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Brooklyn Mohawks

Nov 24, 2009 3:59 PM | 13 comments


To close out Native American Heritage Month I thought a post about the community of Mohawk Indians that lived in Brooklyn would be in order. For more than three decades, starting in the 1920s, the Mohawk Indians from the Kahnawake reservation near Montreal, Canada, made the Boerum Hill section of Brooklyn their home away from home. This close knit community grew and prospered and left their stamp on Brooklyn, as well as on the skyline of New York. At a time when New York was being transformed, skyscraper after skyscraper, Mohawk men began making the journey from Kahnawake to New York, looking for work on steel constructions as riveters and iron workers.  The building boom created many of the city's most famous landmarks -- the old Yankee Stadium (1923), The Empire State Building (1930), The George Washington Bridge (1937) -- and the Mohawk played a crucial part in the creation of these buildings. 


              Victoria Bridge - © Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec, © Héritage Montréal

The story of the Mohawk's relationship with steel and, eventually, with Brooklyn, has it's beginning in the mid 1800's with the construction of the Victoria Bridge over the St. Lawrence River. The bridge's north abutment needed to be constructed on Mohawk land.  To secure the rights to build there, the railway agreed to hire several Mohawk Indians as unskilled laborers to work on the tubular structure made of riveted iron plates.  According to company history, an executive viewed several young Mohawk walking along a high ledge. Being in dire need of men who would not be afraid of heights, he decided to train the Mohawk laborers in steel construction and riveting. The skills learned were passed through the family, with fathers teaching their sons, nephews and cousins. As more and more Mohawk learned the trade, their reputation as excellent ironworkers grew.  These skills were in great demand, and at the bridge's completion they began to search for other construction opportunities.  They found them throughout Canada and the U.S., and by the 1920's the Mohawk Indians were recognized as experienced steelworkers.  In spite of the depression, this period saw a building boom in New York City, and the Mohawk from Kahnawake were ready to make the most of it.   

New York City 1950's by Jules Geller

The Mohawk trek to Brooklyn for construction work was steady, but the men did not stay in place very long.  They stayed mainly in rooming houses then went back to Canada at the end of a job.  This changed in 1926 when Paul Diabo, a Mohawk iron worker, was arrested in Philadelphia on charges of being an illegal alien. The U.S. government argued that he was in the country illegally and was not eligable to work. His defense team used the 1812 The Treaty of Ghent which states that all rights and privileges lost during the War of 1812 be restored to Native Americans, including the right to travel freely from Canada and the U.S., and that the Mohawk were recognized as a separate nation irrespective of the U.S. and Canada.  His victory in this court case meant that the Mohawk were free to travel and work in the two countries without fear of harrassment. The ironworkers could bring their wives and families with them and settle within a community. New York in the early thirties offered many opportunities for these men, and they began to migrate from Canada in greater numbers. From October to June they lived in what is now the Boerum Hill section of Brooklyn. Bounded by Court Street, Douglas Street, 4th Avenue and State Street, "Little Caughnawaga" became the home of the largest group of Mohawk outside Canada.                           

Reverend Cory with Diabo sisters

As the building boom continued, the Mohawk community grew and prospered.  The Wigwam bar on Nevins St (formerly Conelly's Abbey Bar) and the Spar on Atlantic, became popular community centers. In these establishments the men exchanged information about jobs, arranged trips to Canada, and passed on the news from back home.  Children attended P.S. 47 and Nathan Hale Junior High. Churches attended by community members included St. Paul's Church and, most notably, The Cuyler Presbyterian Church.  This church, located at 360 Pacific Street, was frequented by many in the Mohawk community. The Reverend David Cory, to show his acceptance and respect for the newcomers, learned the Iroquois language and held sermons in Iroquois on Sunday evenings once a month. Along with Mohawk parishioners he also translated a hymnal and held afterschool classes on the Iroquois language. 

Cuyler Presbyterian ChurchThe late 50's saw the number of Mohawk in Brooklyn reach an estimated 500-700 people. But the building boom was also coming to an end, and with it jobs in the construction industry. The Mohawk men began to look for work elsewhere in the States and Canada.  By the 70's little remained of "Little Caughnawaga."  The Cuyler Presbyterian church is now a private residence, and The Wigman and the Spar are gone.  But memory of the Mohawk's sojourn in Brooklyn lives on in the iconic buildings and structures that define New York today.

" A lot of people think Mohawks aren’t afraid of heights; that’s not true. We have as much fear as the next guy. The difference is that we deal with it better. We also have the experience of the old timers to follow and the responsibility to lead the younger guys. There’s pride in walking iron." —Kyle Karonhiaktatie Beauvais (Mohawk, Kahnawake)

A partial list of structures built with the help of the Mohawk   

Yankee Stadium 1923

Chrysler Building 1928

Empire State Building 1930

Waldorf Astoria 1931

George Washington Bridge 1937

Triborough Bridge 1937

Rockefeller Center 1940s

United Nations 1947 

Additional Resources

On November 2, 2009 PBS premiered To Brooklyn and Back: A Mohawk Journey by Reaghan Tarbell.  Check your local PBS station's schedule for repeat showings. The Smithsonian Institution has a traveling exhibit on the Mohawk steelworkers. A signed copy of  David M. Cory's book, Within Two Worlds (New York: Friendship Press, 1955) can be found in the Brooklyn Collection.



Making life easier for the Brooklyn housewife (and househusband)

Nov 24, 2009 2:17 PM | 3 comments

I often wonder what the life of a 1950s housewife was like.  How did Brooklyn housewives manage to accomplish their appointed tasks each day?  Well, convenience and help seem to have been the keys to the homemaker’s daily routine.  Exciting advancements came through machines, pre-cooked foods, and easy solutions to prepared food storage. The Brooklyn Collection has photographs and ephemera that showcase moments in the life of a housewife and -- a happy surprise-- a 1950s househusband too! 

In 1953, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle ran a photograph and article on the revolutionary idea that no one in their right mind would want to leave the comfort of their apartment building to buy such a simple item as say, a carton of milk. The answer?  The Mechanical Milkman!

 Mechanical Milkman, Brooklyn Eagle, Feb. 6, 1953

Here, we see a picturesquely dressed housewife purchasing milk in the lobby of her apartment building.  This machine was on trial at the Clinton Hill apartments and eventually was installed in over 70 buildings in the city.  Refreshed daily, the mechanical milkman held 140 quarts of milk.  The article ends on a speculative note: There's no excuse now for meeting the new neighbors on the pretext of borrowing a cup of milk.  However, there's always that cup of sugar.  But who knows what the machine age will cum up with next."  Indeed.  Maybe a robot chef?

Sadly, the machine age did not come up with a robot chef, or at least the Eagle did not report on it.  Something close to a robot chef however, came a few years before the Mechanical Milkman.   Abraham & Straus found a convenient way to help the busy housewife prepare meals with pre-cooked entrees and side dishes ready to take home and serve.  New Food Shop, Brooklyn Eagle, Feb. 12, 1951

The new food shop was created "for the woman whose daily schedule requires that dinner be whisked on to the table in a matter of minutes."  This photo shows  the "Prepared Food Section" stocked with "ready-to-serve and take-home" foods.  Today, we can find prepared food counters in just about every grocery store, offering everything from roasted meats and vegetables to super gourmet organic rotisserie chicken, couscous and fully prepared Thanksgiving dinners.  Did Abraham and Straus start the prepared food revolution?  Probably not, but I am sure  plenty of housewives enjoyed shopping for clothes and food for the whole family in one place. 

And what about storage?  You have purchased several delicious Ebinger's cakes and taken them out of the box and--Oh no! -- you've set out one too many cakes! What is to be done?

What excellent questions presented by these housewives.  We all need help finding new ways to serve and store desserts.  Ebinger Baking Company of Brooklyn published this guide to food storage to help answer such questions.  A chart included inside the brochure was meant to be cut out and hung on the fridge door. It outlines how to store, refresh, and serve various Ebinger's products.  Some suggestions include eating desserts while still partially frozen and an italicized note "Freezing does not provide indefinite storage".  

While the housewife has been the focus of this post, let's not forget that husbands can be rather helpful around the home as well.  While househusbands were, I'm sure, few and far between in the 1950s, I managed to find this photograph of Bob Baugh, London Broil Expert.  The caption to the photograph reads, "Bob Baugh deftly flips a flank steak for London broil. An old hand at helping his wife get the meals, he thinks that perhaps he will have more to do in the culinary line within the next few weeks after the arrival of an heir."  Wow, what a helpful househusband! 

London Broil Expert, Brooklyn Eagle, Oct. 24, 1952

Bob inspired me to take a picture of my own Brooklyn househusband vintage 2009 for this post. Tim is an excellent cook and very much in charge of the day to day running of our apartment.  Here we see my househusband preparing dinner for me on my return from a long day at work.  While Tim is not a London Broil expert (I don't think that he has ever even cooked it), I believe I was quite happy with the bacon-wrapped trout and roasted potatoes.  Yum! 

Househusband Tim in a Brooklyn kitchen, Olivia Morales, Nov. 20, 2009

The Darlington Electric Fountain, 1897-1915

Nov 19, 2009 5:51 PM | 4 comments

Darlington Electric Fountain pipes, Grand Army Plaza 1914

When this blog began I thought an article on the successive fountains of Grand Army Plaza would be a good idea--but found I had nothing to add to the section in the Wikipedia article on same.  Well, finally I do have a little something new to add to the story. This recently acquired photograph looking southeast across the Plaza shows the circular pipes in the empty fountain basin, with the reservoir tower in the background. Just below the tower you can see hoardings around the site of the Central Library, on which my trusty loupe shows a sign reading "To the Museum." This photograph was taken on June 26 1914 at 3:10 p.m.  by photographers of the Public Service Commission only months before the site was excavated for the IRT subway construction, destroying the fountain completely.

There are not too many pictures of the Darlington fountain out there. The fuzzy black and white images in the Architectural Annual of 1900 give no idea of the beauty that attracted crowds to spend the evening watching the display of color and light.  On opening night it is reported that 100,000 spectators gathered  on the Plaza and the berms surrounding it. In fact, if anyone has a color postcard of the fountain we would love to see it. The Bailey Fountain currently occupying the site creates its effects differently, through dramatic sculptural forms complemented by powerful arcking jets.  City Park in Denver Colorado has a Darlington fountain that was renovated in 2008, so I am borrowing it to give an idea of how Grand Army Plaza might have looked at night during the short but illustrious lifetime of our own Darlington Electric Fountain.

City Park Electric Fountain, Denver CO

Photograph by kind permission of Atlantic Fountains

The Shriners in Brooklyn

Nov 6, 2009 12:05 PM | 2 comments

Kismet Program 1928

This sublimely silly program has resided quietly in our ephemera files under the heading "Clubs: Masonic" for quite some years. I am so fond of it that I decided it was time to give it an airing, and in so doing could not help but ask myself some questions. Who were these dudes? What was the  Kismet Temple they occupied? Why are they wearing this curious headgear? And what accounts for the sense of humor so unusual in items relating to fraternal orders?

In 1928 the Kismet Temple was located at 92 Herkimer Street in Bedford Stuyvesant, and the full name of its occupants was  the "Ancient Arabic order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine." This particular program invites members to an initiation and wecome ceremony for the visiting head of the order, "Ill[ustrious] Clarence Martin Dunbar, Imperial Potentate." The "Official Divan 1928" lists members and their functions which include  Alchemists, Imperial Bench Warmers, Camel Milkers, Purveyors of Sneer Zem Zem, Keepers of the Seraglio and Feedologists. The Illustrious Potentate of Kismet Temple for 1928 was Thomas A. Davis, of 151 Columbia Heights.

Kismet Temple. Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Feb 20, 1910

But by 1928 the Order was already almost 60 years old. One of the founders of the Order, commonly known  as the "Shriners", has a strong connection to Brooklyn--in fact, he is buried in Green-wood Cemetery. William Florence, a well-known actor and a Freemason, was attracted to the idea of a new Masonic fraternity that would stress fun and fellowship. Taking ideas for costumes and ritual from a musical entertainment with a Middle Eastern theme, Florence, along with Dr Walter Fleming, created the ritual and costumes, and in 1871 the first members were initiated.

A Brooklyn Daily Eagle article of 1887 reports that Noble Wayland Trask "has been given the authority to organize a shrine in Brooklyn, to be called the Kismet Temple."  At first the group met at 38 Court Street, but soon meeetings were held at the Aurora Grata Cathedral  (formerly the East Reformed Church) at Bedford and Madison Avenues. Over the following years the newspaper reports on a series of Arab-themed parties, dinners and excursions involving "hasheesh"  "zem-zem water" ball games and all manner of entertainments.

It was in 1910 that the Brooklyn Shriners dedicated the new, custom-built Temple on Herkimer Street near Nostrand Avenue. The architecture was in the Moorish style, and its auditorium seated 2,326. It was equipped with a stage, dressing rooms and an organ, with a basement banquet room and kitchen, a ballroom and a smoking room. The temple was built by Clarke and Stowe and designed by architect R. Thomas Short, (himself a Noble of Kismet Temple,) at a cost of $125,000.

Among 502 candidates initiated into the Shrine in 1923 at the Kismet Temple were Theodore Roosevelt Jr, Assistant Secretary of the Navy and the Rev Dr Newell Dwight Hillis, pastor of Plymouth Church. Other prominent Shriners have included President Truman, General Douglas MacArthur and comedian Harold Lloyd, who was a past Imperial Potentate.

A Brooklyn Noble and a Big Bass Drum--With violent (but controlled) energy, Noble of the Mystic Shrine Ernest A. Lanzer beats the Kismet Temple, Brooklyn, bass drum as Shriners start from 95th St., Manhattan, down 5th Ave.  Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 10, 1951

But as with any organization, there was controversy among the Shriners. In 1929 the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a decision of the Texas Supreme Court, in the question as to the right of African American Shriners to organize lodges and use emblems, regalia and constitutions similar to those employed by whites. The Eagle noted: "So the Texas Negroes may be Shriners, if they flock by themselves, and no dignity that costume and formalities can lend to them can be abridged. The decision is a just one." There is much more to be written on this, as on the whole notion of a vaudeville-flavored oriental theme that reads so differently today than it did in the 1870s--but I'll leave that to someone else.

By 1966 white flight from Brooklyn was in full flood. The nobles of Kismet Temple  decided to sell their Brooklyn property to the Friendship Baptist Church and establish a temple further out on Long Island.

Behind the brass bands, the games, the costumes and the fun of the Shriners lay a serious purpose. The organization has created 22 children's hospitals in the United States, Mexico and Canada. There is never any charge for treatment at Shriner's hospitals, which treated 125,125 patients in 2007 according to the Shriner's web site.


So What'll It Be?

Nov 4, 2009 4:49 PM | 1 comment

Barmaid Lee serves a drink, 1950

The Brooklyn Navy Yard wasn't the only workplace taking in women during the war.  Brooklyn's bar scene was also reliant upon the female workforce.  In 1939, a group of female bartenders formed Bar Maids Local 101, an official union for women who had taken on the important duty of pouring drinks and lending an ear to war-torn Brooklyn. 

Bobby shakes a mixed drink for her male customers, 1950To legitimize their work, members of Local 101 completed three months of job training before they were employed.  They were also agreed not to work past midnight or give their last name to patrons.  Local businesses praised these women for maintianing the industry and creating a comforting atmosphere during a time of stress.  By the end of the 40s, the union included over 100 barmaids working in 75 Brooklyn bars. 

When the original workforce returned, the bartender and barmaid unions seemed to coexist peaceably.  But in January 1950 Assemblyman Alfred A. Lama of Brooklyn proposed an amendment "barring barmaids from bars" (as the Eagle so eloquently put it).  The female response made the cover of the Eagle, calling Lama a "chaser" and an "old meanie."  The head of Local 101 explained that the unions had been working together without any conflict.  But within two days, the Bartenders Union was singing a different tune.  With political backing, they took to the streets and protested against their female counterparts: 

Eagle Headline, January 25, 1950

Barmaid Lorretta (below) argued, "A woman has to make a living, and what's wrong with bartending?  During the war it was patriotic for us to work."  Another union member, Lee (at top), stated that she had two children at home and found that tending bar was more lucrative than other jobs.  The protesting bartenders claimed they were not starting a battle of the sexes - they just wanted their jobs back.  The secretary-treasurer of the Union claimed that he was "100 percent behind this amendment," but when he was asked if a woman's place was in the home, he had no comment.

Barmaid Lorretta Protests the Protests, 1950Not everyone was so shy about defining the roles of women and bar employees.  In early February, the Eagle polled eight Brooklynites and asked for their perspectives.  Charles Snyder of 470 Eastern Parkway stated, "When I'm out bending the elbow the last thing I want to see is a woman - unless she's Lana Tuner."  Suzanne Pfeiffer offered an interesting compromise, "Maybe there should be handsome men bartenders to wait on women cutomers and pretty barmaids for the boys.  Then everyone would be happy."  Charles Roberts explained, "It's fascinating as the devil when women are behind the bar.  They combine sympathy with charm and eye appeal.  What more can a guy expect of any bar?"   Other articles noted that it was inappropriate for women to work in bars, that women could not mix cocktails as well as men, that women working in bars would "encourage prohibitionists" and that men were better able to handle the occasional barroom brawl.  Each of these arguments was countered by women (and men) who believed these views to be "old fashioned." 

New York Times Headline, May 27, 1950

Eventually, the Brooklyn stories died down, suggesting that Lama's bill lost steam.  But Brooklyn was not alone in this battle.  That same spring, Manhattan bar workers entered a dispute when five barmaids were refused admittance to the Manhattan Bartenders Union (which already represented female waitresses).  The union picketed the barmaids' bar at 711 Eighth Avenue and took the case to the New York Supreme Court.  A lawyer for the Union argued that barmaids were "Un-American" and noted that many other cities, includuing Chicago, had already banned female bartenders.  The court did not force the union to admit the women, but it upheld the idea that women had the right to work behind the bar.  The decision didn't quite give barmaids equal rights, but it did allow them to continue serving.