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Al Bruno’s Smithfield remembered – Esmond Street and the East Smithfield Neighborhood Center

By Laurence J. Sasso, Jr.

This is the eleventh article in an occasional series about Smithfield locations that have either been forgotten by time or are no longer remembered for what they once represented. The locations are selected from a list compiled by former Smithfield Building Official Al Bruno. A profile of Mr. Bruno, now 86, was originally featured in the January, 2017 edition of The Smithfield Times. The first installment of this series ran in February 2017.

This month’s installment is a little different. It centers on Mr. Bruno’s recollections of an entire street in the area where he grew up, and includes the East Smithfield Neighborhood Center, which he knew as The Esmond Community Hall. Built by the Esmond Mills, the site served a variety of purposes for the neighborhood.

“As a small boy I remember the building as a library, a dance hall, a table tennis place, a club where we played cards, and a four lane bowling all at the same time,” he says. “It was a meeting hall for many organizations too,” he adds.

Mr. Bruno attended Boy Scout meetings there for more than 10 years, and he notes that the facility hosted the Esmond Canteen on Tuesday and Saturday nights. Mr. Bruno was the DJ “spinning records” for the dances.

He recounts how, as a youth, he would stick his head out the door of the place before leaving to see if he could smell his father’s cigar smoke as he walked home. He said if he did, he would race to beat him home lest he get a scolding for being out too late.

“As a teenager I set pins for many leagues there. Also, in the rear yard was the Esmond Pond with a diving board where we swam for years. We waved at the engineers of the steam locomotive who passed by daily on the railroad tracks of the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad. They would toot the steam horn and wave back to us kids as they passed by.”

Today the Center is closed for a number of safety deficiencies which are being evaluated.

When Mr. Bruno was a youth, Esmond Street, where the Center is located, ran only from Waterman Avenue to Dean Avenue. Today it goes all the way through to Route 44. Back then it was necessary to use Sebille Road to get to Route 44. It joined up where the off ramp from Route 295 is now situated.

“Beginning at Dean Avenue, the first building was the George McDonald Market,” Mr. Bruno explains. “Across the street was the Dorothy T.P. Dame School, now the East Smithfield Public Library. The first house at the corner of Esmond Street and Hill Avenue was the home of Robert Tobin, the personnel director of the Esmond Mills, the largest employer in town in those days. It manufactured the famous Esmond Bunny Blankets.”

Proceeding toward Waterman Avenue, Mr. Bruno recalls the Earl Latham appliance repair shop, Sweeney’s Liquor Store, and to its rear the Esmond Bottling Works, which made Manhattan beverages.

“I spent a great deal of my teens there bottling soda,” he remarks, adding “directly across the street from the store was the kindergarten I attended as a toddler.”

Chapman’s Dairy was next door and then Leone’s Variety Store, which was later demolished, he mentions.

“Then came ‘Joe the Barber,’ and in the same building was Rocheford’s Market at Elm Court. Next was the main gate to the Esmond Mill, complete with an attendant,” he continues. “A short way down the road was the Esmond Community Hall.”

At the junction of Esmond Street and Waterman Avenue Mr. Bruno points out that there was a large World War I memorial with the names of those from the area who served.

“Across the street on the opposite corner was a World war II honor roll listing all who served who were employed by the mill,” he adds. “Last was Haskins’ Fish and Chips, which was in the building which had Leveille’s Esmond Shop, our local hangout where we met our friends. That is the Esmond Street I remember.”

Interestingly enough, none of the businesses he describes still exist.