AUBURN — Thomas Francis Conaty may have retired from his Auburn fish store at the age of 82, but that didn't stop him from hopping in a taxi and popping in to T.F. Conaty's Fish Market to check on his son-in-law running the business.
"My poor dad," said Mary Payne McCarthy, laughing about the memory. The Auburn resident and retired speech language pathologist at Owasco Elementary School was the granddaughter of the local Irish fish mogul, and daughter to his successor.
"We had two phones, one upstairs and one down, and I would have to run upstairs to go to the bathroom, and I'd call my father and tell him he's coming down to the store," she said.
Often donning a suit and bowler hat, Conaty would leave their home where grandparents, parents and grandchildren lived, to check on George Payne and the seafood market at 47 North St.
A series examining the impact of Auburn's urban renewal initiatives, including the Arterial:
Standing in her dining room last month with her husband, Dave McCarthy, Mary said her grandfather's passing at the age of 93 in March 1963 was a blessing, in a way. The store, bought by Conaty in 1917, had survived the Great Depression and two World Wars.
But it did not survive the Arterial.
The store, which sat across from where the Auburn Police Department is now, is a photographed memory. Several pictures hang on the McCarthy's walls.
"My grandfather had achieved so much coming in," Mary said. "He came in as this farm boy who was really enraged that he didn't get the education that he wanted, and then he came in and that was his goal: He was going to have a lovely house, and he was going to have his own business and be his own boss. He achieved that. It really was the great American dream. I guess that's what's so sad."
Conaty came to Auburn from Scipio Center at the age of 19. He had a quarter in his pocket and a drive that kept him going, despite facing ridicule from those who were against his Irish heritage. He started out clearing stables, sleeping in the place he worked before eventually working for Henry F. Mott, who owned a local seafood business at the time.
In 1917, Conaty bought the business from Mott and by 1924 had paid his mortgage for the building on North Street of $2,054 in full. With no one else in line to take the reins, Payne left his job as a reporter for The Citizen-Advertiser to learn the seafood business, working under his father-in-law starting in 1937.
Gallery: Brought down by the Arterial — T.F. Conaty's Fish Market
Local Auburn business T.F. Conaty Seafood opened in 1917 on 47 North St. Family owned and operated for decades, the store eventually met its demise in 1974 with the installation of Auburn's Arterial. Mary Payne McCarthy, the granddaughter of the man who opened up the shop, reflected on what it was like growing up prior to the Arterial, and how the highway's installation impacted her family.
The store became a downtown Auburn staple. There were clambakes and fish fries. People came to the store and bought their fare or had their seafood delivered by the Conaty's Seafood truck. Mary often accompanied her father on these deliveries when she was approximately 8 years old.
It was a beautiful fall day in 1962 where Mary remembers her father's recount of an ugly meeting at City Hall. She was in eighth grade at the time, and she remembers her grandfather had offered to go to the meeting, but her father had said, no.
"He (Payne) went up and he came back, and I remember the discussion was that everyone started bickering, and everyone got up to talk, and it was the York Street people against the North Street people," she said, recalling the day. "There were people crying, and there were people bickering. He (Payne) says, 'It will be 14 years before they get their act together, if then.' He says, 'I'm not going back again. It's just too awful.'"
Conaty more or less shrugged off the meeting, telling his son-in-law that the city and state would do what they wanted. The family hired a lawyer and decided to sit tight. Neither family member attended any more meetings at City Hall.
And for a while, the Arterial did seem like a distant, if unattainable outcome. The store continued on as before, with Payne now in charge. Mary would often stop at the fish store after school and grab 15 cents from her father for the bus ride home. As she got older, the store became a place to weed out boyfriends.
"Fresh seafood smells like fresh seafood," she said, laughing. "If they didn't come in the store, I thought, 'Well, you're done,' and then if they would come in the store, and literally, you talk about someone turning green," she laughed.
That's how her husband Dave passed the test.
While things seemed relatively calm, Mary said throughout the years, strange men would come and go. She doesn't know if they were from the city or the state, but every time they came, her father's disbelief about the coming state highway mounted.
"My father was really quite annoyed with the attitude," Mary said. "He thought they were kind of heavy-handed, so to speak."
In the early months of 1967, Auburn artist Truxton Hosley showed up at the store. Hosley had been sitting outside of businesses, painting the storefronts of those that might soon disappear.
"'You know the Arterial is coming,'" Mary remembers Hosley saying to her parents when she was a senior in high school. "'You'll want a memory.'"
The area around Lewis Street, Franklin Street and Grant Avenue is still called the Five Poin…
For $55, Mary's mother Helen Payne bought Hosley's painting. A similar copy with the same frame hangs in the Cayuga Museum today. Mary has her family's copy hanging in the foyer of their home, a tangible prophecy of something the Paynes never thought would come to pass.
But it did. During the last couple of years operating the business, the state bought the seafood store. Sending in its own assessors, the property was valued at 1/3 the amount of what George had been paying taxes on for the last decade, Mary recalled. That amount was multiplied by three, and that amount is what the family received for compensation.
"I can't even tell you what my parents got for their business," Mary said. "But I do remember the unfairness of that whole thing. That wasn't germane to my family or my family's business. It was the whole process. They were not singled out. It was massive."
George continued to operate the family business, but he was a renter now. When the building's bathroom needed a new pipe, the state refused to send a plumber. Despite the risk, George fixed the bathroom on his own. He continued with his nightly procedure of closing up shop. He'd sweep the foyer and toss out the trash. He'd throw boiling water over the counters and equipment, scrubbing down the surface. He'd throw two more buckets of boiling water over everything.
AUBURN — In the early 1900s, a Michigan man came up with a simple, cheap design that changed…
"I remember going down, and if anyone said to him 'They're going to condemn it (the building),' he'd be like," Mary paused. "All the store owners would be out sweeping and doing their windows, and yah, they (the buildings) were very old, and they were very humble — but there was great pride."
As demolition day drew near, the state told Payne he could not take anything from the building — not even his store's neon sign. Mary said the state threatened to arrest her father if he took even a brick.
Her father did try to move his business elsewhere. But so did many others.
"People caught wind of that," Mary said. "The market prices just threw everything off. I think they had a real sense that they were caught up in a real cyclone, trying to make sense of it, and everyone was impacted."
George wrote his last item for The Citizen-Advertiser — a goodbye note to his loyal customers, put in as an advertisement on July 17, 1973.
"The Conaty's Seafood 45 North St. is out of business due to the state arterial highway," it read. "We wish to thank all of our customers for their past patronage and association with us since 1917 and regret being unable to relocate." The note was signed by George and Helen Conaty Payne.
"That really chokes me up," Dave said, looking at the old newspaper clipping. "There were hundreds of people that lost their homes. People lost their businesses, and what it did to the tax base was just incredible."
When the McCarthys moved back to Auburn from western New York in 1974, Mary said they came "just in time, I think, for the climax of this whole thing."
Within the first weeks of March, 1974, Payne watched the business that had been in his family for 57 years crumble and fall. The neon sign fell to the ground, smashing into pieces. Soon after in November, the 66-year-old died of a heart attack.
Mary, now 67, stood at her dining room table. The original T.F. Conaty's Fish Market sign, wooden and green with gold leaf writing leans up against the wall. Newspapers from the '60s and '70s are clipped and spread out among old receipts from the fish store, old advertisements, and black and white photos of the family patriarchs. It all may be gone now, but she remembers.
"It's such an American dream accomplished," she said.
Staff writer Gwendolyn Craig can be reached at (315) 282-2237 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @gwendolynnn1.
In this Series
- 6 updates