F. N. Wright, US



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 brain.

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 Cream

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 could.




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 Commercial
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.



Pepsi Commerical

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 Mattoon.

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 last May.




Memories of Mattoon

Index to the complete Memories of Mattoon series.



top of page