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Buffalo in the '80s: Russ the Baker and his ringing cowbell

His business was a holdover from an earlier era when the streets of Buffalo where filled with hucksters, salespeople and tradesmen offering their wares and services.

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“Ladies come and buy my bread… doo dah, doo dah,” Russ the Baker would sing, his head out the driver’s side window of his van, ringing a cowbell. “Buy my bread I knead (or was that need?) the dough… oh, doo dah day.”

If he wasn’t the very last, he was certainly the best known of a tiny number of old time roving street peddlers in 1997. He was a beloved Buffalo institution, still donning a baker’s hat on his head and a song in his heart, taking to the streets a few times a week when he died at the age of 70.

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Before Russell Russo was Russ the Baker, he was Russ the Milkman. In the mid-’50’s, Russ’s cousin, who owned a bakery on Connecticut Street, asked the milkman to unload an extra 40 loaves of bread along his route that morning. Twenty went quick at the gas station on Elmwood and Bryant.

As he was leaving bottles of milk at the side doors of what we now call the Elmwood Village, he began to half-sing and half-shout, “Who needs a loaf of bread?”

A couple dozen still-oven-warm loaves were gone in a matter of minutes and a new business was born. For the next 40 years, Russ was delivering his own home-baked treats as well as featuring bread from Balistreri’s and Famous Doughnuts.

A Vaudeville singer as a teen and an opera lover, Russ often combined the two in his booming voice to sing silly songs about his banana bread or the occasional pie.

Seven days a week, often with his wife Rosalie or a few of their nine children, Russ hit the streets of Western New York with a baked goods filled van. There weren’t many streets in Buffalo and the nearby suburbs he didn’t drive down to sell. He was best known in North Buffalo, South Buffalo and Black Rock.

I clearly remember his bellowing voice and bell on Allegany Street in South Buffalo, and somehow in song, telling us boys to tell our moms that he had cakes and bread. I don’t remember what happened after that, but I assume Mom gave us the same look she gave us when Goldie would interrupt Sesame Street to ask for our mothers to come to the TV.

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Thankfully, there were thousands of others through the years who heeded the melodic call to bread and doughnuts.

 

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