This Month’s Featured Article

Terni’s: Defining a Century in Small Town America

By Published On: June 27th, 2019

How do you define history? When we recall our time as students slumped over our desks in History class half staring, half lazily daydreaming, at the bulky hardcover textbook before us, is it those scholarly historical accounts? Names? Dates? Many of us are all too familiar with how history reads, but how does it feel?

For the residents of Millerton, NY, many of whom have spent their entire lives with the image of a modest, nineteenth century, three story saloon-style sporting goods store permanently etched into their mosaic of memories, history feels like the contours in the carved wood of a Native American figure who guards the entrance to the wonders of penny candy and milkshakes.

History is in the smoothness of a marble countertop, the taste of a vanilla fizz on a hot summer’s day, and the reliable nature of “Gramma Terni” doling out treats to the children of neighbors and friends.

Reliability is the architect of our collective memory, and for a full century Terni’s has stood on the corner of Millerton’s history, opening its doors every day to the generations that pass by. Years of perseverance have come to define the character of the store for locals as well as members of the Terni family who grew up inside its familiar walls, “It was a magical place to visit,” recalls Susan Terni Taff, daughter of Stephen Terni and granddaughter of Paul Terni, the original owner and founder of Terni’s General Store. Imagining as a child what it must have felt like to see the curved staircase, the coin embedded steps, or the colorful train sets, it becomes hard to argue with her assessment.

After a visit to Terni’s, one instantly becomes aware that one has discovered a hidden museum on the corner of a rural Main Street that sits tucked within the landscape of the Hudson Valley. The building represents a time capsule for the idea of a nineteenth-century general store and the character of the American homestead. It’s a story born from the sweat and determination of an American immigrant family that has become all too familiar in the history of the nation as well as today.

In July, Terni’s may be turning one hundred years old, but for the people who have experienced its history, it feels timeless.

An immigrant’s journey

In July of 1919, a stranger came to town and presented then esteemed judge Dan Gleason with an offer to buy the recently foreclosed building on the corner of Main Street that was formerly owned by George W. Brown. He was man in his mid 40s, of medium height, light complexion, and a lame left leg. Upon first glance, a fairly nondescript newcomer to the area looking to establish roots in a building that had previously been a town mainstay.

What the members of Millerton and North East didn’t know, but would soon come to find out, was that Paul, better known to his family as Leopoldo Terni, had already experienced a lifetime of hard work and struggle that had forged an unshakable ambition. Born on October 3, 1872 in Piacenza, Italy, Paul was orphaned as a young child and eventually adopted by the family of a local postman named Pelligrini from the town of Tornolo, Italy. Susan Terni Taff describes two of the family myths that have surrounded Paul’s abandonment as a child, “The first and more fanciful is that my grandfather was the illegitimate son of a Prussian soldier and comes from some kind of nobility over there. The other, and probably more likely, is that he was left on the doorsteps of a church.”

The name Terni does indeed possess some aspects of nobility in its history in Italy, as it bears the title of noble of Lombardy, in antiquity as well the name Terni denoted the title of Patrician.

Despite his mysteriously tragic introduction to the world, Paul’s adopted family raised him with the kind of love that instilled a sense of endearing optimism that fueled his passages twice across the Atlantic and up the Hudson River.

In May of 1893, at the age of twenty-one, Paul emigrated to the United States for the first time where he began his journey of hard work that involved many stops along the Northeastern seaboard. Paul’s map of travel included both New York and New Jersey and eventually even further south where, in 1902, his name shows up in the city directory in Altoona, Pennsylvania.

Susan recounts another legend of her grandfather’s travels as told by her father Stephen Terni, “One of the stories my father told of (Paul) was that he cooked for a chain gang ‘down south’ somewhere… There was a lot of activity in that area during the time due to railroad construction.” Paul’s love for food and his proficiency in ice cream-making soon became part of his dream of opening a business in the US, and his legacy of movement captures the spirit of the Terni name; everything is passed down through the family, as tight knit as the community where the persistent store stands today.

Eventually, in February of 1906, Paul was granted US citizenship when he lived in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Shortly after, Paul traveled back to Italy in search of his bride where, rumor has it, he traveled around the Italian countryside on the back of a wagon. He was thirty four and soon his pension for persistence in the pursuit of his dream was joined by the love of a strong woman whose relationship with the town of Millerton is remembered with great fondness even today. Assunta Filiberti, then twenty-one, married Paul Terni on March 3, 1907 in Terni’s hometown of Tornolo, less than a month later, the pair returned to the United States to complete their pursuit of the American dream.

Life for the new immigrant living in New York City at the turn of the century was not easy, but Paul and Assunta’s ambitions stretched beyond the crowded apartment buildings and tenements of the Lower East Side and up the Hudson. In 1908, the first Paul Terni Confectionery was opened in Monroe, NY, and for the next six years, Paul’s meticulous passion for hand packed ice cream made him a small success and led to two more stores in Elizabeth and eventually White Plains. By 1919 the man who stood before Judge Gleason with an offer to buy the former G.W. Brown’s carried with him the spirit of American determination and the start of a family legacy.

Terni’s in the twentieth century

What began as a small family offering of fresh fruits and vegetables, candy and ice cream, soon became more than a quick stop general store, but a gathering place for every member of the community. In 1926, the annex, which was once a saloon and had since been occupied by Toni Bassile’s shoe shop was converted into a cigar store after Toni moved his shop to South Center Street.

Local attorney and president of the North East Historical Society Ed Downey recalls his childhood experience at Terni’s, “As a child, I recall going there with my father, Gus Downey, who would share the latest ‘news’ of Millerton with Art Terni and then head to the back of the store where his New York Herald Tribune was saved for him with his name written on it.”

In the Spring of 1927, Paul Terni passed away suddenly at the age of fifty-four due to a severe sinus infection. Just eight years after realizing his dream, the man who started it all was gone. His wife Assunta, affectionately known as “Gramma” Terni to locals throughout her years in Millerton pushed forward with the help of her two grown sons, Art and Stephen.

In 1934, Art and his wife Henrietta opened the titular sporting goods store which, according to information given by North East Historical Society, in the summer of 1974 carried “the best line of sporting goods in the county.” It was during this time that Art’s son Phil, the current beloved owner of Terni’s, would gain his first experience in what it takes to run such an important landmark, and what it means to be the center of a small town.

As a young boy, it was Phil’s responsibility to grab the evening papers from New York City off the trains that ran nearby daily and bring them around the back of the store to the cigar smoke-filled, impromptu parlor where veterans of the Second World War discussed the latest musings of the day. According to an article published in the Lakeville Journal in November 2018, the embattled war heroes, “never spoke of the conflict, never relived the battles. Instead, they would speak about the planes that had become the mainstay of many far-flung operations.”

Phil, who began working for his father and learning the economics of making change at the age of nine recalls the early morning pit stops from farmers and nearby auto mechanics in search of the day’s paper. “When I was a kid this was primarily an agricultural area, and one of my fondest memories was seeing the farmers come in early in the morning looking for their tobacco and cigarettes and jokingly shouting, ‘Here ya go Terni! I gotta get to work!’” says Phil with a wry smile.

It’s these simple moments of community interaction that built Phil’s passion for commitment to consistency, a humble, workman type of attitude that made him such a presence in Millerton for years after he took over his family’s business. An attitude that has also been passed down to his son Lyman Terni, who, for seven days a week over the course of three decades, watched his father tend the store each day, “That building has been his life, despite the massive shift in Millerton, my father has remained the keeper of things and has seen the people of the world come through those doors.”

Through the years Assunta, her son Art, his wife Henrietta, and their son Phil saw Terni’s become something of a regal hotspot for the region, attracting celebrities like Babe Ruth and Artie Shaw. Esther Heffernan, Susan Terni Taff’s sister, recalls the awe she felt as a child when visiting the store and observing her elder relatives, “The silver plated dishes and spoons, the train sets, and those stairs … I loved those stairs, and Henrietta was just so glamorous.” As a full-time teacher to students in the area, Henrietta conveyed a sense of style and finesse to every lucky visitor of the country store.

Over the next half century Millerton fell in and out of economic hardship before its recent arrival into the upstate boho, trendy, organic food, and artist’s getaway destination, all the while Terni’s has stood firm with a welcoming, yet enduring resistance to modern trends and retail technology. Dick Hermans of Oblong Books & Music in Millerton, a man whose grandparents lived on Main Street and who has worked in town for over forty-five years had this to say about the evolution of the town surrounding Terni’s: “In the 1950’s there was a grocery store on Main Street and not much out past the Baptist Church on Rte 44. We have always had a strong commercial center on Main Street and while that continues, the closing of Saperstein’s clothing store means Millerton doesn’t offer quite the variety it did years ago. It is still, however, what people call a ‘walkable’ village whether that’s in the heart of downtown, represented by Terni’s, or on our residential streets.” Despite the evolution of the town itself, Dick knows what makes Terni’s so enduring, he continues, “Terni’s is an iconic store because it has such a strong family history, an appearance that is timeless, and an ambiance that Phil, his parents, and grandparents created by simply being themselves.”

A lasting legacy

Being themselves comes naturally for Phil and his wife Ellen who have nestled themselves in the lap of small town life. Carrying on the open door tradition of offering honest goods in an atmosphere that feels more like your living room or kitchen than business, and interacting with people that are more neighbors than customers is the legacy that the Terni name has been passed down for three generations.

Phil’s son Lyman says of Terni’s lasting impression: “The store leaves its mark on everyone in its own way.” Despite their being only a small number of Terni’s in the town itself, the memories of Paul (Leopoldo), Assunta, Art, Stephen, Stephanie, Paul, and Henrietta live on in the edifice of the old building. Even for newer generations, Terni’s maintains a personal connection to memory that has become less common in the twenty-first century. Recently Ed Downey asked his son about what he remembers from his childhood spent at Terni’s, he responded, “Basically, I recall a sense of communal respect and admiration for the services and space Phil Terni has provided the community for decades; if even through no direct intention of his own. … Spider-Man comics, Pendleton’s, (candy) dots, shotguns with beautifully carved stocks of nature scenes, and many larger people talking with him about the town’s issues or just their own. It’s as if he was a town therapist as well. I recall seeing him walk to work with that hat that made him look like he was mustering for the Civil War.”

Similarly local photographer and lifelong Millerton resident Olivia Valentine recalls her errands to the general store as a young girl that, honestly, never felt like errands, “My sister, who is ten years older than me, would send me down to buy her Vogue magazine. I always jumped at the chance because she would give me extra money for candy. To walk down with change in my pocket, stand at the glass candy display case and tell Phil exactly what I wanted and watching the little brown bag fill up with sweet treats was the best. What I would give to sit at the counter and drink one more milkshake!”

Terni’s represents the kind of communal experience that surpasses the certainty of time, a familial bond that has connected a small town for generations. Phil Terni still sees the neighborly spirit of yesteryear in present day Millerton, “I have been lucky enough to form relationships that have endured and I still see some of the same familiar faces today, there’s always someone around to talk to and that’s important.”

For Susan Terni Taff, the store is more than the memory of its familiar facade. “It’s family, it’s who I am, my roots … my heritage.”
In July, Terni’s will turn one hundred years old and history will mark the occasion, recording the time and place. It is true that history is an uncompassionate timekeeper, its unbiased knowledge denotes its importance to society. But once forgotten is that history is people, tastes, experiences, feelings. “I open the door each morning and say ‘let’s see what happens,’” Phil says of opening his storefront each morning and looking out over the town that has come to define his family’s legacy.

Terni’s has watched an American century pass by its front doors and stands firm in 2019 while the waters of time break against its sturdy foundation. Phil says with an endearing resoluteness, “We are here today.” That’s why, in Millerton, NY, on the corner of Main Street, for the last century, history has felt like home.

Terni’s and Millerton welcome you to come and celebrate a century of Terni’s, at any time really, but particularly during the week of July 19 for the official one hundredth birthday.