DECATUR – The best Christmas gifts are the ones that come wrapped in memories.
Keen amateur historian Pat Riley knows all about that, and has got this nostalgia thing taped down pretty good. And now he's enshrined a sampling of it in a little glass-cased festive display called “Christmas Memories” outside the Local History Room in Decatur Public Library.
Riley, 69, chose a roughly 1950s era for his focus, with some older artifacts like vintage postcards and pictures sprinkled in here and there, and doesn't need much to conjure up an idyllic picture of Christmases in Decatur more than 60 years ago. A lot of it is pulled from Herald & Review archives in the shape of festive ads and fliers for long-gone stores and shopping emporiums that live now only in memories of a certain maturity.
“I really want people to know how to use the Herald & Review archives,” said Riley, a volunteer with the History Room. (Those newspaper archives are available online by subscription at Herald-Review-Newspapers.com).
“There is so much good stuff you can look up.”
Names in the ads he has copied and displayed from the era when Dwight D. Eisenhower was president sing out like a roll call for a lost retail legion: Sears, Woolworth's, Moorehouse & Wells Co., Linn & Scruggs, Black's Hardware, Kresge's and on and on and on.
The toys and gifts they offered whisk onlookers back to a time when television was the great electronic frontier and had yet to morph into a “vast wasteland.” The family gathered round for wholesome comedies like “The Honeymooners” and Linn & Scruggs in downtown Decatur offered a tin toy version of the Brooklyn bus Jackie Gleason drove for just a few bucks.
“And I like this Sears ad, with Roy Rogers and Dale Evans 'Frontier Suits' for $5, and even the girl's suit came with two guns and a rope,” Riley said.
The ad for another yesteryear store, Hobby House Toyland, featured a cool-looking bicycle with “headlight, metallic finish and whitewall tires,” that would have set mom and dad back a hefty $39 in 1955 dollars (about $350 in today's inflated money).
“But you could get a payment plan with Soy Capital Bank,” explains Riley, reading the ad. “I think the idea was you could take the bike home and make your payments like a car.”
There is an upbeat, almost joyous quality to many of the festive ads and they reflect a time when the post-World War II American economy was booming and Decatur, stuffed full of well-paid manufacturing jobs, boomed right along with it.
Riley, a retired railroad conductor and a child of the 1950s, says he looks back on that era as an idyllic time, and hopes his display will give a sense of it even to those not old enough to remember. But he admits he might be using rose-tinted spectacles with too much tint.
“I didn't have to worry about making the payments mom and dad had to worry about,” he said with a smile. “And I didn't have to worry about putting food on the table.”
And yet others perusing the display, which will stay up into January, don't think the idealized view of bygone Decatur is too far off. One visitor, Butch Haynes, said his grandmother ran the bakery at the downtown Woolworth's and he believes the Decatur of the past was a much more vibrant place.
“You'd see people all over downtown doing their Christmas shopping and standing on the corners talking to each other,” said Haynes, 58, whose earliest memories reach the 1960s. Told his recollections were painting a Norman Rockwell-like picture, Haynes added: “ You know, it really was, it really was like that at one time.”
He says Rockwell wouldn't have much fodder for his canvas these days, but believes downtown Decatur can rise again. And he's got plenty of ideas to aid its buoyancy, like encouraging the development of a Home Depot store or similar on the south end of the city, north side of the lake, with tax breaks for small businesses to set up nearby.
And he would like to see the revival of an inter-urban light rail loop between Decatur and towns like Champaign, Bloomington and Springfield. The loop could link downtown shopping and historic districts and Haynes, a retired electronics engineer, thinks it would stimulate shopper and visitor traffic and retail growth. He says that's the best Christmas present any community could wish for.
“Decatur has a rich past, a super-rich past,” Haynes said. “And while you can't live on nostalgia, you can build on it.”