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Thursday, June 13, 2013 08:33 am

Memories of Old MacArthur

The coming of Hy-Vee and the happy prospect of MacArthur Boulevard being revitalized have triggered many pleasant memories of the old days on the street.

Before the interstate, U.S.36, a major east-west highway, ran right through town. It turned north at “the curve” by Cherry Grove from Wabash Avenue and traveled up MacArthur till it turned east at the corner of South Grand. It was still just two lanes of concrete until it got to Ash Street. The road carried a heavy volume of cross-country traffic, much of it semi-trailers. As a result, many of the early businesses were filling stations. They were the first franchises on the street.

The intersection with South Grand had an island in the center with several small businesses. Within two blocks of the corner there were seven gas stations, including Jack Harman’s Standard Station on the corner next to Paris Cleaners. Jack’s guys always hustled. One year he won an award for selling the most windshield wipers in all of Standard Oil. Another well-known station was the Cities Service station two blocks south, run by major league baseball umpire Al Barlick.

The island itself was home to Marriott’s Drug Store, Butch’s Barbershop (five barbers and a shoeshine guy) a shoe repair shop, a Clark Station and Bert’s Tom Thumb Market.

Bert’s was a tiny but full-service grocery store, butcher shop and lunch counter run by Bert and Mary Cordier. They made deliveries, extended credit and welcomed all the neighbors who stopped by daily for coffee and gossip. Most of the area mailmen made Bert’s their break stop.

Most of the enterprises along MacArthur were like that, small operations, locally owned, neighborhood-oriented and friendly. There was an art gallery, a radio repair shop, a dairy, a plant nursery, a flower shop and many other shops and stores. There was the Cozy Dog, and even a nightclub, Gingham Gardens, until the Christian church bought the property. Catherine Court ran a wonderfully Dickensian antique shop in an old brick house where the funeral directors are now.

And grocery stores – Kroger’s where the video store is, Eisner’s where Walgreen’s is, Klang’s next to Balestri’s Grill, now home to Baskin-Robbins. Oscar Baer’s Avenue around the corner on South Grand. And later National in the Town & Country Shopping Center.

The coming of the shopping center changed the nature of the Boulevard. Stores became bigger, more impersonal, and they drew from all over, not just the neighborhood. Then the beautiful old farmhouse surrounded by broad lawns and white fences that was the McConnell home was sold, torn down, and replaced by Woolco and the bowling alley. The commercial strip was complete and successful for a long time, until the city was allowed to sprawl to the southwest along old 36.

All the neighbors had favorite spots along the Boulevard. Dearly missed is the Milk Bar under a huge shade tree, the home of some of the city’s first curb service. No place was like Don’s Drive, which became the spot for several generations of teens to cruise as they ventured into the world on their own.

One favorite place was Par-A-Dice. In the thirties it had started as a lunch counter. It developed into a great steakhouse run by Don Henry and his wife, Florence. Later taken over by Fritz Havrilka, it morphed into the Wagon Wheel on Wabash and returned to MacArthur under its present owner.

Probably everyone’s favorite place was the Esquire Theater. Just one screen, but with an interesting and fast-changing menu of movies: kids’ shows on Saturday afternoon, first-run movies during the week and regular foreign movie nights. And ushers with flashlights to show one to a seat.

Many of the neighbors have fond memories of that wonderful old street. But we are also looking forward to MacArthur’s next phase. We are grateful to Mayor Houston and his administration for their hard work on behalf of the area, to aldermen Jobe and McMenamin for their support, and to Jen Dillman and the MacArthur Boulevard Association and their passion for improvement.

And to Hy-Vee, a very heartfelt, “Welcome, neighbor!”

Phil Bradley has been a resident of the 1200 block of South MacArthur since 1944.
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