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Louisa-Lawrence Co, KY

In God We Trust - Established 2008


Growing up in Louisa – Memories!!

Weekly feature . . . by Mike Coburn

 The first part of this past week, my wife and I traveled to the beautiful Shenandoah Valley city of Staunton, Virginia, for me to attend a business symposium. While I stayed busy attending various meetings and classes, Suzy had the opportunity to roam the downtown area looking for bargains and any interesting places she might take me once I was available. She also purposed to take some time to work on the beginnings of a new quilt top that she expected to finish once we returned home. Quilting has long been a source of pleasure for her, but the hectic life we sometimes encounter leaves her little time to accomplish all she wishes. The trip promised quiet time aplenty and gave us some meaningful time together.   

We had looked forward to visiting this part of the state because the timing of the event was expected to perfectly line up with the peak ‘leaf season.’ We expected to see high mountains of colorful trees basking in sunlight, throwing off such colors as to compare with the prettiest of pictures. As it happened, it turned out to not be peak season after all. No trees I saw had yet begun to change. In fact, our trees on the coast had started to show a little color as we left home, but the further we traveled toward the mountains the less change we saw. All we could do was to shrug it off and look to other things for pleasure.

We were booked into the old, but recently remodeled Stonewall Jackson Hotel that sits in the old downtown area. The hotel itself is historic and is but a block from President Woodrow Wilson’s home and presidential library, as well as many other sites connected to the history of this part of the valley. This meant that many vibrant stores, restaurants, museums, and historic buildings were just a short walk down the hill from the hotel. When Suzy and I took several of these walks I was reminded of old Louisa with the buildings along Madison and Main Cross in what used to be the vibrant little town in which I grew up. Larger than where I started my life, Staunton still had its similarities. Unlike many towns in Virginia, it wasn’t subjected to the damage that other civil war sites suffered, so many building predating that event remain standing today.

 Because of that history, and the promotion of its importance to that part of the state, Staunton is famous for its beautiful architecture in the downtown and nearby areas. The homes are large and spacious, qualifying as well-appointed mansions. The commercial buildings on its main streets are loaded with the appearance of bygone eras. Some are of colonial design, some are Victorian with lots of towers, gingerbread trim. Many are from the early twentieth century and designed by famous architects. The storefronts were not at all dissimilar from what remember were in Louisa during my school years. During the walks Suzy and I took, we strolled into former hardware stores, haberdasheries, historical museums, and we took meals in a variety of restaurants over several days. All were reminiscent of the days of my youth in our beloved little community. Both the buildings of Staunton and those in Louisa were key for the businesses that thrived during those days. They made living there possible, and even enjoyable.

As you might imagine, nearly every building we saw had ‘tin ceilings’ and sometimes, ‘tin walls.’ Some had heavily carved plaster with flowers, imitating nature. The stamped metal coverings suggested grand vaulted designs, trimmed with geometric borders. We could see that a few had been former drug stores and department stores, but were now serving as antique stores or art galleries. Some, like the ones from home, had additions and modifications so that the floors sometimes were at slightly different levels. The wooden floors creaked under my footsteps and sometimes were at a slant, indicating either foundational problems or that two stores were joined to allow more room. That was common in my day, too. Some were built over basements, some were on a high crawl space, but others were slab and covered with brilliant and inlaid ceramic tiles. I remember fancy casements around doors and windows and carvings that displayed the artisan’s skills. Double hung windows still held glass that reflected the ripples that were common before glass-making improved. To me, it was a miracle that those old panes had survived through those many years.

 During our walks we saw some churches with pretty, stained-glass windows, which, in spite of the fact that we only saw them from the outside, their overall beauty was apparent. I wondered what they would look like from the inside with the sun striking the glass. Breathtaking, I’m sure. I read in a flyer that one of the Staunton churches had windows by Tiffany. Those would be worth more than the proverbial ‘pretty penny’ and maybe more than the church itself. Unfortunately, those were not open during our walks. I remember seeing those kinds of windows in the old Louisa Methodist Church on Main Cross and Madison where I worshiped each Sunday. Back before I was old enough to sing in the choir, I sat with my mother in one of the pews and spend part of my time looking at those windows. The grownups listened to the sermons, but I would often find myself looking at the windows. I especially remember the one that showed Jesus knocking on a big wooden door, and another one with Him carrying a sheep on his shoulders. When I was visiting Louisa a few years ago, my friend Billy Elkins took me on a tour of the new church up on the ridge above town. That church sits very near the graves of my grandparents on Pine Hill. I also noticed some of the furniture that had been in the old church was still in use in the new building.

I guess it’s a gender thing, but when I think about the old stores I grew up around, I tend to remember hardware stores better than many of the other business structures in town. As I recall, at least three good-sized hardware stores were in operation during my school years. Moore’s was near adjacent to the depot, and was a favorite place for me to visit. I would look at display cases of pocket knives and wish I had the wherewithal to buy one. I remember that I did save up and buy a hunting knife complete with a leather sheath that allowed it to be attached to a belt. I think I got a whetstone, but it was later when I learned how to sharpen the blade. One of those many older men that sat on benches whittling, or trading knives, offered to show me how to raise a sharp edge by spitting on the stone and rubbing the blade properly.

 I also remember the huge Wellman’s Hardware store on Main and Vinson (Water Street?) The folks who worked there were very friendly and always seemed to work hard but have a good time. They carried things for the farm that the competition didn’t have. I remember seeing barrels of various items including nail kegs that at the time were too heavy for me to manipulate. Then again, I didn’t need that many nails. They also had a rotating bunch of metal bins that held finishing nails, roofing nails, common nails, and I’m sure others. I think one could buy plows, and other implements there, too.    

I have forgotten the name of the one across from my church at Main Cross and Madison. I heard that after I left town my old Sunday school teacher, Bill Keaton, bought into this store. I remember it had a staircase in the center of the store that went down to the basement area. I don’t remember going downstairs, but after all, the sporting goods were on the first floor. I bought a catcher’s mitt there once but my mother demanded I return it. Apparently, I couldn’t afford it and needed to spend the money in another way. They were gracious and allowed the return.

 The grocery stores were another thing I frequently visited with my mother. Some of those had wooden floors, too, but I also remember some with tile floors. Floor tile was very evident downtown at Carter’s Department store. Those were still there the last time I walked that street. Those old buildings that held the Garden Theater, Doc Skaggs’ Drug store, the Louisa Bank, the Brunswick Hotel, and many other businesses each have their own special architecture that is unique and very worth saving. The assorted facades tell the story of the time the buildings were erected. Within those walls rests the stories of many people and their families. Those folk experienced hope, success, joy, happiness, some failures, hurt, and sadness. Undoubtedly, there were acts of bravery and likely some disgraceful ones, too. The quote, “if walls could talk…” should give us all reason to pause. I think we should honor those memories of the past, and share them with newer generations. There are lessons to be learned, and lives to be honored.

 Like people, old buildings fall into disrepair. They need updating as time moves on. I suspect that even though costs of restoration may be high, they are often worth fixing. The real crime in my mind is to not repair, or replace them either. Whether a compatible design or a totally new look isn’t the question as much as the sin of doing nothing and allowing our history to crumble. Demolition is sometimes unavoidable. It is called for when danger of collapse is present, but even then, I would want to try and salvage the interesting architectural elements for potential reuse.

Louisa is smaller than Staunton and has a greater need of a complete restoration. Because I worked for a city government so many years I find myself wanting to renovate or replace those tired buildings, but I remind myself of the many similarities of these two cities, which gives me warm memories of another time. In my mind, I could again walk the streets I so often traveled as a child looking for adventure, perhaps an old friend, or to discover something exciting and new. Our history and our memories are tied to the places we visited and lived in during our formative years. Those feelings float like clouds of vapor around our souls as we continue what little is left of our brief walk on this earth.

When it comes to houses and commercial buildings, I believe in restoration. It’s like giving a ‘facelift’ to old properties. To a small degree it has given me a hobby, or a sideline, to do just that. I enjoy seeing people restore old neighborhoods, and bring those places back into some suitable use. This gives the next generation opportunity to enjoy what the folks before had originally put together. There is no greater joy than to talk to a neighbor who has memories of the families that once called the dilapidated house, home. I refuse to always be a member of the ‘discard and throw out’ generation, because when we throw out the old we throw out the memories of so many good people. I admit that I’m a bit hesitant to tear down what was once a beautiful structure. I believe that like our farmer forefathers, ‘fixing’ the broken tractor is a far better solution than buying a new one. (Well, sometimes.)

The historic streets that I saw this week gives a certain legitimacy to this whole train of thought. The folks in Staunton worked hard to keep things up. They invested in the promise of restoring worthwhile buildings, and basking in those memories of days gone by. In the end, those memories will be all we’ll have as the winter of life creeps ever closer. Let’s us all do what we can to keep those memories alive.   

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0 #1 Bernard 2017-10-31 20:05
Good article Mike, I agree with you, A lot of these old buildings are worth saving. Sadly, here in Louisa they have been left to rot & ruin and are being torn down. It is becoming a ghost town. The big stores have run the mon & pop stores out and that is a shame, as they employed a lot of local folks. Keep on writing, love to read your articles, & thanks for the memories.

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