Remembering uptown after hearing about downtowns

From the Eclectic Mind of Roger VanHaren

Roger VanHaren

In small towns all over America today, you can hear discussions about improving our downtowns. With the development of malls and big box stores on the outskirts of towns, many downtowns sort of withered up and died. Small businesses found it hard to compete against the convenience of the malls and big superstores.

My mind often goes back to days when I was a lot younger and things were different. When I was a kid, Friday night was a big night in Oconto Falls. Football under the lights in the fall, basketball games at the high school in the winter, all that good stuff. Friday nights in Oconto Falls were special all year around. The stores stayed open on Friday nights until 9:00. Wow! Farmers like us came to town to do our shopping, and the stores were open on only that one night.

It was a prime social activity for us farmers on Friday nights to drive to town, park on Main Street and talk, gossip, and watch what was going on in the “city.” There was a “competition” for the prime parking spaces on Main Street, a two-block-long business district. Some families almost always got there earlier in the day and always seemed to have the best spots. If a regular attending family was not at their spot, others would gossip about whether something was wrong in that family.

When I was a kid, we’d hurry to get chores done on Friday nights so we could go “uptown” to get our shopping done. It was never “downtown” in Oconto Falls because the city had two levels: the west side of the river was not the business district. The center of the town was up the hill from the river. “Uptown.”

All the stores were open, and we could walk from one end of town to the other. We could grab a bite to eat, or take in a movie (we called it a “show”) without moving the car. We could meet all our friends, we knew who we were doing business with, and everybody said hello to everybody else.

You could go into any store, get waited on and talk to someone who really wanted to help you. You could make special orders. You could talk with the owner. If you had a complaint, you could complain to someone who would really care. You could take things home “on approval” or you could add things to your charge account. No credit cards then!

Sometimes some of the men would head to one of the bars for a beer and to play cards or shake dice while the women would shop, or just sit in the car and talk to whoever came by. Most of us farmers would call it a night by 9:00 when the stores closed because we had to be up early the next day to do the morning chores.

Winter Fridays, especially during the holiday season were pretty special. Kids bundled up in heavy winter jackets could run from store to store to see all the special goodies and toys that the local merchants had stocked for Christmas. Christmas decorations and a Christmas tree lot at a local church added to the ambience.

When the Panthers played at home on Friday nights, the town was an exciting place to be after the game. Kids crowded into Sid Johnson’s and congregated on Main Street to look for their parents’ cars to get a ride home. It was great fun.

Yeah, I know that sounds a little “Norman Rockwell-y” or like a scene from a 1940s or 1950s Broadway musical or a cornball movie, but it was a scene that could be found in Oconto Falls and probably almost every other small town in the state on any given Friday night.

Friday nights uptown was about a lot more than just shopping. There was an “attitude.” We cared about the town and I think the town cared about us. I’m not sure why the Friday night in town scene changed. Was it the huge shopping malls or internet buying? Commerce became less local and more spread out. Local people spent their money elsewhere and less local money went to pay local taxes.

We have seen the deterioration of our small towns all over the country. From the halcyon days of my youth in the 1950s — when uptown was an exciting adventure, a social activity, a happening — to today’s “rush-around-in-a-car-over-half-the-state-to-save-a-buck- shop-more-and-enjoy-it-less society,” we have had a drastic change in the way we live.

I think it’s kind of tragic because our young people, our sons and daughters and grandchildren, will probably never enjoy the kind of downtown fun we had on Friday nights back in the “old days.”

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