Our Village Grocery and the Therapeutic Breadboxes

A Community Center of the Past

By Juanita Burnett, 1998

Thriving community centers in my city are funded by grants, donations,and fundraising events.  In the village of my youth, our little grocery served a similar function.  It was funded by fellowship.

People coming together in a congenial atmosphere is a therapeutic aid to the fullness of life.  Rarely, say sociologists, is individual wellness possible without the companionship of others.

Our little village housed three areas of service: a Methodist church, a filling station, and a grocery store.  The store, a square brick building, stood on a plot of ground on Main Street in the center of town.  In front lay a cement slab, which held the breadboxes.  The breadboxes not only stored the freshly baked goods, but also served as a gathering site for the men of the community.  Here they stood, or sat, atop the boxes, loafed, and told their stories. Houses near and farther out surrounded the grocery, and most people walked to the shop — especially during World War II when gasoline and tires were rationed.

Next to the cement slab stood a hand-pumped gasoline tank from which the attendants themselves filled our vehicles — at no extra charge.  The store also served as our depot.  First for the electric trains we called the interurban, and later for buses.  I remember that on at least one occasion on my return from the city, the bus driver, as he shifted gears and slowed to a stop, looked at me, grinned, and called out “Jottum Down Store.”  Passengers laughed while my face flushed rosy red.

Inside the grocery a metal ceiling draped the big room.  Lining the left side was a long counter where customers were served.  Back and to the right stood the meat counter, with the cutting block nearby.  Walled off across the back was a storeroom.  Here the meat, delivered in quarters, was kept in coolers then carried to the cutting block and cut into portions.  The quarters were too heavy for the women to carry, so a man was asked to volunteer.  Most often that volunteer was my mother’s Uncle Fred.

Uncle Fred, a bachelor, lived a short distance from the grocery with his sister Lola and her husband David.  He worked with Uncle David, who was a respected carpenter, but helped around the store as well, particularly during the war.  Early on winter mornings before the store opened, Uncle Fred fired up the old pot-bellied stove and had it cracklin’ warm in there when the ladies arrived for work.  Summers found him outside, pail in hand, picking wild blackberries along the interurban tracks before anyone was up. And year round he carried the baked goods from the breadboxes into the store.

Since the bread man delivered before the store opened, anyone needing bread or pastries could help himself and pay later. “They never lost a penny.  Everybody always came back and paid,” said my cousins Paul and John P.  And they should know — it was their mother, Mary, who helped run that grocery, and they spent a lot of time there.

The pot-bellied stove stood near the center of the room. Customers and idlers alike were free to gather round, talk, and warm themselves. We who waited there for the school bus sure welcomed that warmth on cold, blustery mornings.  And we snow-crazed kids who played outside until we were soppy and nearly frozen rallied around the stove to warm ourselves and dry off.  Gloves were often piled on the stove to dry — sometimes burning.  “If I had a nickel for every pair of gloves I burned up on that stove,” says cousin John P., “I would be a millionaire.”

Spring came.  The stove went out and the ice cream freezer came in. On that eventful day kids swarmed to the store as bees to honey and waited in line to buy ice cream.

Now, I liked ice cream, too, but even then unconventionality had a hold on me; I would often spend my ice cream money on a cake of Fleischmann’s Yeast.  Of course, everyone thought it odd that a kid would eat a cake of yeast rather than ice cream, and they never failed to mention it!  A representative from Fleischmann’s Yeast Co. said that he hadn’t heard of eating yeast alone.  During World War II only moist yeast was available.  It spoiled in two weeks or less and arrived at its destination moldy.  Fleischmann’s then developed active dry yeast so the armed forces could enjoy fresh bread.

A photograph shows the breadbox “originals.”  Standing, in a suit, is Uncle David, a skilled carpenter, and a mild-mannered man of few words.  Next to him, sitting on a breadbox and bareheaded, is my father.  Dad held many academic degrees and taught in the science department of one of our capital’s high schools.  He was a helpful man to our community, and humble.  Next, wearing a cap and his usual attire of bib overalls, sits Uncle Fred.  Noted for his droll manner, he frequented the breadboxes more than the others.  Perhaps because he was a bachelor?

As I walked and rode my bicycle along the streets and roads of the neighborhood it was comforting to see my dad sitting there on the bread boxes and hearing the voices of the men I knew and trusted.  I stopped by them a few times, but was shooed off after a brief spell; this was a man’s place — their space, away from the women and children — where they could talk and let off steam in a healthy way, without criticism, or just sit in silence.

Our house, catty-corner from the grocery, enjoyed a big front porch, a wealth of windows, and a large side lawn; this gave us a good view of the grocery and the valued breadboxes – and Mom a good view of Dad!  These days before air conditioning found the grownups cooling off in the shade of the old apple tree or the porch swing.  People on their way to and from the grocery often stopped to cool off and share news of the day.

Once the interurban tracks were ripped out, the men converted a strip of land across from the grocery into a horseshoe court. Lights were installed so that night and day men, women, and children could enjoy the game.  And that they did!

Little Joel drifted into town one day.  I didn’t know of his past.  Dad did, but he never spoke of it.  With apparently no place to go or return to, he was given sanctuary in the grocery’s storeroom, with a donated iron bed and oil heater.  He became a regular with Dad and the other fellows who pitched horseshoes, played euchre, and loafed at the breadboxes.

The lids of the breadboxes, being metal, were slick and sloped downward.  To keep from sliding, the men often raised the hasp and propped it under the lid. The boxes were never bolted until one day — when one nearly became a site for suffocation.  An older boy in the community saw my younger cousin and a friend standing by the breadboxes and thought he would have some fun.  He picked those youngsters up and stuck them into one breadbox, then bolted the lid with a Popsicle stick.  The sun beating down on the metal made it blazing hot in there.  It was a long time before their cries were heard. “We thought we were gonna die,” says John P.  My dad,taking community action, found the offender and warned him never to do anything like that again.

The women, shopping in their cotton print dresses, swapped neighborhood news with the attendants.  Everybody knew everybody else, and if there was a need someone tried to fill it.  For instance, if someone needed something from the grocery, the word was passed and a volunteer would deliver it.

Volunteers weren’t organized then.  People just pitched in when needed or asked.  My cousin Paul held one such position at the grocery.  “I kept knives sharpened for Mom,” he said.  Then mulling a moment, he added, “I wonder if that had any bearing on my becoming a barber?”

The owner of the grocery, having been in the Naval Reserves, was called back into service at the beginning of World War II.  He supposed he would have to close the store.  That certainly would have been a loss to the community.  So Aunt Mary and Judith, a nearby neighbor, got their heads together.  They decided they could run that grocery, or at least give it a good try.  The owner thought it might be difficult for them, but happily agreed.  So these two women, housewives and mothers, became managers and operators of our local grocery, each working half days and alternating mornings and afternoons.

The owner’s wife, young and attractive, was unexcited about this venture into small town grocery business in the first place.  She was biding her time until her husband would change his mind, leave this rural scene, and return to the city.  She helped at the store only when absolutely necessary although, after her husband left for the service, she came in frequently to visit the cash drawer.  At this rate, the ladies in charge reasoned that there would be no business for the owner to come home to.  Getting their heads together, they decided to put money aside in a safe place.  When the owner returned form the war, he was pleased at how his business had prospered, but never knew how it had been accomplished.

The store’s telephone was used for communication as well as business.  “If you see Joe, would you tell him to bring home a loaf of bread?”  “If that son of mine comes in, tell him to get home on time for supper tonight.”  Relaying messages was part of the day’s work and received graciously.  The “trick” calls from the kids were not, especially when Aunt Mary was cutting meat.  Once such call was, “You got Prince Albert in a can?”  “Yes.”  “Well, let him out. Mom wants him to come home.”

Uncle Duane once traveled for the Philip Morris Company and decorated store windows along the way.  I stood outside our little grocery window and watched entranced as he filled his mouth with tacks, then began turning and twisting the colorful crepe papers.  Next, he touched the magnetic hammer to his mouth and caught a tack, hammered it where his artistry led him, and soon fascinating designs filled and beautified the window.

Many people suffered severe times during the Great Depression and before World War II.  To lift spirits, the store offered free movies on Saturday night.  We gathered behind the store to sit on planks placed over blocks or a chair or blanket that we brought with us.  Refreshments were sold during intermission.  At one of these movies, I remember seeing Indiana author Gene Stratton Porter’s A Girl of the Limberlost.

In every neighborhood though, however serene, I suspect there are those with murky minds; and we were not exempt.  After the Great Depression many people refused to keep their money in banks.  Instead, they hid it in the house or somewhere else.  Uncle Fred, like some others, carried his with him: in an empty drawstring tobacco pouch, stuffed in a pocket of his bib overalls.  The other pocket held his “never to be without” Hillside Tobacco.  His eyesight had waned.  One evening he was sitting on the breadbox when a man drove up and yelled from his car window.  Uncle Fred walked slowly to the car and leaned in closely to see what he wanted.  Without warning, this man thrust out his hand, grabbed Fred’s money pouch,and sped off with his savings of $1,000.

I moved from the area of my youth long ago.  And the little grocery moved out when a supermarket moved in nearby.  Various businesses have occupied the building since.  I had learned valuable lessons there and decided recently, when in the area, to drive by and have a look.  The bricks were clean and bright, the building strong and sturdy.  There it stood, that square brick building, a monument to my memory of our little village grocery on Main Street: nucleus of the neighborhood, fostering fellowship and community: a community center of the past.

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