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More Mom and Pops From the Past

Grocery stores on South Main Street between Warwick Street and Highland Avenue in Middletown were especially beloved.

Why do the neighborhood stores of our childhood have such a hold on us? I clearly remember the homey feel of Jake’s market on Russell Street, the watchful eye of Mr. Zagoren at Ridge Road market, the bright and wide aisles of West Side Market, and the taste of the ham and cheese grinders from Cross Street Market. 

Based on reader emails and comments, many other local folks feel the same way. 

This week I’ll focus on the stores on South Main Street between Warwick Street and Highland Avenue.

Wilcox, Crittenden & Company, once the largest manufacturer of marine hardware in the world, employed hundreds of people at its mills on South Main Street beginning in 1847. A thriving community developed in the multi-family homes on the neighboring streets of Warwick and Oak Streets and Burr Avenue. Even though it seems close to the center of town, the immediate neighborhood provided most of what the employees and their families needed.

Warwick Street was the location of the first neighborhood store outside of downtown, which developed at about the same time as the first stores on East Main Street in South Farms, which was also associated with a large mill complex (and a topic of next week’s column). 

Charles Schondorf owned the first store on Warwick Street, identified in the 1875 Middletown city directory. It was located near or at the intersection of South Main Street on the first floor of the home he shared with his wife Miriah and their two small children, Karl and Eugene. Schondorf was born in New York to parents who had migrated from Germany. He was just 25 years old when he opened the store that catered to the needs of the factory families.

When Charles died in 1894, his son Eugene took over the store, with the help of his mother, when he was barely 17 years old. By that time there was a bit of competition in the neighborhood.

Mrs. Anna E. Burkholz took a stab at operating a neighborhood grocery store on Warwick Street for a few years in the 1880s, while her husband worked as a night watchman. In the 1890s, David R. Brownlow traded in his job as a stone dealer to open a store in his house on Warwick Street.

J. Henry Wiese opened a successful store at the corner of Warwick and South Main between 1895 and 1900. A native of Germany, Wiese came to the U.S. in 1873 and naturalized soon thereafter. He lived on Warwick Street with his wife Sophie and their children Burton and Ruth, which stood next door to the Schondorf’s store.

By 1910, the Wiese store was in competition with the grocery run by Frederick A. Clarke, under the name of Nichols and Clarke.  By 1920, Clarke was the sole proprietor of his place at the corner of South Main and Warwick Streets.  Except for a few years when Abraham Blumer operated a grocery midway down Warwick in the 1920s, Clarke was the sole survivor, closing in 1953.

Frederick A. Clarke lived on Oak Street with his family and made the store at the intersection a local landmark for many years. Beginning in the late 1920s, his son, Robert, helped run the store. The store closed in 1953, after more than 40 years in operation, when Frederick Clarke, at the age of 72, took his own life in the office of the store.

Further south on South Main Street, Benjamin F. Turner worked as a clerk in his grandfather’s store beginning in about 1875 on the Durham Road. Eventually he took over the grocery, which stood on the west side of the road, between Pameacha Avenue and Farm Hill Road until about 1925.  Benjamin F. Turner was also the Grandmaster of the Connecticut’s Free Masons beginning in 1907.

Julius Scherp was another grocer on the east side of South Main between Hunting Hill Avenue and Lake Street during the first three decades of the twenthieth century.

The Economy Grocery Store is a well-remembered establishment on South Main, near Warwick, opening before 1930. It had three other branches in town at East Main, Pearl, and North High Streets.

Herman Curkin ran the Community Market on South Main after moving it from its original location on East Main Street. It was located, I believe, on the east side of the South Main opposite the head of Pameacha Avenue, during the 1940s and into the 1970s.

O’Connor’s Store, which was open for a short time in the 1940s, was located at the northeast corner of Lake and South Main Street.

Even further south, near Highland Avenue, in the area of town known as “Zoar,” at least one store opened to cater to the Wilcox Lock Company employees there. Andrew Lenz opened a small place before 1915 at the corner of Highland Avenue, about where the Pizza Palace plaza now stands.

By the 1970s, Cumberland Farms and Grand Union had joined the fray and signaled the end of the neighborhood stores for the South Main Street area. All that remains as evidence are houses or apartments that have a faint commercial appearance, older commercial buildings that we barely notice when we drive by, and the locations of current business that were often built on the site of former stores.

It is hard to locate photographs of these old stores. News about them rarely made it into the paper, and people rarely photographed the simple places that they took for granted in their daily lives. I hope that readers out there might have some photographs and can post them on the Patch site.

I’ve included current photographs of places that housed some of the old stores, and pictures of ones that appear to me to be former commercial buildings. I am hoping you can match them up with stores mentioned in the column! Please feel free to correct me if I made errors in store locations.

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Eric Curkin August 08, 2011 at 01:19 PM
Hi Elizabeth - The Community Market was actually located at 342 South Main Street. My Great Uncle Herman (Hiam) and his wife Celia ran it for those many years. Thanks for memories - Eric Curkin
Michael Stielau August 08, 2011 at 02:14 PM
Regarding the location of O’Connor’s store in the 40's... I don't remember it as it was before my time; but I do remember Conroy's package store being in that location in the 70's. I can not recall if the current building replaced Conroy's, or if it was built around it, or what... but I remember Conroy's being a smaller place.
Mr. Fixit August 08, 2011 at 05:14 PM
387 South Main St was "Pieta's in the late 50s. I believe the family lived in the house just North of the building in your photo. The building in your photo may even have been a gas station in earlier days.
Frank LoGiudice August 08, 2011 at 08:05 PM
While you are on the topic of small stores don't forget about the Marino's Market on Church Street. I know you're mainly focusing on the former stores on South Main Street in your article but Marino's Market was a Mom & Pop store too that had a full selection of fresh meats, grocery items and produce. They made the best Italian grinders too.
Frank LoGiudice August 08, 2011 at 09:54 PM
I made a small error in my response. Marino's Market was on Williams Street not Church Street. Moncada's Market was on Church Street where the Cardinal's Pizza Restaurant is now.
John August 10, 2011 at 08:32 AM
As you said Curkins store was at the head of Pomecha Ave.Then Herman bought the house just to the north of what is now Wesleyan Potters and converted the first floor into a grocery store.the Wine Cellar now occupies that space. Pietas store was on the west side of South Main Street across from O Connors store.
John August 10, 2011 at 08:43 AM
Elizabeth Thankyou a nice article on South Main Street grocery stores from years gone by.
John August 13, 2011 at 05:22 AM
To add to Mr.Fixit's comment.I do remember gas pumps in front of Pietas as a child.They were not being used at that time.Also there was a excarvation in the ground that was a pit where you would drive over to have your car serviced underneath,There was a wooden cover that covered it up when not in use.
John August 13, 2011 at 05:25 AM
Things come back slowly.There was a Esso gas sign in the front.
John August 13, 2011 at 05:36 AM
To Michael Stielau comment There was a house on the O'Connor property along with the store.The house had a fire sometime in the early eightys.Then the house was taken down along with the store.Then the building that stands there was built.
John August 13, 2011 at 05:52 AM
Where the Mobil Mart is now the property was owned by the city.There was a building on it that was a Ice House.My Dad told me that in the winter they cut ice on Pomechia Pond and stored it in the Ice House for use in peoples ice boxes at home.
Judy O'Brien January 06, 2012 at 04:43 PM
Pieta's store on So. Main St. was there in the '40's. It was a 'must' to stop there after school (Eckersley Hall) This was a very small store with a HUGE glass case displaying all the best penny candy of the day. Licorice pipes, candy cigarettes, wax teeth, fruit slices, fire balls.....I have fond memories of that store.

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