Category Archives: Downtown Florence

Plunderer’s paradise

CouldHaveBeenRogersBrothersFurnitureMy grandmother always called me a “plunderer.” I preferred to call myself an explorer, I just explored closets and chifferobes, kitchen cabinets and junk drawers.

You never knew what you might find in a dresser drawer at Mimi’s, stray pennies, nails, jar lids or rubber bands.

And in the early 1960’s the curiosity and snoopiness caused no doubt by my plundering gene hadn’t diminished much. I went shopping one Saturday afternoon for inexpensive pots and pans, cereal bowls and silverware.

My household budget was fairly small. I had dropped out of college to get married and although my family graciously threw me a bridal shower, these more mundane items weren’t among my shower gifts.

I browsed through the stores of downtown Florence, deciding to comparison shop a bit before making my selections. My little notebook was getting crammed with descriptions and prices of current needs plus future wants as I walked out of the back door of Kresses, meaning to cross over to McCown-Smith Department Store.

It was a pretty day, I was in no particular hurry, so I decided to stroll north on Dargan Street. I made note of several places I might like to check out later, especially the shoe repair shop.

I paused at the end of the block in front of the Army-Navy Store. No pots and pans were visible through the window glass, so I turned to cross the street and discovered a treasure — Rogers Brothers Furniture.

The front of the store seemed completely open to the street. Blue and black enamel cook pots, brooms and mops, mop buckets and chamber pots sat on the sidewalk and floor, while small tables held stacks of thick white china plates and saucers and cups, assorted farm utensils interspersed with more housewifely gadgets.

One side of the entrance was lined with leaf rakes and circles of garden hose. Hanging high on the walls were a variety of household items like coils of clothesline and sacks of clothespins. Rogers Brothers Furniture had more than furniture!

To a born plunderer, Rogers Brothers seemed a virtual paradise to browse through and snoop in to my heart’s content. I entered the store proper and found the furniture: dining room tables that could seat ten or twelve, overstuffed sofas, white metal kitchen tables and straight-back chairs, dark wood end tables and tall skinny magazine racks.

There were stacks and stacks of wood furniture, some shiny and expensive looking, some pretty ordinary and more my budget.

In between larger pieces were small rolled-up throw rugs and larger rolled-up lengths of linoleum in floral patterns of pink, green or yellow. No amount of space was wasted in that store.

As I explored, I stopped and counted the items in one furniture pyramid that rose to the ceiling. Anchoring the bottom was a dining room table, a smaller kitchen table topping that. Then came several kitchen chairs fitted into each other like a jig-saw puzzle, two end tables laid on their side atop those, with one large table lamp crowning the peak.

Milk-glass what-nots and large ceramic ash trays covered what space was left over on the bottom tiers of the pyramid. Multiple furniture pyramids occupied the store front to back, some with sofa bases, some with armchairs, but all decorated with knick-knacks galore.

Nestled here and there among the various pieces of household furniture were man-of-the-house tool chests and lady-of-the-house tool kits. Stacks of hand towel “seconds” wrapped with cord ready for the yard mechanic’s use lay next to kitchen towels and washcloths for the housewife.

As I slowly made my way toward the back of the first “aisle,” I found the kitchenware. Laid out helter-skelter on top of a table were piles of pots and pans of every size, plus soup bowls, spoons and forks, and more stacks of plates and cups.

None of the pots came with lids, but that was okay. Over on the floor to the side of the table was a large pasteboard box overflowing with pot lids, metal or enamel. Everything on my shopping list was right there, all well within my price range.

One of the twin Rogers brothers spotted me and came over, asking if he could help me find anything. He pointed out other sections of the store for me to peruse, including books! An old wooden bookcase stuffed with water-stained paperbacks, recipe books with loose pages and out-of-date magazines attracted me like a magnet.

I spent a very pleasant few minutes tugging books and magazines out to look over, finally adding a Fannie Farmer paperback recipe book with browning pages to my stack of purchases. A practical purchase it proved to be over the years, held together in its last days with rubber bands.

When I finally left the store with my finds, I had acquired several more items than on my shopping list, including the recipe book — isn’t that always the way? I still have the assortment of pot lids I bought that day, although the cook pots they were bought for wore out long ago.

Some years later Rogers Brothers moved to a larger location in the center of that block, and later still to a location on the edge of town where the family business morphed from furniture to fabrics. I browsed through there one day, but it wasn’t nearly as much fun.

I still have fond memories of my shopping trips to Rogers Brothers on North Dargan Street. I’ve never found another plunderer’s paradise quite like that one.

Note: The photos are not of Rogers Brothers Furniture, alas – I couldn’t find any from those day. These are internet photos of similar shops across the country, still popular with young housewives and curio collectors.

We didn’t need a car

HMotte@SanbornHotel0001Daddy (Harold Motte, Sr.) enjoying Sunday afternoon visit with friend in the lobby of the Sanborn Hotel. Love those socks!

Florence was easy to get around in when I was growing up. We had a variety of transportation modes, car for out-of-town, bicycle for around-town, and feet for in-town. Kids and grownups alike did a lot of walking in those days.

Things were closer together then, homes, gas stations, grocery stores, fish markets, churches, parks, schools, theaters, the shopping district, everything. You needed a car if you were going out to the airport, out to Second Loop Road or out to Five Points, but if you went downtown, you walked.

Buying something too big to carry, like a sofa or refrigerator? The store would deliver it right to your door. Weekly groceries too. The A&P and Colonial Grocery Stores were both in the 200 block of West Evans with smaller, locally-owned grocery stores sprinkled around. If you weren’t driving a car, the clerk would bag up your purchases and a nice fellow would bring them home for you.

Harvey’s Thriftway would even take your order over the telephone and deliver it, if you couldn’t make it in to buy your meat and canned goods.

Milk from Coble Dairy was plopped down on our front step every morning bright and early, just like the morning paper. Pickup trucks loaded down with produce fresh from the farm drove throughout our neighborhood, just like the ice-cream man. Mama selected our cabbages and butter beans and tomatoes just a few yards from our own kitchen.

Need ice? An old-fashioned ice box occupied a spot in our kitchen for much of my younger years. The mule-drawn ice wagon, later the flatbed ice truck, stopped at our address to haul in whatever we needed for the week.

One of my earliest memories is strolling down Pine Street sidewalk, headed to Sunday School at First Baptist Church where Daddy was a member. Daddy walked on the street side in case a car came along and splashed a mud puddle or something and mother on the house side. I usually walked in front of them, skipping along in my white Mary Jane shoes and frilly white socks.

They encouraged my brother and me to keep our young feet on the sidewalk and off the neighbors’ lawns, and discouraged us from taking a minor detour to chase a neighborhood cat or squirrel. After Sunday School, we all walked another block to attend the 11:00 o’clock worship service at Central Methodist, where Mother was a member.

BostonCafeSmallAll that walking naturally worked up an appetite, so after church we walked several more blocks to the Boston Cafe on Dargan Street. The few restaurants in downtown Florence were really busy on Sundays after church.

The Boston was one of our favorites, offering meat loaf and fried chicken and pork chops, butter beans and corn and string beans, dinner rolls, tea or coffee. Dessert might be vanilla pudding, chocolate cake, or lemon meringue pie.

We regularly saw a lot of Mama and Daddy’s friends there with their kids in tow and the low-back booths allowed easy conversation between families. If you cleaned your plate before Mama and Daddy were finished, you could go sit with a buddy in his booth and chat.

After lunch, the pace was a bit slower and this time the family split in two. Around the corner and up East Evans Street we would arrive at the Sanborn Hotel, where Daddy and Harold would sit in the great lobby and catch up on the week’s news with friend Sanborn Chase. (See photo above.)

Mother and I continued on, crossing East Evans Street to peruse the showcases in Belk’s before heading up one side of West Evans and down the other. We carefully examined every shop window. Dresses in Gladstone’s, shoes in Miller’s Bootery. Pocketbooks. Jewelry. Hardware. Men’s ties and suits.

Window displays changed every week and we needed to keep up with the newest merchandise, just in case we needed to come back and buy something in the near future. By the time we closed the circle back at the Sanborn, Daddy and Harold were ready to call it an afternoon. We might return home by a different route so we could check out somebody else’s lawn, or cat, or squirrel.

Families and kids walked other times, too, of course. There was always something entertaining to do, and sometimes getting there was part of the entertainment.


The Florence Cotton Warehouse Fire of 1948

“RUSSIA REJECTS PLAN FOR SOLVING BERLIN CRISIS,” read the Florence Morning News front page headline Sunday, October 24, 1948.

Directly under it in smaller letters was another headline, “$80,000 Fire Destroys ACL Cotton Platform Here.”

It took me several years to find this story — not the one about Russia and Berlin; the one about the fire.

CottonWarehouseFireB&WI remember that night clearly, the sight, the sounds, the smells. And the people.

It was well past my bedtime when the alarm went off that night. Half of downtown Florence must have heard it. My parents hurriedly got us up and dressed and the next thing I remember, we were headed down the street toward the railroad tracks.

“The fire attracted a large crowd of people from all sections of the city,” read the newspaper article. Despite the late hour hundreds of people crowded the streets, all of us drawn to see what was going on. There wasn’t just a foot-traffic jam, there was a car-traffic jam too, as more and more people drove in and parked haphazardly along the streets.

Some men simply left their cars or trucks in the middle of the street, jumping out and running toward the fire. Looking back, I realize they were hurrying to help the overwhelmed fire department. From the horrible glow against the night sky we knew it had to be bad, and it was.

As we got near, water hoses criss-crossed the street and we had to watch our step. Mama and Daddy each held one of us kids in a tight grip while we walked with the growing crowd of other parents and children.

The fire engine roar nearly drowned out their speech as adults tried to talk. “Wonder what started it?” “What’s in there?” Then we began to smell it. The combined odors of burning cotton, rubberized roofing and wood veneer furniture created a stench. At one point, “a drum containing tar or oil exploded and was heard all over the city.”

When we had gotten as close as we were permitted by police and firemen, the crowd spread out and stood assembled to watch and to pray. Now and then through gaps in buildings we’d see flames shooting into the air, but mostly we just saw a dark red glare extending upward and outward. Clouds of smoke could be seen rising in the night sky, illuminated by the glare.

People shuffled around, jockeying for position and inching forward. “Can’t see much,” one man said, turning back to give his spot to someone else.

I don’t know how long we stayed out there in the night, watching and listening and smelling. Gradually the crowd began to thin out as people returned to their homes or their cars. The next day’s newspaper article began, “100 Bales of Cotton Are Burned, Weaver Furniture Co. Warehouse, Frank Key Roofing Building Lost… The cotton platform itself, about 200 by 300 feet in dimensions, was said to be almost a total loss.”

On Sunday afternoon our family joined others at the scene of the fire. Nothing much was left but pile after pile of blackened rubble. Several fire hoses were still in place, I guess in case of a flare-up. I don’t know how there could have been one, considering the thousands of gallons of water poured onto the fire.

We had to step around black puddles of run-off on sidewalks, ground and street as we walked closer. The smell wasn’t as much of a stench now, it was more like the stink from garbage piles burning down at the city dump.

That fire was a huge loss to the City of Florence. The cotton platform was the only one of its kind in town, according to the ACL spokesman, and I have no idea if it was ever re-built.

Why did I search for this news article for several years? Other major fires had happened in town before and several more after that, but this one imprinted itself in my memory. I could remember how old I was at the time. I could still feel the coolness of the night air on my face, so I knew it had to be fall or spring.

I could still see the glare of the flames in my mind, hear the fire engines and smell that horrible odor. I could still hear the word “warehouse” passed from person to person as we walked along. But I didn’t know exactly what had happened and it bugged me.

So I’m glad to finally learn what did happen that night, but sorry too. My mother’s house burned in 1965, also in the middle of the night. I’m not ready to write about those memories yet. A fire is a dreadful thing, whether it’s a business or a house, no matter what the year.

Here’s the full text of the Florence Morning News article (the fire image is from another source):

SUNDAY MORNING, OCTOBER 24, 1948 ACL Cotton Platform Here 100 Bales Of Cotton Are Burned; Weaver Furniture Co. Warehouse, Frank Key Roofing Building Lost

Fire caused an estimated damage of $80,000 or more here last night when the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad Co. cotton platform warehouse containing some 100 bales of cotton, and an adjoining building containing a boxcar of roofing and another warehouse full of furniture was destroyed.

The cotton platform itself, about 200 by 30 feet in dimensions, was said to be almost a total loss. It was owned by the A. C. L. and was used by cotton buyers of this section for weighing and shipping cotton daily. It was located between North Irby and Lucas Streets at the A. C. L. freight tracks.

Frank Key of Florence estimated that he lost some of the roofing, the most of which had just been delivered, he said. Mr. Key rented space in the south end of the platform building from the A. C. L.

An adjoining building, said to be owned by Marion Lucas of Florence and rented to the Weaver Furniture Company of this city was also destroyed by the fire. The company was said to have had the building stored full of furniture but no representative of the company could be contacted last night for comment.

R. B. Hare, superintendent of the Columbia District, A. C. L. said that the platform was built about 8 or 10 years ago. Mr. Hare was at the scene of the fire but he did not estimate the damage to the building. He said that it is the only cotton platform of its kind in Florence. M. J. Dickert, A. C. L. freight agent, also at the fire, said that cotton was handled on the platform daily and he estimated that about 100 bales were destroyed by the fire.

The fire alarm came into the city fire department about 11 p. m. and firemen fought the fire from all sides but it had got a big headway before the alarm was given. No one had any idea of the origin of the fire. Mr. Keys said that he did not have any insurance on his roofing that was in the building

The fire attracted a large crowd of people from all sections of the city. At the height of the fire a drum containing tar or oil exploded and was heard all over the city. Firemen focused their hoses on the section with the drums and no others exploded.

The Day the Martians landed

Kudzu Vines, Chinaberry Trees, and the Day the Martians Landed

kudzu1Kudzu has taken over the swamp on West Palmetto Street. This is an annual ritual, of course. Warm sunny days, a little rain, and lots of kudzu vines.

The broad, delicate leaves drive some folks crazy, pulling, burning, cussing – but to a kid in the 1950’s, the kudzu forest in the center of our block was a wonderful thing.

A few trees stretched upwards between the bushes, and under that shady canopy were many caves, tunnels and other hideouts. Cowboys and Indians? Of course. Cops and robbers? Them too. And Martians!

Whenever I pass the kudzu-covered swamp, I want to park the car and dive right in, become a kid again, burrow beneath the leafy branches and find arrowheads, bottle caps, bits of pull chain and bolts, maybe even pennies or nickels! Oh, for the good old days of kudzu vines and chinaberry trees.

A chinaberry tree looks like a cross between a pecan tree and an oak tree. The branches are thick and start low to the ground, and there are lots of them. They arch, twist, and form handy angles for sitting or climbing for grade-school kids.

Communications were great from the branches of a chinaberry. A couple of empty bean cans threaded with tobacco twine pulled taut, and you were all set. Enemy spies? I spy an enemy spy! Notify HQ!

Green chinaberries may look like oversize garden peas but they are hard as acorns. They made convenient ammo fired from your standard caliber sling-shot. Our sling-shots were hand-made, of course, with a sturdy handle ending in the best fork you could fashion, a length of rubber inner-tube for the business end.

Getting hit with a chinaberry propelled by a sling-shot was no laughing matter, but we didn’t have any crack shots in our crew so there weren’t many direct hits, or mama would have used a different weapon on our tender bottoms.

Oh yes, about the day the Martians landed…

All the kids loved our kudzu forest. It only stood to reason, (these were the days of the movies “Invaders From Mars”, “The Red Planet” and “Rocketship X-M”) if Martians wanted a good place to hide while they studied the earth, they’d pick that kudzu field, right?

One day Harold and I were out there playing when we saw them. They were tall and scary! They wore gas masks with long tubes to breath whatever kind of air they needed, helmets with ear flaps and spacesuits of course, and they made terrible alien noises. They started after us but our little legs were too fast.

Then they fell back laughing hilariously, and it turned out they weren’t Martians at all, just older kids who lived on the other side of the block. I was sort of sorry they weren’t real Martians, though.

It would have been really something if we were the first to discover them – it would have put Florence on the map, and us, too!

Duz does everything

DuzAdGlassesRemember Duz? Duz laundry detergent got out all kinds of dirt and stains. But just in case you didn’t really believe that, in the 1940’s and 50’s you could furnish your kitchen with good old Duz.

Goblets and dinner plates, flatware and dish towels all came free with Duz laundry detergent. You might get a little pasteboard box containing a teacup in your Duz this week, assuring you’d buy more to get the saucer next week.

I don’t remember how well it cleaned the laundry but Duz did one thing well, it sure sold laundry detergent. I still have a couple of those smoky-gray goblets, good as the day mama bought them.

Perk-a perk-a perk perk, a perka perk perk… can’t you smell the “good to the last drop” Maxwell House percolating? The perky commercial stuck in your mind and when you hit the grocery store, why naturally you had to buy a bag. The last time I used a percolater it was to heat water for instant coffee. Boy, my days are different now.

For several months in the late 1940’s my family occupied an upstairs apartment in a big two-story house. One memorable summer morning I wandered around indoors looking for something interesting to do. I had already cut out all my paper dolls, read all my comic books and colored all my coloring book.

Etta (our housekeeper/babysitter) was in the kitchen ironing the Duz-fresh laundry, sipping Maxwell House coffee and listening to Don McNeil’s Breakfast Club on the radio. Harold occupied himself with his Lionel trains or something. I couldn’t jump rope indoors. Couldn’t play hopskotch indoors. Needed more girls to play jacks. What to do?

TelephoneNoDialMaking my way into the living room I spied that remarkable gadget, our very first telephone. Heavy and bulky, there was no dial, just mostly a smooth black surface.

Hmm. My curiosity getting the best of me, I raised the receiver to my ear to see what it sounded like in there. A lady’s voice demanded “Number please.” Startled, I was afraid to hang up — the woman in the phone might know where I lived!

But I didn’t know any telephone numbers, not even our own, so, quick-thinking me asked for my mother’s office. The kindly telephone operator looked up the number and said, “I’ll connect you now.” And she did.

Of course I got a good talking-to since the phone was strictly off-limits except in an emergency, and “What time are you coming home” wasn’t exactly an emergency. I explained as best I could that it was all a terrible misunderstanding, but I had a feeling there would be another talking-to when mama did come home.

I went into the kitchen, opened the icebox and took down a bottle of milk. The block of ice in the box was nearly melted but the milk was still cold. Etta hummed along with the radio, her squirt bottle going “swhush swhush” as she dampened a shirt for ironing. I dunked a cookie in my milk and pondered what to do with the rest of the morning that wouldn’t get me into trouble.

Well, dress-up was always fun. I made a beeline for mama and daddy’s bedroom. I carefully lifted the lid of mama’s jewelry box and listened to the little tune, then fingered through the dainty necklaces and earrings. Selecting several mismatched drop sapphire earrings, I carefully screwed them onto my lobes.

(Those orphan earrings now reside in my own jewelry box; I’ve never been able to part with them.)

I scrounged around in the closet for articles I figured mama wouldn’t wear again, then lugged my makeshift wardrobe into the living room. Onto my skinny shins I pulled run-filled stockings, sliding round garters up my legs to keep the baggy hose in place. It was a lost cause; they kept creeping down and I had to keep yanking them back up.

I added a crinkly crenoline to my ensemble, adjusting the waist with a safety pin. A gold knit top came next, picked and pilled with a few runs in it too, but I loved it. I carefully hitched up a black felt skirt over the crenoline. Knee-length on mama, it was evening dress length on me. I cinched a wide elastic belt in place to fasten everything and knew I looked glamorous.

Next I perched a black straw pillbox atop my head, untangling the veil and pulling it down. By the time I got all that netting straightened out it stretched nearly to my chin. Oh well, more glamor! Finally I slipped my toes into a pair of mama’s high heels. Clinging to the sofa, I rose to my wobbly feet and attempted to strut across the living room.

I soon discovered I needed a bit more padding in a few strategic spots, including my feet. Maneuvering in those slippers proved to be a real drag, especially when I had to yank my stockings back up every minute or so. I didn’t care; I was Marlene Dietrich to my heart’s content that morning.

In spite of my telephone misadventure I had a lot of fun that day, mostly with stuff that doesn’t exist any more. Of course, I do still have those two Duz goblets and the orphan screw-on sapphire earbobs. They might be worth a lot on E-bay these days, but they’re worth a lot more in memories to me.

(Reprinted from 2006.)

Mother’s Day is coming up

There’s so much to notice in this photograph, taken by my photographer father on some special occasion – perhaps even Mother’s Day. Click on it to enlarge. I remember that apartment on West Palmetto Street, upstairs in a large two-story house just a few doors down from the intersection with Coit Street. Only commercial buildings are located in that block now.

Mother’s Day brings back so many memories…

Mama died in 1970. Mama’s mother, my grandmother Mimi, died in 1973. Daddy’s mother died when I was only two and I have no memories of her at all, but I wish they were all still here to celebrate Mother’s Day with me. Here’s a slightly re-arranged post from several years ago.

When I was small I loved to make Mother’s Day cards for mama. Even if I had purchased something I still made the cards for her. Usually they were multi-layer creations: when you opened the first page, there was a smaller page glued inside, and another inside that. Each page featured a hand-drawn, crayon-colored picture, maybe a flower or a heart, and each page said “I Love You, Mama.” I might spend several hours with scissors, rubber cement and crayolas, sometimes starting over several times until I got my masterpiece just right.

After she died in 1970 I came across an old pasteboard box with the flaps folded into each other. Prying it open I discovered my birth certificate, baby clothes, baby book, old report cards, piano recital programs, and handfuls of those home-made cards I’d given her. It looked like she had saved every one I’d ever made. I sat there a long time, fingering those little pages and re-reading each one. I think about that a lot these days when Mother’s Day rolls around.

Here’s another great photo of mama taken by daddy, not sure where. It may have been taken in Florence, but could have been anywhere from Newport News, Virginia to Albuquerque, New Mexico, places where they were stationed during WWII.

A while back I wrote that everything I really needed to know I learned in kindergarten. That’s not completely true. I also learned a great many things from my mother and grandmother, my aunts, from Sunday School teachers, public school teachers, the mothers of friends, and a lot of other women.

The main one, though, was mama. Mama always worked outside the home. Before I was born she did clerical work on the military bases where Daddy was stationed. After I was born she worked in an office downtown. Bad parenting? No, economics. My brother and I didn’t consider it being “deprived;” it was just the way things were.

But when mama was home in the evenings and on weekends, we were learning things. Like chores. Chores were divvied up like pieces of a pie. Our house, no matter where we lived, had white woodwork. Today a lot of houses lack woodwork around doors and windows. Saves on housework, that’s for sure. Our semi-gloss woodwork collected stray fingerprints and smudges like a magnet. Amongst laundry-folding, furniture-dusting and trash-emptying, removing “not white” marks from door jambs and windowsills was a weekly responsibility.

Washing dishes was my daily duty after school. There weren’t many plates and forks to wash but oh those pots and pans! Steel wool time. Every afternoon I dillied and dallied until it was nearly time for mama’s car to drive up before I ran the dishwater. Seldom did I get an early start and have the kitchen spick and span before her arrival home.

Soon it was time to peel something like onions or potatoes, slice something like cucumbers or tomatoes, or grate something, like cheese. Cheese for cheese biscuits, cheese for macaroni and cheese, cheese for cheese grits, any of which was a favorite on the supper menu; or cabbage for cole slaw, which wasn’t.

In between chores, mama taught us the three R’s, particularly reading, from the time we could hold one of those thick-paged baby books. While my grandmother Mimi subscribed to every magazine she could think of, mama loved books. There were library books, new and used paperbacks and hardback books on many different subjects.

How-to books on electricity, plumbing and math, informational books on Southern Snakes or Southern Skies, science fiction books by Isaac Asimov et al and Christian books by Dr. Norman Vincent Peale — everywhere you looked there was a book or two on an end table. Reading for themselves and reading to us was as natural to my parents as preparing meals or paying bills. You just did it.

Mama also loved piddling around the house, piddling around the yard, and piddling around the sky. That’s how she put it. She encouraged us to piddle too. “I’m just piddling,” she’d say as she stitched something up, like old draperies to make sofa cushions, or old skirts to make aprons.

“I’m just piddling,” she’d say as she planted marigolds and zinnias, chrysanthemums and asters in neat graduated rows against the front yard fence. She’d explain about ladybugs and garden snails, and why some weeds were fine and some were not. She’d never just pull up a dandelion, she’d solemnly explain if you blow the thing to smithereens and scatter all those fluffy seeds, which yes indeed did look like fun, there would be zillions of them next year stealing all the good nutrients from the pretty zinnias, see?

“I’m just piddling,” mama would say as she lugged out the telescope to watch sputnik go over on a clear night. (I wonder how many households owned a telescope in those days.) “Come look, the stars are so pretty tonight. And would you make me a milkshake and bring it when you come?” I’d carefully measure out a spoonful of vanilla flavoring, stir two spoonfuls of sugar into a tall glass of milk, drop in several ice cubes and join mama’s sputnik-watching, or Big-Dipper watching, or man-in-the-moon watching.

When I needed spending money over and above my weekly allowance, mama taught me how to do office work. She’d bring home box-fulls of envelopes and letters, show me the proper way to fold a page in thirds and stuff it in an envelope, then the easy way to seal a batch of stuffed envelopes. Fan the flaps out so only the gummed part of each one is showing, then run a damp sponge across all the flaps at once and quickly flip each flap into place. Nothing to it.

She’d pronounce my work acceptable and pay me a dollar or so. We’d discuss many things while we worked, school, friends, hair styles, grades, books, newspaper articles, homework assignments — come to think of it, school got into our conversation a lot in those days.

Mama was a classroom volunteer and for some reason I don’t remember what exactly she did. Maybe she brought cookies or something, who knows. One thing I do remember, though. She was voted the prettiest mother in the 8th grade at Poynor. I was dumbfounded to learn my classmates adored my mother. I knew I adored my mama, but I had no idea anybody else’s kids did too. I was impressed!

There are lots more memories but for now, here’s wishing a Happy Mother’s Day to mothers of all ages, to those who still have their mothers or grandmothers with them, and to those who, like me, wish they did.

Can’t Get There From Here

NDarganStGuarantyBldgFor a while in the late 1940’s, my father worked as a professional photographer.

“Where was your daddy’s photography studio?” a fellow asked me one day.

“Well, I went to his studio once or twice when I was little. Remember when the China Shop used to be downtown? (No.) Next door to the old Post Office on West Evans? (Okay.) I thought it was upstairs in that building but then somebody told me his studio was somewhere else. (Where?) Remember the bank on West Evans with the back door on Dargan Street?” (No.)

“Well, remember the Kresses downtown that had a back door on Dargan?” (Oh, yeah.) “The back door of the bank was next to the back door of Kresses. There were some offices upstairs in that building. Daddy supposedly had a studio up there.”

Notice all the “remembers?” Well, there’s no China Shop downtown any more. No bank on West Evans and Dargan and no Kresses. If that fellow had been any younger, I probably would have had to walk him down the street and show him in person!

Our conversation was sort of like giving directions to get somewhere out in the county. “Remember when old man Kirby’s tobacco barn burned down? Twenty years or so back? Turn left just past there.” Unless you grew up around here, you might not be able to get there from here!

Of course, all that made me remember some other things from the 1950’s. Like the fact that banks in downtown Florence used to close at 1:00 o’clock every day. One day a week, I think it was Wednesday, they weren’t open at all. And of course nobody ever heard of a branch bank.

Or the fact that you could set your watch by the whistle at Florence Manufacturing Company just outside of town. For years nearly every working woman in Florence had a job in that sewing plant, down at the end of Chase Street near the Darlington Highway railroad tracks. Some days they made shirts, other days they made dresses.

Every drug store had a soda fountain and a soda jerk, something you seldom see these days. I can hear some of you young’uns ask, “Soda jerk, what’s a soda jerk?” (Look it up.) High school kids hung out at their favorite fountain after school.

One on the corner of West Evans and South Irby Street had black and white hexagonal ceramic tile floors, tiny glass-top tables and bow-legged metal chairs.

Fountain Coke was served in hourglass-shaped glasses and cherry coke came with a real cherry on top of crushed ice. Banana splits were available but few teenagers had enough cash for one of those. We usually made do with scoops of plain vanilla.

Remember “white coat hypertension?” It’s when your blood pressure goes up when you see the doctor in his white coat. When was the last time your doctor wore a white coat in his office? Or a nurse wore a white uniform and white cap?

Remember when Dr. Sylvester’s office was in the little house on South Irby? Across from where the Florence Morning News used to be? He was my doctor in the early 1960’s and he was the first one that I’d ever seen not wearing a white coat in his office.

All the businessmen wore suits and ties and hats, and women wore dresses, hose and heels. High school kids did not wear jeans. The guys wore slacks and button-downs, the girls wore skirts with twin sets, penny loafers and bobby socks.

I have a collection of historical and pictorial books about Florence, town and county. Every one of them feature the 100 block of West Evans showing the businesses at various incarnations from the early 1900’s to the 1960’s. Remember what’s at the end of that block? The Lake’s Drug Store building, later known as the McCown-Smith Department Store building, used to be there.

florencedowntownIt was a Florence icon, that building. It was probably the oldest continually-used building downtown, appearing in the very earliest maps and photos of Florence. Today it’s an empty lot. Planted with grass, but still an empty lot.

Reminiscing can be contagious and addictive when you run into an old friend, and your speech may be liberally sprinkled with “remembers.” I love those conversations… some are bittersweet these days.

Skyscrapers and Me Don’t Mix

Florence Trust Building, 1920's

Florence Trust Building (officially, the Florence Title and Trust Building), original width, early 1920s.

I enjoyed climbing trees at age eight or so. There weren’t many trees in our yard but Mimi’s chinaberries weren’t hard to climb. They had low-growing, thick limbs with lots of handy knots and smaller limbs to use for navigation. Stringing wire for tin-can telephones, playing cops and robbers or war games in chinaberry trees was a regular summer pastime when Harold and I were at our grandparents’.

Granddaddy operated the cotton gin and sawmill at Cusaac’s Crossroads for a while. Hot boring days could become more interesting with climbs to the top of the cotton seed house. It was a small square building atop sturdy posts, kept filled by a conveyor that blew in machine-separated cotton seeds from the top. Harold and I climbed up the ladder (that was a no-no), jumped into the soft bed of cotton seeds (another no-no), and used that seed house like our personal trampoline. We didn’t know about the rats and snakes that made their homes beneath all that fluffy stuff until years later.

The gin building itself was another fascinating playground, when not in operation. The baler was a big hole in the floor, cotton-bale dimensions. The hole would be packed down and piled high with ginned cotton, a huge motorized press was lowered and in just a few moments you had a cotton bale! Finished bales lined the long platform outside like oversized ABC blocks. Exploring inside the gin building was another no-no, because the baler turned on and off with what looked like ordinary light switches. If we were playing hide and seek down in that hole and somebody accidentally leaned on the switch — well, I’m not sure what a baled-up eight or six year old would look like but it couldn’t have been good.

Granddaddy’s sawdust pile was another fun place to climb, but yet another no-no. It was an ideal place for shoot-em-ups with maypop grenades, or surfing on short boards off the lumber pile. We never really believed we could fall inside and suffocate like Mimi and Da claimed…

Climbing was just a natural part of childhood, be it on tree or tree-left-overs.

Florence Trust Building

Shows the Florence Trust Building with the completed addition, doubling the width of the building.

Back home in downtown Florence, there was something tall I didn’t like so well: the Trust Building, a.k.a. “The Skyscraper.” Mother occasionally took me with her when she ran an errand there and we’d ride up on the slow, run-it-yourself creaky elevator. It was nothing at all like the neat one at Belk’s. When we arrived at our stop, the narrow, dimly lit hallway seemed just as creaky as the elevator. Our footsteps echoed on the tile floors, the sound bouncing back to us from the high ceiling.

There was no air conditioning in those days and office windows would be raised to let the air circulate. If the doors were ajar on either side of the hallway, you could feel a draft and look out into thin air on the left and the right. Worse to me, though, was feeling the whole building sway back and forth when we rode on the elevator! I know folks say it’s impossible but that’s how it felt to me.

And recently I’ve learned something about the Trust Building I never knew before – when it was first built it was only half as wide as it is today. If you stand across the street from the front and let your eyes travel toward the top, it is obvious where the new part was added. There’s a decorative brick layer on the original side that wasn’t duplicated on the addition, for some reason.

Maybe I really couldn’t feel the building moving, but local historians reported that the first occupants did indeed feel it sway! Maybe that’s why it was enlarged, who knows.

At age ten or so some friends and I discovered another climbing no-no, the stairwells in the Florentine, Florence’s second skyscraper. We were old hats at riding elevators by then, but the stairwells represented to us what the climbing wall at Ebenezer represents to kids today. See how fast you can get to the first floor. See how fast you can get back down, then how fast you can get to the second floor!

The third floor or so was as far as we usually got in our climbing contests, but one adventuresome day we asked ourselves: wonder if we can get out on the top floor? The penthouse level was private territory and we’d never been all the way up there before. Flight by flight we made it up the stairwell. The doorway at the top had been left propped open by painters or cleaners or somebody, and we tiptoed out. “Trespassers will be shot,” isn’t that what they say? We figured we’d be shot, or arrested, or maybe dropped over the edge. After all that trouble, it was pretty much of a letdown. There was nothing interesting to see except a closed door.

After a few moments of craning our necks looking at the tops of all the other buildings from this new vantage-point, we turned back to the stairwell for the trip back down, and I got an unpleasant shock. Rubber legs. I’d never climbed that many stairs at one time before and my muscles were rebelling. Clinging to the hand rail, I descended by placing both feet on each step, one at a time, floor after dreary floor.

Stopping to rub my calves now and then, I thought about this latest no-no. We hadn’t been shot, arrested or thrown overboard, but I was sure paying for playing where I wasn’t supposed to. Coping with their sore legs better than I was, my buddies beat me to the ground floor and disappeared toward home. Climbing sort of lost its appeal to me for a while after that, and I decided I really didn’t care for skyscrapers.

Summers were safe in the 1950’s

Timrod Park Swimming Pool, 1950’s… the scent of chloride, “thunk thunk” of the diving board and splashes of fun-loving swimmers. Summers were pretty safe for kids in search of fun in the late 1940’s and early 50’s Florence.

After school and on Saturday afternoons, pals could inhabit city streets without parents going nuts with worry. You could leave your unlocked house, ride your bike or roller skate along city streets, come home for a quick parent check, then go again.

Round up a few friends and you could play a game of hopscotch drawn on the sidewalks with bits of rock, play tag, pick-up-sticks, marbles or jacks.

If a neighbor had recently acquired a new wringer-washer, you could use the left-over packing crate for a handy jeep. A real find might be a sturdy refrigerator box — handy for two-man tanks. Gather up a few more kids and war games, cops and robbers or good old cowboys and Indians might occupy the territory from McQueen Street to Warley.

Some afternoons when usual buddies were occupied with other stuff, I liked to wander around town and eventually end up at the Library or Timrod Park. The interior of the block between McLeod Hospital and downtown made for interesting exploration. The hospital laundry with its open doorways, rising clouds of steam and swoosh, swoosh of the iron presses was an attraction.

Several straggly trees and bushes divided the interior of the block into parking sections, and narrow alleyways lead to Evans Street, Irby, Cheves or South Dargan. The back doors to Barringer Hardware or Waters Furniture Store accumulated piles of discarded pasteboard boxes and packing crates. Here was a great source of components for our make-shift jeeps, tanks and body armor. I made a mental note.

Nowadays the tarry smell of Pinesol triggers a mini-vision. One day as I was studiously avoiding the mud puddles between Dr. Stokes’ office building and McLeod on my shortcut to Kresses, an odd odor wafted by my nose. Looking toward the rear of stores along West Evans, I spotted workmen up on a flat-top roof, spreading out thick black tar. I slowed my pace to watch a bit, then took a wide detour around the roaring tar kettle surrounded by globs of cooling goo.

The Library was another destination of choice on summer afternoons. When it was too hot to continue outdoor games, the cool stacks encouraged “well-mannered” kids to browse and stay awhile. Over several years I graduated from the basement Children’s Department and the Bobbsey Twins mysteries up to the main floor and Sherlock Holmes, reading chapters at a time before I ever made it to the check-out counter.

I admire our new Library, of course, but there was an atmosphere of world-wide adventure in those old stacks that drew me back week after summer week. I’d leave with my limit, arms full of mystery and mayhem, one book propped open to read as I made my way home, one eye on the page and the other on my feet.

After my family’s move to Mohawk Drive, my path home lead through Timrod Park. Of course, reading about England, Timrod became London’s St. James Park, and Sherlock Holmes inspired a less than straight line of travel. I’d enter at the Coit Street edge, avoid the swing sets, sliding boards and Timrod School, then skirt the swimming pool with its scent of chloride, “thunk thunk” of the diving board and splashes of fun-loving swimmers.

As I meandered, I was peopling the park with 1890’s ladies and gentlemen, with perhaps a detective or two from Scotland Yard thrown in for good measure. The lifeguard’s whistle might be a London Bobby calling for reinforcements as he chased the bad guys through a cobbled street.

Continuing on, I would usually cut by the amphitheater and picnic tables and wind up my westward route at the rose garden. “London” bridge would take me across the “Thames” to weave my way in and out of shaggy oleander bushes, struggling to maintain my hold on all those books while climbing the steep path to Waters Avenue. I was only a block out from home.

Arrival home might mean present tense pots and pans to wash or potatoes to peel for supper, but by then I didn’t mind — another shortcut through the innards of a city block, another adventure at the Library or meander through Timrod Park was always coming up.

Department Store Browsing in the 1950’s

By the time I was nine or ten years old, I found department stores could be just as much fun as dime stores for browsing, the great pastime for kids in pre-television days.

McCown-Smith Department Store was located on Dargan Street right where Evans runs into it. One entrance was on Dargan and a second one on East Evans — another two-main door store.

McCown-Smith sold a lot of blue and white enamel basins and cast aluminum cook pots, but they seemed to specialize in linens. You know, cotton sheets and chenille bedspreads.

They also featured crocheted antimacassars, tatted doilies, lace-edged dresser scarves, and embroidered table runners. My grandmother Mimi took me shopping for those in McCown-Smith one time. I’d never heard the word “antimacassar” before that day — but most folks had one on the back of every armchair and couch. Those were the days of Wildroot Cream Oil hair tonic, and when a fellow leaned back some of his Wildroot would come off, and naturally you needed an antimacassar to keep it off the sofa.

Of course, these things would wear out fast with weekly washing, so you’d have to take another trip to Mc-Cown Smith. And of course your knickknacks couldn’t sit on a naked table-top, they needed a lace doily. Likewise your hairbrush and bare wood needed a dresser scarf in between them. McCown-Smith sold them all.

Across East Evans Street was Belk’s Department Store. You could go in a big glass swinging door on Evans Street, march in a straight line back to the shoe department and come out on Dargan, then circle back up the sidewalk to re-enter on Evans. It drove the salesladies batty but it seemed like fun at the time.

Riding Belk’s elevator was an adventure, if you could convince the attendant you weren’t just horsing around. Running up the staircase was faster anyhow. By the time the attendant closed the door, worked the lift, and on arrival jerked the car up and down several times trying to get the elevator floor level, you could have been up and down the staircase two or three times.

Belk’s second floor Ladies Ready-to-Wear seemed hushed and dignified. I liked to sashay between the long, silky evening dresses or run my fingers back and forth on wool coat fur collars, but the clerks lingered at your elbow, sweetly suspicious if a parent wasn’t in sight. “May I help you find your mother, honey?”

I really preferred downstairs Belk’s, anyway. Perfume, bedroom slippers or earbobs, just about any gift item you could want was displayed atop glass cases. Dusting powder or leather wallets, everything had such a neat smell. Belk’s smelled almost as good as the Donut Dinette over on Palmetto Street.

In the middle of the 100 block of West Evans was an amazing store – J. C. Penney. I was fascinated by the cables running through the air from ground-floor countertops to second-floor business offices. Little round containers zipped along those cables carrying money and sales slips, who knows what all. Mechanical ding-ding sounds accompanied the containers up those cables.

Today we think nothing of putting our deposits into a vacuum tube at the drive-through and watching it zoom up, over and into the bank building. I guess Penney’s had the idea first, at least here in Florence.

On down West Evans, if you crossed the street and turned right on Irby you came to the big Sears Roebuck and Company. Another two-main entrance store (front and back), it offered lots more for a kid to investigate. Clothing took up the front, ladies and girls on the left, men and boys on the right. Cosmetics, jewelry, and shoes occupied the middle.

Serious stuff like electric cook stoves and wringer washers were way in the back. There were lots of tools and tires and men shoppers back there. Girls found that department dull and boring; we didn’t do much browsing back there.

Hats were a must in the 1950’s and every department store had a millinery section. Big round mirrors were provided with stools to sit on while ladies tried on the latest fashion. Aunt Myrtle, a millinery specialist most of her life, believed in hats! My mother had floppy straw ones with feathers for Sunday go-to-meeting, pill-box types for funerals, and silk-flower caps for weddings.

Sears frowned on little girls trying hats on for fun, but switching hats around on the fake heads was amusing when the saleslady was elsewhere.

Over in the unmentionables department, long fake legs showed off nylon stockings. No shoes. No torsos either, just legs and hose. There wasn’t any such thing as pantyhose then, just stockings. Ladies wore garters around their thighs to keep them up, or a girdle if they needed extra help holding their tummy in.

Fake hands at an adjoining counter wore short “Dress Gloves for Any Occasion,” white or tan for summer, navy blue or black for winter. I wondered if the skin tone went all the way down to the fingers and if the hand had any fingernails, but I never got up the nerve to peel off a glove and see.

Watchful sales clerks kept a close eye out when kids went browsing in the department stores (some called it snooping). “Don’t run, don’t touch, and if you break it, you bought it” sort of cramped our style, but browsing was still good entertainment. Even grownups liked to do it in the pre-TV 1950’s downtown Florence.