Recollections of Bits and Pieces of Gerrity Family History;
Original Source -- Patrick F. Gerrity (b-1887) (photo at right)
As told to -- Francis X. Gerrity (b-1923)
September 2, 1996
Memories of Peter Gerrity (b-1845), grandfather:
I can recall my father saying that his father had an English accent and drank tea from a bowl. I drew from this the inference that he was born in England, but your research indicates that this is not so (Peter was born in Ireland in April of 1845). Patrick F.'s emphasis on Peter's Englishness, however, suggests that the latter was reared in England and came to the US from England. I never heard anything about any other member of Peter's family, parents or siblings.
I believe Peter worked as a laborer on "the O(ntario) & W(estern) Railroad", (census records indicate Peter was a miner's laborer and miner in 1880 and 1900 respectively). The tracks of the O&W ran through the High Works and across the viaduct that carried the tracks over Legget's Creek, just northeast of the upper part of West Market St. I have no idea whether this meant that he worked on the building of it or worked as a laborer maintaining it. At any rate, at a relatively young age his health failed and he was unable to continue working.
Two isolated anecdotal bits: Peter was something of a step or clog dancer: my father (Patrick F. '87) quoted him to the effect that his (Peter's) dancing feet had taken him into many places where he would have been better off not going, an apparent allusion to saloons. In later life, according to PF (Patrick F. '87), Peter became an ardent temperance man. On more than one occasion, while strolling to Sunday Mass, in top hat and tail coat, with cane, he encountered children "rushing a growler" (growler - miner's lunch pail) of beer home to their parents. Peter. according to PF, would take his cane and whack the pail of beer out of the child's hand. It is surprising that he died a natural death
Your father (John P. '16) has mentioned the network of relatives in the High Works. There were a lot of people in and out of the our house, usually on a Sunday morning; as a small child I was aware of aunts and uncles and first cousins. But most of the visitors and people we stopped into visit on trips to the High Works did not fall into these categories. Moyles, Kerrigan, Coursens (Courseys), etc. were probably my second or third cousins, but some of the visitors and visitees were probably old neighbors with courtesy titles of "aunt" or "uncle." For example, James McNulty, a barber in the High Works, was (I think) a brother of Johnny McNulty, (James and Johnny were brothers) married to my father's (Patrick F. '87) sister Mary Ann. Every Sunday morning for many years, James and his younger children, Henry and Florence, would stop at our house for general hair-cutting, elderberry wine and conversation. (Henry McNulty is the father of Scranton's former mayor.) There was an old soldier, a veteran of the Spanish American War and Philippine Insurrection, known simply as "Sweeney", who lived in the Soldiers Home in Washington and Bartley Ruddy, who served as a Marine in WW1, they would appear periodically on visits home. I suspect they were old neighbors and not relatives.
Memories of Patrick F. Gerrity (b-1887), father:
You know that your grandfather (Patrick F. '87) was born on Rockwell's Hill (about 300 yards up the mountain from the High Works). He always gave January 29, 1888 as the date of his birth (the earliest census records indicate 1887). He was forced to leave school after third grade, when his father's illness required everyone to contribute to the family's survival. (Later in life, he would take a few practical business courses in night school, but he was essentially self-educated. I can never remember asking him, through my high school years, a question, especially on national or international affairs, to which I did not get a reasonably informed answer. He was the classical example of what reading could do!) He went to work picking slate in the breaker of the Brisbane colliery. It was like something out of Dickens. Little boys, eight to twelve years old (PF was not much over eight), sat on benches across a steeply slanted, perforated chute, designed to sort the coal by size. The task of the boys was to reach their little hands into the stream of coal rushing down the chute and snatch out pieces of unburnable slate. A foreman or overseer patrolled a walkway along the chute; with his long cane he whacked the hands of the boys who had dozed off, as the little ones sometimes did, or who failed to do an adequate job of getting the slate. Somehow most of the little guys managed to survive. (PF's brother, my Uncle Tom [Thomas '81], left school even earlier to work as a carter's helper. Tom, according to PF, would throw stones at the schoolhouse door whenever his wagon happened to drive by.)
After some years of picking slate (how many I don't know), PF went underground. While so far as I know he was never a miner, he worked down in the mine for several years. He started out as a "spragger". In many places in the mines, mine cars moved by gravity, down inclines; it was the spragger's job to throw or shove a metal rod into the undercarriage in such a way as to serve as a brake. (When I was a child the word "spragging", indicating an action like dragging your feet to slow down a wagon, was a standard part of the local vocabulary; I have never heard it used in the Philadelphia area.) PF claimed to have been especially good at throwing the rod. He later worked as a gate-tender or perhaps and assistant gate-tender "at the foot of the shaft". This job involved controlling the loading of filled mine cars onto an elevator or the connecting of the cars to a drag line that would pull them to the surface. It was while working "at the foot of the shaft" that PF was struck by a falling object and very seriously injured. He never described it as a skull fracture, but almost everyone else who talked about it did. At any rate, he was in the State Hospital for a considerable period of time. From his hospital experience he took away a lifelong aversion to lamb stew, which apparently had been the standard fare for the patients and from his injury he acquired a determination not to go back to the mines.
His (Patrick F. '87) brother-in-law, sister Mary Ann's husband, John McNulty, had a grocery store on Brick Avenue at Oak Street, and it was as a clerk there that he started his business career. It must have been about this time that he took whatever little night school business course he had. After some time in the grocery store, he was hired as a salesman by a furniture store, part of a regional chain, Gateley or Gaitley & Fitzgerald. (I don't know what happened to Gaitley, but Fitzgerald made a lot of money and became something of a philanthropist in Catholic Philadelphia, a hospital in one of the older suburbs bears his name.) He probably held this job at the time of his marriage in 1914.
Sometime before 1920 (your father [John P. '16] may have a more definite date), he decided to strike out on his own. As he told the story, he had two blankets on consignment and a dime for carfare. He tok the trolley to the end of the line in Taylor and began to walk back, going house-to-house taking orders for blankets. They were apparently good woolen blankets at a fair price, but his gimmick was that he sold them on a lease-purchase plan, a small down payment and so much a week. Working class people had a hard time getting credit and most of them did not find it easy to shop in central city. The result was that he sold a lot of blankets. I can remember my mother saying that at one point the family couldn't use the parlor because it was piled high with blankets. After a year or so passed, he bought his first car, increasing his mobility and broadened his line to include clothing and home furnishings. He had customers, when they wanted something in the clothing or home furnishings line he would drive them into the city to stores with which he had arrangements. He never owned anything that he had not sold on lease-purchase. In other words, he usually had no inventory cost. Small items he delivered personally; furniture items were delivered at the expense of the store. He had a small gold mine! By the late '20s, he had four other people working for him, selling and collecting the weekly, by-weekly or monthly payments. In 1996 dollars, he was probably taking the equivalent of $90,000 or more a year out of the business. And with virtually no income tax!
Came the Depression! The coal mines were staggering economically even before the Stock Market Crash. As the Depression spread, new sales slowed down, then virtually stopped/ most of his old customers who owed money were unable to pay. He had in excess of $20,000, in 1932 dollars, of accounts receivable on his books when he gave up trying to collect. (In 1996 dollars his loss came close $300,000.)
During the 1920's he had become active in Democratic politics as a protege of John Jennings, local undertaker and banker and served as committeeman for the Fifth District, Second Ward. He became more active in politics in the Depression years. But he was still a businessman at heart. People might have stopped buying furniture and clothing--and blankets--but they still had to eat. PF opened Gerrity's Community Store on Brick Avenue, off Oak Street, in a property still owned by the McNulty family. Your father (John P. '16) was a very active part of the operation during his student days at St. Thomas College. (During the darkest days of the Depression, your father and our sister Madelyn were both in college, at a time when almost nobody was able to go beyond high school.) I (Francis X. '23) played a part, but a very minor one, when PF could think of something for me to do. Again, he showed business smarts. He bought a top line of groceries, canned goods in particular, directly from Austin Nichols in NYC. They were drop shipped to his door at 1809 Brick Avenue. No middle man. The grocery business was tough, though. He did not sell butchered meats, only cold cuts, hot dogs and sausages. But always of the highest quality and sold at prices competitive with the A&P at the corner of Brick and West Market Streets. The business was just beginning to show a small profit when in 1934 the Democrats ended the long Republican dominance of county government. The new Democratic county commissioners, Lawler and Geiger, whose names were revered in our household, appointed him as county storekeeper. PF soon installed a centralized purchasing system and got a new title, Purchasing Agent. In 1938 a state law was passed, the Goodrich Act, that eliminated all the local "poor boards" and consolidated their functions and institutions under the county commissioners. PF now added to his purchasing responsibilities several homes for the indigent and at least two mental hospitals. He held these positions until his death in May, 1961.
Items in italics provided by Patrick F.Gerrity (b-1949)