Tonawanda News

December 10, 2012

ADAMCZYK: What went on out here still requires a little substantiation

The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — The Eastman Kodak Company, at the turn of the previous century, offered two brilliant innovations: the development of what could be termed the personal camera, and its marketing, convincing customers using the device that it was as easy, and as crucial, as using a pen or pencil. Thus were billions of photographs taken and developed, then either treated like treasures or tossed somewhere.

Those who study the past the way others worry about the future pore over these things, detailed souvenirs of another time, another place, with a perceived responsibility of learning from them, explaining them and their eras. Western New York’s history museums, small and large, are filled with posed portraits, amateur snapshots, official photographic records of construction sites. So are attics, warehouses and file cabinets.

Call it forensic history. 

Historians consider an old photograph, say one of a sunny day at an intersection, perhaps Delaware Avenue and some other street, then grab a magnifying glass and begin looking for clues.

When was it taken?

Let’s see. That building went up in 1921. Are those trolley tracks in the street? When were those weird lamp posts installed? The trees and foliage are abundant, so it’s not November. What are the people wearing? How old is that parked Packard? Can we read a sign telling the speed limit? 

Thus does one get a handle on things.

I do this a lot, probably more than is good for me, and so do the other municipal historians, but there are things that regrettably have not turned up.

In pre-Prohibition days, a national lobbying group, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, which was everything its name implied, installed several thousand public water fountains across America, offering a drink to discourage the thirsty from entering saloons. Kenmore’s was adjacent to what is now called the Village Green, roughly where the Delaware Avenue mailbox is, and had an added virtue — one side offered water to horses.

The photographs I’ve seen of this thing are grainy, or depict the water fountain in the distance, behind Kenmore’s various war memorials on the municipal lawn. Someone must have taken a decent picture of this marvel, but I have not yet encountered it.

Ah, Delaware Avenue. The Kenmore part of the street was paved in 1895, from the city line north to roughly Knoche Road, the project coinciding with a boom in the fad of bicycle riding, and citizens from all over Western New York, searching for any flat stretch of pavement, descended on Delaware Avenue to ride. Think of it: without cars on the road, the street was wall-to-wall bicycles on Sunday afternoons, a presumably festive orgy of joyful pedalers, competing for space, checking out each other’s rides, probably getting into fights over fender-benders. A five-mile race, up and down the street, was held in 1901, history records.

Thinking of it is all I can do. Although bicycling has a long history in the Kenmore-Tonawanda area, with many bike and racing clubs, I have yet to see a photograph of that bicycle traffic jam on Delaware.

Western New York has had a relatively small part in the history of the Ku Klux Klan, but on the evening of May 17, 1924, a procession of cars made its way to a field on Eggert Road (called Guide Board Road at the time) between Brighton Road and Colvin Avenue, where 200 new Klansmen were inducted into the group in a white-robes-and-hoods, burning-crosses, flaming-torches ceremony that attracted 1,000 observers, according to reports of the time. Then they dispersed. 

Did anyone think to bring a camera to this spectacular and fiery event? Evidently not.

The Kenmore Theater, opened in 1926, was the Northtowns’ first movie palace, with 1,600 seats, a bowling alley and a billiards room. Suddenly a movie enthusiast needed not to go to downtown Buffalo to see Charlie Chaplin, Raymond Navarro or Mary Pickford. Among the state’s first air-condition theaters, it was also an inexpensive way to escape the summer heat.

Built to last in the space now occupied by the Ken-Dev Apartments in Kenmore, it occupied a full city block. I have seen photographs of its exterior, its various marquees and signage, how it looked while burning (the theater had a propensity to catch fire) but never one of its interior, in contrast to Kenmore’s other movie house, the sadly-missed little Art Moderne masterpiece, the Colvin Theater. One could go there to see Fred Astaire dance across the screen; the available pictures of the interior of the Colvin can make you imagine him dancing through the theater, awaiting the impact of the New Deal, selling War bonds, whatever.

The Colvin went up in the early 1940s. In 1936 the Town of Tonawanda threw itself a birthday party, a 12-day festival honoring its centennial on the acreage now occupied by the Tops Plaza, where Delaware Avenue and Delaware Road cross Sheridan Drive.

Twelve days of parades, speeches, midway attractions, dramatic presentations, food, productions obscurely identified as “pageants,” political grandstanding and a temporary stadium of indeterminate size. The event was attended by thousands, likely eager to momentarily escape the grind of living through the Depression. All right, who brought a camera?

I have found one blurry image of the Tonawanda Centennial, of people walking down what appears to be a midway. It could have been taken at Crystal Beach or a church lawn fete, for all I know, but the inscription indicates it’s a part of Tonawanda history (in fact, except for a boulder and plaque honoring Military Road, unveiled at the Centennial festivities and still laying by the roadside like a big boulder with a plaque attached to it, nothing remains of that big party).

This is the point where the moral is unveiled, to take more pictures in the interest of history, but the ubiquity of digital opportunity is already in the hands of most of us. Taking pictures, these days, is easier than Old Man Eastman ever imagined, so hit those shutters, Ken-Ton. Your grandchildren, if you’re lucky, will be fascinated by what you drove, what you wore, what Burger Kings looked like in the early days of the 21st century, and what passed for pavement, lamp posts and road signs when you were young.

You’ll also get the posthumous appreciation of the historian who will come after me, magnifying glasses in hand, to examine the life you led and the places you went.

Ed Adamczyk is the Village Historian of Kenmore and can be contacted at