By Ted Frett
I grew up at the corner of 29th and Tyler Avenue in Cramer Hill across from the athletic fields of Von Nieda Park and the old Cramer Hill Boys Club building. My grand parents house had adjoining back yards since they lived on Polk Avenue. My relatives the Comeaus lived at 28th and Polk. Other relatives included the Hoffmans at the corner of 28th and Cleveland, the Hoffmans at Dupont and Harrison, and the Fitzpatricks on North 32nd. As a kid, most of my free time was spent at Von Nieda Park, the Boys Club, roaming the woods and river bank along Harrison Avenue between 29th and 36th streets, or sneaking on the State Street dump looking for copper, brass, aluminum, or cast iron to sell at the junk yard in East Camden.
Back than, you knew every family on your block. Between 28th and 29th on Tyler there were the Edward Smith, Frank Vitelli, Joe Heibel, Stan Syzmanski, Don Stark, Charles Dimattia, and Edward Mackhouse families to name a few. Other great families in the area were the Charles Graves and William Boyd families on North 29th between Tyler and Polk and the Knoedel family on the corner of 29th and Pierce. The Knoedel house and property was one of the nicest and well kept property in our part of Cramer Hill.
Unfortunately in a 20 year span of time, three of my neighbors tragically lost their lives. Our next door neighbor, 4 year old “Bruzzie Smith”, was shot off his barber chair by Howard Unruh during his shooting spree in 1949. My oldest brother Bob (“Sonny”) narrowly missed the shooting. He walked with my mother, Mrs. Smith, and “Bruzzie” to 32nd and River Road. My mother and brother went up 32nd Street to Sharp School to register my brother for kindergarten and the Smith’s went to the barber shop. Charles William Sutman, a Camden police office had lived directly across the street and he was shot and killed handling a domestic disturbance around 1969. Finally, Joseph Vitelli, another neighbor across the street, died in a motorcycle around the same time.
As a kid, we would sometimes hang out at the corners of 28th and Tyler or Polk where there was a corner store at both locations. Our favorite was Herman’s at 28th and Polk. Herman and his family were great people, and I wound up working for Herman two summers stocking shelves and delivering orders. My biggest tip then (around 1960) was a quarter, and that was for carrying a bag of groceries from Herman’s store to a home at 27th and Harrison. I remember Herman’s credit system. He kept a three ring binder where he kept track of people who came in the store with promises to pay their bill on pay day. In most cases they did but there were those few people that kept a running balance by paying part of what they owed. At that time, the kids I hung around with would sit of Herman’s Bilco door to the basement and drink Coke or Hires root beer. It was a big deal when Royal Crown cola came out with a 16oz bottle. Of course, we suddenly decided a 12oz Coke or Hires was not worth it anymore.
Other places we frequented were Dutch’s at 27th street between River Road and Lincoln Avenue. Dutch had a variety store with the only pinball machine around unless you walked up to Well’s at 27th and Hayes. We didn’t do that because there was an older bunch of guys that hung out there. We think Dutch set his pinball machine to tilt easy so you couldn’t be too rough with it. But, the one thing you could get at Dutch’s that you couldn’t get anywhere else were two cigarettes for a nickel. He sold them to anybody after he checked out who was in the store and who was standing outside. You see, Joe and Frank’s barber shop was right next door and our fathers got there hair cut there. Kel’s variety store/soda fountain was on the corner of 27th and River Road and that was where you got milkshakes. Also in that area were Woolworth’s, a hardware store, a bakery, and the Rio movie house. For a quarter you could get in, watch a movie, and stay to watch it again by hiding under the seats and not getting caught by the ushers.
Major food shopping was done at the Food Fair at 26th and Westfield. While in that area we would sometimes walk down to the big Woolworth on Federal Street. A shoe store around 25th and Federal had the first X ray type machine that would take a picture of your feet to assure a perfect fit. There was the Arlo movie which was fancier than our Rio and the Horn and Hardart where you put money in a slot and pulled out your own food or drink from a glass compartment. The best clothing store in the area was Kotlikoff’s but our family could not afford to shop there.
It was not hard to find things to do with the other guys in the neighborhood. We were always doing something. Activities included playing baseball at the park. The game was usually “three flies or six grounders” when you didn’t have enough guys to field two complete teams. It was merely a batter that kept hitting until the fielders caught 3 of his fly balls or cleanly fielded 6 of his ground balls. When it happened, another batter rotated to the plate. Other activities were pitching pennies or baseball cards at the corner against any wall, playing “Stretch”, “Mumalee Peg”, or “Chew the Peg” with a pocket knife or ice pick. Everyone back then carried a small pocket knife or a “Slapsie.” A “Slapsie” was a home made slingshot using a piece of car inner tube, preferably the brown/orange colored ones, a shoe lace, and a piece of leather for the pocket. These were used to shoot cans and bottles we set up on fences, and even an occasional street light at night. Of course we wouldn’t shoot those bottles where you could return to collect a deposit (then buy more 16oz Royal Crown). There was also wire ball, hose ball, half ball, pimple ball, and “jail break.” Mischief Night had its special activities like “soaping cars” (Ivory Soap was the soap of choice), knocking on doors and running, tying door knobs together or tying a string of cans to the back of a car. Then there were the winter activities. There were great snowball fights. We should have called them snowball wars because of how many kids were involved. The best sledding was up at 28th and Cleveland. Kids would “belly flop,” sled to 29th, turn left and travel to Hayes and maybe across. We had to have lookouts at each intersection. Hopping cars was the thing that proved you were not a “sissy.” We did this with our sleds or without. You would just hope you wouldn’t hit any bare concrete. Of course some drivers stopped and got out and caused us to run, others were oblivious to the whole adventure. You learned quickly not to hold on to that part of the bumper where the exhaust pipe was located.
If someone got hurt doing any of our activities, no parents threatened to sue anybody. If any of us got yelled out by a neighbor who was an adult, your own parents figured you deserved it and that was that. Kids didn’t get sick by passing around a bottle of Royal Crown to six of his friends and nobody got a blood disease by sticking a pin in their finger, waiting for your buddy to do the same, then pressing them together to become “blood brothers.” We played out in the rain all the time and nobody got pneumonia. If you did get sick, old Dr. Shephard, whose office was at 27th and Arthur, would come to your house. He looked like Winston Churchill from a distance carrying his little black bag of pills and Castor Oil.
What a great time to grow up in Cramer Hill. I would not have traded it for anything!