During the past century, we changed from a rural society to one that is now 80 percent urban. Our lives have changed. A trip down memory lane to a village I once knew reveals some of the changes.
As recently as the 1940s, Center Point, Ind., was a village of 300 people that had an automobile dealership, a hardware store, a lumber yard, a drug store, two grocery stores, a restaurant, a post office, a bank, a mortuary, a barbershop, a women’s hair salon, a blacksmith shop, a doctor, a greenhouse, a telephone company, a livestock feed mill, two churches, a cemetery, and a school.
In those days, people went to town on Saturday. During the late 1940s, Center Point merchants showed a free movie on an outdoor screen on Saturday nights during the summer months. People came to town on Saturday afternoon, transacted their business and, perhaps, stayed for the outdoor movie. The men’s barbershop had a shower facility that men could use for 25 cents. Some men did use the shower, probably those who did not have indoor plumbing in their homes. I haven’t a clue about what their women folk did for bathing facilities!
The grocery stores had small trucks traveling the countryside where the drivers purchased fresh eggs and vegetables that were later sold in the grocery stores.
The local telephone switchboard was a large collection of “jacks” that had to be manually pulled from one connecting point and installed in another to effect telephone connections. Almost everyone was on a “party line.” A long ring followed by two short rings meant that the telephone call was for my family. Everyone else on the party line also heard the ring and could pick up the receiver and listen to the conversation if they wanted to — somewhat antedating the National Security Agency. If you wanted to place a call to someone who was not on your party line, you signaled the switchboard operator with a hand crank to produce one ring on the phone and told the operator whom you wanted to talk with. It was not uncommon for the switchboard operator to reply, “Oh, they’re not home today.”
The gasoline pumps had a glass cylinder on the top of the pump. That glass cylinder held about 15 gallons of gasoline, and it had marks to indicate the number of gallons in the glass cylinder. At the base of the pump, near the ground, was a long handle. You had to move the handle back and forth to pump gasoline into the clear glass cylinder at the top, about a half-gallon per stroke. When you had pumped as much gasoline as you wanted into the glass cylinder, you then put the hose nozzle in your car’s gas tank and gravity fed the gasoline into the automobile. The term “pumping gas” meant pumping gas.
During the Prohibition Era (1920-33), gangsters were a prominent aspect of life in Chicago. When the “heat” was on, the gangsters sometimes disappeared into the countryside until things cooled. Since their normal occupation was “booze and banks,” they sometimes robbed a country bank, a fairly easy thing to do in those days. Stories were told, when I was young, about a Chicago gang that made a pass at the Center Point bank. The bank was on one corner of a “T” intersection. A lumber yard was on another corner and a hardware store was across the street. The proprietors of the hardware store and the lumber yard each kept a loaded shotgun on pegs above the entry doors of their businesses. The story goes that gangsters drove past the bank a couple of times and, as they were about to make their move, discovered that they were about to be the target in a shotgun crossfire. In any event, the bank was never robbed so long as that system was in effect.
It seems impossible now, but the hardware store sold dynamite. People used it to remove large tree stumps from farmland.
Times have changed.
(Stevenson is a retiree from Pensacola, Fla., who served two years in Vietnam as an infantry officer, retired from military service, and worked three years as a U.S. Civil Service employee. He also worked in Egypt as an employee of the former Radio Corporation of America (RCA). Currently, he reads history, follows issues important to Americans, and writes commentary.)