Wally Irish – lifelong Manchester resident, successful local business owner – has seen the North End where he
grew up undergo enormous changes over the decades. He served as a member of the Eighth Utilities Fire Department
for more than 25 years and was active in local politics for many years as well. Wally Irish's memories of
Manchester's North End date back to the early 1950s. His mother was the rental manager for 10 Depot Street, an
apartment building owned by Albert Cohen. Tenants came to the Irish family's apartment to pay their rent and,
incidentally, pass the time discussing the issues of the day. This gave Wally an opportunity to meet many
residents and become familiar with their concerns.
From his family's apartment, Wally had a view of the police phone. It was housed in a lockbox on a telephone pole near the train tracks. In the days before two-way radios became standard issue, the police had keys to these lockboxes, whose phones provided them with a communications channel to headquarters. Red lights atop the boxes alerted officers to incoming calls.
The North End of the 1950s differs greatly from its present state. Back then it was a lively community with thriving businesses -- hardware store, groceries, a package store, a men's shop, a beauty salon, an appliance store, a pharmacy and an upholstery shop among others -- and residents who participated in its active social life. In fact, the appliance store, Standard Appliance, was owned by Ed Firestone's dad; Ed currently owns Pinewood Furniture on Main Street in Downtown Manchester.
Wally recalls Keith's Variety Store where youngsters bought books and comics. A soda shop adjoined Keith's. There were about five "mom and pop" stores in the neighborhood. An old barn in the back of Keith's served as the local distribution point for The Manchester Herald. Here paperboys received their allotments of newspapers in the afternoon.
Wally worked as a paperboy and had his first "charge account" at Luka's Sunrise Market. The owner extended credit to him and other paperboys for purchases of candy and soda until collection day, when they could pay him with money received from their customers.
Photos from that era show the turreted, brownstone Gothic buildings, which housed local businesses. At one time, prior to Wally's birth, the Cowles Hotel and an Opera House were part of the North End's landscape. The hotel burned long ago, but the Apel's Opera House building still stands; it is used as a storage facility now.
In Wally's view the North End's concentration of businesses made it one of Manchester's "shopping Meccas," a position it held until the Parkade was built in the late 1950s. It was far more prominent then than it is today.
Wally remembers the North End's train station, managed by stationmaster Gil Parks. As he puts it, the North
End was Manchester's transportation hub. This, combined with the extent of its business community, made the
North End the de facto center of town.
Wally tells me more about the trains and the role their schedules played in the commonplace aspects of residents' lives: The trains carried boys and their fathers to Yankee Stadium for the annual Knights of Columbus baseball trip. The train schedules determined the meeting times for events in other cities. For instance, the New England newspaper publishers meetings in Boston were scheduled to accommodate members arriving by train.
Wally's descriptions paint a vivid picture of freight trains speeding through Manchester in the middle of the night as Adam, the burly gatekeeper, whose shifts on duty were spent in a small coal-heated building, lowered the gates to provide them with a clear path through town. Automobiles bound for local dealerships arrived by train. Roy Motors - a Chrysler, De Soto, Plymouth dealership where Wally's dad worked as a mechanic - had a railroad siding behind the old Bon Ami building on Hilliard Street.
All that remains of Manchester's connection to the railroad is a spur where trains can pull in to unload grain for the farmers' co-op, and all that remains of the North End depot is a plaque near the corner of Main and North Main streets.
Wally talked about the Community "Y" for Boys and Girls and the activities it provided for Manchester's youth.
Don Cowles, a postal employee by day, served as the "Y's" building director. The "Y's" youth programs included
basketball for boys; Mrs. Neil's cooking and sewing classes for girls; and co-ed dances. The "Y's" basement
housed a bowling alley used by both youth and adult leagues. This alley remained the only significant bowling
facility in Manchester until Holiday Lanes opened on Spencer Street.
During the summer, about 40 to 60 cots and bunks were set up in the "Y's" gym transforming it into a dormitory for girls who worked on local tobacco farms like Hartmann Farms and L. B. Haas Farm. Young male workers stayed in warehouses on Hartman Farms on Pleasant Valley Road. Young migratory workers from Jamaica lived in these facilities from April to September. When Wally worked at the A&P on North Main Street, his manager, Dick Jackman, realized that these young workers particularly enjoyed Jane Parker Cookies, and he kept these confections in stock for them.
These tobacco farms disappeared years ago. Hartman's former land is now the site of stores ranging from 99 REST. on Buckland Street through the J. C. Penney's Distribution Center. L. B. Haas farm evolved during the 1970's into the Red Rock Golf Course on Slater Road, and later into Buckland Hills shopping plaza and apartments.
The Eighth Utilities District was originally one of NINE separate school districts within Manchester. After the others were consolidated under one board of education, the Eighth District remained independent until the 1940's or 50's when it finally joined the town education department.
Wally Irish speaks eloquently and nostalgically of, as he puts it, "the era of romance in the volunteer fire
service." He remembers the dedication of many citizens to community service as one of the most significant
aspects of life in the North End. For many of them, the Eighth Utilities fire department became the vehicle for
engaging in community service.
When he was a boy, Wally, like many other kids, admired the volunteer firemen of the Eighth Utilities District. The fathers of two friends, Don Mordavsky (now a pediatrician) and Neil McKeever (now a teacher), were volunteer firemen. Boys would gather around them to learn details of fires. Some of Wally's neighbors were also members of the department.
John Merz, Wally's barber, was chief of the Eighth Utilities Fire Department in the 1940s and ‘50s. He had an emergency phone installed in his barbershop so that he could be quickly alerted when situations required his attention. Wally hoped for and eventually had the opportunity to ride with the chief in his car to answer alarms with him.
When Wally turned sixteen in 1963, he became eligible to join the Eighth Utilities Fire Department and finally had the opportunity to satisfy his desire to be part of something meaningful and important. He served under Chief Ted Lingard, a man ten years his senior, who became his mentor. Wally describes Chief Lingard as a leader who motivated and inspired people in a "Pied Piper way," a leader who exerted a "calming influence" and maintained control in times of crisis. Wally became of the chief's trusted lieutenants.
There was always a cadre of dedicated volunteers who made it their business to be available for emergencies. They knew each other's work schedules so that they could always ensure that an adequate number of volunteers would be available to respond to alarms during the workweek.
Chief Lingard's main occupation was owning The Lingard Cabinet Company. Being a business owner did not prevent Lingard from dedicating himself to the fire service.
Wally described how, under Ted Lingard's command, the Eighth Utilities FD battled the largest fire in Manchester's history: the Bon Ami fire of December 1973. The Bon Ami Company on Hilliard Street manufactured soap, so there was plenty of fuel to feed the fire, which burned for two days. Wally, like other volunteers, fought the fire this entire time. Finally extinguishing this horrific conflagration, the Eighth Utilities FD had to immediately tackle a burning three-family house on the corner of Middle Turnpike and Hawthorne Street.
As Fire Marshal of the Eighth Utilities Fire Department, Lingard had the responsibility for overseeing and approving the fire plans for the Buckland Mall – an extraordinarily large task for a volunteer to manage.
Wally told me that the Eighth Utilities Fire Department produced a number of highly capable officers who went on to become leaders in fire services throughout New England. Ted Lingard himself has retired to Southport, Maine where he belongs to the volunteer fire department and still drives fire trucks; his son continues to run the cabinetry company.
History teachers played prominent roles in Wally's development: Jim Camarata, seventh grade history teacher at Illing Junior High School and Mary Ann Handley, a fifth-grade teacher at Robertson School. Mr. Camarata made history come alive, and Mrs. Handley made the Civil War memorable. This prepared Wally, as he put it, for "Manchester's civil wars."
What became of the North End's turreted Gothic brownstones and the community around them? Wally's answer:
In Wally's recollections of the early1960's, Robert Weiss, then Manchester's town manager, sought to obtain federal redevelopment funds for the town. He submitted two redevelopment proposals to a referendum. One proposal called for redeveloping the Main Street business district; the other called for redeveloping the North End. The North End proposal won approval.
As Wally recounts its effects, redevelopment led to the North End's decline. After the redevelopment plan was announced, area property owners began to allow their buildings to fall into disrepair, which led to their eventual demolition. Even the classic turreted brownstones were demolished. Local businesses were displaced; some of them left Manchester for other towns like Vernon and South Windsor. Many old-time residents moved out of the North End, as well.
At the same time, redevelopment expanded housing in some areas of the North End, like Oakland Street, Rachel Road and Tudor Lane. This expansion drew new residents who had neither a connection nor a commitment to the old North End.
Redevelopment strengthened the unity of the remaining old-time "North Enders" and engendered a distrust of the town government.
With the destruction of the North End's commercial center, the loss of established residents and the influx of new ones who had not grown up in the local ethos, little remained of the area's character, except the Eighth Utilities District and its fire department. .
A charter from the state authorized the Eighth Utilities District to provide sanitary sewers and fire services north of Middle Turnpike. Although the Eighth School District finally merged into the town's board of education, its sewer system remained independent, as did its fire department.
Redevelopment plans caused Fire Department members to become concerned over the effects these efforts might have on their organization. As North End development continued in the 1970s with plans for the J. C. Penney distribution center in Buckland and nearby retail areas, Department members began to fear that the town was trying to encircle it by providing services to these developing areas. Encirclement could lead to the Eighth's demise. As a result, the Eighth took advantage of a 1963 change in its state charter that authorized it to accept residents of adjacent areas who petitioned to join it and use its services. Members of the Eighth successfully convinced Buckland residents to join and expanded the District's domain.
Wally said the town retaliated by fighting the District's expansion effort in the courts. While this battle was underway, the North End rallied to support the Eighth. A political action committee called the "The Eighth Is Great" was formed by attorney Robert Bletchman and his wife. The annual Eighth Utilities Peach Festival, which began in the 1950s as a means to raise funds for the firefighters' dress uniforms, became a rallying point for expressing the District's spirit of independence. "Eighth Is Great" bumper stickers began appearing on cars.
Concern over the Eighth Utilities District's ability to survive the challenge caused its members to celebrate its ninetieth anniversary in 1978, rather than waiting to celebrate its centennial in 1988. At that point, they were not convinced that the Eighth would last until 1988.
Ultimately, the State Supreme Court decided in favor of the Eighth Utilities District in the late 1970s, and Buckland Hills Mall officially came under its jurisdiction. The Eighth's annual Peach Festival became ever more important – many politicians begin the annual campaign season there. In 2005 the Eighth remains strong.
Wally Irish has lived in Manchester all of his life. His commitment to the community is obvious from his involvement in the Eighth Utilities and local politics. He has a rich trove of memories and enjoys sharing them with others. It was not surprising to learn that he once considered majoring in history. After this conversation, I was struck by his ability to make Manchester's history come alive for me, and I recalled how Mr. Camarata and Mrs. Handley made it come alive for him decades ago. I could not help wondering how many young students would have learned to love history if Wally Irish had become a history teacher.
Editor's Note: There were no photographs associated with Mr. Irish's interview. The photos below are generic North End photos, of a recent but bygone era. Click each image for a larger view.