Buffalo's First Ward: A rich history and promising future

Mar 2, 2015

Buffalo's First Ward has a rich history and promising future.  Monday night WNED-TV airs the story of the "Old Neighborhood" through the eyes of those who live there.

“There was a river of grain flowing from the Midwest to the East Coast.  It all got off-loaded and re-loaded here in Buffalo.”

Grain workers along the First Ward's waterfront
Credit Courtesy "Buffalo's First Ward"/WNED-TV

Buffalo Historian Mike Vogel looks back at the Old First Ward’s history here in Buffalo. In 1832, the first ward became one of five districts in Buffalo, essentially encompassing the entire waterfront area and becoming the center for Buffalo’s industrial growth.

“The Irish, who had first come here to help dig the Canal stayed here… They were augmented in the late 1840’s by refugees from the famine… and they settle in this area in order to work the port," said Vogel.

The grain industry created many jobs, but the work was not easy. “Against the Grain” Author Tim Bohen said grain workers hauled burlap sacks by hand, taking as long as seven 12-hour work days to unload one boat.

Swannie House
Credit Courtesy of WNED-TV/"Buffalo's First Ward"

“You had a little break at lunchtime where you maybe went to a saloon and had some beer to kind of clear your throat of the grain dust and then you were back at it. Then, maybe, you went back to the saloon after work because it was really back breaking work," said Bohen.  “It certainly was better than where a lot of them had come from in Ireland, but they still couldn’t become rich on it.  It was still kind of a hand to mouth existence.”

As the grain industry grew, so did other industries in Buffalo. There were steel and chemical manufacturing plants, making Buffalo one of the most important industrial centers in the country. But it didn’t last. Many historians believe the opening of the Saint Lawrence Seaway allowed industries to bypass Buffalo. The city, and the First Ward, fell on hard times, but the spirit of the first ward survived and even thrived when the going got tough.

Mazurek’s bakery has been a staple in the first ward for more than 80 years.  Former owner Jack Mazurek said the bakery has been a central part of the neighborhood.

Blizzard of '77
Credit Courtesy of WNED-TV/"Buffalo's First Ward"

Mazurek recalls the Blizzard of ’77, “I was working with my uncle at the time and he seen the storm coming and so he says, I’m leaving because I don’t want to get stuck here. Carol and I, we stayed behind and for the next 11 days we worked together 16-18 hours a day trying to get baked goods and stuff for people in the area.”

“At one point somebody heard I was running out flour… somehow mentioned it to a guy… and from the mill… a fellow by the name of Jerry Falcho came down with 10 bags of flour. I asked him how do I pay you? He said I have nothing to eat.  So we we’re able to give him food," said Mazurek.  “Everybody stuck together… one way or another. If you needed help, there were always there. That’s how the neighborhood was.”

Even through hard times, there was a closeness among families in the blue collar neighborhood, where neighbors helped neighbors, you never had to go far to find a meat market, bank or any kind of store and everybody belonged to a church parish. Many of those things that have made up the first ward have slipped away, but in recent years there’s been a renewed interest in the community.   

The Old Neighborhood Saint Patrick’s Day Parade is one sign the First Ward is making a comeback says Peg Overdorf of the Valley Community Association.

Shamrock Run
Credit Courtesy of Facebook/Shamrock Run

“The intention of the parade was to bring back people to the neighborhood, instill pride in the neighborhood, and it has done both of those," said Overdorf.

The parade was just the beginning, there’s also the Shamrock Run, City of Night and new focus on the waterfront.  Laura Kelly of the Old First Ward Community Association said there’s a resurgence drawing people back to the neighborhood.

“I think the Ward is one of the neighborhoods that is unique in the enduring community feeling and community pride.  If you come from a place that people talk about, oh, the Shamrock Run, oh, the parade, oh, the Buffalo River and kayaking, that can give you a sense of pride in where you live," said Kelly. “One of the unique things about Buffalo is that there is still a there - there.  So many cities across the United States, you don’t have roots. Buffalo you can find your roots wherever you are,"

Watch the premiere of "Buffalo's First Ward" on Monday night at 8 on WNED-TV.