THE VILLAGE OF NORTHPORT
A STROLL DOWN MAIN STREET
The village of Northport and its harbor has a way of getting into your blood and never letting you go. Northport has a beautiful downtown along Main Street where you can still see the old trolley rails embedded in the concrete. Cars still park on a angle along Main Street as they did 100 years ago when Woodrow Wilson was our country's 28th President.
Main Street ends at the edge of Northport harbor where the town docks and park are located. Northport harbor is considered by many to be one of the most picturesque harbors in New York State. In the ‘60s, Northport, due to its size and somewhat off the beaten track location, hadn’t attracted any of the larger national stores.
Northport got its first supermarket, the A&P, around 1967, and McDonalds didn’t plant its flag in town until 1972. This only added to the charm of Main Street and the Village. Back in July of 1968 it was truly a summer wonderland for my friends and me.
Although Main Street started up at five corners, to me, the true village started where Main Street intersected Church Street and Ocean Avenue. There’s the Catholic church on one side and the Presbyterian church on the other. When I was a boy living on Seaview Avenue, we would get downtown by taking the path through the woods behind the Presbyterian church that emptied onto Main Street. Main Street was back then and is still today the epicenter of Northport, with many retail stores, shops, restaurants, pubs, the old library, a Chinese laundry mat and our beloved one screen movie theater, now Northport Playhouse.
The first storefront I would come upon was My Fair Lady, a very popular women’s hair salon. It was here where my mother and Aunt Ella would get their hair done up on Saturday mornings. It was part of their getting ready ritual they performed each week so they would look just right to go out to dinner with my dad and Uncle Bobby. On most Saturday nights that meant dinner down on the water at Mariner’s. A lot of times I would put my fishing pole and bucket up against the building and walk in to the Lady, as my uncle would called it, to say hi to mom and Aunt Ella. It was always the same thing: they both had their heads stuck inside these huge hair dryers reading lady magazines and chatting with other women hoping their new hairdos would catch their husbands’ eyes. I knew my Aunt Ella was always good for a nice crisp dollar bill, which meant I could stop by the Greek’s (Northport Sweet Shop) for a cheeseburger and a black & white ice cream soda after a long morning of fishing and horsing around town with my friends.
My next stop on the way to the docks was a quick look into Jenelton’s Linoleum store. I would always wave to Jelly Bean, Mr Jenelton. Dad said he got that nickname when they were kids. If you looked sideways into Jelly Bean’s storefront window you would see a very funny, distorted reflection of yourself. All the old time local kids knew of this glass window reflection trick. Poor Jelly Bean always had a spray bottle of Windex and a rag close by but he never gave us any trouble. That was Northport back then.
The next building I’d pass was the Northport movie theater. It was the same theater where my dad and uncles would go to see silent movies when they were my age. It had three sections of seats on the ground level and a great balcony. Some of my fondest memories occurred within the walls of that theater. I became a true movie junkie, spending countless hours on rainy and cold snowy days with my friends in the theater. I remember watching movies like Mary Poppins, Swiss Family Robinson, most Disney movies, John Wayne double features and Clint Eastwood Spaghetti Westerns. I can still remember as a young boy getting into a movie for 30 cents and purchasing a coke and popcorn for 20 cents more. As young teenagers my friends and I would cause all sorts of trouble in the theater, just to be chased out by the older ushers.
I remember one time the theater was running a gory horror flick called “Mark of the Devil. “The theater handed out promotional barf bags, like the ones you find on some airplanes, to customers entering the lobby. My friends and I knew this beforehand and came to the theater with a few sandwich bags filled with cream corn. Just at the right moment we threw the creamed corn over the balcony onto the unsuspecting moviegoers down below, making them think they were just puked upon. We ran out of the theater that night. I stayed away for more than three months until all was forgotten. And I can’t leave out my awkward attempts with a few girls in my class up in the dark, smoke-filled balcony. Man, I loved that theater.
A few doors down Main Street I would come upon the police station where down in the basement was a special place for my friends and me: the PAL (Police Athletic League) club room. A really kind retired man ran the place, everyone called him uncle Charlie even though he was not an uncle to any of us kids. Inside the club was a pool table, a wooden shuffleboard, the kind you see in old time bars, and a baseball-themed pinball machine. The club was a place for kids, but only boys seemed to hang out there. I don’t think I ever saw a girl in the PAL club room. There wasn’t much for girls back then.
The best two things the PAL offered were the summer baseball outings to Yankee Stadium and the winter bowling league. For just a few bucks we would go by bus to see the Yankees play ball. There was a list of games you could sign up for on uncle Charlie's clipboard. The two most popular games of the summer for us kids to get tickets for were the games the Yankees gave away a ball and a baseball bat. That tradition didn’t last much past the early seventies.
One time, a couple of my friends and I roamed around the huge stadium and ended up in the press box section, where all the sports reporters were plugging away at their Royal typewriters. It was the year that the Yankees 1st baseman, Joe Pepitone, had injured his arm and he was hanging out up at the press box. We all yelled, Joe, can you sign our programs? He turned, looked at us, and told us to go fuck off. What a jerk. Later in life I learned that many sports writers said Pepitone could have been a much better player but he was more interested in trying to be like Mickey Mantle, partying and chasing women.
In the fall a wonderful old man named Grandpa Newton ran the bowling leauge up at the Larkfield Lanes in East Northport, which I was a member. He was the grandfather of a family, the Newton's, who live up the street from us on Woodhull Place. My older sister, Theresa, was friends with Carol, one of their daughters, and both our families went to the same church. Our league played every Saturday afternoon throughout the fall and winter months. I absolutely loved going bowling. I’m now 61 and I still bowl in a Monday night league. Thank you, Grandpa Newton and uncle Charlie for all that you did.
One door down from the PAL was Northport Fire Station. Often, I would stop by to say hi to the Fire Chief, Mr. Berglund, who was also our close friend and next-door neighbor. Northport is a volunteer fire department like much of eastern Long Island. When the fire horn would go off, half the town’s merchants would drop whatever they were doing, throw on their fire uniforms and race off to save their fellow Northporters. You’d be hard pressed to find a group of men with better qualities.
Side note - Mr. Berglund, Artie, was one of my favorite neighbors and family friend. He was a very warm, friendly man, built like a fire hydrant and he had a wonderful laugh. He was handy with all sorts of tools. He captained his large Cabin Cruiser out of Huntington Yacht Club, raised rabbits, and, for years, he had convinced me, my younger sister Jean, and my brother Paul that there really was a Santa Claus. He dressed up as Santa every Christmas Eve and came to the back door of our house just before bedtime with bells ringing, belting out HO HO HO. He had me fooled -- that is, until one year, instead of falling asleep, I stayed up and I heard and saw Santa walk out of our back door. Not only was Santa now beardless, but he was also quite wobbly from one too many Jamesons my dad had poured him.
Another fond memory of Artie Berglund was the time a dog had treed a very large racoon in an apple tree in the backyard of the Hotchkiss house. The dog was going crazy, trying to climb the tree and the racoon was hissing its head off at the dog. Several neighbors and half my family went down to investigate all the commotion. My mother, concerned that things were going to get much worse, told me to run and get Mr. Berglund. I ran like the wind and knocked on the Berglund’s back door, yelling for Mr. Berglund. Artie came to the door and after I caught my breath I explained the situation. He reacted has if he was Clark Kent. Within seconds Artie Berglund burst out his back door like Superman, with his 12-gauge shotgun in one hand and grabbing me with his other hand, saying to me “John, let’s go get us a racoon”. I ran ahead of Mr. Berglund and yelled down at the large gathering of neighbors that Mr. Berglund was going to shoot the racoon.
Mr. Berglund quickly made all of us get way back. He loaded two shells into his shotgun and fired once, almost knocking that racoon out of the tree, but still it held on. Artie raised the shotgun up to his shoulder and pulled the second trigger;the racoon was finished and fell to the ground with a dull thump. Everyone clapped and thanked Mr. Berglund for saving the day. ran and got a shovel. I buried that racoon under the big oak tree out by our garage. Looking back, the treed racoon episode reminds me of a scene out of the 1962 movie “To Kill a Mockingbird”, when Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) had to shoot the rabid dog coming up their road.
My favorite all time thing, hands down, was the annual summer Fireman’s Fair held down in the Pit, as we locals referred to the homes in that area, which is now called North Bay Estates. As a matter of fact, there is a road down at North Bay Estates called Terry Road, named for my grandfather, who worked at the now-closed Steers Sand and Gravel Company.
The Fireman’s Fair was one of my and my kid sister and brother’s favorite summer treats. On a hot summer night my parents would load us into the way back of our station wagon and off we would go. It was a short ride but with all our excitement and anticipation the ride felt as if it took forever. When my dad would take the left turn to head down Steers Avenue hill our hearts would start to race;the first sight of the lights and the sounds and smells were intoxicating. We would stay for hours at the fair, going on every ride and playing dozens of games while eating corn on the cob, hot dogs, and cotton candy.
I remember one year in the late ‘60s word got out to the fair’s organizers and the Northport police that a very large gang of Hell’s Angels was planning on crashing the fair. The entire village was on edge. A dozen State Police cruisers filled with huge troopers, patrolled the parking area and inside the fair as well. The Terrys, like many Northport families that night, did not go to the fair, fearing there was going to be big trouble. As it turned out, not one Hell’s Angel rode into town. The talk around town the next day was that word got out to the motorcycle gang that they were not welcomed, and so they decided not to tangle with the State Police.
When I got older and went to the fair every night during its week-long run, I, along with friends, was more interested in meeting up with the girls and drinking beer. Life was wonderful.
A short walk past the fire station on the other side of Main Street was a clothing store called Ingerman’s. Back in the ‘60s, Ingerman’s was a store the whole family could shop at and was way more convenient than taking the ride into Huntington to shop.
When you walked into Ingerman’s you were hit with the distinctive aroma of new cloth and leather. It’s a smell I will never forget. The women’s and girl’s department was in front and the men’s and boy’s department was up a ramp to the left. Located in the far back of the store was the shoe department where a small German immigrant named Boris ran the shoe department. Boris was a true master of his craft. He also knew mine and all my sibling’s names, and was quite fond of my older sister Theresa. Boris told me when I got older that Theresa reminded him of a young Fraulein he once dated in Dusseldorf. Such freckles, he said. He thought Theresa was simply wunderbar.
A few doors down from Ingerman’s was the Northport Five & Ten, a store unlike any other in Northport. You entered the store through the large double swinging doors and entered a world of endless selection. The Five & Ten had every small household item imaginable throughout its first floor, along with a large selection of small gifts and greeting cards. The best, though, was the toy department located on the upper floor.
Matchbox Cars first hit the market in 1953. When I was a boy in the ‘60s, many of my friends and I collected Matchbox Cars, which had really grown in popularity. When you climbed the stairs at the Five & Ten,the first toys you came upon were the Matchbox Cars. The latest editions, like the ‘65 Ford Mustang, were displayed in a beautiful glass case.. My oldest sister had a white Mustang with black leather interior. I’m pretty sure that car was responsible for my sister landing her first boyfriend, some tennis-playing nerd from Oyster Bay named Biff. The rest of the toy department was well supplied with all sorts of toys for both boys and girls.
A few doors down from the Five & Ten and across the street was Terry’s Jewelry, owned and operated by my father’s first cousin Jerry and his wife, Dot. Jerry and Dot were family and socialized routinely with my parents, as well as my uncle Bobby and aunt Ella Rose. Jerry and Dot attended all seven of our weddings and as a young boy I would stop in just to say hi.
When my kid sister Jean got married, Jerry approached me and asked if I had any desire to purchase the business from him. I would have loved buying the business from Jerry and keeping the family name running. I would have expanded the business to include a larger selection of more youthful jewelry to attract customers into the shop, keeping them from spending their money in Huntington. My wife at the time lacked the will and confidence to take Jerry up on his offer. I would have loved being a Northport Village shop owner.
Continuing my stroll down Main Street I would come upon one of my favorite stores, Craft’s Stationary. Craft’s, or as we longtime residents referred to it, Barney’s, sold just about every major newspaper from across the US and the most popular magazines of the day. Craft’s also carried a large selection of cigarettes, cigars and pipe tobacco. Best of all a was their large display case that contained penny candy. They offered dot candy on strips of paper, Mary Janes, cigar bubble gum, wax lips, candy cigarettes, golden nuggets, bubblegum in cloth sacks, and a huge selection of chocolates.
The store was owned and operated by two of the kindest people I had known growing up in Northport, Barney and May Craft. Barney and my dad grew up together in Northport and stayed friends for life. Sometime in the ‘80s, Barney sold the store to the Arndt family of Northport and he and May retired and moved permanently to their vacation home on a side of a mountain in Vermont. We visited them one fall weekend and rode on Barney’s tractor, had campfires in the woods, and hunted groundhogs using Barney’s .22 rifle. That weekend I fell in love with the state of Vermont and found myself later in life living in Burlington for a time.
Two doors down from Barney’s next to the savings bank was Bowman’s Sporting Goods, a young boy’s retail playground. In today’s standards, Bowman’s wasn’t a large store but old man Bowman was a whiz at stuffing that place with every type of sporting good a person could ask for. I stopped at Bowman’s every time I went fishing, for Mr. Bowman always had an excellent supply of fat juicy sandworms I used to catch flounders and sand sharks. You had to be careful cutting off the worm’s head; they had these sharp fangs they hid in their mouths and unleashed them when provoked. Luckily for me and my friends, flounders and most other fish in Northport harbor were incapable of resisting sandworms. Each spring I would clean out the cellar or our garage and my mother would give me money to buy a new baseball bat. I had two baseball mitts growing up in Northport given to me on my 11th and 15th birthdays, each purchased at Bowman’s. I was really intrigued by their selection of hunting rifles, shotguns and pellet guns. Bowman’s is where my dad bought a pellet gun at the suggestion of his friend, the captain of the Northport Police.
We lived up on 46 Seaview Avenue in a big old Victorian and we had a large yard. Back in the sixties, families that owned dogs rarely if ever kept their dogs tied up, unless of course the dog was a known biter. Our yard wasn’t fenced in and I think it was common canine knowledge among all the neighborhood dogs that the Terry’s side yard was a lovely place to take a dump. I can’t tell you just how many times my father, while mowing the yard would step in a large deposit, causing him to curse as if he was still in the Army stationed in New Guinea, yelling at his men. He had enough. He phoned the Northport police station and explained to the Captain, his childhood friend, how all the dogs were dumping in our yard and wanted his advice as how to handle the situation. The Captain simply suggested for my father to go down to Bowman’s and purchase a pellet rifle and to shoot any dog that happens to be bold enough to enter our yard to leave their calling card. Let me tell you, up until the time I landed a 250lb Hammerhead shark off the coast of Miami when I was 12, shooting neighborhood dogs from the windows of our home was one of my biggest thrills.
I was to become my father’s look-out, his fellow soldier. On weekend mornings it was my job to spot a dog entering our yard. When I spotted a dog heading our way I would run to find my dad in the house. He would instruct to run to the laundry room to fetch the rifle and pellets and meet him upstairs. The second floor of our home offered us a wonderful view of our entire yard. I must admit, looking back, I think my dad enjoyed our dog hunting more than me. He was cruel. He would wait till the last second when the dog would just be starting its downward squat to pull the trigger. You could hear the pellet zoom through the air and hear it hit the dog square in the ass. My God, the howling cry that came from those dog’s mouths was as loud as Northport fire alarm. The pellet never entered their skin but it sure as hell gave those unlucky dogs enough hurt that they were never known to return. They found someone else’s yard to dump in. If we were to shoot stray neighborhood dogs today, my dad would surely end up in the clink.
Across the street from Bowmen’s is the Northport Sweet Shop, or, as the older locals called it, “The Greek’s.” There were no derogatory intentions by referring to The Sweet Shop as “The Greek’s”. On the contrary, everyone in Northport welcomed and grew to love the Panarites family and their fantastic ice cream and sandwiches. You must realize, the time was 1929 when George Panarites Sr. opened his Main Street shop and back then there were very few Greek families living around Northport. If today you heard someone on Main Street say let’s go have a bite down at the Greek’s they would be more than likely older and or from an old Northport family.
I couldn’t tell you just how many times I have sat at the counter down at the Northport Sweet Shop, eating cheeseburgers and washing them down with their world-famous black and white sodas. During the summer months, my parents would load us in the station wagon and we would go down to the Sweet Shop and order either ice cream cones or Italian Ice served in white squeeze cups, and then we would go for a lazy ride down to Waterside Park or a ride around Huntington Bay.
I moved away from Northport 45 years ago but I have been coming back each year since. Every time I pull into town, rain or shine, I go to the Greek’s for a black & white. One sip and I am transported back to 1968, sitting on the stool looking out the front window without a care in the world, wondering if the fish were going to bite today. I can tell you this with certainty: most New Englanders wouldn’t know a good black & white if it crawled up their ass and bit them. It’s a New York thing.
Across the street from the Sweet Shop was the infamous Skipper’s Pub. Skippers on the corner of Main Street and Woodbine Ave has been a Northport drinking and social institution for years. Skipper’s location has housed many different drinking establishments since the late 1800s. The name Skipper’s appeared on the storefront back in the late 1930s, after prohibition. The local Northport fishermen and workers from Steers Sand and Gravel were known to frequent the bar. My father told me he and a lot of young single guys from Northport would use Skipper’s as a starting place before going out into Huntington and elsewhere. This all took place just before Pearl Harbor when they all were in their late teens and early twenties and unaware all their young lives were about to be changed forever.
When the Japanese dropped their bombs on Pearl Harbor, Skippers became the gathering place in town for the soon-to-be enlisted boys, where they could blow off some steam and proclaim their desire to send the Japs back to the Hell where they came from. My dad and uncles told me that after the war ended and our men began to come back home, Skippers was the first place returning Northport boys, now men, would go right after spending time at home with family. It was a place where our local soldiers could go hang out and catch up with old friends, a safe place where the healing process could begin. I’m sure there were thousands of Skipper type bars throughout the country where our returning heroes were welcomed.
By the time the ‘60s rolled around, Skipper’s had gotten a little “long in the tooth.” It had become a real seedy downtown bar where too many local people drank away their worries and paychecks. Sad to say, my father’s older brother, my uncle Charlie, drank his liver away at the same bar stool he sat at seven days a week.
As a boy, I would walk past Skipper’s on my way to the docks to go fishing early in the mornings before it opened. On my walk back up Main Street, I would pass Skipper’s where the dank smell of cheap booze and stale cigarettes would hit me and stay with me well past Barney’s. On many occasions I would see my Uncle Charlie’s Ford LTD parked out front. Sometimes I would poke my head into the doorway and say hi to him and my Aunt Cush. They’d be sitting at the bar. Many times, on a hot summer day, they would call for me to come in and I would sit at the bar and have a Coke and talk for awhile. It was always the same scene, the three of us on the bar stools close to the door and several small groups sitting at tables in the dark smelly dive, looking for lost dreams in the bottom of a whiskey glass. Even at age 11 or 12, I knew my uncle and aunt and their fellow drinkers were lost souls. Uncle Charlie, despite his drinking, was loved by all of us and was a wonderful Irish storyteller. I like to think I got my storytelling from him. My Uncle Charlie Terry died the winter of 1976 from cirrhosis of the liver. He was 59.
About two years later, Skipper’s was sold and went through a major transformation. It is now a trendy restaurant and pub catering to the locals as well as to the many tourists who visit the beautiful village of Northport.
The last stop on my stroll down Main Street ends at the jewel in Northport’s crown: Northport harbor and town park. Northport harbor and park is the focal point, the pride and joy of the village and all its residents, both old and new. The New York Times once did a story about Northport. It read: “There are few if any towns in the state of New York with a more quaint and picturesque harbor like that of Northport Village.” I have never met anyone who disagreed.
The park was the place young families could bring their kids to play on the merry-go-round and swings. It is the place the town gathers each Memorial Day to remember our fallen heroes. During summer nights we would bring blankets down to the park to sit and listen to weekly concerts led by the band director and music teacher, Frank Leonard, who lived across the street from my family. The park was the only place in town where I have ever seen a family spreading a loved one’s ashes into the harbor and a few hours later a wedding party taking pictures. The circle of life.
Our village park and harbor became a central part of my young life. There were very few kids I grew up with in Northport who have the same kind of family connection as I did to the waters off Northport village. I grew up listening to stories about what life was like back in Northport when my father, grandfather and my great grandfather earned a living working the harbor and spent Sundays with family and friends in the park.
Believe it or not, my father, as a boy, was paid five cents for every water rat he could kill down at the docks and park. My grandfather laid out lobster traps and clammed the northern end of the harbor around Duck Island and Sand City for years. Most impressive of all was my great grandfather, Skipper Bill Terry. He was born in Northport around the end of the Civil War. He went to sea early in his life and rose to become the Captain of a four-masted, wooden hull schooner that served as a cargo ship he sailed up and down the East Coast. He later became one of the first Coast Guard officers to man the Eaton’s Neck Coast Guard Station as their keeper of the light house. My father and uncle were both born down at Eaton’s neck Station and spent their early days living in the housing the Guard provided. These facts fell silent on a young boy. As a grown man I truly appreciate and acknowledge just how much the local waters have meant to my family. There have been many times over the last 40 years since moving to Boston that I have wished I had never left Northport and its harbor, both of which will forever hold me in their grip. Who knows what path I would have chosen if I had never moved from Northport? I like to think the path would have lead me to the sea like my family before me.