December 23, 2012

Fairfield redemption center's cornerstone yields silver dollars, precious memories

Bill Joseph, 94, placed two silver dollars on site in 1956, reclaims them as demolition of structure makes way for Gerald Hotel building renovations

By Matt Hongoltz-Hetling mhhetling@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

FAIRFIELD -- The bottle redemption center next to the historic Gerald Hotel on Fairfield's Main Street may not be a historical building, but that doesn't mean it has no history.

click image to enlarge

Bill Joseph, 94, stands behind the corner stone of a former beer store he once owned in Fairfield. The stone was removed from a building that will be demolished beside the Gerald Hotel to make room for parking. Under the stone were two silver dollars Joseph is holding.

Staff photo by David Leaming

click image to enlarge

Homer Salisbury, right, superintendent for the Sheridan Corp., speaks with a Kennebec Water District employee outside Dan's Redemption beside the former Gerald Hotel in Fairfield on Dec. 13.

Staff file photo by David Leaming

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Just ask Bill Joseph, 94, who built it 57 years ago for his store, Joseph's Outlet.

Joseph's own life story is intertwined with that of the building, which is scheduled to be torn down this week as part of the ongoing renovation at the Gerald Hotel.

When construction workers from Sheridan Corp. took out a marked cornerstone from the building's foundation Thursday, Joseph turned up to retrieve two silver dollars he put there in 1956.

"Daddy, let me see," called Joseph's daughter, one of a small crowd of family members who had gathered to see whether Joseph and the coins would be reunited.

"I half expected them to be there, but I wasn't sure," he said.

The two silver dollars, dated 1921 and 1922, lay in a rotting cloth bag behind the stone, just where he had left them. Joseph doesn't know their cash value today, but to him, the coins represented memories of years past, when his father would distribute silver dollars to his children and grandchildren at Christmastime.

"My father gave me those for good luck," he said.

When Joseph was a boy in the 1920s, he said, downtown Fairfield was much different from today.

"Every store was full when I was a kid," he said. "There were three or four grocery stores, two or three clothing stores. There was a blacksmith shop where the police station is now."

In 1927, when Joseph was 8, his father, Abraham Joseph, an immigrant from Lebanon by way of Ellis Island, bought a clothing store on the site that eventually would host Joseph's Outlet.

Next door to the clothing store, the Gerald Hotel was in business and bustling; Joseph remembers the restaurant that used to operate on its second floor.

Ballroom dances were common in the area. Joseph met his wife, Frances, at the Serenade Sea Club in Waterville.

Ever year, for months, the town's children would gather materials for a Fourth of July bonfire, he remembered, which they traditionally set ablaze around midnight on the railroad tracks on Main Street, after the final trolley car left town.

One year, he said, with the bonfire roaring, some of the children saw some cardboard boxes sitting outside of a Main Street grocery store and added them to the blaze.

When someone pointed out that the boxes were full of eggs, the kids panicked, he said.

"We took off quick," he said. "We had no more bonfires after that."

Joseph took two years off from high school to help his family by working in his father's store, Joseph's Sporting Goods, which became well-known in its location on the other side of the Gerald Hotel. The family business eventually came to be owned by Bill's brother, Harold, and has since moved to Waterville.

When Bill Joseph returned to school in 1937, at the age of 18, he arranged to take four classes a day in the morning, and he worked afternoons from a rented storefront down the street from the hotel, where he sold beer. It was the first Joseph's Outlet site.

"It was mostly bottles," he said. "Cans hadn't really come out yet, I don't think."

Seventy-five years later, he still remembers the types of beer that he bought from Boston and sold in bottles, at 18 cents a pint.

"There was Narragansett, Ox Head, Pickwick," he said. "Pickwick was the poor man's whiskey."

The markup, he said, was just 20 percent. "You couldn't make too much," he said.

(Continued on page 2)

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