Growing Up In Waterford, PA


Sorry -- only the memories get delivered
by the late Herb Walden

Fort LeBoeuf Class of 1956

I have groceries in my blood. Now that I think of it, I guess that's true for all of us. But I'm speaking figuratively about myself.

I wasn't exactly born in a grocery store, but coincidently, I was born in an apartment above one. That, however, is not the reason for my lifelong interest in the grocery business.

From a few years before I came into the world until 1946, my Dad, Bill Walden, worked for his brother, Vic, in the Red and White store in Waterford, PA. Later, in the 1950's, Dad had the store by himself and I worked there part-time.

The building that housed the Red and White stands at the corner of High Street and South Park Row and is known as the I.O.O.F. Block.

The earliest record I can find shows that in 1910 the storefront housed "Phelps and Sherman Furniture and Undertaking." Apparently, it first became a grocery store in the 1920s and remained that until the late '50s when a restaurant moved in for a short time.

A little later, Merle Heard moved his drugstore from next door into the old Red and White. It remains a pharmacy today.

Back in the 1940s and '50s grocery stores sold -- groceries. Oh yes, there were tobacco products and cleaning agents, but they were nothing like today's supermarket/variety stores.

There were many things in the grocery store that came in bulk when I was a kid. I can still remember the big vinegar barrel with its wooden pump standing in the back. ("Bring your own jug!")

No waxy chocolate

But more importantly, I remember bulk cookies (Nabisco and Ontario, by brand name). They came in boxes about a foot square that were fitted with a metal frame and a glass door. I think there were about a dozen boxes on display, and customers bought their cookies by the pound.

Each kind of cookie had a name. I do recall that the best kind were chocolate-covered mounds of marshmallow that sat atop a semi-soft cookie with just a tad of jelly inside, Boy, were they good!

Marshmallow then was always soft and gooey and chocolate tasted like chocolate, unlike the brown, waxy stuff we have nowadays. There were similar marshmallow cookies that were covered with coconut instead of chocolate. Some were white and some were pink. They were extra-good, too.

And then there were rectangular cookies with ridges that . . . hmmmmm . . . I'd better quit this cookie stuff. Otherwise I'll have to stop writing and go to the store!

The real difference

Meat was all in "bulk," too. This was in the pre-pre-packing era. I am sure there are young people out there who think the deli section in a supermarket is quite an innovation. It's no big deal to us old guys; that's just the way it was in the '40s and '50s.

What is really different are the prices.

Around 1950, one could buy a pound of most kinds of cold cuts for 49 or 59 cents. Hamburger was 59 cents per pond and link wieners and chicken were 39 cents per pound.

Hamburger was scooped into a thin cardboard disk, weighed, covered with a sheet of waxed paper, and then wrapped in brown "butcher" paper. Cold cuts and all other meats were handled the same way, except for the dish.

Neatly wrapping a package of meat isn't too difficult until you come to some ridiculously shaped thing like a chicken. In my early teen years, when I worked for Dad, I got pretty good at it, if I do say so myself. Trouble is there isn't much call for chicken wrappers anymore.

Except for cold cuts, all of our meat was cut by hand on the big maple butcher block. Power saws hadn't made it to Waterford at that time. Some things, like ham, were easy: Just slice down to the bone, cut through the bone with a meat saw, and finish the slice with a knife.

Pork chops were a little different. Starting with a whole loin, you sliced between the ribs with a knife. The bone is then chopped through with a meat cleaver. My Dad was really good at this; one hack with the cleaver for each chop. On the other hand, I required at least three swings of the cleaver, none of which ever quite hit the same place. My pork chops tasted fine, but they weren't pretty.

It's strange how little things change in the grocery store. Oleo margarine was called just "oleo" back then. Now it's just "margarine." No matter what you call it, it used to come un-colored. It looked pretty much like lard. A little tablet of yellow coloring was included in the package, so if you wanted to pass it off as butter, you could mix in the color at home.

Some law prevented the manufacturer from coloring it beforehand.

In the produce department, bananas came in long, wooden boxes and they were still on the stalk. The stalk was hung on a long ceiling hook, and customers could break off whatever number of bananas they wanted. A bunch of bananas was called a "hand."

Forget the oranges!

Oranges came in crates, and the oranges were individually wrapped in tissue paper.

But never mind the oranges, the crate was the thing" The wooden orange crate was one of the great inventions of mankind. It was composed of six slats, about five inches wide and three feet long, and three solid wood boards about 14 inches square (two ends and a middle).

What made the crate so wonderful was that a kid could use it to build just about anything. With a little care, a crate could be taken apart without splitting more than one or two slats. Two or three crates made quite a pile of lumber when they were disassembled. I even saved the nails -- 36 per crate.

At the store, Dad had rows of the crates stacked in the back room for shelves for stock. We even used a few in the attic at home for storage shelves.

Cantaloupes came in crates, too, but they were different and not nearly as good as orange crates. And cabbage crates were totally useless, at least to us kids.

The best part was that the crates were free. Any kid who wanted one had only to ask. We never had a stockpile of crates at the store. They went out about as fast as they came in.

Fruits and vegetables came and went with the seasons. Now you can buy strawberries in January. Back then, you could only get them in June. I suppose being able to buy any kind of produce at any time of the year is a good thing, but it's taken away a certain thrill. I mean, if you can have corn-on-the-cob anytime of year, then what's the point of August?

Clever Donnie

A lot of our produce came from local farms, especially potatoes. Waterford has always been potato country. Dad bought potatoes in 100-pond burlap bags, and I usually got the job of re-bagging then into pecks (15 pounds).

Of all the different jobs I had at the store, bagging potatoes was the worst.

Not only was it boring, but occasionally I'd run into a rotten potato. If you have never plunged your hand into a rotten potato, then you don't know what rotten really is!

My cousin, Donnie, worked at the store, too. A year older than me, Donnie was always clever enough to get out of potato-bagging. When the time came, he was always busy stocking shelves or putting up orders. I have never even been accused of being clever, so I was always available.

Donnie and I started working on Saturdays as stock boys. We soon graduated to putting up orders, waiting on customers, and elementary meat-cutting.

Many customers would come in and tell us what they wanted, or hand us a list, and we would go around and gather the groceries. Others would phone in their orders, either to be picked up later or delivered. Dad delivered groceries all over town, and quite often way out in the country. It was a free service. Imagine that!

My Dad has been gone a long time. So has Donnie. And the store even longer. But sometimes in the back of my mind, I can still hear Dad answering the phone to take someone's order on a busy Saturday.

"Red and White!" he'd say. No "hello" or any greeting; just "Red and White!' Occasionally he would forget himself and answer our home phone the same way.

I still remember the store's phone number: 2341.

We don't deliver any more.

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