There has always been something special about growing up in Canarsie and for Stella Margaret Butecke, a remarkable German-American girl who lived on Avenue L and East 95th Street in the late 1800s, it was absolutely everything. Her memoir, A German-American Childhood in Old Canarsie, New York, lovingly and posthumously edited by her great-niece and accomplished author, Martha Lowder Kimball, is truly a pleasure to read.
Like so many early immigrants, Stella’s grandparents came to America by ship in 1825 and landed in Manhattan where they settled before moving to Canarsie. In 1880, family relation Claus (Uncle Charlie) Meyer erected a row of yellow houses on Avenue L between East 94th and 95th Streets, known collectively as Butecke’s Row. It was there, at 9423 Avenue L, that Stella and her sister Henrietta were born and raised.
Meyer also built a large three-story building, close to the railroad, on the corner of Avenue L and East 95th Street, located at 9501 Avenue L, where Stella’s father, Henry, opened his very own grocery store, which she brings to life in her story, describing it in such vivid detail that the reader can almost imagine being there. She writes that there was sawdust on the floor and describes these intriguing Japanned canisters full of exotic teas, which were scooped out and weighed, and a little bell that jingled when customers opened the door that has since become a treasured family heirloom. According to Canarsie’s foremost historian, Ira Kluger, that building, the adjoining one at 9503 Avenue L, which was originally occupied by a wine and liquor store, saloon and hotel, and two other adjacent stores, is presently occupied by “Bamboo Gardens” restaurant – still standing 142 years later.
There are so many lovely recollections throughout her memoir that you may read for yourself, of simpler times, of days gone by and of the importance of family most of all, a legacy she passed down to her great-nieces and nephews who honored her by completing her project. “My sister Alice remembers us watching Aunt Stella at a gray Formica kitchen table in Hudson, New York, from the late 50s on, carefully penciling her stories in old-style cursive. Her sister Etta (Henrietta) sat by her side, prompting memories and validating facts,” Kimball recalled. “All of the lovingly preserved historic photos in the book were passed down to, or originated with, Stella and Etta,” she explained.
As a frequent childhood visitor to Stella’s Canarsie home, Kimball took a special interest in the family history held within its walls. “We children pretended that our planned and expected visits to 9423 Avenue L would actually be wonderful surprises. We sneaked up the porch steps and rang the doorbell like strangers. Aunt Stella faithfully arrived at the front door with hands upraised in delight and a satisfying “Oh, my!” on her lips,” she said, painting Stella as just the sweetest, most adoring Auntie. “The house held wonderful smells and the promise of entertainment. We knew where all of the toys, books, musical instruments and Betsy McCall paper dolls were stored. If the weather was warm, we looked forward to time in our “secret garden” behind the house,” she said, describing the home’s special charm. In fact, the book is so full of sweet, nostalgic charm that it is sure to warm even the stoniest of hearts and become a most treasured volume in any collection.
This spectacular old Canarsie memoir is available on eBay and can also be purchased directly from the family, by sending name, address and a check for $23.50 (which includes shipping) to: Martha Kimball, 258 McDaniel Avenue, Jamestown, NY 14701.
Photos courtesy of Martha Lowder Kimball