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Thursday, March 7, 2013 06:14 am

Hearing loss

What might a museum of Springfield sounds include?

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Streetcar on South Eighth Street in 1913.
PHOTO COURTESY OF THE SANGAMON VALLEY COLLECTION AT LINCOLN LIBRARY

I am told that radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi believed that sounds never die, and that if one could somehow catch up with old sound waves one could hear sounds made years, even centuries, ago. As The Atlantic’s Rebecca Rosen (whom I owe for that fact) rightly observed that an Earth littered with lost sounds, just waiting to be revived by the right antenna, is a beautiful fantasy.

Unfortunately that’s all it is. Libraries, museums and private collectors collect letters and photographs of old Springfield, along with the odd bit of furniture or machinery. We even collect buildings of historic importance so that the Springfieldian of the 2000s can experience a little of the physical Springfield of the early 1800s. But while our museums and libraries collect sound recordings, those holdings overwhelmingly comprise music and (to a much lesser extent) spoken word recordings.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s wonderful to be able to hear Vachel Lindsay reciting his poems. But me and my boomer agemates would find it just as wonderful to be able to hear again the sounds of the city going about its business a half-century ago – an aural counterpart to Springfield Rewind (springfieldrewind.com), which offers then-and-now photographic images of the capital.  

I have my own list of such sounds. The slap of cloth on leather coming from shoeshine stands in the barber shops and big downtown hotels. (I also recall one in the basement of the Old Capitol before that building had the life reconstructed out of it in the 1960s.) The sounds of Cardinal games on the radio coming from the open doors of taverns and barbershops in the summer. The echo of footsteps as people walked across the empty Armory after hours – a sound I was privileged to hear when a boy because my father worked there.

Like most District 186 schools, the original Matheny School I attended as a boy had tall sliding sash windows that were built only as finely as competitive bidding could make them. The counterweights rumbled and the pulleys squeaked when they were pushed and pulled up and down. Never exactly pleasant, but less unpleasant that another sound I associate with school in those days – the thwack of miscreants being paddled in the hall.

The nice thing about fantasy museums is that you can build one in your head. I asked a few faithful readers to rummage through their memory attics for other sounds that, if not unique to Springfield, at least evoke Springfield places.

The many sounds of the old main library downtown amounted to chamber music to many regular visitors. I recall the peculiar sound your footsteps made when you climbed the iron-and-glass stairs to the stacks. One reader has fond memories of the grandfather’s clock on the entry landing. Another reader mentioned “the satisfying thunk of the stamp when the librarian checked out our books” – not a sound unique to the old library, or even to libraries, but certainly one that gained a resonance when heard in that noble theater of the librarians’ art.

Speaking of thunks: Several readers recalled the pneumatic tubes used by department stores such as Bressmers and Myers Brothers to convey cash to and from the floorwalkers to a central cashier’s desk. “Whoosh, thunk!” is how Bill Graber, in a comment on Springfield Rewind, described the sound made when the containers were ejected into a basket next to the counter.

The pneumatic tubes were far from the only sounds stores made. The creaky wooden floors at Woolworth and Kresge have stuck with one reader. It’s no wonder they creaked; the Kresge’s at Fifth and Adams was built in 1882. Another reader mentioned the clack of the metal gate of the elevator door being closed by the little old lady elevator attendants at Myers Brothers, who were of approximately the same vintage.

People my age missed Springfield’s streetcar era, but the noise that cars make driving on a brick street has nearly vanished too. (Lincoln Avenue from South Grand south to Laurel is one of the few stretches where the old brick is still exposed.) The memory of the clickety-clack and whooshing sounds of the interurban trains – almost like model trains – flashing over the Cook Street overpass on the far east side warmed one reader, while another still hears the clickety-clack of trains on the Third Street tracks in the middle of the night.

I could go on – the state fair (if the library was chamber music, the fair was a symphony), drugstore soda fountains, church bells, factory whistles, Shelby Harbison calling high school basketball games, the gentle rustle of cash changing hands at City Hall. All gone. Boomers suffer from hearing loss in more ways than one.  

Contact James Krohe Jr. akrojr@comcast.net.

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