Norwich Went All Out For Christmas

1930's Norwich Santa

A 1930s photo of Santa on his Ponemah Mill flatbed trolley en route to Porteous Mitchell Department Store where he would greet children in the window.

Once upon a time, Santa came to town by trolley, stopping in Baltic and Taftville before Norwich.

Downtown Norwich, at this time of year, was so festive and active. Every store on Main Street, Franklin Street and Broadway was occupied. On Franklin Square, there were three major supermarkets: Beit Bros., Mohican and First National. Of course, just off Franklin Square, the Ferry Brothers had a grocery store, and George Powers had a fish market on Bath Street. On lower Broadway, there was also a supermarket next to the Dime Bank.

There were many restaurants to handle all of the people that got off the buses at Franklin Square. There was Alexander’s, the Beverly Tea Room, Sella’s, G&G, Woolworth’s and the Metropolitan Store. At Mara’s Drug Store, they had fountain service and several booths. Around the corner, on Bath Street, was Fortin’s Diner that always had the best breakfast in town.

Down Rose Alley, on the side of Franklin Square, was Duke’s Lunch at City Landing. The most famous diner was Buster’s. Buster was a legend in his own time,  and later his sons, Bob and Joe, took it over and ran the diner for years. Buster’s was next to the railroad station and just a few hundred feet away from Duke’s Diner.

As you headed up Main Street, there sat the most elegant eating place, the Wauregan Hotel, and across the street was a soda and sandwich counter at the Candy Mart next to the Norwich Savings Society. On Shannon Corner, in the Shannon Building’s ground floor was Liggett’s.

From Other Towns

During the Christmas season, all of the restaurants, at lunchtime, would be filed with the clerks from all of the stores. But even at 3 in afternoon, it would be hard to get a seat in a restaurant or a diner because people waiting to take buses back to Putnam and Danielson, and even Groton and New London, would often have a snack before they headed for home.

There were so many stores that today are not even recalled by people who were born 25 years or 30 years ago.

All of the hardware stores sold toys at Christmas. There was Triple X on Franklin Square, Benny’s at the foot of Cliff Street, and Campbell’s at the intersection of Main and Water Street. The biggest toy display was on the fourth floor of Reid & Hughes on upper Main Street.

However, Porteous Mitchell was the most Christmas-spirited store in town. They, like Reid & Hughes, were a department store and, in fact, on the other end of town, by the Chelsea Bank, was Sears & Reobuck. Yes, we had four floors of Sears & Roebuck. It was not a catalog shop. It was the real thing, and they sold toys.

Most of the doctors’ offices, the lawyers and insurance companies were on the second floor surrounding Franklin Square.

The clothing stores — there were so many of them. There was Ben Bruckner’s on lower Broadway, H.A. Bruckner’s on Shannon Corner, the Young Folk’s Shop, Mandell’s, Rose D’Atri’s and the Boy’s Shop. Then Trachenburg’s, The Star, Brooklyn Outfitters and Fesiter & Raucher.

Why, we even had a shop dedicated entirely to women’s hats right on Franklin Square.

Of course, there was P & Q Clothing and The Enterprise Store. The site is now occupied by the Otis Library. There were half-a-dozen shoe stores downtown.

Norwich, in the late 1940s and 1950s, was truly the shopping center of Eastern Connecticut. For several years, we won the award as the Christmas City of Connecticut.

The uniformed firemen would work all year with the Department of Public Utilities, and they would create thousands of feet of Christmas lights. From Washington Square to the Preston Bridge, on both sides of the street, hung Christmas lights. City Hall was decorated with more lights than we even use today. The firemen made the lights, and Public Utilities would string them.

Symbol of The Season

There was always a Christmas tree in the middle of Franklin Square, which, in those days, was actually the bus terminal for the Connecticut Co.

The greatest attraction in Norwich for the children was Santa Claus. Porteous Mitchell sold a little bit of everything, and that beautiful store has been restored, though the one-time prosperous site went bankrupt a few years ago.

In Porteous Mitchell’s window was a jolly old St. Nick with a long beard and a beautiful red suit. He would invited children to come and visit him. You would walk into the store, and they would direct you to Santa’s window. Little ones could sit on Santa’s lap. Crowds of people would gather around that wonderful big window filled with toys and Santa.

While I have told this story before, perhaps some of you would enjoy hearing it again, or maybe you never heard it before. It must have ben when I as seven or eight years old, and all of my friends and I didn’t believe in Santa Claus anymore. As with all boys that age, we were so proud of what we knew and that we took pleasure in telling the world that we knew something other people didn’t know. There is no Santa Claus!

As five or six of us gathered in front of Porteous Mitchell’s Santa Claus window, we made quite a commotion. To my shock and disbelief, as I shouted, “There is no Santa Claus,” three or four times, Santa Claus took his little blackboard and wrote, “Billy Stanley is a bad boy.” I truly believe my heart stopped, and I felt, oh, my goodness, there is a Santa Claus and he thinks I’m a bad boy. I believed one more year. Years later, I learned that particular Santa Claus was Paul Hinchey, a good friend of my dad.

It was 1950 when we changed our form of government. When malls began to spring up, and more people had cars, little by little Norwich lost one shop after another. Today there are fewer stores than I can ever remember in downtown Norwich. The clothing stores have left and the furniture stores have left. I don’t know of any toy stores downtown.

Not as Bright

The Christmas lights today are nothing like the lights we used to enjoy. But many of you reading my column this morning don’t remember the days when there were no empty stores on Main Street and when people come from all around by bus to shop in Norwich. They don’t do that anymore. I guess it is truly said that, in time, all things change, but it would be so wonderful if Norwich could have stayed the way it was in the 1940s and 1950s.

There was Christmas music from so many stores, and nobody said “Happy Holidays.” Everybody said, “Merry Christmas” because we were, after all, celebrating the birth of Christ. It is not a holiday. It is a holy day.

Old turkeys like me, I am sure, remember, as I do at this time of year, how wonderful Norwich was, and the old folks know how much we have lost. But, in spite of the retail loss, Christmas is still observed in all of the churches, as Hanukkah is observed in all the synagogues.

We have lost our title as shopping center, but it seems more evident every year that the faith of our people is as strong now as ever before, and that, after all, is what Christmas is all about.

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