Memories of Early 20th century South Water St: A 2001 Interview of Millicent “Millie” (Rohr) Bradley (1908-2005) [as well as Ruth Moore & Agnes Ensco]
For the past few years Millicent Bradley (Mrs. Wesley Bradley), now age 92, has been writing down memories of South Water Street, City Point as she knew it.
Today is February 11, 2001 and I, Ruth Moore, will type what she has written down so far. [Editor’s note: To eliminate redundancy, a few paragraphs were consolidated. Also, for clarification purposes, a few sentences have been interspersed which were extracted from a 1992 interview of Millicent & Ruth. Editor’s additions are bracketed.]
Her notes at the top of the page: “no gas—no electricity—no radio—no TV—no car—toilet outside.”
“On November 11, 1907 George and Effie Rohr were married in Wesley Methodist Church (then known as Grace Methodist Church) at the corner of Howard Avenue and Portsea Street, New Haven. They moved into 20 South Water Street, a duplex house on the water side of the street. A year later I came along. George and Lena Nuhn [my Aunt] lived on one side of the house, and I forget who lived upstairs. (Lena was my father’s sister.) We had ‘outdoor plumbing’: there was a plank you walked across to get to the outhouse. At night you had a pot under the bed and also a slop jar. One for ‘one thing’ and one for ‘the other’. You would empty these every day if you were a good housekeeper. In Winter you had a window box for your food. In Summer you had an ice box. An ice man would come around in a wagon and you would buy a 10 pound piece of ice.
Along side of this house was a red barn. Horse and carriages were kept here. It belonged to the mansion across the street [№ 34 Sea Street, formerly on the triangular lot at intersection of S. Water & Sea St]. Walter Garde owned this. He married Olive Smith. He owned the Garde Hotel which was on Meadow Street and it was a beautiful place. His house was torn down many years ago [in the early 1940s], but the house at the end of the street also belonged to him and it was used for the servants who worked in the house. He had an underground tunnel from the house to the servants’ quarters so they would not have to go home outside when it was cold or raining.
Back on the even side were oyster companies: Wedmore, Hulse & Dunbar, Thomas, McNeil. Next to McNeil was a 2-story house [№ 68]. Mrs. [Helen] Button lived there. She had chickens and a garden. She was a nice lady. She built the house across from there, where the Petersens live now [№ 67] She rented the house. I remember a Mrs. Bixby lived there. She was Grace Emerson’s mother. At Mrs. Button’s house: the Jacques lived there, and a woman who lived with him was named Jenny. There was also a man called PegLeg.
Then we have Lane’s Shore. It was lovely. There were 6 or 8 square-enders in the water. We loved to swim there because it was so clean, but were always chased away. Mr. [Stephen] Starbranch, who was their caretaker and also lived on South Water Street [at № 125], would chase us.
Getting back to the oyster companies: Wedmore had a boat named ‘Catherine M. Wedmore’, named after his wife. Every day Mr. [Charles K.] Wedmore would walk down from [№ 44] Sixth Street where he lived. He always had a big St. Bernard dog with him. He had other boats, but I don’t remember.
Hulse & Dunbar: [Charles] Hulse lived at the corner of Howard and Sixth Street [№ 106 Howard Ave.]. He had a girl named Evelyn, and his boat was named after her. [Garrett] Dunbar lived on Howard Avenue also [№ 35].
Thomas lived at the corner of Howard and Sixth [№ 96 Howard]. All the houses were big and affluent-looking: owned by oyster people like the Smiths, who owned several houses on the Avenue.
Now the Lane house on South Water Street [№ 73] was beautiful. We skated under the porch—they were the only people on the street with a sidewalk—and we could look in the window and see the furnace. We poor folks didn’t have a furnace—we had a coal stove in the kitchen. Lane built a three-car garage in the yard, and there was an apartment upstairs where Florence Lane lived. She had developed TB, and the treatment at that time was fresh air, Summer and Winter, so she stayed there. She is still alive and in her 80s, so it must have worked. Also, the Lanes had the first car on the street—a big Packard touring car—and Emil Somers was the chauffeur, and we used to watch him start the car. He would sit up high and look like a king. Mr. Lane would load up a wagon and peddle oysters out in Woodbridge and other places. Mr. Law of the Law Oyster Company also peddled oysters. I guess they were the ‘Yankee Peddlers’.
Mr. Law also had a boat named ‘Isabella’. The ‘Cynthia’ was owned by Seal Shipt. My father-in-law was captain of the ‘Cynthia’. On weekends these boats would run from Lighthouse Point to Savin Rock. You could get a ride for 25 cents. I was married at 16 years, but went with my future husband for about a year before we were married. My husband worked for his father to help him with the boat on weekends. Once in awhile some of us would take the trolley to Savin Rock, and take the last ride from Savin Rock and ride home to City Point on the ‘Isabella’.
Now, getting back to the odd side of the street: the first house, which was [33-]35 South Water Street, was originally the McNeil house. I don’t remember that, but Hattie Ehler lived there and she rode around on a motorcycle. She also had a sea sled, and when the water would freeze over she would go across it on her sled. I don’t remember too much about it, only that she had a son named Erwin Ehler.
At № 37 George and Lena Nuhn lived with five of their eight kids: George, Olive, Madelyn, Carol and Leona. Lena was the sister of George Rohr [my father]. We used to play in front of their house because there was a gaslight there. Also, Madelyn would cook us fried potatoes and they were so good. Raleigh and Ethel Rawson lived upstairs with their daughter Ethel May. She is one of the girls from whom I bought this house [№ 107 S. Water] many years later.
At № 43 the Crowthers lived: Flossie and Jim and their two daughters Gertrude and Mabel. Pop Bishop owned the house and lived on the first floor. He was such a nice man, always had on a white apron when he cooked. He lived alone and was Ray Bishop’s grandfather. Now they said he had wooden teeth. Also, he saved every cent he could to get his son Carl out of jail. The story was that Carl had robbed a train and was in a Federal Prison. He finally got out and married Ma Bishop and had Raymond. Ma Bishop had two girls from some other time. [Carl was the last owner of 34 Sea St. before it was torn down.]
№ 47-49 South Water Street: Emil Somers lived at 47, his wife was Theresa and they had two girls: Claudia and Myrtle. He was chauffeur for the Lanes. George & Effie Rohr [my parents] and I lived at 49 [after moving out of № 20]. This was a duplex house, and we lived on the other side of the Somers. Bill and Nellie Lafo lived upstairs. There also were two back rooms, and Tom and Elsie Whelan lived there.
№ 57: Sidney Smith owned this house. He and his wife and four daughters lived there. He was a character. He would get all dressed up every afternoon and go down town in his horse and buggy. There was a hotel name the ‘Tontine’, and they said Sid would go and sit on the porch and watch the ladies. Also, he had a bald spot and his daughter Mona would have to put shoe polish on it every day to make it look as if it was hair.
On the water side there were large rocks like boulders all along the shore. They were put there like a breakwater to keep the water from coming up on the land. At the end of the street there was a huge sewer pipe that ran down to the water. It was covered with cement, and we used to walk down it to the end of the pipe and ‘you-know-what’ used to come out. This ‘stuff’ would be carried by the tide and get down between the boulders. The boys would play what they called ‘Riding the Bendies’. One day George McNeil fell down between the boulders, and when they pulled him out he was crying ‘Ookey!’. From then on he was called ‘Ookey McNeil’.
Back on the other side of the street at 81 South Water Street Captain Blake lived. Every afternoon at 4 o’clock he would come out with his lunch box and lantern, go across the street and get in his row boat, and row out to the sandbar [Oldfield Beach] where there was a small shack built on pilings. He would stay there all night as a watchman for the oyster companies, as even then people would go out and try to steal the oysters.
Next door to Blake’s was s grocery store [№ 19 Howard Ave.] which was run by Charlie Eaton and his wife Emma. Charlie was tongue-tied and sometimes hard to understand. Every Saturday night Mr. Eaton would load up a wheelbarrow with groceries and deliver them down to the boats. My husband [Wesley Bradley] worked on the oyster boats. If you went to Long Island and ate on the boat, all you were given to eat was ‘Long Island Hurrah’: salt pork cooked in water—it was terrible. Many of the workers lived on the oyster boats and they worked six days a week. That was the reason for the Eaton groceries being wheeled down to the boats. It was a long, hard week. So on Saturday nights a bunch of the men would walk up to the top of Howard Avenue to the ‘gin mills’ and get drunk, and have to walk back. Stories go that two or three of them drowned because they could not make it onto the boats and fell in.
Now, to get to the West side of South Water Street, we had to cross the trolley tracks on Howard Avenue. Once in awhile the trolley would run off the tracks and right down to the beach. This was a lot of fun, as we would all stand around and watch the trolley men get it back on the tracks, and it would go back up the Avenue.
Howard Avenue separated the two groups of people on South Water Street. The Catholics on the West side of Howard Avenue went to St. Peter’s School, and I went to Kimberly Avenue School. I never knew the children on this [West] side until my mother moved over here [to № 115]. The kids on the other side played together, and then we played together over here. The two sides did not mix.
On the water side were Smith Brothers and Law Oyster Company. Where the marina office [now yacht club] is now was the Sea Coast Oyster Company [№ 98 S. Water]. They bought out the Smith Brothers.
The ‘Sea Coast’, ‘Resolute’ and ‘Verniette’ were the three boats with Sea Coast Oyster Co. In the middle of what is now the parking lot was a huge pile of oyster shells. There was a path down to the boats, and the men used to load the shells into wheelbarrows and push them up and dump them on the pile. When the pile got too high, they built some kind of tower out of wood and had a wooden walkway up to it. The men would have to push their wheelbarrows up it to the platform and dump the oyster shells from there.
Next to that was the red barn which is still there [№ 108 S. Water]. At one time there were two or three one-car garages attached and rented to neighbors who were lucky enough to have a car. The garages were torn down to make the parking lot bigger. In the barn [in small addition on the left, № 106 S. Water St.] there was a barber shop for awhile [Carmine Formisano, barber]. Then a restaurant run by a black man named Moses Price. My mother would buy 25 cents worth of delicious rice pudding from him, and I remember that it was so good.
Next to that was a nice white building which was the R. W. Law Oyster Company [110 South Water St.]. There were rooms rented upstairs. I remember a black man lived upstairs named Perkins. Bud Perkins worked on the oyster boats. Then [there was] another Smith Bros., which later became Seal Shipt Oyster Co. Next to that was an oyster pile, then a small white building which was the [Nels P.] Starbranch Oyster Company. Then at the end was a coal pile [J. Smith & Sons Coal Yard], but I don’t remember too much about that.
Then there was a beautiful beach where three houseboats were docked . One belonged to Charlie Lane. He had so many cats. Then [another houseboat] belonged to old Captain Jack and Mike Hammond. Every Saturday they would go up to get on the trolley, and Mike would always walk first and Jack would be walking way in back of him. I think the other boat belonged to ‘Crummy Dick’ who was a very dirty man in appearance.
Across from the beach was a square, four-family house—two up and two down. It was called the Barracks. Then there was a driveway where the horse and buggy would drive in to the dump.
Coming back up on the odd-numbered side was the Moore house—123 South Water Street—and then five more houses. On the corner [99 South water] was the Starbranch Grocery Store [later, Libson’s]. The father [Swedish immigrant Nels Starbranch of 75 Sea St.] and son ran it. The father handled the groceries while the son, Paul Starbranch, was the butcher. None of these houses had bathrooms: they had outhouses in the yard. This was between 1907 and 1915.
Many people questioned the very wide doors on the cellars of nos. 81, , 103-105, 107, 109-111, 115 and 119 South Water Street. [33-35, 37, 47-49, & 57 also originally had these unique wide cellar doors.editor] The oyster men would load the oysters into wheelbarrows, wheel them into the cellars and dump the oysters on the floor. Women would come and open the oysters which were put into wooden barrels. When these were full, they were put at the curbs at 4 o’clock, and Railroad Express would come, pick them up and deliver them wherever they were supposed to go.
Games we used to play: tag, Red Rover I dare you come over, Hide and go seek, In and out the window, London bridges, Hop scotch, Jacks.
Every Spring and Fall, at the beach at the end of Howard Avenue, a black minister would come down with maybe 25 or 30 of his parishioners to baptize them. He would go out into the water, fully clothed, and duck down and get completely wet. Then the people would go out, also completely dressed, and he would baptize them by putting water in his hand and on their heads. Very lovely to watch.”
Editor’s Note: In Oct. 2009 I was privileged to interview 97 year-old former City Pointer Agnes Connellan Ensco (1912-2010). She confirmed many of the details described in the above-memoirs–including the poverty of most residents of South Water Street. Agnes attended St. Peter’s School and lived on the West end of South Water St. at № 119, and remembers the West River salt marsh [“mud flats”] before this was filled in to create Kimberly Field. She also remembered watching the steamship Richard Peck pass Bay View (City Point) Park and South Water Street, as it departed New Haven for its daily trip to New York (service which ended in 1920).
Agnes remembered Mr. Fresenius, who lived in the mansion at Howard & Second (on the corner diagonally across from Eddy’s and demolished in 1940). He had one of the first automobiles in City Point: a two-seater, steered with a rudder-style handle. Her brother died on the Wedmore dock during the hurricane of 1938 while tying up the Catherine M., struck in the head by flying debris. When I asked her if she recalled that there had been “Catholic” and “Protestant” sides of South Water Street, divided by Howard Ave., she said she didn’t recall such a thing. When I asked her if she knew any of the residents on the East [Protestant] side of S. Water, she replied “I didn’t know anybody over there. We didn’t go over to that side.” [ ! ]
OYSTER SUPPERS AT HOWARD AVE METHODIST
[From a Feb. 17, 1992 interview:]
Millicent Bradley: “I want to tell you about the Oyster Suppers that the Howard Avenue [Methodist] Church used to have [c. 1935-c. 1950]. We served 200 to 300 people at a time. Ruth [Moore] was one of the waitresses a couple of times. Most of the people came from Morris Cove…or Woodbridge. They came from Yale University. We were well known by Yale…Many times we were written up in the Elm City Clarion, which was very famous at that time…I remember that the oysters always came from the Wedmore Oyster Company…We stood around the counter in the [basement] kitchen of the Howard Avenue Methodist Church and our fingers were frozen because there was still ice. They came in gallon tins. It’s awful to say, but we never bothered to wash our hands in those days. We had a casserole, an aluminum casserole. We started from scratch. We ground our own crackers, plain crackers, buttered the tins and put down a layer of crackers and a layer of oysters and a layer of crackers and a layer of oysters and a lot of butter. City Point was so well known for our Oyster Suppers that we started to have two servings for two nights.”
Ruth Moore: “But Millie made the biscuits. They were called ‘mile high biscuits’, and they were two inches high. They were so tender that, really, if you took a bite, it was gone! I never had biscuits like that.”
Millicent: “Everyone raved about the biscuits, but the oysters–ugh! I wouldn’t touch them!”
Ruth: “I never would eat an oyster in my whole life, and I could have had them every day.”
Millicent: ” [For the scalloped oysters] we made three layers: crackers, oysters, crackers, oysters and that was it. If we had a 5 o’clock serving, then about 3 o’clock in the afternoon we covered that with skim milk and let it soak through. We had a gas oven like a pie oven. Boy, was that ever hot! And we put the tins in the bottom, each shelf. And if the top ones cooked [20 minutes], we had to bring them out and put them down on the bottom. It was such hard work, but we loved it. We even baked our own apple pies there in the kitchen. Then we had to give up the apple pies: we had so many people coming. We didn’t have people enough to cook them, so we had to order the pies from the bakery…I don’t know how they could eat them, but they loved those scalloped oysters…City Point was famous for a few years.”
[The transcripts from which the material above was excerpted were submitted by Barbara Bradley Petersen.]
Mashed Potatoes Peas and Carrots
Cabbage Salad Sweet Pickled Beets
Gingerbread with Whipped Cream
[from the program booklet Harvest Festival and Bazaar Howard Ave. Methodist Church, Wednesday, December 3rd, 1941,
courtesy of the General Commission on Archives and History of the United Methodist Church, New York Annual Conference, White Plains, who also supplied this editor with a copy of the 1950 75th Anniversary booklet found elsewhere on this website.]
From a 1925 letter of Joseph Thomas
Joseph Thomas [b. 1850] lived at 57 Sea Street in City Point from sometime in the 1880s until his death in 1932. He and his wife Mary Ann had eight children, all of whom grew up at 57 Sea Street. His son David lived at 74 Sea Street until his death in the early 1930s. Joseph was a marine engineer in the employ of Willis Smith of City Point until the death of his wife in 1898, at which point he worked on stationary engines. He was born in England in 1850, and prior to living in New Haven, he had been an engineer on one of the Red Star Line steamers running between Antwerp and Philadelphia. His son David at one point ran a cheese shop on Howard Avenue in City Point.
In 1925, Joseph wrote a letter to his grandson about his life, including some information about City Point, which I’ll quote here:
“On November the 20th (1879) I gave up the ship and came to New Haven. I went to work in the New Haven Railroad machine shop for the remainder of that winter. In March, 1880 I was offered a position by a gentleman Mr. Willis Smith of City Point. I took the job and remained on varyest [sic] steamers for 17 years and nine months. At this time I had not forgotten my church which I found a home in the City Point Methodist Church. Singing in the same for thirteen years and on the official board for a number of years by appointment of Rev. Nathan Hubble. About this time my wife died, leaving me with eight children. When I thought it would be hard to be at sea on vessels and look after my family. So I made up my mind to start in with stationary engines. So I did so, being employed in a number of prominent positions. I last finished at the New Haven Saw Mill Co. for twenty one years, and I think I have come to the finish as my age is seventy five years on Feb. twenty fourth 1925.
When I look back at my first trip to City Point, what great changes have been made. Howard Ave was one of the very poorest roads in the city, with no side walks and about five houses from the [railroad] bridge to South Water Street. Between fifth and sixth street, there was a farm house, and a pump stood where the side walk is now. The East side of Howard Ave is where we used to a get a drink of nice cold water in the summer months. At this time, the good old church was still there. This is where I had my first opportunity of worshipping in New Haven, and I think it proved out to be the best enjoyment I ever had in my life.”
[submitted by Joseph Thomas’ Great-Great Grandson, Robert Thomas of Atlanta, Georgia]
Editor’s addendum: Joseph Thomas is first listed in city directories in 1881 as “engineer”. From 1881 to 1888 he lived at several addresses at “The End”: 11 & 26 S. Water, 136 Howard, 16 Hallock, finally listed at 57 Sea St. in 1889. [The numbering of properties on Howard, Sea & S. Water was changed later in the 19th century.] Land records do not show Joseph Thomas as “Grantee” of 57 Sea in 1889 nor the several years prior or after, although he resided there until his death in 1932 and he is listed as owner in the 1911 Atlas.[See “Historic MAPS” page.]
Lozelle Foote, first owner of 74 Sea St., is first listed in the 1859-60 directory as “oysterman, Oyster Point” and in the 1860-61 directory as a partner in “Button & Foote”, residing at 2 S. Water [later re-numbered 20 S. Water]. The 1867-68 directory lists him as a “Clerk” living at 9 Sea [later re-numbered 74 Sea]. He purchased the lot from Eber Kelsey, Frederick Lane & Alexander Foote on Oct. 31, 1866. His house can be seen on the 1868 wall map, therefore likely was constructed in 1867. David Thomas moved out of 57 Sea to 74 Sea by 1910, and is listed in that year’s directory as a “clerk”. By 1912 he’s listed as “pound cake dealer”. From 1919 onward the directories describe him as “salesman”. According to the 1933 directory, he died the same year as his father, in 1932 at age 48. His widow Hattie continued to live at 74 Sea until her death c. 1940. This editor could find no mention in city directories of the legendary cheese shop: perhaps he was a wholesaler of cheeses and baked goods? The 1880s barn and the later garages, as well as the house’s unusually deep basement would have been an ideal location for such a business.