Glasco was a tight-knit community. It was a winding back road in the early nineteenth century, the river port for an early glassmaking industry located in the hills above Woodstock. Then it was a Saugerties hamlet renowned as a brickmaking center. It had ice houses to rival Malden’s. And now it’s a part of a much-changed world.
For Robert Aiello, a Saugerties native who ran a series of successful hair salons from the 1970s on and represented his home town in the Ulster County Legislature for 18 years, Glasco’s home. His new self-published memoir, Remembering Glasco: Growing up in an Italian-American village, revels in a host of hometown experiences. That includes a sense of ethnic identity that was once a bedrock of Hudson Valley life.
Aeillo has a disarming way of pulling up memories that are universal and specific simultaneously. He writes like a talkative barber, in short, anecdotal bursts that are always cheery yet insightful. He’s constantly sharing a sense of appreciation for the roots our communities once were, from Kingston to Saugerties, and especially his home turf in the Glasco of the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s.
We learn the facts of history: the memorializing of a business known as the Glass Co., the advent and then disappearance of brick factories by the river, and the numbers of Italians who made their way to the hardworking community by ferry and other means during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But we also gain a much-harder-to-grasp sense of how that life of fresh immigrants involved backbreaking work while living in company-owned shacks and shopping at company-owned stores. That community then raised a generation of young Americans joining the nation of which their parents and grandparents had dreamed of becoming part.
The Glasco that Aiello’s grandparents moved to, based on the river, is now completely vanished. Over time, everyone moved “up the hill” to an older community, once home to Dutch and later Anglo settlers, proudly buying or renovating homes where they planted and tended verdant gardens, including mini-orchards and grapevines.
The author recalls a post-war era when a much-older world had yet to disappear, when the brickyards were still open, and when older women worked in nearby dress factories. Glasco’s school, not yet consolidated with the rest of Saugerties, ran through the twelfth grade. Moms made classic Italian lunches from everyone, working with goods bought in the community, or grown in the backyard. With the bridge across the Hudson to Rhinecliff still to be built, people took ferries or buses for shopping. Buses were also a way to get up to the village of Saugerties.
Family was everything, even when that family was honorary. People would gather out on Main Street, look forward to religious feast days when Glasco’s patron saint, St. Joseph, was paraded around the community. Glasco had four general stores, a gas station, a mechanic, its own bus service, and plenty of bars. There were regular poker games hidden away in back rooms. Kids found jobs through their parents’ friends.
Everyone had a sense of the ways in which one grew into honorable men and women, even without great earnings and savings, or even work, for that matter. Men cared about their looks, priding themselves as snappy dressers. They were the owners of well-kept automobiles. Women ran tight households open to guests at all times. Everything, Aiello recalls, was Italian (even the language, for older generations). The outside world was outside, and extraneous until high school.
“I was ten years old when I was first called a guinea,” Aiello wrote. “The remark came from two Saugerties teenagers riding in a truck …. Saugerties kids didn’t like us Glasco kids.” He charts those years after IBM came to Ulster County, the Thruway and bridges got built, the schools consolidated.
His own realization of a close-knit community started breaking up. “I really wasn’t aware that people were so different,” he said. “At ten years old, I never met a mean person that meant to do me harm. My grandfather always told me to watch who I associated with and to not trust those who weren’t like me. But who was I? What did he mean by that?”
Aiello looks at the shifts in the late 1950s. Glasco Italians had earlier welcomed blacks from the South to work alongside them in the brick factories. But then things changed. He speaks about us-versus-them attitudes in high school, and the term Glasco kids came up with for Americans… “Medi-ganes.”
“As I learned more, I realized just how different we were,” he recalled. “We had a bread man, a milk man, a coal man, an ice man and a produce man. Why, we even had a man that sharpened knives and scissors that came right to our homes or at least right outside them Why, we even had a rag man. We knew all of them and they knew us. Why Americans or Medi-ganes went to the stores for most of their foods was because they just never got to know the joy of having nothing like us.”
Unlike a story published in the pages of Saugerties Times earlier this decade, when Aiello was just starting his memoir and speaking about where he was born with a group of his friends, Remembering Glasco moves beyond the community where the author was born to spend time among high-school friends. He and his pals of the mid-1960s felt an attraction to Kingston and the county’s new community college. They dealt with Vietnam through the Army Reserves and other means. They found out what it was like to search out a career.
We glimpse the author’s own joy at realizing a life all his own, with wife and daughter and several homes before he found himself back in Saugerties, albeit across Route 9W from Glasco in Barclay Heights. Instead of diminishing his story about the ways in which places shift over time, his writing serves to accentuate that sense of loss that can occur as businesses congregate along main routes and communities lose their idiosyncrasies.
Books like these, one realizes churning through Aiello’s well-wrought and infectious memories, may be small on one level. But they’re big on others. They serve as a record of how time shifts, of what gets lost as new things get gained. They chart the efforts of keeping local in whatever ways one can.
“The famiglia. How many people would enjoy those wonderful Sunday dinners with family and extended family, plus friends of everyone?” Aiello writes at his memoir’s close. “Without family, what’s going to happen to the larger family, that thing we call society?”
He tries answering his own questions with an old Italian saying, a sense of nostalgia tempered with hope that ordering and writing down one’s memories can help, turning that distrust voiced by his grandfather into something that honors the familiarity of a closer-knit society.
For copies of Robert Aiello’s Remembering Glasco: Growing up in an Italian-American village, send a check for $23 to Robert Aiello, 14 Birchwood Drive West, Saugerties, NY 12477.