John Hewitt Interview

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John Hewitt Interview


Tacony Creek Park


John Hewitt was interviewed on October 21 for the Oral History Project.


Ambrose Liu




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Oral History Item Type Metadata


Ambrose Liu


John Hewitt


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John Hewitt interview Tacony

AMBROSE LIU: Thought about videotaping as I was preparing for this. OK, um, so today...
JOHN HEWITT: If you want to get that closer, it...
AL: No, this thing picks up a lot.
JH: That’s good, OK.
AL: Yeah, actually I’ll just put it right here. Today, I am here on Sunday, October the 21st, 2018. Um, I’m here to interview --
JH: John Hewitt.
AL: --for the Tookany/Tacony-Frankford Watershed Partnership Oral History Project, which is in collaboration with the Olney Culture Lab, whom I represent. And really happy to have you here today to share a little bit about your remin-reminisces or reminiscences, memories of your time living and growing up in this area as it pertains to uh, Tacony Creek Park.
AL: Um, so John, first thing [01:00] I want to ask you is, uh, did you grow up in this area? Were you born around here? Uh, what was your upbringing like?
JH: Uh, I was born in the Frankford section --
JH: -- uh, until uh, maybe about 17, 18, and during that time I was freelancing photography with the News Gleaner in Frankford, come out weekly. And also, because I had six kids at the time, I needed some extra money and I was freelancing. They weren’t paying too much. They’d give you uh, 15 dollars for the front page and eight dollars anywhere inside. And I had a little police scanner and I would follow fire engines, [02:00] and get fires, and, you know, different things. But I started doing weddings and the beautiful place -- I passed it a couple times on the Tookany Creek Parkway -- and they had a beautiful wooden bridge, and I would ask the people to go up there and I had a nice zoom lens. I would go down the creek a little bit and shoot up at the bridge, and I brought some pictures with me here from the bridge. Uh, this is the one. Is this the one? This is on the bridge. It’s a wooden bridge. Now I don’t know if it’s still there. This picture’s dates 1976, May. And I have a couple of them, the different sceneries. I used to give, with the wedding package, I used to give 11 x 16 picture free [03:00] plus their 20-something 8 x 10s in an album, and a lot of people would pick that picture because it was so nice scenery. Uh, I have with me two different weddings, uh, both guys I went to grade school with. Uh, and if you [can?] see this, it’s the middle of the road, Tookany Creek Parkway on the road. And this particular guy, I asked him if he wanted to do somethings different, and he said “yes.” And I don’t have the pictures with me, but right before this, there was a little merry-go-round on the opposite side of the street, and he put his wife on there and her dress was, like, in the air, like, and then he put her on a swing, and she even went down the sliding [board?], and then we got done and I said, “Look at this, uh, road.” I said, “Let’s get in the middle of the road.” We were looking to see if traffic was coming and I said, “Kiss her! Kiss her!” (laughs) [04:00] And I don’t have the other pictures, but the theme was love, and I used to travel a lot to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania and through the town, the photoshop had a contest going, and it said, “Merchandise first, second, and third.” I won third place, and they gave me a -- well, I picked [it out?], what ever you wanted, merchandise. So I picked that out, an album to put pictures in plus extra pages. And, like, that was, like, the big thing for me. (laughs) So I want to show these other pictures. This is another group, there was 16 people. Eight guys, eight girls, plus the bride and groom, and these were all taken up at Tookany Creek Park off Tookany Creek Parkway, and it had the flowers blooming. It’s fantastic and the playground [05:00] I was telling you about, I don’t think it’s there anymore, and I really would like to see if somebody knew where it was, and even this bridge, I know they have metal bridges now, but these were all wood. So, if anybody would like to go in the history and check where that bridges was, I mean, that would be pretty good, if they rebuild them or just put metal on them, what they did. But uh, I did about 25 weddings through a three year period, ’74, ’75, and ’76. I say my 15 minutes of fame is 1976, Queen Elizabeth visited Philadelphia. [06:00] The News Gleaner, who I’ve been bugging for three years to give me a press card, finally gave me one, and I was able to put that on and get ride up with all the photographers down at Independence Hall taking pictures of the queen, and that was my 15 minutes of fame, I say, but uh, it’s all been a good experience and Tookany Creek, they had the best sceneries; their water was like a bluish, and it was like I’m with the Frankford Creek, which is brown. (laughs) But uh, if you have any other questions, let me know.
AL: Yeah, well, I wanted to ask you, first of all, I find it magical to see and hear about this. Yeah, I wanted to ask you, like, two-part question, I’ll ask you the first question. What was the creek like back in the ‘70s [07:00] and it’s all the same sort of stream, but obviously you lived at one end and we came up to use the other end.
JH: Yeah.
AL: So, what was it like back then? How have you seen it sort of change and evolve?
JH: Well, you know, (inaudible) you just said that, uh, I remember another picture I took, and I grabbed a lot of leaves and through them around a bride and groom and made her outfit, like, set it out, and took pictures and he was leaning up against a tree and just looking at her, and that was really great with all the leaves coming down and, uh, I remember looking at that waterfall down there, at Adams Avenue, and uh, that always looked a little dirty there, but up where these pictures were, it seemed to be, uh, more of a bluish, nice clear, crisp blue that I remember. And I kind of [08:00] haven’t been back there since to try to find these areas and that bridge.
AL: And, move closer and closer where you live, you said Frankford Creek --
JH: Frankford Creek, I guess I spent my early teenage years, 11, 12, 13. You know where that old house is at Adams Avenue, the one they were trying to save? They were trying to buy it, the Frankford Historical Society.
AL: Mm-hmm.
JH: Well, the creek’s right there, and at that park, we kind of hung at that park there, and we would always get out of the creek uh, I don’t know if I want to tell you my bad experiences, but (laughs) uh, you know, being 13 years old, (laughs) we would buy a bottle of wine and drink half of it and put it in the Creek to keep it cold for Sunday, [09:00] because a lot of place back then were closed on Sunday. (laughs) And we’d go back for our other half a bottle. But uh, I didn’t think [I was gonna be?] sharing that with you. But uh, I got married at 15, so right out of eighth grade, and my wife was pregnant and uh, I had uh, by the time I was 24, we had six children. And then we had like an eight year break and then we had two more children, so when I talk about that creek, we used to go to the boulevard dances and drink half of that bottle, hop onto the SEPTA bus and go up to the boulevard dances. (laughs) That was our weekend. But uh, you talked about the creek. There was an incident [10:00] where the crowd we were with, uh, we used to jump off this big tower down near Kensington Avenue into the water, and just past that tower, these people were swimming one time, and the girls, their hair started on fire because I think there was a company right there that was pumping something in the water, and out of nowhere, it just caught on fire. And we stopped, uh, swimming in that area right there, and that wasn’t too far from Torresdale Avenue. It’s between Torresdale and Kensington Avenue. Uh, but sometimes we would drift all the way down, uh, not as far the Delaware River but near it. We used to try to see how far we could go, and go through the tunnels, one of my early uh, experiences getting introduced to the Franklin Creek. If you can just imagine, I’m not in school yet [11:00] and my older brother, who’s three years older than me, coming home from school and I would say, “Where you been?” “Oh, I’m in school.” He said, “Oh” And I wanted to know what was this school like, you know? And next year, I was going to start first grade. I said, “Take me up there; take me up there.” So he said, “Well, I can’t take you to school, but there’s a [deadeye?] playground right near school where I can leave you down there and come get you at lunchtime. And so he did. He left me there at the playground, and I met this guy who’s, like, a friend of mine and he said, “Hey, let’s go down to the creek,” and I didn’t even know what the creek was. We climbed down the side on these -- they cut them off now, they used to be things you climb up. He took me through these three tunnels and he said, “If it ever rains, don’t come in these tunnels,” he said, because the floodgates open up. And then, the next year I met that guy, like, since we were in first grade together. [12:00] But that was my first introduction to gown down the Frankford Creek. (laughs) And our parents always knew when we were swimming in the creek because it had an odor it left on you, and they could smell it when you come in the house. “You were in the creek, weren’t you?” Yeah, so you couldn’t really lie out of that one. (laughs) Any other questions?
AL: Yes. So, you started your family young. Did you have any experiences as a father, taking your children to the creek to recreate or...
JH: Well, my wife’s grandfather used to always go up on Pine Road there, uh, I think that’s Pennypack. But he used to take a blanket and they used to get water there. There was free water at the time, and I don’t think that’s there anymore. And we used to go there a lot with the kids. [13:00] Being poor and I would look at the weekend section for things to do that didn’t cost money or were free. And I used to take them down to Philadelphia Library a couple times. Where they would show silent movies and a guy playing piano along with the music, you know? And the movie didn’t have no sound, and it was like good things to do. And Pennypack Park, take a blanket, pack some sandwiches. You know, that’s what I did anyway.
AL: Did growing up near Tacony Creek or Frankford Creek, did, like, give you an appreciation for the nature or the environment in general? Like, how did it sort of shape your view of it even, you know, over your course of your life?
JH: [14:00] Well, you know, that guy that collects rocks was down at the Frankford Historical Society, his name Williams or something? I asked him a question but I don’t think he really answered me. That Juniata Golf Course, there used to be these big boulders in the water, and because it was a golf course, we used to find balls in them holes -- there was holes. They looked like someone maybe a chisel would go in there -- like, how you ever see them dig, and then somebody might have put a ball in there, but we used to, like, scratch our head, like, “How did that guy hit that ball and it put a hole in a rock?” You know? We were young. I don’t know. Uh, excuse me, wipe my nose as well. Clogged up; I have a cold. Uh, I guess [15:00] when it would rain, when Hurricane Agnes came, I went to every creek bridge from Juniata Golf Course all the way down going towards the river that [Torresdale Avenue?], Kensington Avenue, and on the films, if you see the three tunnels, they’re pretty big. They must be 15 or more feet high, and the water was up there during Hurricane Agnes, 1972. And, like to see that rushing water going down there, you know, and thinking if we were down there, you know, if that thing happened where my buddy said, “Don’t go in there when it’s raining because the floodgates open.” I never really seen it up close, but from a distance I seen, you know, uh... And I was never too much of a fisherman, but there’s people that fish, you know, down towards the Delaware River, [16:00] but uh... Uh, I don’t know what else... (laughs)
AL: Yeah, um, how’s the creek or the park, well, changed since your childhood? You know, were there any changes in the neighborhood that you grew up in, just, how did, you know, as far as changes in the neighborhood through which the creek would have influenced, you know, the identity of the area?
JH: Uh, I don’t know. When I was younger, we used to go down there and it would be bums or hobos, they would sleep down there under the bridges. You know, so when you went down there, you would have to make loud noises because you don’t want nobody to surprise you. Uh, but I think pretty much when we were drinking when we were [17:00] not supposed to be drinking, we would go down there to do it where we weren’t bothering anybody, you know. Eh, sometimes we’d have a radio and play music, and that was all good, or we would carve our initials in the bridge.
AL: How about now? Um, you live in --
JH: I live in Bridesburg now. And there’s a creek down there also. Uh --
AL: Is it connected to...
JH: It’s connected to Frankford, yeah.
JH: It’s right where Betsy Ross Bridge is. And people, my son, had taken me down there fishing. I caught an eel, a catfish, [18:00] and a couple other fish. And my son turned the story here when he met his friends. He’s, “Yeah, I took the old man fishing,” he says. He says, “I caught six and he only caught one.” Now, it was just the reverse. He caught one and I got six. (laughs) You know, my father died at 13, so when I was 13, so I kind of wanted to kind of go with him to see because he was always saying, “Oh, it’s fishing. Oh, it’s fishing.” Well, I wanted to know where he was fishing, you know? He already had these (inaudible) to come out, and to get there, you had to walk the railroad, and he could slip, and between the wood things, you know? You had to watch what you were doing. And, uh, he would say, “Yeah, come on, pop! I’ll show you!” But it was all good, you know. He wasn’t [19:00] getting in trouble, you know. He was spending his time fishing. And he was somebody that wasn’t patient. We didn’t know why he like fishing because you had to be patient.
AL: How about, like, it sounds like you’ve, down by the river, you have some relationship with now. Like, what kind of changes have you seen you know, along this waterway?
JH: You know, now that you say that, I’ve seen where it was a lot of different [colors?] due to [visibility?] that was at Adams Avenue, and overflowing, like it would lose control in rainstorms all the time, and they always had to, [20:00] like, build it up and make it better, you know. They add things or dredge it or something, you know. That’s about it.
AL: Yeah. Um, and it sounds like you’ve had a very special relationship, actually, with this creek all, you know, throughout your life, from the northern portion to even where you are now. Um, any other stories that you have personally, or even that you may have heard about growing up and living near the creek in terms of the meaning it has to people or the neighborhoods?
JH: Well, I remember that all [through?] my life, different times, different periods of time, there would always somebody drown there at that one, [21:00] at Tacony and Tookany Creek. I mean, Adam’s Avenue and Tacony is like a [waterfall?], and we would never swim there because we were always told people would pass away, you know, and get stuck in there, you know. But uh, that’s about it.
AL: That’s about it. What about your role now? You are a volunteer with the Frankford Historical Society?
JH: Yes.
AL: Um, what do you do there?
JH: Uh, you know, when I raised my hand and they told me to introduce myself, I raised my hand, I said, “I used to be a photographer, but I just retired, and I don’t want to volunteer.” And by that night, they had me volunteered. (laughs) [22:00] And I think it was all, like, on the up and up. There was a guy who was going to be leaving and he actually carried a blind stick and they had him doing, uh, cards, like uh, [darreotypes?], is that what it’s called? Where it’s two pictures on a card, same picture. But when you would put them in a viewer, they’d come three dimensional. Well, they were written handwriting on the back, and he didn’t understand how to do [cursive?] handwriting, so he didn’t know what it was saying, plus he had a disability of being partially blind. And he was supposed to recopy what was written and then file it, you know. And they told me I was going to replace him when he left. Well what happened was [23:00] everybody was going to do things on Saturday, but my wife started to get mad because I was going to go fix it somewhere, volunteered, and she wanted stuff at the house fixed. (laughs) And she said, “I don’t want you going over there. You should do stuff around here!” So, what happened was I had to stop going on Saturdays so that the lady would call me on Wednesday, and I wasn’t pretty much doing what they had told me I was going to be doing. I was just taking a list of things to get done in the place, like wiping down the cases, you know, because there’s a presentation coming up, you know, make them shiny and clean them and everything, you know. Or take out the trash, whatever there was. So, I didn’t ever get that job [24:00] because my wife got in the middle of it. But uh, yesterday, we were cleaning out the bottom kitchen, and we had to take furniture out of there. They were getting rid of it. We had to carry it through the side yard and [pump?] it to the truck the stuff in. It was only like two and a half hours we spent there, and my wife said, “What you do up here today?” I said, “I’m going to come up and take pictures of you because you don’t do nothing around here.”
AL: Um, does the Frankford Historical Society, as far as you know, have you encountered any archival images, or accounts of, or at least stories of Tacony Creek or Frankford Creek as far as you know?
JH: (sighs) I’ve seen them at that open house, you know, [25:00] different parts of the creek. And the guy [Robin?], I attended one of his lectures all about -- I think it was out at that place where we met, only I wasn’t at this one. He showed a film about it and how the parents were teaching the kids that marking down things about what was in the creek, and the birds, and the trails and then they were interviewed on his film that, “Yeah I liked this and I liked that.” You know, things that they learned, you know. And I think that was very informative.
AL: Mm.
JH: And uh, by the time we went, I was supposed to be helping the guy, because I’m a picture taker, I was walking around taking pictures of everything, you know. But the pictures all come out good, and I was happy, and the guy was happy, except my car [26:00] broke down that day. I left my lights on.
AL: Oh, during that whole thing?
JH: When you were there.
AL: Oh that day, oh wow. OK. Yeah. Um...
JH: Oh, I got to blow my nose.
AL: OK, well uh, well, is there anything else, uh, that you could think of, um, I mean, it sounds like you’ve had a lifelong relationship with the Tookany Creek.
JH: Yeah, I’ve never really thought about it, but I’ve had a lifelong -- at different parts of the creek.
AL: Yeah, yeah.
JH: Because, uh, growing up down there at Torresdale Avenue, that’s where North Catholic is, there’s a creek there and I think North Catholic, the high school that’s there; it’s closed down now, the waterworks used to be right there as far as I know. And they put that school on top of the original waterworks there. [27:00] Uh, I’m going back [way back?].
AL: Did you attend that school?
JH: No, what happened was I was supposed to attend that school and I got married, they wouldn’t let me in. It was a rule they had. So I had to go to public school after that. But uh... (laughs)
AL: What public school did you go to?
JH: Harding Junior High --
AL: Harding Middle School, OK.
JH: -- in Frankford. And, but I was supposed to go to North Catholic, but uh, because I got married so young, it was one of their rules not to have anybody married, so... But, uh...
AL: OK. Well, John, thank you so much for taking the time just to share some memories. I know you’re not only stuffed up but you’re missing an Eagles game, so I really appreciate it and I, for one, have found these stories very, um, colorful and [28:00] it’s just great to hear how people lived in relationship to a place. Um, particularly in what we’re talking about here.
JH: Well, I’m glad I found these pictures because I only found them within the last couple days and uh, I’m glad I found something.
AL: Well, you were meant to find them. (laughter) Thank you.
JH: You’re welcome. I don’t want to touch. (laughs)
AL: OK. All right.
JH: I’m trying to save you there.




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Ambrose Liu, “John Hewitt Interview,” Hands On History- Oral Histories of the Northeast Philadelphia area, accessed April 13, 2024,