Nestled in the heart of the Conhocton Valley, along the Cohocton River and approximately 90 miles south of Rochester, Bath is the County Seat of Steuben County in what is commonly referred to as the “southern tier” of New York State.
Boasting a population today between the village and town of over 12,000 people, Bath has grown dramatically since that summer day in 1962 when we moved into town. At one time, farming and dairy production were the major industries in town. Every June the Dairy Festival Parade could be seen winding its way down Washington Boulevard, ending at the county fairgrounds where kids could get free milk. The third week in August brings the Steuben County Fair, the oldest ongoing fair in the country. The Haverling Central School District is home to past and current athletic team champions — wrestling, swimming, soccer, football. “Big Blue,” the school’s well-known and highly popular band, travels throughout the area performing in parades and concerts.
Just a few short miles east of Bath in the village of Hammondsport, one can find the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum, and the Taylor Wine Museum, now known under it’s current name, Bully Hill Vineyards. (For an interesting read, check out the Bully Hill Museum site.) The Bath/Hammondsport area is rich with beauty with lush, green rolling hills, beautiful Keuka Lake, and magnificent vistas seen from atop the hills. It’s also a popular spot for hunters from throughout New York and Pennsylvania during deer season.
“The big four-lane” — which today is labeled as I-86/Rte 15 was one of the biggest things to hit Bath, and most likely the biggest contributing factor to the growth of this tiny little hamlet over the past 30+ years that I’ve been gone.
The main business section, Liberty Street, remains mostly unchanged from the early years, with some of the original structures still standing. The old Chat-a-Whyle restaurant burned down some years back, to be replaced by a bigger, arguably better store. The old Bath Theater, which became a bank later on, still stands, but the marquee is long gone.
At the end of Liberty Street, the historical courthouse and Pulteney town square are testaments to the town’s rich history, even though modernization has erased some of the original design(s). The town has recently celebrated its 200th anniversary. Bath is where drivers licensing and vehicle registration takes place, as the county seat. Family court matters are heard in Bath. Birth and death records are maintained in Bath, along with marriage and divorce records. Felony crimes are tried in Bath.
Bath was, by all standards in the 1960s, a great place to raise a family. It was a quiet, out of the way place, but had businesses that sustained the town and the townspeople. It was a quiet, friendly town. Even my mother commented on how friendly people were in Bath.
Upon our arrival in Bath in the summer of my seventh year, we moved into a small, two -bedroom apartment with a full basement in Colonial Lawns, a nice, family-oriented apartment complex, that sat somewhat separate from the town, even though it was in town, with only one way in and one way out. Behind the semi-quad of buildings were spacious lawns and playgrounds for kids to play on.
We were enrolled in St. Mary’s Catholic School and I began the second grade, Steve the third, that year we moved to Bath. St. Mary’s was only a half mile from our apartment. I was very small so it seemed like a much greater distance than that, especially given the fact that we walked it all the time.
At 5:30 every morning, Mom would get us up when she got up, feed us breakfast, get us semi-ready for school, then put us back to bed with an alarm clock set for 7:30. She would leave for work and, when the alarm went off, we were supposed to get up, finish dressing, and set out for school. Yes — we were way too young to be on our own like that, at 7 and 8, but I suppose my mother did what she had to do, given her limited income. Sometimes we went back to sleep and sometimes we didn’t. More often than not, if we didn’t, we were up to no good or into something we had no business being into.
I don’t recall that attending St. Mary’s was any sort of huge adjustment for us. The only major difference was the uniforms, which were extremely expensive and Mom complained bitterly about the fact that the only store where she could purchase our uniforms was M. Cohn & Sons, the most expensive clothing store in Bath at that time. In reflecting back, I have often believed that our tuition at St. Mary’s was paid by someone other than Mom — perhaps our grandparents or even some need-based scholarship.
I began the second grade under the supervision of Sister Miriam, and Steve was assigned to the third grade under Sister Mary Janet (the woman who for years would be Steve’s nemesis). We studied the basics, along with catechism, and adjusted fairly well to our move and our new environment. Well, mostly we adjusted. A short time into the school year, Steve took to wetting the bed. After several incidents, Mom took him to see Dr. Smith (one of only two doctors in town at the time) and Dr. Smith determined that Steve’s problem was “just nerves.”
The Catholic Church became a larger and more prevalent part of our lives. We went to mass every Sunday, without fail, regardless of the weather or time of year or anything else that was going on around us. We walked to church and we walked home. We walked to school and we walked home. Catholic life was rigid and demanding, and so was our mother.
Handwriting was enormously important in those days, in Catholic schools. Penmanship was up there next to math and reading as far as academic importance. Kathy K., the girl who sat next to me, made perfectly formed letters, seemingly without any effort at all. I wanted to write just like her and when we had a writing assignment, I took my time, tongue pressing against the side of my mouth, and concentrated on the painstaking process that I knew would earn me an “O” (for outstanding). When I completed the assignment, I surveyed my work, proud of it’s neat, orderly appearance. I took it up to Sister Miriam who took one look at it, and placed a big red “N” on the top of the paper (needs improvement). Not even an “S” — a lousy “N!” I had worked so hard. I was deflated and I don’t remember ever putting that much effort into a writing assignment after that. At the tender age of 7 I had learned that effort doesn’t always count for much, and sometimes, regardless of effort, the outcome mattered most.
As Autumn neared its end, talk at home began to center around the holidays and spending them at my grandparents’ house. I was excitedly talking about having that big turkey dinner for Thanksgiving and my mother told me that we couldn’t afford turkey that year, and we’d have to have hot dogs. Now, we were pretty used to hearing what we could and couldn’t afford. And we couldn’t afford much. So, when my mother told us this, it didn’t occur to me that she might be pulling my leg. A short time later, Sister Miriam had each child in the class stand and talk about what the Thanksgiving holiday would bring. When it was my turn, I know I babbled something about going to see my grandparents. To prompt me, Sister Miriam asked me to describe what we would be having for dinner. I matter-of-factly related to the class and my teacher that we would be having hot dogs because we couldn’t afford turkey. Sister Miriam was incredulous but, after I told her that this was what my mother had told me recently, she stopped pressing.
Later that evening, after receiving a phone call, my mother angrily asked me if I had told my class that we were having hot dogs for Thanksgiving dinner. Not understanding her anger, I told her I had, in fact, told the class that. She yelled at me, asking me if I was so stupid that I didn’t know she’d been joking about the hot dogs. Truthfully, it never occurred to me that my mother would joke about something like that. Apparently, Sister Miriam had reported the hot-dogs-for-Thanksgiving-dinner tale to her superiors who, in turn, called my mother and asked her if they could help her provide us with a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. My mother was mortified.
I’m pretty sure that my second grade year was when I made my First Holy Communion. During school hours the Friday before the big day, we were taken to the church and Father O’Malley heard our first attempts at confession, one by one, girls on one side, boys on the other. “Bless me father for I have sinned, this is my first confession, and these are my sins…” I didn’t know what to confess, so I made up some stuff (thereby sinning) so that I’d have to do some penance. When you’re seven years old and put on the spot to sincerely confess any sins you’ve committed, your mind goes a little blank. I received my penance, along with the blessing from Father O’Malley, and dutifully left the confessional for my assigned pew to begin my penance.
I was tremendously excited about wearing my white communion dress. It was the sort of thing that fairy princesses wore. Brides wore them. I’d worn them in Hornell when I modeled clothing for a short period of time. And now it was my turn to shine in one of those beautiful white dresses. I didn’t know anything about pride being a sin, I just knew that I wanted to wear one of those dresses, to feel pretty, and to receive the body of Jesus for the first time. I was ready. I was worthy. I was clean enough to receive Jesus.
It was a wonderful event, with my beloved grandparents in attendance, and I didn’t want that day to end. I didn’t want to have to take off that beautiful dress and veil, white gloves and pretty little white patent leather shoes. I was someone special that day. Innocent. Pure.
The following year, I was promoted to the third grade and assigned to Mrs. Smith. Steve was promoted to the fourth grade, where Sister Mary Janet would be his teacher again. Steve’s bed wetting problems became worse that year.
That year, in late November, an announcement came over the PA system from the principal. We were being released to go home early because President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. Some of the nuns were crying, others just looked stunned. We started out for home and, when we crossed the walk between the town hall and the Bath National Hotel with the assistance of “Mr. Dillon,” a police officer, I asked him if he’d heard anything. He said that the president was dead.
The next three days seemed very dark. The television was on with an endless display of John Kennedy’s life and death.
The man arrested for shooting Kennedy, Lee Harvey Oswald, was brought onto the television screen with that smirk he seemed to always have and, there before our eyes he was shot on live television by Jack Ruby.
We watched Jacqueline Kennedy’s strength as she appeared publicly for her husband’s final rite of passage.
We watched the children, Caroline and John John, well-behaved, appear with their mother, although probably not entirely certain of the finality of their father’s fate. And we watched John John’s little hand touch his forehead in salute to his father on his third birthday. And we cried.