East Falls Historical Society Oral History Interview
Interviewee: Gerald Porto (GP)
Interviewers: Lyda Doyle (LD) and Wendy Moody (WM)
Date of Interview: March 5, 2018
Place: Meadowview Rehab Center, Ridge Pike, Philadelphia
LD: This is Lyda Doyle and Wendy Moody and we are interviewing Jerry Porto on March 5, 2018 at Meadowview Rehab Center.
WM: Hi Jerry how are you doing today?
GP: A little better than yesterday.
WM: Good; glad to hear it. We can stop whenever you want. So let’s begin by asking where and when you were born.
GP: I was born February 8, 1928.
WM: And was that in Philadelphia?
GP: That was on Calumet Street.
WM: Were you born right at home?
WM: In your house?
GP: On Calumet Street.
WM: Do you know the number on Calumet?
GP: Yes. 3642 Calumet Street.
WM: Was there a midwife or a doctor; do you know?
GP: No doctor; no midwife.
WM: Can you tell us about your parents? What were your parents’ names?
GP: My mom’s name was Aralia Porto.
WM: How do you spell Aralia?
GP: A-L-A-R-A-I -A
WM: What was her maiden name?
GP: Good question.
WM: We can go back to that. What was your father’s name?
GP: Joseph Porto P-O-R-T-O.
WM: Did they grow up in East Falls?
GP: They landed in East Falls and that’s where they lived. He went to war against the Germans.
WM: World War II or World War I?
GP: World War I.
WM: Where was he born?
GP: My dad was born in Italy.
WM: And your mother?
GP: My mom also was born there.
LD: So when he came back from the war they gave him his citizenship, right?
LD: Yes, because anyone who fought for the Allies was automatically given a citizenship.
WM: When he fought in the war was he still living in Italy or was he already here?
GP: He was already here and they sent him to war and luckily he did not get killed.
WM: Did your parents meet in East Falls? How did they meet?
GP: Before he went to war – they met on Calumet Street I guess.
WM: And were they married in East Falls?
GP: They were married before he went to war.
WM: At St. Bridget’s?
GP: Maybe there; I don’t know.
WM: Do you have brothers and sisters?
GP: Yes I do. I’ve got two brothers and one sister.
WM: And where are you in the birth order? Are you the oldest?
GP: No. I was the third.
WM: What were their names?
GP: Her name was Aralia.
WM: Like your mother. And your brothers?
GP: Same name as my dad – Joseph, Jr.
WM: And your other brother?
WM: And so it was Joseph, Aralia, and Gerald – three children.
GP: Yeah. And the one sister she got sick and passed away.
WM: Not Aralia – a different sister?
WM: That’s so sad. So tell us a little bit about your growing up – you grew up on Calumet?
GP: I grew up on Calumet.
WM: And what school did you go to?
GP: I went to St. Bridget’s – and when I went there I could not speak English so they kept me in first grade for two years.
WM: Because your parents spoke Italian at home?
WM: That must have been hard. What did your father do?
GP: My father worked for a company that digs graves.
WM: Was that all around the city?
GP: That was in Philadelphia.
LD: Did the nuns keep you after school to teach English?
GP: Yes, but they were not very successful.
WM: You’re speaking it now though…! Tell us about St. Bridget. What are your memories of going to school there?
GP: St. Bridget was a good place. They were really strict. That was the worst of it.
WM: Did you get in trouble?
GP: I got in trouble because I didn’t understand what they wanted and they didn’t understand what I wanted so we were always at odds.
WM: Did you go there till eighth grade?
GP: No. I went there for about five years – actually six, because they kept me back and then I joined the Service.
WM: At a young age.
GP: Yeah. 17. And I had to get my dad to sign. In order for me to be able to join…
WM: At 17. Were you in a high school? Germantown or Roxborough?
GP: No high school. Just fifth grade. That was it, as far as education.
WM: Ok. Tell us a little more about St. Bridget. What did you do at recess?
GP: We couldn’t understand each other so well so they would give me jobs like painting the chairs and odds and ends that needed to be done at the convent.
LD: Were there any other Italian speaking children at the school when you were there too?
LD: Just you. Wow…
GP: Yeah, that was lonesome.
WM: Did you go home for lunch every day?
GP: Yes, yes. Lunch every day we went home.
WM: Do you remember any special things that happened at St. Bridget – any plays, ceremonies or anything?
GP: Nothing that was special.
LD: Did you make your first Holy Communion there?
LD: And your confirmation?
WM: Any afterschool activities or anything else at St. Bridget?
GP: Just to go paint the chairs.
WM: And what did you do after school? Where did you hang out?
GP: I went down to Ridge and Midvale with the other guys.
WM: Who were your friends?
GP: Well, they were not very good… what I mean to say to say is that they were a little dishonest…
WM: What did you do at Ridge and Midvale?
GP: Just talk and watch the girls (laughter)
WM: Can you describe what Ridge Avenue was like when you were a child?
GP: Yes. It was kind of quiet there. There wasn’t much traffic or nothing. Every once in a while a car would go by and we would try to name the original maker of the car and whoever would give the right answer would be like – not a hero, but…
WM: What stores do you remember along Ridge and Midvale?
GP: There were a lot of stores that were all there. We had good and bad.
WM: Can you name some of them going down from Odd Fellows Hall – the Masonic Hall?
GP: Yes I do remember that.
WM: What was in that building?
GP: That Masonic Hall. They used to bring people there to sing.
GP: Yeah, they had to go upstairs and then they acclimated and then they started singing. It was nice to hear them.
WM: Was there a hardware store on the first floor?
GP: Yes there was! That was the original hardware store in East Falls.
WM: What was the name of that?
GP: That’s a good question. We never had no money to buy anything.
WM: Did you go in there though? Can you describe it?
GP: No. We never had no money to go buy anything. We were not allowed to do things we weren’t supposed to do.
LD: Was there a grocery store down there? Or a butcher shop?
GP: Yes, McGuire’s Butcher.
WM: And that was right on Ridge?
Yeah it was
LD: How about the Major Drug Store – was that there then?
GP: Oh that was there forever!
WM: What was that like?
GP: It was popular but we never had no money to go in.
WM: Who owned that – do you know?
GP: No I don’t.
WM: Was Grace Presbyterian Church there?
GP:I think it was a Jewish man that owned it.
LD: Was there a butcher shop there? Sam’s butcher Shop? I believe he was Jewish also.
WM: Was Grace Presbyterian Church down there?
WM: Can you describe that?
GP: That was nice.
WM: And it moved up to – do you remember when that church moved up to Vaux or when they destroyed it?
GP: No, I don’t remember.
LD: Would you like some water?
WM: Just going back to St. Bridget’s for a minute, did you have any interaction with the other schools – Mifflin – did you play with Mifflin kids?
GP: Not really. We stayed together.
LD: Did you ever play in the Inn Yard – you know, the little park across the street on Ridge Avenue?
WM: Where did you play?
GP: We didn’t.
WM: Joe Petrone told us he used to walk across the river to go to Woodside Park. Did you do that?
GP: Well, no. But Joe Petrone gave us jobs to paint whatever had to be done.
WM: That’s good. His father was a painter…
LD: And a paperhanger.
GP: We used to paint and he used to give us 75 cents.
WM: You painted different houses in East Falls?
GP: No, we painted the chairs in the convent. We used to paint the chairs for nothing but then he would give us 75 cents.
WM: Did you go to McDevitt Playground?
WM: How about the library?
GP: I tried to get into the library to get some books out, but the language that I knew they didn’t know, so it failed.
WM: That’s so sad. How did you finally learn such good English?
GP: Well I liked to read the books but I never had a chance to get the books. I didn’t know how to express myself.
WM: Who finally taught you English?
GP: Hanging around the boys…
WM: So you went into the Army – tell us about that.
GP: I went into the Army. My dad had to sign in order to get me into the Army. I was 17.
WM: Where did they send you?
GP: They sent me to the Philippines.
WM: What do you remember about those years?
GP: Philippines was another country. The people were a lot different than I remember.
WM: Did you see action?
GP: Yes; you couldn’t help it.
LD: What was your job in the military?
GP: Just to be a soldier and that was it.
WM: And about what year was this? During WWII? Do you remember when you came home? Was it before the war ended?
GP: The war did end. Germany surrendered and I came home and I wound up at Ridge and Midvale with the boys. My friends.
LD: Did you get a job after the war?
LD: What did you do?
GP: I worked for a company that was called Borno’s (?). They cleaned clothes –garments – and I got a job in there – in the rug department.
WM: Where was that located?
GP: That was on – what’s the next street after Allegheny?
WM: Clearfield? Diamond?
LD: Lehigh? Westmoreland? No, that’s before Allegheny.
WM: So this was in North Philly?
WM: And how long did you work there?
GP: I worked there until I got into the Service.
LD: It wasn’t Hunting Park was it?
GP: It could have been Hunting Park.
WM: Oh, you worked there before you went into the Service.
WM: What happened after you came home? Did you get a job?
GP: I tried to get a job. I wanted to go to school.
WM: Did you ever get married, Gerry?
WM: Was your wife from East Falls?
GP: Yes, she was a girl who used to come to Calumet Street
WM: What was her maiden name?
GP: Her name was Nancy but her real name was Regina.
WM: And her last name before she got married?
GP: Her father was a boss of…
WM: Did you get married at St. Bridget?
GP: Yes. No. We didn’t get married first at St. Bridget. We got married first at her church up in Roxborough and then after that and then we got married at St. (?)
WM: Do you remember what her church was in Roxborough? Was she Catholic?
GP: It wasn’t Catholic. And we had 49 ½ good years. (cries)
WM: Oh Gerry. I wish I had known her. So when you married her, did you move to a different house in East Falls?
GP: No – same house. I had bought a house and it was dilapidated and it took me one year to make it presentable for her to move in.
WM: This was a different house than the one you grew up?
WM: What was the house number that you bought?
GP: 3630 Calumet Street.
LD: Is that the one with the front porch?
GP: An open porch.
LD: Up near Skidoo Street?
WM: And you lived there your whole marriage?
GP: 49 ½ years.
WM: And what was your job during those years?
GP: What was my job? Carpenter. I learned how to be a carpenter through books.
WM: Did people hire you to build houses? Furniture?
LD: Did you fix houses for other people? You worked on their houses?
GP: Yeah, but I was not successful in making money.
WM: Did you build any houses in East Falls?
GP: I helped build one but… (pause)
WM: Not a whole house in itself…
WM: Did Nancy work also?
GP: Yes. She worked at Sears & Roebuck. She had to go to Center City to work. We had a beautiful 49 ½ years of beautiful life.
LD: Did she take the train to go down to Center City?
GP: Yes. She’d go down to Cresson Street and take a train.
WM: When you were married to her, what kinds of activities did you do in East Falls? Were there any restaurants, events?
GP: There were restaurants but I didn’t buy anything from the restaurants. They were too expensive and not what I wanted to eat.
WM: Do you remember holidays in East Falls when you were growing up? Fourth of July?
WM: Tell us about that.
GP: Fourth of July was a happy time and everybody was happy.
WM: Did you have a picnic?
GP: We didn’t have a picnic but we went to one.
LD: St. Bridget’s picnic?
GP: No, I think they cut that out for some reason.
WM: Where did you see the fireworks from?
GP: We had to wait until a long time until it got dark but we did see some.
WM: Do you remember you stood to watch them? The reservoir?
GP: We stood on the bridge on Cresson Street.
LD: How did you celebrate Christmas?
GP: We celebrated by giving each other presents.
LD: Did you have a special Italian dinner?
GP: Italian food.
LD: The 7 Fishes?
GP: Yeah. I can’t think of anything else.
WM: Did you know Robert Connolly who lived on Calumet?
WM: He was a great guy. What do you remember about him?
GP: He was a great guy. He was popular and everybody followed him.
WM: I met him once – we corresponded through email – he was down in Cape May then. I went down to see him and then he died. But he sent me many emails about what he remembered doing in East Falls – playing half ball…did you do any sports?
GP: No; work. A lot of work.
WM: So it was hard to make ends meet?
GP: Well, no harder than it is today I guess.
WM: Tell me about your brother – the one whose letters we found at the library.
GP: Frank. He was the lover of the family.
WM: I could tell that from his letters…
GP: He has boxes and boxes and boxes of letters.
LD: Was he older than you?
GP: Yes, he was the oldest.
WM: Is he the one that made the jewelry?
WM: Was that his career?
GP: No. He made many, many things that people didn’t know how he accomplished them.
LD: Did you have a brother Jacques Porto?
GP: That was Frank.
LD: Was that his nickname?
GP: Yes – they gave him a fancy name because he was the lover of the family.
LD: So they gave him a French-sounding name.
GP: They gave him a fancy name – Jacques.
WM: Do you remember at St Bridget ever meeting the Kellys?
GP: Meeting the Kellys?
WM: The Kelly family.
GP: Yes. Grace.
WM: Did you meet her?
GP: Yes I did. Did you know that Grace Kelly was somehow or other – wherever she went – she went towards the older men – she didn’t go after the younger men.
WM: I didn’t know that. Can you describe her? I never got to see her.
GP: She was a pretty woman. Very popular.
WM: Did the whole family go to St. Bridget on Sunday?
GP: Yes – my family.
WM: And did the Kellys come in to church?
GP: I remember the old man – yeah. I remember stuff that’s not very pleasant. The old man crossed his brother – who got him a job selling bricks.
WM: Was that P. H. Kelly?
GP: The one that owned the company gave him a job and then after a while – rather than selling the company, he formed another company and cheated his brother.
LD: His own construction company you mean?
WM: His brother’s…
LD: I mean J. B. Kelly started his own company.
GP: That’s what I mean – he cheated his brother.
WM: Do you remember going up to the area where they lived growing up? What was that area like?
GP: It was always busy with cars
WM: So you didn’t go up too much to McMichael?
GP: No. it was no fun.
WM: How about the reservoir?
GP: Oh that’s different. That was more fun.
WM: You’d hang out there with your friends?
WM: How would you spend your time there?
GP: Well we’d enjoy ourselves you know. I had my wife and I spent most of my time with my wife.
WM: Did you have any children?
GP: Yes. One.
WM: And who is that?
GP: My daughter. Her name is Regina. The reason I had only one was because we found out later that my wife had diabetes.
WM: Oh, I’m sorry. What year was Regina born? Was that after the war?
GP: Fifty some years ago – 53. 1953 or 54.
LD: At any point did you buy a car?
LD: What was it?
GP: A Chevy. In the back of the car there were six – three round lights on one side and three round lights on the other.
LD: Tail lights.
WM: Was that in the 1950s or 60s?
WM: Now when did you move next to Billy Murphy’s?
GP: The house was abandoned for a long time and then I – in fact it was the last house that the brewery owner had.
GP: Hohenadel owned all those houses. And he would rent them to the people who worked at the factory. And that one house – 3642 – that I had a chance to buy it and I did.
WM: You moved from Calumet Street to that house?
WM: Was that after Nancy died?
WM: You lived there with her?
GP: Yeah… 49 ½ good years.
WM: Do you remember the brewery there on the corner?
WM: Can you describe that? Did you ever go in it?
GP: No I never went in it because my dad said that all the people that drink beer are not too good people.
WM: So you didn’t drink…
GP: No beer. Today I drink beer.
LD: Did you ever have wine for Christmas?
GP: Oh yeah, we made wine. We used to make it – we used to go down to 9th Street and buy fifteen 45-pound crates of grapes for 75 cents. And then we made wine.
WM: Was this with your wife or with your mother?
GP: No, with my dad.
WM: What was the process?
GP: Well you had to get the grapes. You had to crush them. Then after you crushed them, you put your hands in and move it. You gotta do that all the time so it ferments.
LD: Did you crush them by stepping on them?
LD: You had a press? A crank?
GP: A crusher.
WM: How was the wine?
GP: It was good. And then my dad made one barrel for the family and two barrels to sell. That would be 5 cents a bottle.
WM: Now where did your family do their shopping – if you needed clothes or food?
WM: Do you remember which stores?
GP: I remember a big store.
WM: Was that Allen’s?
GP: Could have been, yeah.
LD: Rowell’s? That was another store.
GP: That’s another one. The name is familiar – Rowell’s.
WM: Would you walk there or take a trolley?
GP: No, we took a trolley. The 52.
WM: You remember that coming down Midvale?
GP: Yeah, when we got off the man in charge would give us 2 cents if we attached the pole.
WM: Oh yes! Joe Petrone told us about that!
LD: You changed the poles. It was up to a quarter by the time Tommy Doyle was doing it! (laughs)
GP: Yeah. 2 cents….
LD: Do you remember the ragman or the junkman coming around? And the milkman and the bread man? Did you mom order from them? Did you and Nancy order from them?
GP: She did order some things. She would order some cakes for us already made.
WM: That was a steep street to go up – Calumet – did they go on Calumet Street?
LD: Did the huckster used to come with the vegetables?
GP: Yes he used to be there every day.
WM: Do you remember his name?
WM: How about the river? Did you go down there to play?
WM: What did you do down there?
GP: Well, we used to put our feet in the water. We’d sit on the steps going down and then we’d put our feet in the water.
WM: Any fishing? Didn’t kids used to go out to a rock by the Canoe Club and jump off?
GP: Aw, yeah.
WM: Were you one of those?
GP: No I was not a daredevil.
WM: How about Old Academy – were you in there?
LD: Do you remember a stable at the bottom of Calumet – a horse stable?
GP: Yes!! Yes! There was a horse stable there.
WM: Where was that exactly?
GP: Right at the end.
LD: Right on Calumet – Where the cleaner is.
GP: On the other side.
WM: Whose horses were they?
GP: I don’t know, but we used to rent them.
LD: You used to rent them and go riding on them?
WM: Did you go to the Alden Theater?
GP: Yes my cousin worked there,
WM: Who was that?
GP: That was Mary Mondemore.
WM: She was the candy lady?
WM: I’ve heard about her. We need to interview her… what do you rem about the Alden Theater? Can you describe it?
GP: The Alden was a nice place – there were some good movies. And Saturdays there were two features for one price.
WM: What was that price?
GP: 12 cents.
GP: We used to see cowboys.
WM: I heard they used to give out dishes?
GP: Yeah, Wednesday nights they gave out dishes and you if you kept going to the movies, you could get a whole set of dishes for the family.
LD: Do you remember any of the movies you saw there?
GP: Cowboys. Randolph Scott.
LD: The studios were over on City Avenue where they filmed the Cowboys and Indians. And the Cinderella show.
WM: Did you say you would go across the river to Woodside?
GP: Oh Woodside was nice. We had a lot of fun there. There were some problems with the black and the white at that time.
WM: What did you enjoy going on at Woodside?
GP: At the Woodside? The rides.
WM: Robert Connolly’s father managed the merry go round.
GP: The merry-go-round was beautiful.
WM: There was a crystal pool – did you go in that?
GP: Crystal Pool…
LD: Was there a roller coaster?
GP: Yeah there was a roller coaster.
WM: Do you have other memories you want to share with us?
LD: Do you remember a candy store on Stanton Street across from St. Bridget’s? Mudgies?
GP: Yeah, Mary Wolf and her husband…
WM: Were there stores along Conrad when you were growing up?
GP: I think there were.
WM: Did they call it 35th Street back then?
GP: Then. Yeah.
WM: Do you remember when that changed?
LD: Do you remember the Breck School at all – before they built Mifflin?
GP: Yeah. They sure did.
WM: What did that look like?
GP: No different than any other at that time.
WM: Do you remember when they tore down any of the buildings – like the Falls Tavern?
WM: You remember the Falls Tavern?
GP: Oh yes. Everybody knew that.
WM: I missed it – I didn’t live here then.
GP: You didn’t miss nothing…
WM: What was that like? What would you do there?
GP: If you liked to drink that’s where you’d wind up.
LD: Did not they have a back kitchen where you could order food to take out?
GP: Yes they did.
LD: On Fridays they would sell fish.
GP: Yeah. They were good! You’d get a fish sandwich. Oh it was really delicious! Oh my kingdom for a fish sandwich!
WM: Was the post office on Midvale Avenue?
Yes. It was always – there was a problem because – it wasn’t like a post office – you walk in and go through these doors. It was cheap.
GP: It was friendly but…but…
WM: Do you remember anything else around East Falls when you were growing up?
GP: I probably do, but right now I’m at a disadvantage.
WM: Ok. You’ve given us so much information, Gerry. So we’ll stop now and maybe another time well do it again. We really want to thank you!
GP: When I feel better too.
WM: You were a real trooper to do this.
GP: Thank you.
LD: Maybe when you’re home again you’ll feel better and remember things you want to tell us.
GP: I know that. Yes.
WM: Do you have any old pictures?
GP: Yes. I gave them to my daughter. She lives 200 miles in Gettysburg.
WM: What’s her last name?
WM: Thank you so much Gerry.