CAMDEN, NEW JERSEY
CHILDHOOD MEMORIES OF EAST CAMDEN
by Bernie Rieck
Over the years Camden people have moved here and there, across the country and around the world. No matter how far many have gone, many retain a great love for our town, decades after leaving.
Bernie Rieck was born and raised in Camden, spending his early years on Westfield and Lemuel Avenues. He took many photos as a teenager in the 1950s and again while visiting in the 1990s, and has made them available to this website. Enjoy!
Childhood East Camden Memories
I was born in Cooper Hospital July 5th, 1938, at 3:30 in the afternoon. After the normal delay, I came home to my parent's apartment at 3404 Westfield Avenue The building still stands, but not in the nice condition it was when I lived there.
Here's a picture from 1994
Back in my childhood, the corner two slots were a convenience store, and then was Bloomquist's Meat Market, which our apartment was above. The next building housed Henry's barber shop and a store that slips my memory. After that was a vacant lot, which still seems to be there in the 1994 picture.
The next street to cross Westfield was 36th Street, the sometimes border of Camden. Behind the stores/apartments curved Merriel Avenue. Within this area I had freedom to roam from the time I was four. I could go wherever I wanted as long as I didn't cross a street.
By the time I can remember, the Camden trolleys had given away to busses, but the tracks lay buried under layers of asphalt. When World War II broke out, the asphalt over the tracks was ripped up and the tracks pulled up to be used for scrap. The slots were filled in and re-asphalted, but from then on you could see where the tracks had been. I liked to sit at our front bay window and watch the flow of traffic; double-decker busses, then Ford busses (shorter than the GM units) then the ubiquitous Public Service gray GMs.
Behind Merriel Avenue ran the one-track branch Pennsylvania Railroad line to Pemberton and Fort Dix. At 36th Street where the track crossed there was Rich Brothers Coal yard which had a short rail spur and three white painted silos where various grades of coal were stored. It was great to watch the local freight engine cut out a coal hopper car and push it up the siding onto a bridge-like structure. The hoppers on the car would be opened by a worker and the carful of coal would fall into a pit, only to be scooped up by a clamshell bucket and lifted to the top of the silos, where the load would be released. Sorry I never took a picture of this place.
A little further up the tracks was an empty lot with some sort of a pump station in the center. Crossing the track at this point (behind Rich Bros) was a brick-lined tunnel that went underground, crossing back under the tracks and then into the darkness of the sewer system (I guess). It took a mighty brave kid with a lit candle to go in more than 50 feet. All of this area still exists, I believe; just as I have described it...
School, of course was Henry H. Davis, practically across Westfield Avenue from my apartment. It was red brick at that time, with no chain link fence mentality, as there is now. There wasn't even a railing at the edges of the raised playground. Jumping off was how one showed their fearlessness. I did grades K through 5 at Davis, my last teacher being Ms. Hoofnagle.
After the War
This is the house in the early 1950s and as it was in
Fortunately, we only had to live there for a year or so and then moved out to Bridgeboro (present-day Delran) for a couple of years, and that is another story as it is too far out of Camden to recite here. We'll be back to Lemuel Avenue in a couple more years, though.
Return to Camden from Bridgeboro
When my grandfather, Robert Veatch died in 1951, my family moved back to Lemuel Avenue to help out my now-widowed grandmother. Sleeping arrangements were no better than before, as most everyone who was there before was still there.
At this time I started 8th grade at Cramer Junior High School and graduated with the class of 1953...
This was a long walk from Lemuel Avenue and in winter I sometimes almost froze to death. I finally got the idea one winter day to go onto a closed in porch of one of the row houses on the way (that was unlocked) and rest until I was feeling a bit warmer. Going to Cramer introduced me to the 26th and Federal east Camden shopping area. Again I have no pix of the way it was in 1952, but took some pix for reference in 1994.
Here is the old F.W. Woolworth building. On the second floor in the 1950s was a dance hall, with taxi-dancers at 10 cents a dance. My girlfriend's mother worked a counter in Woolworth's at that time.
Looking the opposite way toward downtown. The white building, center left, is where the old Victoria theater once stood.
During lunch period at Cramer, some of us guys would walk over to the Woolworth's lunch counter and deliberately annoy the waitresses, and usually shoplift some gum or trinket on the way out.
One thing that this shopping area didn't have was a good hardware store. For that we had to go to Cartun Hardware at 36th and Federal. It was the best hardware store in the area.
Around the Neighborhood
The most immediate thing in the Lemuel Avenue neighborhood was the "Starch Works" down past 32nd Street Paved Lemuel Avenue only ran between 36th Street and 32nd Street, below that it was a dirt road that led to the Starch Works. Now and then large trucks would rumble down Lemuel Avenue, bring or taking unknown stuff to the factory. Walking down the dirt road I would find puddles of green, blue, and yellow hue in my path. Nobody in the neighborhood knew exactly what went on there.
weekly food order for us came from Orlow's store at 32nd and Saunders Street, about 5 blocks from our house. This was a mom and pop
store, where I occasionally worked stocking the few shelves that were
on one wall. The building is still there, having a corner
doorway and now blocked in windows. A pound of hamburger order
always brought the response, "one or two grinds?" We usually
got the two grinds. Then there was the walk home with two or three
paper bags of groceries. If things were slow, Mr. Orlow might
drive us home in his shiny black Buick. The only other store in
the area was a new building about two blocks down 32nd Street called
Bob's Market. This is a 1994 view of Bob's Market with the back of
Westfield Acres behind it.
land behind the "Acres" was empty to the Pavonia Yard, and
along the edge of this land ran the single track line that went to
Pemberton. The view from Pleasant Avenue (which was the only street that
went through south to 27th
Street) is shown below:
This shot was taken from the railroad track, looking towards 32nd Street This area was an illegal dumping ground for locals, and I found many a treasure along here.
The picture below shows an unusual engine taking the Pemberton run, sometime in the mid 1950s. It is a Baldwin "shark nose" A unit.
Usually, the trains on this line were "Doodlebugs" like the one below, passing along the far edge of the Pavonia tracks in this shot:
Note the Nice Paint factory in the background.
Otherwise the neighborhood consisted of working class housing with the normal every-day life happenings.
I should mention here about my Uncle Roy and Aunt Hazel Walliser and my cousin Carol, who lived in Ablett Village. Carol is 3 years younger than me. Here are a couple of shots of Carol and the Ablett Village housing:
Getting from Lemuel Avenue to Ablett Village
Since my family didn't have a car, my grandmother, my mother, my brother, and I would walk from our house over to 36th Street and down 36th Street to River Road, where we would catch a #9 bus toward Camden, We would get off the bus at about 28th Street where there was a hoagie shop, and we would buy enough hoagies for us and my aunt and cousin. Then we would get the next #9 bus and get off at the Ablett Village stop, and walk to my aunt's house. Getting home didn't require the hoagie shop stop.
High School Daze
Woodrow Wilson High School, along with Camden High and Camden Catholic High, made up the Camden high school system, with Woodrow Wilson being at the bottom of the ladder of respect. It was practically not located in Camden. I started there as a sophomore (10th grade) in the fall if 1953. It did not take me too long to set up my school classes and life as I wanted them to be, as I had done at Cramer. My first step was to get involved with the stage crew, through being introduced to Len Hawkins, and working with him and Tom Goeringer, another sophomore. Len graduated after that year, leaving Tom and I as the only stage crew for the next two years.
And, for any ex Wilsonites (or Prexies), the organ in front of the stage was once used...
My stage position got me out of a lot of non-classes, such as study hall, and also got me double lunch periods. Then there were the girls I was personally acquainted with:
Is There Life After High School?
With diploma in hand, I set out to set the world straight and to make some loot.
The summer of 1956, I met and dated the girl who would become my lifetime sweetheart, Elaine Burke, who was attending Merchantville High School as a sophomore.
Elaine took right to railroading...
On my own over the years I had learned the basics of electronics, but had no formal training. I had got a dead-end job after graduation, but needed some sort of degree in electronics to get a good job. I tried night school and hated it, so, I joined the Navy and disappeared from Camden for about 3 years. While in the Navy I got the training background I desired and after schooling, reported aboard the USS Forrestal, CVA 59. But that's another whole story.
Forrestal resides, decommissioned, in the old Philadelphia Navy Yard.
Many Thanks to Bernie Rieck for his help in creating this page.
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