Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Guestblog: A Native of Middletown, My Dad

We are honored once again to have another slice of history in via a guestblog piece by Middletown resident and veteran Jerry Augustine. Previous essays by Augustine can be read here:

Thank you Mr. Augustine and a belated Happy Father's day to all!

Above, Dad in the garden,
Author with his father.
by Jerry Augustine

As I was growing up on Ridge Road here in Middletown, CT I was always eager to listen to my dad tell his stories of growing up in the south end of Middletown. He was born in 1910 and was raised in the area then known as “Duck Hollow”. It was a predominately Polish neighborhood where East Main Street crosses Union Street and south and east of that location. It does not exist today as Personal Auto Care, Connecticut Rental and the YMCA parking lot occupy some of that space today.
At eleven years of age my father, Edward Augustine, became an orphan. His parents passed on due to one of the many diseases that were prevalent at that time. From then on various Polish families would take my dad in so he would have a family to call his own. He attended St. Mary School on South Main Street until the eighth grade when he found that he needed to make a living at that time in his life. There were many factories and mills in Middletown then and my dad worked in many of them. Some mentioned to me were, Goodyear Rubber Company, Wilcox Lace Shop, Russell Manufacturing, and he even helped build the Middletown-Portland bridge. I will get into a little more detail later on in this story.
He even boxed at Coleman's Carnival, and for a time was the high diver of Middletown. On Sunday afternoons, in the summer, cars would line up along the river, right about where Harbor Park is now.
My dad's friend at the time, Nate Gilletti, would collect change and rarely some paper money from the spectators. My dad had a skeleton key that gave access to the coal chute tower that was there at the time that provided coal to the many barges working on the Connecticut river.

When Mr. Gilletti collected enough change he would give my dad the “high” sign so he would begin his walk out to the end of the coal chute derrick to accomplish his dive. My dad told me this activity went on weekly until one day he caught his friend Nate with a rolled up five dollar bill stuck in his ear. I believe that ended a long friendship and a popular summer family attraction. In later years Mr. Gilletti
ran Gilletti's Service Station which was located on Main Street Extension, where the new CVS Pharmacy is now located. In the 1950's I hung around that service station because there was also a “Dairy Queen” on the property. It was also only a half mile from my house. At this time Mr. Gilletti had had a tracheotomy and had to speak with a chrome speaking devise up against his throat which had a small open hole. He had the nickname of “The Whispering Bandit”. I believe that was derived from the ordeal with my dad s' diving and Mr. Gilletti collecting the donations.

Dad working on the Portland Bridge construction
in 1938
Some of the jobs my dad had while growing up included working at the Wilcox Lace Corporation, which was located at the corner of Cooley Ave. and Main Street Extension. In the late 1940's my mom also worked there. I was brought there a few times by my dad when he would pick her up from work. I remember all the women lined up at their work places in front of the huge machines. It's when, for the first time, I heard these new terms spoken. “Piece work, winding bobbins, bolts of lace,” etc. I got to take home some cardboard cones for souvenirs. They were used to wind pure silk threads on them. There were thousands of them in use above the ladies at there stations.
Piece work was when the employed would put out as much product as they so desired and would get paid accordingly. I heard at the time my mother was very good at her job and was one of the best producers.

My dad joined the Army in 1936 or 1937 and served in the Hawaiian Islands. I believe Ford Field was mentioned when he discussed his home base there. When he was discharged and came back to Middletown he was hired to work on the new Middletown-Portland bridge that was being constructed.
He talked about going into the diving “bells”, and that you couldn't stay under the water too long or you would get the “bends”, a slang term for a crippling condition. He also mentioned working on top of the arches with no protection whatsoever. At one time he was painting the top of the arches when he had to urinate badly. Instead of climbing all the way down, he just went in the paint and stirred it up. One day his foreman got angry at him for wearing leather soled shoes while walking on top of the arches. Of course he had to change into soft soled work boots from then on. I have a great photo of my dad as he worked on the bridge. It is in the commemorative booklet that was issued August 6, 1938, the grand opening and ceremony of the first bridge crossing.

Around this time my dad met my mom, Elizabeth Sebranski, who came to Middletown from Troy, NY.
She grew up in Troy and lost her mom when she was eleven years old. My grandfather William had a tough time bringing up and supporting six daughters and one son while working at a factory to make ends meet. My mom therefore moved to Middletown to be with her aunt, Mrs. Warenda, to help take some of the burden off my grandfather.
My mom and dad got married in 1939. They told me they had a five dollar model “A” ford and traveled to Baltimore, Maryland to get “hitched”. My dad was 28 and my mom a mature 14.

Their first apartment was called Hoberman's and the buildiing is still situated on South Main Street a few doors toward Main Street from St. Mary School.
Mom and Dad.
Being dirt poor during their early years together, they would sell christmas trees on Main Street.
My dad learned this from working at Millane's Nurseries in Cromwell. Working at Millane's was not a pleasant experience for my dad and his friends. As it was told to me by my dad, he and his buddies would be driven in Millane's old antique trucks, in the beginning of December, up to New Hampshire to cut and collect hundreds of Christmas trees. The trucks were 1930's vintage and had no heat whatsoever. My dad talked about how freezing cold it was as if it were yesterday. He never forgot it.
After those harrowing experiences my dad found a way to get heated trucks with his buddies to get his own trees to sell.

I think back to these “old” days and realize that my dad was a real entrepreneur. During the 1950's I remember my dad bringing home the lunch counter stool seats from various diners and coffee shops on Main Street. Through the night our family became an assembly line in our kitchen. We would reupholster hundreds of seats and have them ready for early morning the following day when my dad returned them to the shops. I remember that he received $3 apiece for the reupholstered seats and he used discarded remnants from a large upholstery factory in town. It was good money at the time as my parents mortgage was only $21 a month. They were able to purchase their first home for $5000 in 1951 on Ridge Road. My dad was working for a council member at the town hall at the time and the house was offered to him. It even included a double lot where we raised many animals and had great vegetable gardens.

1951 was also the year my dad was overcome by tuberculosis. The family was quarantined as my dad spent one full year in Newington and an Uncasville sanitarium. He had two major operations that lasted 7 and 8 hours respectively that resulted in the removal of his right lung. He was advised to never go back to the strenuous roofing work or to smoke again. He went into the hospital Thanksgiving week in 1951 and returned home Thanksgiving week 1952. During this time my mother took driving lessons and got a job in Deep River at another garment factory. She had been my dad's secretary for our family roofing business. Sad to say when my dad returned home from the hospital he took up smoking again that lasted the rest of his life but he did return to his roofing vocation and fortunately worked until he retired at 65 years of age.

In the summer of 1941 my dad happened to be working at the Russell Manufacturing Co. This was where asbestos clutch, belting, and brake linings were made. Stop & Shop supermarket on East Main Street occupies the land now. It was during World War II, parachute webbing, shoulder harnesses, and belting was also contracted for the U.S. Government there.
Dad working the hot rat kettle.That is the hot tar kettle behind
my dad with Stanley Piantek from Navadon Parkway and
"Shorty" Simolek from Butternut Street as his worker
One hot afternoon while working at the “Russell”, the sky literally opened up to a torrential down pore. The roof began to leak over the machinery so my dad's foreman asked my dad to go up on the roof to patch the leaks. My dad was very handy, the foreman knew this, as he had worked at various factories and venues throughout town so he was trusted to take on just about any task at hand.
My dad went to the local hardware store to purchase a five gallon pail of roof cement to patch the leaks. As he was purchasing the cement he asked the clerk for a discount. The clerk responded with,what is your company name?” My dad, in a subdued manner, glanced down at the pail of roof cement and read the label, “No Leak Roof Cement.” So my dad responded to the clerk, “No Leak Roofing Company.” He got his discount and returned to the “sweat shop,” as he called it, and told his co-workers that he was going into the roofing business. He left the “Russell”, purchased some tools and an old beat up truck and he was on his way. After working on roofs doing mostly shingling and repairs, an employee of his, John Kulmatz, suggested for him to buy a “hot tar kettle”. My dad did just that and his business took off. I remember the weekends while in high school running that kettle and learning the trade. I used the same kettle throughout my roofing career and still have it in my barn. I could fire it up anytime. There are many, many roofing stories that go along with that hot tar kettle, chapters could be written about it.
No Leak Roofing Co.” still exists to this day as my son Marc is still carrying on the name of my dads' business in Durham, NC. I ran this small family business that I bought from my dad in 1975 when he retired. I ran “No Leak Roofing Co.” from 1975 until 2008 when I retired.

My dad passed on in 1983 of complications of leukemia at the age of 73. God bless a wonderful father.  


  1. Wonderful story of your Father's life in Middletown. Thank you for sharing it with the rest of us.

  2. Man, that is a great story. Thank you for sharing it with us.

  3. What story does YOUR family have to tell?

  4. This is great Jerry, love to see your stories! I love the Insider for the capturing the old and new of Middletown


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