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'Going downtown' with dad, mom in '50s among Connellsville native's treasured memories

| Friday, April 18, 2014, 2:54 p.m.
Jim Oglethorpe
Jim Oglethorpe

I'm a small town boy from Connellsville. Born in 1950, I grew up in a time quite different from today: a slower-paced, safer and more innocent time. Although in many ways Connellsville's best days were behind her by the time I came along, we still had a vibrant downtown shopping district that included several blocks of storefronts along Crawford Avenue and Pittsburgh Street. I have many strong memories of that time and place: an era that in many ways still reflected our way of life from the 1930s. Some of my favorites are of “going downtown” with my mom or dad. While the destination was the same, the missions between the two parents were quite different.

My father, “Big Jim” as the family called him (I was “Little Jimmy”), worked as a railway postal clerk. He rode the B&O's Capitol Limited between Pittsburgh and Washington, working the mail. He'd be on the road for several days, then home for a while. At least twice a month he and I would head downtown to take care of business. We didn't have a car in those days; we didn't really need one. The bus stop was one block up Gibson Avenue, a 10-minute ride to the West Penn Terminal on Arch Street. We'd get off the bus and begin our rounds.

First stop was the West Penn Barber Shop where we'd both get a haircut. The shop was a classic, down to the red-and-white pole spinning away outside. The barbers who cut our hair were Carmen Maricondi and Dom Isola. I remember the little booster seat that went across the arms of the chair, the tissue collar that was wrapped snugly around your neck, and the dust-off afterwards done with a brush and some powder. My haircut didn't have a name. It was just all cut down to about a half inch all over. Later on I progressed to a crew cut, kept straight with the infamous “Butch Wax” stick. The counter behind Dom's chair was filled with bottles of products for those with longer hair, like Vitalis, Wild Root Cream Oil, and other assorted smell-um-goods and oils.

One day after I was done and Dad was in the chair shooting the breeze with Dom, I investigated a shelf filled with old manual clippers. You squeezed the handles together and they clipped the hair. Of course I couldn't resist trying them out and left that day with a special look: a nice stripe down the middle of my head.

Leaving the shop, we'd head up Crawford Avenue to Second National Bank at “Brimstone Corner.” This was the heart of downtown Connellsville, the intersection of Crawford and Pittsburgh streets. The bank offices were on the ground floor of a seven-story building, the tallest in town. Second National was typical of the banks of the day: tall desks to stand at and fill out a deposit slip, brass spittoons on the floor, and tellers behind matching brass grills. Dad would cash his paycheck, put some in his savings account, and pocket the rest. Then it was time to go pay the bills.

Our next stop would be the Bell Telephone office, across Pittsburgh Street from the bank. Then we'd walk up the street to the gas company. All transactions were in cash, the way commerce happened before credit cards. On the way back we'd stop at Troutman's Department Store and pay on the only credit arrangement the family had: a revolving account that I suspect rarely carried a balance. Troutman's was a great store for our town: five floors of clothing, furniture and other goods. There were no cash registers on the sales floors. All sales slips and payments traveled up to the office in brass cylinders via a pneumatic tube system. The clerk would open the door and “whoosh,” the cylinder was sucked away. I was fascinated by the whole process.

Next stop was back at the West Penn Terminal, where we paid the electric bill. Then with most of our business done, we'd visit a little saloon across the street popular with the railroaders. Pop would unwind with a shot and a beer; I got a ginger ale. He'd stand at the bar after depositing me at a table. The tavern scene was noisy and boisterous. I drank it all in along with my ginger ale.

Our last stop was the A&P, where we'd pick up a box full of groceries. Then, our business done, we'd walk back to the bus terminal for the ride home.

Going downtown with my mother started with the same bus ride, but the objectives were quite different; our focus was less on business and more on fun. We'd be on a buying mission, usually clothes or shoe shopping. Troutman's had a large shoe department, complete with a fluoroscope. This device used X-rays to show your foot inside your shoe so you could check the fit. I used it every time I was in Troutman's, whether buying shoes or not. I'm surprised my feet didn't start glowing in the dark. But we didn't worry too much about such things in 1955.

I have other fond memories of those trips, including Lemon Blend's at The Nut Shoppe and hot dogs from Burns Drug Store. But without a doubt my favorite stop was always Murphy's 5&10. Mom would leave me on my own while she did her shopping, and I had my own little routine.

My first stop was the comic book rack up front on the first floor. In those days they didn't wrap them up in cellophane, so I could give one or two a quick read. “Superman” and “Men at War” were two of my favorite titles. My second stop was the models display in the basement. Airplanes, ships and cars abounded, and I wanted them all. This was usually where Mom caught up with me.

The final stop was almost always the food department. Thank God, Mom was born with a sweet tooth. I might get a quarter pound of cashews, weighed out on a little balance scale, or a bag of freshly popped popcorn. Mom usually wanted some cookies. We often ended up with a mix of the cream wafer ones in vanilla, chocolate and strawberry. And the whole place smelled great!

The competition across the street, McCrory's, just couldn't compare. If I was lucky, the grand finale would be a nickel ride on the mechanical horse.

Downtown Connellsville had unique stores owned by merchants who lived in the city. I went to school with the tailor's daughter and the son of the drugstore owner. Most of the clothing store owners lived in the South Side. I remember a strong sense of community in the Connellsville of those days. We felt connected to the stores and their proprietors. No trip to the mall will ever compare to those journeys downtown.

Jim Oglethorpe is a Connellsville native and the author of “Leisenring No. 1.” He will be at ArtWorks, Connellsville, from 1 to 5 p.m. April 26 and West Overton Museums at 2 p.m. April 27.

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