By Jenny Phillips
A few months ago, 76-year old Ted Bonanno walked into the Visitor Education Center and proclaimed he hadn’t been back here for sixty years, and he had footage to prove it. He showed staff vintage footage of President Lincoln’s Cottage and the grounds from the 1940s. View the footage here. (Hint: you can see the south side of President Lincoln’s Cottage starting at :58)
Mr. Bonanno, who was just two years old in the footage, grew up on Upshur Street in Petworth. He has since migrated to Silver Spring, Maryland, but I gave him a call the other day to ask him about this footage and his memories of growing up near the Old Soldiers’ Home grounds. I also wanted to ask: after sixty years, why now?
He explained that some family members recently unearthed this vintage footage, compiled a video, and uploaded it onto YouTube. “My dad was big into photography,” he said. He went on to explain that much of his childhood was documented in his father’s home videos, and much of this childhood was spent a block away — just over twenty feet to be exact — from the Old Soldiers’ Home grounds: “It was a heavily Italian neighborhood back in the day. Petworth was a community of Italian immigrants.” (Thus explaining the name of the YouTube video.)
Mr. Bonanno described living in the neighborhood until 1956 when he was 14 years old, explaining the differences between then and now. For starters, a street car ran on Upshur St., right up to the main gates of the grounds. “I remember there were no alleys really, everyone had garages,” he said. “My mother had a fig, plum, and apple tree in her front yard. It was a great place to grow up…a very safe neighborhood.” And there was no security on the grounds back then. “You could waltz right through…it was very open to the public,” he said. People from the neighborhood would bring blankets to picnic and lounge on the lawn to listen to bands in the bandstand. There were cannons on the grounds, although in a different place than today, and an “ancient” sun dial. Community members and veterans alike could fish in the pond, and the water was surrounded by grazing cows and even a chicken coop.
“What was the Cottage called back then? Technically it was the Anderson Cottage, right?” I asked. “Oh, we just called it Mr. Lincoln’s house,” he explained.
Growing up, Mr. Bonanno was also the newspaper delivery boy for the veterans. He reminisced about selling them his left over papers for a nickel; he’d walk right through the Cottage’s vestibule to deliver papers to the veterans living there, as it was a dormitory at that time. “I recall there was a purple border in that area of the house. I don’t know why, but I distinctly remember the purple. I think it’s because Lincoln liked purple?” he explained. “I’m not sure, I’ll have to look into that,” I laughed.
“I’ll never forget an old veteran named George Mead from Kentucky, I would visit with him often,” he reminisced. Mr. Bonanno visited with the veterans, playing cards and checkers with them. Each day he’d watch them play the horn and take down the flag on the grounds.
“Did you realize the significance of the place when you were a kid?” I asked.
“No, not at all. We called it Mr. Lincoln’s house, but as a kid you don’t realize just how special it is.”
As we wrapped up the phone call, I thanked Mr. Bonanno for sharing his memories, and invited him and his family back to take a tour.
Without hesitation he said, “I’ll be back in a heartbeat.”