THERE'S GOLD IN YOUR
AMERICA’S MAIN STREETS... IT’S TIME TO COME HOME
Growing up in the1950s was unique in many respects. It was a time of immense change and discovery, both from a personal and nationwide perspective. The pace of change was fast and the ability to keep up was an ongoing challenge. For a kid it was exciting and felt natural, however, it might have been awkward for the older generation. From trains to planes, from country and farms to city and suburbs, the dynamics of everyday life was in constant change.
You didn’t shop at the mom and pop markets so much. You were excited to shop at the gleaming stainless steel brightly lit grocery stores, with products lining endless rows of shelves. You didn’t shop so much for just the staples, you "explored" for new, innovative products like Swanson frozen dinners, that’s right you could now buy your complete dinner prepackaged in an aluminum tray and ready for the oven (the microwave had been invented, however, it wasn’t available for home use). I know that that is hard to believe, but it’s true, we still used ovens, and, by the way, our telephones had a rotary dial.
Our automobiles began to have fins jutting out and chrome bumpers that went on forever, with air conditioning and power windows. It was a time of transition from radio to television, from push lawn mowers to gas powered, and from neighborhoods to subdivisions. One of the first shopping centers opened in my hometown of Columbus, Ohio, The Miracle Mile, literally one mile long and filled with every imaginable store. You could shop at Sears and Penney’s. You could buy peanuts and candy, shoes and greeting cards. Things were changing, and fast.
I embraced many, if not all of the changes and found them exciting, what boy wouldn’t want to travel in space? I watched Buck Rodgers and his Space Rangers on our new TV and it clearly showed what space looked like after all. It would be the way we would be traveling when I grew up and automobiles would be airborne as well, the possibilities were unlimited. I must admit that I still found enjoyment in the cowboys that paraded on our television, Roy and Dale, Gene Autry and, of course, The Lone Ranger. Somehow I was drawn to the past, while being pulled into the future.
I attended school in a Victorian Gothic-style building and our neighborhood was a vestige of a bygone era, homes close to each other, small front yards and backyards that extended to an alley. Most of the homes were three story structures built of solid brick and stone, large front porches, most of with porch swings, and, on the inside, arches and pocket doors, and gleaming hardwood everywhere. It was interesting watching television surrounded by this Victorian splendor. Captain Video flew into space and into my living room where I was tucked comfortably into my overstuffed armchair, the image would remain with me.
Our family was fairly typical for the time with my grandparents living with us. My grandpa would sit with me for hours, listening to the radio, playing checkers, teaching me how to paint, not pictures but rooms. Grandma was always there, cooking, baking, and canning, and being someone that I could always talk to, about anything. Mom was a stay-at-home mother and Dad owned and operated a business in the downtown area. After school I would run home, just a half a block away, change into my favorite blue jeans and head out to play with my pals in the neighborhood. One afternoon it would be cowboys and Indians, on another day it would be a trip to Mars, and on another afternoon we would run the roofs of the garages that lined the alley, jumping from one roof to another. I would hear the old school bell ringing, calling me to dinner and I would head home to be with the family. Back then it was important to sit down to eat together and listen to the discussion that would ensue. I would listen to Dad chronicling the day’s events and the activities of the downtown. Dad’s store was just across the street from the state capital building and was the hub of the traffic, both pedestrian and vehicular, that populated the downtown. He ran a retail floral shop with the unique distinction of having an overhead door that opened on the street and invited the world to come in. The pulse of the people of the downtown was felt in that little store and Dad was privy to all the daily machinations. I was fascinated by the stories and would imagine the characters that he would describe and waited for the day when I could share the experiences with him. That was what dinner was all about, coming together as a family and sharing our day.
On Sunday we would always be together on some family adventure; it would be off to visit with family, maybe a special dinner at a special restaurant, or maybe it would be a ride in the country and a stop at one of the small towns or villages that dot the landscape of our state. These visits were my favorites with the unique shops, the historical sites, and the feeling that some things never change. In the autumn we would visit the Hocking Hills, which is one of the most beautiful landscapes located anywhere; rolling hills, caves and outcrops, and in the fall the leaves and foliage were vibrant with the rich colors of red, gold, and yellow.
Ohio is steeped in history, dating to the Revolutionary War, boasting eight Presidents and generals that included Grant and Sherman. It is hard to find an area of the state that doesn’t have historical significance, Lake Erie is at the top of the state and the Ohio River runs the southern border. I am thankful that my parents appreciated history and would take advantage of these weekend trips to stop at these sites and allow me to discover the past and gain my own appreciation of history. It would be the foundation of a lifelong love of history.
As the years progressed I would begin my own discovery of the backroads and small villages that dot the landscape of our state. When I began driving I would set off on any given Saturday to discover another small town and on these journeys I began to learn that at different times of the year various communities hold festivals and events as diverse as the Millersport Corn Festival, to the Paw Paw Festival, to the Circleville Pumpkin Show. I would make every effort to attend every year, especially the Pumpkin Show. My Uncle Thurman was the Mayor of Circleville, Ohio and helped to establish the Pumpkin Show where you could find everything pumpkin; cookies, fudge, ice cream, and of course, pie. Every year the local bakery would produce the world’s largest pumpkin pie with a contest to guess what it took to make. Assisted by my aunt, I submitted a guess and won the prize, the only time that I have won anything. The pumpkin show was a small town coming together to celebrate their heritage, their community and the base of their economy, the crops that were grown and produced in the area. It is truly the foundation of the small communities that make up our country; with pride, accomplishments, and dedication to the keeping in-tact the heritage that is America.
Moving from the 60s to the 70s and then into the 80s, the pace of America picked up steam and continued to move in one direction, convenience. Every attempt was made to make our lives easier. Those days of having dinner together began to slip away, and the days of taking a leisurely drive in the country began to disappear. Freeways by-passed the small towns and the communities began to congeal into a familiar landscape where everything looked the same and every community strived to conform. It was so "nice" to be able to purchase the same burger in Ohio and Kentucky, or in Michigan or Montana…or was it? As the 90s gave way to the new millennium a sense of recapturing the past began to take hold. For me it never went away, it was a mainstay of my routine, a visit to the Hocking Hills continued to be part of the autumn schedule and I always found time for that weekend drive where I would turn off the main road and discover new and fascinating sites.
It was in 2005 that I visited my best friend, Ron Eaton, who lives in New Straightsville, Ohio. Nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian area of southern Ohio, New Straightsville is the "Moonshine" capital of Ohio and borders the Wayne National Forest, one of the largest National Forests in the United States. On this particular visit Ron took me to yet another small town, Shawnee, an old mining town that looks like a movie set. The main street still has overhanging balconies and covered sidewalks, and, located in the center of town, stands the three story brick "Opera House."
At the turn of the nineteenth century the "Opera House" could be found in virtually every small town in America and the paradigm was, usually, town offices or businesses on the first floor and a theatre on the second floor. Usually the theatre would seat between two hundred fifty to five hundred seats and served as the hub of the community, where the citizens would gather to celebrate school events, watch election returns and experience the latest show that was touring the United States. Rarely, if ever, did an opera perform in these spaces, but the title was sufficient to give prestige to the community. The "Opera House" in Shawnee was in a derelict condition but somehow I saw past its current condition and envisioned the "Grand Old Lady" that it could be. From that day to this, I began a journey that has taken me to dozens of small towns and villages across the United States on a quest to reclaim and renovate these "Opera Houses" and to date I have been involved in the successful restoration of ten "Opera Houses" where shows are being performed and the community has a place to come together. In the process I rediscovered the small towns and villages that I had been introduced to as a young lad.
I have found that within the past five years local pride and the determination to revitalize the "Main Streets" of small town America is alive and well and located just around the corner. I have witnessed the rebirth of the old fashioned and valuable "Mom and Pop" shops, offering everything from a version of the old General Store where you can grocery and gab on any given Saturday and find almost everything that you could possibly need and where the penny candy has only risen a cent in the past one hundred years. There’s home cooking in the small restaurants where people still chat and a cell phone is never in sight, and yes, a cup of coffee is less than a dollar and the word latte is never heard. Of course there is the antique shop and in some cases an antique mall where you can find the memories of yesterday tucked neatly away on the shelves, just waiting for you to take them home. In the summer on the weekends, you will find the "farmer’s market" where produce abounds and you’ll find local honey, soaps, and candles. And now, in so many small towns and villages, you will be enchanted when you attend a performance in the restored "Opera House" with the windows open and a cool summer breeze blowing in. So many people today are supporting these local merchants and are avoiding the big box stores in lieu of shopping and buying "LOCAL." They are not only rediscovering the America of our past, but making the America of our future strong and secure in its heritage.
"Sometimes you find yourself in the middle of nowhere, and sometimes, in the middle of nowhere you find yourself." Come home to America’s "Main Streets."
REMEMBER, UNTIL THE NEXT TIME, THERE’S GOLD IN YOUR ATTIC, HAVE FUN AND HAPPY HUNTING.
Watch for Michael’s new books; STATE AND HIGH; GROWING UP DOWNTOWN, as well as ALONE ON STAGE; THE HISTORY OF THE ONE-PERSON SHOW.