THIS PLACE MATTERS, a column
By Colleen O’Brien
For the Herald, July 14, 2011
The Thomas Wolfe novel You Can’t Go Home Again meant many things – that you can’t return to your home town and see it the same, that you can’t return to your youth, your idealism, your original place of coming of age.
But to me, returning to Jefferson to live defied his statement in many ways.
In 2001, after forty years away, my husband and I came back to town and bought a house.
And something happened to us. There was an eeriness and magic to the landscape as we strolled the residential streets each summer evening. It made us say, “Yes, we can come home again.”
It was all so familiar, from the houses and yards we’d played in to the cracks in the sidewalks we’d rollerskated on. It was only the downtown that dismayed us. There wasn’t a place on the square that did not trigger a memory, although often the buildings resembled nothing of what we had known.
We graduated in 1962 and hit the road, for college, for the Navy, for points west – the lure of California. We left behind the businesses and busyness we’d known all our lives and returned four decades later to a ghostlike mirage around the square – “Well, at least Ben Franklin’s is still there. And Figenshaw’s.”
We listed the restaurants we had known – Cleta’s, Gilmore’s, Shoppe’s, the Maid Rite; and the drugstores – Potter’s, Shuey’s, Lyon’s/Tucker’s, where I was a soda jerk all through high school. No more, Sandy’s Pool Hall or popcorn stand; no more, Snyder’s music store or Lyon’s photography; no more, Baller’s hardware and Coast to Coast.
We stood on the northwest corner of the square where Seela’s Hardware had been, and Jim told me again how he and Bobby Boyle helped Ted Seela sew the first trampoline bed in the upstairs room so they could go on the road to area schools to demonstrate bouncing and backflips on this amazing piece of equipment.
Jim talked about Oppenhiemer and Durlam’s men’s clothiers, where he had first learned about OTCs (“over-the-calf” dress socks) from Loren Durlam; and I talked about Downe’s, one of the women’s dress shops on the west side, where I bought my first Bobbie Brookes blouse on lay-away after I started earning money (sophisticated beyond my wildest dreams).
We had dozens of stories about Louie’s candy kitchen and ice cream parlor. We loved Louie’s as teenagers because it was the place to hang out and be cool, or pretend to be. Louie Tronchetti catered to the businessmen of the square and their teenagers, and it was a happenin’ place, where we spied on the upperclassmen and their girlfriends as we sat in the very back booths with a giant cinnamon roll and a coke, all for 15 cents.
The memories were interspersed with “What can be done to make it like it was?” Or if not that, to make it better than it was now. We understood the reasons for the dying of Jefferson – better roads and freeways that fed a natural wanderlust of Americans, the modern Merle Hay Mall in the big city of Des Moines, going to drive-in movies elsewhere instead of to the Iowa Theater in town; and then the farm crisis of the ‘80s, when for every six farmers who left their farms, one business in town closed its doors.
But still, we lamented a once busy place now neglected. Literally leaning on hard times, many of the hundred-year-old brick buildings downtown were on the verge of collapse.
Although we talked the talk, we never went further. Like many old coots, we mourned for “the good old days” but did nothing.
But now, there is a chance, and I am excited to participate, to be completely behind the effort to restore our old buildings and because of that to see old and new businesses flourish around the square.
The photos we are taking for THIS PLACE MATTERS are a way to remind us why we love Jefferson, and how we can quit mourning the loss or ignoring the problem and start fighting for our town.
With enough support from us who champion our pretty little burgh, we might be able to gain the status of a Main Street USA town. If we have enough public commitment and enthusiasm for our application to be accepted, we will get help in the form of advice and counsel, experience and know-how from other fallen towns that have “come home again.”
Please come to the Main Street community meeting on Thursday, July 26, at Sierra Theater, 6-8 p.m. to understand and help the effort to revitalize Jefferson’s downtown. For more information: firstname.lastname@example.org and watch for details in the Jefferson Herald. We look forward to seeing you.