By DIANE R. CHODAN
OBSERVER Staff Writer
After 45 years, the smell of coffee has returned to the Crocker Sprague building at 21 E. Second St. in Dunkirk. The Crocker-Sprague Co. occupied the building from 1944 to 1965. As part of its wholesale supply business, it sold coffee which was roasted in the building on the second floor. Since 2010, part of the building has housed the 21 East Bookstore and Cafe. The Cafe serves a variety of coffee concoctions.
Above: The original location of the Crocker Sprague Co. in Dunkirk in the early 1920s. From left: Lewis Crocker, Walter Crocker, unknown and Wilson Crocker. Top photo: The Crocker-Sprague Building on East Second Street as it stands today. Photo by Diane Chodan.
Recently, Bill Crocker returned to Fredonia for his 55th high school reunion. Crocker still "calls Fredonia home" despite living in Yuba City, Calif. He is the fifth generation of Crocker's of Fredonia.
Learning that the Crocker-Sprague Building on East Second Street in Dunkirk where his family's business was located had been restored and renovated, he was curious to see first-hand the interior of the building. The current multi-use building houses 21 East Bookstore and Cafe, Papaya Arts and Wheel People on its first floor and apartments on its second floor.
He contacted Amanda Walden, executive director of Literacy Volunteers which runs 21 East, and asked to come in for a visit. She readily agreed.
The Crocker-Sprague Company supplied restaurants, bars and taverns. Bill's grandfather Walter W. Crocker and Robert Sprague Sr. founded the company in 1921. According to Bill, it was a "thriving business from 1921."
The company was originally located near the old Tederous fish market next to the docks. (An article from May 3, 1956 Fredonia Censor places the company at 10 E. Front St.). In 1955, his father Wilson Crocker and Robert Sprague Jr. began operating the company and ran it until its sale in 1965. His grandfather Walter Crocker still retained an involvement in the company. Bill was able to point out the front of the current coffee shop was where "Grandpa had his office."
The company supplied items such as canned goods, soap and coffee to restaurants bars and taverns. The coffee, for which the company was well-known, was roasted and packaged on site.
Bill explained, "The coffee was packaged in 2 or 2 and a half ounce packages for coffee urns for restaurants, bars and taverns."
Bill recalls working at the company.
"Dad was roasting coffee (on the second floor)," he recalled. "He dumped it into an open cart on a rail, then he would float it down into the grinders. I would try to keep up with him ("Murph" a longtime employee). He was so quick with his hands."
On his visit, Bill also brought one of the long time employees of the company, Marge Borio, who worked there from 1948-1965 and an album of pictures of the company and the people who were employed there. The pictures date from the earliest days of the business.
According to Borio, she worked eight hours a day and part of Saturday. She recalled the company picnics fondly. To Borio, "the company was like a family"
She and Bill agreed that the company was very much family oriented. Besides the involvement of many Crocker's and Sprague's, it was common that more than one member of a family (such as Balzer and Smoczynski) worked for the company.
Bill was able to relate exactly why the business closed. "Ceases Commissary (which counted among its ventures the rest area on the Thruway in Angola, a restaurant on Central Avenue in Dunkirk and a canteen at Allegany Ludlum Steel), decided they could no longer pay the prices for coffee. I believe they went to Chase and Sanborn. Once they lost the Cease contract, the company was no longer able to continue."
Bill left the area before the business closed. He attended Purdue from 1956-1960, graduating with a BS in microbiology. He was on active duty as microbiologist for the US Navy from 1962- 1970. After that, he stayed in the reserves until his retirement in 1988. His civilian career was as a laboratory manager for a hospital. He earned a Master's Degree in Microbiology from Miami of Ohio in 1970. Later he became a hospital administrator. He retired from his civilian career in 1998. Now he does some humor writing.
Bill cleared up one mystery. When the building was being renovated a number of bullet casings were located in the basement. He said he used the long basement to practice target shooting.
Both Walden and Bill Crocker find it fitting that the building has been restored and ironic but satisfying that it is again involved with coffee.
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