Friday, June 9, 2017

An ailing dog and a box of cough drops credited with the founding of landmark Patsy’s store By Walter Lunt

"Windham Then and Now” - The fifth in a series of historical topics about Windham’s unique history and heritage

Patsy’s, once a fixture in South Windham, was the consummate neighborhood corner store that offered tasty food and good fellowship for more than 50 years; a destination known for its zesty Italian sandwiches. 

Pasqualee Miele at work in Patsy's Store in the 1950's
Located on the corner of Depot and Main Streets, Patsy’s came to be in 1938. Pasquale and Josephine Miele moved their family from Needham, Massachusetts to Windham, Maine under the most unusual of circumstances. Their son, Bob, who took over proprietorship of Patsy’s from his father in 1958, remembers the story of its founding: a tale involving a sick dog and cough drops. More on that later.

Born in Elena, Italy in 1887, Pasquale Miele emigrated to the United States in 1902. Unschooled but afflicted with a strong entrepreneurial and  tenacious spirit, the young man of just 15 years, set out to do what most new citizens of Italian heritage did best: own and run a store featuring homeland cuisine. Pasquale arrived under the sponsorship of an uncle and soon taught himself to read and write. 

Later, settled with a home and business in Needham, Massachusetts, family members would remember Pasquale’s mantra: “Education is everything.” Copies of Country Gentleman and National Geographic were all around the house, along with numerous seed catalogs.

Ambitious and smart, Pasquale opened a spacious country store named Home Market in Needham. It was the thriving 1920s. Business grew and expansion included the acquisition of five covered Model-T delivery trucks.

Then, financial collapse. The stock market crash of ’29 brought severe hardship. The charitable Pasquale, who had extended credit to hundreds of his customers, found he could not survive the aftermath of Black Tuesday. Son Bob, then 10 years old, remembers riding in the old delivery truck with his dad, depositing bills in customers’ mail boxes. By 1932, under the crushing load of $22,000 credit debt, Home Market closed. Pasquale went to work managing a competing store for the next six years; which brings us to the dog and the cough drops. 1938, the Miele’s were in Raymond, Maine visiting relatives whose dog had fallen ill. At that time of year most local veterinarians were tending animals at county fairs, so Fido was taken to Cornish for treatment. On the return trip, Pasquale’s throat became sore and dry. He requested a stop at store in Standish for cough drops. It was there, to everyone’s surprise, he met his wife’s brother who he hadn’t seen in many years. Uncle Sully, it seems, owned stores in Standish and South Windham. The latter was for sale, and the rest, as they say, is history.

By later that same year, the Miele’s were the proud proprietors of South Windham Grocery Store. Pasquale had taken up where he’d left off six years earlier in Needham, Massachusetts.

The Miele’s rented the “Weeks House” on the corner of Webber (now Alweber) and Highland Cliff Roads in Windham for $4.00 a week (see: House for Sale, some disassembly required - The Windham Eagle, Oct. 9, 2015).

Pasquale and Josephine’s store prospered with the help of the family, brothers Ralph and Bob and daughter Jean. When Bob returned from the war in 1945 he suggested the name of the store be changed to Patsy’s, the Italian nick-name for Pasquale. His father rejected the idea but Bob persisted.
In the presence of his father, Bob quizzed store patrons, “What do you say when you’re coming to
this store? I’m going to South Windham Grocery Store?” 

“No,” they would all reply, “I just say I’m going’ to Patsy’s.”

Now: in honor of Patsy's
Soon, a new sign went up at the familiar corner store near the mills in South Windham: Patsy’s.
Also around this time, Pasquale and Josephine could realize their long held dream of home ownership. They would purchase a 1794 cape on River Road, near the store, that was once the home of Thomas Smith, son of Windham’s (Parson) Peter Thatcher Smith. It remains in the family to this day.

Upon Pasqualee’s retirement in 1958, Bob and wife Alys took over the reins of Patsy’s store. Old timers and baby boomers soon came to associate Patsy’s with Bob’s newest creation, the fresh and tasty Italian sandwich - many of the ingredients originating from the large garden at the River Road farm.

Jean still lives at the family homestead. She and Bob reminisced about the old neighborhood.
They and longtime resident Dave Tobin observed, “We never locked our doors.”
Neighborhood patrons and workers from the nearby mills and reformatory (correctional center) were like family.

“They were an unbelievably diverse group,” said Jean. “Russian, Czechoslovakian, several Jewish families, Italian, Irish and so many others. Country [of origin] never mattered - they were people - wonderful friends, and we supported each other. [I was just a kid and] It was the greatest upbringing you could have.”

By the mid-1970s the mills had closed. Much of the village fell into disrepair. Patsy’s closed in 1978. New owners operated the store into the early 1990s, when the building was converted into apartments. Declared unsafe and torn down around 2015, the deteriorating structure was replaced by a 4-unit apartment building, which opened to occupants last November. Builder Jim Cummings commemorated the historic spot with a new sign: Patsy’s Corner.
“It was a very good thing for him to do,” said Bob Miele, “I was very pleased. I went right down there and took a picture.” Sister Jean Phillips called the sign a heartwarming gesture.

Long before the demise of Patsy’s and other public places in South Windham, the economic engines that once ran on manufacturing had turned over to tourism. The gateway and the “new Main Street” would be North Windham.

Today, any reference to South Windham is usually couched in terms of revitalization. It’s no longer the mills, diverse businesses, patriotic parades, or Patsy’s.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Your Comments Help Improve Your Community.