Part I: A tribute to my hometownPublished 11:00pm Wednesday, May 30, 2012
By WILLIAM MITCHELL
Retired Niles High School teacher
In the 1950s, as a young boy on my dad’s farm in Sister Lakes, I didn’t know much about Niles except that it was a nice town along the St. Joseph River and a rival in football of Dowagiac.
But our family never went to Niles because we did our shopping in Dowagiac. If we wanted to go to a “big town,” we went to Benton Harbor, with its many stores, shops, theaters and restaurants. It was the farmers’ town, and it was thriving in the 1950s with the well-known fruit market, the House of David amusement park (with Silver Beach nearby) and our favorite beach area — Jean Klock Park.
So why would we want to go to Niles?
As a teenager in the early 1960s, I hear more about Niles. There was Thomas Drive In (with lots of girls around), the impressive Thomas Baseball Stadium, nice stores on Main Street, a fairly new high school with a beautiful auditorium and an impressive football stadium.
Well, I went to Western Michigan and got my degree in American history and began teaching. As luck would have it, I applied for a teaching position at Niles High and was hired. I had just gotten married and my wife, Jean, and I moved to Niles in August 1967.
I liked Niles immediately. We rented a house on Cedar Street and made our first purchases from Hank’s Supermarket.
Today, in the Paris Soda Shop, there is a picture of downtown Niles in 1967, and it certainly brings back wonderful memories of a thriving, busy town with lots of stores, traffic and people. Right from the day we moved here, there were so many people who welcomed and helped us.
I learned quickly that Niles was a very special town. It had at least four to five major industries — Tyler, Kawneer, Simplicity, National-Standard, Garden City Fan and others that employed thousands of people with good-paying jobs and benefits, plus many other smaller companies.
There were many stores downtown, including Sears, J.C. Penney, Montgomery Ward and other department stores, numerous banks, shoe stores and clothing stores. Some businesses went back to the 1800s, like Thayers Jewelry. There were great restaurants like Franky’s, Portofino’s and Pete’s Patio; an Eastgate Shopping Center with more stores on Oak Street; a large, beautiful library; and the list goes on and on.
Niles was not your typical small town — not by a long shot. It was a special place to me in 1967.
I became friends with one of the local bankers, John Gillette. What a wonderful and knowledgeable person he was. Since I was teaching American history, he played a large role in introducing me to Niles history, starting with Fort St. Joseph. John’s dream was to have an archeologist or some local historians find the remains of the fort. He wanted the fort to be reconstructed so that people could see and understand how people lived and worked at the fort, and how it played a vital role in the French empire in the Northwest. John did not live a long life, but part of his dream has come true. He was a fine man, and he did so much for our community.
Editor’s note: Read the second part of “Tribute to my hometown” in the June 7 Daily Star.
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