Tag Archives: downtown Florence

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.

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.

1950’s Dime-Store Shopping

Evans Street looking west, 1937. Postcard.

Evans Street looking west, 1937. Postcard.

The 100 block of West Evans was a shopping mecca in the 1950’s. Downtown Florence had everything a kid could want, all in one block. Of course, we had our share of department stores and grownups did a lot of shopping in those. But for us kids, the five and ten cent stores were the place to go.

Saturday when the movie was over and it was too early to go home, you went dime-store window shopping. And if sometimes you had to go present shopping, naturally you had to make the rounds to be sure you got the best thing.

One Saturday in early June, I declared my desire to pick out daddy’s Father’s Day present all by myself without mama tagging along looking at every blooming thing in the store. With a smile and shake of the head, she gave me some extra cash for my trip downtown.

After the latest Hopalong Cassidy movie at the Carolina Theater, I went shopping. I turned left on Dargan toward Evans Street, crossed at the light and turned in to Kresses Five and Ten Cents Store. I really loved Kresses. The dark wood floor had a substantial sound when you walked on it, and there was usually something interesting smelling in the air, as well as a nice echoey sound when people talked.

One plate-glass window in the front featured a lady dummy with painted-on hair, wearing a short-sleeve summer dress. Another window had a little kid dummy wearing a sunsuit and carrying a sand pail. Stores were big on dummies. Most of them had heads in the dime stores. Some of the department store dummies were missing their heads, I never knew why…

At Kresses and Woolworth’s there were lots of waist-high counters arranged in a rectangle with a saleslady and her cash register in the middle.

Shallow bins with wooden dividers were arranged around the counter tops. One might contain embroidered hankies, the next one after-shave lotion. After you perused the stuff in the bins and decided on something, the saleslady rang you up and gave back your purchase in a thin paper bag. Then you went on down the aisle to another counter and another saleslady.

Down the right-hand wall in Kresses were racks of ladies undies, nighties and hand-bags, all different colors and sizes. Down the left side of the store was a lunch counter with a big sign picturing an oval-shaped chopped steak and mashed potatoes covered with shiny brown gravy, garden peas, a dinner roll and a glass of iced tea for a “Reasonable Price.”

I didn’t eat there. Daddy wouldn’t have considered any price reasonable if it wasn’t Sunday after church, and Kresses wasn’t open on Sundays.

At the back of the store there were flat tables low to the floor piled with bolts of cloth. Pyramid- shaped shelves held sewing scissors, spools of thread and dress patterns. If you turned right and headed toward Dargan Street, you found the housewares and toy sections with pots and pans, hammers and nails, and every kind of toy imaginable from Red Ryder cap guns to cry-baby dolls.

After Thanksgiving, the Dargan Street windows would gurgle with bubble lights on decorated Christmas trees, Lionel trains running around in circles underneath the trees.

This summer day, I merely glanced at the ladies and kids’ stuff as I browsed through the store, examining Old Spice cologne and cotton handerkerchiefs, billfolds and pocket knives, making careful note of prices as I went.

I considered a little leatherette travel kit with toothbrush, dental floss and toothpaste, but they wanted too much money for that and daddy didn’t travel much anyway. That saleslady gave me a closed-mouth smile like she didn’t believe I actually had any money to spend. I smiled back as I left her counter.

McLellan’s was on the other side of the street so I looked both ways before crossing in the middle of the block. McLellan’s had something the other stores didn’t — long counters and cash registers lined up like cattle stalls near the front door.

You loaded whatever you wanted in a buggy, unloaded the buggy onto the counter and paid for everything right there in one spot. It cut down on hiring so many salesladies, I guess, but McLellan’s didn’t last long. Maybe Florence wasn’t ready for that much self-service.

I didn’t find anything good for daddy in McLellan’s. Walking on down the street, I stopped and pressed my face to the window at several shops to see inside a little better. Painted neckties, Bulova watches and wing-tip shoes were all out of my price range.

Woolworth’s (at the corner of Evans and Irby) had some things Kresses and McLellan’s didn’t have, like floor lamps and big paintings of seascapes. At the back of the store, two ladies discussed pickle recipes over a shelf of glass jars.

Woolworth’s wasn’t as much fun as Kresses but it had pretty neat stuff on sale sometimes. Sure enough, oxblood shoe polish was on sale, but Daddy didn’t wear oxblood-colored shoes. I was running out of options.

Then an aisle display of “Restore Your Patent Leather Shine” black liquid polish and “Long-Lasting Woven Shoelaces” caught my eye. As she bagged up my selections, the nice saleslady said they were sure to please my dad, and I was pleased and relieved to come up with something good for Father’s Day on my very own.

I even had enough coins left over for a cherry coke at the corner drug store on the way home. Not a bad shopping trip for a kid in downtown Florence, in the 1950’s.

Going to the Movies

Saturday movie rituals were set in stone for 1950’s kids in Florence. Get up, do your chores, get your movie money, and trek downtown to the theater. Admission was a dime and a snack could be had for fifteen cents so a quarter would do it.

Kingstree’s Jimmy Richardson (who grew up in Florence) and Florence optician Jimmy Rhodes recall double-features at the State Theater on East Evans Street. McLeod Hospital occupies that space today. Kids patronized double-features when they had enough tolerance to be glued to hard seats for such a long time. I stuck to the Carolina on South Dargan Street or the Colonial on West Evans.

The smell of hot popcorn dripping in butter and dashed with salt wafted to the sidewalk, drawing you in. Ticket in hand, the concession stand was next. With your fountain Coke you could might enjoy Red Hots, Three Musketeers, Milk Duds or Candy Coated Almonds.

If your total worth for the morning was a quarter, it was a difficult decision: popcorn, candy and no drink? Candy, drink and no popcorn? Split a popcorn and candy with a buddy? Good solution.

What a morning it would be! Cartoons starred Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd, Donald Duck, Porky Pig and Petunia, Micky Mouse, or Tom and Jerry. The Newsreel might demonstrate a brilliant new invention or feature a “Rally Round the Troops” speech by the President.

Next might come a Short. What’s a Short? Well, it’s a 15 or 20-minute film that could be a complete story featuring the zany antics of the Three Stooges or Little Rascals. It could also be a Cold War Atomic Bomb scare film, but they didn’t always put them on with kid movies.

Often we’d see the latest cliffhanger Serial episode. Serials were 20 to 30 minutes long, a dozen or so episodes to the whole story. The exciting derring-do of Superman, Batman, or the Green Hornet would alternate with space adventures of Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers.

One week Buck would blast off from earth on the way to some galaxy or other, and by the end of the episode he’d be arm wrestling with alien octopi and dumped into a dungeon. Next week he’d win the wrestling match and escape from the dungeon, only to be led by an enticing beauty into the midst of a another mess. We enjoyed the Serials, but they were just warm-ups for the main event — the Movie!

Hopalong Cassidy, The Lone Ranger, Lash LaRue, Zorro, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry — all were our heroes in the early 50’s. Plots and characters were easy to follow. Good guys wore white hats, bad guys wore black hats. (Lash LaRue was an allowable exception, garbed in black from head to toe.)

At least one faithful sidekick always hovered nearby and could be an grumpy old codger or a naive greenhorn, usually hilariously funny. Naturally a bank robber, cattle rustler or otherwise all-around bad guy was up to no good, and naturally a damsel in distress was tied to the railroad tracks, cheated out of her ranch or robbed of her inheritance. Hoppy to the rescue! Or “Who was that Masked Man?” and his faithful companion Tonto.

Week in and week out, same sort of plot, same sort of ending. Dependable! Good guys always beat bad guys, won fair lady’s heart and saved the day. Plots varied with Monday to Friday films, less shoot-em-up in the musical romances and comedies, more in the detective and war stories. Grownups preferred those.

The Carolina Theater housed a wonderfully dim second-floor balcony where friends could giggle and tell secrets to their heart’s content, contributing bits of unpopped corn or sticky Cracker Jacks over the railing to friends (or enemies) below. If an occasional sprinkle of fountain Coke got added to the mix, the offender might be hustled down the stairs and out of the theater in a flash by an eagle-eyed usher.

The Colonial balcony was a favorite hide-away for boys. My brother Harold remembers the spacious ceiling space in front of the big brass rail as perfect for sailing improvised flying saucers: flattened popcorn boxes.

The Colonial was in the City Hall building, smack in the middle of the 100 block of West Evans. At one time it had been the O’Dowd (Opera House first, Theater later). For a while after moving pictures came to town, the auditorium alternated between live performances of stage plays or traveling vaudeville troupes and movies, either silent or “talkies.”

Advertisements for both often appeared on the same page in the Morning News Review, a flyer for a stage show at the O’Dowd on the left, one for a film at the Colonial on the right. It was puzzling to discover they meant the same auditorium. Eventually the Schnibben family bought out O’Dowd interests and only the name “Colonial” remained thereafter.

The building was set back from the street, the walkway to the ticket office flanked by a pair of ponds complete with lily pads and large, multicolored goldfish. Wrought iron fences kept our feet from slipping in, and trying to spot the swishy tails kept our attention occupied while standing in line for tickets.

It was fun going to the Colonial to watch the fish, even if not attending a movie.

The theaters occasionally hosted live entertainment even in the 1950’s. Lash LaRue came in person to crack his bullwhip from one side of the stage to the other. The Duncan Yo-Yo man came to town regularly, giving a demonstration out in front of the Colonial before moving inside to do fancy tricks with the latest yo-yo model.

Harmonica performances, talent shows, civic and school events shared the auditoriums with movie-goers.

In the 1910-20’s Florence had boasted at least six theaters: the O’Dowd, Orpheum, Imp, Majestic, Airdome and the Mirror. With the advent of film Vaudeville slowly dwindled away, the need for so many theaters with it. By the mid-1920’s Florence was down to three, the O’Dowd, Colonial and Bijou.

In the early 1950’s we still had three downtown theaters, the Colonial, Carolina and State, and our Saturday ritual of meeting friends at the movie was an integral part of our lives. Today you can buy just about any of the old Cartoons, Shorts, Newsreels and Movies on videotape or DVD, even the scary Atom Bomb films. It’s just not the same, though, without the balconies, Cracker Jacks and flying popcorn boxes.