Photo Stirs South Deerfield Memories

We’ve all heard the old adage proclaiming a picture’s worth 1,000 words – in some cases, an understatement, like, for instance, the example I’m about to share.

A quick glance at an online postcard depicting a streetscape with old jalopies in mid-1950s downtown South Deerfield was all it took to unleash in me a flood of fond childhood memories. The black-and-white image appeared on one of my daily spins through eBay. It showed a brand spanking new Professional Pharmacy standing on the corner of North Main and Elm. Built in 1952 by downtown landlord Paul Georgiole, it was a low-budget replacement for the stately Bloody Brook Inn, destroyed by an overnight fire on March 14, 1951.

The sight of that intimately familiar building and the bulbous old cars harkening back to my mother’s green 1953 Chevy sedan really stirred my imaginative juices, sweeping me back to a childhood of bicycles, skates and skis, snow forts, mountain hideouts, nickel packs of Topps baseball cards, and double-scoop ice cream cones for a dime. We enjoyed a brand of smalltown freedom that’s unfortunately unavailable to children today. Sad but true. I’m thankful to have been there to experience it before parental paranoia clenched its stifling grip on foot-free childhood freedom.

The photo postcard was shot from the mouth of South Main Street across the downtown four-corners, looking north toward Conway Road on the left. The corner pharmacy luncheonette door is open for business. Route 116 was soon to be rerouted around the outskirts of town as Routes 5 & 10 had been five or six years earlier.

Back then, the main highway from Amherst to Conway still went right through the center of town, passing the east side of the common to a right-angle turn past the Grammar School and over the railroad bridge spanning Bloody Brook. That bridge has been closed for some 50 years, the school demolished about 30 years ago.

For some reason, the internal image that first came to mind looking at that streetscape was a fun-loving downtown character named Mike Rura standing at the corner politicking as a 1960 candidate for State Representative. I will never forget the summer day my father decided to have some fun with Rura, a teammate from the Greenfield Lions semi-pro football team. Our Chevy station wagon’s windows were rolled down as we approached the four-corners stop sign from the north. When my dad spotted the candidate working the sidewalk, shaking hands and passing out political pamphlets and bumper stickers to passersby, he deepened his voice and yelled a hearty “Boorah for Rura.”

My brother and I thought it a hoot, and of course the catchy phrase was immediately imprinted. Rura just looked up, immediately recognized the source, flashed a warm smile and waved with a mittful of political paraphernalia. Little did he know that he had acquired new young fans from whom he could expect to be needled with that playful Bronx cheer for the rest of his downtown campaign. From that point forward, every time we caught him politicking downtown, we’d give him an enthusiastic “Boorah for Rura,” which he took in stride.

Only 7 at the time, I had not yet gained untethered freedom to ride my bike around town, but my friends, brother, and I had pedaled through downtown often enough to have pasted Rura bumper stickers on our bikes. We’d speed noisily past Rura, baseball cards of hated New York Yankees like Micky Mantle, Roger Maris, Whitey Ford, Bobby Richardson and Elston Howard clothes-pinned through our spokes for a motor-like sound effect, and holler “Boorah for Rura.” The faster we pumped, the louder the sound from our spokes.

Rura lost the election but remained part of the downtown fabric for more than two decades, by which time we all had driver’s licenses and free-run downtown spirit. As a good friend of devilish pharmacist Billy Rotkiewicz, who ended up across the street at his own Frontier Pharmacy, Rura often found his way to that establishment’s small, hidden room behind the drugstore counter and shelves watching a ballgame or preparing for a Saturday dump run in the pharmacy’s old truck secreted out back.

Rura’s final act in town turned out to be an act of open defiance of a selectmen’s order to clean up his North Main Street property out past the Dry Bridge. Most but not all found it comical. But let’s return to that later, after I’m done discussing boyhood memories stirred by that postcard, Rura’s campaign only the first of many.

Brought to light in that photo were the old downtown homes nestled between Conway Road and the corner of Elm. I remember two homes there, both torn down to make room for the South Deerfield branch of Greenfield Savings Bank. One was the old Leary place, snuggled up to the pharmacy building parking lot north of the attached Suzatek’s Market, then the larger Artemas Williams place on the corner of Conway Road.

Was there in my lifetime a third dwelling standing there, as shown on 1858 Walling and 1871 Beers maps? It doesn’t seem so. Not in my recollection, anyway. But I wouldn’t rule it out. Such insignificant details wouldn’t have been important to a wayward smalltown boy following the Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn tradition.

The eBay postcard photo background isn’t clear, even when enlarged, but it sure does appear to squeeze in three buildings with their gabled ends facing the road. Maybe not. I’d have to see a contemporaneous photo from across the street. That would solve the vexing mystery, which must for now remain unsolved. Does it really matter?

The postcard unveils my hometown embarking upon a new era, one leading faraway travelers around downtown instead of through the heart. As a result, bustling hotels like the Bloody Brook Inn that burned in 1951 and the Lathrop Hotel, which met the same fate in 1875, could no longer cash in at the downtown intersection of southern Franklin County’s two busiest highways.

Perhaps that’s why Georgiole didn’t construct another large hotel at a profitable site, dating back at least to an old-time tavern known as the “Russell Place” in the 1830s. The site became even more lucrative for innkeeping after the railroad came through town in 1846, igniting the glory years of downtown South Deerfield. By the 1950s, it was time to reinvent the downtown business district under a more local paradigm that was mined for gold by Rotkiewicz for decades.

Which brings us back to Mike Rura’s much-publicized spat with the Town of Deerfield. The bone of contention was his family home and unkempt yard at the north end of North Main. I think it all started when selectmen ordered him to “spruce up” his property around the time of the 1973 Tricentennial Celebration.

Feeling unjustly targeted and singled out, Rura responded with open defiance by inviting friends and neighbors to dispose of their Christmas trees on his property. As the blue-spruce mess piled deeper and the selectmen grew angrier, the dispute found its way into the newspapers, and Rura became even more stubborn. It was his property, he argued, and he’d do with it as he pleased. Then he claimed to be creating a wildlife refuge in the spirit of conservation.

The dispute remained active and unresolved for years, turning uglier as it endured. Eventually, perhaps to the selectmen’s delight, the house went up in flames during the wee hours, burning beyond repair. If I can trust my memory, in the days before homelessness became common Rura met his accelerated end as a Deerfield resident living out of his car.

Today, the old Rura lot stands vacant, and few who pass it on their daily rounds likely know the story, or even that a home stood there not that long ago. I think the town ultimately seized the property and removed what was left of the buildings.

So, in the end, affable old Mike Rura of large and eccentric stature didn’t fare any better in his high-profile dispute with the town than he had in his lone political foray. Simply stated, he lost both battles – now just water over the dam, the memories washed to a distant sea. Not yet totally forgotten, I thought I’d briefly resurrect the man who absorbed our childhood “Boorah for Rura” chants with warm aplomb and a friendly smile in the hell-raising town that buried him.

 

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