The Olden Days and More

I would live from week to week with the expectation of going to town on Saturday. After I was 11 or 12 years old I would drive the cattle truck to Martinsville with a full cab and with neighbor children – from two to six in number – riding in the truck bed while standing with feet protruding through spaces between the wood strips. This was an open-air experience, with faces in the wind, but I don’t recall anybody ever getting insects in their eyes. When I was not the driver I would ride in the back with the others.

Martinsville in the early years was a very busy place on Saturdays, with the sidewalks and the stores crowded with people. We would always see neighbors and other acquaintances and have many pleasant chats.

I had some regular haunts. The Main Street Café (sometimes referred to as “The Tin Shacks”) was the place I would go more than once each visit. I would go and get one or more 10 cent comic books and come back and read them while I had a ten cent ham sandwich, a 5 cent Grapette soft drink, and a 25 cent pint of vanilla ice cream. (At that time the price of a stamp was 3 cents, a quart of milk was 25 cents, and a man’s new shirt was less than $5.00. Haircuts were $1.00. Later, in 1959, I paid $1800.00 for my new Volkswagen.) Then I would go to a double feature movie at the Roxy Theater one street over – on Church Street. During wartime war news was featured along with the usual serial episode, previews of coming attractions, a cartoon, and the double feature. The serial would usually have about 14 episodes and each would end with the suspenseful peril of the hero. When the next adventure was shown it would be a slight variation of the prior ending and it would actually show the hero extricating himself.

The National Theater was about 3 or 4 doors to the east of the Roxy and usually featured westerns, then my favorite movies. The Rivers was further east at its present location.

My earliest recollection of ticket prices for those under 12 years of age was 11 cents at all of the theaters. When I reached 12 it went to 36 cents. Popcorn and cokes were always consumed at the movies.

Later a second café on Main Street was built. It was East Main Café, and it became another frequent haunt for me. A fellow by the name of Dace Morris, whom I many years later came to know as Martinsville’s Commissioner of the Revenue, came in regularly and would entertain bystanders by making a half dollar disappear. Those who had seen the feat once, particularly the children, would always ask for a repeat performance when they would see him again.

Southern States Martinsville Cooperative operated a feed and seed store one or two doors from the café, and that is where Daddy bought most of his feed, seed, fertilizer, barbed wire, salt blocks for cattle, baby chickens and miscellaneous farm staples. At a pretty early age I worked at least one summer there waiting on customers and loading trucks and car trunks. I handled a lot of 100 pound bags of feed during that time. I believe it was my first employment and paid me 10 cents an hour. My recollection is that I collected $1 a day.
The store manger’s name was A. Hunter Yeatts, and he was a fine person and one for whom I enjoyed working. He was from Floyd, Virginia.

During summers I would go to Library Heights Swimming Pool. This was great fun and where I learned to swim.

Liberty Heights was a huge round concrete structure. It was constructed by Lester Lumber Company as a reservoir of water for fire protection. But it was designed as a recreational swimming pool. At the front was a long and wide flight of steps up to the ticket seller. There you also were given a key to a locker somewhere around the edge of the lower level. When ready for swimming you would ascend another flight of concrete steps to a large concrete patio where you would encounter sunbathers and might see people dancing to a juke box. There was a concession stand toward the middle at the edge of the “baby water” wading pool. This was in a complete circle. As you moved to the center there was another circle shaped pool of water about shoulder height. In the very middle was the deep water with a high diving board and water tower.

Liberty Heights was torn down some years ago. And Liberty Mall Shopping Center sits in part where the pool was located.
In those days the local airport was adjacent to the swimming pool with the point of lift off being just in front of the entrance. I was walking back from the pool one afternoon when I witnessed a military plane crash about 100 feet from me, killing the pilot and his passenger. They were two local boys who had just finished flight training. The plane went into a large ravine just to the edge of the street. One of the occupants struggled and finally perished in my view. Apparently the other killed upon impact. The plane had caught on fire quickly and rescuers were unable to pull them out. They were sons of Steve Mitchell and Claybrook Lester. I became acquainted with their families after I moved to Martinsville to open an office.

My brother Burness was a booking agent and was responsible for Roy Acuff and Bill Monroe playing at Liberty Heights. I attended both concerts.

Woody Snyder, a neighbor, had a small café on the lower level of one of the tobacco warehouses next door to Townes Furniture on Franklin Street. I would check in there real often and would sometimes run into some of my friends. The warehouse was destroyed by fire several years ago and its space has been a parking lot for many years. Woody was a Martinsville City jailer years later after I had been praticing law for a good while.

By: Douglas Kyle Frith

2 Responses

  1. Susan Fleenor

    Thank you so much for sharing about the plane crash as Claybrook Lester was my mothers brother. I would like to meet with you if at all possible to talk about what you witnessed. I’m Susan Fleenor and Claybrook would have been my uncle. You can reach me by phone at 276 618 6133. Again thank you for sharing your story.

  2. Barbara Guthrie Cobb-Lay

    Hi Doug — what a neat SURPRISE to read this article and then see your name at the end! Hope all is well with you and your family. I’m still in Atlanta after all these years, but my husband and I come up to Martinsville at least once a year and I still call it home. Take care of yourself!

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