“I cannot forget where it is that I come from,
I cannot forget the people who love me
Yeah, I can be myself here in this small town
And people let me be just what I want to be.”
— John Mellencamp’s
It was about a month ago that I just happened to be standing in my driveway working on a balky lawnmower when a long, white delivery truck pulled into my place. The driver had brought a pair of catalogue-order pants to me all the way from Maine, so the least I could do was put the work I had in my hands down so I could sign his clipboard and send him onto his next doorstep.
Since he was “our” deliveryman, after all, I asked him how his day was going.
For some reason or another, he began to talk about Rosedale, the little town that’s situated a mile or so south of my home. He said it seemed, to him anyway, as though the town was empty; he’d seen no one out and about as he’d cruised through.
It was a blistering hot afternoon despite the shade of my maples, so I knew he’d seen Main Street as deserted as a scene from “High Noon.” If folks in town weren’t at work, they’d be inside, off the streets, in their own air conditioning. Even the town’s dogs had probably tucked themselves under a bush somewhere in an attempt to stay cool.
He said his own hometown was going through similar changes — I think he mentioned a burg over in Clay County — and it was sad for him to see small towns like his dry up and face such tough times.
He was on the clock, of course, and I wasn’t, so I tried not to bend his ear too long, but he said that when he was a boy, his town buzzed with activity, that there were several grocery stores and a movie house and a barber shop. People were always on the streets. Many of them came into town from outlying farms and whistlestops. Friday nights and Saturday mornings were particularly busy there.
I knew exactly what he meant. I used to ride my bike into Rosedale years and years ago, most often with a dime or quarter to spend. On occasion, I’d stop in at the big lumberyard. My dad worked there for a while with Frank McCord; I remembered that because his showroom was air-conditioned. You could buy everything from 2-by-4s to cabinets to a new television from Frank.
I almost always went to Morgan’s Variety, too. I’ve written about that place before; it had a little bit of everything there. My grandmother was particularly interested in Helen Morgan’s notions — her cloth and thread and buttons — and if Helen didn’t have it, Magdalene’s next door did.
It seemed to me that walking through Magdalene’s big, black screen door was a little like stepping a century back into time. The place had an incredibly high ceiling adorned with oily, whispering fans, and the old woman who ran the place still used the creaky, wheeled ladder that ran on a track around the store to retrieve items that only my grandmother could have wanted to see. I think the ancient proprietor still wore button-up shoes and long dark dresses, and she always seemed to be standing behind her glass-topped display cases stoically waiting for customers who were still interested in bloomers or brilliantine.
In those days I could get my hair trimmed on Main Street, although my mom was my primary barber at home; she got hair-cutting instructions with the box when she bought our clippers. I could also stop in at Hickman’s IGA. I thought even then that it was interesting that both Wilbur Hickman and Jess Morgan — two wonderfully kind men — could be selling groceries in the same little town, but both businesses made it, and I know both men were friends. As a matter of fact, I remember being told at one store to go to the other to find something it didn’t have.
There was a DX gas station and a bank and a regular dime store, too — Tilford’s, I think — and right next to the always-full beauty parlor was a pharmacy. I’m not sure when Max Williams brought the latter store to town, but until he closed up shop a few years back to retire, my family bought all our medicine there. Max was handy with dosages, both medicinal and political, and I enjoyed his company.
Rosedale had a creaking old relic of an elevator, too. It was a marvel of engineering. My uncle owned his own semi and regularly hauled grain there, and I often went with him just so I could explore its dusty nooks and crannies and passages. Dee Cottrell’s funeral parlor wasn’t too far away — it’s still there as Cottrell-Gooch — and less than a block south of it was Hookey’s Garage. You could buy a new Chevy there in the town’s heyday; there were at least two other garages in town, too.
Garrigus’ Insurance Agency was on Main, and there were at least three cafés in town for a while. I may be straining my memory a bit too far, but I think Rosedale had its own telephone company before Ma Bell came to town.
I’d like to think that this latest story of mine has a point, and it’s this: We’re losing something pretty precious in this country. Much, but thankfully not all, of small town America is fading into oblivion. I like and use supercenters and shopping malls as much as the next all-American consumer, but what’s it going to hurt by more of us going into the small town down the road to buy a quart of oil or a cup of coffee?
Not too many years ago, Steve and Carol Rukes owned a nice little hardware store in Rosedale. Being the new owner of an old house, I frequented his place often. I can still remember calling Steve — on more than one occasion — to ask if he’d open up past closing time to sell a little copper tubing or plastic fitting to me. He always said yes, even at suppertime. One of the last things I bought from Steve was my water heater, but I know he couldn’t sell enough of them, or anything else, to stay open, and that’s a shame. I’ve missed that store and will continue to every time I need a screen patched or a pound of nails.
In just the past few months, we’ve seen our diner close and our grocery store go up for sale, and we’re going to miss them, too. I sure hope our gas station and our insurance company and our farm supply store and our bank, and a handful of other businesses left in town, continue to make it.
Now, I think I’ll run into town; we need a gallon of milk.
Mike Lunsford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or through regular mail c/o the Tribune-Star, P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. His book, “The Off Season: The Newspaper Stories of Mike Lunsford,” is scheduled to be released in late September.
We’ve seen a diner close, our grocery store go up for sal
“I cannot forget where it is that I come from,
- Mike Lunsford
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