Irvin Samuels
History of Downtown Corsicana


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2/16/2003 IRVIN SAMUELS: Gone, but not forgotten; History of downtown not lost in mind of this soon-to-be 88-year-old

As I write this on the eve of my 88th birthday, I realize that it is almost impossible to break a habit of 70 plus years. Most evenings, Babbette and I end our busy day's routine by taking a short ride through downtown Corsicana. Seeing the rebirth of the Palace with its brand-new marquee gives me a wonderful feeling of gratitude for those whose love and labor gave Corsicana such a wonderful gift. While driving and passing by certain landmarks, many brief historical remembrances jump from my brain file into words.

Recently driving down Main and passing the Corsicana Laundry, it came to me that this building had been there since I was a wee child. Its appearance has been updated with a drive through drop off and pick up. It came to me how times have changed the cleaning and laundry business. Mama never had to take or pick up any of our cleaning or laundry as each cleaning establishment had its own trucks for pick up and delivery. Then I remembered Dez Green worked for Leonard Brothers Dry Cleaners when he was a teenager. What makes this memory so special is that Dez knew everyone's license plate by heart. Of course Babbette asked how this came about. Those many years ago, automobiles were few, and Dez had lots of time on his hands, plus an excellent memory and accidently memorized all the plates. Amazingly, Dez and automobiles became synonymous as Dez is remembered as being one of the top automobile salesman for many, many years. It would be intriguing to know just how many cars Dez sold in his lifetime.

A funny picture just ran through my memory file while driving past the old Iverson home on Third Avenue. In the early '20s, Dr. lverson drove his electric Franklin with his left foot sticking out of the door. EventuaIIy someone's curiosity got the best of him. When asked, Dr. Iverson told him, "I don't trust these machines, and if it explodes or the brakes fail, I'll be ready to get out in nothing flat."

Downtown Corsicana had many, many barber shops and one particular barber jumped out of my memories recently -- D. Parham. Mr. Parham was truly an immaculate dresser. However, instead of his neat appearance, it was his shaking hands that stirred my memory. Almost a half a century ago, it was an everyday occurrence that many of the male population would start their day by going to their favorite barber for their morning shave. Having a shave in the barber shop was quite a ritual. The barber's chair would recline and hot steaming towels were placed on the customer's face to soften his beard. Electric shavers and push button shaving cream did not exist in my youth. Each patron had his own shaving mug and brush. Instead of an electric razor, the barber had a straight edge razor which he would sharpen on a razor strop attached to his barber chair. Now what made Mr. Parham so unique was when he picked up that straight edge razor in his shaking hands, as soon as the sharp blade touched the patron's face, his hand would cease to shake. I can laughingly recaIl one morning while I was waiting for a hair cut, a stranger with a heavy hangover ventured into D's shop in need of a shave and sat down in D's chair. Mr. Parham foIlowed his usual routine by placing an apron on the gentleman, reclining his chair, wrapping hot towels on his face, and brushing on the lather, honing his razor to a fine edge which he lifted up within the patron's eyesight. The fellow took one look at Mr. Pahram's shaking hand holding that razor and frantically tore off the barber apron and ran out of the shop. No one ever laid an eye on him again.

There's a new vacant lot on 14th Street and Fifth Avenue that used to be the site of an exquisite home in its day. As far as I can remember it was originally built by Hyman Jarrett's father who owned Jarrett's Department Store which was located where Miles Furniture now stands. It was a very fine firm and handled clothing for the entire family, plus very fine piece goods. In case some of my younger followers are not acquainted, piece goods are materials that are sold by the yard. In my youth, most households had sewing machines, and the mother made many other children's and her own garments. Those more affluent would purchase materials and patterns and have a dressmaker do their sewing. I do remember Mr. Jarrett had two sons, Jules and Hyman. In the early 1920s, Mr. Jarrett sold out his store to the bare wall, and went to New York. The last I ever heard of the family was that Jules, who would be about 89, died at a young age of some rare disease.

Thinking back, I want to tell you about an unusual occurrence that has always held a place in my memory. This remembrance goes back a long, long time, and I have my doubts if there is anyone left who remembers Hiram Rainwater. With the name Rainwater, you will immediately think of cowboys and Indians, but Hiram was not a Native American. However, he must have had a Native American ancestor. I first met Hiram in the second grade at the old Sam Houston School which is now the vacant lot across from Drane Intermediate School. In 1923, that huge block had beautiful homes on 15th Street, the Catholic Church in back of those homes, and then old Sam Houston Elementary School. I can close my eyes and see old Sam Houston. It was two stories tall and just accommodated the first and second grade. Miss Sally Evans taught the first grade and Miss Sue McClary, the second grade. The third grade met in a shack next door. The next year the new building was completed. Eventually the new Corsicana High School (which is now Drane Intermediate School) would be erected across the street.

During the summer of 1922, I had heard some of my mama's friends talking about a serious auto accident. Back in the '20s, automobiles were scarce and accidents were rare. At that time I did not know that poor Hiram was in that accident, and his jugular vein was cut. It was truly amazing that he survived such a terrible wound back then. One day after school started, Hiram took ill. Miss Sue sent Hiram outside for fresh air and then asked me to go out and check and stay with him until he felt better. Old Sam Houston's grounds had beautiful trees that had circular benches around them. I found Hiram lying down on one; and when he sat up, I had my first good look at his scar that ran from his ear lobe across his throat above his Adams apple almost to his other ear. To an 8 year old that was an awesome sight. I told Hiram that Miss Sue appointed me as his "special taker care of" for the rest of the term. With such a serious wound, Hiram had difficulty with his speech. Hiram was my classmate all through our school years, and never once did I ever hear anyone make fun of his speech. After graduation, we lost touch of each other, and I have often wondered what his future held. He was a great guy.

It seems just like yesterday when George Baum's Big Four Shoe Store was thriving in downtown next door on Beaton where karate lessons are taught. What brings Big Four up in my memories was the shoe shine stand that Mr. Baum had in the rear of his store. Anyone who made a shoe purchase was entitled to a free shine for life. This is where I met and became friends with the legendary Honey Bee Hall who was in charge of the shoe shine section. Bee always had a smile on his face. If ever you were in the dumps, Bee could always cheer you up. After Big Four closed, Bee went to work across the street for Raymond Goldman's Shoes. Later he became a member of the Corsicana police force and ended up being in the sheriff's department. Incidentally, Bee was the first African-American to serve in both the police and sheriff departments. Bee was loved and respected by the citizens of Corsicana.

Babbette is a great letter writer and was always anxious to get her letters mailed. So while driving to the post office the other night, we noticed that the fallen bricks had been put back in place on the wall of the antique shop across the street from the old Dyer building. My mind went back to when Mr. C.E. Kerr had his real estate office there on the corner of Fifth and Main. E.A. Johnson's Drug Store was next door. Between the real estate office and the drug store were the stairs leading to the second floor. Up those stairs were offices of Dr. L. E. Kelton Sr., Dr. Dubert Miller, J.M.W. Wills, Dr. W.T. Shell and several other doctors. It was rumored that Mr. Johnson charged the doctors a lower rent fee feeling that the patients would come down the stairs, walk a few feet into his pharmacy to have their prescriptions filled. In 1920, I can still remember the day Mama took me upstairs to Dr. Shell's office to be vaccinated. Back then, smallpox vaccinations were not required; however, Mama never believed in taking chances, so she almost had to drag me up those stairs. I must admit I was rather frightened going to the doctor. Much to my surprise it did not hurt, and Dr. Shell gave me a lollipop. When we got home, I couldn't wait to show all friends my vaccination. I had not realized smallpox vaccinations were not mandatory for every child entering school today. With all the terrorism throughout the world, many youngsters may be quaking while getting their vaccinations.

Why is it that tragic or sad happenings are always hold a vivid place in our memories? This story goes back to when I was in Miss Sue McClairy's second grade at Sarn Houston School. Dr. Tom McClendon's son, Tom Jr., was a classmate of mine. Back quite a few years ago, doctors made house calls and Tom Jr. would go along with his dad and wait patiently in the car. Remember, this incident happened in 1922 and the streets were not filled with many automobiles. My recollection is telling me that about a week before Christmas, Tom Jr. upon seeing his father, coming back from seeing a patient, excitedly jumped out of the car to run up to his father. A terrible tragedy occurred on that twilight evening; Tom Jr. was killed by a passing car. Needless to say, this was a shocking rarity. Just before we were to get out for the Christmas holidays, Tom's father came to school and brought all of Tom's classmates a gift. Now you can see why I have never forgotten both Tom McClendons.

During the holiday season, another memorable Corsican pops forth from my memories, August Wendorf. August was an upholsterer, but his true love was Corsicana. August was very controversial, but that was good. With August serving on the city commission, nothing ever got by him. He was a watch dog for Corsicana. Ferma Stewart once told me that if Corsicana did not have a commissioner like August, the citizens would have to invent one. When you are a merchant, your customers become your friends through the years. Every Christmas season, like clockwork, August and his wife came in to purchase a suit. August always selected a basic navy blue. In September when the new fall merchandise was being received, I would immediately set aside and alter "that basic blue suit" and have it ready when August made his annual shopping trip. When August came in it was like the two of us were in a play as we always had the same conversation, "Pete, (Coach Pierce stuck me with that nickname) you know why I am buying this suit?" I would answer, "Shut up August, I don't want to hear that trash!" This ritual between us extended many a year, until one sad day August's prophecy sadly occurred. Not only did I lose a wonderful friend, so did all the citizens of Corsicana.

I am truly blessed to have both happy and sad memories of my playmates, school mates and friends through the years. Each time I recall a name from the past, it gives me the good feeling that they once were here and are not forgotten. As I am one of the few last ones standing, who will remember me?

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