Arlene (Ahlgrim) Lighthall: Businesses were in every La Porte neighborhood

 

A portion of a Lenick’s Dairy menu.

 

WNLP editor’s note: We’re delighted to present the fourth of La Porte native Arlene (Ahlgrim) Lighthall’s memoirs of growing up in La Porte. WNLP readers’ many responses to her memoirs have added more sweet stories and details to her story. Arlene grew up in La Porte and now lives in Del Mar, Calif. She graduated from La Porte High School in 1949 and earned degrees from Ball State and Indiana universities, and also studied in various European countries. Look forward to more of her memoirs soon on WNLP. 

Arlene (Ahlgrim) Lighthall

Besides being surrounded by farming communities with names like Westville, Pinhook and Rolling Prairie, LaPorte was an important manufacturing town. Small independent businesses thrived as well, some operating right on our block of Niles Street or on adjacent streets.

Next door Mary and Martha Finstick, two elderly women, sold Tibma’s bread from their parlor — so handy and closer than the Rumely Street grocery store when we suddenly ran out. The locally owned Tibma’s Bakery was only five or six blocks away and intoxicated the entire area with yeasty aromas. On the corner of our block, Mr. Rice cut hair in a one-room barbershop fronting on Woodward Street and along the alley behind his house. Just two blocks further down Woodward, on Ohio Street, Tony Andreano repaired shoes in a little cabin next to his house and beside a large sour cherry tree. South of there in the next block, the small Ohio Street grocery store supplied  basics to neighbors.

To the west the living room of a home on Maple Avenue had been converted into a beauty parlor; it reeked with chemicals while machines dangled electric curlers for torture. Periodically my mother took me there for a horrid permanent or hair  thinning. A block and a half away the Rumely Street store filled the front portion of a  building, and we could go further to a similar Scott Street store near Maple School. All  the small grocers sold enticing penny candy: rolls of sugar wafers, tootsie rolls, crimson-tipped cigarettes, and red or black licorice ropes. Scrumptious Walnettos cost more and softened on the radio in my bedroom as I did homework. From those grocers we also  bought our Goldenrod tablets for school. With no cars, we needed those convenient enterprises, which survived for years until large food chains began to arrive. The A&P  was the first one and was located downtown. 

Most mothers stayed home with their children and couldn’t dash off to the nearest store for an item or two without taking their little ones along. We older kids often ran errands  for a single item or two. But some foods were not readily available close by. What we couldn’t get came to us. The “egg lady” from a local farm delivered weekly until Dad built a chicken coop next to the back garage. Those birds made a bit of noise, but contributed to the kitchen fresh eggs and to the soil good manure. My parents probably never bought a vegetable because of our superb garden: asparagus, corn, lima beans,  green beans, yellow wax beans, carrots, tomatoes, and many more nutritious foods. I detested all vegetables except canned peas. 

Of course, the small grocers couldn’t stock fresh meat, nor was it delivered. Piest’s Meat Market at the west end of Lincoln Way had the best. A few times, along with  relatives in town, we pooled money to buy a pig or cow from a farmer. My dad’s  brothers-in-law knew how to butcher; I remember his sisters catching blood for sausage. Yuck! My parents packaged our portions and took them downtown to  Bennett’s Locker Room for frozen storage. Years later, we bought quarters directly from Bennett, who cut, packaged, labeled, and stored our purchase in a rented locker. We could also store vegetables there. It was quite a process as garden produce was quickly blanched and chilled in the kitchen and then rushed to town for a quick freeze.

Another food that was not delivered nor available in a neighborhood grocery was ice cream. It came from the same dairy that daily left milk on the front porch: Lenick’s. The clinking of glass announced the milkman’s arrival as he gathered empty bottles. In the winter a solid white pillar of cream several inches high pushed the cardboard cap from the top of the milk bottle. Mom used the rich cream to make desserts. That cream wasn’t easily integrated by shaking; the unhomogenized milk was speckled with small globules of fat. I disgustedly drank a liquid full of “dotty dots.” 

At the dairy stores we bought cones, quarts and gallons of the multi-flavored dessert, luscious with fruits of the season and black walnuts. After Dad got his first car (1937), he  would ask on a hot and humid summer night, “Who wants some ice cream?” Off we’d go to Lenick’s Dairy. Later as a young teen I would hang out at the dairy bar for 20-cent milkshakes served in frosty metal cans. The bar was also a hangout for teens, where for 5¢ we could play from a jukebox the latest Hit Parade winners. 

Further away was Scholl’s Dairy on East Lincoln Way, and at the west end of Lincoln Way sat Iselman’s Dairy. Just behind the high school hid Sage’s. Probably no one knew it was there except my bachelor Uncle Julius, Mom’s brother, who took me as a tot for car rides that always ended there for a tutti frutti cone. He worked for U.S. Steel in Gary, 40 miles away, so he needed a car. 

Having no business location in town were others who depended on residents for their living. The Fuller Brush Man frequently made his rounds with brooms, utility brushes, hair brushes, toothbrushes and household products. Other salesmen made appointments for in-home demonstrations of products that we couldn’t buy downtown. The Electrolux salesman would cover the mouth of the vacuum tube with a clean handkerchief and pass it over a small area of our carpet to show how much dirt wasn’t captured by our old cleaner. Once he was giving us his memorized spiel and lost his place. The poor man had to start over from the beginning. 

Saturday nights were when downtown woke up and parking spaces on Lincoln Way filled quickly. Non-shoppers came to people-watch, sitting in their cars and munching popcorn from a red wagon on the corner. Chores under control, farmers came in to shop or to  view a movie at the two nicer theaters, La Porte and Roxy, that anchored each end of the business district, or in between at the central Fox. All charged the same: 10¢. I was outraged when the price rose a penny, but that increase might have been because technicolor had arrived. Only a block from the Roxy Theater was the county jail, where the sheriff lived. We were not aware of crime. 

Woolworth’s, Kresge’s and McLellan’s dime stores were always crowded, especially  when we youngsters were Christmas shopping. For clothing, Levine’s Boston Store, Low’s and Droege’s attracted those who didn’t shop at J.C. Penney. At Levine’s and Penney’s, jars of cash raced on overhead wires to a balcony for change and receipts. I worked at Penney’s part time while in high school and had the task on the Saturday before Easter of hopping through the store in a bunny costume to entertain children. Another time the manager called from the main floor up to me on the women’s ready-to-wear balcony to see if we had a certain item. My affirmative answer brought a stout woman up the stairs. I led her to the foundation garment counter and brought out foam falsies to show her, wondering why she needed them. Soon I realized she didn’t want “beauty forms” but “uniforms.” They were in the basement. 

Our shoes came from Joseph’s, and no new pair was fitted until our feet were measured in an x-ray machine. The manager or owner lived in an upstairs apartment across the alley from us. Kelling’s also sold shoes in the next block. Individual businessmen named their stores for themselves, so we knew with whom we were dealing, like Kabelin’s Hardware. 

The Roxy Music Shop was a La Porte monopoly for music, which was part of the required elementary curriculum. Many youngsters played an instrument and needed sheet music and instruments. The owner was Paul LeResche,who taught music at the high school and was the La Porte City Band leader. However, his store didn’t fulfill a music need that was vital to teens and pre-teens: a leaflet for a dime at Woolworth’s containing the words to songs on the Hit Parade. We listened every Saturday for the latest top ten. 

During the Second World War the Kingsbury Ordnance Plant (KOP) changed La Porte and, in 1940, destroyed the village of my ancestors (Tracy). Many locals responded to the need for employees and didn’t mind driving ten miles, or moving, for higher wages. Quite an influx  arrived from Kentucky and were called “Kay Wise,” some of whom were not as well educated as Northerners and the butt of silly jokes. Shortage of housing encouraged many, like my parents, to rent out a room. We had only one hotel in town, the Rumely. Single men lodged at the YMCA. What was a motel? On family trips out of state we stayed at “tourist homes.” 

Eventually Fox Woolen Mill became Bachman’s Woolen Mill, an important enterprise near Bernacchi’s floral gardens. A commercial building housed a picture framer; an upholsterer worked on the premises of an undertaker, Caddy’s Garage repaired cars. Local businesses and industries furnished employment and products and services. The Holy Family and Fairview hospitals helped bring us into the world, and several funeral homes helped us out. Ours was a self-contained town.

8 Responses to “Arlene (Ahlgrim) Lighthall: Businesses were in every La Porte neighborhood”

  1. Jean Bruce

    Mar 01. 2021

    As kid going to St. John’s in the early 1950s I was starstruck by the high schoolers as I ate my lunch , washing it down with a Green River. Thanks for the nostalgia trip.

    Reply to this comment
  2. Lisa Melton

    Mar 01. 2021

    Folks from Kentucky are still making the trek north and I am sorry to say still the butt of “silly” jokes (or not so silly when they are directed at you).

    Reply to this comment
    • Humble

      Mar 01. 2021

      Those people from the south who migrated north to look for work provided a tremendous amount of labor for the workforce at the former Ordnance Plant in Kingsbury. Same with the steel mills to the west. That labor made these businesses and the communities around them very successful. They deserve our respect and should never be the butt of any jokes.

      Reply to this comment
      • Lisa Melton

        Mar 02. 2021

        @ Humble, thank you for that comment. I have lived here for 36 years and I still get “comments”. And yes I am from Kentucky.

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  3. Robert Caddy

    Mar 01. 2021

    More great memories. I sort of remember “Caddy’s Garage”.Actually I might still have some of that grease under my fingernails.

    Reply to this comment
  4. Patti Bechtold

    Mar 02. 2021

    I enjoyed reading your article. I grew up in the Rolling Prairie, LaPorte area. My mother (Ethel Ramenda) worked at KOP and later became the union rep which was a full time job. We couldn’t walk down a street in LaPorte without someone stopping and talking to her about the union and KOP.

    Reply to this comment
  5. Sam

    Mar 04. 2021

    I am so fascinated by your stories. You have an excellent memory-did you keep a journal? You seem to be able to remember the smallest details, it just makes me wonder. Please don’t stop and keep these stories coming. I cherish each one, looking through your window growing up, into the past. Your childhood seems so much more magical and innocent then these present times. The people and neighborhoods that you describe seem so much more kinder and innocent. Thank you for sharing your stories..

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