Springtime in Duquesne

My very first actual paying job was with Kopriver’s Florist, just across Texas Ave (aka Kennedy Ave) from my Thomas Street home. I define Kopriver’s as my first “paying job” due to the fact that I actually received money and, that I had “sorta” worked at BonBon Bakery in the Kroger’s Shopping Center when I was just a kid. My job at BonBon was putting together the white bakery boxes as I would gaze upon the love of my life, Joyce, who worked there. In spite of the fact that she was 15 years older than me, I knew that she would be the girl I would marry, just as soon as I was done with Elementary School, High School and maybe college. I was convinced. The pay for my box making efforts never made it to a W2 since there was no provision on the forms for being paid in baked goods.

By the time I turned 15, I was over my little boy crush and moved forward on building my resume by accepting a position with Kopriver’s. I began working there in the early Spring, just about this time of year, only 45 years ago! Since I wasn’t given an official job title, I created one for myself in order to be able to explain to my family and friends my new career. I decided my title was Kopriver’s official “FBS” – which stands for “Funeral Basket Stuffer.”

As the store’s FBS, my chief responsibility was to assure that the staff that created the funeral basket arrangements always had a supply of prepared containers used to produce the floral masterpieces.  My “office” was actually the basement under the florist shop. It was accessible via a rickety set of steps in the far corner of the shop. Since the stairway was so narrow, all of the supplies that I needed were delivered through the former coal delivery access that faced Faulk Alley. Faulk Alley was the first alley that ran parallel to Kennedy Ave as you headed up toward Kopriver’s. My supplies included the white mache baskets, chicken wire, Oasis blocks (basically Styrofoam blocks made to hold water like a sponge) and of course, greenery. The supplies would be tossed into the opening and I would catch them on the way down. Nine times out of ten, the bales of greenery would knock me off balance and I’d teeter a bit and continue to stack what seemed to be a never ending supply of greens.

Although most of my day at work was spent in “the hole” piecing together the arrangement baskets, I had a few other duties. During the day, I would get to climb out of my subterranean world and deal with my greenhouse chores. There were two long greenhouses off of the florist shop. The greenhouse that was on the extreme left as you entered held an array of plants and supplies. This greenhouse’s contents were used primarily for florist shop functions. There was a huge trellis full of a small trumpet-like white wedding flower called “stephanotis.” It arched over the doorway as you entered into the greenhouse, so you were immediately hit with the beautiful fragrance upon entering. The florists that were designing wedding bouquets would pick bunches of these flowers and lovingly incorporate them into the bride’s elaborate bouquets. (I only remember one of the florists that were working there in the 60’s. I believe his name was Harry, a great guy who treated me kindly.) The remainder of that first greenhouse contained assorted supplies, the rows funeral basket containers that I had prepared in my underworld, any overflow of retail plants from the main greenhouse, and a few tropical plants that had grown far to large to sell and had been retired into this pseudo tropical forest to live and grow in the tropical environment.

The most enjoyable part of my work day occurred in the main greenhouse. Just a few weeks after Christmas, the  building was transitioned from “Poinsettia Central,” to a sea of Spring and Summer seedlings and cuttings. Through the very watchful eye of the Kopriver’s and their staff, I had responsibility to help nurture these delicate babies through their metamorphosis into beautiful Spring and Summer blooms. Once transformed, Hunky gardens throughout the area became home to those little beauties.

Flower and vegetable gardens around Duquesne began popping up as early as mid-April. Many of the residents who were from “the old country” planted early in spite of possible threat of a freeze. If they would “feel it in their bones” that it might freeze overnight, they would shroud all of the plants in old sheets or anything else they could find that would protect the plants.

Kopriver’s didn’t sell every plant under the sun. There were only a select number of plants that were popular in the Duquesne area when it came to flowers. Their vegetable assortment was much wider since most hunky homes would have their own version of a “Victory Garden,”

The “must have” when it came to flowers were geraniums. I must have watered hundreds and hundreds of them as they awaited their Spring adoption by some loving hunky hands. They have a very distinctive fragrance that even now means “Spring is here” to me. Geraniums would end up brightening the fronts, sides and back yards of homes throughout Duquesne. Somehow, residents were able to produce exceptional growth and constant flowering from them. I recall my “old country” neighbors, Mike and Mary, lovingly tending to all of their flowers on a daily basis, especially their geraniums

Now….what follows might seem like I’m trying to give you a Botany lesson. Actually, I am attempting to perhaps evoke some memories of your parent’s or grandparents Duquesne gardens and their contents. With that said, other flowers that were commonly planted each year in Duquesne were:

Ageratum – which were small purple furry flowers and were very popular. Purple was a “big” hunky color.

Blanket Flowers – also called gaillardia, these bright yellow and orange flowers seemed to last forever. Mike and Mary Kovach were really into these.

Lantana – another yellow and orange flower that grew fairly tall. There were also red lantanas as well as purple ones.

Marigolds – I swear that every garden had both geraniums and marigolds in them. My other “old country” neighbors, Adam and Eve Oravich, said that the marigolds dropped their seeds and made them take over the garden. They weren’t fans of the marigold, obviously.

Geraniums – what can I say except that they reigned supreme in Duquesne!

Now, I am sure there were many other flowers that you remember, and I hope that you post a comment and share your memories with us!

In addition to the profuse annual plantings, there were some other flowering shrubs that I remember in Duquesne as well as wildflowers that grew in vacant lots, hillsides and even in cemeteries! The ones I recall are:

Spirea (Bridal Veil) – my neighbor Anna Yasko had these all along the front of her home.

Lilacs – we had a beautiful lilac bush on the side of our house that eventually was cut down when my dad put in a patio on the back of our house.

Tiger Lilies – I remember seeing tons of these bright orange lilies on the side of roads as we traveled around the area. I especially recall them on River Road, just beyond the Duquesne-McKeesport Bridge heading toward Dravosburg.

Hollyhocks – There was an empty lot on the corner of Mellon Street and Texas Ave. that was a virtual Botany lesson in itself. Hollyhocks grew throughout the lot and always towered over the other weeds,  ah, er, plants.

Queen Anne’s Lace – I remember fields and fields of these flowers. They grew wild everywhere. When you would look toward St. Joseph’s Cemetery from Thomas St. it would remind you the field of poppies from the movie, The Wizard of Oz, only white!

Milkweed – Yes, I know it was truly a weed. However, this “weed” was a source of constant entertainment for kids. I remember that if you would break off a leaf, the “sap” was opaque white  and sticky. They plant had these really neat pods on them as well. When they first appeared, we’d pull a few off and cut them open with our pocket knives. If they were newer, they would have this seed pod inside that looked like a scaly little white fish. As the pods got a bit older, you could open them and see the seeds and “fur” begin to form. Of course, the most fun came from pods that had just popped open. Before the wind managed to blow away the individual seeds with their white furry parachute, we’d grab the pods and blow like heck and watch the seeds fly off everywhere! Little did we realize that we were contributing to the plants propagation, just like busy little bees.

I’m looking forward to writing about the Hunky vegetable garden. BUT, that’s a whole other story!  More later….keep reading my friends!

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10 Responses to Springtime in Duquesne

  1. Eileen Thomas Smith says:

    I really enjoy your blog, Jim, but for some reason I am not getting it sent to my e-mail address.My sister has been forwarding it to me.I went to Crawford School from 1946-1950 when we moved to Meadville,Pa. I would appreciate hearing from anyone else who also attended during those years.

    • Jim says:

      Eileen,
      I checked my subscribers list and didn’t see your email address on it. You may want to try subscribing again by clicking “subscribe” in the right hand column of my blog. If that doesn’t work, please let me know and I will see if I can help in some other way.
      Jim

    • Barry Long says:

      If your the EILEEN THOMAS that lived on Lincoln Av; 2 houses up from Wilmot St;in Duquesne our parents were friends & there are pictures of them & you in the family album. You came to my 5th birthday party. Is your mother’s name SARAH? If so there are photos of the families swimming at Maple Grove & you would be approximately 73??

  2. Jane Fulmer Pocsatko says:

    I can still smell that greenhouse with the fish in my mind. I grew up next door to Helen and Ed Kopriver. They always took special care when designing the flowers for our Y Teen christmas semi formals and proms. Our flowers were always unusual. I remember going there after school fridays, to get white mums with glitter and red ribbons to wear to the football games. My Dad would help Ed in the summertime repairing the glass in the greenhouses and then painted them white to filter the sun.

  3. Diane says:

    I grew up in West Mifflin, and I was searching for old pictures of Duquesne when I came across your blog. Thanks for this story. I can’t wait to read some of the older articles on this site.

  4. Barry Long says:

    One of the Greenhouses had an elevated Goldfish Pool inside on the right.It had ferns & moss growing around it, & they hung down the front. It was waist high for an adult, but I had to stand on my tip-toes in the 40s when my father would buy flowers & we’d haul them in my wagon up to ST. JOs cemetery to put on the family graves. Anytime we went there I had to go see the fish. Our yard at Grant Av; had RUBARB & HOLLYHOCKS along the fence with Januceks & Aunt Eva would sometimes water them saying,”They looked dry”.

  5. cathy sturm says:

    I remember going through the greenhouse … …they had these really neat sensitive plants that curled their leaves up if you touched them …. they’d only do it for you the one time though …or I probably would’ve touched them over and over again …I’ve never seen that type of plant since ….maybe it’s related to the venus fly trap

  6. Carol Janusek says:

    My dads garden when we lived there was the back half of our yeard on Monterey st. he grew everything.. and big too.. colorbi’s the size of your head.. you needed a hack saw to cut them.. after a while it grew bigger with more and more hot peppers when the pool came down, and still to this day now he is in west mifflin… huge garden growing everything. he says now that he is retired he and my mom can “live off the land” although now he is known as hot pepper Pete because of all the hot peppers he grows.

  7. Tom Lane says:

    Well we are connected on this one. My mother, Thora Lane was one of the people arranging flowers for the Koprivers. She worked there in the late 60’s thru much of the 70’s, I think. I was gone by then to college and then the Army. You may have crossed paths with her. From what I heard, she was pretty good at the flower business. You are too young to remember when the Kroger parking lot was an orchard and a large garden for Koprivers. Used to sneak in and get cherries. Thanks again.

    • Jim says:

      Tom,
      Your mother must have began working there after I had left. I do however, remember the the greenhouses in the spot that became Kroger’s parking lot. I stll go over to Kopriver’s every once in a while when I visit Duquesne. Not much has changed, except the owners and florists!

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