#McCormick’s Restaurant 3/30/15
I regularly go back to where I spent sixteen years (1944–1961) growing up, and which I left when the leaves started to fall in 1961, to attend my Dad’s alma mater, Syracuse University. I have gone back as often as I could. But it changes just a little bit each time.
The biggest change is missing buildings. I see the blank unreconstructed lots, empty like the sockets where an infected tooth got yanked, or where a memory was pulled down. Sometimes something new has replaced them. Sometimes it’s hard to tell, was it fire or just a removal? The spot where the Golden Anchor sat vacant long after the last fish fry was served up with a river view is one of the latter. Something new and good for the community is going in there. I hope by the time we return this summer we may be able to have a meal and a scenic view once again in that spot. I have included it twice in paintings, as it was before it wasn’t anymore.
Fire is the most common cause for blank spots. McCormick’s was the place where I bused tables; mopped floors; washed dishes; drank some few beers and a couple of shots or three; learned to cook in a commercial kitchen;
and where I worked on how to get along with other people. It was the place which fed, watered and liquored up tens of thousands of tourists and locals alike, and it no longer hangs precariously off the river shore, doing that. Its expansive, nearly unobstructed view of the river is no longer available to the public. A nicely designed condominium project was built in its place. If you want the river view, you can still get it from the porch or the water level deck at Bella’s while you have dinner or a morning coffee. Or you can get it for free from the river park just west of the condos, or by strolling along the River Walk through Frink Park.
Our class of 1960 had its tenth and twentieth class reunion at McCormick’s, in the familiar spots where I spent so much time from my 14th birthday to my 18th. It is now just a memory ghost, with only a few photos left to invoke the shape of it then. The tragedy is that someone died in that fire, the owner’s son and co-owner, Paul Dee. Mr. Vincent Dee, and from all accounts his son, were generous to a fault with their employees. I would hasten to add that Vince, as he was referred to by people close to him, had little patience with fools. I worked for him for four years, and I believe, and my brothers
have confirmed, that I tried that patience once too often. In my senior year he put me “in charge” of the donut shop he had just opened. I was to fry donuts in the window, right next door to the restaurant, attracting customers and selling them along with “frozen custard” from two machines. It was where I learned my second lesson about micro burns from hot grease, and maybe the most valuable of all. When you are finished with an assigned task, like cleaning the custard vending machines, take up another as soon as possible, so as to add value to your employment, and keep your boss happy to continue employing you.
One very boring day in early June of ’60 when all of my friends were out doing spring things young people do on nice days, I chose to sit down after all the chores were done and read a chapter from my newest book. We were not doing breaks mandated by law in those days, so my break was not of a legitimate character. Engrossed in the book, I lost track of time, and when I looked up there was Mr. Dee in the doorway, staring at me intently. I don’t recall what he said, but it was something in the neighborhood of “You’re fired. I don’t pay people to read books when they should be working.” Not at all a direct quote, and he was very calm about it, but after finishing the day as he asked, I quite understood that I was not to return to work tomorrow, or ever. Over the years afterward, Mr. Dee was always good to me, and never brought up the day he had to fire me.
I had started at McCormick’s in April of 1956, busing tables. My three brothers and I all worked there, and many friends. My brothers Jack, Jim and Dick all tended bar in the mid to late 1950’s. A brisk business was generated by the Clayton and American Boat line tours leaving from the timber dock behind McCormick’s, as well as bus tours booked out of various distant places; many from New York City. A ticket booth, souvenir shop and waiting area for the boats was located just north of McCormick’s in a one story building open on two sides. There was a clear view of the river, with benches for tour bound passengers to sit and wait for the next boat while watching the St. Lawrence flow by. Ticket hawking was summer employment for several of my high school teachers and advisors. Two of the best were “Prof” (James) Destefano and “Jerry” (Jeremiah) Black. There were many others, but I had the closest relationship with them.
Standing out in the hot summer sun or the occasional rain storm wearing white shirts and captains hats, they successfully lured the passing tourists in to buy tickets to ride the double decker boat Adonis, and later her sister ship Venus, or one of the single deck wooden tour boats that plied areas where the deeper draft boats couldn’t go. Before my brothers Jim and Jack went away to the Air Force in the early 50’s, they were deckhands and tour narrators on the smaller boats. That would be a story for them to tell.
When the boats returned, the passengers would disembark at the dock directly behind McCormick’s, many of them finding their way into the bar or the restaurant. It was not uncommon for 50 or 100 people to decide to do that at once, causing profitable chaos inside, where they could partake of the “1000 Islands Smorgasbord”, a sizzling steak or pork chop, or fresh seafood, some of it local. A friend recently emailed me some photographs which his brother had sent him. The photos show the front of McCormick’s as it was in the 1950’s and 60’s, part of a menu, and some newspaper ads for the restaurant. The “1000 Islands Smorgasbord” is mentioned in the menu and the ads shown. Mr. Dee was very proud of and it actually was quite famous. One newspaper ad, “featuring ‘Big Jim’ Marshall and his guitar” and the $1.99 Riverboat Buffet were evocative, as Jim and I were CCS Class of ‘60 classmates, and he, Bryce Baker and Hank Recor used to have a 50’s Rock and Roll band that I roadied for.
The first picture below is of the booth just beyond the location of the wall of Smorgasbord tables, right outside the kitchen door. Mr. Dee started me out when I was still just 14, working those tables, keeping the plastic dish tubs filled with, well, just about everything. There were hot cherry peppers and other peppers in bowls of the liquid that filled the jars they came in; cooked chicken livers in oil; fresh lettuce and cut carrot strips; tubs of pickled beets, sliced onions, olives, and other delicacies. I particularly remember the “pickled” herring which had to be hand removed from little salt packed wooden boxes and placed in oil in a tub. That was done down in the basement room under the newest section of the building, nearly at river level. Any cuts on your hands began to sting as soon as you opened the boxes, and by the time two full boxes had been emptied, my hands were a red mess. There was no water available down there to rinse them off, so I had to do that upstairs in the pot sink.
In that picture, which I took in about 1957, John Dixon is seated at the left, across from my brother Dick in the right foreground with Bob Moschelle to his right. Bob and Dick were bartenders, and John was a cook. The jukebox remote brings back memories too. It was one of my tasks to swamp out the bar, clean the restrooms, put out all the trash, and mop and sweep the whole restaurant floor before it opened. Someone, not saying who, showed me this neat trick where you could smack your clenched fist on the top of the remote and it would act as if you had put a quarter in it. I would have been about 15 at the time, in my second summer at McCormick’s. One day, after having popped it a few times and played maybe 9 songs, Mrs. Dee came downstairs to see why the Juke box was playing “See you later alligator . . .” so much. No one was there to put money in it, and the Seeburg/Wurlitzer guy had just been there to empty the Jukebox and the remotes. Fortunately she did not suspect innocent little Joey of fooling with it, and soon gave up trying to find the culprit. I think she suspected who it was put little Joey up to it, and she did ask me, but I played dumb. I think of that moment every time I eat in a retro decorated restaurant with those same type remotes, and wonder what would happen if I smacked one just so . . .
The color photo is of the 1960 CCS class reunion head table, with Carol, Prof and Mrs. Josephine Destefano to my right. The reunion was in the main dining room, and the bar had been removed from its old location, closer to the dance floor in the middle of the room. The place had a way of changing like that, between visits, and I wish now I had photos if the changes. The black and white group photo is of the 1980 Class of ’60 reunion. For me it was a time for a little déjà vu. We were actually partying in that low ceilinged room under the main dining room, where I had so enjoyed unpacking the herring! Sadly, five of the people in the back row are no longer with us. I’m not sure who took the picture. I’m the strange looking guy on the far right in the back row with the beard, in front of my friend Chris Muggleton.
Carol and I went to two CCS reunions and often ate dinner or lunch at McCormick’s when we were visiting Clayton, before the fire. Looking back on four summers of having worked there, I really miss the place, despite ending my employment by getting fired from my first “long term” job. It’s one of the places you just can’t go anymore, except in memory, but to me it will always be the place where McCormick’s was. It makes me love the buildings that are still left all the more, and I am glad that Clayton has an excellent fire department to prevent conflagrations such as occurred at the end of the 19th century, when much of the downtown was destroyed. I look forward to going back this year to see the positive changes that have been made.