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Neighborhood Stores Were Full of Charm

Looking Back by Herbert H. Skirvin 8/8/81

Jackson’s Grocery & Meat Market, c. 1926. 400 E. 3rd Street. Photo from the MCHC Collection (1988.109.0198A)

Three cheers for the old fashioned country stores, like those once existing in and around Bloomington! They were enshrined in Americana years ago, but a few real-life survivors can still be found in some of the nation’s out-of-the-way spots.

Then, too, there are the replicas, fascinating the vintage buffs at many of the tourist havens. One of the largest and most faithful in detail is located at St. Augustine, Fla. It even has an adjoining blacksmith shop, where the smith will fashion you a ring out of a horseshoe nail.

(Around 1917, when I was a boy here, an old blacksmith working in a barn-like building on Indiana Avenue, halfway between 10th and Cottage Grove, made me one of those rings. Crude though it was. I kept it a long time. It was the first ring I ever owned.)

In the 1900-20 period, all the grocery stores in Bloomington, except several big ones downtown, were in the country store bracket. While they generally were larger, had fancier layouts, carried more goods and did more business, they were, in many respects, much like their contemporaries operating in nearby rural areas.

The importance of the old-time grocery to the community was incalculable. Neighborhood and family life revolved around it. Besides supplying food and other essentials, it served as a halfway social center, where a customer could loaf awhile, exchanging gossip and news, and get a word of cheer – even a helping hand if one was needed.

It didn’t have discounted coupons and 10 kinds of dog food, as today’s supermarkets do, but it offered something special – a lot of heart. Soup bones and a liver snack from the family cat were always free in the meat department. If you bought a pound of something, the proprietor and clerks usually gave you 17 ounces. A dozen of anything usually turned out to be a baker’s dozen (13); wooden crates for kindling wood were free, and so on.

Burch Grocery at 905 W. 11th c. 1940. Photo from the MCHC collection (1995.020.0014)

The proprietor, typically a stocky man with a bald head and a mustache, knew most of the people in his neighborhood and dealt with them on a first-name basis. He granted credit to all but the drunks and the shiftless, and, in hard times, kept the wolf away from many a family door. Sometimes, unfortunately, he went broke because of excessive charity.

Some of these stores were well managed, some weren’t. All, however, in their best days, were fascinating to both young and old. In the minds of small children, especially those with a few coins to spend, they were the closest things to heaven there were, other than the churches.

The first time I ever was inside one was in 1911, when I was 3 years old, and our family was living on N. Lincoln, a few doors north of 10th. My mother sent an older brother to Clark’s, on the northeast corner of 10th and Grant, to buy a loaf of bread and he took me along.

The first eye-popper was on the Grant Street side of the brick building. Large posters were pasted on the wall, two of them having pictures of a muscular pioneer and an Indian chief wearing his feathered headdress. There were a lot of words on all the posters. As I later learned, they were advertising Bull Durham smoking tobacco, Sweetheart soap, Arm and Hammer baking soda and Star chewing tobacco.

On entering the store, I immediately went into an open-mouthed bug-eyed, speechless trance. The candy counter was on the right and my brother lifted me onto the top of a covered bushel basket of apples so I could see all the goodies. I nearly fell off the basket. I couldn’t believe my eyes.

Each of us had a penny to spend and after the bread was purchased, my brother tried to get me to pick a penny item. But it was no use – I couldn’t talk. Finally, he told the clerk to give me a peppermint stick and when I clutched it he pulled me out the door.

As we started to walk home, we saw the store’s large delivery wagon and its team of horses drop-hitched at the curb on Grant. The wagon had just returned from one of the rounds and the driver and his helper, using a back door, were loading it with baskets of groceries for another. We stood and watched until they finished and the driver, returning to his seat, cracked his whip in the air and yelled “Giddy-up!” to the horses and they took off

In the next two years I often went to Clark, many times by myself, on errands for my mother. Usually, she gave me a penny or two for candy. Once, I got a nickel. Boy, that was a treat!

From the fall of 1914 until the spring of 1920, I attended the McCalla Grade School at 9th and Indiana Avenue. That’s when I became well acquainted with Todd’s Grocery on 10th, three doors west of Indiana Avenue, and its colorful proprietor, Tom Todd. Only the playground, an old pasture and 10th Street separated the school and the store and the pupils beat several paths on the pasture, traveling back and forth.

Tom Todd was a stocky, partly bald man and had a mustache. Although a kindhearted man, he was serious and became gruff, sometimes inpatient, when the youngsters were slow in making up their minds at the candy counter. One day, when I couldn’t decide how to part with three pennies, he grabbed a broom and chased me out of the place.

Later, when I was in 4th grade, my teacher asked me to go over to Todd’s and buy some things for lunch. She gave me an itemized list: 3 cents worth of crackers, 5 cents worth of cheese, a 4 cent apple and 4 cents worth of cookies. When I presented the list and 16 cents to Tom Todd, he turned red in the face and looked like he was going to have a stroke. But since the order was for a teacher, all he could do was sputter and growl.