The Vanilla Kid and Rockland's Jungle

By Terry Economy | Jul 29, 2011
Courtesy of: Terry Economy

During the 1940s there was a shoreline area in Rockland called the Jungle. The Jungle stretched from in back of the former Sears store all the way to the current Rockland fish pier. The jungle was the place for the homeless, a place where liquor was consumed without the threat of be arrested, and a place for those people who just wanted to get lost from reasons of their own. It had tar paper shacks, teepees, fireplaces made from brick limestone, and stumps for sitting and small congregations.

The Jungle had two entrances: One, in near the rear of the former Sears store, the other near the entrance of the fish pier. There were tales in those days that people would go into the Jungle and some were never seen again. It was taboo for children. But, the Jungle had another side to it, a place for prominent Rockland citizens to escape, have an alcohol drink, and mingle with other friends. One of Rockland's popular dentists made a good living by providing on-the-spot service. An attorney was a regular visitor. As far as the local law enforcement agencies, the Jungle did not exist. At each entrance there was a volunteer watch person who sort of gave or did not give permission to enter. Economy's Fruit Store catered to many Jungle residents. Many would visit the store on a daily basis. A newspaper, cigars and cigarettes, antacids, and, of course, beer and ale.

During my first two years of being employed at Economy's, I got to know the Jungle people. They were to call me Kid. Economy's Store was a place where messages were sent or delivered for Jungle customers. I was one of a few youngsters who had permission to visit the Jungle for important messages from family, friends and business associates. I remember on one occasion, the local judge called the store in seeking an attorney for a court case, and he was in the Jungle. It was worth 50 cents to find him.

I got on my bike and headed down the hill towards the Jungle entrance, stopping and asking the guardian if he knew where the attorney was. He nodded his head and pointed in one direction. I found the attorney and he was sound asleep. Upon waking him and informing him that the judge wanted to see him, he immediately straightened his neck tie, brushed the dust off his coat, reached in his pocket and gave me a quarter and said, "Sorry, that's all I've got."

On my twelfth birthday, I was working in the store after school when my stepbrother, Christy Demetri, came into the store with a big smile on his face. I said to myself, "Now what."

He gave me a hug and said, "Happy birthday, I got a nice present for you."

With surprise, I looked around him and said "What?"

He said, "Come with me and I'll show you."

He grabbed my arm and we went out the front door of the store, walking up a few doors to Compton's store. Once in Compton's store the owner, Bud Compton, saw us coming and headed to the rear of his store.

The next thing I saw, Bud was bringing out a brand new Schwinn bicycle. Christy said, "Happy birthday, it's yours." I was so overwhelmed. There was a brand new Schwinn, red and cream in color, headlight, front carrier, rear light, side carriers, and a bell on the handlebar. It was my first new bike!

Christy said I would have to wait until spring before I could use it. You can imagine how excited I was. But I didn't know why Christy was so kind to me until a couple of months later. Around the first of May, I noticed a sign on the store's counter stating on the first Sunday of June, Economy's would be introducing a Sunday delivery service to our Jungle customers.

"Please sign up for the items you want delivered." Well, you can guess who was going to be the delivery boy. When I asked Christy about the sign, he said, "What do you think I got that new bike for you and beside it will give you the opportunity to make extra money on the tips you will be receiving."

You could not buy any alcohol beverages on Sundays in the 1940s, except for small bottles of vanilla and cooking wine. Christy had it all planned for me. I could carry two cases of vanilla in my front carrier and six bottles of Virginia Dare cooking wine in each side carrier. He had my mother make me a jacket that had inside and outside pockets for holding packages of cigars, aspirin, antacids and other incidentals. Around my shoulder, I would have my newspaper carrier that would hold copies of the Sunday Telegram.

On my first Sunday delivery, I had about 15 customers.

Upon entering the Jungle, I was told to ring my bike bell giving notice as to who I was. Then the guardian yelled, "The Vanilla Kid is coming... the Vanilla Kid is coming!" I had a delivery map of the area, so, I sort of knew where to find my customers. My first delivery service was quite successful. I sold all of the vanilla and cooking wine, and made $5 in tips.

The second Sunday, I needed to make two trips to the Jungle as my delivery service started to become popular to the Jungle residents and my tips increased. I thought to myself, "Christy didn't have a bad idea after all."

The third Sunday, my customer base increased so that a third trip was needed and my tips had doubled. The fourth Sunday, again my customer base had grown to the point where a fourth trip was needed. I started to like my name "the Vanilla Kid" and the money I was making.

Word had gotten around the corner of Park and Main streets about the Economy's Sunday Jungle delivery service. Enough so that other merchants in the city selling the same items as Economy's started to complain to city officials. One day after the fourth delivery week, the chief of police came into the store with a copy of an official document to end the part of the delivery service that included vanilla and cooking wine because I was too young to handle alcohol products. Christy decided without the sale of vanilla and cooking wine it would not be profitable to continue the service.

So, the days of the Vanilla Kid had come to an end. That was the bad news. The good news was that I still had a new bike that I rode with pride. Years later, whenever I heard someone riding a bike and ringing a bell, in my mind I could hear the Jungle guardian yelling, "Here comes the Vanilla Kid, here comes the Vanilla Kid."

Terry Economy was born in Rockland. He graduated from Rockland High School and has had a long career in broadcasting, and is a member of the Maine Broadcasters Hall of Fame.

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