Houghton life in the 50s
The 1950s were pretty good years throughout the US, and there’s no shortage of 50s’ memorabilia today reminding us of those great times. But growing up in Houghton during that era was an especially rich experience. I often think of it as my “Mayberry, Michigan,” experience – a source of great small-town experiences, and lifelong memories worth documenting.
After a lot of grappling with how to write about my many great 50’s memories, I decided that perhaps the only manageable structure was to approach it by the seasons. I chose seasons because nothing defines the Copper Country and its many activities as much as its diverse weather and distinct seasons. So my 3-Part series will be structured as follows:
• Part 1: A General Look at Houghton Life In the 1950’s,
• Part 2: Spring & Summer Memories
• Part 3: Fall & Winter Memories
Since I grew up in Houghton, my writings will have a Houghton slant, but my activities and family ties took me throughout the Copper Country, making for many broader, very memorable experiences. Fortunately, I’m blessed with pretty good recall of those youthful experiences that were indelibly etched on an absorbent young brain. Since it’s all written from memory, I hope it’s mostly accurate. But bear with me if you discover my recollections “ain’t as good” as I think. For those who actually experienced the Copper Country in the 50’s, this will hopefully rekindle some forgotten fond memories. For younger folk or more recent arrivals on the Houghton scene, it will provide a glimpse of a much simpler time in a remote and unique part of the United States.
In any case, I hope you’ll enjoy this look back at a simpler, and very fun, cherished time in the Copper Country.
A general look at Houghton life in the 50s
Having lived a pretty full life, in hindsight, growing up in Houghton in the 50s was pretty ideal. It was an experience I like to call “Mayberry, Michigan.” Looking back now, it’s easy to see just how good we had it – myself and all the young guys I ran with. Houghton was a wonderful place. With its stable families, fine school systems, and a rich community full of great stuff for kids, it was a wonderful incubator for young minds and bodies. The beautiful four-season environment was just icing on the cake.
In the 50s, with World War II behind us, and the Korean War winding down, a post-war economy was in full swing, and times were pretty good. My dad (Bob) walked to his job at the U.P. Power Company offices downtown. My Mom (Gloria / “Gody”) also worked part time at Doud’s Fashion Shop downtown, and later for the Portage Lake Health District in Hancock. By the late 50s, my older sister Laurie was attending St. Joseph’s Nursing School (an extension of the hospital) in Hancock, and brother Bob was at Houghton High School.
I was the runt, still in grade school and junior high. But this gave me a great vantage point from which to observe and connect with what the older kids and adults were up to during that era.
Houghton was technically incorporated, but as a “village.” (Not sure why.) But Hancock was a “real city,” which gave them license to look down their nose at us “villagers.”
Houghton’s Village Council ran things with just a handful of village employees, handling necessities like water supply, garbage pick-up, street and sewer maintenance, and most importantly snow removal -along with some minimal policing. I recall the mayor being Curt Eggleston who ran the flour mill down by Dee Stadium.
Houghton’s Police Chief was Lock Schumaker, later replaced by Joe McGuire. The amicable Joe had a colorful, if crusty, sidekick Clem (“Pasty”) Richards, who carried himself in a posture that said “always ready to draw.” Barney Fife must have had a cousin. Mr. Ricore and Mr. Chappell were the other part-time deputies. The police office was in a small room in the Community Building next to the Post Office.
Since there were no two-way police radios, a cop walking the beat downtown could be summoned back to City Hall by a bright yellow light bulb hanging over Shelden Avenue and visible from anywhere downtown. The sheriff’s office was still in the old courthouse, but with a new office and jail under construction on the large east lawn, which would obliterate one of our best venues for pick-up ball games.
Downtown Houghton was the biggest thing going west of Marquette, with “chain stores” like Montgomery Wards, Woolworth’s, Newberry’s, and J.C. Penney’s, complete with an air tube system for handling the cash from every purchase. Downtown also had thriving local outlets for groceries, hardware, furniture and clothing. There was virtually no commercial development outside of the downtown Shelden Avenue nucleus. Any development on the west end, along M-26, was still far off in the future. In fact, kids played baseball on the west Houghton ‘sands’ near where Walmart now stands. Downtown stores closed at 5 p.m. except for Fridays, when they stayed open until 9p.m. That’s when people from the rural areas came to town to shop – and people watch. In the summer a German ‘oom-pah’ band often played on the street corners, much to the joy of us kids.
In the 50s the Houghton waterfront area was still pretty rough. No landscaped greenery or parks, no bike trails or docks for pleasure boats – and certainly no parking deck!
There was just the active railroad tracks, and in fact there was even a small hobo encampment east of the flour mill off Carol Avenue, where the Superior Block Company plant and the Messner Coal Dock were.
I spent a lot of time with friend John Beaudry who lived at the multi-generational Mehrman/Beaudry household down on Carol Avenue. The Hamar-Quandt Building Supply was where the Super 8 Hotel is today and the Soo Line rail yard was just east of there.
Like most small towns, downtown Houghton had some memorable characters. ‘Meter Annie” (Dena) shuffled Shelden Avenue bundled in rags – even in the dead of winter – looking for dropped change at parking meters. ‘Dominic’ was a fixture in the summer on Friday nights, when the stores stayed open, wearing a yacht captain’s hat and always sporting a carnation in the lapel of his dapper all-white suit. Of course, Deputy “Pasty” Richards, walking his downtown beat, must also go on that list.
The main hangout for us kids was the east end of Shelden, which featured small shops such as E.B. Pancratz’s “Biggest Little Store”, which later became Goodman’s Travel & News offering ‘Whirl-a-Whip’ soft ice cream cones made to order. Proprietor Frank Goodman was a bit of a cold war alarmist, who even recruited us youths for classes he held on the evils of communism, with a free book titled “Hidden Persuaders”. In the age of McCarthyism, he offered his own local version of anti-communist fervor. Attendance at his classes dwindled as parents found out their kids were involved in this ‘education’ effort.
Next door to Goodman’s was Frank Gallis’s Shoe repair with the smell of fresh- cut leather and glue always wafting from the front door. Son, Frank Jr., would go on to 60’s music fame as the frontman and singer for local rock groups.
Also on the east end at Franklin Square were Croze’s Standard Station and Hornick’s Shell Station, where self-made mechanics like Willard Massie, Bill Johnson, Earl Brinkman and Louie Campioni tolerated us hanging out there on cold winter nights after our big purchase of a candy bar. I recall that there was an old restaurant – The Grenadere? – up a stairway on the rocks on the south side of Shelden near Chuck’s bar.
Slattery’s Market, run by brothers, Bill and Fran Slattery, was the hub of east Houghton life, and offered fresh meat cut by butcher Len Schiroda. Mae Merhman and ‘Timie’ Nettle worked the checkout. Slattery’s Chevy panel truck, with Bobby (“Mucky”) McClean at the wheel, delivered grocery orders phoned in by Mom. Nearby Slattery’s was the dingy old Coloumb’s Store, where an Orange Crush in a brown ribbed bottle could be plucked from a bath of cold water for a nickel, and the stale donuts were the main fare for us hungry kids.
Roger Smith now resides in California and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.