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A Holley Haven on Eagle Street

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elizabeth holley“This house has given me a lot of stability. It needs a lot of work but it’s been a good house for me.”

The house that means so much to Elizabeth Holley is a duplex located at 18-20 Eagle Street. The stability she feels dates back to 1930, well before she was born, when her grandparents, Leon and Jennie Dyer, rented the upstairs unit (#20) from the widow downstairs, Mrs. Elizabeth Cripps. George E. Cripps served for forty-two years in the city’s Department of Water Works. He had died in the downstairs apartment (#18) on March 15, 1926.

Leon S. Dyer, to distinguish himself from his son Leon R. Dyer, shows up in city directories as a chauffeur. But that title appears to mean a driver who made commercial deliveries rather than a person who transported the wealthy for elite occasions. For many years Leon worked for the National Casket Company on Exchange Street and an early photo shows him delivering milk with a horse-drawn wagon.

By the early ‘40s, infirmities of age took their toll on Mrs. Cripps and the Dyers invited her to live with them so Jennie could care for her. With the downstairs unit empty, the Dyer’s daughter Frances and her husband John Ernest Holley moved in. Since their marriage on June 3, 1939, the young couple had been living at 77 Chili Avenue. The 1942 city directory finds them at 18 Eagle Street. After Mrs. Cripps died on October, 2, 1947, “a nephew inherited the house. He didn’t want it, so he sold it to my parents, my Mom and Dad, in 1948.”

It has been a Holley haven ever since.

John and Frances had five children, all born at #18. Elizabeth was the youngest, born in 1957. Her brother John, born 1950, was the middle child. John is well known in Corn Hill for his carpentry skills and repair work. He has helped so many residents in emergencies, often refusing payment, that he was named the 2017 volunteer of the year. Elizabeth served three years (2006-08) as chairperson for the annual Corn Hill Arts Festival and also worked for a time as office manager of the Corn Hill Neighbors Association.

Both still live in the Eagle Street home (John is upstairs in #20) that overflows with family memories. When asked if she had photos of life on Eagle Street, Elizabeth brought out stacks of albums and boxes that would have taken days to go through.

Some memories are bittersweet. Her father was only fifty years old when he died in 1964. Elizabeth was very young at the time but she remembers sitting on his lap watching television westerns—Gunsmoke, The Rifleman and Bonanza. He had a habit that makes that memory particularly vivid. “He would eat limburger cheese. If you ever want a memory to stick with you, sit next to somebody who’s eating limburger cheese.”

After father’s death, her mother struggled to keep the family financially solvent. “The family’s never been one of means. And my mother, as a widow with five kids, didn’t have a lot of money. She was a waitress for 27 years at the Reynolds Arcade sandwich shop. Between that and whatever she received from social security from my Dad passing on, she made it work.”

During that period, the neighborhood was in serious upheaval.

Elizabeth recalls the disruption caused by construction of the 490 Expressway that cut through the northern part of our neighborhood when we were still known as the Third Ward. “My mother used to complain all the time because, when they put 490 in, they also came through and put in new sewer lines in the neighborhood. So they ripped up all the streets.”

The urban renewal program destroyed many home at that time. The Eagle Street home was never threatened but Elizabeth remembers the turmoil it created. “Houses disappearing, houses being moved in, streets being opened up.” At that time, Eagle Street crossed Atkinson but only went half a block south, never reaching Adams Street as it does today.

Earliest memories are often the strongest and Elizabeth recalls the ward’s young people, perhaps because she was so young herself at that time. “If it wasn’t for the young folks that came into the neighborhood and were willing to put the sweat equity into the properties that they did, we wouldn’t be sitting in what is now Corn Hill. I give them a lot of credit.” As some houses were torn down, pieces were salvaged to save other homes badly in need of repair. “You could look out the window and you might see someone carrying a staircase down the street to put in somebody’s house.”

She has fond memories of the years when the Rochester Institute of Technology was still in our neighborhood (it moved to the Henrietta campus in 1968). She liked to sit on the porches of the fraternity houses when they had beer parties—still underage at that time, she insists she didn’t drink—and there was a parking lot amid the campus buildings that had special appeal. “In the wintertime, the R.I.T. students would make ice sculptures and they would do those sculptures in that parking lot. It was an interesting time when the R.I.T. students were here.”

This article was first published in the Corn Hill Gazette February – March 2020