Neither Flood nor Fire nor Covid LockdownJun 01, 2022 09:00AM ● By Beth Williams
Fifty years ago, on June 23, 1972, what was arguably Corning’s biggest disaster struck. Her name was Agnes. Market Street, just south of the Chemung River, filled up with several feet of rushing floodwaters in the wee hours of that summer day. While Hurricane Agnes was “only” a Category 1 storm, the rainfall she spawned made her impact so widespread that she was the first Category 1 to have her name retired.
While businesses went right to work cleaning things up and reopening in record time, only a handful of those are still around today. One of them, at 6 West Market Street, is the venerable Brown’s Cigar Store, a fixture here since 1889. The Smith family has owned the business for over seventy years, with siblings Terry, Sue Ellen, and Bejay Smith at the helm today. In addition to being tobacconists, Brown’s is also a newsstand where print newspapers—including the New York Times, New York Post, and New York News—are still available. During the disaster of the first covid pandemic shutdown, Brown’s was considered an essential business because they provided news and was allowed to stay open.
How do you rate disasters? Terry Smith says that while Agnes and covid were both difficult, the flood was worse. Terry was fourteen at the time the hurricane came to town. He and his father came to the store the night before to stow some of their basement-stored inventory up on pallets.
“We had just received a large shipment of boxes with matches, and we put as much as we could on pallets, keeping them two feet above the dirt floor of the basement. We thought that would be sufficient,” Terry says. But Agnes had another idea. The entire basement flooded, and the water rose several feet into the store itself.
Sue Ellen was a little too young to remember the flood, but she says the more recent disaster, covid, provided its own trials for the business.
“We had to curtail our hours severely for the first several months of the pandemic,” she says. They couldn’t hold their cigar events, which typically drew twenty to forty cigar aficionados to the store and provide an uptick in sales.
“They both had their challenges,” Sue Ellen adds.
The building at 68 West Market Street survived the flood, covid, and a fire between the two. Sorge’s Restaurant, serving Italian/American cuisine, opened in 1951 with Renato Sorge, his wife, Loretta, and brother Remo at the helm. Today Renato and Loretta’s son, Michael, and his wife, Christina, own the family business.
When Agnes arrived, Michael Sorge was home for the summer from SUNY Cobleskill, where he was enrolled in a restaurant management program.
“We were fortunate in that our location on Market Street is one of the highest on the street. The basement flooded, but we only had one or two feet in the restaurant,” Michael remembers. They spent two or three weeks cleaning up and, when they were done and the utilities were on, they re-opened in mid-July. “We were the only restaurant open at that time, and so we were very busy. I was glad to go back to school in August,” he adds.
Then came covid.
“I thought I had seen everything over the last thirty years of running the business, but the pandemic was a completely new experience,” Michael says. He did think that small businesses were fortunate in that they could get P2P (Peer-to-Peer) loans as well as federal loans and the employee retention tax credits. But even so, being limited to only takeout options from May to mid-June in 2020, and then being limited to 50 percent capacity, was difficult. Local attractions like the Corning Museum of Glass weren’t drawing the usual number of tourists because of the pandemic. But, as Michael points out, Sorge’s has something else going for it.
“Summer tourists are only here for three or four months, but we are open year-round, and, fortunately, we have a great base of local customers,” Michael says.
In between those two calamitous events, in December of 2008, a devastating fire destroyed much of the building. But, again, the community rallied.
“We wouldn’t have been able to rebuild if we were located on any other street or in any other town in the country. The support we received from both local businesses and our local customers made it happen, and we were able to reopen,” he says.
Aniello’s Pizzeria (at the time located across the street from its current 68 East Market Street location) was actually poised to have its opening day on June 23, 1972. The owners, the Ruocco family, were not dissuaded, however. They persevered and opened in August, just two months after Agnes’s devastation.
While a commemoration of the pandemic may be unlikely any time soon, there are events planned for the fiftieth anniversary of the Hurricane Agnes flood. The Friends of the Chemung River Watershed are sponsoring two days of activities, June 4 and 5, including a guided paddling on the river both days and a free concert on June 5. For more information visit chemungriverfriends.org.
The Heritage Village in Corning, located at 73 W. Pultney Street, is hosting an event on June 23 from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. According to Sean Lukasik, president of the Heritage Village board and chair of the event committee, the evening’s activities will include food and beverage vendors, live music, a history exhibit about the flood (which runs through Labor Day), a poetry reading, and will conclude with a candlelight ceremony. The event is free and open to the public, but donations are always welcome.