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Legends of Port Norris

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Sal DiGrazio Sal DiGrazio

Sal DiGrazio

b. February 26, 1916

d. August 1980

I never thought of my parents as having been historical figures in Port Norris, and maybe their role in the history of the town is minor, but their lives were truly tied to this community and they served the town in their own special way. I will share the history of both Sal and Lil, and how their lives intersected and became synonymous with Sal & Joe’s Store. Also see Lillian May Terry Rodgers

Presented by Anna De Fabrites

Salvatore J. (there is disagreement as to whether his middle name was John or Joseph, so we located his birth certificate. It says “Sam DiGrazio”, which is no help. So we will go with middle initial “J”) DiGrazio was born on February 26, 1916, the third born son of Italian immigrants, Dominick and Anna Rose, who came to America from Terranova, Italy, in the region of Calabria.

Exactly how they came about immigrating to Port Norris is unknown to us, but we assume they came to work on the farms. The original homestead was on James Moore Road, in the old Little Italy section of the town. Dominick and Anna Rose had a family of 7 – 5 boys and 2 girls. We are not sure exactly how many were born in Port Norris, but know that Sal was born here.

At some point while daddy was a young boy, they moved to Chadwick Street, in South Philadelphia. I seem to remember daddy telling me that he only went to school through 6th grade, to begin helping provide for the family, after the death of his father. Sally remembers stories that he sold newspapers and cigarettes on the street corners and helped his mother with the sewing work that she did. Even though his education was limited, he had a good mind for math and “numbers”.

The best we can determine is that about the age of 20, Sal returned to Port Norris. Was he homesick for the place of his birth, or just removing himself from the culture of the city, we don’t know. But we do know he returned, never to leave again. We believe his first job back in South Jersey was at the Dorchester Ship Yard. He married Anna Nicoli in 1938 and had two children, Sally and Joan. They lived on Bacon Street across from Ed & Millie DuBois and Gus Nicoli. This house caught on fire around 1945-46. After the fire, the family moved to 6 North Market Street, in half of the double, with Millie Scirrot (who was an aunt on the Nicoli side).

During this time period, the first business run by Sal was opened on the northeast corner of Main & Market Streets – Sal’s Store is all that is recalled about the name. We’ve been told that it was believed that Sal brought the first submarine sandwiches to Port Norris, but we don’t know if that is true. Sally remembers riding to Bridgeton with daddy to pick up fresh rolls from the bakery. He would open up the store, if there was a big fire in town, to offer coffee and refreshment to the firefighters.

Sal had to put his business on hold to serve his country in the US Army in 1945 – 46. He was stationed in the Philippines and was honorably discharged in August 1946.

Upon his return, the next business Sal ran in town was the Palomino on Main and Bacon Streets, as Sal’s Sub Shop. It was a soda fountain and restaurant, where I’ve heard some favored teenagers were allowed to make their own sundaes. The information that the Historical Society provided on the Palomino back in June was great!

Sal also bartended at the Pine Hurst Tavern in Fairton intermittently over a number of years, we just couldn’t pin point when.

In 1954-55, a partnership was struck between Sal and Joe Damico. Joe’s mother, Tressa Damico, owned the large building on West Main Street, across from the Catholic Church. Joe began a mechanic’s shop in the back garage. Sal opened a general store and gas station in the front part of the building. Tressa lived upstairs. Tressa’s daughter Margaret, is the mother of Vic Hruza, who still operates the mechanic business and lives in the remainder of the building.

This is the beginning of the legacy of Sal & Joe’s.

At this point, I am going to back track to the 1920’s and the birth of my mother, Lillian May Terry Rodgers, in an effort to intertwine these two lives.

See Lillian May Terry Rodgers

A couple divorces later, these two lives came together. About 1961, Lil invited Sal over for dinner, and according to mom, “he just never stopped coming! Get to be about dinner time, here comes Sal!” The rest is history. I was born in 1963 and my sister, Mary, in 1967. We were the original “Modern Family”. When Sally was expecting her daughter and told daddy she was going out to buy a crib, daddy said “you better get two”!

Sal and Lil became quite a team. Sal ran the store and Lil helped, along with all the stuff she did at home. If anyone knew my mother, they would know she could do anything from cooking, sewing, cleaning to major construction work!

My parents put in a lot of time at the store. The store was open from 9 am to 9 pm, 7 days a week. It was only closed on Christmas and Thanksgiving. We were the only store in town open on Sunday, and we pray the Lord forgave us for that, because if it wasn’t for Sunday sales, I don’t know if we would have made it. Daddy would close up for a couple hours in the afternoon to eat dinner and watch Days of Our Lives in his recliner. On Friday nights, mom, Mike, Sally and others would run the store, so Sal could partake of his favorite pastime….sulky horse races! He was also known to be found at a card game or two. Mike worked at the store the most, but Mary and I put in our time, as well. All of our affinity to math came from our experience at the store.

Sal and Lil were hardworking, devoted to their customers, gave credit generously (if not graciously), provided jobs for a number of young men over the years, supported town events with donations and became well known throughout the town.

They were both characters in their own right, and numerous stories have been shared about antics at the store. Like when a gentleman named Clint, that had an affinity for spirits, spit his money out of his mouth onto the counter and daddy about when ballistic! And when daddy smacked Clint’s pocket with a billy club (why I don’t know) and broke the bottle of tiger rose. Clint proceeded to take the shattered neck off the bottle and finish the remaining contents of the wine from the shards of glass!

Then there was Maggie (a well-known figure in town), who was stealing eggs, which daddy proceeded to smash in her pocket. I also remember him jumping in the Chevy and racing 100 mph up the Dividing Creek stretch to chase down someone who tried to get away without paying for their gas! He also loved to smack his billy-club on the counter, if anyone was giving him lip.

My father passed away in August of 1980, from colon cancer. Mom kept the store going for another 6 years, until the passing of her mother. She then, very selflessly, closed the store and moved in with her father in Little Creek, Delaware, to assist him, even though her own health was poor. We lost mom in December of 1991, and our lives were never the same.

Although Sal and Lil were not big movers and shakers, didn’t accomplish much of anything newsworthy, they were household names in Port Norris. Everyone knew them. They spent over thirty years serving Port Norris families. They were always ready to help someone in need, and never pursued accounts in arrears. Mom would just say, “They must need it more than we do.” People may say why are they honoring these two rather unimportant individuals, but to us, their family, they were everything, and for that we greatly appreciate the Port Norris Historical Society giving us this opportunity. Thank you.

Port Norris Legends

Sal and Lilians' family at the 2015 Legends dinner.

 


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Legends Dinner