In the midst of the pandemic, I received an email from my childhood friend David Dain. David and I don’t connect as often as either of us would like, but he gave me an assignment of sorts. Somehow, David stumbled upon an interview done with his dad on WRVO radio in 1976. At the time, his dad, “Chip” Dain, was the chairman of the Port of Oswego Authority.
In the interview, the elder Dain, who was appointed to the position by then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, boasted about the Port’s success and its importance as the easternmost port on Lake Ontario and its link to the St. Lawrence Seaway.
As it turns out, Penfield Library at SUNY Oswego houses almost 200 such oral histories, conducted with prominent Oswego residents of the mid-20th century. David suggested that I might be the person, via this column, to bring these archived interviews to life. I’m ashamed to admit it has taken me nearly three years to get to these, but with the help of Penfield’s Special Collections and Systems librarian Kathryn Johns-Masten, I’ve listened to dozens of these interviews that offer amazing first-person insights into our city’s past.
It’s one thing to read notes or a transcript of a half-century-old interview, but to me, it was completely different, almost surreal, hearing the person’s voice, especially since I was familiar with many of those same voices decades ago.
One of the first that I listened to was an interview with my 10th-grade homeroom teacher, Virginia “Tiny” Dain. Hearing her voice was as if she was taking attendance again in my sophomore homeroom at OHS back in 1973. She vividly recalled the Holocaust refugees who were brought to Fort Ontario in 1944 as a “safe haven” from the atrocities in Europe. Many other Oswego School District teachers were the subjects of these interviews including Anthony Slosek, Francis T. Riley, Frances Marion Brown and Muriel Perry.
A May 1975 interview with Thomas Connelly put me back in his barber chair on West First Street. Connelly, known to all as “Irish,” was my barber for most of my youth and my dad’s barber for decades before that. His interview covered the history of barbering in Oswego dating back to the 1930s when his primary customers were itinerant sailors, longshoremen from the shipping industry, and downtown businessmen who came in for their weekly shaves and haircuts.
It was fascinating to hear Oswego history from the people who created it — especially those born in the 1800s! Two of those interviewees were with J. Leo Finn and Bill Cahill Sr. Finn, born in 1899, discussed how Oswego men lived near the factories in which they worked. He cited Kingsford Starch Factory employees who resided in the 5th and 7th wards and Ames Iron workers who lived near their 2nd ward workplace. Finn also mentioned the stories he accumulated in writing his book, “Old Shipping Days in Oswego.”
William Gregway’s conversation corroborated Finn’s story, citing the example of Breneman-Hartshorn workers residing within walking distance of their eastside jobs, at what was referred to in many conversations as “the shade cloth factory.” Gregway covered a myriad of topics including his experiences singing live in Oswego’s theaters as well as recounting a brief history of St. Paul’s Parish and the memorable Father Michael Barry.
Cahill, the patriarch of the Cahill fishing enterprise, proudly describes Oswego as “… a land of riches … not wealth in money, but in natural resources,” during his oral history interview.
As a kid, I recall seeing the mysterious Frank Barbeau always walking about town. He was not only a renowned photographer, but a magician as well. In his interview, he describes those interests stemming from his firsthand encounters with legends in both fields. Barbeau talks of his father working for, and with, photography giant George Eastman, and he goes on to describe learning magic from Harry Houdini himself.
It seemed odd listening to these digitized files through my 21st-century laptop and hearing a voice that frequently came through on our landline phone on the kitchen wall of my childhood home. Such was the case in listening to the interview with former mayor John Conway. Mayor Conway would frequently call my house in the evening or on weekends to reach my dad, who was a city department head. His interview in this collection addressed the anti-Vietnam War movement on the SUNY campus in 1970 and how it impacted the college-community relationship as he perceived it from city hall. The same topic was talked about by the former chaplain of the Newman Center, the Rev. J. Murray Elwood, who advised students in planning what was known as “the Moratorium March.”
Hearing the interview with SUNY Oswego alumnus Donald Bishop (Class of ‘52) brought a smile to my face and a tear to my eye. In 1975, Bishop told interviewer Robert Owens that his dream job since he was a child was to become a teacher. He lived that dream as a popular seventh- and eighth-grade social studies teacher at Hannibal Jr./Sr. High School. I was fortunate enough to get to know Don when our teaching careers overlapped for a few years in Hannibal. I bummed a couple of rides to school from him when I had car trouble, and hearing his voice again reminded me of the day he offered his beloved camp in Canada to my wife and me for our honeymoon getaway.
THEIR Oswego, is certainly not OUR Oswego of today. But as I have written before, today’s city leaders stand on the shoulders of those who came before them. And these oral histories give us a first-person glimpse into some of the people whose shoulders today’s influencers are standing on.
Mike McCrobie is a retired Oswego High School English/journalism teacher. His column appears here every other Tuesday. His two books, “We’re from Oswego” and “Our Oswego,” are currently available at The River’s End Bookstore and at amazon.com.