Editor’s note: This is the sixth installment of stories about Fulton Families. The monthly series will tell the stories of families that have either lived in Fulton for ages or perhaps only a short while — but the common bond will be they love the city and wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. If you know of a family we should highlight, please email Debbie Groom, Valley News managing editor, at email@example.com.
By Ashley M. Casey
According to Charlene Mirabito, six is the perfect number of children.
Having grown up as the only child of Polish immigrants to Fulton, she knew that one would be lonely. But she thought two would fight, three would end up two-on-one, and four or five might gang up on each other as well. So she and her husband, Francis, settled on six: Ann, Jim, Sue, Dan, Steve and Sara.
Out of that brood of six, only Jim Mirabito remains a Fultonian. He and his wife, Cindy, own the Hannibal Village Market, which they bought from Francis back in 1996.
As a third-generation Mirabito in Fulton, he is carrying on the family tradition of engaging with the community.
‘Good way to grow up’
Francis’ father, Ross, came to Fulton from Liparii, Italy, around 1914. While working nights at Armstrong, Ross followed in his siblings’ footsteps to open a grocery store. His brother, Tom, owned one on East Broadway, and his sister and brother-in-law, Mary and Angelo Cincotta, owned Angelo’s, which today is known as Struppler’s.
In 1928, Ross bought a corner store near his family’s house on Erie Street, which was in the mostly Italian neighborhood called “the Flats.
“He worked nights at Armstrong and opened the store in the morning when he got out. He worked there most of the day until my mother took over,” Francis recalled.
Ross soon found his business and his family were expanding.
“He had to quit his job (at Armstrong) and I was born the next June … Then they had a child every couple of years after that, because I was such a nice guy that they wanted more children,” laughed Francis, who is number four of 11.
Francis and his siblings all helped out in the store, starting at the penny candy counter and working their way up to stocking shelves and other tasks.
“You might be doing homework or eating dinner. If my father got busy, he’d call and whoever had to go out and start helping wait on the customers,” he said. “It was a busy learning session. Good way to grow up.”
Although there wasn’t a lot of extra money to go around, Fulton was “the city the Depression missed.” Francis has fond memories of his childhood in the city.
“Fulton was nice. It was a small city — a lot of factories, as I remember it … During the recession, Fulton was referred to as the ‘city that the Depression never hit’ because everybody was working. They had shorter hours, but that’s all,” he said.
“We used to play softball in the back yard, and the outfield was down on the road. It was fun. We had a lot of good times there,” Francis added. “It was a good neighborhood … People didn’t have much money at all, even though Fulton was pretty well off.
“The grocery stores then were entirely different than they are now,” he recalled. “We used to keep a box full of eggs up on the counter, and people would buy one or two. That’s all they could afford.”
In 1941, Ross bought a building on Cayuga and Sixth streets. Despite some trouble stocking products during the war, business went along pretty well for Ross until 1945.
“We had a tenant upstairs. He had gone fishing and left the burner on the stove or heat,” Francis said. “The fire destroyed the store. He did rebuild it, but it was closed for six months or so.”
In 1951, tragedy struck again. Ross’ remodeled store caught on fire. But the setbacks did not deter the Mirabitos from their successful grocery business. After serving in the army, Francis returned to Fulton, began to work full-time in his father’s rebuilt store, and married his high school sweetheart.
That sweetheart was Charlene, who says they met in Miss Preston’s geometry class.
“I was a Westsider. That was very important back then. There were Westsiders and there were Eastsiders,” Charlene said. “Although we were all friendly, ‘Well, she’s from the Eastside’ or ‘He’s from the Westside.’ There was certainly a jolly relationship in spite of the fact that you kind of labeled where they were from.”
Charlene’s immigrant parents spoke Polish at home and with their friends, but never taught her the language. Nevertheless, she was immersed in the culture at the Fulton Polish Home and St. Michael’s Church, where the hymns were in Polish. She and Francis held their wedding reception at the Polish Home, which was popular for polka parties, dances, carnivals and breakfasts.
The center of Fulton during Charlene and Francis’ youth was the “Dizzy Block,” which was home to many shops and a movie theater.
“I’ve heard guys say they loved the Dizzy Block when they first got their first car,” Charlene said. “Showing off, they’d circle that block around and around and around so that everybody would see them in their car.”
“Honk, honk!” Francis added with a smile.
Fast times in Fulton
Many of Jim Mirabito’s memories of his youth are food-related: stopping into Ingamalls for a candy bar after Kiwanis baseball, grabbing pizza from Alba’s Pizza Shop or Sarge Lunn’s, and sitting on the curb pulling apart hot loaves of Italian bread from La Fornarina.
“It seems as though there were different food places to go in different parts of the city. Each had their own identity, their own family that was running them,” Jim recalled.
Grocery stores were the same way — each neighborhood had its own store.
“We had cousins that owned a grocery store on South Fifth Street, Angelo and Joe Mirabito. I remember going with a friend that lived in that neighborhood up to the store, and he picked up stuff for his mother, but he didn’t pay for it. They just opened up the book and put it on their tab,” Jim said.
“They would charge all week what they needed and then on pay day, his mother would go in and pay their bill. That’s something that you don’t see today,” Jim said.
Young Jim and his friends would ride their bicycles all over the city. They also played baseball and football and even went fishing.
“Somebody would say, ‘Let’s go fishing,’ so we’d get on our bikes and grab a fishing pole. I remember fishing behind Erie Street School. There’s a small creek there,” he said. “I look at it now and I wonder what we were trying to catch.”
As Jim grew up, Fulton was changing fast.
“I think 481 really changed Fulton,” he said. “Before that, to get to Syracuse, it was a long trip — an hour, hour and a half drive. 481 came in and all of a sudden you could get to Syracuse quicker. You could hit the shopping malls quicker.”
The easier access to Syracuse may have been more convenient, but it changed Fulton’s economy for years to come.
“In the ‘70s when we had the urban renewal, we lost our downtown and it never came back,” Francis said.
“In hindsight, is it good or is it bad?” Jim mused. “It was inevitable.”
Upon graduating from SUNY Oswego in 1978, Jim decided to join his parents in the grocery business.
That same year, tragedy struck the Mirabitos’ business again: the store, which had since moved to Hannibal, burned down.
“We had just gone into business for ourselves. We didn’t know what to do,” Francis said. “We thought about moving, but I went to banks all over and they all said, ‘No, no, no,’ because I didn’t have any resources.”
Finally, former Oswego County legislator Rosalyn Hastings helped the Mirabitos secure a loan from Oneida National Bank, which today is known as Pathfinder Bank. Since then, the Hannibal Village Market has expanded to a 22,000-square-foot building, and business is still booming.
The Welcome Wagon
It was during this time that Jim’s wife, Cindy, was just getting to know Fulton. She moved here in 1972 when her former husband took a job in the area. She said Fulton’s small-town feel reminded her of growing up in Vermont, but it took a while to get acclimated to the city and its culture.
“I did not know anybody for a very long time while living here,” Cindy said. “I had three small children and was pretty much at home.”
She said the biggest thing that helped her feel at home was the “Welcome Wagon,” which offered gift baskets and coupons to local businesses for new residents. There were monthly meetings for the newbies as well.
“Most of the people that I ended up knowing were not from here, but it was a great way for people … to get to know the community and the people around here,” Cindy said. “There were a lot of great organizations like that to help newcomers.”
After her first marriage ended, Cindy met Jim in 1981. They married three years later and went on to have two daughters, Whitney, now 24, and Morgan, now 22. Morgan attends Cayuga Community College.
Cindy’s daughter from her first marriage, Vicky, still lives in the area and is a registered nurse. Her two sons, Todd and Michael, live out-of-state.
Today, Cindy and Jim are still giving back to their community. Cindy has served on the youth hockey board and the Catholic schools board, and they are a part of the Chamber of Commerce.
Jim was once president of the Polish Home. The Mirabitos have participated in numerous organizations in Fulton. Two years ago, the Fulton Noon Rotary recognized Jim’s giving spirit with the Paul Harris Fellow award.
“The Paul Harris award is awarded to people who have done something unique, something benevolent for the community (and) been a positive asset in the community,” Jim explained. Paul Harris Fellows also make a significant donation to Rotary International.
“Judy Young invited me to speak at a Rotary luncheon about the business … At the end of that, all of a sudden she’s got this special presentation and that’s when she presented it to me and I was shocked. I had no idea. They brought me there under false pretenses,” laughed Jim. “I was very proud, pleased, grateful. In Rotary world, it’s huge.”
In Fulton’s world, the Mirabitos and their community spirit are huge, too.