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 NORTH MANCHESTER HISTORICAL SOCIETY
 North Manchester, Indiana

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Source: NMHS Newsletter May 1998

North Manchester, Once Upon a Time
by Shirley Wilcox N. Manchester, IN


When I saw by the newspaper that Harry Wible was dead, it made me sad, though I hardly knew the man.

Perhaps because it signaled the end of an era; perhaps because in a small town, where everyone knows everyone else in an edge-of-consciousness way, Harry represented the final vestige of something we are never going to see again.

When Main Street was an assortment of honest, ugly storefronts that no one had yet tried to 'restore' into a harmonious whole, downtown was the place you went for shoes, a new suit, groceries, to find a dentist or doctor or banker, and to pay your electric bill. The ill-matched buildings may not have been aesthetically pleasing, but no one cared whether or not they were scenic as long as they were serviceable and sturdy - and sturdy they were.

Wible's being the sole (sorry!) shoe store, you went there in September for school shoes. Harry himself might wait on you, or one of his dependable clerks, and they made sure the shoe fit with reasonable toe space for room to grow: You could wear the same pair of shoes the entire school year and no nonsense about it. For new gym shoes or shoes to wear on Sunday, they brought out colors - white, black, brown - and style until you found a pair that suited you of a price that suited your mother, the latter taking precedence. And if the fit turned out not to be quite right, or the shoe revealed a flaw the first week or two, you returned it and Wible's made it right. That was the way things were then.

Next door at the Ritz and Marshall, you could see a movie for a quarter, and further on was Oppenheim's. Ike and Ben Oppenheim, though they seemed a million years old, were first to their store in the morning, last to leave at 5:30 in the afternoon. Ike, slender and coldly aristocratic-looking, was usually occupied in the upper office, but Ben, plump, with a shiny bald head and chewing a big cigar, was likely to pop up anywhere. He sold overalls in the back of the building, or waited on you in the lingerie department (embarrassing a poor girl to death; I much preferred Nettie Fern Comer). Neither Ike nor Ben ever seemed to take vacations. Perhaps they never needed them, for they lived and breathed business.

Across the street, Brady, once a clerk at Oppenheims, had his men's clothing store. Everyone in town knew and liked Brady. When buyers presented their new line of Hart, Schaffner and Marx's men's furnishings, Brady did not simply fill the racks of his store. He chose this suit with Ad Urschel in mind, and that one for Doc Hornaday, and then he proceeded to sell Ad and Doc (and others) exactly what he had in mind for them.

Oppenheims, Brady, Wible, and all the merchants up and down Main Street, banked at the Indiana Lawrence bank presided over by Ad Urschel. Ad's son and heir presumptive worked there too, but Mildred Heeter, canny and imperturbable, had more than a small share in the bank's prosperous standing. Had she been a man, Mildred surely would have been bank president when Ad stepped down, but in those days, women in small towns just did not head up banks (nor do they now). Mildred never got above vice-president - a high office in those days for a woman.

Around the corner, Ace Hardware was a different story. Ivan Little's attractive daughter worked by his side and inherited the business. Under Mary Louise's capable hand, with her dour cousin Higgins as handy man, the business prospered as much as - or perhaps even more - than in Ivan's day. Busy as she was, Mary Louise Little managed to exude good will, a gracious friend to all. To me, she was a romantic figure, for it was rumored that she carried a heart bruised by a faithless sweetheart. Who knows - she may have been relieved, but I never thought of that then!
Her rival in business also prospered, though Urschel's did not confine its trade to hardware, but sold congoleum, 'dry goods', a smattering of work clothing and practical dresses.

When you bought, the charge slip and your money went zinging to a dim back balcony where an office girl recorded the sale and sent your change back down the humming wires. Later, this charming system was discarded for more efficient cash registers placed at intervals on the long, scarred counters.

Thread was kept in wide, shallow drawers and fabric shelved in gaudy bolts behind the counter. Owner Lew Urschel wandered about, peering over his clerk's shoulder during a transaction. Like the employees at Oppenheim's and Wible's, Lew's help had been there forever.

It was common knowledge that certain of the Main Street merchants had a weekly poker session. Brady usually came out to the good. A certain store was supposed to have temporarily changed hands at one game, but if so, the surface on Main Street remained unruffled - business as usual.
On the corner of Walnut Street, Gresso's favorite inducement to grocery customers was bananas, six pounds for a quarter, the fruit to be cut from a five-foot cluster hung in one corner.

When two young, aggressive brothers moved in from their father's successful market in neighboring South Whitley, they expanded Gresso's grocery from basement to first floor, and later built a supermarket at the edge of town. Some predicted that Snyder's IGA would never make it way out there, that stodgy Kroger's still on Main Street, would swallow up all the trade. It was Kroger's however, that died, and Main Street as well.

A couple of smaller markets continued to offer personal service on Main Street - Lautzenhizer's, Faurote's. All of them bought milk, cream and butter from the local dairies. There were two - spotless and sweet- smelling: Manchester Creamery perched on the edge of the riverbank and perpetual insolvency, and Shively's. Bill Shively and his wife may have been sharper at trade, but were nowhere as universally known and liked as Roy Rice.

Main Street had two dentists. Dr. Damron later turned from plotting dental charts to platting lots at Sunset Acres north of town. Easy-going Doc Hornaday always held bitewings in place. No one knew the dangers of X-ray, and eventually Doc forfeited his index finger.

Toward the end of Main Street's business section were the offices of Dr. Cook and Dr. Balsbaugh. As boys, they were supposed to have played together on the town's near-championship ball team - the one that almost made it to the state finals. General practitioners, their style is unheard of today. They would answer the phone at night, make housecalls if it seemed really necessary and they saw patients directly, not being shielded behind a platoon of office staff. Each managed with a single office girl often called 'nurse' but not necessarily one, in those pre-insurance paperwork times.
Their fees were in touch with those non-prosperous times, and though no doubt each had his share of unpaid accounts, neither seemed to find it appropriate to sue for collections.

Mike's gas station sat on another corner. A semi-circular glass front allowed Mike to see customers driving in from either direction, and there always seemed to be a few kids hanging around the pop cooler and candy supply. Mike was their special friend, and though his eyes had a twinkle and he knew as many jokes as anyone around kids knew better than to use bad language at Mike's.

Kids who were "in" - and who had a bit of money to spend -were across the street at Belsito's. Pete Belsito and his nephew, Louie Longo, dark and Italian, made the best sundaes in town. Every afternoon the polished wood booths overflowed and they were packed deep after ball games. Pete and Louie and Louie's wife Lex could whomp up a mean toastie cheese, but mostly they served lemon, lime and cherry cokes, black cows and sodas to the thumping rhythm of a jukebox turned up loud.

Louie knew every kid that crossed his threshold - and his brother, sister and probably cousins as well. After 40 years, sometimes he can be seen, standing between window displays of delectable homemade candies, watching passersby, most of whom he can still identify.
Each Saturday night at 6:00 p.m., Hall's drugstore rolled out a big popcorn machine, and people strolled along Main Street munching the 10 cent bags of popcorn.

Along the outside wall of Landis' corner, a clanging iron stairs led to upper rooms that sporadically - whenever town fathers were prodded into 'doing something for the kids' - held teen canteens. The effort was usually short- lived and unappreciated.

There was also Lavy's jewelry shop from which the best graduation gifts came. A big dime store. Weimer's locker plant.

All by himself, Paul Hathaway was the law. Marshall Hathaway could be seen patrolling Main Street's sidewalks most any hour, looking official enough that boys and girls walked straighter past him. I never saw him patrolling in a car.

Harry Wible must have been quite a young man when he joined this Main Street ring of entrepreneurs, and he was the last of them to go (except for Louie). Part of an era.

I miss them all.