Roger Smith November 14, 2015

Title

Roger Smith November 14, 2015

Subject

Cooperstown, New York
Spurbeck Grocery
Navy
Postmaster
Cheese
Georgia Tech University

Description

Roger Smith is a born and raised member of Cooperstown that has played a major role in the community. After serving the United States Navy, he went to school at Georgia Tech University. There he met his wife and soon after moved back to his hometown. After serving as Postmaster for 30 years, he took over his family store Spurbeck Grocery in 1997. Known for their wide beer selections and cheese, Roger and his wife Dorothy continue to run Spurbeck Grocery. The interview took place in the backroom of Spurbeck Grocery and the buzzing of the lights and fridges are heard in the audio.

Creator

Joshua D. Taylor

Publisher

Cooperstown Graduate Program, State University of New York-College at Oneonta

Date

2015-11-14

Rights

Cooperstown Graduate Association, Cooperstown NY

Format

Audio/mpeg
24.1MB
Audio/mpeg
22.0MB

Language

en-US

Coverage

Upstate New York
1935-2015
Cooperstown, Ny

Interviewer

Joshua D. Taylor

Interviewee

Roger Smith

Location

Cooperstown
New York

Transcription

Cooperstown Graduate Program
Research and Fieldwork Course (HMUS 520)
Oral History Project
Fall 2015

Interview with Roger Smith by Joshua D. Taylor

Interviewer: Taylor, Joshua D.
Interviewee: Smith, Roger
Date: November 14, 2015
Location of interview: Cooperstown, New York

Archive or Library Repository: Cooperstown Graduate Association, Cooperstown, NY


JT = Joshua Taylor
RS = Roger Smith

[START OF TRACK 1, 0:00]
JT:
This Joshua Taylor recording for the Cooperstown Graduate Program Oral History Project. I am here today with Roger Smith on November 14, 2015 at Spurbeck Grocery. So Roger if you could start off with your full name and where you were born.
RS:
Roger Colton Smith, born at [Mary Imogene] Bassett Hospital in Cooperstown New York.
JT:
So you have lived here your whole life essentially?
RS:
Basically. Except for my service time, school down South, and came back here with my wife-to-be, then we moved up here permanently.
JT:
Could you just describe your service for me if you could clarify that?
RS:
Unites States Navy. I went into the service August 1954 for four years. Went overseas on three different trips. We landed the Marines on Rue Lebanon on the last trip and that is the sum total.
JT:
What did you do in the Navy?
RS:
I went to electronic school, radar. I was in the radar department on board ship, and when I was discharged, I was a First Class Petty Officer.
JT:
And you said you went down South for school?
RS:
Yep. I applied to different schools and got into Georgia Tech. I went to night school to pick up [classes] so I could get into the day school.
JT:
So after you went to school you decided to come back up to Cooperstown?
RS:
Well, yes. While I was in school down there going to the night school I worked the offset presses at the college which was in the bookstore at Georgia Tech and that is where I met my wife. She graduated from Georgia Tech. She went to Georgia Tech after they took women in, which they didn’t do before that. We came up here and she liked it up here and after she graduated we decided to come up here and live.
JT:
So what did you do upon coming back? What was your first occupation?
RS:
Well, I was doing several different jobs. I was selling real estate outside of Atlanta down towards the center part of the state. Like I said I ran the offset presses there at the school. When we came up here and she decided she liked it up here then in another year and a half we moved up here. Got married, made everybody happy, and everybody gets along fine with her. Then I started working up here. I took the exam for the postmaster position in Cooperstown and I was postmaster here at the post office for 34 years. My folks ran the store here. My grandfather started it in 1941 and he ran it until he was in his 80’s, my mother helped him, and she took over when he died. She ran it until she was in her 80’s and by that time I had been retired for four or five years and my wife and I did a lot of traveling. Then she [mother] fell and broke her hip and could not get around very well. So she gave me the keys and said it was my turn. So here I am still.
JT:
So how long have you owned the store?
RS:
Since 1997.
JT:
You mention you and your wife did a lot of travelling. Could you expand on that?
RS:
Well, we have been to every country except for one in Europe. The one we haven’t gone to is Switzerland and we were going to go to that next but we had a couple of complications there mainly because of the airline system. It has just got to be ridiculous. We have been to Australia, New Zealand, Alaska, Hawaii, and a lot of different places. We really enjoyed travelling up until…The airline industry needs to be reoriented I think. They do not serve like it used to be when we first started travelling. They would go out of their way to be decent to you and everything. Toward the end it wasn’t the same.
JT:
So you took over this business in 1997, what were some of the challenges you faced since you just retired, you were a Postmaster and now you are running a grocery store.
RS:
Well, keep active. I will be 80 years old here this next year so it will be probably time to retire again. It is just a challenge to keep going day-to-day. We are open six days a week. We don’t open on Sunday and on Saturday we close at 4:30pm instead of 6pm. Otherwise I am here till 8 o’clock in the morning until 6 or 6:15 in the evening. My wife is here with me, our daughter-in-law runs the sub shop here, and she has one helper so there are four of us working here. Just small town stuff.
JT:
I know in this age of digital technologies everyone in this new generation seems obsessed with credit card or swipe to go but you seem to be cash only. Could you explain why you maintain that policy?
RS:
It is because to take debit cards or credit cards we would have to raise the prices between three to five percent and for a small town like this that is considerable. So we decided just to stick with what my grandfather and my mother did. They just didn’t like debit or credit cards. It’s more paperwork. A lot more paperwork. So we just decided to stick with that and we have not regretted it. It is just one of those things. Some people get upset about it but that is too bad.
JT:
Spurbeck is a local staple in this area. Could you describe what makes it a locally staple in your own mind?
RS:
Well my grandfather’s family was farmers and he worked on the railroad. He was working on the railroad when this part of the store was a restaurant and bar. The other side of this building was a grocery store. After a period of time, the people on the other side were getting up in age and they decided to retire and close the store. So it was vacant and it stayed vacant for quite a while, awhile being four or five years, and my grandfather worked across the street here where that rail station is over there. It was not as nice looking as that. This was a busy place. Coal was coming in, lumber was coming in, and different things like that and they all had sidings where the train would deliver to the business. It would off-load and then go get another load. So there was a lumberyard down here where Bruce Hall’s was. They were operating at that time, a full operation. There were three feed stores SS Harrison and Son over on this side, Agway feed store on the other side, and the Bruce Hall situation there was a combination of coal and feed and everything like that. There was also a passenger train and the station for the passage train was down past Bruce Hall and is still there. Somebody bought it and turned it into a house and it is their summer home. That kept everybody happy. Then my grandfather reached the age of 61 and decided that he better not be working manual labor on the railroad, he couldn’t quite handle it all at that time, so he approached the person who owned the other side of the store over here and purchased the store. Then he started working over there on that side and worked for about four or maybe five years over there, I lose track of time there, maybe a little bit longer. The first person on this side decided he wanted to enlarge his business so he bought a business outside of Cooperstown, which is now known as the Pepper Mill, he called it the Ridge Room. He moved the restaurant and bar down there, and enlarged everything, and his wife was the cook, and he was the owner and bartender. He had two or three other people working with him down there. Then my grandfather saw that this side was larger than the other side so he moved the store from that side over to this side and used the other side for storing food and beverages and it is still is like that. He and my father built that cooler. That cooler door and all the stuff that went with the cooler door was part of the meat-processing place, which is now the offices for the Clark scholarship foundation, just a mile south of town. So they put it together, built that, and started handling beer. Been doing that ever since. That is what keeps the place going more than anything else. That and the sub shop. That is it in a nutshell, not too much more to say other than that. Now it is just a day-to-day business.
JT:
I know I peeked at your beer stock and there are many imported beers.
RS:
Yes.
JT:
You do not see that often in a small town. What was your decision to have a lot more imports than domestic beers?
RS:
Well, because of Bassett Hospital for one thing. Cooperstown has a lot of people outside of the United States that come here and work. I mean that employment over there is just unbelievable how many people are employed over there. I would say 60 percent of them are from other countries and they come here. I was in Rotary for quite a while and we used to have Rotarians from other countries stay here for a while then end up coming back here doing internships or becoming a doctor here So they come up here and ask if we could put their counties’ beer in there. So now I have Italian, and oh a lot of different countries’ beers. I would say we have 15 to 20 different foreign countries’ beers here. If somebody comes in and wants me to order something that they like from a different country, and I can do it, then I’ll do it. You would be surprised how many people that never had foreign beers start buying it. I was surprised about that. Still do it.
JT:
And I know another aspect about your store that is really popular is your cheese and how it is very popular in town. Could you describe that?
RS:
Well, my grandfather started putting that in. The cheese comes in 45-pound blocks. We have 30 blocks right now on the other side and we try and order them a least a year ahead of time before we use them. That way they sit over there on the other side and we used to turn them. We would turn the cheese upside down once every six months so it allows the flow through the cheese of the fluid. We usually age it between a year and a quarter and a year and a half. We just keep the block going and make sure we got the 30 blocks we need to do that with because of all the processing we do for people. We cut any size. Right now a lot of businesses in Cooperstown use our cheese. The Otesaga uses our cheese; Stagecoach uses our cheese for their paninis. We got close to 15 to 20 places in Cooperstown that use our cheese for cheeseburgers or things like that. So we decided to keep that going but keep it low-level so we did not have to do quite so much. We are retired [laughter]. That works out well. Like you say we are known for our cheese and our beer more than anything else that is in here. But we also do a check-cashing process here too. People that work at the Otesaga Hotel were having trouble cashing their checks. If you are going to cash a paycheck at the bank, you have to have an account with the bank. If you do not have an account, they will not cash your checks. Because they will charge you five dollars to cash the check and some of them even more but that’s what I heard. I decided I was going to help them out by cashing checks for the people. So we are a check cashing process. That we just started, I would say, ten or twelve years ago. So we do that to help them out and that brings them in and sometimes they will have lunch here, sometimes they’ll buy their beer here, cheese, or something like that. Otherwise, it works pretty good.
[TRACK 1, 19:50]
RS:
This is one of my sons; he is going to cut cheese today.
JT:
In the early 2000’s there was a recession and Cooperstown being such a small area, how did you survive the recession with so many places going out of business but you standing.
RS:
Well see I was not running the store at the time. I was Postmaster until 1997.
JT:
I meant the 2011 time frame.
RS:
Oh, yeah. Well we just kept going. It wasn’t bad. We still had people coming in using us and buying things. A lot of them were people I grew up with. I grew up here. I graduated from Cooperstown High School. I grew up here and went to school with a lot of people who are still here. The town is a nice small town. There were 2,000 people in this town when I was born and there are 2,000 people in this town now. It hasn’t really grown much as far as people staying because of the job situation. If you’re not into the tourist business, you have a hard time finding a job around here unless you are a doctor in the hospital or a businessperson running a business. Other than that there is not much here. As you probably know at the Fenimore House and The Farmers’ Museum and museums like that are a big draw here and of course the biggest one is the Baseball Hall of Fame. If you don’t work at one for those places, you don’t make a very big living.
JT:
So how has your business been affected by the increase of tourism?
RS:
Well. It really doesn’t. It hasn’t really affected us in a great big way. People just learn after they live here for a while what we have and what we sell and what we can order if they want us to order something like that. That is the only thing that’s good about that. We can order almost anything because we deal with a lot of different places so that would be the only reason I can think of.
JT:
So during the summer, that is peak tourist season?
RS:
That’s right and if you can’t make it at that time, you are not going to make it in Cooperstown. [laughter]
JT:
So my question is do you try to bring all that tourism into your store or do you just focus on the locals?
RS:
I am more concerned with the locals. The only reason some of them would come here was if we had a different kind of beer that they wanted, which I would order for them. Something like that. Cooperstown has gotten larger to some extent because a lot of people like the school system here, which offers quite a scholarship program through the Clarks, and the teaching staff here is somewhat better than some of the others in the area. I hate to put it quite that way but that’s pretty close to the truth. They seem to like to come and live here and teach here because they can see what happens. That’s an easy way to sum it up. I don’t know exactly how to put it any better than that.
JT:
How do you feel about the growing corporate presence like Price Chopper and CVS coming to town. Do you feel that those stores offer a threat to you?
RS:
Yes, they have a lot of brands that are a lot easier for them to get than what we can get. People that shop at those stores are basically looking for larger amounts of various goods, which we can’t get to some extent. Definitely cannot get some of them. They can offer deals better than we can. We can’t offer deals. Even though I am retired, I don’t make a living per se from the store as much as my retirement checks. We don’t worry about it as much that way. I can’t think of a better way to put that either. It is about right though

[START OF TRACK 2, 0:00]
JT:
So now that you are approaching retirement age again, what do you think is the future of your store?
RS:
Well, there is not anybody in the family that is retirement age that would be interested in taking over store, so I do not know. I am getting a little apprehensive about what to do. My wife and I are. I come into town at quarter to 8, have a coffee at the same little dinner in Cooperstown as I did when I was postmaster. I get all the news that is fit to print and some that isn’t, then come open up at 8 o’clock. Then I am here the entire time for 11 hours. So instead of it being an 8-hour a day job, I have an 11-hour a day job for retirement. So it is difficult to say what exactly is going to happen. It would be nice if somebody in the family did take it over but I can see where the problem is because you don’t make a good living at it. It is a lot of work. Constantly getting stuff in and you have to put it up and price it and do that kind of stuff. Of course when I told my wife when it was time to retire, she said, “Well you are not going to come home, so you better do something else.” So we traveled there for a period of time there. Then of course it was taken care of. My mother fell and broke her hip and couldn’t get around too well. She was already in her late 80’s and so we took the store over. It keeps me busy. As long as I am healthy, then it’s all right.
JT:
Could you mention your family? Your sons and daughters?
RS:
We had four children. Our daughter, Laura, who lives up in the Adirondack region, she works for the ARC. She was a teacher; she graduated from Cortland College. She works for them and she has quite a caseload. She manages, I think, an eight case load. She is married and she has four children. The oldest one graduated from Dartmouth Medical School. She has three daughters and a son. The son graduated from Hamilton College. He says he has the best job in the world. He works for Saranac Beer Company. [laughter] The other two daughters, one of them graduated from college up in Vermont and was accepted to the architectural school down in Atlanta at Georgia Tech. She is working down there, has a really nice job. The last one, the youngest one, graduated from, I can’t remember where she went to school. Well, anyways she went on to another college, which is Purdue. She wants to change her degree to medicine. Well that is our oldest daughter. Our older son is head of G and S Construction who builds these big fancy houses here in Cooperstown. He has eight people that work for him. He is working on two different houses at the same time right now. That keeps him busy. But he is doing all right for himself. Our second son there, he graduated from Steven Institute of Technology down in Hoboken, New Jersey. He was an electrical engineer at Intel and AMD in California. But he has had some bad luck lately. He and three other guys designed some sort of switch, beyond my ability of understanding exactly what it is, but able to switch fiber optics from one thing to another and turned around and sold it to Intel. Intel paid them a monthly stipend. Sizable. He was married and they had one child. Then he started drinking. He came back, that’s him out there. He does the computer work. My wife and I, I definitely am not computer gifted. My wife is doing pretty good on it but he does a lot of the set up stuff. Takes care of all the stuff that relates to the computer things and keeps busy doing the other stuff around here, doing small things. He manages a cigar store down town, right next to where the movie theater used to be. But he is doing alright; got to be careful though. Then our youngest son; he was a smart cookie. He graduated from Cooperstown, then he went to the University of Pennsylvania. Graduated from there in medicine and applied to all the big colleges for medicine and ended up at Harvard Medical School. Graduated next to the top of the class. Harvard kept him. His medical work is at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston and he is the diagnostic [leader on the] MRI on stomachs. He is responsible for even setting up the testing and selecting the MRI with a fellow nuclear physicists which apparently it takes. That’s about all I know about it. Yep so they are doing alright.
JT:
So, since you have lived in Cooperstown for a long period of time, what are some of the changes you have seen?
RS:
Actually it has not changed very much. They just keep trying to adapt to the influx of people coming and going here. Parking is one of the biggest problems here in Cooperstown. Nobody likes to lose their parking place in front of the house [chuckle]. The off-shoot tourism is probably one of the largest ones. People like to come up here and have a summer camp but they don’t have the capabilities of finding work here so therefore they work someplace else and summer here. That is probably one of the largest things that has changed since I was a child here. We used to camp on the lake and go swimming and everything else. But you cannot do that kind of stuff anymore. You can if you own a place on the lake but that’s it. That is one thing that has definitely changed here. Are we getting near our time?
JT:
So it sounds like all your children went off to college. Did you receive any aid because being in a small town and all four of your children going to college and having successful careers?
RS:
Clarks. The one that went to Harvard Medical School, they give scholarships but they will not give it past the four year colleges, unless you are a doctor. So when he went to Harvard, he got accepted to almost every medical school he applied to, he got a Clark scholarship. Paid for 75 percent of his college, which is a hell of a sum. He still owes something like 50,000 dollars or something, probably paid it off by now, but you just cannot tell, you never know. The kids did fine. The kids did better than I did. [laughter] How long have you been at the Fenimore House? At the graduate program right?
JT:
I am just a first year student. But you say you travelled a lot and importing the beers from all over so do you thinking travelling with the Navy influenced you to travel more?
RS:
Yes. Everything I went overseas was in the Mediterranean with the Sixth Fleet. It really wasn’t really a big thing since there wasn’t anything big going on at the time. We weren’t at war with anybody. We were basically over there for peacekeeping purposes. If there was a problem with a country, we went over. The first time we went over, we stood off the Suez Canal when the British were having trouble with the blockade there. We landed the Marines in Lebanon; our job was to keep track of the Russian planes over there annoying them. So forth and so on. Something going on with a country and they didn’t know what to do, we would go there and stand off a couple hundred miles off to sea and keep track of things and report back depending on what the admiral wanted. But yeah, that is about all. It was interesting; I did go to an awful lot of countries over there. Very enjoyable, some countries we couldn’t go into like Yugoslavia. We weren’t allowed in there and all the North African counties. But the rest of them were all right. France and Spain were very enjoyable.
JT:
So what would you say was your favorite place that you visited?
RS:
Well my wife’s family was Yugoslav and we went over there with them four different times. It was very enjoyable. Good family; nice family. After her mother and father died, she got a nice inheritance so we took the entire family. She has a brother who went to the Naval Academy and he was a captain on a submarine and had to stay under the North Pole for six months of the year. But we took them all over there. All the kids and everything. We had a tour agency here in Cooperstown, which was very nice, and they set the whole thing up; the guide, the bus, and everything else. I really enjoyed that trip. That was a good trip, in fact two or three of them have been back since.
JT:
So as local businessperson, what are some issues that face the Cooperstown community today you feel should be addressed?
[TRACK 2,16:14]
[Brief interruption]
RS’s wife:
Could you order a case of Utica Club?
RS:
Yep I can.
RS’s wife:
Because someone wants a whole, case by the 21st. Cans or bottles?
RS:
either one…Hi Tom
Tom [RS’s son]:
How’s it going?
RS:
Good…sorry. Well, I don’t know. Actually the structure work in Cooperstown, the roads, there is a lot of stuff like that that needs repair work and to tax the people to do this, it upsets the people so that makes a difference. What needs to be done there, they need to get an influx of money so I think that is one of the biggest problems they have.
JT:
Could you tell me general issues with the store? Have there been any major problems you had to overcome working here?
RS:
No. When I first took over we had a couple of break ins. I have never had that before. Some of them weren’t brilliant. They were easy to catch. Of course they don’t realize is they don’t have a way to get the money. First place I won’t tell you why. [laughter] I don’t maintain a safe here but anyways we roll Canadian quarters. We had 15 to 20 rolls underneath the cash register and the cash register is always open. That way they don’t have to break it and I have to go buy a new cash register. But they couldn’t get anything so they stole two or three packs of cigarettes and rolled coins. Of course, the police were here and I told them about what was missing. So they told other stores to be on the lookout for anyone cashing rolls of Canadian quarters and sure enough, they filled up their car down at the Towers gas station and paid with four rolls of quarters. Did them in. All sorts of stuff like that goes on I don’t know. How much more time are they going to allow me here? [laughter]
JT:
Around ten more minutes. Let’s go back a little bit. As your position as postmaster, what were some of your duties.
RS:
Well the town had four rural routes and three city routes. My job was to arrange the deliver order on the routes because everybody wanted to be first and not be last. So that maintained a good and bad relationship sometimes. Had to be a little careful there. When I first started, I had to take the exam here for the postmaster job and I passed. You had to be careful who you dealt with in Cooperstown sometimes let me put it that way. There is a lot of retired people here. They have had jobs, unbelievable jobs, and we get some unbelievable visitors here. President of the United States has been here five times. Post Office is right across the street to the Hall of Fame so I had to put up with the Secret Service on top of the roof and all this other kind of stuff. You have to be careful who you insult and that kind of stuff. [United States Senator Daniel Patrick] Moynihan was up here an awful lot; he loved Cooperstown. He would bring a guest and would allow hopping on his helicopter and land when he came here. We had that kind of stuff going on here all the time. Have to be very careful whose feet you step on.
JT:
Have there been any incidents where you did step on the wrong feet?
RS:
No I was lucky. I was lucky on a couple. I was able to apologize on one of them though I didn’t know who it was. The person didn’t identify themselves. All in all in was pretty good. I got out of the service, from the Postal Service; I would have to get permission from Albany to buy toilet paper. Why on earth would anyone need to get permission to buy toilet paper? That really burned me. Six months later I decided I was definitely getting out. [laughter]
JT:
So we are at the end of our interview, is there any closing remarks you would like to say?
RS:
It has been a good time.
JT:
I just want to thank you for your time and thank you once again
RS:
Okay thank you


Duration

26:18- Side A
24:04-Side B

Bit Rate/Frequency

128 kbps

Time Summary

01:00 - US Navy
03:00 - Travel
12:32 - Spurbeck's
46:21 - Postmaster
28:41 - Family

Files

20151114_100643.jpg

Citation

Joshua D. Taylor, “Roger Smith November 14, 2015,” CGP Community Stories, accessed September 19, 2020, http://cgpcommunitystories.org/items/show/239.