Since this column is about memories, it stands to reason that most of what I write about are from my experiences. Often, my memories are really 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. In turn they will have warm thoughts of another time. I have written on today’s subject at least a couple of times over the last ten years or so. There may have been a few redundancies or overlaps, but my purpose is clear enough to cause me to make yet another effort. Perhaps the reader will find meaning and enjoy our little trip ‘homeward.’
It was just a short time after my graduation from good old Louisa High School when I fully woke up to the fact that I was by definition an adult. As such I needed to get a job. Past generations of my family typically shipped off to college about this time in life, but my grade point average, and more importantly, my lack of funding, prohibited that possibility. Oh, I’d get there sooner or later, but it would be a while and would take another while between all the distractions of life. College seemed a bit scary to me, given that many of my acquaintances whose families sacrificed for their sweet ‘baby’s’ future only to have them flunk out. For whatever its worth, many of those later regrouped and successfully completed their undergraduate requirements. Some went even further with graduate work, law school, etc.
The next day I dragged myself out of bed, put on some clean clothes and hit the trail in hope of finding gainful employment. My mother suggested I slow down and take a certain amount of time to find that job. Then, should no job appear, she said that I could join her in Michigan 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 of screwing in headlights for hours on end. Still, I had to agree that my ongoing hunt for work needed a deadline, so one was set. I understood it to be firm.
Alas, I missed the allotted deadline so I was obligated to follow through by buying a train ticket to Detroit. My heart really wasn’t in this idea, so I continued to look to see if alternatives existed. It was only then while swaying and listening to the clickety-clack of the rails underneath my lanky frame that another idea took center stage. It wasn’t so much a surprise since I pretty much already knew that it was an option, but it wasn’t my hope that a proverbial ship would come in and I’d find myself rich. Since it was before the days of lotteries there would be no ship. The idea looked better than an assembly line, so I determined that if push came to shove, I could join the military!
It kind of made sense given that I had spent a good part of my life already either playing ‘war’ or watching movies on the subject. I already knew a good bit about 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’d rather die with a warm bed and full stomach, so he was going to choose the Air Force. He might get shot down, but he would be comfortable on his last day. Hmmm. This made sense, except for the idea of dying, of course.
Unknown to me, my old telephone number was ringing even while I was crossing the Ohio River on that train heading for the cold, cold north. I think it was Wayne Wooten calling to offer me a job as a stock boy in his new market 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. Life began a new process that has finally brought me to a career of which I hadn’t even heard. I moved upward and took a number of promotions by the blessing of the Almighty. Indeed, many ‘waters’ have gone over the dam, but I have to say I’ve been truly blessed.
Considering I might have been a grocer in Louisa, I cannot help but wonder about living the life that I saw others pursue during my formative years. I was a tiny tyke 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 wooden counters. I was taken by the various smells of freshly ground coffee beans and other aromatic products that arose from the corners of the store. There were bags of bread, sugar, flour, baking soda, tins of lard and other shortenings. I was especially attracted to flashy advertisements on boxes of oatmeal and cereals. I just knew what was inside was more exciting that I could imagine! 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 their grocery list to one of the grocers that was wearing a long white apron. In those days the clerk or owner personally pulled the order for their customers and then added up the costs by writing cyphers on the flat brown paper bags (pokes). Only then would the bags be filled.
For meat products there was a large waxed roll of white butcher’s paper to wrap and tape the meat and add it to the other groceries. I remember they had big scales for weighing loose produce. They often had a 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 like a set of lips. Another looked like a little wax bottle of pop. Those had a sweet, sticky syrup that squirted into our mouths when we bit into them. I would sometimes get my clothing and chin sticky with the syrup.
Growing up on Clay Street, I think 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 walked further down Madison and across the tracks from the depot, to Bradley’s or Moore’s 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 candied wonder that is pulled like taffy, but cures to a soft and creamy delight. (Some year’s my results are better than others.) I remember when a second Bradley’s was opened on Main Cross by Glen Bradley. 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 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 sliced from a roll of bologna, 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 grabbed our drinks and went out on his back porch and jumped on his swing telling jokes, or maybe making plans to organize some ‘choose-up’ game of baseball. Our biggest problem was that we were mostly restricted to empty lots for our games because real ballfields weren’t close by. There was one in High Bottom at the fairgrounds near where the Lawrence County School was built. Another ballfield was in Fort Gay. I played many games on that field, including the same week that I left town.
There was another grocery store in Little Italy and several sprinkled out on the Mayo Trail toward High Bottom. There were a couple in Fort Gay, but I only visited the ones near the train station. I loved Vernors Ginger ale and it was the only place around that sold that product. Verner’s is very popular in Michigan and is well-known in Huntington, too. No one carried it in Louisa.
There have been major changes in the grocery business especially when dealing with inventory management, marketing, product variety, and now a move to go back to delivering after an electronic order from the customer’s smart phone. During the early days we used to be able to call in an order and somebody brought it to us. I know that Bernard Nelson delivered for Bradley’s early in his career. In some cases the delivery person even put our groceries in our kitchens. They put the fresh stuff into the ice box or refrigerator. Today, with various apps for your smart phone, stores are now pulling orders and sometimes delivering them. I doubt today’s delivery person will put them away. Still, look at how far we’ve advanced.
As I pointed out earlier, when you went into the store with a grocery list the grocer pulled 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 had them tell them and made 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 on ‘pay day.’
As I remember, the Louisa Grocery was the first store that had ‘modern’ checkouts that allowed (required) customers to fill their own push-baskets. This was actually less expensive since an owner or clerk was not tied up with a single customer. Also, as the customer roamed the aisles they would be reminded of other things not on their grocery list, and may even buy on impulse. That translates into lower payroll and higher sales. Called ‘self-serve’ in the day, they were soon called ‘Supermarkets.’ Unlike the corner grocery, we had to pay cash. It was decades before charge cards were common. Rather than adding up the cost on the side of a paper bag, the cash registers did the adding once everything was keyed in. It was years later when bar-coding appeared and the weekly inventory the old grocers had to take became obsolete. This new system might have become my vocation if I had 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 local economy. The grocers 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.
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 the business back then, but thank goodness, some mighty fine people were. Notwithstanding, 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. The little corner groceries have all but disappeared. People are used to the large box groceries with all the choices in products. Those tiny little stores, even if they were in walking distance, would have a hard time making it. We remember them fondly, as well as the people who ran them. These merchants were our friends and seemed like family.