Women of the Westside: Part three – Jean Martin Brooks of Brockport

By on March 25, 2019
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A series celebrating Women’s History Month by shining the light on local women of wisdom with long lineages of life in towns on the westside

“We as women have the complete freedom to pick and choose what we want to do with our life,” said Jean Martin Brooks of Brockport.

Jean was born in 1927, one of three children born to Herbert and Mildred (Staub) Wahl of Rochester. Her mother’s family owned Staub Cleaners and her father went on to start Cadet Cleaners while Jean was growing up. Jean attended St. Augustine Elementary School and went on to Nazareth Girls Academy for high school.

Due to economic uncertainty during the Great Depression, Jean recalls losing her family home and moving in with her grandparents for part of her childhood. Despite the Depression and the looming war, her childhood was a very happy time with fond memories and very little worry. She recalls the freedom in playing outdoors on the Rochester city streets with neighborhood kids and feeling safe.

Jean’s father was an “Air Raid Warden.” He would walk the city streets at night to make sure there were no lights emanating from houses. Air Raid Precautions (ARP) were organized by the government and delivered by local authorities to protect civilians from the potential danger of air raids. In 1937 the government recruited 200,000 volunteers as Air Raid Precaution Wardens to patrol the streets during the “blackout” to ensure no light was visible. Despite the looming national air raid concerns Jean said, “I felt safe and did not have concerns about my safety.”

Jean’s mother, Mildred, was a stay-at-home mom, and was very involved with volunteer work in the community while her father, Herbert, was a hard worker with an entrepreneurial spirit. Herbert instilled those values in his daughter, teaching her at a young age to “not sit around.” She got her driver’s license at 16 and worked for the family business making deliveries.

At the age of 10, Jean’s mother encouraged her to take piano and voice lessons at Eastman Prepratory School of Music. The lessons and hard work paid off because Jean received a scholarship for music and voice from Syracuse University.

Jean returned to Rochester after graduating from Syracuse University, and met her husband, Jerry Martin, at an SU alumni event. Jerry was managing the Cadillac Hotel, which, at the time, was a well-known hotel for businessmen.

Once Jean and Jerry married, Jean’s father hired Jerry to work for him at the family cleaning business. Eventually that led to Jerry managing his father-in-law’s newest business, the Brockport Vinegar Works vinegar distillery.

Jean and Jerry were just starting their own family and moved to Brockport in 1954 so Jerry could be closer to the Vinegar Works. They purchased a beautiful home built in the 1800s on the corner of Centennial Avenue and Lake Road (now the Victorian Bed and Breakfast).

Jerry left the Vinegar Works a short time later after a falling out with Jean’s father, and went on to work at General Electric. Jean taught music lessons from their home. With encouragement from Rev. Edward Lintz, Jean began playing the organ at Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church. All these decades later she continues to play at the church.

The Martin family expanded from two to nine children who all grew up as part of the Brockport community. “The Brockport community was wonderful,” she said. The people were very friendly and welcoming. The children began their education at Nativity Catholic School and walked to school every day. They all went on to graduate from Brockport High School. Despite the growing family, Jean and Jerry were involved with local clubs and became involved with local political groups.

The Martins bought the Brockport Tastee Freez franchise on Route 31 in 1964 and turned it into Martin’s Drive In. Jerry would operate the hot dog, hamburger and ice cream stand during the day and Jean would fill in later in the day. The older children helped out working at the business as well.

Jerry was involved in a fatal automobile accident in 1971. The family was left without a husband and father. During such a time of severe hardship, Jean was able to keep the business going with the help of her mother and children. The discovery of a new type of ice cream machine increased profitability and the business thrived until she decided to close in 1978.

Jean continued teaching piano lessons and became more involved with local politics, serving on the Brockport Village Planning Board and the Sweden Town Council. It was during this time that she met and married Robert Brooks, a local businessman, who has since passed. In 1983 she was elected Sweden Town Supervisor. During her tenure she helped in the development of the Sweden Senior Center.

Many of the Martin children have moved out of the area with careers and families of their own. Her son, Christopher, is currently serving as a Brockport Village Court Justice.

Jean remains active in the Brockport community. She enjoys traveling, and is involved with the Sweden Senior Association. She continues to play the organ for Nativity Church and lives very close to her original Brockport family home. “Brockport is home,” Jean said.

The Martin family.

The Martin family.

Jean enjoys traveling, even venturing as far as South Africa with a group of friends.

Jean enjoys traveling, even venturing as far as South Africa with a group of friends.

Jean helped her son Christopher Martin to put on his black justice robe for the first time following his swearing-in as Brockport Village Court Justice in 2017. File photo by Kristina Gabalski

Jean helped her son Christopher Martin to put on his black justice robe for the first time following his swearing-in as Brockport Village Court Justice in 2017. File photo by Kristina Gabalski

Jean Martin Brooks at the Nativity BVM church organ.

Jean Martin Brooks at the Nativity BVM church organ.