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April 2013

At the Junction

Vignettes of a Tupper Lake family

IN THE TINY BLACK-AND-WHITE SNAPSHOT—a couple of inches square like most photographs of the 1930s—I’m four years old and posed next to a carriage holding my baby sister, Abby.

We’re in front of Cohn’s drugstore, its plate-glass windows decorated with posters displaying stylish women ad­vertising Old Gold cigarettes and Alka-Seltzer. My mother liked to take us out for some air every day, and we followed a familiar route from our house along the sidewalk past Mikell’s market, the Moose club, Kiklevich’s liquor store and bar, the lumberjack hotel, and, finally, Cohn’s drugstore.

We lived on the road that runs through downtown Tupper Lake, which was officially called Tupper Lake Junction, because that’s where the New York Central trains stopped. It was also known as Faust—pronounced Fawst. The wife of the Junction’s first postmaster was asked to choose a name for the post office; she selected the title character of Goethe’s play.

Tupper Lake was an isolated lumbering town in the northern Adirondacks; flat-fronted wooden buildings lined the few blocks of its business section. Lumberjacks left their camps in the woods and came to town on weekends, ­spending their money in the local bars. I remember holding my breath whenever we walked past the dark wooden hotel to block out the strong beery smell that drifted from its front door.

Sometimes on a pleas­ant evening when I was bouncing a ball or playing hopscotch on the sidewalk in front of our house, my mother would appear on the front porch. “Come inside, Joan,” she’d call. “Here comes a drunken lumberjack.” I’d glance down the street at the rough-looking man lurching my way and rush inside.

My mother was only 21 when she married my father and moved to that dreary town, where his family had settled in the early 1900s after emigrating from Eastern Europe. She met him on a visit to the Adirondacks from New York City, where she’d been living and working since she was 17.

She brought to Tupper Lake her youthful energy, good looks and city style. Even to take a walk to Cohn’s drugstore or to stop at Mikell’s market to buy meat and vegetables for dinner she dressed well. In cold weather she wore a fitted wool coat with a high collar, a cloche hat tilted at an angle, and black leather gloves, and on summer afternoons she changed from her morning housedress into silk print dresses and pearl earrings.

I have photographs of her in those outfits, and I realize she could not have bought that stylish clothing in Tupper Lake. Maybe she sometimes took the train to New York to shop, or perhaps those were the clothes she’d brought with her after she married my father.

She taught me to read before I started school, when I was not yet five. One day, as she told the story, she took me by the hand and we walked to the library to get a card for me. The librarian was named Florence Chevrette—people called her Flossie. Later she was my sixth-grade teacher.

“Joan is here to get a library card,” my mother said.

“Why, she can’t get a card until she can read,” said Flossie.

“Well, she can read right now. Hand her a book and she’ll show you.”

I got my card, and we hurried home with new books in our arms. My mother must have been happy then. She had not yet been defeated by the narrow townspeople, my father’s sarcastic sense of humor, the harsh judgments of his relatives. I don’t remember her ever be­ing mad at me, even when the elementary school principal called to re­port that I’d punched a girl who got in front of me in the water fountain line.

To the Rescue
During my teenage years, I don’t re­member talking to my mother much about my life away from the house, but in a small town like ours it was hard to keep secrets. She didn’t have to worry about me, though; I was a good student, a cheerleader and one of a group of girls who hung around together. There was always a boyfriend: John or Buddy or Donald. I knew my mother prayed I wouldn’t get too attached to a Tupper Lake boy before I graduated and left for college. She didn’t want me to get stuck in the town that she herself had always wanted to escape.

Tupper Lake offered few diversions for teenagers. We could choose to take part in high-school plays, go to football and basketball games, or get in­volved in winter sports. My friends and I weren’t a hardy group; we preferred to stay inside and keep warm. Most days after school we walked down the hill to Maid’s drugstore, where we crowded into its red-leather booths, piling our books on the tables and sipping our chocolate Cokes.

When we tired of Maid’s we went across the street to the Miss Tupper Diner, a small, narrow place smelling of grilling hamburgers. There we drank coffee and sneaked cigarettes, taking a chance that no acquaintances of our parents would push through the door.

The drugstore and the diner were our weekday hangouts. On Saturday nights we headed down the block to the Hotel Altamont, a rambling, four-story, white frame building that contained a large area called the Mountain Room, with a bar, tables for dining and drinking, and a dance floor. For our evenings at the Altamont, my girlfriends and I dressed in twirly calf-length skirts, short-sleeve sweaters and black flats. My sweaters were snug, often fuzzy angora, and with them I wore a short string of pearls or a small scarf tied at the side.

My mother gave me permission to go to the Altamont as long as I got home on time—I think my curfew was 11:00 —but she sometimes criticized my tight sweaters. “You look like a chorus girl,” she’d say.

What she didn’t know was that while my friends and I sat around a table near the bar listening to music on the jukebox and hoping to be asked for a dance, we smoked the Camels we’d carefully hidden in the depths of our jacket pockets and ordered rum-and-Cokes, even though none of us had reached the legal drinking age. Hanging on the wall in full view of our table was a cardboard sign with thick red letters that read: “No Minors Permitted in Bar or Mountain Room at any Time.” The owners surely knew we were still in high school, but no one questioned us.

One Saturday evening I was sitting in the dim, smoky Mountain Room, laughing with my crowd, when a friend leaned across the table and said, “Joan, your mother just walked in.” I whirled around and saw her in the doorway. I can still picture her there, huddled in a winter coat, just inside the room, gesturing to me. I quickly stubbed out my cigarette and hurried toward her. She seemed nervous and anxious to leave.

“Chief Timmons called the house and told Daddy there’s going to be a raid,” she said. “You’d better come with me. Go tell your friends, but hurry up.”

I heard the next day that by the time the cops arrived, everybody under 18 had fled.

In Her Secret Life
My mother was born Shirley Jean Wallock in 1910 in Cohoes, a mill town in upstate New York. Her parents, Joseph and Anna Wallock, had settled there after emigrating from Russia in 1900. To­gether they ran a general store. They eventually had six children; my mother was their fourth.

When he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, her father moved to Tupper Lake; it was thought the fresh, pine-scented air could cure the illness. The rest of the family stayed in Cohoes, where her mother ran the store until she died in the flu epidemic of 1918. After her death, said my mother, “My father didn’t know what to do with us. He couldn’t cope with us.”

The three oldest children joined their father in Tupper Lake, the two youngest were adopted, and my mother, only eight years old, was sent first to an orphanage, then to live with an uncle and aunt in Cohoes.

At 15 she went to live with her fa­ther, sharing an apartment over the store where he sold sewing machines and musical instruments.

One day she came home from school and walked upstairs. Her fa­ther’s bedroom door was closed and locked from the inside with a hook. “I rapped and knocked and pounded and nobody an­swered,” she said. She ran to get something to jab at the hook until it gave way. “I pushed the door open and I found him dead on the floor. Hung himself.”

Brooklyn
I placed my cursor on the Google space and typed my father’s name: “Jesse Propp.” I had been researching my mother’s family for weeks, looking for information about the lives of her parents and siblings. But I had been ignoring my father.

Then one morning I had a sudden urge to enter his name. It appeared in a second, in a link to a site that surprised me: bklyn-genealogy-info.com. I clicked on the link and was led to a long list of couples who’d been married in Brooklyn in 1931. Up he popped under the heading 6 October 1931: Jesse Propp, 34, Tupper Lake, New York. And be­neath it: Shirley Wallock, 21, 1751 Union Street.

My mother and father never celebrated their anniversary, or even mentioned it. I never saw a photograph of their wedding. I didn’t know where it was held or who was there. And I don’t remember ever asking.

After my mother died and I began ex­ploring her life, I tried to picture the wedding. I thought they might have been married in Tupper Lake’s small wooden synagogue, standing before a gray-bearded rabbi, the pews filled with women in veiled hats and crinkly taffeta dresses and men with white prayer shawls draped over their dark suits.

But that didn’t seem right. It was easier to envision them in a hurried ceremony in the stuffy parlor of a justice of the peace in some nearby village, with my father’s LaSalle parked out front, ready to take them to a dim room in the local hotel.

Months later I took one more look at that Brooklyn wedding site. Once again I typed “Jesse Propp” and hit Enter. This time a link appeared that wasn’t there before, and I was led to the front page of the Journal and Republican, Lowville, New York, February 26, 1931. Squinting at the tiny type, I learned that Jesse Propp, Tupper Lake, was one of 85 people in­dicted for Prohibition violations by the federal grand jury in Albany.

So my father was a bootlegger, ap­parently. He was indicted only eight months before he married my mother. I wonder if he was found guilty, if he had to serve time in jail or just pay a fine. I wonder if he told my mother about this during their courtship. If he did, maybe it made him more dashing in her eyes. I dimly recall my mother joking, when I was just a kid, about my father smuggling something over the Canadian border. In my imagination, it was my mother that he was smuggling.

Excerpted from the memoir collection Still Here Thinking of You: A Second Chance with Our Mothers (2013, Big Table Publishing), available at amazon.com. Potter is a longtime contributor to Adi­rondack Life; her articles include “Tupper Lake: Diners, Drugstores and Dives” and “One Hundred Years of Paper Work,” a history of International Paper.  

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