This account of life in West Ambler (Pennsylvania) during the 1940’s and early 1950’s is based on the fond recollections of Joseph and Nicholas Cappuccio. It has been written by Nicholas Cappuccio and has come about as the result of a suggestion by, and the encouragement of Peg Johnston of the Wissahickon Valley Historical Society.
Most of this account will pertain mainly to West Chestnut Street since that was where Joseph and Nicholas were born and lived their early years. However, all of those high character traits and principles mentioned here also defined the vast majority of the decent residents of Oak Street, West Maple Street, and Railroad Avenue which, together with West Chestnut, comprised the unique village of West Ambler.
Most people living in West Ambler during those times were only happy and willing to provide help to any of the neighbors when needed. It was therefore decided not to name (aside from one family) any of the residents in this account. Doing so would be slighting the many good people of those years that would have been left unnamed. Though most are now gone, their memory should never be forgotten.
The village of West Ambler is actually a misnomer since it is really located in Whitpain Township. During this period of time, West Ambler consisted of four residential streets: West Chestnut Street. Maple Street, Oak Street, and Railroad Avenue. The area included a diverse ethnic and racial populace. About 60% were first and second generation Italian-American, 25% African-American, 10% Irish American, and 5% of other ethnic descent. The story of West Ambler is truly unique in many aspects. Despite the diversity of ethnic origins and cultures, life there was one of harmony. While true that certain blocks may have contained more of one group than another, this was not because of discrimination, but more so because of ethnic, language, or cultural similarities that tend to cause like-minded people to gravitate toward and live near one another. This natural practice is what has formed neighborhoods throughout the country.
West Ambler was the proverbial “One Big Happy Family”. Everyone got along well together. There was no racial or ethnic animosity. The parents, black and white, were principled, hardworking and taught the children the values of respect for others. Crime was virtually non-existent. Recalling my growing up in the late 40’s and my time spent there in the early 50’s, I cannot remember one instance of assault, burglary, robbery, or physical disrespect of person or property. Each morning the children would walk to school and home and never have to worry about their safety, whether day or evening. The thought that something bad or harmful might happen was not even contemplated.
The largest employer in Ambler during those years was the Keasbey & Mattison Company, and many of those living in West Ambler worked there. The company produced asbestos products. The workplace was an environmental nightmare with unventilated working areas and asbestos fibers saturating the air, and being inhaled by the workers. These dangerous fibers would also be brought home on their clothes at the end of the work day. In subsequent years, many of these workers and families would suffer the severe respiratory effects of this daily exposure to asbestos. It was not unusual in those later years to know of people that needed oxygen every day in order to survive these unfortunate consequences. There was no Environmental Protection Agency, nor was anyone aware of any medical or scientific studies defining the dangerous health effects associated with asbestos exposure.
Dr. Richard Mattison, one of the founders of the company, was instrumental in the large influx of immigrants from Southern Italy to Ambler in the early 1900’s. These immigrants were eager to work and provided a valuable source of employees to the company. He also brought in Italian stone masons to build the many Victorian and classic stone homes now prevalent throughout the borough. These homes were sold to and/or occupied by company employees.
In addition, he utilized these masons to modify and construct the imposing castle-like structure of what became known as the Lindenwold Estate. The Estate, home to Richard Mattison, later became St. Mary’s Villa of Ambler.
The Keasbey & Mattison Company was sold to Certain Teed/Nicolet industries and discontinued conducting business as K & M in 1962, mainly because of the dangerous health and environmental issues related to the asbestos industry.
West Chestnut Street, consisting of 72 row homes was also built by and initially owned by the K & M company. West Chestnut ended on Oak Street which ran north to Railroad Avenue crossing Maple Street midway. Oak Street, like West Chestnut, consisted mainly of row homes. Railroad Avenue and Maple Street had a mixture of row, twins, and single homes.
If you lived in West Ambler during this time, almost all of the daily activities, aside from school, centered in West Ambler. With the exception of an occasional trip to the movies, the younger children rarely strayed from the neighborhood. Everyone had a nickname, which usually stayed with them for life. There were the usual games of hide and seek, hot beans, outs, etc. A small playground was at the intersection of West Chestnut and Oak Streets. Life in West Ambler, however, offered several unique recreational opportunities. There was the reservoir at the end of West Chestnut Street, part of the hydroelectric power system of the Keasbey and Mattison Company. To the children of West Ambler, it was something much more important – their private swimming pool. Hardly a day could pass without the sight of kids diving from trees, and swimming in the “rezzy”, as it was better known. It was in use day and night.
Another of the popular recreation sites and activities would be unimaginable today, but first some background information. As previously mentioned, the largest business in Ambler was the Keasbey and Mattison Company. The company produced asbestos materials used mainly for insulation in residential and commercial construction. The company disposed of the asbestos waste products in several locations throughout the area. One of these disposal sites was located in West Ambler at the end of Oak Street, behind one side of the West Chestnut Street homes. Each day, trucks could be seen traversing Maple and Oak Streets to dispose of the waste products. The site eventually grew to a mountain of white asbestos waste which became known as the West Ambler dump. The dump was sometimes referred to affectionately by locals as the “White Cliffs of Dover“. An estimate of the size would probably be the length & width of one and a half football fields, with a height exceeding forty feet.
The West Ambler dump was one of the favorite play areas of the children of West Ambler. The children were often seen there building forts and other structures from the vast amount of asbestos materials. Unaware of any inherent danger, they would spend almost all day engaging in varying forms of games and other activities. Again, this would seem unimaginable today, but at that time there was no knowledge of the many health hazards associated with asbestos exposure. Hopefully, being an outdoor environment, there may not have been as much danger to the children, as that to the company workers in their closed unventilated work areas.
Aside from an occasional exception, most activities were centralized and took place within the neighborhood. On the warm summer evenings, the sidewalks were filled with the residents sitting and socializing with each other. Music was constantly in the air, usually the sound of a mandolin being beautifully played by one of the older gentlemen. Of course there were the persistent voices competing to see who could serenade the best. The evenings never seemed to end. Even after the adults had retired indoors, many of the children would remain on the sidewalks and sleep there all night. Never was there a fear.
On Thursday evenings there was the “Jam Session” at the Ambler Liberty Sporting Club, better known as the West Ambler Club, located at Mount Pleasant and Railroad Avenues. Local musicians. performing weekly at no pay, would present a professional and flawless musical performance. Ambler produced many talented dancers, guys and girls, all claiming to be the best, who skillfully demonstrated their unique styles every week.
There were also the weddings which were always a cause for celebration. On West Chestnut Street alone there were at least twenty-five marriages in the 40’s and early 50’s, where both husband and wife were born and grew up on the street. Many of the wedding receptions were held at the Sons of Italy Club on Butler Avenue. A live band and all-night dancing and singing provided a festive atmosphere. Catering was a rarity. The food was usually prepared and served by the families of the newlyweds. Be assured that all of the guests left the reception well nourished.
There were recurring events each year to which the residents looked forward. The annual block party on West Chestnut Street was very special. It took place in August of each year. The police would block-off both ends of West Chestnut Street to eliminate any traffic. The celebratory occasion, lasting the entire day, with food, drink, music, singing and games, was an unforgettable lifetime experience.
There was also the annual “Saint Francis Day” celebration. Saint Francis De Paola was the Patron Saint of Calabria, the region of Italy from which a large number of Ambler’s Italian community had emigrated. The feast was always held in early May. The day, filled with festivities, would begin with a Mass at Saint Joseph’s Church, followed by a procession through Ambler carrying the statue of the Saint. After the procession there was a dinner at the Sons of Italy club offering huge and delicious portions of “Ceci e Pasta” , a combination of Ditalini pasta and chickpeas. You didn’t have to be of Italian descent to attend. Everyone was invited to take part in the feast, and many participated, regardless of ethnicity.
There was a large field across from the club. In the evening of Saint Francis Day, a huge crowd which seemed to include the entire population of Ambler would gather at the field, listening to the band playing, and anticipating the most impressive display of fireworks imaginable. The display concluded the day’s celebration. The “St. Francis Day” tradition continues today, although the fireworks have been discontinued and are no longer a part.
A discussion of West Ambler during the 1940’s and early 50’s would not be complete without elaborating on one of the most popular gathering sites in the area. This was the grocery on the corner of West Chestnut and Oak Streets known as Cappuccio’s store.
First a little background as described by Nicholas and Joseph Cappuccio.
Salvatore Cappuccio, my father, was born in Scala, Italy. In 1921, at the age of 27, he emigrated from Italy to the United States. When he boarded the ship, he knew none of the passengers on board. He didn’t know anyone in the United States, and didn’t know where he would go or what he would do when he reached New York. Fortunately, he met someone while crossing, who invited my father to go along with him to Ambler. Upon arriving in Ambler, he worked in various jobs including one with the Keasbey & Mattison Company. He met Anna (real name-Victoria) Palermo and in 1923, they married. I remember my mother telling how my father, during those early years, would rise at 6:00 in the morning and go door to door, asking if anyone had any work that he could do. She said he would come home most evenings with earnings of fifty cents or one dollar. In 1932, they moved to a home on West Chestnut Street which was attached to an empty store. Most neighborhoods of that era had local stores where the residents would shop. Maple Street had several but West Chestnut Street had none. My parents decided to venture into the grocery business and opened their store (attached to their home) in 1934. Through the succeeding years, the children kept arriving and the family eventually reached eleven siblings, nine boys and two girls. Six of the boys eventually served honorably in the United States Military.
Meanwhile, the grocery business grew dramatically. The boys, as they grew older, all helped by working in the store. The girls assisted their mother with all of the domestic housework, and helping in the care of the younger children.
Salvatore Cappuccio was a fantastic mathematician, who could add a column of numbers faster than a person using a calculator. He had many other talents as well. He was an excellent musician, played the clarinet, taught music, and led a local band. He was forced to give up his musical activities to manage the store and support the family. He was also the Civil Defense representative during the war. During the random air raid drills, he would proudly put on his Civil Defense hat and armband, and walk the street to make sure everyone had extinguished the lights in their homes.
The store operated throughout the 30’s, 40’s. and early 50’s. The people of West Chestnut Street were extremely loyal customers. Even when families moved from the street, they would continue to come to the store or call in their weekly orders. The business was extremely successful throughout the years. On a given weekend one could see my father and seven or eight of the children working in a store which was probably less than 900 sq./ft. in area.
The store contained the switch to control all the street lights on West Chestnut Street. Each morning my father was responsible for turning them off, and each evening, turning them back on.
In the 1940’s not many of the homes on the street had phone service. If relatives or friends wanted to phone someone on the street, they would call the store. One of the boys would then run to the person’s home and tell them of the call awaiting them, at which time the person would proceed to the store to receive the call. The store, and the sidewalk surrounding it, was a favorite spot for residents to congregate, day and evening. They could always be sure that they could go there at any time and find someone to whom they could complain, argue, or simply talk about any subject. Everyone was welcome to come and speak their mind, or just to sit on the empty milk cases and listen.
The store’s location, at the corner of West Chestnut and Oak Streets was often comically referred to as “Hollywood and Vine”.
My father truly had a big heart. In later years, I would hear from people telling how, during the latter years of the great depression, my father would give them the food to feed their families even though they were out of work and hadn’t the money to pay. Eventually, when the economy recovered, most repaid their debt.
Without a doubt, the finest thing that could be said about Salvatore and Anna Cappuccio was that they were good people, loved and respected by all. No one ever had anything but good words about them. They weren’t unique, however, in that respect. The same could be said for almost all of the decent, hard-working people of all cultures, living in peace and harmony in West Ambler during that memorable era.
- After almost 25 years of opening and closing the store seven days a week, Salvatore Cappuccio sold the business and retired in 1957.
- The Keasbey and Mattison Company discontinued the asbestos business in 1962.
- The homes on West Chestnut Street, mainly because of the asbestos hazard, and with the residents having moved out, were demolished in the early 1960’s.
- The asbestos waste pile (West Ambler dump) was declared a Superfund Site and eventually encapsulated to mitigate the environmental hazards.
Nicholas Cappuccio is a writer from Ambler, Pennsylvania.