Dec 02, 2008 Steve McMahon Uncategorized
Two weeks ago, I promised you the first in a series of stories about our early schools. While conducting my research, I visited the vault in the Van Buren Town Hall. I had the capable assistance of Town Clerk Lynn McCormick, one of the most delightful public servants in memory. Lynn pointed me in the direction of the town’s old health records, and an interesting story. So, I bumped the first article in my series about rural schools for one about the days back when beef came from the local butcher, not from a supermarket shelf.
Events unfolded here 100 years ago that would bring a few families closer and send another one packing. Because it happened so long ago, I assumed that my information would come from old newspapers or official files. But, the paper trail led me to Harley Loveless.
Harley turned 92 this month in his home on Downer Street Road. He’s a bit modest, so I had to coax him to talk about his war record. I’m saving that story for another time. Harley’s family still owns about 25 of their original 30 acres. Next door lived Harley’s sister, the late Florence Williamson. Two doors down stands the old house where Harley grew up. His daughter lives there now. When the house was built in 1839, it stood just outside the village limits on the West Road to Dead Creek, known today as Route 31. Back then, the East and West Sorrell Hill roads ran south from this road all the way across Van Buren. They both still end at the old Warners Road, known today as Route 173. This was long before 1970, when they were interrupted by Route 690. Today, the north ends of East and West Sorrell Hill roads are known as Meigs Road and Sun Meadows Way, respectively. The former is the entrance to the Mercer Mill Apartments and Syracuse Home, southeast of Harley’s house. The latter leads to Sun Meadows, a housing development located to the southwest.
It was also in 1970 that the Arthur Ranger farm on Crego Road (northwest of Harley’s) became River Mall, and the Albert Johnson farm east of Harley’s became what was once Tri-County Mall. Due north from Harley’s house sits the Little League baseball park that Cecil Reeves donated to the town, and the farm market operated by Cecil’s sons, Mark and Brian. So, it seems that Harley is surrounded by development of some kind on all sides. All sides, that is, except one. His property includes 22 acres of vacant land to the south much wilder than one would expect, given its surroundings. Follow a path from the old house and you’ll discover an abandoned building that looks as if it’s becoming one with the land. Perhaps, it was originally intended as a tobacco shed or a hog barn. After talking to Harley, the latter seems more likely. It was an abattoir for more than 50 years. In other words, it was a slaughterhouse.
Local butchers remind us of a time when we grew our own food, including our meat. In 1900 about 6,300 of 14,000 Onondaga County households outside Syracuse were farm families. Nearly one of every two people lived on a farm in 1900. Only 725 of 126,000 households in the county ran farms in 2000. So, in 100 years this ratio plummeted to only one of every 175 people. Today, the idea of a slaughterhouse is mysterious, if not downright disgusting, to some folks. Earl Crego remembers culling cows from his dairy herd as an economic necessity. Cows that could no longer produce or reproduce went to the slaughterhouse. My mother, who grew up on a Lysander dairy farm in the 1930s and 1940s, vividly recalls the sights, sounds and smells of hog butchering in winter. They were no more pleasant then than they are today. But, they were a fact of farm life, and therefore, a common experience. Regardless, even back in 1900 there were still people whose opinion of slaughterhouses was simply “not in my backyard.”
Around 1900, Henry and Melvina Dibble deeded 30 acres on Downer Street Road to their daughter, Euphema and her husband, John Poole. John clerked at J.L. Voorhees & Son in Baldwinsville, but would try his luck farming the same plot of land that Harley Loveless now calls home. Meanwhile, over in Stiles Station lived a butcher with a penchant for publicity. The Gazette reported in 1900 that George Group butchered “the largest and fattest sheep ever dressed in the history of this section. The sheep dressed 156 pounds, making over 76 pounds of mutton to the hundred (pounds of sheep), something never-before heard of in the Empire State.” George made more news by buying a bull “having but three legs, two fore and one hind.” He was the local “P.T. Barnum” of butchers. By 1908, George Group had rented the barn behind John Poole’s place for butchering, when they both ran afoul of a new neighbor from out of town.
This new neighbor, Marvin Bonsted, filed a complaint with the local Board of Health on July 13, 1908. He claimed that the “noxious smell” from Group’s slaughterhouse made it “almost unbearable” for people traveling past Poole’s property, and impossible for Poole’s neighbors “to sit upon their front piazza or to enjoy the comforts of home.” It was up to Health Officer, Dr. Frank Coe of Warners, to enforce the rule that “no house offal, dead animals, night soil or refuse of any kind shall be thrown upon the streets or left exposed by any person.” There is no record of his response, but the problem escalated just two years later when Bonsted raised the stakes. Dr. Eugene Porter, the state health commissioner, wrote to the Board of Health on June 23, 1910, that Bonsted had found “no relief from conditions” at Group’s slaughterhouse on the Poole place. Porter requested that Coe investigate and report back, which he did on June 25. Just two weeks later, Porter wrote Coe on July 7, that “I have again received complaints from Mr. Bonsted he feels very little relief through the action of your Board.” Porter asked Coe to reinvestigate. The board met the next day and inspected the property before adjourning to interview Bonsted, Poole, Group and witnesses. The matter soon came to a head.
On July 13, 1910, the board asked Poole and Group to “show cause why an order should not be made requiring the discontinuance of the use of the building as a slaughterhouse.” Other witnesses included Bonsted, his wife Ludie and several neighboring farmers who lived near or traveled by the Poole place. Much to Bonsted’s chagrin, the board decided that the building was perfectly acceptable. It looked, sounded and smelled just like what it was, a slaughterhouse. By 1920, Bonsted had relocated to greener pastures out of town. For the next 20 years, Group boarded with the Pooles and ran his business from their barn. When the Pooles died childless, they left the farm to their good friend, George Group. Around 1930, George sold it to his nephew, Ed Loveless. Ed married Lillian Sherman and raised two children, Harley and Florence.
Harley Loveless worked in his father’s slaughterhouse from the age of 16 in 1932 until he left in 1940 to serve in World War II. When Ed died in 1955, Harley took over the operation.
According to a 1958 Messenger article, Harley “butchers and sells meat the year around dressing from 40 to 50 head a month. Harley has to have two licenses, one as a cattle dealer and one for the slaughterhouse to meet the qualifications must have hot and cold running water, underground drainage and numerous other sanitary requirements.” When I interviewed Harley, he admitted that “it was messy, but it was a slaughterhouse. They all are. We butchered 1,200 pigs one winter. Each one weighed from 100 to 500 pounds. Dad had a regular route, including farms in Cato, Hannibal, Moravia and Vernon. He would butcher and sell a pig or calf for cash to buy the next one. Dad would charge only six bucks to pick up the animal, bring it here, kill it, butcher it, dress it and return it to the farmer. I once had to carry a live, kicking calf in my arms to the truck while a goose was pecking my behind the whole way.”
Turning serious, Harley said, “Dad was well-loved by all these farmers. There was one over on Route 5 near Memphis named Herb Paddock. One day all his barns burned down. Before the day was over, Dad had delivered two big loads of hay for Herb’s cows. When Dad died, we had calling hours over in the house, and there was a steady stream of people all afternoon.” That old Messenger article observed that Harley’s “happy to be a native of Baldwinsville and engaged in a business that brings him in contact with farmers of the area.” Harley doesn’t get out much any more, but he still craves contact with people. His parting words to me were “I know that you’ll come back, and I’ll be here when you do.”
In two weeks, read the first article in a series, “Lysander Goes to School.” Looking Backward will appear in the Messenger every other week, as long as there are stories to tell. If you have questions about this story or suggestions for future ones, including any local historical images or information, please contact me via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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