A 'Hero' Away From Home Saves a Boston Tradition

Truly the greatest day in Boston's cultural calendar was when Uncle Eph came to town. This was a sales stunt by Raymond's Department Store and was orchestrated with far more showmanship than Ringling Brothers lavished on Lillian Lietzel when they brought her down the tanbark with her 136 turnovers.

Raymond's was the genius merchandiser of the era, and when the doors opened for a Raymond's sale the moment made a riot seem as tame as the Sunday evening meditation meeting of the Epworth League.

Uncle Eph came once a year with his hillbilly band and rustic vaudeville characters in a hayrack drawn by twin Red Durham oxen, and made the day merry by his antics. I'm going to guess I'm speaking about 1929.

Raymond's was unusual with its advertising - misspelling words and twisting sentences - and its identifying slogan was ''Where U Bot The Hat.''

The store liked to find a gents' clothing outlet in some such minor city as Chicago or Atlanta and make a cash offer for the stock in hand. Everything was brought to Boston and dumped with carefully contrived sales techniques in random piles on tables and counters. Customers stampeded in when the doors were opened, and a fanfare would fight over underwear and socks.

The Boston newspapers, which were then still on Newspaper Row and neighbors to Raymond's, ''covered'' a Raymond's sale as they did opening day at Fenway Park, the Brownies' swim in the harbor on New Year's Day, and a stroll by Eleanor Sears from Boston to Providence. Raymond's did carry good-quality items, and many at ridiculous prices. I had a hat from Raymond's for 35 cents that was made in England by the hat maker to the king.

And it was in 1929, I think, early in my journalism career, that the carefully thought-out preparations for Uncle Eph Day neglected the small coin that traditionally leavens the Boston transaction, about which nobody else in any other city would know. Martin Lomasney, with his cartoonist's jaw; Honey-Boy Fitz; and James Michael Curley come to mind. I could go on and on.

So a request for a city permit to drive a yoke of oxen and a hayrack up Washington Street to celebrate Uncle Eph Day was received at Boston City Hall and, for reasons enumerated above, was filed in the incinerator. Uncle Eph had new strings on his banjo; Raymond's had the counters and tables piled high; and the photographers of the Post, Globe, Uhmurrican, Record, Advocate, and possibly Mr. Munsey's Journal had been fitted with crash helmets. Uncle Eph had exhausted the importunities; there would be no Uncle Eph Day.

During a discussion of this hideous contretemps in the Civil War decor of the Post's city room, the hero of our little story, down off the farm and thinking in rural manner, chanced to say, ''Why do they need a city permit to drive oxen?''

I remember a venerable gentleman standing to the rear with a green eyeshade on back to front, who wrote six articles every day under six different names, held up a finger and said, ''Hey, wait a minute! What did that kid say?''

I had put the emphasis on a basic truth that city people had been led to forget. I suggested that if they look far enough back in the history of Boston under ''oxen,'' they'd probably find that Washington Street in Boston had been laid out originally for that purpose.

The next morning, a delegation of attorneys from the firm of O'Shea, Corrigan, Murphy, Devlin, and O'Rourke was waiting at Boston City Hall for the mayor to arrive, and the permit previously refused was quickly produced. Uncle Eph appeared as usual. I heard that the lawyers kept telling the mayor that wasn't the point. ''The point is, we don't need any permit!''

But the mayor said, ''You know how things go in Boston. You'd better take it anyway.''

Because of the great many matters in which I was involved in those formative days, I didn't get back to the old Post city room for a week or so, maybe two. It was a comfortable old dump, two stories up from Washington Street by staircase, and because it was over Thompson's Spa, it always recommended red-lannel hash with a poached egg.

Today's journalists may not believe that the Post news staff, producing the largest morning newspaper in the United States, was then served by a single telephone, a coin model actually in a booth, so you closed the door if you dropped five cents and called the governor for a statement.

In 1929, the Post had no telephone switchboard, but it did have telegraphers on duty who took news copy in Morse code. The Post was, all the same, a Pulitzer Prize winner.

The next time I did ''drop up,'' I was handed a gift-wrapped package with my name on a card. It was a gift from the management of Raymond's, to thank me for me assistance with the preparations for the annual Uncle Eph Day.

It was something new in my life, a country boy's life without the superfluities of expensive habits and sartorial niceties. I was told it was a terry-cloth bathrobe, essential if one patronized the finer hotels.

As I recall, I had it eight years before I used it at the Waterville YMCA. But I was proud of it and often took it down just to look at the label. The label said: ''Raymond's Where U Bot The Hat.''

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