Noe Valley Voice March 2008

Agnes Farrell Shares Memories of An Irish Noe Valley

By Joshua Brandt

The Noe Valley that Agnes Farrell grew up in during the 1920s bears little resemblance to the Noe Valley of 2008. Children skated down streets without fear of automobiles. Horse-drawn buggies still made their rounds. And a full-day trolley ride cost a nickel. Also, the recycling was more thorough.

"About once a week, the rags, bottles, and sack man came door to door, shouting for people to throw down their empties," says Farrell, who has lived in Noe Valley for all but two of her 91 years.

Farrell, accompanied by daughter Monica Curran, will be among the panelists at a March 10 forum at St. Paul's Parish Center. The event, called "The Noe Valley Irish," is part of the 2008 Crossroads Irish-American Festival (see story at left) and will be an evening of reminiscing and storytelling by longtime neighborhood residents.

Farrell, who was born on Perry Street in the South of Market Area, moved to Noe Valley in 1918, to the family's house at 1316 Sanchez Street. Her parents scraped together enough money to buy the house outright after renting it for several years.

The price? $2,600.

"Well, I guess times have changed," says Farrell with a laugh, noting that her family sold the house in 1964 for $9,000, and that it has recently sold again for upwards of a million dollars.

Both of Farrell's parents were Irish immigrants, and her dad was in San Francisco for the 1906 earthquake. He often regaled the family with stories of watching the city burn from a perch atop the Noe Street hill.

According to Farrell, the Noe Valley of the 1920s and '30s was predominately a working-class neighborhood of Irish- and Italian-Americans, with a lot of overlap. There were small grocery stores on every corner, where the shopkeepers knew your name--and your parents' names, should any child get involved in mischief.

Wonzod's was the place for candy "and other necessities," according to Farrell, and Marguerite's was the local ice cream shop, The local butcher gave all the local kids slices of baloney, and the hairstylist worked out of her home a few doors down from the Farrell residence.

Children played "hickey" on the sidewalks, where they skated with one leg in the gutter and the other leg extended. The more adventurous of the children hitched a ride on the produce truck, and would continue on their merry way until the driver started pelting them with potatoes.

The Irish neighborhood was tightly knit in those days, and the mere fact of living in Noe Valley gave one a sense of community.

"I remember all the Irish dances at the Knights of the Red Branch at Seventh and Mission and at the Irish-American Hall at 15th and Valencia," recalls Farrell. "We'd do dances like the Stack of Barley, the Hornblower, and the Highlander all night long."

According to Farrell, it cost a mere five cents to take the streetcars to the Beach Chalet to see the Irish hurlers and Gaelic football contests. The nonagenarian fondly recalls many after-match parties at her Sanchez Street home, where the cops often came by at two in the morning to request a little peace and quiet.

"It was always a great party," reminisces Farrell. "Our next-door neighbor, Bill O'Dwyer, would play the fiddle, everyone would be dancing, and there were always versions of When Irish Eyes Are Smiling, which got more off-key as the night wore on."

Families were large in those days--seven children were the norm, Farrell says. "One of our neighbors had three children, and that was thought to be odd."

Farrell and her late husband Alvin, a longtime milk deliveryman who was profiled in an (unpublished) Life magazine piece, raised nine children in a house they bought on Army Street in 1956.

The family matriarch now has 22 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren. Her daughters, just like Farrell, attended schools in St. Paul's Parish, where they received the honorarium "filiae-filia" (literally, "daughter of the daughter").

"Sure the neighborhood has changed," concedes Farrell. "But some of my neighbors have been here for longer than I have, so we still have a great sense of community."

And when pressed, Farrell says she still can't resist tapping her toes to traditional Irish music. Asked if she plans to demonstrate any of her moves at the March 10 event, Farrell demurs.

"I don't think so. But you never know...the mood might hit me."