“It’s only a shanty in old Shanty Town. The roof is so slanty it touches the ground.”
Those words are from a song introduced in the 1932 movie “The Crooner.” The music, in part, is attributed to “Little” Jack Little (no relation).
John “Jack” West, a 92-year-old World War II hero and friend, sat across from me at a pancake breakfast and began the conversation by asking, “What do you know about the Shabby House?” I shrugged and answered, “Nothing.” He smiled and related 79-year-old details about a tumbledown shack that was moved to downtown Plattsburgh from Upper Rugar Street in 1934, rehabilitated, sold in a raffle and moved to a permanent site on Grace Avenue.
My appetite was whetted. I rushed home to do the research, promising to pick him up and take him on a tour to see what the house looks like today. Formerly, I had to frequent libraries and pour through microfilm images of old newspapers. Nowadays, the information is available with a few keystrokes on the computer at sites where such papers are archived.
Locating the Plattsburgh Daily Press from 1934 and ’35 on the Northern New York Library Network was a snap. I began recording notes and calling Kaye with her eagle vision to help me decipher the sometimes blurred print. I then scoured numerous Press-Republican “The Good Old Days” columns written by my friend, the late Frank Provost, who often penned retrospective stories about the “Shabby House.”
The nation was in the throes of a Great Depression, and a survey showed 16 million American homes in sad need of repair. Clinton County bought such a house on Upper Rugar Street to reportedly “show the public to what extent deterioration exists in millions of homes in the U.S.”
It was decided that local merchants would bear the cost, and union members would do the work. Materials would be donated. A Plattsburgh Better Housing Committee headed by K. C. Bowman was formed, and the project was under way. It was dubbed the "Shabby House,” and amid much ado, the shack was moved by Harry Carpenter with county equipment on Dec. 13, 1934, to a spot “on the City Hall terrace.” The 26th Infantry Drum and Bugle Corps played, and people cheered as power and telephone lines were cut and spliced to make way along the route.
Meetings were held in the Chamber of Commerce offices of Loyal Wright where blueprints were explained, and plans were made to begin work on the Shabby House in December of 1934. Work continued for months as banners on-site proclaimed “Watch Shabby House Change.”
Seven carpenters, directed by City Building Superintendent John B. Light, worked furiously on the Shabby House. Books of tickets were sold at a dollar apiece, and they went like hotcakes. It was announced that the finished house would be moved to a permanent location on Grace Avenue and a winner’s name would be drawn. The winner would then have the option of keeping the house or selling it for $3,000 cash.
The not-so-Shabby House was moved on Saturday, Aug. 31, 1935, and turned over to contractor Leo West, older brother of my friend Jack. Leo and his employees did additional work on the house. The public was invited to inspect what was called “The house that confidence built,” along with its newly landscaped property. It received a new name: “The Sampler.”
At City Hall, tickets were placed in a large drum. A small girl from the audience pulled out the winning ticket on Oct. 12, 1935, and it bore the name of local undertaker John J. O’Neill. He soon decided to take the $3,000 cash offer and sold it to Mrs. K. C. Bowman. She was told she could rent the place for up to $40 a month, if she chose.
Jack and I parked in front of the Grace Avenue home where the former Shabby House is located and reflected on its story told by the man who was there when it happened. I’m so blessed to have such wonderful friends.
Have a not-too-shabby great day and please, drive carefully.
Gordie Little was for many years a well-known radio personality in the North Country and now hosts the “Our Little Corner” television program for Home Town Cable. Anyone with comments for him may send them to the newspaper or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.