Since this column is about memories it stands to reason that most of the memories I write about are mine. Often, those memories go deeper than I report because, frankly, it takes work to describe and explain what may be of interest to the reader. After all, the reason we drag out those old cobwebby thoughts is to be a catalyst to help others identify with the circumstances. I have written on today’s subject at least a couple of times so it may have a few redundancies, but my purpose is to surrender a detail or two not shared in earlier times.
It was just a short time after graduation from good old LHS when I fully woke up to the fact that as an adult I would need to get a job. Yes, past generations of my family typically shipped off to college, but my grade point average, and more importantly, my lack of funding, prohibiting that possibility. Besides, college seemed a bit scary to me, given that many of my acquaintances whose families sacrificed for their ‘baby’s’ future only to have them flunk out. For whatever its worth, many of those later regrouped and successfully completed undergraduate requirements, some going even further with graduate work.
I dragged myself out of bed, put on some clean clothes and hit the trail in hopes of finding work. My mother suggested I take a certain amount of time and then if no job appeared, offered that I could join her in Michigan and find work in the then lucrative automobile industry. Because I have never envisioned myself doing the repetitive tasks of an assembly line, I shuttered at the thought. Still, I had to agree that my ongoing hunt for work needed a deadline, so one was set.
Alas, I missed the allotted deadline and followed through by buying a train ticket to Detroit. My heart really wasn’t in this idea, so I looked to see if alternatives existed. It was only then while swaying and listening to the klickety-klack of the rails that another idea took center stage. I could join up in the military! I had spent a good part of my life already either playing ‘war’ or watching movies on the subject. I already knew much of military life and had no doubt I could do well and rise in the ranks of whichever branch I chose. Picking one was to be my next dilemma. It was back many years prior when I had seen a movie, likely with John Wayne, where he played the part of a leatherneck Marine. I told Billy Elkins at the time that I wanted to be a Marine. His response to me was better thought out. He told me that soldiers and marines fought for weeks on end in the rugged battlefields of the world. They slept in mud and ate out of tin cans, regardless of the temperature or proximity of in-coming bombardment. Billy told me he’s rather die with a warm bed and full stomach, so he was going to choose the Air Force. He might get shot down, but his last day would be comfortable. Hmmm. This made sense.
Unknown to me, my old telephone number was ringing even while I was crossing the Ohio River on that train carriage heading for the cold north. I think it was Wayne Wooten calling to offer me a job as a stock boy in the new IGA grocery on Madison. I was told about the job after arriving in Detroit and visiting the Air Force recruiter. That leaves us with a lot of ‘what if’s,’ doesn’t it? Nevertheless, it was not to be and life began a new process that has finally brought me to a career of which I hadn’t heard. Many ‘waters’ have gone over the dam, but I have to say I’ve been blessed.
Considering I might have been a grocer in Louisa, I cannot help but wonder about living the life that I had seen others pursue during my formative years. I was a tiny tyke indeed when my mother first took me by the hand and walked me to a grocery store. As a little child it seemed to be a fascinating world of wooden floors, stacks of boxes and counters. I was taken by the various smells of freshly ground coffee beans and other aromatic products that arose from other corners of the store. There were plenty of bags of bread, sugar, flour, baking soda, tins of lard and other shortenings. I was attracted to flashy advertisements on boxes of oatmeal and cereals. There were bushel baskets of all kinds of vegetables in infinite varieties. Crowds of people were typically lined up on one side of tall wooden counters awaiting their turn to pass a list of needs to one of the grocers that was wearing a long bibbed apron. In those days the clerk or owner personally pulled the order for their customers and added up the costs by writing cyphers on the brown paper bags (pokes). For meat products there was a large white waxed roll of paper to wrap, tape and add to the account and the large brown bag. I remember scales for weighing loose produce, and another counter that had a glass to show off (and protect) assortments of cookies and candy. It was those chocolates, mints, and hard candies that got my attention. I also remember the wax candy, some looking to be a set of lips. Another kind looked like a little bottle of pop. Those had a sweet, sticky syrup that would squirt into, or onto, our mouths when we bit into them.
As I grew up on Clay Street we used Adams grocery, which I believe was on the corner of Clay Street and Madison, just next to where our preacher stayed. When that store was torn down, or maybe even before, we went further down Madison and across the tracks from the depot, to Bradley’s and Moor’s two groceries. We mostly used Bradley’s for some unknown reason. I knew all the workers including the owners, but I especially enjoyed an occasional pat on the head from Glen or Ed Bradley. I’ve written about Ann’s special Christmas candy before which was sold around Christmas. Making that is an on and off tradition in my family thanks to Betty Hager Cooke, who helped make that original canned wonder. (Some year’s my results are better than others.) I remember when a second Bradley’s was opened on Main Cross by Glen. That store was more than twice the distance from home so we rarely went in there, but I think it did well.
I have written an article before on Andy York’s little store on Sycamore and Lock Avenue. I was older and usually would be out on a bike ride around town when I visited him. My family visited his wife and parents fairly often. I found Andy to have a great sense of humor and was loads of silly fun. He allowed me to buy boxes of baseball cards at wholesale, but it wasn’t often since I rarely had enough money. I also remember fixing sandwiches from a cut of baloney, usually five cents worth. In those days I was very skinny, in part from having little to eat at home. That nickel’s worth may have helped me make it through some of those days.
My gang of friends and I enjoyed stopping in Curtis Young’s grocery from time to time to have a pop and nickel bag of peanuts. Sometimes, when I had money I’d get a Moon pie. We would grab our drinks and go to his back porch and jump on his swing telling jokes or making plans to organize some ‘choose-up’ game of baseball. Our biggest problem was that we were mostly kept to empty lots for our games as real ballfields weren’t close by. There was one in High Bottom, several miles out of town, or over across the river in Fort Gay.
There was another store in Little Italy and several sprinkled out toward High Bottom. There were a couple in Fort Gay, but I only visited the ones near the train station. I loved Verner’s Ginger ale and it was the only place that sold that product. That drink is very popular in Michigan and is well-known in Huntington, too. No one carried it in Louisa. It is likely that after all these years I’ve left off your favorite grocer. If so, jog my memory with a note. That will tell me the column is read and give me some encouragement to keep plugging away. It might raise up more memories out of the shadows of time.
Sorry about all this rambling, but there has been real changes in the grocery business. We used to be able to call in an order and somebody would bring it to us. In some cases they even put them in our kitchens and they put the fresh stuff into the ice box or refrigerator. As I pointed out earlier, when we went in with a grocery list the grocer would pull them for you, and then put them on your account. I think most people just told the grocer what they wanted one item at a time. Smart grocers would have them tell them and would make up the list. This helped them pull items in a logical order. These stores had to carry a great deal of debt, because many people charged their purchase, paying later after ‘pay day.’
As I remember, the IGA was the first store that had ‘modern’ checkouts and allowed (required) customers to fill their own push-baskets. We had to pay cash at this store. Rather than adding up the cost, the cash registers did the adding once everything was keyed in. It would be years later when bar-coding would appear and the weekly inventory the old grocers had become obsolete. This new system might have become my vocation if I been home to answer that fateful call.
The owners of the newer stores are now from outside our locality. Much of the profits are sent out of town and takes away part of the economy. The grocer of old cared about their fellow townspeople and demonstrated that by giving excellent service and carrying their debt. They knew we had to eat. They had a heart and sometimes helped people out at personal risk. They were neighbors and friends, after all. That’s not smart business by today’s standards, but it helped our people and the community.
Today, we worry about the use of plastic bags and want to move back to paper. Pop bottles were turned in for money and recycled. We got all kinds of incentives from prizes inside the boxes to pages of Green Stamps. Something else we did back then that is creeping back in its own fashion, is delivery. We can add an app now to our smart phone and place those grocery orders so they would be ready for pickup, or in some cases be delivered.
Providers promote these things as a ‘new idea,’ but I think of some of these men of yesteryear would argue these aren’t new ideas at all. I have to tip my hat to those pioneering men and women who looked after us and made a difference. They were our resource for living a good, comfortable life. They fed us and sometimes employed us. UPS and Federal Express wasn’t in that business back then, but thank goodness, some mighty fine people were. Notwithstanding the positives of old we have to admit that life is easier today in some ways, even if less personable. Maybe progress has come at a cost, but all of our industries have changed, as has our lives. There’s a new movement in America to find ways to live and work in neighbor communities, some offering housing above the storefronts. That’s not new in many parts of the world, but in more urban places it is a better way of living. I occasionally think I’d like the old ways to come back, but then again, maybe not. The memories are sweet, but they are just memories. firstname.lastname@example.org