Sunday Gazette-Mail from Charleston, West Virginia on June 27, 1976 · Page 81
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Sunday Gazette-Mail from Charleston, West Virginia · Page 81

Charleston, West Virginia
Issue Date:
Sunday, June 27, 1976
Page 81
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Page 81 article text (OCR)

Nick Sylvester came up from "The Hollow, "never thought of it as a slum. America in Microcosm (continued) perched atop his coach, rouged and stockinged. Another Morristonian, Homer Davenport, imported from the Sultan of Turkey 27 Arabian horses and a slave boy. In the election of 1896, a contested office in Morristown was that of Commissioner of Lunacy. For respite from care and toil, a favored spot for the gentry was the Morris County Golf Club. The club was organized by, and for the exclusive use of, women. Lest such independence lead to other crazy notions, however, such as voting, their menfolk took over the club, banished women from the bar, and saw to the membership rolls. One name determinedly kept off the roster was that of Otto Kahn, bastard Know-Nothingism apparently still hanging in there. Kahn, financier, philanthropist and one of the nation's wealthiest men, was also conspicuously Jewish. Though they had blackballed him, some club members at one point had the cheek to ask Kahn if he would sell them a parcel of his land so they could expand the course. He went them one better. He gave it to them. This was the heyday of the American railroad, an era in which steam and steel and the incomparable music of locomotive whistles influenced--dominated--every aspect of the national life: social, economic, political, cultural. No stagecoach or steamboat ride ever equaled the exhilaration of merely watching a Limited course across purple mountains and fruited plains. Or matched its opulence. New Jerseyans in the 1890's could ride the Pennsy from Jersey City to Chi- cago in cars with stained glass windows, silver chandeliers, carved mahogany sideboards and velvet 4m CHARLESTON. W.VA. plush upholstery. To reach Jersey City, however, Morristonians first had to ride the Morris and Essex line, and later, after yet another of the nation's countless railroad mergers, the Erie.Lackawana. That experience was far more typical than a trip on the Super Chief. And a far more accurate augury of the future of railroading. The Morris and Essex had finally got rid of the snakeheads along the line, lengths of track that popped up, impaled the wooden floor of the car and, unless he was lucky,, the passenger as well. Now, in these halcyon days, one would suspect the service to improve as well, and it did. For some. Actually it now took a half hour longer to get to New York. That was because the track had not only been replaced but rerouted, so it · could go right up to the estates of all those railroad company directors and their cronies who lived around Morristown. One three-mile stretch became six and a hall miles, a 16-mile stretch became 26. on down the line. As for the less, shall we say. well-connected, they had to put up with lost luggage, a 5 per cent penalty for not buying tickets in advance, rude conductors, and cars slick with tobacco juice and thick with grime. Not, of course, the club car, which , on the Morris, and Essex line, was in fact a club. Occupants had to be voted in. And on the other side of the tracks in turn-of-the-century Morristown. . . "I never thought of the Hollow as a slum, not when we lived there," said Nick Sylvester. "I liked it. I liked the candy store, the fish peddler with his green pushcart, the Bluebird Ice Cream Parlor. Mama bought our clothes from a man with a wagon; somebody told me now he owns a hotel in Miami, or his kids do. For us, the Hollow was a comfortable place. We spoke both English and Italian. We were free and easy. Everybody knew everybody. We didn't lock the doors." Nick Sylvester's parents, as most of Morristown's Italians, came from the same general area of southern Italy, many, indeed from the same village, Montescagliose. The pattern was true of nearly all immigrant groups, in America, from Chinatown to South Boston, and helps explain why the melting- pot theory was destined to remain largely a schoolmarm's myth. Such close-knit groups were simply reluctant to melt, not completely, however intense the heat. Even after they lost their native language they retained deep in their souls enough of their native culture and values that sociologists later would study, and politicians cater to, the American phenomenon called "ethnicity." Thus no other country can claim as rich a cultural tapestry, not to mention diet. Further, those transplanted old- country neighborhoods surely eased adjustment to the new. However miserable life might be on the bottom rung of the social ladder it was at least reassuring to endure it unthreatened among one's own. As Nick Sylvester said, they d i d n ' t lock the doors. Even a s t h e n a t i o n ' s e t h n i c groups dispersed into middle class society they still sought to retain something of the closeness of the various Hollows they left by organizing an assortment of societies. Morristown's branch of the St. Patrick's Alliance of America is a typical one. But for a truly classic example of the tenacity of American ethnicity in spite of itself, take a look at the Columbian Club of Morristown. It began in the Hollow just after the turn of the century as The Young Men's Italian Club and met in a room over Petrazzo's Market. Its avowed purpose was "to encourage Americanization." In other words, speed up the melting process. Try to fit in. Some swallowed hard and "Americanized" their names: Silvestri became Sylvester. The club sponsored language courses, citizenship lessons, political discussions. During World War II its members changed the'organization's name to the Columbian Club. They felt a need to erase the reference to Italy, substitute America's Italian-born discoverer as their patron, and in other outward ways proclaim allegiance. They bought war bonds like mad, gave blood, and 68 members volunteered for the service, some of them not yet American citizens. In 1955, obviously "Americanized" and of loyalty undisputed, the members nonetheless decided not only to keep their club, but also to erect a handsome new building. There, today, sons and daughters of the club's founders gather in pride instead of anxiety, dance the tarantella, and keep alive over dried cod and tart wine and easy laughter something much too precious in its sharing J.o have been allowed to die in a room over Petrazzo's Market. One can only doubt that the founding immigrants, deep down, really wanted it to. The new building is brick, built to. last. In 1910, Morristown counted 12.500 population: the suburbs, Morris Township, about 3,000. The social strata were discernible. Scribner. Colgate, and Vanderbilt lived in manor houses: Callahan, Naughton, and Brennan were cops; Nicola, Maierino, and Mariatto collected the garbage. But the distance between hilltop and Hollow was glaring only in retrospect. If Morristonians never achieved the ideal of equality there is ample evidence over the years that they passionately believed in it. The likelihood is the same in other American Cities. Talking with Morris- tonians at every level today, the feeling is that if anyone tried to divide the town between upper and lower strata he would be rebuked by elements of both. "We never resented the rich people," Nick Sylvester said. "My brothers and I caddied for them at the country club and watered their horses at the polo matches. But they never acted stuck up. One old gent, I f o r g e t his name, used to gather up all the poor boys once a year and take us out to the amusement park at Lake Hopatcong for the day on the trolley." The trolley. To the generation privileged to have witnessed the trolley's brief appearance on the American stage, few innovations were more endearing. The trolley line stimulated life from Tampa to Toonerville. It brought beaches and amusement parks--often owned by the trolley company--within reach of city people everywhere. It got them to work and to play and inspired them to song. Morristown's first trolley car arrived in 1909, an occasion for brass bands and photographs. Before long, 50 miles of track spider- webbed the county and made it easy, fun. for suburbanites to get to town.. More significant in the long run, city folk could as well get a lei- surely look at those alluringly unspoiled suburban acres. But the trolley alone wasn't enough to provoke an urban exodus. Just as soon as the internal combustion engine proved it was here to stay, clang, clang, clang went the trolley, derailed into nostalgia. The Morris County Traction Co. began yanking up track in 1926. replacing the cars with buses and further degrading those little works of art by selling them off as lunch counters. Ah, progress. Could a lurching bus ever provide the electric trill of a circuit breaker popping around a curve, or match the pure joy of an open trolley car dancing skittishly across the countryside? But replace them they did. and with a most profound and rapid effect on American society. In 1910 America produced 187,000 automobiles, nearly 50 times the 1900 figure. In Morristown as in many other places the trolley tracks had run along the main streets in and out of town. These naturally became the bus and truck routes. W h a t was once Morristown's most glamorous residential street, Madison Avenue, witji mansion after mansion on both sides became the least desirable to l ; ^e on. Besides, the residents of Madison Avenue now had automobiles themselves. With a car, the suburbs weren't so remote after all. The wealthy, who included the city's leaders, planners, benefactors, were the first to go. They would be missed, someday. But these were the Roaring Twenties, with the gasoline engine doing much of the roaring. People could as easily drive into town, to shop, as d r i v e out of t o w n to l i v e . Couldn't all those big estates near the green be bought up, subdivided and turned into business property? They could, and were. Business boomed. Nick Sylvester's father, a cobbler, painted his Model T to look like a shoe and used it to make deliveries. Prosperity everywhere. Seven new auto dealerships. Thirteen filling stations. Down the well-traveled road leading west, the town of Mendham suddenly blossomed into the county's leading applejack producer to s l a k e M o r r i s l u w n ' s t h r i s l N i e k Sylvester's f a t h e r sold the car :ml opened a spe;ike;isy. H u s t l e , h u s t l e . ;i town - ;\ nation - on t i n 1 move (In Wall Street, the market sojircd And out of the South a f o r l o r n procession of black A m e r i c a n s with the price of a bus ticket started northward, searching desperately and in vain for truths that were supposed to be self-evident. Blacks had lived in Morristown from its earliest days, but never in great numbers. The 1910 census counted only 99. One of them was Robert Taylor, boyhood neighbor ot Nick Sylvester, now the proprietor of a filling station j u s t o u t s i d e town. , . "We grew up together in the HOI- low '" Taylor said, "played together, went to school together. Blacks and whites. But I couldn't go to the Bluebird Ice Cream Parlor with the w h i t e kids, or to t h e Davis I ' n i j J Store soda f n u n i a i n . a n d I h ; i i l t o n in I ho balcony at t h e Lion ' I h ' M i e i But we got along, we !! a'"' 1 ^ What the newly arrived blacks found then, was not q u i t e the Promised Land. In fact, in Morris County they found one of the state s . most writhing snake pits of the Ku -June '27. W7ti.$undn\ f.V;-" 1 ff-A'-'' /

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