Downtown Galesburg Christmas Shopping

by Bill Monson

Half a century ago, Christmas shopping in Galesburg was a downtown affair. The city had a real DOWNTOWN then, and from the Square to the Post Office, Main Street was a cornucopia of Christmas festivity.

With the end of World War II, toy manufacturers could use steel again, and things like bicycles, wagons and BB guns reappeared in all their glory. Since the expected recession did not appear, the economy was stout enough to pour out anything a kid's heart desired.

Toylands appeared in stores all up and down Main Street.

Even places which normally didn't have them -- like Leath's, Black's Hardware, and J.C. Penney -- broke out in toys Thanksgiving weekend.

Of course, I checked out the new bikes even though I didn't need one. I was heir to Dad's big prewar Schwinn, which was as old as I was but a man-sized bike in first-rate shape. I was doing my best to grow up to it. My sister Sue had my old blue tricycle and red Radio Flyer wagon, so she wasn't interested in the new steel items, either. We concentrated on other things. She wanted dolls and a tin toy stove, and I wanted an electric train. Lionel or American Flyer, I didn't care. Two rails or three. Steam or diesel. Freight or passenger. Circle or figure 8, it didn't matter. Just a train and tracks I could call my own. The accessories could come later.

Of course I wanted other things, too -- like a Louisvllle Slugger baseball bat, a Spaulding ball glove, some toy soldiers, and a colored pencil set to color the drawings which I labored at up to four hours a day.

Like Ralphie in the movie ''A Christmas Story,'' I wanted a Daisy Red Ryder lever action BB gun. Also like him, I'd been warned, ''You'll shoot your eye out.'' I thought that was dumb. How could you shoot your eye out with an air rifle? Can you imagine the position you'd have to get into? The bias came down from my Grandma Watts. She and Grandpa could get into an argument at the mere mention of a BB gun. (He had one which he used to wing dogs and cats which tried to use his yard and flower beds for a litter box.) Grandma leaned on my Mom, but Grandpa sided with Dad -- so my chances to get one were always 50-50.

I was no passive wisher. I went out and scouted. In those days, a ten-year-old could walk Main Street until dark without drawing unfavorable attention. I'd walk downtown from Blaine Avenue and start on the south side of Main Street and work my way toward the Square. There were fewer Toylands on that side, and most were worthy of only a quick browse. I took along a small pad and pencil to write down the items I wanted -- including the store and price.

Leath's, Block and Kuhl, Osco Drugs, J.C. Penney, Walgreen's, and a crossover at Cherry Street to start eastward on the north side. O.T. Johnson, Woolworth, then a side trip up Prairie to Wetherbee's Sports to check out one of the real treasure troves. I could satisfy nearly my whole Christmas list at that one store. I often spent over an hour there on one of my scouts. They always had the best trains and BB guns as well as sporting goods.

Back to Main Street to W.T. Grant, Kresge, Sears, Black's, and Monkey Ward's. Finally, my cheeks rosy with cold and my eyes glittering with dreams of Christmas morning, I'd hustle through the winter twilight back up the Main Street Hill to the Burlington Crossing and down the other side to home.

After supper, I'd organize my ''research'' into what I thought was an affordable wish list of possibilities in rank of desire. In this way, I hoped to make my parents' shopping easier and thus increase their enthusiasm for fulfilling my dreams. Alas, all I did was make them more aware of how much I wanted and how expensive it would be.

Even when I winnowed down the list to my greatest heart's desires and did not include any prices, the tactic didn't work. Fifty years ago, the children of parents who went though the Depression were not pampered with lots of toys. All too often, sox, plaid shirts, and corduroy slacks replaced what we really wanted. I got my colored drawing pencils and a ball bat the same Christmas, but the ball glove and BB gun arrived in other years -- and I never did get an electric train.

Still, I remember with joy those Christmas shopping scouts through the crowded, often snowy streets of Downtown Galesburg -- my spirits buoyant with dreams.

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online December 20, 2000

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