by Dan McClelland
The last day of 2018 was the 107th time that Junction native John Amoriell celebrated his birthday.
The lively and clear-minded centenarian enjoyed the milestone with his friends, family and care-givers at the Mercy Living Center.
“Well, I made 107,” John grinned when we stopped by his bright and nicely decorated single room in Tupper's nursing home last week.
John was born in 1911 in what he says was then called Faust, the son of Sam and Mary Maglione Amoriell, who had emigrated from Italy.
Once the young couple left their homeland, they never returned, making Tupper Lake their lifelong home. John said the family name in Italy was Amoriello. He was 24 and she was 22. The young couple lived in New York City for a couple of years, but his mother didn't like the Mafia members and other gangsters like “the Black Hand” in their neighborhood so they moved to Tupper Lake in 1907, according to John.
John was born in a four apartment tenement building on Washington Street that was later torn down.
John was named after his uncle, who also immigrated to America and who lived for a time in Tupper Lake with his brother after Mary passed.
Sam Amoriell built an attractive new house about 1918 on what is now Malerba Ave., formerly Second Ave. There were originally seven boys and one girl, but John's brother Patsy, who would have been 108 this year, died in New York City as an infant.
Showing us a photo of his parents and his siblings, John said he is the last surviving child of Sam and Mary.
Longevity runs strong in the Amoriell family, however. John's father was 89 when he died and his mother, 77. Most of his siblings lived into their eighties and nineties, according to John.
John worked for the railroad most of his life, for many years as a laborer and later as a machine operator. The job, which began in Tupper Lake, eventually took him in later years to many places with the railroad including the main line in Albany, Schenectady, Little Falls, Amsterdam, as well as Remsen, at the base of the Adirondack Railroad.
Following his many years of work in the Tupper Lake area, he later commuted by train to the other posts- generally staying there a week at a time and returning here on weekends.
From about 1964 on he worked in Selkirk, where he retired due to a back injury in 1969. He drew a monthly pension of $138 after over 30 years with the railroad.
As a machine operator, driving pay loaders and other pieces of heavy equipment, he often moved ties and rails around the rail yards and worked on various rail construction projects.
In 1937 John married Mildred Exware and the couple had two children, Sam and Annette. John's wife of over 70 years died at the age of 91 in 2011. In 2017 they would have been married 80 years, John calculated.
He called Mildred one of the best things in his life.
When he and Mildred married few houses had electricity and fewer had indoor plumbing. “Everyone had outhouses! They were cold in the winter!” he said with a knowing grin.
When the couple was first married they lived in an apartment over Ray Mikall's IGA at the corner of Main and Cedar where their son Sam was born in 1938. “It was a nice big apartment! The rent was $17 per month.”
Sam turned 80 last month, John noted.
Two years later the couple moved across the street to another apartment- this one owned by Elmer Farmer, where Annette was born in 1939. The rent was $11 per month. Mr. Farmer used to work for the railroad, noted John.
A few years later the couple bought a small house on Washington St. which they paid $500 for. “We lived there for a little while but there were so many bed bugs it was terrible!”
John and Mildred moved down the street to the Keeler house, where they lived until about 1945, when they bought their final home in that same neighborhood on what is now known as Amoriell Ave. They paid $2,000 for it. John and Mildred lived on the street later named after them for many years and after Mildred's death John stayed there until moving to Mercy four years ago.
Before moving to Mercy, John continued to roam the Junction neighborhoods aboard his motorized wheelchair.
John didn't serve in World War II, but he says he certainly would have served. He was registered and all set to go when the war ended.
During the Great Depression, when he said it was so tough to find a job, he did anything and everything he could to support himself, including picking berries to sell. During the Depression he eventually joined the Civilian Conservation Corp., working for two years on many local and area public works projects from its staging area and barracks at Cross Clearing.
“I was getting a dollar a day, $30 a month.”
John and his son Sam had a hunting camp at Lead Pond for years, and perhaps the first one there. Sam bought the place in 1978 and it was a regular haunt for them for decades. They started tenting at first and later built a camp.
“We had a wooden raft, but no boat! We'd row it out into the pond and boy did we catch fish!”
“I loved to be there...I loved the woods.”
Although he was a hunter until the age of 91, he holds the dubious distinction of never bagging a buck. “I shot at a lot of them, hit a few, but never got a darn deer,” he shrieked with laughter. By contrast, Sam bagged a deer every year, he added.
John said he and Sam had that camp before the forest company built a road to Lead Pond. For years they walked in from the railroad tracks, which now intersects the Lead Pond Road. He remembers the four-mile walk from Tupper Lake. Their camp was about a mile in from the tracks.
As more camps came to the pond and that section of local forest in general, the hunting pressure grew and they eventually sold it.
John also had a boat and motor and with it he and Sam frequented the local lakes where he loved to fish. The biggest fish John ever caught was an eight-pound Northern.
In the winters they ice-fished on Lead Pond, where they found lots of bass and pike.
His favorite fish, he said, is pike, which he said he became very good and cleaning and deboning.
John said he attended the “Junction School,” where the Moose Lodge is situated now.
He admits not being the best student and he frequently got into schoolyard fights. He only made it to the fifth grade, when he and school officials decided parting company was the best for all concerned.
“I got kicked out when I was only 14...I was in trouble all the time!”
He remembers the school supervisor, Flossie Chevrette, as a tough administrator. “She didn't like me very much!”
As a young teenager he couldn't find any work so for a couple of years he worked “on the little farm” his father had off Washington St. , behind what is now Malerba Ave.
At 16 he went to the Oval Wood Dish Corp., piling wood in the yard. “I was getting fifteen cents an hour or $6.30 per week.”
“They raised me to 25 cents an hour and that was a big deal!”
John began his career with the Adirondack Railroad, first working as a laborer. In those early years one of his jobs was feeding coal into the furnaces of the steam engines at the time. He said he remembers when the steam locomotives were switched to electric ones in the early 1950s.
A lifelong Yankees fan, one of the team's old-timers' fan clubs routinely sends him memorabilia which decorates some of his walls in his room. He received a Yankee bobby-head statue for Christmas. Another prized possession is a replica of one of the team's championship rings.
“I'm a Yankee man! Aaron Judge is my favorite player. He made 52 home runs last season!”
The outfielder was the American League's Rookie of the Year in 2017.
One of his care-givers, Rose Gaudet, is trying to organize a trip for John to the Big Apple so he can see his team play at a game this summer.
John remembers with great fondness the family homestead that John's father built in 1917, which was the longtime home of John's sister Mary and her husband Louis Malerba on Malerba Ave.
“When my father built it there was only three of us. It is a beautiful home. My father bought the land and built the house there. There was no Washington Street or no Lafayette Street, nothing at all.”
Washington Street was only a trail which he hiked to attend school or church in the Junction. Main Street was also a dirt road at the time, he recalls.
The house was on “five or six acres of land” and for years John's father and mother ran it as a small farm- tending a handful of horses, three cows, four sheep and some chickens. There was enough pasture land to take off hay for the animals each summer with a horse and wagon. John remembers cutting the hay with a scythe as a boy.
The family always maintained a big garden. He and Mildred also maintained a garden at their place several blocks away for years. “Everyone had a big garden in those days! There were also a lot of farms in Tupper Lake early on!”
On Sundays the entire family boarded their horse and buggy and headed via trail to the Holy Name Church, he remembers.
John said he enjoyed growing up in the early years of Faust when many of the residents were Italians, who came here to work on the railroad. Many of those families eventually moved on with the decline of the railroad.
He said his mother was a great cook and made the “real Italian food,” particularly on holidays, when all the Italian families on Washington St. would “come to the Amoriells for a party.”
John never learned to speak Italian, although he could understand it. It was always spoken in the home and his mother could barely speak English.
During his first years as a laborer with the railroad, he helped demolish the New York and Ottawa line from Tupper Lake to Ottawa.
In his those years too he would often be assigned to operate the plow on the train to remove snow from the tracks in winter from Montreal through Tupper Lake to Utica. For many years he operated a rail car called the flanger which had two blades attached to it to removed snow from between the rails. The flanger car, much like a caboose and heated with a coal stove, was usually positioned in the middle of a train. The flanger cars were sidelined to rail spurs and rail yards in the non-winter months, he noted.
If the snow or other debris between the tracks was not removed, a trail could derail, he explained.
The flanger car had steam-powered controls so that the two operators could actually stop the train if there was a problem on the tracks. He often operated the flanger with Piercefield's Charlie LaVassaur.
Plowing the tracks couldn't be done at more than 30 miles per hour, and John said he would often have to use his controls to slow down the engine.
The two flanger blades- one on each side- had to be raised by the operators at switches or rail crossings, to prevent damage to them.
A snow-plowing train would often derail in heavy snow areas. The crews carried ramp-like devices with them to pull the derailed cars back on tracks, with the strength of additional engines that were deployed from yards in Utica or Lake Placid.
One day operating the flanger, the blades hit a rail crossing, breaking them “all to hell,” he said with a big grin. “We could have been killed!”
One day too from his perch in the flanger car he spotted a car broken down on a crossing and stopped the train, sparing the life of the occupant.
The plowing trips would often take the entire day, so he and others would often have to stay over at either end of the 112-mile Adirondack Railroad line- in Utica or Lake Placid.
Sometimes so much snow would build up under the plow and the cars behind it they'd have to stop train to dig it all out, he told the Free Press.
Another of John's railroad jobs was walking the tracks, looking for missing spikes. He carried a hammer and extra spikes to replace them.
At one point his job was to walk the line to Floodwood and back nine miles every day. Sometimes he flagged down and hopped the southbound No. 2 for the trip back home.
He also remembers the months he spent walking the rails daily in the Sabattis and Nehasane area. He'd often meet an old man, in ragged clothes, who turned out to be Dr. W. Seward Webb, who financed and whose crews built the Adirondack Railroad from Utica to Tupper Lake in a single year in the early 1890s. “He was an old man when I used to talk with him. We used to talk about fishing and hunting!”
He said Webb would frequently entertain prominent people from the city who loved to hunt and they would come up by train.
“The deer herds there were wicked,” he exclaimed, a product of the car loads of molasses and grain Webb would order to feed them.
Caretakers there would occasionally take John inside the family's beautiful lodges, many of the walls of which were decorated with big game trophies.
In later years patrolling sections of track he was given a small three-wheel hand cart to use and to carry his repair tools. Before that he had to haul his tools in a bag he slung over his shoulder.
He always carried a flag to alert oncoming trains of his presence.
One of his less than favorite jobs in his early years was cleaning the platform of snow in front of the Tupper Lake station in anticipation of the No. 5 train, which left Utica before 2a.m. for arrival here about 5a.m. “The platform had to be completely cleared for the people arriving on the train! Some days there was a lot of snow!”
He also vividly remembers the ski trains full of skiers headed from the New York City and other points south to Lake Placid to ski for a week. The trains had engines on both the front and back and came full of lavish Pullman cars. “All people with big money!” he said, rubbing his fingers together.
He also remembers Tupper Lake's big rail yard with 13 tracks where the village playground now sits on Washington Street.
John also tended the rail switches out from Tupper Lake and as far out as Brandreth, where he would often have to stay in what he called “a little bunk house.”
The only thing there was a station and “a few camps in the woods.”
He remembers vividly too the day the snow plow hit several deer in the middle of tracks, because the train couldn't stop in time. “The next day we stopped and picked them up and the meat was still very good!”
As a hunter, while he may not have not been good with a rifle, he was obviously good with the plow and flanger on the train.
Happy 107th, John!