Most Rye folks did not know him, but all have heard of him. If you read Rye’s street signs, hopefully you do, you have.
By Karen T. Butler
Most Rye folks did not know him, but all have heard of him. If you read Rye’s street signs, hopefully you do, you have. In 1941, changing Railroad Avenue to Theodore Fremd Avenue was a resounding thank-you from his many friends and neighbors to whom he was so legendary.
If he was one of our contemporaries, he most likely would be called Ted Fremd. Born in a much more formal era and in a more formal place, Germany, he probably would frown on that. With his thick German accent and mostly photographed wearing a three-piece suit, tie and dress shirt (men’s everyday attire in the early 1900’s), the more proper Theodore fit him well. The exception to being proper was donning his butcher’s apron at Fremd’s Market, his stock and trade for 50 years.
Fremd’s Market, purveyor of prime meats, was originally located on the northeast corner of Purdy Avenue and Purchase Street. It was in his shop ballots were cast in Rye’s landmark election proclaiming Rye a Village in 1902. His market was the center of Rye’s universe in that era for nothing resembling a Village Hall existed.
Theodore Fremd came to America in 1880, at age 17; returning to Germany three years later to settle his parents’ estate. Before he could leave with his inheritance, he was forced to serve three years in the German military. Years later he said, “After I was discharged, I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. I do love this country [the United States].”
But it was Rye that he truly loved.
He served as President of the Village of Rye from 1913 for over a decade (the title used until the State legislature deemed Mayor more appropriate). Deeply devoted to the extensive expansion of the YMCA in 1930, he enthusiastically proclaimed, “Vat Rye must have is a ‘gimnassium’”, a new and exciting thing at the time, and endearing him to so many in town.
As President of the Rye School Board, he laid the cornerstone for the present-day Rye High School handsomely faced in native stone quarried near Rye Lake, costing $1,325,000 including overages in 1930.
Without fail, he was considered quite a guy with plenty of spunk and known to be gutsy. On a dare in 1919, he flew in a hydroplane giving “trial rides” down by the beach. Actually he flew twice. “Aeroplanes” were still such a novelty; folks cranked their necks, looking to the sky to see a plane in the air.
Robert Crisfield started working for Fremd when he was a young man, having learned the meat cutting trade in his father’s shop in New Rochelle. When Theodore Fremd passed away, he left his loyal employee of many years the business, hence the birth of Crisfield’s Market.
The business had moved across the street and down to 61 Purchase Street, more in the center of things. On one side of Crisfield’s, was Butler’s Market, opening in the early 1940s, the precursor to Butler Bros. Its storefront was a double-hung window that lifted up. Fresh produce was displayed in wooden crates tipped at an angle for better visibility from the street. The fruit was in meticulous rows, always with the identical smooth side of the fruit forward and small squares of green paper crumpled delicately in between to steady the display. Heaven help “Mrs. Got Rocks” (wealthy ladies who wore diamond rings) or any customer, for that matter, if she were to touch a piece of fruit. She would be strongly chastised for these culinary creations of produce were easily toppled.
During World War II, produce and meat were very scarce. Jack Butler described how his dad and his brother, Marty left at 2 a.m. to purchase fresh produce at Hunt’s Point Market in the Bronx. Marty, riding “shotgun” and carrying a club, was the protector of the goods they had purchased and put in their truck, keeping it from being stolen. Hunt’s Point was a rough place. Upon their return, his dad and brother caught a few hours sleep, while Jack would hurriedly build the produce displays in the store window before catching the train to school. The produce had to be sold out that day for there was no refrigeration, so each day brought with it a new supply of fruits and vegetables.
Next store was a sliver of a store, Rella’s, the shoemaker, a distant relative of Rye Shoe Store’s Saracino family. In very tight quarters with shoes lining the narrow shelves and his noisy machine to sew them, he repaired many, many shoes. With a smile, he would always say to my mother, “Mrs. Torpey you musta be Italian; your name endsa with a vowel. Italian names enda with a vowel.” My mother would always respond, “No, no, Torpey is an Irish name.” He would always insist she was wrong. He was a busy man; repairing shoes was a necessity to many more people. Looking back, busy or not, I think he seemed to find time to flirt with my mother.
By the end of the 1940s, Butler’s Market became Moroney’s Fruits and Vegetables, expanding into the shoe store where it continued selling produce into the 1960s.
Crisfield’s was the picture of clean, stark white: the walls, the meat cases, the ceiling except the beautiful red geraniums that thrived basking in the sun that shown in from Purchase Street through the storefront window.
Sawdust heavily covered the floor to keep it from being slippery. On the left wall immediately as one entered was a photograph of Theodore Fremd flamboyantly sitting inside a cage with lions. A glass-enclosed room almost like a movie ticket kiosk, housed the bookkeepers, Gladys and Sam. They handled all the house charge accounts manually. Paper and pencils were their tools. Metal spindles held the large stack of completed meat orders. House charge accounts were the norm; hand written and hand tabulated, the bills were sent out monthly. Credit cards were unheard of. In the main, people paid by cash. Daily cash bank deposits were counted and carried up the street to the bank. Ann Moller, Crisfield’s granddaughter, said, “a major innovation was heralded when a ‘bookkeeping machine’ was finally installed”.
A big moose head and a hefty buffalo head were mounted high on the wall appearing to supervise the Crisfield domain. They were not stern looking, but rather benevolent. In fact, they were fun. Less prominent were several deer heads.
At least a half dozen butchers including Bob Crisfield, peered from behind a long row of high glass-front meat cases, chatting softly with customers, writing orders on pads with a small sheet of carbon paper in between the page to duplicate what they wrote. Behind them on a series of large wooden chopping block tables they cut and pounded the meat, trimmed the fat and weighed each item. Completing the order, brown paper was wrapped diagonally around the meat and tied with string. The duplicate of the completed order with the prices totaled manually was then put on a metal spindle, eventually given to the bookkeeper. (Today sawdust on the floor, wooden chopping blocks, the weighing scales of old and pointed metal spindles are…presumably to keep us healthy…, in violation of the departments of “weights and measures” and “health” regulations.)
I remember as a kid when going to Crisfield’s I was guaranteed a slice of freshly cut “bologna” or baloney as we would call it, (not the packaged stuff we eat today) from the butcher waiting on my mother, so a trip to Crisfield’s was a treat. One of the butchers, a happy-go-lucky fellow I think named Gabe loved to entertain us with wonderful birdcalls and his great sense of humor.
In the rear of the store was a walk-in freezer. Jimmy Walsh, the butcher who worked exclusively in the cooler was referred to as “the ice box man”. Large sides of “hanging” beef weighing many hundred of pounds were cut by him into smaller sections for easier handling by the other butchers. Fat trimmed from the carcass was purchased and taken away by “the fat man”, Oscar, who in turn sold it to someone else to do something else with it. Buying fat trimmings was a lucrative business.
Crisfield’s continued to grow. Bob Slater, who years ago drove for Crisfield’s, remembers three trucks with full-time drivers delivering six days a week all day long traveling throughout Rye to Greenwich, going as far north as Round Hill, and from Harrison to Scarsdale and occasionally to Manhattan. Most orders were called in over the phone — often by the maids. There was no charge for delivery. Wealthy or not, freezers didn’t exist, so like the produce, shopping for meat was done on a near daily basis.
Even with long hours and hard work, Bob Crisfield generously “gave back” to Rye, making time to be a Rye City Councilman in the days when Council meetings were held in the Square House, used as Rye’s City Hall for years. Most Councilmembers during those years were local businessmen in town. Bob was also a dedicated Rye Fireman.
The present day Crisfield’s with John Johnston, wife Jackie and son Danny at the helm is housed in what was once the garage for the Crisfield trucks when the store fronted on Purchase Street. In a wonderful link to the past, the Crisfield family has passed on to the Johnstons, the carving knives that belonged to Bob Crisfield. These knives are the “tools of the butchering trade”: boning knives, meat cleavers, meat pounder, meat saw, steak knife … the list goes on.
For well over a hundred years, Crisfield’s and, before it, Fremd’s have been serving Rye. John Johnston summed it up beautifully, “The carving of meat is an art form and craft which I passionately enjoy. Fortunately, our shop is in Rye, where our loyal customers enthusiastically appreciate us and our quality product.” One can only imagine that Theodore Fremd and Bob Crisfield would undoubtedly proclaim “right on”, or some such thing, to enthusiastically echo these very same sentiments.
— Photos courtesy of The Rye Historical Society and Karen Butler