By Henry John Steiner
Historian of Sleepy Hollow, New York
Thanksgiving 1959. Could it be fifty-five years ago? My Austrian grandmother, grandfather, and aunt would drive up together to Tarrytown from their apartments on the Upper West Side for Thanksgiving dinner at the Steiner house on Crest Drive. The bread was picked up early that day from Alter’s Bakery on Cortlandt Street, with Mary gently cautioning from behind the counter that the loaves were still too warm to slice. And the car ride back to the house, with the German corn-rye bread speaking its aroma to my nostrils in its strange foreign tongue. The bread was a local creation that all the assembled adults lauded without reserve, filling me with a kind of youthful civic pride. The children would make “pipes” from the crust of a bread slice, a crust that had the texture of prime beef.
The dinner that my French mother prepared was standard Thanksgiving fare. Maybe the string beans almondine would not appear on every table in the community. We had rice instead of potatoes, but, until I married an Irish-American, I had no idea of the magnitude of sin that was being committed. Indeed, even the Pilgrims were immigrants and had to be schooled in the correct way to set a Thanksgiving dinner by their Native American hosts.
The day was punctuated by the barking of Bambi, my grandmother’s irascible lapdog, who was not used the company of children. My grandfather, Henry, who had served as a non-commissioned officer in WWI (on the other side) delivered lots of funny stories and low humor from the old days, in a thick Austrian accent. He was an affable foil to the glamour and refinement of my grandmother, Anna. I can still picture her seated on my father’s right, directing his energetic carving efforts at the risk of an elegantly nail-polished forefinger.
Unless one is unfortunately called to work, Thanksgiving is a truly luxurious holiday. We can thank President Lincoln for making it official in 1863. Due to his foresight, the duration of the Thanksgiving holiday-weekend is not subject to the vicissitudes of the calendar, but falling as it does on the last Thursday of November, most of us are guaranteed a mini-vacation of four full days! And there are no presents to buy or candy to dispense! No obligations at all except to loll about the house or throw a football with friends, or maybe watch the traditional broadcast of “King Kong” and “Mighty Joe Young” on Channel 9. Then, after Thanksgiving Day, two days of trying not to think about homework, followed by one day of trying to dodge it.
There was a lot going on in my young life in 1959. I had gone with my family to France by ocean liner and spent the entire summer in a county that had never seen potato chips or popcorn and had very little familiarity with TV. During that trip, which included a month on the west coast of France, it was confirmed to me that all my relatives were foreigners! When I returned, I was off to Morse School in North Tarrytown for my sixth grade year.
Things have changed. Here are some of the headlines in the Tarrytown Daily News from that November: “Humphrey, Kennedy Battle Grows” – for the Democratic presidential nomination, to be decided the following summer. “Albany Cool on Fallout Shelters” – meaning Governor Rockefeller did not wish to make them mandatory, as had been proposed. “Cab Calloway to Play at SHHS Christmas Dance” – the famous big band leader had a daughter at Sleepy. “IHS Seniors to Present ‘Our Town'” – starring David Smith and Linda Murphy. “Commies Send Propaganda to Puerto Rico” – those Commies again! “Detmer Nurseries of Tarrytown Receives Award” – the nursery is now Edgemont Condominiums. “Compact Cars Kill Edsel Production” – so that’s what did in the Edsel… “SHHS Students Lay Wreath at Irving’s Grave” – to celebrate the 100th anniversary of his death. “Cuban Labor Leaders Reject Communist Bid” – guess the train will be leaving without them.
In 1959, turkeys sold for 39 cents a pound, rib roast 57 cents, eggs 55 cent per dozen, celery 25 cents a stalk at the A & P, 114 North Broadway, Tarrytown (where C-Town is today). During Thanksgiving week, S. Klein, E.J. Korvette, and Alexander’s were already advertising their wares for Christmas. Masters, in Elmsford, had a “luggage-type portable” TV set (black and white of course) for about $140. Mason Motors on Broadway in Irvington was offering immediate delivery on a brand new, 1960-model-year Studebaker Lark. The Brannigan Real Estate Agency in Tarrytown would sell you a two-family home for $31,500.
The TV listings of that week offered an impressive array of programming; Million Dollar Movie, The Real McCoys, Zane Grey Theatre, The Pat Boone Show, Ernie Ford, The Untouchables, The Life of Riley, Bozo the Clown, Highway Patrol, Terry Tune Circus, Abbott and Costello, Wrestling, You are There, Donna Reed, American Bandstand, Ed Sullivan, Leave it to Beaver, Perry Mason, Gene Kelly Special, Have Gun Will Travel, and others. I particularly liked the westerns, of which there were many. At the Music Hall – a forgettable feature film – “The Big Circus” starring Victor Mature. At the Strand in North Tarrytown, the Oscar-nominated “Nun’s Story” starring Audrey Hepburn.
Joseph Quattro of the North Tarrytown recreation department posted the activities to be offered that winter: Midget Baseball, Boys’ Archery, Boys’ Boxing, and Girls’ Activity Class. (The girls have all the fun.) Those who enjoyed the “funnies” were offered Dilly, Blondie, The Cisco Kid, Mutt and Jeff, Mandrake, and Donald Duck. I never got the funnies – they just didn’t seem to be… funny.
In those days the word “mall” had not yet become part of the Westchester County vocabulary. To be sure, we had shopping centers, but small town retail was alive and well; mail order, as we know it, was in its infancy. It was a time when families could prosper on one paycheck. Gas was cheap, so if you wanted to buy something, you generally drove to it. In the villages there were dress shops, shoe shops, fish shops, Army-Navy stores, poultry shops, repair shops, and hardware stores aplenty… and many, many bars in which one could “celebrate the holiday.”
But that was 1959. Alter’s was closed long ago. Bambi stopped her barking years ago and rests peacefully behind what was once our second family home, on Walden Road. Things have changed – they usually do. All the same, I wish my neighbors in Sleepy Hollow, Tarrytown, and Irvington a Happy Thanksgiving this year and hearts filled with things to be thankful for.
©2009-2016 Henry John Steiner