Memories of Mattoon
I was born and raised in small
town Mattoon, Illinois. It is located in the south/central part
of the state about a hundred miles east of St. Louis, Missouri
“as the eagle flies”. I know. I know. “Crow” is correct but I am
a Harley man and eagles are (like hogs) associated with Harleys.
Kind of a weird combination, huh? Eagles and hogs. Maybe hogs
are in reference to us pigs who ride them. Only kidding but
February 18th begins the Chinese New Year of the Pig; and this
is Black History Month and I cannot forget Mardi Gras!
Get used to it if you care to read me. I tend to veer off the
road into tangents. Or some off the wall place. Anyway, as the
mood strikes me I will write a memory of my moments in Mattoon
and not in chronological order since there is no order in my
Mattoon is an agricultural community and was once a major
railroad center. There was no such thing as growing up on the
“wrong side of the tracks” since railroad tracks basically
dissected the town everywhere you turned. Driving was often a
nightmare because of the many delays caused by all of the trains
steaming through town day and night.
By the way, the famed “City of New Orleans” still runs through
(and stops!) in Mattoon. And to think, many of you thought it
was nothing but a song written by Steve Goodman and made
semi-famous by icon Willie Nelson.
Since most of you are used to the simpler approach to writing
prevalent in eastern styles and forms I am afraid my memories
may be too long-winded for you. I think it is the novelist
coming out in me. I spent a lot of time in the Far East and love
the old Zen Masters but am more like a character from Zora Mae
Hurston’s stories in “Mules and Men,” an old Black man sitting
on the porch with friends, “telling lies and drinking until
someone picks up his guitar and starts playing the blues”. Or a
sailor home from a voyage and spinning “sea stories”.
Mattoon was founded in 1855 and there is much history in the
town and surrounding area. Colonel U.S. Grant took command of
his first troops during the Civil War and the flagpole from the
camp site is currently being refurbished to prevent further
deterioration; then it will probably be placed in front of the
library where it stood for many years.
Abraham Lincoln’s father and stepmother had a farm just east of
Mattoon and are buried there in a small cemetery. One of the
Lincoln/Douglas debates took place nine miles east of Mattoon in
the county seat, Charleston, Illinois.
Now that I have told you of my intent I will try to keep the
memories as brief as possible. And, of all things, my first
memory will be of home made ice cream. I hope it leads me to
sharing many more memories of Mattoon.
Home Made Ice
My Mother remarried after my
Father left his brain in a barber’s chair down in Fort Polk,
Louisiana while the Army was grooming him to go fight the
Germans during WW II. They said he had a nervous breakdown but I
feel he did a very sane thing.
My new Dad moved our family from South 6th Street to Pine Street
shortly thereafter. I was six or seven years old and had a
younger Sister and Brother. Another Brother would be born while
we lived on Pine Street.
One street north of us was Western Avenue. The high school where
I would spend my freshman year while a new high school was being
built was about six blocks east on Western. Across the street
was a “hangout” for the high schoolers whose main features were
pinball machines and home made ice cream. The name of the place
was Wright’s (no relation) Ice Cream Parlor.
Our garage was a concrete building for some odd reason and sat
about ten feet from the back stoop of our house. Dad and Mom
rented the building to the ice cream parlor and that is where
they made their different flavors of home made ice cream. So
summers were flavorful dreams for me and all of the other young
kids who lived nearby because my parents opened our back yard to
all children during “ice cream making days”.
Why? Because we would get to take turns licking the paddles
after the ice cream was made and were all treated to as many
bowls as we could eat. Very few of us would eat supper that
night I’m sure. And though most families made home made ice
cream in the hot and humid summers very few kids could boast of
a “home made ice cream factory” in their very own back yard as I
Fresh Baked Bread
I have mentioned Pine Street in
my memories of Mattoon. Well, that street had more magic than
just home made ice cream. About two blocks to the east, Pine and
Avenue came together becoming one street. The merging of the
streets formed a lot that was shaped like a piece of pie where
it actually became Commercial Avenue.
Across the street from the pie-shaped lot on the south side of
Commercial was a brick building. There were many brick buildings
in Mattoon. But this building was home to the Sally Ann Bakery.
On the days the bakery was making fresh loaves of bread the
smell permeated the air for blocks. Very few things smell as
good as fresh bread being made. I look back and wonder what we
kids did when bread was being baked on the same days home made
ice cream was being made in my back yard.
I have a feeling we hurried to the bakery where they would give
each of us kids a loaf of hot, unsliced bread and what seemed
like a pound of butter to slather on it. We would watch it melt
before devouring it like we hadn’t eaten in a week. Then we’d
race home for home made ice cream.
Those days I not only doubt we had room for supper but many of
us probably had tummy aches. I’m sure glad people didn’t worry
about cholesterol in those days. God, I can almost smell that
bread now and though our family didn’t have much money it
doesn’t matter because you can’t buy memories.
Our Dad went to work for
Coca-Cola when we four children were quite young. He always told
us that if we drank any soda pop except Coke and whatever else
they distributed terrible things would happen to us. Things like
our teeth might fall out or our hair which would mean we would
be toothless and bald the rest of our lives or have pimples all
over our bodies the sizes as large as golf balls.
Dad was a barrel-chested man and very strong. He was also a war
hero during WWII where he was awarded the DSC and two Bronze
Stars for heroism and a Purple Heart for wounds suffered in
action. Years in his life he would dismiss by saying, “I was
only doing my job.”
He could seem gruff but it didn’t take us long to realize he was
only teasing us and not nearly as gruff as he liked to appear.
In fact, he was a “softie” but we never let him know we knew
this and that we were actually free to drink whatever we chose
to drink but we loved this man so much we only drank Coke and
their other products. Orange Crush was one of my favorites
besides Cokes in the small seven ounce bottles.
American Bandstand hosted by Dick Clark was probably the most
popular TV show for teenagers at the time. Many spin-offs of the
show were aired on small, local TV stations. One of these was
“Sock Hop” which aired on channel 3 in Champaign-Urbana,
Illinois which is fifty miles north of my hometown, Mattoon.
“Sock Hop” liked to go “on the road” (so to speak) and would
often air from a small café or soda shop in the smaller towns in
the surrounding area. One weekend they chose to air their show
from a soda shop in Sullivan which is about 16 miles west of
My fourteen-year old Sister Cindy and a bunch of other kids from
Mattoon, including my best friend Dave Wells, decided to attend.
Pepsi was one of the show’s main sponsors and much to my
Sister’s chagrin was filming a commercial during this show from
Sullivan. She didn’t discover this until she and Dave arrived at
the soda shop.
To make matters worse, Sullivan was on Dad’s Coke route and he
was well known and liked in the community. The soda shop was,
naturally, one of the stops on his route. The MC asked her to be
one of the kids in the Pepsi commercial. Though it was doubtful
anyone besides the kids from Mattoon knew who she was she was
horrified that someone might recognize her and Dad would
discover she had appeared in a Pepsi commercial; especially in
Sullivan where he was so popular.
She refused but the MC thought she was “cute” and not only
wanted her to appear in the Pepsi commercial but insisted she be
up front and center. He was persuasive and she finally conceded
to do it on one condition: there would not be a Pepsi bottle in
her hands or on the table in front of her!
My friend Dave Wells is in the foreground of the accompanying
picture and my sister Cindy is seated next to him wearing a
plaid skirt and glancing over her shoulder. If you notice her
hands are clasped and resting on the table and there is not a
Pepsi bottle near her.
Though “Sock Hop” was one show Dad would probably never see and
my Sister is convinced he never knew about her being in a Pepsi
commercial, I would bet money that he did know about it but never
said anything. Something we will never know since he passed away