Bowne House, World’s Fair Plans Highlight March 1936
Get into a conversation with a long-time Queens resident and you’re likely to discover a subscriber of the Long Island Star-Journal, a daily paper that informed the community about local and world news until it folded in 1968. A banner across the Star-Journal masthead reminded readers that the newspaper’s name came from the merger of the Long Island Daily Star (1876) and the North Shore Daily Journal--The Flushing Journal (1841).
Welcome to March 1936!
During a rare tour, visitors who crowded the Bowne House found out that the historic Flushing building was menaced by an army of termites. "A life and death battle was waged daily in the old homestead—a battle with an unseen menace that threatened sturdy beams that had withstood time and elements decade after decade. Millions of the dreaded insects made inroads into the 300-year-old building, gnawing steadily through the lower foundations.
"Exterminators were at work in the house for weeks in an effort to combat the army of tiny attackers. The Misses Anna and Bertha Parsons, direct descendants of John Bowne who built the house, had to temporarily vacate it until the fumes thoroughly penetrated the building."
This information came to light when more than 150 guests toured the historic building for the benefit of the North Shore Public Health Nursing Association. Prominent Flushing residents were hostesses for the event, which raised $50.
"All the young visitors wanted to see the stick John Bowne used when he killed the famous Long Island bear. There it was, encased, looking very much like a walking stick with a sharp end. Legend states that he rammed it down the beast’s throat after the bear attacked him in the nearby woods."
Many famous Bownes lived in the house. Samuel B. Parsons, who married Mary Bowne, was one of the finest horticulturalists in the county. His Kissena Nurseries supposedly introduced navel oranges to Florida
The house’s furnishings accumulated over generations: chairs, tables and even a four-poster bed slept in by William Penn are just as they were when he visited the Bowne home. George Washington and George Fox, founder of the Quakers, were guests there. Items from its collection of early American life included a Bible dated 1753, fire-bellows, old silverware, mixing bowls, warming pans for the beds, tiny foot-tubs, bowls and pitchers, samplers, old documents, etchings, snuff-boxes, pipe drawers built into the wall, andirons, tongs and a Dutch oven. A genealogical tree and a chair brought over on the Mayflower topped off the list.
The sisters also claimed that the Bowne House was part of the Underground Railway for runaway slaves. The Misses Parsons told the visitors that the slaves slept in the hayloft of the place and were fed by members of the Bowne household until they could establish themselves safely.
In nearby Flushing Meadows, a Battle of Art loomed over the World’s Fair. "Classicists and modernists engage in tilt" said the Star on Fair architecture. The Municipal Arts Society warned Fair organizers at a luncheon sponsored by the Society, that "beauty cannot be bought at the corner grocery store, then seasoned to taste." Art critics who admonished George McAneny, World’s Fair president, stated "If the 1939 Worlds Fair was not a landmark in taste, then it will be sunk. The genius of beauty must preside over the Fair."
Xavier Kneer, 86, builder of the Broadway Theatre, and owner of both Broadway Hofbrau and the Broadway Astoria Hall at 32-08 Broadway passed away. Years later, Kneer’s remained a popular catering hall at the same location.
At King Kullen ("Why Pay More?") a leg or rump of veal was 21 cents a pound. Fancy white cabbage was three heads for 5 cents and apples, oranges, lemons, or bananas were all 10 for 10 cents. Coffee was 22 cents a pound, mackerel was 15 cents a pound. Blue Point oysters were 17 cents per dozen.
The city issued a report on ending pollution in the East River. It listed 108 sewers discharging untreated waste of which 19 were between Newtown Creek and the end of Hell Gate. These figures included untreated drainage from 35 hospitals. The report sharply disagreed with claims that the river’s salt water purified or cleaned this waste. The East River was branded as one of the most impure bodies of water in the country, sharply in contrast to the sewage-free Thames (London), Seine (Paris) or Spree (Berlin).
The month of March 1936 saw record flooding on the Ohio River. First at Pittsburgh, then later in West Virginia and Kentucky, papers carried pictures of flood waters covering blocks of downtown business districts. Lives were lost; property was destroyed.
These images caused a Kew Gardens man to recall the horror of another Pennsylvania flood some 47 years earlier in 1889. A. Dix Tittle of 80-15 Grenfell Ave., Kew Gardens, had horrible memories of the great Johnstown flood which claimed 2,300 lives. Although then only a boy, he recalled vividly the day’s events when a massive dam collapsed under the weight of thousands of tons of water, and a 15-foot wave roared down over Johnstown. The rampaging torrents swept away bridges, railroad trains, buildings—even tore up and swept away heavy machinery from factories.
Tittle was standing on a hill with his family when the dam gave way. "We heard the roar," he said, "then heard a terrific rush of air which snapped off trees from six or seven inches in diameter. Behind this wall of moving air came the water, thousands of tons of it, bearing on its muddy top, debris of every description—and may bodies too."
On March 14, T. W. Smith of 27-19 Jackson Ave. reported a meteor flying low in the sky. "I had just come out of the subway and was walking home along Van Alst Avenue (today 21st Street) when I heard something—a shock or thump—and saw this thing in the sky, shaped like a torpedo with a ball of fire in its nose and flames shooting out behind. It seemed to be going to the rail yards and fell into Jackson Avenue. When he heard that others from Virginia to Massachusetts reported it, he exclaimed: "There you are! I wasn’t seeing things. I only had three glasses of beer!"
The new Bayside High School opened and immediately was heralded as an imposing structure ranking as one of the borough’s finest public buildings. It boasted polished terrazzo floors and imported marble. Its auditorium seated 2,000. Students sum up their opinion of new high school after the first session in one word— "Swell!" Janitors vow never to use dirty brooms on its floors.
Mary Pickford canceled her schedule to offer last homage at bier of "Aunt Kate" of Thomson Hill. Miss Kathryn Whelan of 45-13 Fortieth St., Sunnyside, had known the screen idol since Miss Pickford was a little girl with long blond curls, and was known as plain Gladys Smith. In 1908, when Miss Pickford and her mother first came to New York, they shared a large apartment on 23rd Street in Manhattan with the Whelan sisters. Later, when she became famous, Mary invited her "aunts" to California. They demurred, saying they could not afford an expensive vacation. "Miss Pickford not only paid their expenses, but put them up at Pickfair, her estate." For months the Whelan sisters were honored guests. They were the only non-royalty to ever live in Pickfair’s legendary Royal Suite.
The rare friendship became public when Pickford, staying at the Sherry-Netherland Hotel in Manhattan, heard of "Aunt Kate’s" last illness. Pickford took a limousine out to Queens to visit her old friend. "They spent the afternoon together reminiscing over old times. A few days later, just as Miss Pickford was about to fly back to California, she was shocked to hear of Miss Whelan’s death. The screen legend canceled travel plans and immediately went to her friend’s modest apartment in Queens and paid her respects."
That’s the way it was in March 1936!
For more information, contact the Society at 718-728-0700 or visit www.astorialic.org.