Growing Up In Coal Town,Gillespie, Macoupin County
©2003 Victor Hicken
Growing Up In Coal Town: Main Street
Permission to use given by Victor Hicken to Gloria Frazier.
Thank you, Victor, for contributing your article about Gillespie Macoupin County IL in the 1920s and 1930s to use on the Macoupin County ILGenWeb page.
In the late 1920s, Gillespie was possibly the busiest town in Macoupin County. One coal mine, the so called Little Dog, operated on the north rim of the city while other pits, Superior Mines 1-4, brought coal to the surface in the villages of Eagerville, Mt. Clare, Sawyerville, and Wilsonville. Many of the miners working for the Superior Company lived in Gillespie. There was, on the east side of town a large railroad repair operation that employed a substantial number of men. Altogether, the economic inputs offered by these facilities gave Gillespie a strong stimulus for growth.
It is a given that Gillespie was a much different place then than it is today. Most importantly, it had a relatively young population for the employment opportunities were themselves relatively new. There was a force of optimism in the town, this being before the Great Depression, and it could be seen in various forms. Schools were bursting at the seams, for most of the younger couples had two, three, or more children. This was especially true among the Catholic families of the town. The local Catholic school flourished in the twenties, and the public school authorities were forced not only to keep the aging Little Brick School functional, but also to add another education building on Maple Street called quite naturally, Maple Street School.
Saturday night was the best business night of the week. Those owning cars drove early to the main street in order to have a parking place. For some, it was considered an ultimate pleasure to sit in cars and watch the passing parade of shoppers young and old, male and female. Those not owning autos walked from their homes to perform what can easily be defined as a weekly ritual. Sunday was a non working day, so Saturday night was a time for meeting friends and for relaxation. Because of the Eighteenth Amendment, which forbad the sale of liquor, there were no bars or saloons legally anywhere, though there was always someone who knew which door to knock. In Latin American countries, on certain nights there is a custom in which young girls walk in one direction around the plaza, while the young boys go in the opposite direction. Very like this, young and middle aged couples walked up and down the main street, meeting friends, window shopping, or buying groceries, etc.
Downtown consisted of a variety of stores ranging from Woolworth's
Five and Ten down to Hogan's Ice Cream Parlor at the other. On one corner
stood Dippold's Drugstore, a meeting spot for many. Since there were no
bars or saloons at this time, those with similar interests had to assemble
in suitable meeting places. Some of the single schoolteachers met at Dippold's
soda bar and on almost every summer night, a group of Scottish miners grouped
on the nearby corner. Scots also attended weekly dances that were organized
in a large upstairs room in one of the business buildings. The flings and
reels here were interspersed with vocal performances by members of the
Clan. I can recall that one attractive lady sang the same melody at almost
every gathering. Entitled "Memories," it was appropriately named,
for as she moved into the chorus, all present joined in. She had performed
it so often that all knew it by heart. The singing of Auld Lang Syne normally
ended the festivities.
One of the popular and busiest grocery stores was that owned by the Bunn family. Shopping in those days was entirely different. Since many had to carry groceries home, purchases were limited. One of the best liked clerks at the Bunn store was Marie Jones and when she was given a list of items, she scurried about behind the counter, either retrieving the tins from the shelves by calipers or by climbing a short ladder. The groceries were placed one by one on the counter top and when the list was completed, Marie carefully totaled the bill and bagged the items. Because it was not easy to shop in this manner, each neighborhood in town had its own little "mom and pop" grocery store where one could buy additional necessaries.
Bunn displayed his fruits and vegetables at the front of the store or in the windows. As indicated above, canned and bottled goods were vended from the south counter while, at the north counter, meats were sold. One would make his purchases at one counter and then move to the other for whatever he needed. When in season, oysters were sold out of an iced container standing before the meat counter. These were ladled into closeable containers. Also before the meat counter there stood a vat containing peanut butter. It was not homogenized and, in the barrel or vat, the peanut oil covered by two or three inches the more solid ground peanuts at the bottom. When purchasing this item, one had to make sure to obtain enough of the oil to make the solidified peanuts more malleable. Lacking the appropriate oil mixture, the butter when applied to bread merely rolled the slice up with it. Later in the 1930s, the Swift Company added vegetable fat (like Crisco) to its peanut butter, thus making it eligible to be called homogenized.
Other grocery shops flourished in the business district. The Eiler grocery and the Bertolino store shop were at the south end of the block from the Bunn store. Bertolino was a genial and kindly businessman who worked hard to please his customers. One did not know what to make of Efler, however. Entering his shop was like crossing the Arctic Circle in winter for he was a dour man, indeed. One saw few customers in the place and it was a source of puzzlement how the business kept going: that is, until one realized that the owner had hit upon an extremely good idea. He catered mainly to older ladies, mostly widows, and women who found it difficult to do the task of shopping. His small panel truck was to be seen delivering groceries all about the town and that, very simply was how the Efler store prospered. One of the Efler sons became an influential executive in the Eastman Kodak Corporation while the other, Robert, was in his final years in medical school when he was involved in a boating accident and died. "Buster" Bertolino, son of the affable butcher, became a lawyer in Missouri following World War II.
The Meno butcher shop came along in the thirties, while on the other
side of main street, there was a "cash and carry" store"
and another grocery as well further to the south. It is strange that no
national grocery chains operated in Gillespie in the late twenties and
thirties: the Piggly Wiggly chain for instance. One of the rumors concerning
this was that Gillespie was such a strong "union" town that no
chain store outfit felt that it could make substantial profits in the area.
Between the Bunn store and Dippold's stood a monument dedicated to the soldiers of World War I. It was a lone "doughboy" standing at attention. He did well there until the increasing automobile traffic made it necessary to remove him to the local park. There was simply not enough room for autos to move between the curb and base of the monument and since automobiles were beginning to rule the nation, the soldier had to go.
Midway between Dippold's and the Woolworth store was a business that later residents could not imagine. It was a restaurant. Not just a hash house, but instead a restaurant with caparisoned waiters who served tables with a neat white towel draped over one arm. The existence of this eating spot was proof that, at the time, Gillespie was attracting salesmen and entrepreneurs who could afford this semblance of class. It was not a dining room for most ordinary people in the town, however. And its existence was a tenuous one, for it disappeared almost instantly with the Wall Street collapse of 1929. If my memory is correct, the restaurant was called Butcher's Cafe.
There were two movie theaters in Gillespie in those days. The Colonial was made of pink stucco. Besides having a lower tier of seats, it also had a balcony. The standard fare at the Colonial consisted of Grade B movies. The other movie house was reserved for such major productions as The Big Parade or Hell's Angels. In time, the Colonial was virtually abandoned as a movie house, becoming used more as a showplace for high school operettas and performances by the local theatrical club. This last organization was extremely active during the twenties and into the thirties, producing drawing room melodramas involving plots of extra marital entanglements with broad humorous implications. The male star in many presentations was Fred Link, who had served in England during the war. While there, he met and eventually brought to this country as his bride a young girl by the name of Elsie Lawrence who lived long enough to reach the second millennium.
Before the advent of "talkies," when Frank Woodhouse played the piano score as backgrounds to silent pictures, the entire atmosphere within the Lyric or the Colonial was different than later on. One had to read the dialogue as it was flashed on the screen and there were always one or two people in the audience who could not refrain from reading it aloud, much to the annoyance of others. Acting in these movies was much more flamboyant and theatrical for gestures had to convey meanings which were not run into the words which appeared on the screen. There was another characteristic that was true of silent pictures and not of talking pictures. The movie house always employed an individual who walked up and down the aisles while bearing a tray of popcorn and candies. He actually hawked these viands aloud since his voice did not disrupt the reading of the film script by the audience. As I recall, one of the Forrler boys from the south end of town seemed to hold this job forever. In fact, the Forrler boys were remarkable in many ways. One, as I remember, delivered newspapers. And again, if I am not wrong, one entered the Army Air Force before World War II and became a pilot.
We should include a short note about Frank Woodhouse, who during the period of the silent movies was one of the most recognizable personalities in town. A smooth dresser with attractive wavy hair, he held a special position in Gillespie society. But times change, and they did for him. When talking pictures were introduced, Frank's place in the sun, or at the theater's piano, was done. He continued on as a piano instructor, but a great deal had gone out of his life. He gradually moved down from the style of dress and class which once marked his appearance and he eventually died as a single and lonely man.
There were other special occasions for movie devotees. When "epics" came to town, particularly those directed by Cecil B. DeMille, the theater owners provided special matinees for school children. Those wishing to attend were allowed out of class and this usually meant most of the students in the eighth grade. On some occasions, this opportunity existed only for the public school children. Frequently the Catholic Legion of Decency placed Biblical epics on its unacceptable list.
Lower priced offerings were on Tuesday night and on Saturday matinees. The latter were mainly for youngsters and for a nickel or a dime, depending on the year, one could pay his way into the theater to watch two Grade B pictures, plus a chapter of what was called a serial, plus presentations of coming attractions. The movies usually consisted of a "horse opera," such as one starring cowboy actor Buck Jones, and the other a murder mystery such as a Charlie Chan movie starring Warner Oland. Each would last around an hour. The horse opera consisted of old Buck on his white horse, either chasing or being chased by the baddies for about forty minutes of the entire movie.
When one reached the age of thirteen, the price of the Saturday matinee went up. Guarding the Chinese wall, at the ticket counter, was one of the Traynor girls who, when I look back, was exceedingly indulgent with most of the youngsters. But when the hair on the face became too noticeable, and the voice began to demonstrate glandular changes, she drew the line. Nevertheless, those afternoons were something else and I well recall that, on many occasions, I left the theater, head throbbing and with eyes half blinded from watchin old Buck and Charlie Chan for more minutes than I should have.
One of the great features of main street was the Illinois Terminal System whose tracks ran straight through main street from the old Lutheran Church down to Russell's store, which marked the spot where Route 4 turned temporarily west before turning again toward Benld. During the twenties, the I.T.S. (called the Toonerville Trolley by many, after a comic strip of the time) was a very active line, running both passenger and freight trains throughout the day and night. In its heyday, the line attached a diner to its evening run and downtown strollers saw passengers inside being served by three or four AfricanAmerican waiters. Many times I wondered if these shoppers appeared as curious a spectacle to those diners as they did to the pedestrians.
The I.T.S. was electrically powered. On the lead car, there was a metal shaft topped by a wheel that drew power from a line strung above. The advantage of this system was that it allowed for no pollution of the air and furthermore it was quiet. The trains offered a relatively quick way by which one could get to a ball game at Sportsman's Park in St.Louis, or to Springfield in the other direction. One could also travel to Champaign or Danville on the same line. As the country slid into the depression, less care and money was given to keeping the I.T.S. in good repair. The roadbed became more and more uneven and by the time of World War II, to travel on the line for any distance was akin to riding the whip at the local carnival.
In the early thirties, Gillespie was hit not only by the Great Depression but also by a longrunning mine union squabble. It was a double catastrophe and slowly but surely the nature of the town changed. One day, while we played ball on the Big Brick School ground, a boy riding a bicycle stopped to watch for a moment and then rode on. His name was Kiel. Shortly thereafter, the Widow Kiel left her door to door spice and flavorings business and took her family to California. I heard of this young man later after World War II, when he became the darling of British audiences as the star of the London production of Oklahoma. Thereafter he moved back to California, changed his name to Howard Keel, and became a leading man in a number of Hollywood musicals. Similarly to the Kiel flight, whole families began to leave Gillespie in order to seek better employment in California. Other talented young boys and girls, as well, left the town simply because there were no opportunities left to induce them to stay.
The New Deal, Roosevelt's New Deal, brought the gradual end to the Eighteenth Amendment and another change occurred. Saloons or bars opened up on the main street and, at night, one could see the faint and flickering cheap neon lights which told the public the brands of beer offered inside. All over the Midwest, little breweries went back into operation, brewing beers whose labels have long since disappeared. Some were Alpen Brau, Hyde Park, Stag, Highland, Griesedieck, and Pabst beers. Champagne Velvet, an odd name for a beer, held its own for a while, only to disappear like all the rest before the more powerful firms like Anheuser Busch or Miller Beer.
By the mid thirties, business did not regain the vitality of the pre depression years. On Saturday night in the summer, stores remained open a little while longer, but far fewer cars were parked downtown than in the previous decade.. Some of these were to be found in front of the bars or the two bowling alleys. On Saturday night in winter however, downtown offered a late night scene that was stark, cold, and virtually lifeless. It was, as the words of a later war song went, almost the "loneliest night of the week."
On a warm and sultry night in the late thirties, along with two or
three of my friends, we would walk up to main street merely to pass the
time. Sitting on the step of a defunct bank building, one that had gone
belly up in the depression, we watched the light traffic as it passed.
The late night arrival of the I.T.S. was heralded by a blast from its horn
as it passed the Lutheran Church. There was not a whole lot going on Gillespie
in those days. It was not yet time for the last picture show: not just
yet. But the wisest among us sensed that change was in the air. We had
a notion of the violence Hitler was to wreak upon the world, and how that
violence might make its way into our lives. If it were to happen, our lives
would be altered forever. Most of us would be gone from the town we had
grown up in, never to return.
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