Listening to an on-line holiday music channel and looking out to see another frosty morning here at the Matile Manse leads me to the conclusion that there’s no time of the year that stimulates a person’s nostalgia gland like the Christmas season.
Just about everybody has at least a few, and sometimes lots more, wonderful memories of Christmases past.
For the declining percentage of those of us who’ve lived their entire lives in the Fox Valley, the warm memories of those days gone by are tempered by the shear amazement with which we’ve been watching so many changes in our little corner of northern Illinois happen so quickly.
As part of that change, folks who live in Kendall County towns along the U.S. Route 34 corridor can now reasonably expect to do their holiday shopping in their own communities (and thereby making sure the resulting sales tax benefits themselves instead of residents of neighboring towns), something that, for several decades, was not possible. With the construction of shopping centers up and down the corridor from Sandwich east to Montgomery, shopping without leaving town has become not only possible, but with the traffic, preferable.
The thing is, though, that back in the day, Oswego, Yorkville, Plano and Sandwich residents could once do their holiday shopping in their own towns before the advent of regional shopping centers siphoned off those areas’ shoppers.
Here in Oswego, I always figured that Al Shuler, owner of Shuler’s Drug Store on Main Street, must have been a huge fan of Christmas. When I was a kid, he’d order up a giant supply of the latest toys, which were sold from the large meeting hall on the floor above the drug and dry goods stores. On the way home from school, we’d make almost daily stops at that toy display, tromping our way up the steep stairs to make holiday wishes, our four-buckle boots jingling and swishing.
I didn’t know then, in the mid-1950s, that the tradition of Oswego’s drug store selling an elaborate line of holiday merchandise extended nearly a century into the past, back to when pioneer druggist Levi Hall began the practice. As the Dec. 18, 1874 Kendall County Record reported:
Santa Claus in Oswego: This fine old gentleman, the patron saint of the children, has his Oswego headquarters this month at the drug store of L.N. Hall, and he requests all who love Christmas to call there on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of next week and see what beautiful goods Mr. Hall has to sell. In the evening of those days, a beautiful Christmas tree will be lit up at 7 o’clock for the admiration of customers and little folks.
That was all fine, but from my point of view, as a confirmed television-watching youngster of the ‘50s, when the Christmas shopping season began the most wonderful place on earth had to have been Amlings Flowerland. Which might seem a bit odd, to the uninitiated, especially since I never actually went to Amlings. But Amlings (“conveniently located”) was a frequent sponsor of children’s TV shows like “Elmer the Elephant” and “Garfield Goose.” For about two months a year, Amlings’ commercials bombarded us with the lure of every wonderful toy imaginable. Fanner 50 revolvers, lever-action carbines like “The Rifleman” used, dolls that walked, real two-way radios, —Amlings had them all. I made frequent requests to be taken to this magical toy shopping Mecca, but to no avail. I had no idea where Hinsdale or Ogden Avenue was, but it didn’t sound very far away. Of course, Antarctica wouldn’t have seemed too far for the chance to visit Toy Nirvana. But as far as my parents were concerned, Amlings might as well of been on the far side of the moon.
But while Amlings was definitely out, downtown Aurora was definitely in. Aurora was only about six miles up the river on Route 25, which turned into Broadway–downtown Aurora’s main street–once we passed the city limits. My family had considered Aurora our main shopping town for at least a couple generations.
Back then, Sears was located in the middle of the downtown area on Broadway. At Christmas, they’d open a special toy department up in what was apparently the attic. I remember taking the elevator as far as it would go and then climbing the steep, narrow crowded stairway to a huge room filled, mostly it seemed, with frantic parents trying to get the latest Hasbro doll or Tonka truck for their kids.
It was surprisingly similar to Al Shuler’s toy emporium—except I don’t think as many people visited Shuler’s toy display in an entire season as did the customers who shopped at the Sears display on a single frenetic Friday night.
And it wasn’t only Sears that was such a kid’s delight. Downtown Aurora as a whole at Christmas was a fascinating place for kids. There was The Book Shop on Stolp Avenue that not only sold books, but also had a wonderful selection of “educational” toys. Microscopes, real miniature steam engines, Erector sets, Gilbert chemistry and microscope sets—The Book Store was an always excellent place to while away a half-hour.
The dime stores, Kresge’s and Woolworth’s, had toy departments that were okay, but were nothing special. Grant’s, which wasn’t quite, but was pretty close to a dime store, had a passably good toy department, along with a truly excellent selection of comic books, including a good supply of Classics Illustrated, one of my favorite comic series.
For model kits and the only place in the south Fox Valley that sold British-made Dinky Toys, you had to take a walk south on Broadway to Fagerholm’s. They specialized in model kits, including gasoline-powered model planes, and had all the special paints needed to get just the right effect on that World War II Fletcher class destroyer or the Cutty Sark clipper ship model under construction up in my bedroom. And every once in a while I’d have enough money to add to my collection of Dinky Toy military vehicles.
Right across the street was Main Surplus where military surplus clothing and equipment shared store shelves with—bowling balls. It was the best place in town to pick up a new ball, get your old one drilled out, or get a nice bowling bag, your private towel, or your own pair of shoes.
Out the door and walking north to Downer Place, a left turn took the discriminating shopper to May Electric where Lionel trains reigned supreme—at least for us kids. Parents were more interested in boring stuff like washing machines, but in the upstairs loft was the most complete selection of Lionel trains and equipment in our area. New switches, bottles of those tiny pills that made your steam locomotive smoke, signal bridges, and freight cars with little guys that actually unloaded crates of who knows what were all there, along with the newest diesel and steam engines and other rolling stock. I had my eye on a great Santa Fe diesel switch engine one year, and was almost beside myself when I found it under the tree Christmas morning.
Looking back, the amazing thing is that parents during that era thought nothing of letting their kids roam around downtown Aurora all by themselves, even at night. It was a wonderful place: the Korn Krib for some great caramel corn; or Reuland’s for hot, fresh giant cashews; or the Fox Valley Snack Shop for cantaloupe à la mode for the sophisticated palate (or a Belly-Buster for the audacious); or browsing the coming attractions posters at the Paramount or the Isle theater.
It was a time of shared experience now long gone, but far from forgotten. We like to look back and believe it was a simpler time, but it really wasn’t. The challenges were just different and us kids didn’t yet have to worry about the kinds of things our parents did. It’s entirely likely modern kids will look back on today in exactly the same way. It’s the “Good Old Days” syndrome. Thing is, some—even if not all—of those old days actually were pretty good.