Peter Palmer is the guy with one arm you often see walking across the Lower Bridge.
He also happens to be Fulton’s historian. He can remind you in rapid-fire talk about all the factory whistles in our town that used to blow morning, noon and night, and tell you stories about our local cemeteries, churches, our old downtown, and more!
I sat at my kitchen table a few weeks ago for an interview with Peter and I have six pages of notes to show for it and, as our conversation went — jumping from subject to subject — so this column will go as well.
Peter lives on the west side, on Worth Street, in a house his grandfather bought about a hundred years ago. It was previously owned by a Mr. Thompson who had built it for his wife as a wedding present.
Peter’s first name actually is Lawton. He was named after his father, Lawton Palmer, who was born in that house in 1915, and Peter, a bachelor, has lived there his whole life.
He is the oldest of three children. His brother Colburn, aka Coby, lives in Indianapolis and his sister Barbara lives on Cape Cod.
Lawton was his grandmother’s maiden name, and while his mother’s name was Florence she liked to be called “Pete.” Perhaps that’s where Peter got his name from, but he doesn’t know for sure.
Peter said his neighborhood in the First Ward was settled by the Irish, English and Germans.
“They had cousins all over the place — like most neighborhoods did back then,” he said.
The Murphy and the Sullivan families, for example, and, come to think about it, “the Aldermans, a Jewish family, also lived around there, on West Third Street, over in back of their junkyard on West First.”
Barnes Cemetery was also on West First Street, about where the Polish Home is today. The remains were moved to Mt. Adnah Cemetery, which in its beginning was called Oswego Falls Rural Cemetery.
“Oswego Falls was on both sides of the river — because there was the upper falls and lower falls — Peter explained. That was before the city was consolidated and named Fulton after the village of Fulton on the East Side.
His great grandparents are buried in Mt. Adnah, he said. Everybody got buried there.
That was before there was a fence between Mt. Adnah and St. Mary’s Catholic cemetery. The first Catholic Mass in Fulton was said in a private home by a priest from Oswego in 1850 with about 20 people in attendance. St. Mary’s Cemetery was established in 1872.
Both sides of the river had their own fire department back then. The one on West First and Worth Streets was called the Cronin Fire Department and was manned by volunteers.
Peter recalled the city of Fulton’s fire department downtown, on South First Street, and its bell tower you couldn’t miss. Peter said the bell was rung to denote where a fire was located. For example, 24 rings meant it was at Phillips Street School, 10 rings meant the fire was outside the city, and 2 rings meant the fire was out.
Sadly, the bell was taken down in 1954 when the tower was deemed unsafe. The last anyone saw of it, Peter said, was being loaded onto the back of a flatbed and carted off to be sold or junked.
It was long before that, though, when in 1888, Thomas Edison came to town to experiment and “electrified” the first house in our area to have electricity and electric lights. Peter said the house was where Price Chopper’s parking lot now takes up space, specifically on its southeast corner (where TOPS market used to have a flag pole).
William Schenck owned that house, he and Thomas Edison were friends, Peter said, and Schenck Street — that short, one-block-long street that most people don’t even know exists — is named after him. It goes from West First Street to the Lower Bridge.
As to being recognized as the guy with one arm, Peter said he didn’t mind if I discussed it in my column. He said he was born that way but never saw it as an obstacle to leading a normal life — as his mother had taught him and as he had learned, sometimes the hard way.
Peter said he has a driver’s license and once owned a car but prefers to walk as much as he can.
“No problem with parking,” he said. As a child he went to the old Walradt Street and Phillips Street Schools, and as a teenager to Catholic high school in Oswego.
He grew up a Methodist, he said, but when he was 12 he read the history of the Catholic Church and decided to become a Catholic.
After high school graduation he entered a monastery. That didn’t work out as planned, he declared, and he left it because “everything was done by bells” and he “wanted to come back into the world.”
“It was hard getting a job,” he said. GE wouldn’t hire him because he was handicapped. “There was so much discrimination.”
But he did land a job despite it all: “My mother said there is no such word as can’t,” Peter said quite emphatically, and his first job was at Montgomery Ward on Cayuga Street here in town. That was only the beginning.
Peter has had a varied career. He once worked at the Messenger, a publication in Mexico, NY, doing filing and as a typist. “A typist?” I questioned. “Yes, “he kind of chuckled, “The nuns at Catholic High taught me how to type. They had a special book on how to type with one hand.”
Peter also spent time in the Planning Department at Sealright, but got “bumped.” He worked in the Oswego County Social Service office for a couple of years as well, and in the library of Syracuse University for four years.
Eventually he went back to the Social Services from which he retired after 32 years. “I worked all over the place at Social Services,” he laughed. “Had a great time working with 300 women — it was fun!”
Okay, Dear Readers, writing this has also been fun but I need to end this journal for now. Please come back in two weeks, though, when they’ll be more of Peter Palmer’s stories of old Fulton in my next column. Now here’s my caveat:
Readers beware! I write for fun. I am not a historian, nor a reporter. I write from memory and from what others want to share. Sometimes I look things up; sometimes I mess things up. I hope you have fun reading my stuff.
Your comments, additions and corrections are always welcome. You may contact me at 133 Tannery Lane, Fulton, phone 592-7580 or email JHogan808@aol.com. Please put Jerry’s Journal in the subject line. Thanks!