GUEST BLOGGER: Russ Gardner, Sr “Growing Up in East Falls”

1-3-2015:  Big thanks to Russ Gardner, Sr!  He let us “blog up” his popular “I’m From East Falls” Facebook post detailing his memories growing up in East Falls during the 1950’s. We “decorated” Russ’s recollections with photos and links to add mood & additional historical context.

by Russ Gardner, Sr

Every one of us, no matter our age, grows up somewhere, either in the country, city, village or what-ever. Each of us keeps those special memories that we experienced of a time that is gone. The street, the road, each path that we took to get to our secret place where the “fort” was, is buried in our minds.

We can bring that back anytime we want to relive that episode of our childhood. We may have different towns, states and even countries where we grew up, but the memories we have are just about the same. When we see an object, smell a certain aroma or odor or hear a sound, we have that flash of memory that takes us back. We can fly back decades and thousands of miles, over oceans and mountain ranges; and do it in a heartbeat.

I grew up in Philadelphia, in the neighborhood of East Falls – a small town with a rich history going back to the colonial days at the beginning of our country.

Back then it was called “Falls of Schuylkill,” named after the Schuylkill River, lively with waterfalls where our bridge is now, and famous for the Catfish and Waffle Dinners that could be had locally (our library even has a Catfish Weather Vane).

East Falls was later included into the “City of Philadelphia.” East Falls had the same things other towns and neighborhoods had, no more — no less. As a child growing up there you secretly wished you lived somewhere else, because the grass always looked greener.

I moved to East Falls when I was 3 years old from the “Nicetown” section of the city (Hunting Park and Archer St), so I can’t claim to be “born and bred” here. Luckily all my memories begin after the move!

My street was mostly Irish and Italian, row homes and twins on a cobble stone street with train tracks at the bottom. I was amazed that the only people that “heard” the trains were visitors to the street, living there we heard them but never did “hear” them … it was just background noise. (Later in life, after I moved away, I realized that I missed that sound of the trains.)
As a kid, you just assumed everything you see is just the way it has always been, it was non-changing, the houses were always there, just as you see them. Gustine Lake was always going to be there, along with Laboratory Hill, The Anchorage and The Falls Tavern that went back to colonial times.

The Hohenadel building was always the same, but in my time it was producing Ni-High soda (Grape and Orange were my favorites); neighborhood beer production was long gone by that time.

The train station was always there alongside the tracks, the old coal yard on Wiehle Street and Ferrante’s Coal Yard on Cresson…

The Alden Theater and the row of gas stations on Midvale Ave.

The Caves were there and always old and dank, a fun place to play. But every one of these places that I knew, had a history. It would be years before I would appreciate that history. My little neighborhood of East Falls was, and still is, rich in the history of hundreds of years.

The people of East Falls were not rich and wealthy for the most part, although there are still pockets of “higher income.” Most families were on the same footing … hard working paycheck to paycheck – making ends meet the best they could.

We bought day-old bread, cheese by the block, used cars (it wasn’t often someone had a new car), we took the train to “downtown” and the trolley car to Germantown. There were no real “super markets” until Penn-Fruit opened over in Germantown and it was a big treat to go shopping there with my mother – they had everything!

There was a “Huckster” that came around on a horse drawn wagon, the horse walked slowly pulling the wagon – stopping every so often to allow vegetables to be bagged and sold. Most of the stores in the neighborhood were corner stores that carried as many groceries as they could squeeze in (and Squeeze was what it was!). It seemed that there was a corner store every two blocks – within walking distance.

There was even a small A&P Food Store at Conrad and Bowman before they grew to become A&P Supermarkets. There was a cart that came around during the summer that sold snow-cones or “water-ice.” They used a thing that looked like a block plane to shave the ice off a big block of ice. It was placed into a paper cone and flavoring added – all for a nickel!

The street I lived on was still cobblestone for years after I moved there, and the milkman’s truck made a racket driving on it. Many streets around “the Falls” were cobblestone or brick. I can tell you from experience that cobble stones and wet leaves can be slipperier than ice to drive on. The pavements were slate, or “flagstone,” with brick edges between the house and curb. It was always my job to pull the grass from the cracks in the bricks.

It was a big deal when the cobblestones were paved over with asphalt; it meant skating in the street was possible as was riding my bike. We found out that snow melted faster on the black asphalt than it did on the cobblestone, so sledding time was shorter. Most of the streets around East Falls were hills rolling down to the river, so sledding was a lot of fun.

Only one street was too steep for me for sledding … that was the lower end of Calumet Street because it dumped you right onto Ridge Ave. Any of you that dared sled there … God Bless you!

It was those same hills that made learning to drive a ton of fun too. Most cars were not automatic back in my day, and you had to learn to use a clutch fast … very fast. There was no fear greater than being stuck at the rail-road crossing on Scotts Lane coming up the hill, driving a stick shift. That hill was murder on a clutch if you didn’t do it just right!

OK – Calumet Street was no picnic either! Getting out of a parking space on a hill was interesting too. My trick was to slowly roll into the car downhill from me, take my foot completely off the brake and slowly let the clutch out, allowing the other car to hold me still. A few times I ended up pushing the other car because their brake didn’t hold.

OH … no power steering, then, either! You learned fast that it was easier to turn the steering wheel when the tires were rolling! Ahh… the memories from “The Falls.”

Going to the barber shop on Saturday morning was fun. I went to Freddie’s or Joe and Dom’s on Conrad Street. When you walked in the men that were there all stopped talking and looked at you … one would say, “Hey … Aren’t you a Gardner kid?”  That meant you’d better be on your best behavior or your Mom would know before you made it back in your front door.

This was back in the day when everyone watched the “Friday Night Fights” on TV. As I remember it, there wasn’t much “trash talk” then, just straight up boxing. That changed when Cassius Clay came along … of course he became Mohammed Ali. He was loud, bragged about how great he was. The boxing world was never the same. But back then all the men in the barber shop talked about the Friday Night Fight like they knew the boxers personally.

Very few of us kids were allowed to stay up to watch the fight, but you could always get the re-cap at the barbers. A reason for not seeing the fight was – “My kids were up.” 

We were protected from the violence on TV. When a cowboy or Indian was shot and fell off his horse, you never saw a bullet hole or blood. That didn’t start until movies about the time of  “Dial M for Murder.”  It was the beginning of showing gore in movies that led to the “Halloween” and the “Chainsaw” movies.  It was a different time in East Falls, when families tried their very best to promote good clean “family values.”

Growing up in East Falls was the best.

Every adult could be your “acting parent” and had the option of smacking you on the back of the head or kicking your butt for doing something wrong. There were strong family values back then, and we all knew the difference between right and wrong.

Favorite TV shows were “Leave it to Beaver” and “Ozzie and Harriet” … Dad always wore a tie and Mom always had an apron on, no cursing and separate beds. Eddie Haskell was the guy everyone talked about as “the wild kid”… (Hello Mrs. Cleaver!).

East Falls was the best … for “kick the can,” “half ball,” “hide and seek,” “Red Rover,”  “pitching pennies” or bottle caps or cards, building “forts,” old sneakers hanging on the wires outside Len’s, “water balloon fights,” and all the rest. It was the perfect place for spend your childhood; when your front door was never locked and you could leave the car windows down and doors unlocked.

In the very early morning hours you could hear the sound of the milkman making his rounds … rumble down the street, stop (usually with the brakes squealing), bottles rattle then more driving down the street to the next stop … the sound would get closer — then farther away.

The Saturday Matinee at the Alden was $.20 and we played out scenes from the movie in the Rock Garden across Midvale Ave afterwards. The Bathey at Ridge and Ferry Rd. was fantastic, with girls days and boys days, wooden lockers for your street clothes. When you came home you still smelled like chlorine and had the red eyes too! (they didn’t skimp on the chlorine that’s for sure).

It’s always being said that you can’t go back to re-live your childhood, and for some of us that’s a good thing. But you can’t help remembering all the good times you had, the friends you had then, the fun you had playing outside on your street (the broken rubber balloons on the street where the water balloon fight was), the adult neighbors who took part throwing a balloon to the shock of everyone!

The memories of that time are just a smell or vision away and can be brought back in a flash to experience all over again. The smell of Bazooka Bubble Gum takes me back to the barber shop on Saturday mornings … “Hey, Aren’t you a Gardner kid?”

Every one of us, no matter our age, grows up somewhere, either in the country, city, village or what-ever.

Russ Gardner, Sr

Russ lived on Bowman Street with his parents & five siblings from 1949 till 1964, when he left for Navy training in San Diego — followed by three tours in Vietnam. He came back home to Crawford Street, fathered three kids, and relocated to Florida in 1991. After careers as both a fireman and nurse, Russ now works part-time in a hardware store. He’s got 7 grand kids and 2 great-grands. And a strong, warm writing style with “Fallseresque” character… 

In addition to his post, Russ also provided two very special photos: one taken while training with the Navy in ’64, and the other with his family last October at a neighborhood block party. Two distinct sides to a very interesting, thoughtful and — dare we say — romantic individual.

Thanks Russ, for your first-hand recollections and impressions growing up in East Falls. Here’s to sharing our stories, and cherishing the color they splash on our streets, for all to appreciate.

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  1. Thanks for doing a great job of bringing Russ Gardner’s writing to life with pictures!! His stories always stir up memories of my childhood growing up in the Falls but the pictures added another dimension !

  2. Thanks to my uncle Russ for his first hand experiences and literary skills, I have memories of my Dad who has since past away. I love reading his materials 🙂

  3. Thanks Russ love this story.. Brings back great memories! Pictures were so nice to see and remember some places that are gone.. Never forgotten thanks to Russ

  4. I loved seeing the pictures and reading the captions, brought back so many memories. I could name the streets before I read the captions. And who says you cant go back in time.

  5. I read the blog. Very much enjoyed it. I will be visiting East Falls in June, 2016.
    Reason for visit: Oct 30th, 2015 after three years of searching I have discovered that my birth mother, Eleanor Heavern, (later married Jessee Wheelhouse) lived with her family, John and Mary Heavern and siblings*Magdalene, Francis, Jack, Joseph, John) on Calumet street in the 50s. I was illegitimate, born at St. Vincent’s Hospital in October, 1948. Eleanor was cared for by Dr. Lester Kent-of East Falls- while she carried me to full term. She consented to my adoption to Dr. R.W. Davis, DO/MD and Elizabeth Davis. I lived in Audubon New Jersey the first 11.5 years of my life. I have one blood sibling; a sister, Eleanor (Elly) Wheelhouse-Watson who lives in Philadelphia. Does anyone have any memories, information about the Irish family, Heaverns, from East Falls? Would love any responses.

    • Hello, so nice to hear from you — what a story! We would like to either post your message on the I’m From East Falls facebook group or ask you to please join the closed group if you’d like to get directly in contact with people who may have known your mom/dad or might be familiar with the family, etc. The group is very active, and many members are seniors who grew up here and have roots stretching back generations. I don’t want to get your hopes up but if you’re looking for people who may have lived on Calumet in the 40’s/50’s/60’s, I am pretty sure we have some folks who could help you track down some names/details. Again, we’d be happy to post your info for you & help facilitate this if you’d like, let us know how we can help. Good luck in your search!

  6. I loved Russ’s “sentimental journey” down memory lane of my childhood neighborhood! I am Dr. Kent’s daughter and my family and Donna Davis’s family grew up thinking of each other as cousins! I am thrilled for Donna that she has learned so much about her birth Mother and family from East Falls. Does anyone who lived in the Falls remember a family on Calumet St. by the name of Cunningham . The Mother’s name was Charlotte and they had twins born about 1938 ish? I remember families by the name of Barrows, Buchanan, Turner, Little, Mc Donald, Hudson, Hutchinson, Rouldenbush (not sure of spelling) , Sharp, and then Frank the taylor, Love’s grocery store, Tilden drugs and Tilden food market…….Drumheller is another name I remember. I attended Mifflin school and Falls Methodist church. Wow, what fun to think back and remember a time so long ago. Russ, I was afraid of the huskster!!! and the trash man that also came by horse and wagon!

    • Hi Jeanette. You have been one of my most staunch supporters through my search. You have been a lifeline for me. Thank you so much “cousin”! My love to you, Donna Kay

    • Hi Jeanette, I see you remember the McDonald’s of East Falls. I’m the youngest child of John McDonald and Irene (Yarnall) McDonald. We lived on Indian Queen Lane, a few doors down from the Old Academy Playhouse and then on Sunnyside Ave. I sure do remember your dad, Dr Kent. He was my Dr. and such a very very nice man. I often wish we still had doctors like him today.
      I too loved Russ Gardner’s memoirs and all the old pix’s of The Falls. I remember the Gardner name -Ronnie Gardner comes to mind. I wonder if he was a little brother of Russ’ (?)
      East Falls was where my parents grew up and I’m so glad they decided to raise us there too. What a great neighborhood! I went there recently to see the old neighborhood and was surprised and disappointed to see they tore down the Falls Station building, it was historic ! They also built homes on Plush Hill and on Wiley St where the “woods” were. I guess nothing stays the same. :-{

  7. Mr. Gardner, Of course this story and your others remind me how great I had it in the Falls. Mifflin’s Schoolyard, Balconey, Rock Garden and the other spots like Dutch Hollow really gave me or us the best of both worlds. Woods to be found ; yet we had City comforts.
    The people made it special whether you, Bill Starrett, Jack MacNicholas and others whose broods had enough in them for a seat at the UN that gave my generation baseball, parades, the hotline to a Mom’s phone and of course pretty good childhoods that when I hear other people speak of their childhoods I am grateful for mine. I have a hard time imagining the Falls without Women’s Med. as a functioning , full service Hospital.

  8. Wow! What great memories. So much fun seeing and reading about those great times growing up in East Falls. Thank you Russ for sharing all these great times
    Gus DiStefano

  9. Hi Russ,
    Just found out you blogged. I’ll make sure I come back time to time to see the old pictures & statements from you and others.

  10. What great memory pictures of East Falls. I’m looking for Abbottsford Homes Project pictures, especially one of the gulley which kids made it into a multi-use piece of land in the center of the project. It had a rounded cement drain running down the center, Despite kids played baseball, football, kick the can, and cowboys and Indians. Would like to see a picture of it if one exists. Thanks for your site.

  11. I lived in the house pictured on Crawford street. I remember a Bobby Gardner growing up and my daughter remembers an Elizabeth Rose Gardner when she used to visit my mom on Crawford. Great article and great pictures! Brings back so many great memories!!

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