Floydville Road. This evidently was the warehouse spoken of in the quote above. I was sad to find upon my arrival at the site that the building had been torn down.

There are a few rundown houses along the dead-end Railroad Ave, which parallels the bike path (which follows the former New York, New Haven & Hartford rail line), but the most telling evidence of the old plantation community is the church.

(An old box spring outside the church.)

(Faux stained glass on the ground outside the church. It's in surprisingly good shape.)

So who built this church?

Rushia James came north from Americus, Georgia, in 1917 with her parents and at least four siblings to find better opportunities in Hartford. The granddaughter of slaves and already a teacher in her native Georgia, she found the only employment in the north for blacks was menial. Responding to the call from tobacco growers, Rushia’s family moved to Granby around 1918....By 1920 Rushia was married to another Georgia native, Theodore West, and she worked as a tobacco sorter. In 1921 Theodore was able to purchase about five acres of property along side the railroad tracks in East Granby off Floydville Road. Over the years she and her family made the trek each week to Hartford so they could worship at a Seventh Day Adventist church. The local Congregational churches lacked the welcome and the Pentecostal spirit she and other tobacco workers of color desired.

From The Shade Laborers: Tobacco Worker Recruitment Through the 1940s by Dawn Byron Hutchins

In the 1950's, Rushia's mother was in poor health. The time had come for the daughter to plan the church that she and her mother had dreamed of, according to Hutchins. After paying $50 to have a foundation poured, Rushia spent the next 15 years funding the growth of the one-room church. She ran into permitting issues with the town of East Granby, but eventually a contractor helped her past those obstacles and in 1976 the West Community Church was dedicated, Hutchins writes.

(The light was tough, and I didn't want to trespass inside, so this was the best shot I could get of the inside of the church.)

(A fridge in the basement of the church.)

I'm guessing that parishioners used the church in the years prior to its dedication in 1976. Sadly, though, all use of the building seems to have ended in the mid-'80s, according to Hutchins's book, which is available online as a PDF.

Her dream church caught the attention of the local and national press, who ran articles on it and chronicled its ongoing difficulties – monetary support, its founder’s age, physical access and competing congregational interpretations of the Bible – until 1985 when all mention of it stopped, according to the book. By 1990 Rushia West had passed and along with her the memories of the community she built.

(I was taken aback by this sign, "GRACE," draped over the rickety front steps of the church.)

This Backside trip was unusual in that I brought along a special guest: my mother. I was visiting her for the day, and as I told her ahead of time, "I'm not a man of ulterior motives, except when it comes to the Backside of America. Would you like to join me?" She was quite happy to come along.

After I snapped pictures of the barns at the top of this post, we got off the bike path and onto Railroad Avenue. In short order we came across the church. After a few minutes of snapping pictures, I heard a voice through the bushes, back toward the ramshackle houses we'd passed.

"Hello? Can I help you? This is private property back here."

Uh oh. Was I about to get hauled to the slammer, with my 83-year-old mother in tow?

"Oh, hi," I answered. "I'm just taking a few pictures. I love old buildings like this."

The woman was very nice, explaining that since it was private property, she had to be concerned about people getting hurt exploring the church, which is falling apart on the inside.

"It hasn't been used in about 30 years," she said. If I'd known more of the background of Floydville Plantation at the time, I would have asked this woman if she was related to Rushia West.

To see some very good photos of the church's interior, and read a short post about a local woman's visit to the site, read this Facebook post.

A quick note about the former tobacco-growing land of Floydville Plantation: at some point the business was sold to Culbro Corp. (which was evidently known at some point as General Cigar), which is the name I recall from my youth. With the cigar market floundering, Culbro expanded into several unrelated markets, including nurseries, forming a partnership with Imperial Nurseries, according to Culbro's web site. Imperial Nurseries operates a business directly across from Railroad Avenue today. Along the western edge of the bike trail is a business listed as Monrovia Nursery Company. I'm unclear on whether the two nursery companies, which have pretty massive operations in East Granby, are related.

To cap things off, here's Eric Burdon and War doing a blazing 14-minute version of John Loudermilk's "Tobacco Road," a song covered by numerous artists over the past six decades.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Sad Gobble

From Dave Brigham:

I wasn't one of the countless loyal customers of Owen's Poultry Farm, but I will miss it nonetheless. Located in Needham, Massachusetts, for 80 years, the farm closed last fall due to a mix of rising costs, difficulty in finding dependable employees and the lack of a fourth generation to whom to pass the business.

I never stepped foot in the hen house, took my kids to see the turkeys or other animals, or bought anything from the store, but I've eaten turkey and sides from Owen's, because my mother-in-law would shop there on occasion. I loved the idea of a farm located in the middle of several residential neighborhoods, a slice of the region's rural heritage holding fast.

The farms' owner sold the property to the town, which will raze the buildings and build a much-needed elementary school, according to this Boston Globe article.

I did a little research and was happy to see there are other farms in eastern Massachusetts that sell poultry and other livestock products, such as Lexington's Meadow Mist Farm, Dartmouth's Copicut Farms and Clark Farm in Carlisle.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

UPDATE: Closed Circle

From Dave Brigham:

Eight years after shutting its doors, the Circle Cinema, which sat astride the border of Brookline, Mass., and Boston's Brighton neighborhood, is gone.

(A cross-section of the theater during demolition, showing an upstairs hallway.)

The site, which included an Applebee's restaurant, will be redeveloped with a hotel and luxury apartments, as well as restaurant and retail space, according to the Brookline Tab.

To read my original photo and write-up from before the demolition, check out January 5, 2015, "Closed Circle").