GOOD TIMES IN THE OLD TOWN
By Mike Hobbs
Like many towns across America in the 1950's and 1960's Abingdon had a bustling Main St. business district. In the three-block district from the 100 block of North Main St. to the 200 block of South Main St. the 1958 Abingdon telephone directory listed four grocery stores (K of G, Sabetti's, Stewart's, and Hobbs'), three barbers (Vernon Coats, Fats Fordyce, and Corny Sandoval), two feed dealers (Abingdon Quality Hatchery and Haase Brother's Produce), three restaurants (B&B Main Cafe, Berry's Cafe, and Taylor's Dairy Bar), two insurance agencies (Stegall's and Bird's Reliable), two physicians (Drs. Bradway and Packard--Dr. Bowman's office was at 300 N. Main St.), optometrist Dr. Baughman, the Treasure House jewelry shop, the Century Loan Co., attorney Charles Wesner, Abingdon Motor Parts, Morrow's Bakery, the Abingdon Bank & Trust Co., Abingdon Federal Savings & Loan, Faralli's Billiard Parlor, Abingdon Cleaners, Shank's Clothing & Shoes, Sand's Pharmacy, Bond Electric, Brown Lynch Scott, Ken-Ray Gas & Electric, J&J Motor Co., Abingdon Flower & Gift Shop, Dechow Motor Co. which had been a Ford dealership (there used to be a sales promotion jingle on WGIL Radio that encouraged listeners to "Dicker with Dechow"), Gamble's, heating contractor Roy Hagberg, the Abingdon Hotel, Baker's Shoe Shop, the Central and Victory Taverns, and the Abby Theatre. Also within the business district within a block of Main St. on Jackson, Meek, and Martin Sts. in 1958 were the American Legion Hall, Ralph's (Sabetti) Package (Liquor) Store, the Argus and the Kodak newspapers , General Telephone Co., Abingdon Farm Equipment (the "Sale Barn"), City Hall, John Mosser Public Library, Illinois Power, the Post Office, the fire department, dentist Dr. Leo Gleave, builder Hack Wilson, and Fey's Processing (locker plant) Service.(1)
Most people who experienced Abingdon's Main St. business district in the 50's and 60's have fond memories of it. Mario Sabetti of Sabetti's Grocery said that "you could get anything in Abingdon" from the many retailers and service providers. Chuck Shank of Shank's Clothing & Shoes said the Abingdon Main St. merchants worked hard to promote the idea of buying locally. My schoolmate Larry Riney remembered that Main St.'s "wide sidewalks made up the common ground where everyone met." Because of the abundant availability of goods and services Abingdon people with money in their pockets from the many good jobs in the area flocked to Main St. They found it to be a good place to buy and to socialize.
Chuck Shank's father was Frank Shank whose family were retailers in Winamac, Indiana. In 1939 Frank had bought Leiser's clothing store at 111 S. Main in Abingdon, and he came to town in the fall of that year to close out the store and return to Indiana. When he arrived in Abingdon, he was struck by the potential of doing business there. He liked the wide Main St. In 1836 Abingdon's founder Abraham Swarts laid out the original sixteen blocks of the town with a 132-foot wide main street. It was thought that Abingdon had the widest main street in Illinois. There was plenty of room for parking.
Although The Depression still held the nation in its grip, Frank recognized that many Abingdon area people had incomes. The many farm families around Abingdon realized year-round income from the sale of chickens, eggs, cream, hogs, cattle, sheep, grain, and hay. Abingdon had a tradition dating from the late 1800's of high employment. A billboard at the foot of Abdill's Hill (near Butch Fey's home on Hwy. 41) along the track of the Interurban street car, which operated from Galesburg to Abingdon until the 1920's, announced "Welcome to Abingdon--the Smallest Town with the Biggest Payroll in the World".(2) The Abingdon Paving Brick & Tile Co.had operated from 1892 until about 1930. The Wagon Factory opened in 1895 east of the CB&Q tracks and employed 125 people. In 1914 it manufactured 10,000 farm wagons and farm truck bodies.(3) The east part of town on the other side of the tracks was nicknamed "Wagon Town". In 1889 the Globe Manufacturing Co.began producing work clothing. By 1897 100 operators worked there. In 1936, when it was purchased by Blue Bell, Inc., the Globe was the largest manufacturer of men's work clothes in the world.(3) Abingdon had three mousetrap factories in the late 1890's. Abingdon resident W.C. Hooker invented the spring-type mouse trap.(3) The old Spring Handle Co., known locally as the "Brush Factory", was still operating in 1968. Abingdon resident William N. Lewis invented the spring handle used on commercial brooms and brushes.(2)
The Brass Factory, which opened in Abingdon in 1910, manufactured plumbers' brass goods, faucets, and drain fittings. Decades later it became the United States' largest manufacturer of swimming pool accessories.(2) The Pottery, which was started in Abingdon in 1908, made bathroom fixtures. From 1933 to 1950 it produced the artware that is now sought by collectors. Both factories employed many Abingdon area workers.
Mario Sabetti's father Alex was a caster at the Pottery until he hurt his back lifting a mould. In 1927 he opened Sabetti's Grocery at 207 S. Main. During the Depression he, his wife Assunta, and his children Ralph, Mario,and Mary all worked at the store. Mario said that during the Depression there were many merchants on Main St., but, like the rest of the population, they had difficulty making a living. From 1941 to 1945 many Abingdon men and some women went off to war. Buying by people on the home front was severely restricted by rationing. After World War II ended, and the servicemen and women returned home and went to civilian jobs, and rationing was lifted, the Main St. business district geared up to accomodate the demands of a robust postwar economy as a prelude to the bustling downtown that many of us remember from the 50's and 60's.
The Main St. merchants worked hard to attract Abingdon area people. Chuck Shank said that his dad's motto was "bring 'em to town". Mario Sabetti recalled that Mr. Shank frequently emphasized that Abingdon was the #1 town in Illinois (on the road map, it was). Perhaps the most successful promotion was the Saturday night drawing. Frank Shank brought the idea of the Saturday night drawing with him from Indiana, and he copyrighted the concept in 1939. The drawing played a huge role in attracting throngs of people to Main St. on Saturdays. Larry Riney called it "the social event of the week." He recalled riding with his dad Verlon in their '52 Dodge up and down, up and down Main St. on Saturday mornings looking for that much sought-after parking place. Some people sat in their cars on Main St. just watching other people walk by. Bob Pierce, who worked part-time at John Banning's Hatchery as a high school student in 1955, remembered pushing a cart for blocks on Saturdays to wherever a farmer could find a parking place to deliver feed to him and pick up the his chickens, eggs, and milk.
How the drawing worked was that drawing tickets were bought by the merchants, and the money paid for the tickets went into a fund from which cash prizes were given. When customers paid their bills, they were given drawing tickets for which they could win $50 or $100. Bill Milton (and later Warren Ray and Red Clark) went around to the merchants to collect the tickets. On Saturday night the tickets were placed in a large wire crank cage on a wooden platform located at the southwest corner of Main and Meek Sts. At 8 pm Mr. Milton would call for a child from the big crowd that had assembled to come up to the platform to draw the winning tickets. Larry Riney said that he dreamed of "being the kid picked to be blindfolded and to draw the winning tickets . . . ." The winners had to be present. If they weren't, they were given a short time to appear to collect their cash. The drawings were held fifty-two weeks each year. At Christmas $1000 in cash prizes was given.
There were many other promotions. On "Big Auction Sale" days Abingdon residents brought items for sale from home and set them in front of stores along Main St. The merchants provided auctioneers, advertising, and clerks for free. Residents earned "Abingdon Trade Money" which they could use to buy things from the participating merchants or to pay on their bills. On "Maxwell Street Days" merchants displayed marked-down merchandise on the sidewalks and in their stores. Churches and civic groups were encouraged to set up tables to sell baked goods. There were also "Peanut Days", free Saturday matinees at the Abby for kids, calliopes, band concerts, street dances, and at Christmas free candy, bright lights, decorations, and Santa Claus. Larry Riney said that as a child in the '50's he was taken aback when he saw two Santa Clauses on Main St. at the same time.
Shank's Store expanded from one store in 1939 to three adjacent stores in the 1940's which sold clothing, shoes, and household items for the entire family. They sold a lot of work clothes and boots to area farmers, factory workers, and railroaders. Abingdon had one CB&Q and one M&STL section gang in the 1950's. Rail Chief (made at Gross Galesburg on Ferris St.), Carhart, H.D. Lee, and Osh Kosh (By Gosh!) were work clothes' brands that were handled. Shank's attracted customers from a twenty-mile radius of Abingdon with their quality goods. They promoted this business with their Merchandise Club. Club members paid a dollar or two per week for twenty weeks toward the purchase of something in the store. Four times each week (Tuesdays through Fridays) Shanks checked the last three numbers of the U.S. Treasury balance that was published in The Chicago Tribune. If those numbers matched the three numbers that a club member had selected, his twenty-week ticket was considered paid up.
Chuck Shank recalled that the weekly "Sale Barn Days" attracted many area farmers to Abingdon each Wednesday. Pat Bauer, who farmed east of Abingdon, said that farmers gathered at noon at the Sale Barn at 117 E. Martin St. to buy and sell hogs, cattle, sheep, machinery, hay, and straw. Auctioneers were Lewis Marks and Everett Morse. Those in attendance could buy coffee, hot dogs, hamburgers, and pie during the auction. Soup was added to the menu during the winter.
Abingdon's Main St. business district was a major influence on my early life, and my memories of it are good ones. When I was born in 1948 my dad Pete operated Hobbs' Grocery & Feed Store at 206 S. Main St., a business started by his father Andrew Jackson Hobbs. We lived in a little house just north of my dad's store until we moved to 202 S. Jefferson St., a block east of the store, when I was four years old, and we lived there until I was a senior in high school. About my dad's store, which he sold in 1958, I remember the glass-fronted cookie and penny candy display cases, the red Coke pop cooler with loose bottles of pop sitting in icy cold water (my mom said that kids brought empty pop bottles into the store to collect the two-cent deposit which they used toward admission into the Abby Theatre), the big butcher's block, the slicer that my dad used to slice meat and cheese which were wrapped in wax paper and brown paper and tied with string, the bushel baskets of potatoes, and the scale in front of the store that was used to weigh loads of corn, oats, and gravel. There was the McCaskey, a large metal lock box with metal leaves inside it onto which were clipped customers' bills. Grocery customers ran bills in those days that they paid on payday. I remember a small wooden box with a light bulb in it that my parents used to "candle" eggs to check for their freshness and size. Behind the store was a large feed barn from which my dad sold oats, hay, and straw. I liked the story my dad told about going out to the barn to get a bale of hay for a customer. One of our cats, which was a good mouser, accompanied him. When my dad lifted the bale, mice scurried everywhere. The cat went to work. It pinned two mice with its front paws, held one in its mouth, and looked up at my dad with a look on its face of "What do I do now?"
My dad did business with Sabetti's Grocery which was located directly across Main St. Our families socialized. Mario's son Joe was my best boyhood friend. Bud Faralli, who owned Kof G Grocery in the next block north of my dad's store, was my godfather. Shank's was the sponsor of my yellow-shirted Little League baseball team. I remember good meals at Berry's Cafe and at the Dairy Bar, chocolate ice cream sodas at Sand's soda fountain, old men in bib overalls conversing and chewing tobacco at the feed store next to Sabetti's, getting my picture taken by Olin Mills at the hotel, and playing football and baseball with neighborhood kids on the vacant corner lot east of the fire station. It's amazing how big that lot seemed then and how little it looks today. I remember being intrigued by the chicks that were displayed in the storefront window of Banning's Hatchery in the spring and by the toys at Ben Franklin's, known as "The Dime Store".
Abingdon's "characters" who appeared on Main St. added to the community's local color. One "character" was Skeet Latimer. He was an old man who rode his old bicycle around town carrying a bag of Grit newspapers which he sold. He dressed plainly, and I never heard him say a word. What intrigued me about Skeet Latimer was that I heard that he was descended from a prominent early Abingdon family. The local DAR chapter was named for Col. Jonathan Latimer (born in 1803) who had ten children. The north boundary of the original town of Abingdon as laid out by Abraham Swarts in 1836 was named Latimer Street. George Latimer, Jonathan's brother, brought the first cookstove to Abingdon in 1840.(2) In 1846 Jonathan and George each conveyed five acres of land for the Cherry Grove Seminary north of town.(4) Frank Latimer was C.O. of Co. D, 6th Vol. Inf., Illinois National Guard, which was headquartered in Abingdon and was called up during the Spanish-American War.
I enjoyed going to shows at the Abby Theatre. Admission was a quarter. The popcorn smelled good. I remember going to an Elvis Presley movie in the late 50's. The teen-aged girls screamed their heads off. I remember watching a movie with Little Stevie Wonder when he was little and watching the 1956 blockbuster movie The Ten Commandments. Occasionally, there were live shows at the Abby. One time when we were little, my cousin Steve Hughes and I went to a live show. After we were seated, a man dressed in a gorilla suit came out on the stage, walked down the steps into the gallery, and the lights went off. It was completely dark. Utter pandemonium broke out. Steve and I hit the concrete floor and hid under our seats scared to death. We didn't come out until the lights came back on, and we weren't sure if it was a good idea to come out even then.
The Fall Festival, which was an exciting time for Abingdon kids, was held on Main St. from 1955 until 1962. Pat Bauer told me that prior to the Fall Festival there was a festival called The Corn Show that was held on Main St. in the early 50's. Farmers brought ears of corn and samples of oats and wheat to be judged. In 1954 Pat and Talmadge Wimer, who both belonged to the American Legion, spearheaded a campaign on behalf of the Legion to begin what would be known as The Fall Festival. They sought the involvement of community groups, the four 4-H chapters around Abingdon, and the high school FFA in a festival that would feature livestock judging, displays by feed companies, talent shows, and carnival rides.
The 1957 Charter Centennial Fall Festival was a lot of fun. It featured livestock, corn, baked goods, and home economics judging, a horse show, amateur and professional entertainment, an auction, parade, carnival rides, baby contest, and a soap box derby. Beards were almost unheard of then, but Abingdon men grew them to compete for best beard prizes. Wes Holly, who portrayed a cowboy on a kids' TV cartoon show that appeared on Channel 6 from Davenport, put on a live show from the drawing platform at the corner of Main and Meek Sts. I remembeer one of my big-mouthed schoolmates heckling him.
Then there was the pool hall. The Forbidden Pool Hall with a capital "P", and it rhymes with "T", and it stands for Trouble! In it men smoked, drank, cussed, chewed, and spit. Sometimes they even hit the spitoons. Beginning maybe in the seventh grade, I spent a lot of time in the pool hall. I don't know why my mom permitted it. Maybe because I kept my grades up, and my dad liked to go there. My pool-shooting buddies were Joe Sabetti and Terry Hansen. One of my earliest memories of the pool hall was of the men's room in the basement. It was primitive. The "urinal" was a concrete slab propped against the wall with a tube above it from which water trickled down over the slab into a drain. My cousin Steve Hughes' recollection of the men's room was ". . .oh my god the smell down there!!!" But there were plenty of enticing things about the pool hall. It was fun to watch the older men show their skill on the tables, and it was a little bit thrilling to shoot a game with your friends with the prospect that the loser had to pay for the game. I learned early not to backtalk Leon Nutt and Alan Voorhees who racked balls. The steamed hot dogs smelled so good and tasted good with mustard, ketchup, relish, and onions. My schoolmate Dan Batson said he got his first job at the pool hall in the mid-60's, and he made 65 cents an hour. He reminded me that they also served hand-dipped milk shakes and sundaes.
Bob Pierce, who hired Dan, owned the pool hall for a time in the 60's with his father-in-law Gene Brashear. Bob said that the pool hall had one billiard table, two snooker tables, and five regular tables on which rotation, eight-ball, nine-ball, and straight pool were played. There were racks on the walls by the billiard table that held privately-owned cues. If you didn't own them, you didn't touch them. Pool games cost the loser 10 cents (20 cents for partners), snooker cost 20 cents per game, and billiards was paid by the hour (50 or 60 cents). In Bob's opinion Russ Lund was the best pool player in town, and Lloyd Goodman was the second best. He and Mr. Brashear sold razor blades, shaving cream, cigars, shotgun shells, guns, and fishing rods and tackle at the pool hall, and Bob Thurman barbered at a busy shop in the front of the hall. There was a long wooden bench along the south wall by the snooker tables where teen-aged boys sat during the summer awaiting farmers to come in to hire them to bale hay. Big crowds of men showed up at the pool hall on Saturday mornings. Emil Shephard opened at 6 am. The men sat around drinking coffee, playing pitch, and talking about sports and local topics. At 10 am, Bob said, a complimentary round of coffee and beer was given to the men and pop to the boys who were present. On Sunday mornings the pool hall opened at 7 am. Men came in to buy the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, and the Peoria Journal-Star, drink coffee, and talk. No beer was served and no pool was played on Sundays.
Perhaps the warmest memory that I have of Main St. Abingdon was when as a little boy I walked downtown by myself before Christmas. The details are fuzzy and maybe colored a little bit by nostalgia, but the good feeling that I had at that time remains clear in my memory. It was dark, probably late afternoon, snow was on the ground, and big snowflakes were gently falling. It was cold, but I didn't notice. Multi-colored Christmas lights were strung across Main St., and a huge brightly-lit Christmas tree with big bulbs sat in the middle of the intersection of Main and Meek. Shoppers were everywhere, and many of them I recognized. They said "Merry Christmas" to each other and to me as they passed on the sidewalk, and they smiled. Everyone seemed happy. I walked by Santa Claus's little kerosene-heated house in front of Shank's where kids lined up with their parents to go in one at a time to tell Santa what they wanted for Christmas. I went into Ben Franklin's, Western Auto, and Gamble's and got big-eyed when I saw their many beautiful toys. I could hardly control my anticipation for Christmas morning and the toys under my tree. It was a magical time.
1. Elsewhere in town were three car dealership (Lovitt's, Cruiser's, and Pearson's), five
grocery stores (Lamberti's, Mitchell's, Poland's, Russ's, and Winchell's), six service stations
(Abingdon Oil, Carter's, Ed's, Largent's, Ray's, and Walt's), three lumber yards
(Kendrick's, Robinson, and Simpson-Powelson), three popular eateries (Pierce's Maid-
Rite, Simms' Dairy Bar, and Hare's Dari-Delite), two funeral homes (Larson's and Wiggins'),
dentist Dr. Jay Sandercock, Abingdon Milling Co., Hummell's Barber Shop, and five beauty
2. The Abingdon Charter Centennial booklet, sponsored by the Abingdon Community
Fall Festival Committee, 1957.
3. The History of Abingdon, published by the Abingdon Publishing Co. Inc., 1968.
4. From a talk in Abingdon, IL by Rev. Jon Prain about the Cherry Grove Seminary, April 10, 2005.