The Summer of 1906
Harriett Cornelia Martin (15 jan 1855 – 28 mar 1927)
I dreamed of Aunt Neil last night. My dreaming mind accompanied Neil as she alit from the trolley in the early morning and walked purposefully down Genesee Street to open her fancy goods store. Her wide brimmed hat shielded her face from the already bright summer sun. Nodding and smiling, Neil greeted her fellow merchants as they slipped their keys into the locks and entered the cool interior of their shops. Everyone knew and liked their fellow merchant, Neil Martin.
Like a small army preparing for a full dress parade, hats and jackets were carefully removed and stowed and the protective sleeves favored by the proprietors and clerks were pulled over their snow white blouses and starched shirts. The cheerful fabric awnings were cranked out over the streets extending the shade over the sidewalks and deepening the darkness in the little shops. Large glass paneled doors held open by door props welcomed both cooling breezes and customers. Especially made for the shops, the props heralded the goods and services available in each establishment…a barber pole…a cigar store Indian…and for Aunt Neil…a lovely mannequin sporting the latest in ladies’ finery. She was fond of dressing her window and indeed was accomplished enough to win a blue ribbon for her window display talents in a local merchant competition that year.
It would be a fine day. Neil was expecting her nieces to arrive today to inspect a new shipment of handmade items…complete with lovely beading and a touch of imported lace. The afternoon was filled with girlish giggles mingled with a wisp of lavender scent that one of the girls favored at the moment.
After the purchases of a bit of lace and delicate French lingerie, Neil and the three girls walked arm in arm to the ice cream shop on South Street. Several days before, Mr. Curtis, the shop owner, had confided to Neil that he would be making a new ice cream treat to sell at the upcoming July 4th activities. When the four ladies arrived at the ice cream parlor, an unfamiliar but tantalizing scent filled the air. What could her fellow merchant be making? Mr. Curtis had been bustling in his establishment for days and his neighbor, Mr. Papadopoulos, had been rushing between his sweet shop on Genesee Street and the ice cream parlor. The two men greeted the ladies and escorted them to a small table by the window.
Neil’s lovely nieces were favorites in the city of Auburn and the merchants were accustomed to the sight of them chatting and smiling and visiting the shops along Genesee Street. Today they were the honored guests of Mr. Curtis at the unveiling of a treat that no Auburnians had ever seen before. Disappearing behind the white marble counter, Mr. Curtis prepared ice cream cones which were the rage concoction of the very recent St. Louis World’s Fair. Neil and the girls clapped their hands at Mr. Curtis’s clever surprise and exclaiming as they ate…pronounced the treat as a most wonderful creation.
Neil fondly watched her nieces as they touched their lips with the snow white linens that they kept tucked into the sashes of their light summer frocks. Each beloved niece had received the embroidered and delicate linen squares from Aunt Neil that very Christmas. Neil was in her early fifties that summer of 1906 and never married and would never know the special bond of having a child of her own. And her nieces brought joy to her heart as if each were her own daughter.
Flora Mae Martin
Flora Mae was the eldest daughter of Neil’s oldest brother, Walton and his wife, Elizabeth Johanna. She was a new bride that year and had already established her own millinery enterprise. She was adept with fabrics and embellishments and like her Aunt Neil, Flora found pleasure and profit in her passion for finery. Flora had her father’s bright blue eyes and Neil found solace in Flora’s gaze after the untimely loss of Walton to cancer in 1902. Though Flora and her new husband, Edward Raymond Fiero, were now living in Syracuse, she often visited her Aunt Neil and her large Martin family still living in Auburn, NY. Edward was a stenographer and worked from many years at Solvay Processing while Flora continued her successful millinery. For a brief time in 1930, they lived in Virginia where her husband worked at a new nitrogen processing plant. Eventually they returned to their home in Syracuse. Flora and Edward were never blessed with children.
Harriette Frear Martin
Harriette was the namesake of her father’s mother. She was born in 1884 and bore not only her grandmother’s name, but a remarkable likeness to her. Harriette had married in 1905 to the dashing young farmer, George Edward Funnell of Syracuse. In May of 1906 Harriette had just given birth to her first child, Dorothy, and was wearing a lovely new summer frock and celebrating the return of her figure. She would follow George Funnell into Canada…returning to Syracuse for a brief time in the 1930’s and working as cook in a private family home while George remained in Canada. Later she rejoined him on their farm in Alberta, Canada. They had six children. Harriette is the grandmother of Sharon Sullivan Olsen, my fellow family researcher, who has shared her family memories and work with me as I have with her and to whom I am ever grateful. The photos of Neil, Flora, Harriette and Laura are all courtesy of Sharon.
Laura Viola Martin
Laura , the youngest of the three Martin girls, was just seventeen that summer and four years away from her marriage to John M. Acey. Having lost her father when she just thirteen, Laura and her mother, Elizabeth, found themselves struggling to survive their grief and to manage financially without Walton and the income of the sewing machine shops he and his father, Albert, had owned and operated. Elizabeth had to sell their property in Syracuse and by 1910…the year Laura became John Acey’s bride…Elizabeth was working as a servant in a private home in Syracuse.
John Acey was the brother of her Uncle Charles Martin’s wife, Julia. Young John was a plumber and he and Laura moved into his widowed mother’s home on North Seward Avenue along with John’s unmarried sister, Ida. John and Laura had one child, a son, Robert J. Acey.
Fancy Goods, Ashes and Renewal
Neil was remarkably happy that summer. I say remarkably because that March, her cherished store had been lost in a fire that completely destroyed the Columbus Block and Temple Building. The fire began on March 27th in the basement of the Temple Building and was discovered about 8 PM. Firefighters from as far away as Syracuse and Seneca Falls fought the blaze that continued to flare until well after 6 AM the following morning. The fire spread through the basement and moved to the wood structure of the Columbus block. Finding new energy in the wood material, the fire soon roared through the old building. Neil’s “Fancy Goods” store was located in the Columbus building at 136 Genesee Street.
Heroically or foolishly, soot covered and her eyes tearing from the heat and smoke, she was able to move some of her inventory on her own through the late night while the firefighters fought the blaze. Neil’s efforts to save her inventory and reports of her loss were published in several newspapers. Her total loss was reported as $10,000 (roughly $250,000.00 in today’s US dollars), but Neil’s insurance would only cover $7,000 (about $173,000.00).
Undaunted, the fifty-one-year-old Neil opened her new store under the name “The Smart Shop” which was prudently located in a brick structure on 145 Genesee St. In 2009 the building still stands where clothing and sundries are sold. The trolley tracks and beautiful awnings are gone and the lovely fabrics and embellishments have been replaced by t shirts that declare the name of some band that was famous for ten minutes. But I know when I go back home and walk down Genesee Street, Aunt Neil walks with me. And if I am very quiet, I will hear the echo of girlish laughter and smell the faintest trace of lavender.
Deborah Martin-Plugh, her great grand niece
July 19, 2009
I tell this story because I did dream of Aunt Neil after an email chain of reminiscences and sentiments with Sharon Sullivan Olsen. I grew up in Auburn in the 1950’s and 60’s and the downtown…as we called it…remained relatively the same as in Aunt Neil’s time. Oh, the trolley tracks and cobbles were long covered with macadam and only a smattering of faded awnings were still sported by some shops…and one or two modernists had replaced the brick facades with shiny metal odes to outer space. But, the frosted globe street lights still glowed in the evening…the citizenry less concerned with crime and safety and more content to stroll beneath a gentle radiance. And the merchants all knew one another as they did in Neil’s day.
As a teenager and college student, I worked downtown in the 1960’s and felt as cared for as I did when I returned home to my mother in the evening. One wintery night, I had the misfortune to lose my wallet on my way to the bus. It was dark and cold and it was the last bus to take me on the 1 ½ mile trip home. The bus door opened to let the waiting passengers on board and I stood there while everyone made their way to their seats. I explained that I had no money…I had lost my wallet and without hesitation, the bus driver waved me in with a wink and told me to pay twice next time. And I did.
This was Neil’s town and it was mine and I am happy to tell a bit of her story. Though I had to fill in some blanks with my heart, her stores existed as did Mr. Papadopoulus’ sweet shop and Mr. Curtis’ ice cream parlor.
These women are as real as I am and they are my family.
Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher
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