Long-Timers Backyard Block Party recalls earlier Willimantic

By Melanie Savage - Staff Writer
Willimantic - posted Tue., Sep. 17, 2013
Seldom Heard performs at the Long-Timers Backyard Block Party on Sept. 15 in Willimantic. They are (l-r): Howard Drescher, Emily Myers, Lee Terry and Tom Terry. Photos by Melanie Savage.
Seldom Heard performs at the Long-Timers Backyard Block Party on Sept. 15 in Willimantic. They are (l-r): Howard Drescher, Emily Myers, Lee Terry and Tom Terry. Photos by Melanie Savage.

Edith Prague arrived in style the afternoon of Sept. 15. Riding in a 1963 gold Buick Wildcat (loaned for the occasion by Carl Ternullo), Prague was driven onto the lawn in the backyard of state Rep. Susan Johnson (D-49) at her home in Willimantic. Prague stepped out to greet Johnson and the dozens of other visitors assembled to honor the retired legislator, and the city of Willimantic itself, at the Long-Timers Backyard Block Party.

“I had this idea a couple of years ago,” said event organizer Faith Kenton. Kenton wanted to organize a party for Prague at Johnson’s Windham home. “Then Edith broke her hip,” said Kenton. After more delays, Prague suggested the idea of talking about the history of Main Street, Willimantic. Prague’s husband, Frank, at one time worked at his father’s shoe store on Main Street, and went on to open several stores of his own.

“Fifty years ago, Main Street was the height of commerce,” said Kenton. After redevelopment in the 1970s, many businesses relocated to side streets, out of town, or simply disappeared altogether, said Kenton. Many older buildings were destroyed. Willimantic never recovered its economic strength.

The Long-Timers Backyard Block Party was conceived as an opportunity to celebrate Willimantic during its heyday, and to honor a long-time Connecticut legislator. A third element was added with the decision to make the event a fundraiser for the Windham Textile and History Museum. The building at 411 Main St. is badly in need of a fresh coat of paint, and the money raised will go into the painting fund. “Twenty-five years ago, the town gave the building to the museum,” noted Kenton, adding another item to the list of milestones celebrated by the event.

Among those who remembered the Willimantic of 1963 was retired Windham High School art teacher Jack Allen. Allen taught at the school from 1952 through 1985, and influenced many students along the way. “My first day at Windham, after school four kids came to me and asked me to be their archery coach,” he said.  Allen accepted, and for several years coached Windham students in archery, in addition to teaching them art.

Larry Schiller and his brother, Frank, started a sewing machine business in Willimantic in 1951. By 1963, the business had moved to 857 Main St. In 1977, the storefront moved to its current location at 1088 Main St. On Thursday evenings in the 1960s, “People used to walk Main Street,” explained Rick Schiller, Larry’s son, who currently runs the business. “Basically, Main Street was the Windham walking mall,” said Schiller.

Sam Gordon came to Willimantic in 1967 to open an Army/Navy surplus store, after opening a similar store in Norwich. “There were so many things available, we decided to expand,” said Gordon. “I think the first thing we bought from the government was a trailer load of Navy shoes, and it just kind of went from there.” Gordon expanded his business to include hardware, toys and other goods, and the surplus store was once one of the anchors of downtown Willimantic.

Another anchor was Rosen’s Department Store. Jerry Rosen, examining drawn depictions of Willimantic circa 1963, talked about the business run by his father and uncle. “They carried everything,” he said, adding that you could pick up clothing, furniture, appliances, flooring materials and roofing materials at Rosen’s. Opened in the mid-'30s, Rosen’s closed during redevelopment in the early '70s. Rosen said that his father would open the store, after hours, whenever a resident needed something. “I remember that sometimes we’d have to wait to go to the beach until after he got back from the store,” he said.

Discussing the Capitol Theatre, a building that has undergone several transformations (vaudeville theater, movie theater, arts magnet school), Prague said that she remembered a time when admittance was a quarter. “In my day it was 50 cents,” countered Windham Textile and History Museum educator Bev York.

Prague said that she was touched to see so many people who had played a part in her life at the gathering. “As I look at the pictures of all the stores on Main Street, oh my goodness, it’s good to see them,” said Prague.

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