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Cardinal Charlie: Sprinkling wagon settled dusty streets

Published 9:45pm Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Some years ago I corresponded with Floyd Gifford, an old man down in Florida who was born in 1891 — the same year as my mother. They were schoolmates.

Floyd passed away in 1993 at 102 years old.

His mind was great right up until he passed away.

Here are some of the things he wrote to me.

His father was the first rural mail carrier of Dowagiac in 1910.

At that time, the post office was in the Beckwith Theater Building.

The Round Oak and Dowagiac Drill Works were Dowagiac’s main industries.

Round Oak moulders had holes in their shirts from the blast furnaces.

What aroma came out of Jake Meyer’s or the Biek saloon’s swinging doors.

There was work for everyone. There used to be big crowds at the Thursday night band concerts and farmers were able to tie their horse rigs to an iron pipe that went through posts that were on Front Street.

Where the horses stood was all cobblestoned. The street was bare ground and dusty. A sprinkling wagon went up and down all day settling the dust.

When Dowagiac got a new depot for Michigan Central Railroad it had a flush toilet and someone put an apple core in it and plugged it up.

Michigan Central had a baggage car that used to whiz through called the “silk train.” It had little portholes so they could shoot out of it (this must have been a mail car).

The big railroad water tank was across the tracks behind Judd Lumber.

Floyd used to play with the Indian boys, the Winchesters, and he used to hunt rattlesnakes in the big swamp north of town. He was paid 50 cents for each snake (how about this?).

He told of men working 60 hours a week, 10 hours a day and no coffee breaks for only nine dollars a week.

All along Front Street there were railings around the stairwells as some businesses were in the basements (I can remember some barber shops).

The city slickers used to sit on the railings and watch the girls go by with their long dresses dragging all the dirt and dust off the sidewalk.

The gals had their waists laced up for the hourglass figure style back then.

Young boys wore short knee pants until they were 15 years old and, of course, black ribbed stockings held up by elastic garter bands just over the knee.

There were a lot of good shows at the Beckwith. A movie cost just five cents.

At Pethic’s Restaurant, a big hamburger, a quarter piece of a big pie and all the coffee you wanted cost 15 cents.

Stores included Phillipson’s, Brechenser’s, I. Oppenheim, Burlingame, Larken, Reshore, Whalen, Larzelere, Pugsley, Meyer and Biek saloons, Elkerton Hotel, Wald jewelry and Bishop’s.

In 1907 at age 16, Floyd went to North Dakota and worked for Fred E. Lee on his 8,000-acre ranch for three summers and one winter.

In 1912, he returned here, married and worked at Round Oak, rented a house on Telegraph for $10 a month that was heated. It was near Gardner Mansion.

On Thursday, he and his wife coulkd go to the band concert, to a movie, then to Larken’s and have a big soda and a big bag of buttered popcorn, all for 25 cents.

He also told of having his hair cut by a barber who cut Lincoln’s hair (this was Fabe Martin’s dad).

Fabe was also a barber who used to dress immaculately — striped trousers, cutaway coat, white vest, with a watch chain across the front and a heavy silver watch.

“Cardinal Charlie” Gill writes a nostalgic weekly column about growing up in the Grand Old City.
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