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Imagine a neighbourhood where kids could play games until dark without being afraid. When the streetlights came on, that was the signal to get home.
It was a community where everyone looked after each other, families all knew each other and any mom on the street had the right to scold you with a stern look or harsh word if you got out of line.
The Ward was a safe playground for all kinds of games. There were many clubs for youth and adults too. We did not have computers and all the gadgets…video games. smart phones, lap-tops, iPads and the like, we had just plain black and white TV without a remote.
We had far less toys to play with, so we made do with what we had.
It seems today that almost every kid is given more toys at Christmas and birthdays in one single year than most of us in the 50s and 60s got over an entire childhood. But we learned to be inventive and came up with games that we played for hours on end.
Rain or shine, we were on the streets and in the open fields around the Ward playing the games, we loved.
I grew up at 87 Elizabeth St. where my dad, Dominic, had his barbershop in the front of the house and right next door was Sammy Embro’s variety store and across the street were the renowned 100 steps.
One of my favourite games was ‘tin can cricket.’ Throughout the summer months we would play until dark in the open field behind Mrs. Croft and Mr. Oakley’s homes on Elizabeth Street. All you needed were empty soup or oil cans, a bat, and ball. We used to get empty oil cans from my cousin Gino Tersigni’s garage.
In between innings we would suck on the rhubarb we pulled out through the fence at the back of Mr. Oakley’s garden. I can still remember my mouth burning and eyes watering from that sour taste.
During these decades we often played games in the streets outside our homes.
It was a lot safer back then because fewer people owned cars and there was less traffic.
And we were expected to play outside. I still remember my mom, Margaret, saying, “you kids go outside in the fresh air and play.”
Marbles (allees, arnees, pretties) was another great game. There were many variations of the game but ours was simple … keepsies. The first person would roll their marble, then the second player rolled theirs after it to try and hit it. Strike a competitors’ marble and it’s yours.
The game could take some time and often went halfway down a street. I remember losing my prized red devil marble when it rolled off the sidewalk into a gutter. There were so many beautiful colour of marbles … opaque, pearl, toothpaste (wavy streaks of red, blue, white, and orange), bumblebee (yellow and black), steely (silver ball bearing type) and tiger (orange and yellow).
We use get our big arnees from the old International Malleable Iron plant on Stevenson Street. Today, a specialty marble in excellent condition on eBay can range from $10 to a few thousand dollars.
A game often played during recess at Sacred Heart School in the Ward was called “It” or today’s version of tag. Someone would start the game by being ‘it.” He or she would then chase the others in the game to try and touch them and make them “it.”
Virginio Montin was one of the fastest players at this game. He was like the wind … twisting and turning…dodging everyone.
My all-time favourite game was chestnuts. In September and October, the fruits of the horse chestnut tree begin to fall from the trees. Inside the prickly green casings lie the nuts – brown, shiny, and hard. My favourite spot for chestnuts was a big chestnut tree in a field behind Uncle Luciano’s house on Elizabeth Street.
I would also climb the 100 steps, over to St. George’s Park at Grange and Metcalfe streets where there were huge chestnut trees.
I would look for the hardest ones I could find. My brother Ralph use to climb the chestnut trees to pick the largest ones before they fell to the ground. My mom would sometimes let us boil them first and let them age for a bit. I would tap a narrow nail through the centre, pull through a heavy weighted string or shoelace and then tie a knot to secure the chestnut, and I was ready for battle.
The basic idea of the game is to strike the opponents chestnut and try to break it off the string. Each person would take a turn swinging as hard as they could trying to knock off your opponent’s chestnut. The ultimate victory was to go for a “one’er, knocking off your opponent’s chestnut in the first swing.
Freddy Bendo was always the tough to beat. He would use a wider, thicker shoelace so he could take a harder and heavier swing. Chestnut trees seem hard to find in Guelph today, especially in the Ward.
Another popular game was the cat and the rat. In this game, you would use half of a broomstick handle (or your own homemade piece of wood the size of a bat) and a small piece of wood, whittled at each end. The object of the game (and the rules very) is to whack down on the piece of wood and when it pops up in the air, see how far you can hit it. A player had three attempts.
The Ward’s very own Father Angelico Valeriote loved the game.
I still remember sitting on the curb in front of Dee Valeriote’s Coffee Bar and Groceteria on Alice Street watching the cat and rat and the cheese roll games during Canada’s Centennial celebrations in the summer of 1967.
In her memoir, Eleanor Black Sorbara remembers watching Nancy Sorbara Tersigni and Eleanor Sorbara Keating playing the cat and the rat game in front of her home at 96 Morris Street when Orlando ‘Lanny’ Sorbara came up behind her holding out a ring asking her to marry him.
In the cheese roll game, you would tie a piece of string around a roll of romano or parmesan cheese. Then you would fling the cheese roll down Alice Street as far as you could. The furthest throw, combined with the least number of throws would win. Some throws reached over 40 yards. We could never afford to play this game at home, but it was so much fun to watch at bazaars, picnics, or on special events on Alice Street or Festival Italiano.
Almost every kid had a home-made slingshot. It was made from a sturdy, wooden branch that was whittled into a Y-shape frame where you would attach two flat strips of rubber bands. The ends of the rubber bands led back to a small leather pocket that would hold a projectile. We would get pieces of unused leather from Mike the shoemaker on Elizabeth Street and cut out strips of rubber from an inner tube. Richard Gazzola remembers having a small slingshot in his back pocket at school and a much bigger one for other activities.
The classic game in The Ward was bocce. Several years ago, while visiting family in Italy I remember seeing so many bocce games going on in many backyards on the road into town. Many consider it Italy’s second favourite sport.
On most Sundays you could find a Bocce game in The Ward on Ferguson Street at Silvestro’s, Montalbetti’s, Manera’s, Fontinato’s, Gazziro’s or Basso’s.
The Parolin’s had a bocce court on Morris Street and the Bellai’s had one on Sackville Street. There were so many more bocce alleys in and around the Ward.
The game was usually played on a flat natural sand/clay court with wooden side rails. It is played with eight large two differently coloured sets of balls and one smaller ball called a pallino or bocccino and begins with the toss of a coin.
Today, the game is still very active in the heart of the Ward at the Italian Canadian Club. They have several bocce courts and run tournaments with men, women, and mixed players.
Kick the Can was another great game played in the 50s. All you needed was an empty Campbell soup can from mom. The game was usually played in the driveway or empty school yard and could involve any number of kids. The only problem was you might get a sore toe or wreck your shoes, but it was still a fun game.
Many hours of fun were spent playing card games like old maid, war, racko, old heck, and euchre. The two most popular adult Italian card games were briscola (literally meaning trump) and scopa (meaning broom or to sweep). Many of the adults played these games in backyards and coffee shops throughout The Ward.
There were clubs to join too. My mom and dad, along with many other women and men in The Ward were devout members of the Legion of Mary. Many men formed clubs like the Sons of Italy, St. George’s, and St Patrick’s. The sons of Italy met at Sacred Heart Church until the club disbanded during World War II.
Up until 1952, there was no proper meeting place for young Italians in Guelph, especially for the many who lived in The Ward. Therefore, on Friday nights young Italian men gathered downtown at the Men’s Beverage Room (often called the Bush) in the Royal Hotel.
The group usually included Pacifico ‘Puss’ Valeriote, Joe ‘Pepi’ Carere, Charles ‘Chuck’ Sorbara, Louis ‘Harpo’ Macerollo, Cosmo Carere, Guy ‘Squeak’ Pellin, Andy Malison, Jim ‘Chalk’ Sorbara, Peter Marucci, George Valeriote, George Longo, Albert Mezzabotta, Sam Silvestro, Angelo Longo, Frank Longo, Louis ‘Judger’ Ferraro, Louis Nasso, Frank Silvestro, and Rudolph ‘Duke’ Sorbara.
After many Friday and Saturday nights socializing at the Royal Hotel and Dee’s Coffee Bar on Alice Street and time spent just driving around in Duke Sorbara’s car, these young Italian men decided it was time to form their own Italian Club in the Ward.
The first meeting of the Italian Club was launched at Caso Valeriote’s house in Conestoga. Peter Marucci wrote in the preface in the meeting minutes that they had such a good time partying and frying chicken until 4 in the morning that they hardly talked about a club, but picked up the topic again while on the way home stopping at Puss Valeriote’s house on Alice Street.
The second meeting took place on November 30, 1952 in Mico Valeriote’s office on the top floor of the old Bond Building in St. George’s Square. The first Executive of the Italian Club of Guelph were George Longo as Chairman, Jim Sorbara and Louis Nasso as Co-Chairs and Angelo Longo as Secretary.
Others in attendance were: Louis Ferraro, James Sorbara, Dee Valeriote, Joe Carere, Charles Sorbara, John Prigione, Louis Macerollo, Puss Valeriote, Cosmo Carere, and William Carere.
As recorded in the minutes of this first official meeting, the main purpose of forming an Italian club was “to solidify our position in the community, to bring everyone closer together and to help us become more friendly with one another.”
In the early 1950s, the club met mainly at Sammy Embro’s Hall at the corner of Elizabeth and Huron Street and a few meetings were held at the Polish Hall on Garibaldi Street. In April of 1956, the club purchased the Piovesan house on Ferguson Street and hence the foundation of the current Italian Canadian Club building in the heart of the Ward.
A successor to the Sons of Italy Club, the Italian Club grew from humble beginnings and almost 70 years later, the ICC today is a crowning achievement of Italian culture and heritage.
There was also St. Patrick’s Boxing Club in the Ward. The Ward produced many fine boxers like Dominic ‘Manny’ Sorbara, Joe Veroni and Peter Zaduk who is in the Canadian Boxing Hall of Fame.
Custodian Peter Tessaro would hook up a huge hose on an outside tap at the school and we would take turns watering the rink. Father Ryan always took the longest turn holding that near freezing hose while hundreds of gallons of water were pumped onto the rink.
I remember so vividly my brothers and friends throwing skates over our shoulders and climbing the Hundred Steps to skate and play hockey at St. George’s Park. We never really minded the cold or even putting our skates on at the top of a snowbank. We spent many hours at that Park during the winter months.
We also played many Board games. A few included Table Hockey, Monopoly, checkers, Chinese checkers, Stratego, snakes and ladders, parcheesi and Battleship.
Playing these games while growing up in the Ward in the 50s and 60s have helped foster and value friendships and memories that have lasted a lifetime. More importantly, the games brought families, friends, and relatives together in good times and bad. These games kept us active and healthy.
They helped to develop rhythm, strength, and stronger hand and eye coordination. Childhood obesity was very rare.
These clubs and games helped to develop an unbreakable bond to a unique neighbourhood that will never be forgotten. Growing up in this community helped you to become more aware of your roots. It helped you to know who you were, where you came from and to stand proud as a kid who was raised in the Ward.
In these challenging pandemic times, maybe some of these games from the Ward could be revived to add a little variety to the lives of our kids and keep them happy and healthy, both mentally and physically.
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