About 10 minutes into watching a preview of the WNED-TV documentary “Buffalo’s First Ward” on Saturday, I realized I was going to have to watch it twice.
That’s because I watched the program – which airs at 8 tonight -- the first time with three South Buffalo natives, including my future wife.
That meant I heard almost as much from them as I did from the narrator and various historians, residents and journalists who talked about the history of the area.
The documentary quickly details the area's beginnings in the mid-19th century when the Irish escaped the potato famine back home to come to America to do the back-breaking job of building railroads and ships and working in the grain mills near where they lived in the First Ward.
Here is what I heard throughout the hour as interviews, file footage and nostalgic photographs flashed across the TV screen.
“There’s my father. At least I think it is.”
I kid you not. My girlfriend’s sister-in-law, a McNamara, thought she spotted her father in an old photograph.
All the moments of recognition during the viewing reinforced something that I have learned since I began dating a South Buffalonian more than four years ago: Everyone in SB (that’s what I’ve learned they call it) knows everyone in SB.
That’s why I am confident in saying that the documentary, which arrives several days before the Shamrock Run in the Old First Ward and the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in 13 days, will be must-see TV among residents in the Irish community with roots in the First Ward.
That’s what I learned in the first viewing.
In the second viewing – when I actually heard the narrator and the experts being interviewed -- I learned the rest of Western New Yorkers will get quite an entertaining history lesson.
I would be remiss if I didn’t add that my future brother-in-law remarked “you have to write about this. You wrote a long story on the Italian-American series.”
The two documentaries do have a lot in common as they tell stories of immigration, tight-knit communities, nostalgia and how areas change over time.
The photography in “Buffalo’s First Ward” is beautiful, the photos are nostalgic and the experts assembled do a great job explaining the history of the area from Irish immigration in the mid-19th century, to the successful period of the grain mills before it ended in the mid-20th century, and the 21st Century resurgence of interest in the area and the downtown community.
I knew one guy in the film, Mike Vogel. I even thought briefly of shouting “there’s Mike.”
Vogel is a former Buffalo News reporter and chief editorial writer who now is billed as a historian. He does a terrific job explaining Buffalo’s industrial past and how the St. Lawrence Seaway pretty much ended the grain elevator era in Buffalo in the mid-20th century.
He is joined by historian Mark Goldman, author Tim Bohen (“Against the Grain”), local residents and community association leaders Gene Overdorf, Peg Overdorf, Swannie Jim and Rick Smith of Silo City, Laura Kelly (the Old First Ward Association) and Dana Saylor (City of Night), Jack Mazurek of the famed bakery and several others.
Saylor and Kelly were my favorites in the film.
“The First Ward is a microcosm of the history of American,” noted Kelly. “Quite often we look back with nostalgia. We are children. We didn’t see how hard our parents worked to make that all possible or where our grandparents came from. It’s all part of the same story and it makes the First Ward what it is today and where it can be tomorrow.”
The youngest expert in the film, Saylor explained the resurgence of interest in the First Ward, which is exemplified by the annual City of Night experience that brings residents into the area for a night of celebration of the grain mills and other aspects of the Ward.
“I hope people will walk away with a little bit more pride in the city and an understanding it is coming back,” said Saylor of City of Night.
The same could be said for WNED's documentary,
And as an added bonus, some SBers might even be able to spot pictures of their fathers or grandfathers.
By the way, WNED surprisingly doesn't have a second viewing of "Buffalo's First Ward" scheduled.
It would be a good idea to find a spot to repeat it because, as I've written, it is worth a second viewing.