My father’ store—and the house above it where we lived—was not more than 75 feet from the railroad. The trains passing through at night never seem to bother us, but when we had visitors, they woke up with a fright as it seemed to them that the train was going right through the building.
The post office was conveniently located in front of the frame building, one block from the Northwestern depot, as all the mail was handled by the railroad. The mail sacks were carried by hand or carts to and from the train to the depot. Most passenger trains had a mail car where men sorted the mail for distribution to the various towns along the way. The mail trains that did not stop at the town picked up the mail sacks on the fly by curious arrangement. The mail sack was attached at the bottom and the top by a sort of clamp which extended from a small post built next to the tracks. As the train came flying by, one of the postal men in the railcar extended a hook from the car which grabbed the rail sack and brought it into the train. It was a site watching as the mailman never missed.
The post office had four rural mail carriers who delivered to the farmers living in the country. The rural mail carriers sorted their mail in the late afternoon and evening so they could start their deliveries early next morning. The townspeople had to go to the post office to obtain their mail.
The places of business were mostly strung along both sides of Main Street in a haphazard way with a house or too frequently sandwiched in between to break the monotony. The streets were dirt and gravel which were occasionally treated with a coat of oil. The early sidewalks were wood. As the wooden walks were replaced by cement we were able to find occasional nickels and dimes which had been lost in the cracks of the wood sidewalks.
Our town hall was a two-story white-frame building. At the entrance on the first floor was a sort of ticket office and check room, a ladies room, and a little office. Adjoining this was a room where midnight suppers were served, and at the back of this was a small kitchen. The fire hose wagon was stored in a room in the rear, and side, of town hall. Adjoining this was another room which was frequently used for meetings and band practice (when the town had a band). The second floor was used for dances, graduation exercises, programs, piano recitals and performances of all kinds, such as medicine shows, minstrel shows, and later, the silent movie pictures. It was the only public meeting place in the town. It was there I first recited the “Gettysburg Address” on Declaration Day when I was in the fourth grade, saw my first moving picture, and played a little piece at a piano recital.
The town had one meat market, which was operated first by Bill Powers and later Jim Powers, who were related to me on my mother’s side. The meat market floor was covered with sawdust, and always had several open pickle barrels where we could reach down and help ourselves to a pickle. Jim Powers did some of his own slaughtering in a small slaughter-house located a little distance from the edge of town. One day I went out there with some other boys and saw him slaughter a cow. It was not a very appetizing sight to see the cow hit over the skull with a large sledgehammer and then have her throat cut.
In those days, Jim Powers also doubled as the town iceman. Electric refrigerators had not arrived as yet, and most people used their cistern or basement to keep food cool. Jim Powers bought large blocks of ice in the winter, which he stored in a barn converted into an ice house. Wood shavings were packed around the blocks of ice. In the summer time, he delivered blocks of ice to the few people who had an ice box. To fit the block of ice into the icebox, he had to chip or break the blocks into smaller pieces. It was a lot of fun for the boys in the hot summer to hitch a ride on the ice wagon and swipe small pieces of ice which developed as the big blocks were chipped. Those without ice boxes managed very well by using their cistern or basements. People seemed to enjoy their drinks without ice cubes.
Independence Needham ran a busy blacksmith shop. Needham was born on the Fourth of July, so that’s how he got his name, Independence. But we called him Penn. His blacksmith shop was a great place for me to visit. He was always very busy on Saturdays putting shoes on the farmers’ horses. The old horseshoe would be removed and the new shoe fitted. This required trimming the horse’s hoofs with a sharp knife. He kept a hot bed of coals which were kept alive by turning a handle which provided a draft. The new shoe would be put in the hot bed of coals until the shoe was red-hot. It would then be shaped on an anvil, and then stuck in the tub of water to cool. After two or three trial runs, it eventually would fit the horse’s hoof and be nailed on. The end of the nails would be then clipped off with a nail clipper. The blacksmith had a large selection of oaths which he had no hesitancy in using when he was working on a nervous and jumpy horse. The blacksmith also used his skill in replacing iron rims on wooden wheels. In addition, he repaired all kinds of farm machinery. In a sense it was a kind of iron works, and was all free to watch. We had no industrial museum, so this served as an education in more ways than one. The early automobiles were also repaired in the blacksmith’s shop.
The milk industry in those days boasted that their milk was “bottled in the country.” We had such a bottling plant in town, or, as we would call it, the “milk factory.” The farmers had milk cows and brought their milk to town each morning. When in town, they transacted their business and made their purchases. It was the farmer’s trade that the merchants depended upon for their survival. Without the farmers’ business, the town had no reason to exist.
Our milk factory was owned by some of the large dairies in Chicago, and it was located next to the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad, whose tracks passed through the town. At the side of the factory was a small hill. The farmers drove their wagons up to the top of the hill, delivered the cans of milk to the factory, and the milk cans were returned to the farmer who then drove down the other side of the hill. This little hill next to the factory served another most important function. In the winter, when it was covered with snow, all the kids in town brought their sleds over and slid down the hill.
The bottled milk was then shipped by the railroad into Chicago for distribution. Today a small bottling plant is a thing of the past. The farmer’s milk is collected by a special truck and brought to the cities where it is pasteurized and bottled. This is one of the changes which helped to bring the end of the small town as it existed when I was growing up.
The milk factory in Maple Park got into financial difficulties, and was closed for a short period of time. Before it was reopened, the farmers were short of cash, and were unable to pay their bills at my father’s store. This was my first experience of what happens when a business is closed because of financial difficulties.
Of course, the farmers had no electricity and no milking machines. Milking was done by the farmer and his hired hand. When lights were needed in the barn, kerosene lanterns did the job. Sometimes one lantern overturned, fire took the place and the farmer lost his barn.
In the wintertime, the farmers brought their milk to town on bobsleds. The town kids would hitch their sleds behind the farmers’ bobsleds for a nice ride. Sometimes we left our sleds at home and rode on the runners of the bobsled. Some of the farmers did not care for this performance, and would drive the horses fast so we couldn’t jump on the runner. Sometimes we stayed on the runners until the farmers were some distance from town, and then we would have to walk back home with a cold face and hands. If the farmers drove too fast, as they sometimes did, we had to take a few tumbles when we jumped off the runners. Some fun!
Across from my father’s store was a combination restaurant and ice cream parlor, candy and cigar store, run originally by Bill Schaeffer. It did not take me long to be a steady customer. One of the great pleasures was to be on hand in the spring when ice cream—only one flavor, vanilla—was first delivered to the store. No ice cream was available during the winter months as who would want ice cream in the winter? The other joy was to watch peanuts being roasted in the shell. I suppose it was cheaper this way to buy them unroasted and then roast them at the store. I remember one time seeing a man buy some things at Bill Schaeffer’s store and say, “Charge it.” This seemed a wonderful way to buy ice cream, candy, gum, and what-not when you didn’t have any money, so the next day I went into Bill Schaeffer’s store, ordered an ice cream cone, said “charge it,” and ran out of the store. My father soon straightened this out.
To make the town a more attractive trading center, we had two saloons located along Main Street. This was in the days of local option, and the “Drys” periodically would petition for election to make the town dry territory. There was always great controversy between “Wets” and the “Drys” with the Wets practically always successful. As the other neighboring towns became dry, Maple Park became an oasis, and later two additional saloons sprang into business to quench the thirst of those who voted “Dry” but drank wet. There was always a large number of people in this category. On Saturday night, Main Street would be jammed with people, many of whom came from afar to quench their thirst. While at times this brought some undesirable people, on the whole it was well-managed, and provided a needed source of revenue to the businesses of the little town. Many nights our store would be jammed with customers, and we wouldn’t close to 10 or 11 o’clock.