The response to Timothy Bohen’s book about the First Ward of Buffalo has been, he says, “astonishing.”
Several local publishers Bohen consulted before self-publishing “Against the Grain: The History of Buffalo’s First Ward,” told him that he could expect to sell his first printing of 1,000 copies in three years. Instead, that printing sold out in three weeks.
Now on the fourth printing, and after “well over a dozen book-signings,” Bohen is preparing for a busy March, when St. Patrick’s Day celebrations have people thinking about the community’s Irish roots.
But first, Bohen will appear in the Larkin Square Author Series, speaking informally and signing books from 5 to 6:30 p.m. Wednesday in the Filling Station Restaurant, 745 Seneca St., Larkinville.
The link between the Larkin empire and the First Ward was strong, Bohen says. “The Larkin Co. was born in the First Ward on Chicago Street, was raised in the Hydraulics, and was buried [the remains of the administration building] in the Ohio Basin in the Ward.”
Bohen, a Buffalo pharmaceuticals salesman and self-taught historian, became intrigued by the history of the First Ward when he began looking into the proper spelling of his great-great-grandfather’s last name. Along the way, he discovered a fascinating history of blue-collar workers, prominent politicians and successful sports figures, disasters and prosperity, all set in a tight-knit community.
He says the interest in “Against the Grain” came from two groups: “Those who are from the Ward or are descendants of the Ward are the largest segment. There is a real hunger from this group to learn about how their parents, grandparents, or other relatives lived in this unique neighborhood. Also, many people who grew up in the Ward want to share their life with their loved ones or friends.
“The second group includes Buffalo history enthusiasts. This group of people has turned out to be much larger than I initially thought,” he says.
Tom McDonnell, who owns and operates the nonprofit Dog Ears Bookstore and Enlightenment Literary Arts Center on Abbott Road in South Buffalo, says sales of “Against the Grain” have greatly benefited his store, which has also held a couple of book-signings with Bohen.
McDonnell estimates that he has sold some 500 copies of the book, and that many people have been excited to find themselves, friends and family members listed among the 900 names and nicknames printed at the end of the book. “They see that, and then they want to buy the book,” says McDonnell.
Bohen says, “There seems to be something unique about the Ward because of the mystery of this neighborhood,” due to the insular nature of the families, who often knew each other for several generations and also intermarried during the 170-year history of the First Ward.
The fact that the Ward was both an industrial and a residential neighborhood “also makes it unique,” Bohen says. “I am not sure if there would be as much of an interest in a Buffalo residential neighborhood with a history that starts in the 1920s, let’s say.”
Bohen praises other movements to preserve ethnic heritage in the city, including the magazine “Per Niente,” published by Joe Di Leo, which tells the story of the Italian West Side.
During his talk at Larkinville, Bohen will discuss ways in which the Ward and the Larkin Co. interacted.
“They were actually two very distinct neighborhoods, even though they bumped up against each other on Exchange Street,” he says. “Bridges, canals, railroad tracks and the Thruway kept the Ward, the Valley, and the Hydraulics all very distinct throughout most of the 19th and 20th [centuries]. Some areas of overlap include the Larkin Co. Some Ward residents have told me the Larkin Co. was the largest employer of women from the Ward. It was a comfort for these women to know that they could always find a job there if they needed one, and many did.”
Leslie Zemsky, whose title is Larkin Square Director of Fun, says, “We’re excited to hear Timothy’s fun stories about the First Ward and the ways in which they spill over to Larkinville. It’s also a great way to gear up for our upcoming Live at O’Larkin event themed around St. Patrick’s Day.”
The Celtic-themed Live at O’Larkin event will run from 4:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. March 15, kicking off St. Patrick’s weekend.
The free outdoor event will include music by McCarthyizm, Poor Ould Goat and the Greater Buffalo Firefighters Pipes and Drums, as well as dancing by Clann Na Cara School of Irish Dance. Irish coffee, stout and food will be sold at The Filling Station, The Grill, and Square 1 Sandwiches, and the Larkin Square Marketplace will feature a variety of vendors.
As for Bohen, the outpouring of response to “Against the Grain” has kept him busy. He has received more than 200 emails from people offering their own memories and family stories. His website, oldfirstward.com, has been visited by more than 3,000 users from 48 states and more than 1,000 spots outside Western New York, including Nigeria, Nepal, Ethiopia, Chile, Thailand, Japan and New Zealand.
“Many of them are probably Buffalo ex-pats,” Bohen says. “But it’s extraordinary, that somebody in Nigeria, even a Buffalo ex-pat, would care about the First Ward.”