Many of the names and some of the descriptions in this blog have been changed to protect the guilty.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Wood Dogs of Watershops

I always considered my 94-year-old uncle one of Springfield’s best unofficial historians—he tells me interesting stories that I had never heard, so when he mentioned a notorious, scruffy Depression-era group of men called the “Wood Dogs” that used to have drunken parties on the shore of Watershops Pond, I wanted him to tell me more.

He asserted that the Wood Dogs, many of whom lived in the Six Corners neighborhood, were virtually wiped out by methyl alcohol poisoning after one of their outdoor bashes. “Around 10 of them died,” he said. I thought he had to be exaggerating. Surely I would have heard about this calamity. But when I looked it up, he was close: on February 1, 1932 nine Wood Dogs perished after drinking industrial alcohol.

An investigation revealed that the men had been buying denatured alcohol from hardware stores and paint shops for years and drinking it at a place off Hickory Street on Watershops—a spot they called “Pittsburgh” or “Smoky City,” the latter nicknamed after the stuff they imbibed: “smoke,” which is a cloudy, murky white (and sometimes deadly) cocktail. On the day of the fateful party, one of the Wood Dogs, 40-year-old Charles Higgins, of 278 Walnut Street, bought methyl alcohol (antifreeze) from a gas station and brought it to the shoreline behind the Springfield Ice Company’s icehouse off Hancock Street (pictured below—the conveyor ramp is on the left). He and his buddies built a bonfire and started sipping.

The white arrows below mark the spot of the party. It’s now the land occupied by Springfield College’s Gulick Hall and its President’s House.

This was no ordinary binge: later in the day the partygoers started getting really sick. Of the 12 Wood Dogs who quaffed the “smoke,” only three survived. No charges were ever filed. The gas station attendant was exonerated because he didn’t know they would drink it.

Thirty-seven-year-old Michael Splaine was working for the city as a foreman for a road repair crew and was on his way home from work when he joined the party. He was feeling cold and gladly accepted the drinks when offered. I bet that brew warmed him up all right! He also said the Wood Dogs were in good spirits (Because the spirits were good!) and told him that the liquor was the best they had had in a long time. For most of them, it was their final bender.

It’s no secret that during Prohibition (1919-1933) some people resorted to drinking denatured alcohol, and antifreeze mixtures were especially sought after during the Great Depression (1929-1939) because it sold for 50 percent less than ordinary denatured alcohol. Despite well-publicized fatalities, people drank it anyway: on Christmas Day in 1926 and on the two following days, 31 people in New York City died of methyl alcohol poisoning.

In fact, the Wood Dogs used to drain radiator fluid from cars parked near Springfield College and drink the rusty liquid!

The end of the article refers to the “1919 catastrophe in the Connecticut Valley,” in which a (literally) staggering 53 people—not including the death toll in Hartford—succumbed near the end of the year after drinking concoctions that were made of whiskey and wood alcohol (methyl alcohol). There were charges in this massacre, but it’s hard to tell if there were any convictions from these holiday parties gone bad.

There were many such deaths nationwide around Christmas of 1919—enough to lead to severe restrictions on the sale of this “coroner’s cocktail.”

The federal government had required companies to denature—that is, deliberately poison—industrial alcohol to make it undrinkable long before Prohibition, but bootleggers hired chemists to “renature” it—sometimes successfully, sometimes not. The Treasury Department’s response, especially after an estimated 60 million gallons of industrial alcohol was being stolen every year in the 1920s, was to add even more poisons to it in 1926. This caused the New York Christmas tragedy.

There was outrage. Public health officials were incensed. “The government knows it is not stopping drinking by putting poison in alcohol,” said New York City medical examiner Charles Norris in the closing days of 1926. “Yet it continues its poisoning processes, heedless of the fact that people determined to drink are daily absorbing that poison. Knowing this to be true, the United States government must be charged with the moral responsibility for the deaths that poisoned liquor causes, although it cannot be held legally responsible.”

But in 1927, even more poisons were brought into denaturing formulas, including kerosene, gasoline, benzene, iodine, mercury salts, ether, formaldehyde, and chloroform. Yum! I’ll take mine on the rocks! They also upped the percentage of methyl alcohol that was added: in some cases, denatured alcohol was now made up of 10 percent methanol.

Later that year Seymour M. Lowman, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in charge of Prohibition, bragged that boozers were “dying off fast from poison ‘hooch'” and that if the result was a sober America, “a good job will have been done.”

The government “spiking” of industrial alcohol ultimately led to the deaths of more than 10,000 people before the repeal of the 18th amendment. The New York death toll in 1926: around 400. The following year: approximately 700.

The government’s “special” (homicidal?) denaturing program ceased at the end of prohibition, but the stuff is still deliberately rendered toxic, and people still drank it after Prohibition ended. This happened in 1941:

Unbelievably, Sterno (“canned heat”) caused 31 deaths in Philadelphia in the Christmas of 1963. Such fatalities are now rare, except maybe in South Africa and Russia (during a really cold winter).

* * * * * * * *

What became of the rest of the Wood Dogs? Hard to say. Frank McClellan, one of the survivors, was arrested for stealing a purse the following year. Was there a booze crew to replace the Wood Dogs on the bank of Watershops Pond? There were undoubtedly other groups of men who drank in the woods in Springfield as the Depression went on, but it’s probably safe to assume that police checked that spot fairly regularly immediately after the fatal party. Still, a 1947 article notes that there were drunkenness arrests at the place every once in a while, but not lately. “Occasionally, some of them would build shelters with branches and old clothes, and even dug holes in the ground to protect them a bit from the elements. On rare occasions one of the inebriates would steal some minor item and get in trouble with the cops,” according to the article. But “the Wood Dogs who used to hang out there for many years have vanished. Probably most of them are dead, police said.”

Eventually, the woods were gone. Development “wiped out the wilderness tract where the locally famous Wood Dogs made their habitat,” according to a 1951 article. Drunks instead made the banks of the Connecticut River their official party place because it was “far removed from the prying eyes of suspicious cops.” For many years “it has been the gathering spot for certain lugs to foregather and sun themselves leisurely.”

Indeed, the term “Wood Dogs” was used by the Springfield Newspapers to generically describe alcoholic vagrants who used drink…well…in the woods in the 1940s and 1950s, and the nickname was even used as late as 1960 in an article on drunkenness arrests in Springfield.

Come to think of it, we used to drink in the woods. Were we the “Wood Dogs” of the late 1970s and early 1980s? After all, we used to drink some pretty rotgut stuff:

But we definitely didn’t even consider the alternative, which is why we’re still alive today!

Good thing for us Acres Wood Dogs that the government didn’t poison Southern Comfort or Kappy’s Gin. Then again, it did spray marijuana crops with paraquat. But that’s another story. (Cough!)

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Bullshitting to All Fields, Part 8

Masslive.com just published a series of vintage Forest Park pictures, and among them was a view of the Monkey House that I had never seen in a photo. The monkeys are on the left, the lions, tiger and the chimps were on the right—where you can see how they roped off the area due to the tuberculosis outbreak in 1974. Or so they say. Some say it was because Jiggsy the baby chimp was urinating on too many people and he needed a cool-down period.

Above is the same view, minus the cages, from last year. It’s being renovated for year-round public functions. According to the article, the facility was built in 1911, replacing the original wood building that was damaged by a fire.

Here are similar views from the main entrance side 1974 (with the roped-off area on the left) and now:

Remember the paddleboats at Forest Park? I always wondered why they stopped this activity.

Roy Orbison (not to mention Bozo the Clown) at Mountain Park in 1964

The 35-foot Indian carved by Hungarian sculptor Peter Toth (from a 14,000-pound pine tree) is installed at the park’s back entrance in 1984 “to honor a proud and noble people.” It’s name: Omiskanoagwiak, The Wolf People-Medicine Man.

Speaking of big guys, the new home of the Mutual Ford Giant/Plantation Man is Headquarters Bar in Agawam.

Snyder’s Market on Sumner Avenue in the late 1930s (above). It’s now a pre-school, but, unbelievably, you can still see the faded Snyder’s sign if you look carefully above the pre-school sign (click the photo below to enlarge it), even though it closed back in 1968, after the death of 75-year-old Morris Snyder. 

A Polish immigrant who started out pushing a cart selling fruits and vegetables, Morris built the market in 1913.

Above is his grandson Tommy standing in front of the place. It was a C.J. Roberts clothes washer parts store in the 1970s and 1980s. The pre-school serves the Sumner Avenue School, which everyone in the Snyder family attended back in the day.

The “Airwalk to Nowhere” on Main Street after Forbes and Wallace closed in 1976. It’s pictured being built, from the opposite direction, below.

Tamarack Bog, Part 3

I decided to take my mountain bike over to some of my favorite trails in the Tamarack Bog behind the Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Sixteen Acres. The last time I was over there, the newspaper box that once held a really cool hikers’ trail journal had been burned and tipped over. This time I saw one standing in the distance, but alas, it has not been replaced. No journaling going on HERE.

The homemade bridge over the South Branch of the Mill River, however, is still there:

Just past the bridge were some signs of a late-night meeting spot.

I found a trail to the left (following the brook, heading south) that I had never seen before. It was in pretty good shape, too, and about a quarter-mile long, although in places it was a bit overgrown. This is it at its widest: not bad.

Dang! A pricker bush grabbed my arm and didn’t want to let go. I am outta here!

Hillcrest Park Cemetery gets its famous floral clock in 1934.

Here’s what it looked like in 1943 (above). Time flies when you’re dead.

Today’s floral clock is a far cry from what it once was.

Prime real estate!

I got my Cathedral High School brick! My good friend Stan Janek went to the demolition site, but workers were reluctant to let him grab one because there was asbestos in the rubble, but then they said, “Well, what if we turned around and didn’t see you?” That was all he needed to hear.

It doesn’t look like there’s any asbestos on my brick. Can you imagine if I caught asbestosis with it? Four years at Cat High didn’t kill me, but a brick from the auditorium (the exterior is pictured below) 34 years later puts me six feet under.

From the Facebook page Springfield, the 413 Then and Now, the demolition of Putnam Vocational High School:

…and, of course, most of Tech went down as well:

The Continental Restaurant

Above is a late 1930s photo of the restaurant on the northeast corner of Parker Street and Boston Road. I believe that’s the same building that became the Continental Restaurant in the 1950s. It’s hard to remember. The same structure is pictured below years earlier from the front as Andrew's Rose Tree Inn (the same sign reads Andrew’s Cafeteria in the above photo). It was run by Joseph P. Andrews.

While the Rose Tree was famous for Roast Duck, the Continental specialized in seafood.

The Continental, next to Pier I Imports (now Walgreens) became renowned locally not only for its steamed clams and huge portions, but also for the twin sisters who ran the place, Marie and Aurora Silva, who also ran a small trailer park in back. They were as feisty as hell and bickered a lot—part of the “show” that was The Continental. Quite simply, there are no more restaurants like this in Springfield.

It’s pictured below at the end of the arrow, above the white box-looking building that was Pier 1 Imports. You can see the trailers to the left.

The Continental closed in the mid-1980s. Aurora passed away in 2013 and Marie (below) died at 91 last June.

Liberace at Storrowton in 1972

Aerosmith played at AIC in March of 1974 and they also double-billed with Blue Oyster Cult at the Civic Center later in the year. They had gotten big enough to headline at the Civic Center in front of 6,500 fans in ’75 for their “Toys in the Attic” tour, when the Springfield crowd “greeted the group with sparklers held high in the air, lit matches, clapping, and cheering,” according to the Springfield Union newspapers. What, no lighters?

The article noted that “banks of multi-colored spotlights cut through the smoke-filled arena and flashed” as Aerosmith played. Yep, that sounds like a rock concert all right. Duh! The writer also took not of the age of the crowd—late teens and early 20s. When writing my last post, I noticed that the paper also described the ages of the concertgoers in an Alice Cooper show there in 1972—most of them were in their late teens. It’s funny, the adult world was still trying to figure out what this arena rock phenomenon was all about—what was drawing thousands and thousands of youths time after time to this den of iniquity built on Main Street. It must have been more than a little unsettling for downtown workers during evening rush hour to see these kids in various stages of inebriation congregating around the Civic Center.

Aerosmith drew a 10,000 over-capacity crowd there in August of 1976 for their “Rocks” tour. That year the newspaper noted the Civic Center’s difficulties trying to keep order because of “inadequate manpower” dealing with a “raucous” audience. The Civic center “shook beneath the stomping fans,” the writer added.

That’s not my stub. I didn’t see Aerosmith at the Civic Center until 1980, when the Springfield Daily News spelled the name of the band “Arrowsmith.” I’m not shitting you. I’m just bullshitting to all fields.

The Casino, Before and After

The original design

Poof! A skyscraper goes up in smoke.

What’s next? I’ve seen some of the latest sketches:

The casino is coming! The casino is coming! Our ace in the hole in Springfield— also known as The Comeback City. Yes, an $800 million MGM casino is going to be built in the South End/Downtown, and because of this—as well as the ongoing $83 million renovation of the city’s train station—Springfield is allegedly brimming with hope. Positively beaming, gleaming, glowing, flowing with possibilities. Maybe it is. I’m just not feeling it.

First MGM pulled the plug on its 25-story tower, which was the “wow” factor in the artist’s rendering that sold Springfield on the project. Now it’s scaling back the square footage of the whole shebang by nearly 14 percent. 

Nonetheless, I want to sense the optimism that is said to be so prevalent in my native city—to see for myself the comeback spirit sparkling in people’s eyes as they trim their hedges, water their flowers, sweep hypodermic needles off their sidewalks, and whistle “Good Vibrations” over the blaring police sirens. But I’m not seeing it. I’m not hearing it.

Oh, wait! There it is!

’Til next month folks. I’ll leave you with the lyrics to Mr. Rogers’ closing song, “It’s Such a Good Feeling.”

It’s such a good feeling to know you're alive.
It's such a happy feeling: You’re growing inside.
And when you wake up ready to say,
“I think I'll make a snappy new day.”
It’s such a good feeling, a very good feeling,
The feeling you know that we’re friends.