Today, as one drives around Central Park in Elmwood, Illinois, on a Saturday, it’s hard to believe how busy it was more than fifty years ago. Sales receipts were usually higher on Saturday than on the previous five days combined. No stores were open on Sunday, except for Steer’s pharmacy where customers could pick up a Sunday Chicago Tribune until noon.
People were attracted to Elmwood because it had more stores than it has today and more selection than Yates City, Brimfield, Williamsfield, or Oak Hill. Elmwood was the hub. In 1956, for example, the city had five grocery stores, three hardware stores, two pharmacies, two doctors, three car dealers, two barber shops, a furniture store, a dentist, a feed store, a lumber yard, five filling stations, and a jewelry store – all in a town of 2,000. To meet the demand, some stores (like the Penny Super Market) opened their doors as early as 7 am and didn’t close until 10 pm or until the last customer was served.
Besides more goods and services, recreational activities brought people to town. The Palace Theatre offered a double feature (always a Western) on Saturday, the first show beginning at 7 and the second at 9:30 pm. The night owls were attracted to Luthy’s Recreation for bowling, a game of pool, pinball or a milk shake or hamburger and fries, served by Mary Reed.
Many people scheduled appointments on Saturday afternoons or evenings with their barber or physician. Although women had their hair appointments during the week any time between 8 am and early evening, men went to male barbers like Peally Deford or Tom Tyhurst. Beauticians did not cut men’s hair. Even though barbers were available throughout the week from 8 to 5 or 6, many men chose to have their hair cut or beard shaved on Saturday. No appointment was needed. Cuts ran 50 cents for children and $1 for adults. Until a barber chair opened up, customers hung around the shop reading the newspaper or smoking a cigarette or talking to their neighbors. Remember, talking and socializing were just as important as securing a haircut. Nobody was in a hurry.
Shopping wasn’t the only attraction to Elmwood, during the summer, folks came to town to hear the music of the municipal band. By 5 pm no spaces were left around the square where the cars were parked diagonally so the audience could see and hear the concert without leaving their 1948 Studebakers or 1950 Plymouths.
The musicians – twenty or thirty strong – were primarily males, a couple of housewives, and high school kids like Jean Ann Deford who, on request, sang solos like “I’m Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover.” Woody Worley, the Phillips 66 dealer, was the conductor. The principals were old standbys like “Copper” Kjellenberg, bald as a cue ball, who played the trumpet, and Gladys Proctor, the high school music teacher, who alternated between playing the piano and the bass drum.
Thirsty on warm evenings, some members of the audience would drift around the square to their favorite restaurant or drugstore. “Let’s get something at Currier’s,” said the fifth grader, Carla Haines, to her friend, Ada Jones, who stood patiently in front of the white marble soda fountain waiting for Neil Currier, the pharmacist, taking long strides to his place behind the counter. He could have passed for a visiting concert pianist, walking not to the soda fountain, but to his grand piano.
Carla, with her black hair down to her shoulders, ordered a root beer made from a secret homemade recipe. The drink came in freezing copper mugs; so cold a napkin was necessary to keep her hands from freezing. Her friend Ada ordered a Green River, a lime colored soft drink, served in Coca-Cola fluted glasses filled to the brim with slivers of chipped ice, always refreshing, but outstanding especially on a hot Saturday night in July or August.
For at least one hundred years, Saturdays in small country towns in the Middle West were social events bringing together old and young, rich and poor, for shopping, popcorn, root beer and the chance to argue about the strengths of the St. Louis Cardinals or the Chicago Cubs. These Saturday nights provided an opportunity for a first kiss behind the bandstand and for people to get to know each other and learn more than just their names. As a result, the merchants knew their customers, the customers developed a loyalty to the merchants, all the while creating closely knit communities where citizens felt that everyone mattered.
The Elmwood Municipal Band still plays in Central Park, but only to handfuls of senior citizens, not to crowds of both young and old. In the late 50s and early 60s, with the building of Interstate 74 and giant shopping malls, small-town residents were quickly attracted to the glamour of bigger cities for their weekend shopping and entertainment. As a result, Elmwood merchants gradually reduced their hours on Saturdays from 8 to 2 or 3; without the stores to attract the audience, the band began playing on Sunday nights, trying but failing to recapture the excitement of the past. The bond between the merchant and the customer began to disappear. Five grocery stores became one, three hardware stores shrank into Sarah’s Tru-Value, Luthy’s Recreation became a warehouse for H. & H. Industries and many stores were not replaced when their owners retired.
The hustle and bustle of Saturday nights still exists somewhere, but not in Elmwood, Illinois. What will it take to draw the next generation to the community on a Saturday night in a small country town?
Karl K. Taylor, December 2016
Special thanks to Amy Davis Photography, Elmwood, Illinois