Ghosts of Christmases Past Part II

By Jon Gallagher


I grew up in the Galesburg area during the turbulent 60s, a time marred by the political assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King, racial riots, student protests and marches, and the Viet Nam War. Even with the violence of the era, some of my most vivid memories are those associated with Downtown Galesburg and the Christmas season.

We didn’t have a Black Friday back then. There were no six hour sales with shoppers whipped into a feeding frenzy by doorbuster specials. There were no malls or superstores opening at an ungodly hour the day after Thanksgiving. There was no WalMart putting up their Christmas displays before Halloween. It was a simple time filled with the magic of the season, perfectly presented in a four block area known as Downtown Galesburg.

As you bounced across the Burlington Northern tracks at the east end of Main Street, you were transported into a wonderland of sights and sounds. Decorations hung from the street lights high overhead while merchants’ windows spilled a yellowish glow onto the sidewalks outside the shops. It seems that music was piped in from somewhere, coming from speakers that were invisible to my pre-teen eyes. Although I can’t remember specifics, I know that whenever I hear the song “Silver Bells,” I get a flashback of Downtown Galesburg from my youth. It seems that the hanging decorations were either giant candy canes alternating with lighted plastic faces of old St. Nick.

Sears was the first store to get my attention as we entered Downtown. The store, located across from the Post Office, would make a special section on the far west side that housed their toy department. They only carried toys at Christmas time so a little kid like me would know the season was getting close whenever they’d start preparing the area a few weeks in advance. Across the street, Gamble’s department store enticed shoppers into their midst with window displays.

Down the street, Blacks Hardware sat across the street from Carson Pirie Scott. Diagonally, Osco Drugs took up the south west corner of Main and Seminary. Bennett’s Unlimited was located almost next door and they featured an assortment of stationary and books. Even back then I was an avid reader, so that was one of my favorite places to stop. J.C. Penney’s was a little further down the block just before you got to the Bank of Galesburg. On the north side of Main Street, Leo Stein Sporting Goods, the Platter, a small record shop, and Kline’s department store were fixtures.

I don’t remember what was in the Sav-A-Buk/Zephyr store, but just to the north of it, across from the Smith and Allen Garage was a Meadow-Gold Dairy (I think that was the name) which was a soda fountain that served up ice cream sundaes, cherry Cokes, and some concoction known as a “Green River.” Back on Main Street, Frank Jewelers and Ellis Jewelers competed against each other while standing on either side of Grant’s, a two story department store. Kresge’s, a forerunner to Kmart, rounded out the 200 block of East Main. Around the corner was Gale Ward’s Sporting Goods (which held a basement full of toys that my parents conveniently forgot to tell me about). Across Prairie Street from them was the Spiegel store where you could pick up stuff you’d ordered from their catalogue.

Lindstroms, about the only store left from the late 60s, was in a different location. They had recently moved to a larger building across the street and a little east of Grants. They were my personal favorite because they carried records which was my favorite gift. I’m sure that the Beatles’ White Album that I opened on Christmas morning in 1968 came from their store..

The 100 block of East Main featured some heavy hitters. The Continental and OT Johnson’s were the main attractions while Walgreens and Wilkinson’s Office Supply anchored the south side of the street.

Just before the square, Farmers and Mechanics’ Bank occupied the northwest corner of Main and Cherry with a drug store and maybe a photography studio taking up space before getting to Galesburg’s most popular spot for kids my age, Kiddie Korner (we were told that Superman’s mom lived upstairs, but that’s a whole other story).

While I don’t remember the south side of Main Street all that well, I do remember South Cherry Street. Flesher’s House of Music was across from Marty’s Restaurant, and the Pizza House stood on the north west corner of Cherry and Simmons, kitty-corner from its present day location.

There were a lot of other stores in Downtown as well. It seemed that we had more shoe stores that we knew what to do with. Taverns were abundant as well, but to someone my age, all they offered was some pretty neon lights to go with all the Christmas decorations.

My family did most of their shopping at Grant, Kresge’s, and Sears with an occasional trip down to OT Johnsons. Some merchants sent out a giant catalog right before Christmas and I would spend my spare time dog-earing pages with my toys of choice, circling the really good ones with a magic marker. My parents would then head for Sears or some other local merchant that was willing to extend credit to them (credit cards really didn’t exist then, at least not for my family) and pick up some of the selected items.

Frank’s Jewelers was one of the stores that would let my mom and dad pay “on time.” Warren Utsinger was the manager of the store which was located just east of Grants. He was a huge man with a deep voice and always had a cigarette burning, either dangling from the corner or his mouth or smoldering away behind the counter. One year, he sold us a very expensive AM-FM radio that had shortwave on it as well. It would be able to pick up the new FM stations like WGIL-FM which had just begun broadcasting without static.

When the time finally came to head for Downtown, there was only one real stop I wanted to make and that was the street in front of Grants. That’s where there was a little shack, barely bigger than a large bathroom, constructed especially for the season, and a home for Santa Claus himself.

Santa sat in an oversized chair, listening to the wishes of all the little kiddies, handing out candy canes and/or coloring books after hearing the extensive lists. I don’t remember any other kids in there when I would go in; I’m not sure if that’s because my parents chose a slow time or if because the line was made to wait outside the shack. The intimate time with the fat old guy did more to scare the beejeebers out of me than it did to elicit any kind of coherent list prepared from the aforementioned catalogs. Although I don’t remember there being a photo concession set up to generate some dough to pay the guy in the suit, I do have an old black and white photo of me sticking my finger in my eye while standing beside of Santa, taken when I was less than ten years old. I think the finger was poking back the tears of fear that were no doubt trying to weasel their way out and down my cheeks.

This was truly Santa, the real one, not some phony guy with a fake beard and a pillow stuffed under his coat. He was the ONLY Santa allowed in Galesburg so that kids wouldn’t get confused. Even when Arlan’s, a department store just off the corner of Henderson and Fremont (where the EconoFoods was most recently located), announced that Santa would be in their store, we all knew he was the fake one. This phony sat on a steel folding chair and didn’t bother to give out anything to kids. I think he lasted a whole year before Arlan’s conceded that the real Santa was located Downtown.

After the trip to see Santa, we’d head for the Fannie Mae candy shop (for the life of me, I can’t remember where it was) where I’d get some Peppermint Ice and some Hostess Mints. Before heading back to Knoxville, we’d either pick up pizza from the Pizza House, or head over to the Friendly Café (located across from the Driver’s License place on Losey) or to the Parkway Drive In (northwest corner of Henderson and Fremont).

After our dinner, there was but one stop left to make and that was a trip to a farm located between Galesburg and Wataga. Each year Vincent Holmes would add a new decoration to his massive display of Christmas lights that stretched a good quarter mile. The right side of the farm house was dedicated to Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem and the Nativity while the left side was reserved for the more modern Christmas story with Santa’s workshop (two mechanical elves hammered away at toys) while an organist rocked from side to side at a pipe organ.

This year, my wife did most of her shopping online, without ever leaving the comfort of our couch. She said it was the simplest shopping she’d ever done. Mine was done in stores filled with grumpy clerks and seasonal employees who didn’t have a clue where anything was located. The parking lots were filled with idiot drivers whose Christmas Sprit was next to non-existent as they exchanged Italian hand signals while shouting unthinkable (and probably impossible) sexual suggestions at one another.

Thinking back, Christmas was a lot more fun back in the 60’s. I’m sure the competition for the almighty dollar was just as still as it is today, but as a child, I had no inkling of that. We didn’t have much in the way of electronic gadgetry but we did have a wonderment and excitement that no computer or superstore could ever hope to recreate. It’s a time that I’m sorry my children and grandchildren will never really get to experience.

It was a simple time. And it was simply magic.