Cover Story » Vol. 62

Bob Largess: It’s all about the water

Bernard Whitmore

Slowing him down long enough to sit and talk was a challenge. I’d met Bob Largess a couple times; first, on a “tour” of the Hotel Vernon’s speakeasy; and then, years later, when he asked me to help with his Belgian draft horses at Oktoberfest on Shrewsbury Street. So I was prepared for a man of various interests.

What I wasn’t ready for was what I’ve fondly come to think of as “The Largess Experience” — the stories, experiences, history and compassion that animate him. When we finally sat down at his Hotel Vernon bar, I discovered that conversation with Bob is like dipping a paddle into a rushing river. With, seemingly, no beginning or end, you’re thrust down a series of rapids that are occasionally soothed by the deeper waters of an introspective eddy.

It’s an immersive experience, and there’s no taming this force of nature. So, with minimal editing, here’s Bob’s story in his own words. As Bob likes to advise: “Pay attention!

With “help” from my father — I’m sure he knew somebody — I was accepted at St. John’s [High School]. I liked the water, so I got on the crew team. The crew team was just starting at St. John’s; I was actually the bowman in the first high school boat to ever come across the finish line at the Head of the Charles Regatta [the world’s largest two-day rowing event].

Which made me a star at the Head of the Charles! Back then, that was nothing. Now, it’s this huge event that I still get invited to.

But water seems to be a common theme; it’s all about the water. And rowing.

Then, [jabbing a finger down onto the bar table we’re sitting at] this is just what I’ve always done. What my family’s always been. We’re always just a little to the left… on another page.

I grew up in Worcester over by Coes Pond and, also, in Sutton. My great-grandfather on my mother’s side was an Irish immigrant. They, the McGoverns, lived in this neighborhood. They were the children of a fellow who drank too much and died young.

They’re working at the wire mill when Prohibition comes. They happen to have a hobby that’s Irish: They box. Mechanics Hall had Friday night fights where they’d, basically, play the race card and put an Irish kid in against a Polish Kid. The whole world comes and these kids go three rounds, and they know each other, but still get surprised with, like, a left uppercut and then, “I’m down! Where did that come from? We train together!”
That was the world of boxing; they’re all friends and go home friends.

So when Prohibition came, they saw an opportunity to open a speakeasy right by the front door of the wire mill. Three brothers, boxing is their hobby, each working an eight-hour shift. The saying told to me was, “The McGoverns can handle themselves!”

Back in Prohibition, you don’t have the police to call if something goes wrong; a McGovern just comes over to the bar and you’re out for the day. For that night, you’re out of the bar. During Prohibition, they did as well as the McGady family did here at the Hotel Vernon. [Remains of a speakeasy still exist in the basement].

Then, when Prohibition ended, they had nothing but cash. I’m living in a house that’s built in 1724 in Sutton Center that my unmarried uncle bought so he could move his sister and her new husband and his mother to the farm. My grandfather built a house up on June Street. They had money! And I, the first born, was the golden boy.

My grandfather and his brothers didn’t drink. Nothing! Under any circumstances! To the day he died, my grandfather drove home from work in his Cadillac, went down to the cellar, took off his suit coat and tie and worked his [punching] bag. Then, he came upstairs.

When I was in grammar school, I saw a new soda at the corner market. Coke. So I brought home a can of Coke. “Look at this new stuff they have down at the market!”

When I showed it to my grandfather, I saw my first shitfit. The roof came off the house! I’d never heard him swear!

I know I’d done something wrong, but I had no idea what. I took the soda and put it in the wastepaper basket. He took the wastepaper basket, walked it down the stairs, out the door, threw it in the street and said to my mother, “Talk to that kid! What is his problem? We drink Polar Cola. Period!”

I wondered, “What did I do?” But back to Prohibition. During Prohibition, to get alcohol, there was an Irish connection in Rhode Island. You met down by Wright’s Chicken Farm.

There was a gun. There was a chemist. There was a person with money.

You met three people — someone with a gun, a chemist and someone to count the money.

Everyone agrees it’s drinkable alcohol, cash changes hands, a blanket goes over the barrel. There is no Route 146, so you weave your way back to Worcester.

But you’ve got a problem on your hands. You have way too much alcohol! But there’s a guy in the neighborhood behind the Corner Lunch. He’s starting up a soda company. His name is Crowley. And he has bottles.

So you put the booze in bottles to put it in the speakeasy. That’s why my grandfather did business with Polar. Period! The roof on the house. The Caddy in the driveway. The shoes on your f**king feet! If we didn’t have Polar and the Crowley family, we would not be in the position we’re in right now! Pay attention!

Go to Shrewsbury Street. Coke built a bottling plant there to try to get the soda business. But in the basement of all the bars on Shrewsbury Street — I know, I have a big bottle redemption business — it’s all Polar! It’s Raymond Patriarca, Sr. Back then, it was “a shake is a shake.” That’s how it worked.

The Hotel Vernon, when I first got here and went downstairs — it was Polar. I told myself, “I got to sell Polar.”

I don’t sell Coke. It’s Polar. It’s Worcester. It’s The Island.

My grandfather, when he grew up in this neighborhood, it was referred to as “The Island.” When the Blackstone Canal was built, they diverted the river with a straight shot from the last lock, Number 48, at Kelley Square, all the way down to Route 146.

The Blackstone Canal was actually a river and a canal. They would blast to make it straight and not have to deal with the shallow water and rocks.

When they made that shot, they created this thing that was referred to as “The Island.” The Island was filled with the Irish, the Jews, the Polish, Lithuanians. The police didn’t even have a station down here; it was a rough neighborhood.

Then, in the ’60s, President Kennedy created the war on poverty. Four Catholics — including Tim Harrington, who became the bishop, and Ed Tinsley, a monseigneur who recently passed — stood at the corner of Green Street where the Hess Station is now. Looking over The Island, across the street from a church (now the Burger King below Kelley Square), they said, “Why don’t we see if we can create a neighborhood center to access money from the federal government to help this neighborhood that’s below the poverty level? That has African Americans living here. Gasp! They’re intermarrying! I mean, this place is really just… [out of control]!”

From that day forward, this neighborhood became known as Green Island. Green Island was the entry port for people. Then, Route 290 came and cut the heart out of most neighborhoods. And I’m proud to say there was one neighborhood that didn’t die. We somehow survived. The vibrant neighborhoods all around us died. But Green Island survives.

It was hard; very difficult. My personal story is: In the ’70s, I’m living in Vermont, teaching school, with a whole life planned for me. On July 11, late ’70s, my dad, who’s married into the family, has McGovern’s Package Store on Millbury Street.

He’s shot and killed in a botched robbery. For 30 bucks.

They put him in an ambulance, took him to St Vincent’s [Hospital], and he doesn’t make it.

So he’s in a box. I’m the oldest son — Irish Catholic family – I come down from Vermont. I’m trained as a workaholic, so I go up to St. Vincent’s, reach into his pants pocket, find the keys; the next day, at 8 o’clock, I’m on Millbury Street at the package store, open the door, his blood is still there.

So I mop the place up.

They asked me, “What are we going to do?”

I said, “I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I was supposed to be going to Colorado the next day.”

My father had driven to Vermont to give me his station wagon. He didn’t want me driving my old pickup truck. (I always drove junks.) He said, “You got my grandson with you! Just make sure you come back!” The next day he died.

It was interesting. There’s a package store down the street run by Murray Yanover, who’s Jewish. We’re Irish. Competition. There’s a knock on the door, “Let me in!”

I let him in and locked the door. “My name’s Murray Yanover; call me Murray. Your family and my family have been on this street for a long time. You can do this! I want you to know I’m down the street. Don’t hesitate — no matter what you heard about me — you can come down the street and talk to me. Because you have to keep this thing going. Your dad and I were great competitors!”

The next knock, unfortunately, was the press. “Do you have a comment?” they ask.

“I have no comment. Get the f**k out of here!”

I was struggling. I didn’t know what to do. We buried my father; I’m here trying to figure out what bank he went to. I don’t have any idea how to run a business. It was a baptism of fire.

Fortunately, Ray White was the guy at Mechanics Bank who came up to my office and said, “What are you doing?”

“I don’t know. I have all these folders…”

He said, “Bobby! Your family’s been doing business with the bank for a long time. Before your father, it was your grandfather. Where’s your basket? No! Your barrel?”
He took the entire contents of the office and threw it in the barrel and said, “Here’s a pencil. Sharpen it. It’s just adding and subtracting. There are people who owe you money. They’re not going to pay you. You owe people money. They’re going to send you another bill. Get focused, you can do this. It ain’t rocket science! Just pay attention to business!”

For me, personally, that was a low point. As bad as it could get.


Canal District

Then, they have a neighborhood meeting, the Millbury Street Merchants Association, and asked me to come. “You’re a merchant now!”

So I get there, and it’s in a dark, dark room of a neighborhood center. There’s this project coming that’s going to take down a hundred houses in the neighborhood. It’s to make sure downtown is dry, so they can build things.

In Worcester, there was a canal on Harding Street. In the middle-1800s, when the railroad put the canal out of business, it became an open sewer. The state told Worcester, “There’ll be no money from us for roads, cops, fire departments unless you get rid of that thing.”

So, they took down three quarters of the canal’s stone walls. Then, building a wooden jig over the canal, put the stones over it and covered the sewer with stone. Then, without knowing what they were doing, every pipe in Worcester dumped into it.

Now this [new project] would build a twin-box conduit that would come through the neighborhood, that would catch rainwater on one side and sewage on the other that would go to a treatment plant to clean it before dumping it into the river.

Nice idea. But there’s a hundred houses being taken down! We can’t stop it! It’s coming, and I’m looking at Gloria Markowski, who lives in a three-decker that’s going to be knocked down. She was born in it! Her mom and dad were born in it. I was, like, “You’re taking down houses; homes! Where are they going to go? This is progress?”

So that happened; they did the project, and it didn’t quite work as it should have because when we have 100-year storm events — as we do now on a very regular basis — the sewage and the rain mix; the system is overwhelmed. And in Worcester, the lowest point is The Island. When the Blackstone River rises, the canal can’t drain into it, so we end up the place that gets it all.

Plus, all that new-fangled stuff that’s sending it from Tatnuck, Lincoln Street; everything comes this way. So the sewer manholes pop open. The Island gets bad press: Everything is lousy down there! It continues to disintegrate!

But we like it! You don’t have to go too far to hear, “That’s where my mother came from!” And everyone goes to Water Street and gets the bulkies. It doesn’t matter if you’re not Jewish — you get Jewish rye on Water Street. Why would you go anyplace else?

Then, the state decided to put an exit ramp on the Mass Pike in Millbury. That exit ramp is going to take interstate traffic and move it into Worcester through our neighborhood. So we have a right to ask for money to make sure that it has a positive impact, not a negative impact. And that’s what we hung our hat on: “Wait a second! You’re gonna come through the neighborhood again? We want something good to happen, not something bad! If there’s gonna be more traffic, it’s gonna have an impact, and we want the quality of life to get better.”

That’s when I was involved with the Community Development Corporation (CDC). Mismanagement, misappropriation of funds! We didn’t know what the f**k we were doing. The Main South CDC came to find out what we were doing so that they could help Main South. Fortunately for them, they got real lucky. Clark University became a partner.

Nonprofits need a rich cousin! We didn’t have one. So we’re just clumping along looking for someone who can put up 20 dollars so we can buy stamps. This is the ’70s, our CDC has great dreams but no money. So we can’t do anything. Then we were told to dissolve.

As that was happening, I proposed that we change our name from Green Island to the Canal District. Because I want to focus [jabbing a finger for emphasis] on water. Water. That’s what we have. That was my suggestion, and I called for a vote, and I said I never want to see “Green Island” in print.

Some people, to this day, want to argue about it; and I’m not saying that Green Island didn’t exist. But for me, personally, it was a low point. My dad was killed in Green Island. Back when it was The Island, my family made a ton of money cause they sold booze. But then it changed, and Canal District is our name; that’s what we want to be called in print going forward.

Because water is the future. Period.

So, over the years, fortunately they’re starting to call us the Canal District! [Now laughing] We’re a Canal District without a canal. Like an art district without art!

So the Canal District was born.


Hotel Vernon

Red Bergeron, the owner of the Hotel Vernon, was retired from the city. He was the head of Parks and Recreation. One day, he comes into my store and says, “I’ve had it! I’m gonna sell the bar. I can’t take it anymore!”

I said, “Really!” He was in a walker, and as he’s headed out to his car, I helped him into it and I said, “Red, would you consider selling the bar to me? It’s a cool spot; if you’d consider me, I’d appreciate it.”

Months went by, and one day he came in, he’s looking all around, and said, “Give me your hand. I thought it over. You’re the guy. I’m gonna sell you the hotel. You know every bum on the street… you and that f**kin’ Canal talk. Listen, I’ve got some old guys that have been living in the rooms upstairs for a long time. I don’t want them tossed out!”

Shaking his hand, I said, “Red, I’ll go to the bank and see what I can do. I want to buy the real estate.”

We spent a year, because the bar had fallen on bad times. Finally, we moved forward with the sale. I filled out all the paperwork. Then, someone from the License Commission came to me and said, “You’ve got a problem. You can’t own a package store and a bar. That’s Massachusetts rules!”

I asked, “Can I put it in my wife’s name?”

“Yeah [pause]. I guess you could do that.”

So I copied the application and put Marlene’s name on it. I went home and said to my wife, “Honey, I’m buying you a hotel!”

My wife, she’s from Denver, she says, “Wow! Down the Cape? Nantucket? This is great!”

“No, no. This is the Hotel Vernon.”

She said, “I don’t even stop at the stop sign! The people that stand out there! What were you thinking?”

“Yeah, it’s broke, but I think we can fix it. This is money where my mouth is. The neighborhood is going to GO! I really think so, but I just can’t say it. I gotta do it!”

That’s how I acquired the Hotel Vernon 12 years ago. The night we changed hands, everyone left and I was there alone. No one came in. I closed at 2 [a.m.] and said, “Well, here we go!”

[Worcester] Vice told me, “It ain’t gonna get the slack that it used to get. The train was off the tracks, and if you’re in there, we’re gonna hold you to a higher standard.”

But I got lucky. The Canal District was starting to take off. With dollar drafts and free peanuts, young, creative, artsy people came in. I say “yes” to anyone who wants to come in and use the Ship Room for anything they want, as long as I sell the alcohol. We’ve had a Hip Hop Marathon benefit, transgender benefits. I say, “It doesn’t matter. You gotta be 21, and you can have the room and raise money.”

I got very lucky [Bob points to the far corner of the bar, to the mirror where a Ralph’s Diner logo is affixed]. Ralph [Moberly] was still alive; three or four days after I bought the place, he shows up and says, “How the hell did you end up with this place? Man! This is the coolest bar in Worcester. This is the spot! That Ship Room… build a stage! Take out those booths. Get rid of that karaoke thing, save all the wood…”

So I give him the credit. Ralph was the guy that went out to his car and got his sticker and put it on the mirror. He said, “If you get cancer, you tell Marlene to sell it to me!”

I’m forever in debt. He’s the one who put the wind in our sails. When he died suddenly, I got the call. I drove the stagecoach. I picked up his ashes and brought them back to Worcester. That’s the business.

The thing now is that, in Worcester, the Canal District has come alive with great neighbors, all kinds of neat things going on all around me. Thirty-something bars. What more could I ask for?

Kelley Square

Kelley Square, 60,000 cars a day, what more could a guy ask for? Kelley Square is the perfect war memorial. It doesn’t need help; it needs to be recognized as the conduit through which all good stuff comes.

Cornelius F. Kelley lived behind the Lucky Dog on Washington Street. It’s the early 1900s, his mother and father are working at the Crompton Mill. Mr. Crompton’s filthy rich making uniforms for the U.S. Army. He won’t deal with unions — he’d rather fight them. He doesn’t pay well. The Irish happen to be the people working in the mill at the time.

Cornelius Kelley doesn’t want to work at the mill, so he joins the Army and he’s put in the Yankee Division of the Infantry. World War I breaks out and the YD gets sent to France. No one knows who’s going to win. The YD is in a trench, and the phone line goes down. There’s no communication.

History books say Cornelius put his rifle down, crawled out of the trench and walked into no-man’s land. He didn’t recognize the bullets, the mortar shells exploding around him. In the middle of all this, he finds a phone line hit by a mortar shell. He kneels down, takes out his knife, puts it together, splices it and puts it back on the ground, and — with his back to the enemy — he walks back, gets in the trench, picks up his rifle and says, “Try the radio. I think I found the problem.”

Everyone’s jaw drops. They go “click.” It worked.
This was two weeks of the fiercest fighting of the war. History says it’s the turning point of World War I.

Hotel Vernon was built in 1901 in Vernon Square. Cornelius came home but was sent back; the French want to decorate him for bravery in action. Cornelius goes back; it’s the first day of what would be the last battle of World War I. He’s sprayed with mustard gas and dies. That’s his picture at the entrance of the bar.

After the war ends, the City Council decides to recognize the contribution the new immigrant boys are making. So Vernon Square is forever changed to Kelley Square.

The world has certain places of convergence; Kelley Square is one them. It makes no sense at all. I’m no expert on it. I had a traffic engineer tell me, “Kelley Square was not created by traffic engineers, and if you showed it to one, he would say there’s no way it works. However,” he continued, “the bumblebee is too fat to fly – his body is too heavy, his wings too short. But he doesn’t know that!”

Kelley Square is like the bumblebee; it pollinates everything. As far as I’m concerned, just leave Kelley Square alone and Worcester will be fine. Kelley Square is the gift, not the problem.

So I think Kelley Square is a living war memorial to the real stuff that Worcester has and needs to be proud of, and that’s why, for me, to this day my focus is on the Canal, on re-watering it and creating a replica of the canal in this neighborhood. I’m possessed. They roll their eyes at me.

We meet here every Wednesday at 12 o’clock for an hour. Anyone and everyone is invited: nay-sayers and not-naysayers, anyone has a seat at the table.

John Spillane, who was Irish and proud of his heritage, applied to the state for money to do a feasibility study to rebuild the canal. We hired a consultant, who came to our meeting and said, “Well, here’s the news: It’s a bad idea. It’s connected to a sewer system. It would cost too much money. However, if you build a replica 18 inches deep on top of the canal and re-water it… now that would work.

“And,” he added, “we can show you studies that say when you add water to a neighborhood, you get success. But make sure there’s a bend in it. Otherwise, it’s just a reflecting pool.”

That’s the vision: To recreate the canal, to capture the water, make sure it’s clean and send it downstream to the national park.

Pay attention! It’s all about clean water.

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