Olde Hometown America—As I Remember It
I was perusing an issue of Reminisce magazine where I came upon an article featuring an artist painting scenes of the “old days” as he remembered them in his hometown of Bridgeport, Connecticut. This started me reminiscing about the hometown of my early youth where I spent the first thirteen years of my life. Back in the days of the 1930s, ‘40s, and even through a good part of the 1950s, small town America with a population of 500—give or take 10—was able to support enough businesses to provide anyone living there with all the products and services needed to sustain a full life.
This was certainly true of the small towns of my youth, Grace and Soda Springs, Idaho. For the purposes of this story, I will dwell predominantly on what I remember about Grace during the 1940s, and a little bit about Soda Springs during the late ’40s and 1950s. I suspect some living contemporaries, who also experienced this same era in Grace, may remember Main Street somewhat differently than what I portray here, but I ask them to cut me a little slack; after-all I’m quoting these things after the passage of nearly 70 years. Admittedly, my memory could be a bit foggy.
But, anyway, as I mentioned earlier, small towns of that era were actually thriving metropolises with a multitude of businesses. Grace and Soda Springs were no exceptions. The Main Street of Grace has undergone many changes during the last seventy years. Come with me now as I take you back to Main Street Grace, Idaho as I remember it in the 1940s.
We’re at the north end of the business district standing in front of Adolf Wyss’ Blacksmith shop. Dad used to joke about that old building because of the way it leaned to one side. He said every night when he came by from the farm, he expected to find that building collapsed on top of old Adolph. Another person wondered why Adolph bothered to lock the front door. There was a hole in the side of the shop large enough for a small bear to crawl through.
But I digress; on with the tour tour. From Adolph’s shop we wander south a ways, and come to the Grace Motel now newly remodeled and known today as the Black Canyon Motel. It was located at the corner of a cross street to Main Street. Across this street to the south, where a post office now sits, was the Old Grace Opera House, which in those days was the movie theater. In my mind’s eye, I can still see Mr. Orr, with his snow white hair, and dressed in suit and tie, standing out on the street with a megaphone barking: “Come on in folks, best show in town, best show in town. Kids a dime, only a dime; adults fifteen cents.” Of course it was the only show in town, so it couldn’t be anything but the best.
From this point, my recollection of the exact order of the businesses that lined the street becomes a bit hazy. I do remember there was a pool-hall, where men gathered to partake of the “Suds,” shoot some pool, play a few hands of poker, and discuss the latest happenings about the war. Some would sing President Roosevelt’s praises; others called him a warmonger who brought the U.S. into the war only to bolster the economy.
(An interesting side-bar to this story is the “big bet” of 1948. The pool-hall owner was a Democrat, one of his patrons was a Republican. The Republican offered to bet the pool-hall owner $5,000.00 dollars that Dewey would win the 1948 presidential election. The pool-hall owner took the bet. We all know how that turned out. To rub salt in the wound, he bought a Lincoln Cosmopolitan automobile, the most expensive Lincoln money could buy at the time. The next time the loser came into the pool-hall the winner thanked him for the new car.)
Other businesses along this side of Main Street consisted of a café, a drugstore, a grocery store, a barber shop, and Roghaar’s General Mercantile, which housed a grocery store, a dry goods store, a clothing store, and perhaps some furniture; all under one roof. Right next to Roghaar’s store, on the corner where a bank now sits, was a large crater-like hole. I never did know if it was the abandoned beginnings of a basement for another building, or the remains of a building that had burned or was torn down. What I do remember about this crater, was that one end sloped, providing an excellent hill in winter on which we kids rode sleighs—or our derrieres—down into the bottom.
Across Center Street on the corner, where now sits a small-engine repair shop, was another pool hall. Following that was an O.P. Skaggs store. Farther on down the street, was a small office. I’m not sure if it was a law office or some kind of land office; or it might have been a satellite office to the Bannock County Assessor’s office. Grace was a part of Bannock County at that time, and Pocatello, the county seat, was seventy miles away. Next to this office was a vacant lot, then the post office and another dry goods and clothing store(which, when I left the area and moved to Tucson three years ago, still existed and was owned by the same family as it did when I was a kid. I assume that is still the case today). In addition to the previously mentioned businesses, there was also a hotel with Fred’s café located on the ground floor.
The community also supported another barbershop, a newspaper office, a hardware store, two auto repair shops, another blacksmith shop, two farm implement dealerships, two car agencies; Corbett Motor Co., the Ford agency, and the Chevrolet Garage, and a sheet metal and plumbing shop, all on the opposite side of Main Street. These are the businesses I remember. There were probably more. In addition to these businesses, there were a full time resident doctor and a resident dentist.
Oh…and I mustn’t forget the town lawyer. He wasn’t to prosperous, however, since people in those days settled their own differences. About the busiest I remember his being is when he sprung the town wino from jail every Monday morning (sort of like Otis on the Andy Griffith Mayberry show) or when a local resident filed her monthly divorce papers against her husband which she always withdrew a few days later.
Soda Springs’ population was about double that of Grace, (1000 give or take) so its business district was even larger. Soda even had a J.C. Penney store back then. People in those days didn’t have to drive to the near-by “metropolitan” Pocatello to satisfy their shopping needs or many of their wants. With the combination of Grace and Soda Springs, which were only twelve miles apart, most items were pretty much available right there in their own little hometowns, and usually with a sizable selection of goods and services to choose from. Bancroft, another small community in the county about sixteen miles away, even had a respectable business district. What wasn’t available in the local stores, could be purchased through the Montgomery Ward or Sears-Roebuck Catalogues.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this blog, all these businesses prospered on a population of 500 – 1000 people, give or take ten, but the times changed. With the end of World War II, improved roads, and availability of new cars, America was on the move to the larger cities to do their shopping, and much of their entertainment. This took it’s toll on small town America. The final blow was the Interstate highway system which by-passed and isolated many of these small towns from tourist travel, and they eventually withered on the vine.
If you like reading stories about the “old days,” click on the free download button at upper right of this page and download a free copy of my book, Buddy…His Trials and Treasures. It’s a book of adventures about a young boy growing up in rural America during the 1940s. I think you’ll enjoy Buddy’s antics. A print copy is also available for purchase at www.amazon.com. Happy reading.