The Old First Ward of Buffalo, a close-knit residential and industrial neighborhood along the Buffalo River south of downtown, was the site of many historic events and the birthplace of people who excelled in every field, from business and government to sports and entertainment. ¶ Now, the history of the ward and the people who have called it home is told in a new book written and published by Timothy Bohen, a Buffalo pharmaceuticals salesman and self-taught historian whose family lived in the ward for a century. ¶ “Against the Grain: The History of Buffalo’s First Ward,” contains 279 pages with nearly 70 photos and is supported by more than 900 footnotes on Bohen’s website, www.oldfirstward.com. ¶ The project started simply enough five years ago, when Bohen decided to investigate stories that his family name originally had a different spelling. He started out in the genealogy room of the Buffalo Irish Center, on Abbott Road in South Buffalo, looking for his great-great-grandfather, who settled in the ward in 1868.
Bohen says he found “a chapter here, an essay there,” but what he didn’t find was just as interesting. “There was no comprehensive history of the First Ward,” he says.
Bohen decided to write about the century from 1849 to 1949, when his ancestors lived in the First Ward. But about halfway into his research, Bohen had a chat with Mike Catanzaro, a member of the First Ward Reunion Committee.
“He told me that me that I had to [write] through Jimmy Griffin. That was probably the best advice I got, to do the latter part of the 20th century, because that contained some of the greatest and most colorful stories – as well as the most detailed information” from people who recalled the events personally, Bohen says.
Catanzaro, one of the book’s biggest boosters, says, “It’s a great historical record. This book is going to be important to a lot of people..”
“I can die happy, now that there’s a history,” says Bert Hyde, of Waterfront Memories and More Museum in Mutual Riverfront Park, where Bohen did some research. “He did his homework on this book. He brought it to life, all the people, all the characters, all the families.”
They came and stayed
Although the boundaries changed some over the years, the ward is generally defined as the area between Hamburg Street and Michigan Avenue, from Exchange Street to the Buffalo River.
However, says Bohen, “There are the actual black-and-white boundaries and then there is the spirit of the ward.” In that spirit, he decided to include some information about the adjacent neighborhood, the Valley, when institutions or events crossed the map’s boundaries. “These points of intersection include the Mercy sisters who were housed at both schools, St. Stephen’s and St. Bridget’s [in the ward],” he says.
As he researched the history of the ward, Bohen found many reasons why it is unique.
“It is one of the longest-enduring blue-collar Irish neighborhoods in America,” says Bohen. “It’s unlike other ethnic communities throughout the Northeast, including the ones in Buffalo, where you see successive waves coming and going. On the West Side you had Anglo Protestants, followed by the Irish, replaced by Italians, replaced by Puerto Ricans, replaced by African and Asian refugees. The First Ward never had that. Because of its geographical isolation and this close-knit culture of taking care of each other, there were a lot of benefits to staying there.”
Widespread community support of political parties, labor unions and the Catholic church, as well as the more casual ties of friendship and intermarriages, unified the neighborhood, keeping it politically and economically powerful. All these factors, says Bohen, “provided a nurturing environment, and to leave that environment was to walk away from the support.”
Although people with Irish roots were most common in the First Ward, other ethnicities mixed in, says Bohen. “There was a sprinkling of German residents at first with the Irish, and those two groups got along pretty well. Some German names survive: the Hoffstetters, the Overdorfs.”
Poles, Italians, Hungarians, Portuguese, Scots and even Lithuanians also lived in the First Ward, “but the Irish culture was the dominant one and kind of subsumed all the other ones,” says Bohen.
The ward was the site of such important events as the invention of the grain elevator in 1842 and the bloody railroad strikes of 1877 and 1892. Larger-than-life figures, such as grain scooper boss William “Fingy” Conners, showman Michael Shea and boxing champ Jimmy Slattery, came from the ward. Several books of fiction have been set in the ward, including the late Roger B. Dooley’s novels – “Days Beyond Recall” (1949) and “The House of Shanahan" (1952) among them. Richard Sullivan has written and published two novels based on actual events and real people: “The First Ward,” (2011) and “The First Ward II: Fingy Conners & the New Century” (2012).
“I read ‘Days Beyond Recall’ and ‘The House of Shanahan,’ but they were fictitious,” says Catanzaro. “This book is really going to register with people, seeing all the names of the places they went and the people they knew.”
Roots that run deep
As he researched “Against the Grain,” Bohen relied on help from many people who had deep family roots in the ward. Even though he himself had never lived in the First Ward, Bohen says he was welcomed and eventually trusted.
Early on in the process, he says, “I was invited to a First Ward reunion picnic where they made an announcement that I was writing a book and asked people to share stories, and there were a couple of people who came right up to me and it was great. Over time, the others opened up and welcomed me in.
“The Irish have a great oral tradition of passing on history,” he says. “There was very little written of the events and times other than in newspapers. But there were a handful of manuscripts written for families, including the Evans family and the Crowleys. They didn’t necessarily write what they remembered, they wrote what their grandparents told them.” Bohen also read a 115-page manuscript written in 1982 by John Baldyga, called “Trip Around Buffalo’s Water Front and Life in the First Ward in the Twenties, Thirties and Forties.”
“What was fascinating was how much I found in these memoirs that was accurate,” says Bohen. “There were some things I couldn’t say were out-and-out falsehoods, I just couldn’t find proof of them. A couple of the memoirs referred to the fact that after the Fenian Raid of 1866, the failed battle [in which Irish-Americans attacked Canada], a lot of the Fenians decided to stay in the First Ward because jobs were plentiful here. It’s great and I want to believe it, but there is no proof.”
Input and updates
Reaction to the book, which Bohen sold at the sixth annual First Ward reunion party in mid-September, has been “really impressive,” he says. “I did not think of this, or any history book, as a page-turner, but people are saying they can’t put it down. People are so thankful that I included their family if I wrote about their grandmother who owned a corner store. There is such an appreciation for this project.”
Bohen says some people might enjoy the book as “a classic American immigrant story.” But, for “people from the ward and the descendants of the ward, like myself,” he says, the resonance might be deeper. “I hope they get a sense of gratitude for the sacrifices that the people who came before us made so we can have this great life, and I hope they feel a touch of nostalgia for what it must have been like to walk these streets with these incredible characters, and the monumental events that happened here.”
As soon as the book was published, Bohen says he began learning about incidents and people who should have been included. “I am finding out about things I didn’t know,” he says, including the story of Veronica Moriarity, who was the first woman on the county board of supervisors in 1935. He plans to post some of these updates on his website or include them in a possible second printing.
Along the way, Bohen did solve the mystery of his last name. Real estate records showed that his great-great-grandfather Timothy spelled his name Bohane when he emigrated from Skibbereen, County Cork, Ireland. First the name lost the final “e,” then around 1900 the spelling shifted from Bohan to Bohen. But, says Bohen, “Once the research started rolling, it became such a small part of the book.”
Against the Grain: The
By Timothy Bohen
279 pages, $19.95
Available at Dog Ears bookstore, 688 Abbott Road, Barnes and Noble, Talking Leaves, barnesandnoble.com.