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Thursday, Oct. 14, 2004 12:45 am

Plain’s folks

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Inside the H.U. Plain Exclusive Food Service after the store was remodeled in 1931
PHOTO BY HERBERT GEORG/COURTESY OF THE ABRAHAM LINCOLN PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY

If you're like me, maybe you've wondered about the derivation of the "Aristocracy Hill" designation given to the historic neighborhood bounded by South Grand Avenue and Jackson, Second, and Eighth streets. Perhaps you've wondered (as I have) about the "hill" part of it -- there doesn't seem to be much of a hill there at all. According to Linda Garvert of the Sangamon Valley Collection at Lincoln Library, that is because at least 10 feet of soil covers the "town branch," a once pristine but later fetid body of water that ran obliquely through downtown and was enclosed and used as a sewer in the 1860s. Before that, the city's "aristocracy" -- the moneyed families of industry, banking, and commerce who comprised the crème de la crème of Springfield society, built their palatial homes upwind of the stench, primarily along Fifth, Sixth and Seventh streets up to the top of the ridge at South Grand. In the 19th and into the 20th century, it continued to be the city's toniest neighborhood, a veritable who's-who of Springfield's elite.

The 20th century brought great changes in transportation, and the greater mobility made possible by expanded streetcar lines and automobiles coincided with the development of outlying subdivisions such as Hawthorne Place and Oak Knolls. Although these subdivisions attracted many of the more well-to-do families, the exodus thereto did not significantly diminish the grandeur of the old-money neighborhood of Aristocracy Hill. Vestigial evidence of what Aristocracy Hill once was exists today not only in the fine old mansions now occupied by retail shops, funeral parlors, and law firms but also in the drab two-story building that has stood at the southeast corner of Fifth and Lawrence since the 1870s. Now the property of the Diocese of Springfield, from 1923 to 1965 it was the site of H.U. Plain Exclusive Food Service, and in its day it was one of the largest grocery operations in the city.

In 1923, an enterprising young salesman from Macoupin County by the name of H.U. (Henry Ullmont) Plain (1898-1963) purchased an existing grocery operation at 802 S. Fifth St. and began catering to the carriage trade on Aristocracy Hill with specialty food items, a credit system, and home-delivery service. Springfield at that time was a much more compact city than the one we know today, and according to Plain's son, Alby Plain of Springfield, the city limits only extended to about Ash Street and MacArthur Boulevard.

"When they built Reif's [now Charles Robbins Realtors, at Outer Park Drive and MacArthur Boulevard, in 1931], everyone wondered why they would build out in the country like that," he says, laughing.

The delivery service that his father offered allowed him to branch out and serve a wider clientele than those people who lived in the immediate area of the store. At that time, Springfield was dotted, literally covered, with mom-and-pop grocery operations, and the convulsive market forces that effected their demise wouldn't really begin until after World War II. After the appearance of the supermarket and the economic and technological changes that allowed practically every family to own a car and reliable home refrigeration, the end came swiftly for such small stores. But delivery service, according to Plain, allowed his father to achieve, for a time, pre-eminence in the grocery business. He says that with but one or two exceptions, notably Dockum & Dawson on the north end, no grocery did the volume of trade that H.U. ("he would tell you it stood for 'hurry up,' if you asked") Plain did. Some of his larger accounts were the Executive Mansion, the high schools, the Steak 'n Shakes and Icy Root Beers, Norman's, and the Colonial restaurants.

For in-store shopping, the plebeian notion of pushing your own cart and carrying your selections to the counterman for checkout was unknown; at Plain's, you were waited on by a clerk who handled your foodstuffs for you.

Plain says that he and his brother, Rich, would help make deliveries during summer vacations but that remarkably, in all the years his father was in business, only eight people were ever employed there -- a fact that testifies both to his father's fairness as an employer and the old-school ethos of getting, and keeping, a job. (The eight employees were Lyle Manning, John Hogan, Ted Montgomery, George Karnes, Mary Pamer, Tom Gilmore, Mel Garde, and Denny Barick. The employees ran the store until 1965, two years after Plain died. Pamer began with the store in 1923 and was there until the end.)

Of his father, the younger Plain says, "He only had an eighth-grade education, but he was a smart man. He was a good businessman who understood service, and he believed in carrying top-of-the-line products. He worked hard, and his people were loyal and they worked hard. He loved the store, and he loved people and talking to them. Business was his way of doing that."

Plain says that his father's commitment to service became evident to him one day when a woman called from the Hickox Apartments, which at that time was a fashionable city address. She ordered a quarter-pound of butter -- one stick -- delivered.

"I said, 'Dad, are we going to deliver that?'"

"He said, 'Yes, son, deliver it. She'll order more tomorrow."

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