Christmas in Downtown Bay St. Louis
Pat Murphy recalls Christmases past and youthful hijinks in this installment of his book-in-progress about historic Bay St. Louis.
Another thing that used to happen during Christmas downtown was Ms. Bernice Kern at the Five-and-Dime store would have Santa Claus make an appearance at her store. This was in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Santa Claus would arrive by train and everybody would wait for him back at the train depot. There would be a band playing and hundreds of people out there waiting for Santa.
When Santa arrived there would be a parade through town to Kern’s Five & Dime Store on Main Street. Ms. Kern would have Santa in the store for kids to sit on his lap and share their Christmas lists.
Several years later after the American Legion post was built at the head of Washington Street, Santa Claus (often played by Mr. Leroy Luke) would fly in on a seaplane and land out at the end of the jetty and pier. Mr. Joe Scafide, who ran The Star Theatre across the street, would have a free Christmas movie for the kids and afterwards everyone would come out of the theatre and stand in line for Santa and the toy giveaway. Sometimes the line would be all the way down South Beach Boulevard past Citizen Street!
The American Legion’s toy giveaway was a true extravaganza and every child, black, white, brown, yellow, red, rich or poor got a free toy and got to sit on Santa’s lap. There would be four- or five-hundred kids lined up down Beach Boulevard waiting to see Santa Claus and receive their toy.
Ms. Kern at the Five-and-Dime dealt in toys and Mrs. Gleim at Sunshine’s had a back room where she sold toys and gifts. They both carried toys all year long to some degree, but neither had the showroom space nor the assortment of toys that my grandfather Stevenson did.
People would flock to my grandfather’s store, browse the toy showroom and buy for their children’s Christmas. My grandfather would even hire extra help to take care of the extra volume of customers. This was really unusual for him because he was a tight old Scotsman who didn’t part with money easily, but he had the cash rolling in during the Christmas season.
There were toy shows that the wholesalers like Mr. Harold Schiffman in New Orleans put on for toy dealers. When we were lucky enough to accompany my grandfather, we were able see and play with all the newest and most exclusive toys before any of the other kids saw them. We saw Hula Hoops before they were even advertising them! My grandfather used us as his test market. If we liked a new toy and were attracted to it, then he’d be selling it that Christmas in his showroom.
My grandfather even sprang to have a 16mm black and white movie commercial filmed featuring his three grandchildren. This advertisement was shown for several months before Christmas in the local movie theatres. How special do you think that made his grandkids feel to be local movie stars?
One interesting footnote is that featured in this advertisement were my sisters and me peddling down the sidewalk in a shiny new red surrey complete with a red-and-white-striped, fringed top. This was one of the very cool toys that my grandfather introduced to Bay St. Louis that year. About forty years later (and prior to Hurricane Katrina) there was a business in downtown Bay St. Louis renting adult-sized versions of these red-and-white pedal surreys!
In the late 1950s, the new TG&Y store opened along with a Winn Dixie grocery on Blue Meadow Road and Highway 90 (now Zuppardo’s Shopping Center). No one would comprehend it at the time, but this was a sign of things to come. This store opening would also be the beginning of the demise of Kern’s Five & Dime as well as my grandfather’s toy business.
Ironically, my grandfather’s firm was the electrical contractor for the TG&Y store construction. This store was the first of the big national retailers in Bay St. Louis. Ultimately it was the beginning of the business exodus out of downtown and out to Highway 90. Of course, no one back then even dreamed of the commercial giants like Wal-mart and K-mart that are so commonplace today.
Funny Things I Remember About the Bay
Doc Wolfe On The Stanislaus Sidelines
I’ve already told you about how Doctor Marion J. Wolfe delivered half the babies of my generation in Bay St. Louis. Well, at some point Doc Wolfe left Bay St. Louis and moved to New Orleans and later on, he moved back to the Bay. When he returned, he reopened his practice in the Bay, but was the physician who cared for the boarding students at Saint Stanislaus.
In those days, Saint Stanislaus had its own self-contained infirmary with an onsite staff nurse, Mrs. Schmidt (my friend George Schmidt’s mom). Doc Wolfe was permanently on call. Another one of Doc’s school duties was the football team doctor. Later in life Doc started sporting this red plaid Scottish tam or beret. I have very distinct memories of Doc Wolfe with his bent stick walking cane and plaid cap dancing up and down the sidelines whenever Stanislaus would score a touchdown!
Business Closes at Noon on Wednesday
Stores closed on Wednesdays and Saturdays at noon. I’ve been told that this practice started during World War II. When I went into business with my grandfather Stevenson in 1977, he was still closing on Wednesday and Saturday at twelve.
The Siren Sounding Every Day at Noon
One memory that is absolutely burned into my brain is the fire station siren going off at noon every Monday through Friday to signal time for lunch. I don’t know how this tradition started, but I know that on most days about ten minutes after the siren went off my dad would drive up at the house to eat lunch. Back then most if not all of the businesses (even the post office) closed for lunch except of course the restaurants. I’m sure that this was also a test to make sure the siren was functioning.
The Siren Fire Alarm by Wards
When I was growing up, the Bay St. Louis fire department was a volunteer department, except for one or two guys who manned the fire station. When the call came into the station, the siren was sounded by which ward the fire was occurring in. If the siren went off three times the fire was in the third ward, five times meant the fifth ward, etcetera. It was big excitement and it was not unusual to see whole families driving around the ward looking for the fire!
The Boy Scout Camporee and Mr. Jake Morreale’s Prosthetic Leg
Whenever the Boy Scouts would have the camping trips, or “camporees,” there was always rivalry between the different scout troops. The different scout troops camped in different areas on Mr. Teddy Stechman’s wooded farm between Green Meadow and Blue Meadow Road. Mr. Teddy was also a scout leader for Troop 217, so his farm was where we always had camping events. I want to make it perfectly clear that I had no involvement in the prank that I am about to relate.
Some of the older boys in my troop cut big rubber bands out of truck tire inner tubes and nailed them between two pine trees. This was done on opposite ends of the Troop 217 camping area. About three o’clock in the morning, with great cunning and stealth, several of our commandos slithered into Mr. Jake’s tent and made off with his artificial leg, which he took off while he slept.
Several big bags of hard green pine cones had been collected and at a predetermined signal these giant sling shots started bombarding the 217 campsite like catapults. People began waking up and coming out of their tents and getting smacked with these very hard and pointy green pine cones and the screaming started. Mr. Jake woke up and went for his leg, but it wasn’t in the tent, so he hopped out of the tent on one leg and immediately got beaned by one of these hard green pine cones. You could hear him screaming and cursing all the way over in the other troop’s camping area.
By the time that they figured out what was happening, everyone was safely back in their tents “sleeping soundly.” Everybody got a stern talking to the next day, but the culprits were never discovered. Mr. Jake Morreale’s leg was located hoisted to the top of the campgrounds flagpole.
Football Games in John Genin’s Pecan Orchard
My friend John Genin lived at the end of the 400 block of Carroll Avenue. His dad’s house was in the middle of these two pecan orchards. We used to get together and play what was supposed to be touch football in the orchard. Kids — big and small — would come from all over town to get involved in these games. As I remember, some of these games got pretty rough (beyond the scope of normal touch football) but we used to have fun doing it and kept coming back for as long as the games took place.
The State Street Soapbox Drag Races
My buddy Donald Gavagnie has been one of my partners in crime for at least 50 years now. One of the wonderful things about growing up in a small town like Bay St. Louis is that there are still people living here that you can count as your good friend, even after 50 years!
When I was about 11 or 12, Donald was my main bud. I spent a lot of time hanging out at his house on DeMontluzin Street with him and his older brother Bobbie. Ronnie Genin, along with Billy Shumski and his brother Butch, and John Genin were all part of this crowd.
We were all very into cars and car racing, both formula and drag. We all were huge model car enthusiasts and all had collections of hundreds of model cars. We also used to build “dragsters” out of old lawnmower parts and fruit crates and anything else that might be around. Joey Zeigler, who lived next to the Sea Coast Echo, used to get us the old aluminum printing sheets when they were discarded. We would use this paper-thin aluminum to cover the exteriors of the cars.
We used to hold the Bay St. Louis Nationals back on State Street behind Donald’s house on DeMontluzin. State Street had very little automobile traffic at the time. The trick was to build the car with as little weight as possible, find the lightest, skinniest kid you could find to drive it, and get the biggest, strongest, and fastest kid to push the car.
This was a dangerous profession for the poor little kid driving the car because quite often the driver would lose control of the steering and run off into the deep ditch that ran along one side of State Street. We even built makeshift roll bars into the cars because several times kids ended up in the ditch upside down. I assure you that this was all very exciting to young boys!
Doing Our Part to Support R.J. Reynolds
Donald and I were not unlike most kids in that at about 11 or 12 we went through the smoking cigarette thing, thinking it made us cool. I smoked, but never did like the way a cigarette tasted. We even used to smoke wild grapevines out in the woods (you know that had to be great for our lungs!).
My crew used to walk down to Sellier’s across the street from the Star Theatre and buy cigarettes. Woodford Sellier would sell the kids single cigarettes for 10 cents apiece. Things were somewhat looser concerning sale of cigarettes to minors in those days. This was in the days when a pack of cigarettes wasn’t but about 20 cents. Woodford just believed in capitalism. This was the supply and demand theory at its best, right?
I remember that as a senior attending Saint Stanislaus, you were allowed to smoke cigarettes at recess as long as you had a letter of parental permission on file in the office. I fell into that category and smoked at school but thankfully, I haven’t had a cigarette since quitting when I was 25 years old.
Funeral Home‘s Little League Team
The local funeral home, located in the second block of Union Street, was Fahey Funeral Home. At some point around the mid-1950s, a gentleman from Pearl River County acquired the business and the name was changed to Fahey-Whitfield Funeral Home. Ken Whitfield was the owner/funeral director/mortician and ran the business end of the operation.
Sometime in the late 1950s, Bay St. Louis started up a little league baseball program in the city. I played on the 7-Up team (Red Davis was my coach) and several of the guys who played on that team with me are still here in the Bay and are still my friends. Mr. Hardin Shattuck was the general manager of Coast Electric Power Association. Mr. Shattuck was a big baseball fan and had two sons. The Shattuck boys, Johnny and Harry, also loved baseball, so Coast Electric sponsored a team named the Coast Electri-kids. Not to be outdone, Fahey-Whitfield Funeral Home, run by Mr. Ken Whitfield, also sponsored a team. The funeral home’s team was named Ken’s Little Diggers.
Cruising Webre’s Inn By the Sea
Joe Plunkett was the father of my childhood friend, Michael Plunkett, and owned Volkswagon Beetles before anyone else that I can remember. It seems like he always owned one that his kids drove. My friend Michael was his youngest son and the baby of the family. When I tell you that he was beyond spoiled rotten, believe me that he was! Whatever Michael wanted, Joe Plunkett gave him.
Michael’s daddy started letting him drive this Volkswagon around town when he was only 14 years old. At the time you got a learner’s permit at 14 and could get a license at 15. Once Michael got his learner’s permit, he was allowed to use the car at night, which is when the trouble really started. We would cruise all over town for several hours on a couple of dollars of gas.
Usually this cruising included at least three or four passes through the circle around Webre’s Inn By The Sea, the local drive-in restaurant. This establishment was at the corner of North Beach Boulevard and the Highway 90 car bridge. It was one of those classic Americana teenage hangouts with a driveway and parking lot that circled all the way around it. You could cruise through, see who was hanging out and stop or just cruise right back out again.
Michael Plunkett was usually good for pulling some stunt that would get us in trouble and this drive-in was one of his favorite locations for mischief. One of his favorite pranks was to ride around, squeezing the catsup and mustard packets and squirting them all over other people’s cars. It was quiet and most people wouldn’t even notice until there was catsup and mustard all over their car.
One night Plunkett got the bright idea that if he held about six of these packets and squeezed them all at once then he would be shooting a large load all at once. Instead of it squirting out the window it backfired and squirted backwards all over him, me, and his dad’s car interior. Plunkett found other stunts after that episode.
Billy Shumski’s Tow Skateboarding Incident
My cousin Chuck Murphy was an avid surfing enthusiast both when he lived in Hawaii and in southern California. He and I were very close and so I was always an avid fan of surfing. I discovered skateboarding through my cousin long before it became a national fad.
One day not long after I got a drivers license, several of us were cruising with our skateboards in my dad’s 1963 Chevrolet station wagon. Our Lady of the Gulf Elementary School grounds had just been paved with a new surface of asphalt. We came up with the brilliant idea of towing Billy Shumski with a rope on the skateboard behind the car.
Well, I was driving towing Billy and he kept yelling for me to go faster and faster. I got him up to about 25 or 30 miles per hour. One second I was looking at him in the rear view mirror standing upright, hot-dogging on the skateboard and the next second I looked and he was flying like superman with his arms in front of him. The skateboard had hit a pebble and stopped dead and Billy was airborne. He skidded for about 15 feet once he hit the ground and ground about an inch of meat off the hip he was sliding on. Thank god he somehow didn’t fracture his skull.
We concocted some story for his mother as to how it happened but the days of tow skateboarding were over for my crowd. Another time my buddy, Ree Elliott, fell skateboarding down the sidewalk on a hill at St. Augustine Seminary and broke his arm. Surprisingly this is the only casualty that I can recall from all of our escapades at St. Augustine Seminary.
Skimboarding On The Shoreline
Another spinoff of the whole surfing-skateboarding craze was skimboarding. There has never been surf higher than 6” on the beaches here, partially because of the barrier islands. At some point we discovered skimboarding, which involved running along the shoreline and tossing a 36” round plywood board into the shallow water at the shoreline. Then you jumped onto the round board and with the momentum of the board careened down the shoreline on about three inches of water. Kids still do skimboarding but the boards are now more oval-shaped instead of round. Again, this is progress I suppose.
The Monti Family’s Big Hat Characters
When I was a kid Mr. T.F. Monti and his kids would march in all of the Mardi Gras parades wearing these goofy big paper-mache hat costumes. People loved them. They would paint faces on their stomachs and wear these big hats that came down to where the faces on their stomachs began. These were unusual looking costume characters that I’ve never seen anywhere else. I don’t know where the idea came from but “The Hat People” were the high point of any local parade!!