FAIRFIELD — The bottle redemption center next to the historic Gerald Hotel on Fairfield’s Main Street may not be a historical building, but that doesn’t mean it has no history.
Just ask Bill Joseph, 94, who built it 57 years ago for his store, Joseph’s Outlet.
Joseph’s own life story is intertwined with that of the building, which is scheduled to be torn down this week as part of the ongoing renovation at the Gerald Hotel.
When construction workers from Sheridan Corp. took out a marked cornerstone from the building’s foundation Thursday, Joseph turned up to retrieve two silver dollars he put there in 1956.
“Daddy, let me see,” called Joseph’s daughter, one of a small crowd of family members who had gathered to see whether Joseph and the coins would be reunited.
“I half expected them to be there, but I wasn’t sure,” he said.
The two silver dollars, dated 1921 and 1922, lay in a rotting cloth bag behind the stone, just where he had left them. Joseph doesn’t know their cash value today, but to him, the coins represented memories of years past, when his father would distribute silver dollars to his children and grandchildren at Christmastime.
“My father gave me those for good luck,” he said.
When Joseph was a boy in the 1920s, he said, downtown Fairfield was much different from today.
“Every store was full when I was a kid,” he said. “There were three or four grocery stores, two or three clothing stores. There was a blacksmith shop where the police station is now.”
In 1927, when Joseph was 8, his father, Abraham Joseph, an immigrant from Lebanon by way of Ellis Island, bought a clothing store on the site that eventually would host Joseph’s Outlet.
Next door to the clothing store, the Gerald Hotel was in business and bustling; Joseph remembers the restaurant that used to operate on its second floor.
Ballroom dances were common in the area. Joseph met his wife, Frances, at the Serenade Sea Club in Waterville.
Ever year, for months, the town’s children would gather materials for a Fourth of July bonfire, he remembered, which they traditionally set ablaze around midnight on the railroad tracks on Main Street, after the final trolley car left town.
One year, he said, with the bonfire roaring, some of the children saw some cardboard boxes sitting outside of a Main Street grocery store and added them to the blaze.
When someone pointed out that the boxes were full of eggs, the kids panicked, he said.
“We took off quick,” he said. “We had no more bonfires after that.”
Joseph took two years off from high school to help his family by working in his father’s store, Joseph’s Sporting Goods, which became well-known in its location on the other side of the Gerald Hotel. The family business eventually came to be owned by Bill’s brother, Harold, and has since moved to Waterville.
When Bill Joseph returned to school in 1937, at the age of 18, he arranged to take four classes a day in the morning, and he worked afternoons from a rented storefront down the street from the hotel, where he sold beer. It was the first Joseph’s Outlet site.
“It was mostly bottles,” he said. “Cans hadn’t really come out yet, I don’t think.”
Seventy-five years later, he still remembers the types of beer that he bought from Boston and sold in bottles, at 18 cents a pint.
“There was Narragansett, Ox Head, Pickwick,” he said. “Pickwick was the poor man’s whiskey.”
The markup, he said, was just 20 percent. “You couldn’t make too much,” he said.
Nevertheless, he saved up $300, which he said he used to help put his younger brother, Harold, through Colby College.
After graduating from high school, Joseph put in three years at Bath Iron Works as a shipfitter, where he manufactured and assembled metal pieces for the structure of naval ships. Then, in 1943, he joined the Army. During his senlistment, he flew 26 missions in World War II as a gunner in a B-29 bomber. Among his service medals is the Distinguished Flying Cross, which is awarded for heroism or extraordinary achievement.
Just before he returned from the military, on a March day with the temperature at 30 below zero, his father’s clothing shop, later to be the site of his store, burned to the ground.
Joseph said a small stove somehow overheated and started the blaze. When his mother smelled smoke and raised the alarm, police rescued three families that lived in the building.
“When I got back, it was all gone,” he said. “There was just a wall left with two feet of ice on it.”
In 1956, Joseph paid $7,000 to a private contractor named Junior Dusty for the construction of an outlet store at the site where the clothing store had burned down.
That’s when Joseph put the two silver dollars beneath an engraved cornerstone in the foundation. He’s not sure exactly when his father, who died in 1949, had given him the coins, but he knows that they were to bring good luck.
Once the building was completed, nearly 20 years after he first sold beer on Fairfield’s Main Street, Joseph opened a new Joseph’s Outlet and began selling beer again. He soon found that it wasn’t bringing in enough money, so he added fishing tackle and guns to his inventory. At one point, a customer asked him to sell a canoe, and from then on, boats and canoes became an increasingly big part of the business.
“I sold boats and motors for 25 years,” he said.
Today Joseph is still fascinated by the idea of buying low and selling high. It is, after all, how he made a living for most of his life. He spends time each day watching the individual stock prices scroll by on the bottom of his television screen, looking for news about individual stocks he owns.
He also pays attention to real estate sales in the area, particularly the Gerald Hotel.
“I could have bought it,” he said. He laughed, ruefully, the businessman in him recognizing a missed opportunity.
“It sold for $27,000 and I could have bought it, but what did I need it for? I already had someplace to store my boats. What did it sell for now, $550,000?”
In the days since Joseph sold his building in 1985 to Hamlin’s Sporting Marine, the building has hosted other businesses , including a flower shop and its final occupant, the bottle redemption center.
Joseph said he’s not sad to see his building come down, in part because he has left so many other marks on the community.
He is a 65-year member of the local Kiwanis Club, where he worked to bring in the first Little League teams to the town. He was a Scoutmaster for the Boy Scouts and a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion.
With his silver dollars retrieved and his legacy assured, the building, to him, is just a building.
“It’s inevitable,” he said philosophically. “Let it go.”
When he reflects on his life, he said, he sees that the coins have served their purpose.
“I think they brought me good luck.”
Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287