We are honored to present today's article from guest blogger and Maysville native, Ken Downing. Mr. Downing has generously provided this first-hand account of life in Maysville during the 1950s...
Maysville 50 Years Ago – One Man’s Recollections
By: Ken Downing
Maysville was a thriving little town in the 1950s. Downtown flourished with a multitude of retail business. Stores stayed open on Friday night. There was no Sunday sales. No parking meters. No one way streets. On weekend nights they just "rolled up the sidewalk." People came from miles around to shop in downtown Maysville. For entertainment there was the Russell Theatre, the so called "passion pits," Riverside Drive-In in Aberdeen, the Park Drive-In on the Fleming Road, Beechwood Park in the summer, and, of course, Bulldog basketball. If you couldn’t make it to the gym, or you couldn’t get a ticket, (every home game was standing room only) you listened to the game on WFTM. Late spring and early summer meant Knothole league games in Wald Park. A real treat was a trip to Cincinnati’s Crosley field to watch the Reds play or the Cincinnati Zoo or Coney Island Amusement park.
There were several city schools. Fifth Ward, Forest Avenue, Woodleigh, and First District were all grades one through six. When you reached the seventh grade you got to go to the center building and in most cases had to face Miss Flossie Jones. A wonderful, no nonsense, teacher. The schools were segregated. Only white children attended these schools. The African American children (colored to use a word of the times) went to Fee High School. The Maysville swimming pool, on east Second Street, was for whites only. The Russell Theatre had a "colored" balcony. Shortly after integration in 1957, the swimming pool was closed and filled in, supposedly due to a major leak. Integration came in the fall of 1957. Maysville did not experience the turmoil that had occurred in Little Rock, Arkansas or Clinton, Tennessee. Cooler heads of both races kept everything under control. Basketball became the common denominator. Unfortunately, prejudice would continue for many years.
There was nothing on top of the "new hill" except the WFTM tower (erected about 1946-47), the Maysville Country Club (reserved for the wealthy and the privileged) and Country Club Heights. In the early 50s through-traffic coming off the bridge had to wind it’s way through town and up the "old" 68 hill. On the weekends traffic got really backed up. The joke used to be that all those Buckeyes, who were really from Kentucky and had moved to Ohio to find work, had to go home every weekend to get a good meal.
There weren’t many restaurants in those days. Most folks couldn’t afford to eat out. Caps of course was in business, Elite’s, Porter Morgan’s EATS, The White Light, The Greek’s, The Avalon, soda fountains at the drug stores (Ryans, Kilgus, Owl, Vances and Parkers), Frisch’s in Aberdeen and a couple of Mom and Pop operations were it.
Decent jobs were hard to come by. Besides working in retail there were factory jobs at Browning’s, Wald’s, Carnation, January and Wood and Parker Tobacco Company. A few families essentially controlled the economy. It was rumored for years that these families discouraged any new industry in order to control the labor base. It was difficult to get a job at Browning’s and Carnation but Wald’s and the cotton mill would hire the entire family. There was no minimum wage. The starting wage at the cotton mill in the mid to late 50s was about 35 cents a hour. My father worked there in 1939 and made 18 cents an hour. Some people would carpool and commute all the way to Dayton Ohio where they got jobs at National Cash Register or Wright Patterson Air force Base.
In the fall and winter tobacco sales were a tremendous boost to the economy. Over a dozen warehouses were in operation and they competed for the farmer’s business. The national tobacco companies sent teams of buyers to bid on the crops. Maysville was known as "The Second Largest Tobacco Market In The World". WFTM "World’s Finest Tobacco Market" Mr. Jim Finch had to negotiate with some people in Buffalo NY to get the call letters. Jokingly people said it stood for "Watch Finch Take Maysville." Seasonal jobs were available at the warehouses and Parker Tobacco Company’s re-dryer. Parker worked for the national tobacco companies drying, packaging and shipping the tobacco they bought. Some industrious teenagers, no names mentioned, would follow tobacco trucks around picking up hands of tobacco that fell off the trucks. Once several were accumulated they would get a friendly farmer to include them in the sale with his crop. It was always worth a buck or two.
Maysville had two (2) daily newspapers. The Public Ledger owned by Bill Matthews and The Daily Independent owned by the Comer family. They competed for the advertising dollar. Ponto, the Office Dog, was a daily feature of the Independent taking "shots" at people and things. It was must read everyday.
Maysville was the regional center for health care in the 1950s. Several doctors come to mind. The Denham brothers, Mitchell and Harry, Dr. Cartmell, Dr. Parker, and Dr. Savage. Several had offices in the upper floors in what was then known as The State National Bank building. Hayswood Hospital was state of the art for the times and the only hospital in a seven county radius. Later the Denhams would open the Denham Clinic on Forest Avenue, which attracted several more well known and respected doctors to the area. You just didn’t go to the hospital on Wednesday. Doctors day off.
The Cochran family owned and operated the water company. You paid your water bill in the Cochran Building on Court Street. The original water plant is on east Second street at the end of Lexington Street. The paved over area was the swimming pool.
Maysville was surely one of the only towns of its size, during the 1950s, to have a public transportation system. The buses were owned and operated by the Duke family. The history of public transportation in Maysville goes back several decades. They ran on a regular basis from Carmel Street in the east to the Germantown road turn around in the west. Parents purchased tokens for kids to ride back and forth to and from school.
The Meadow Drive apartments, at the end of Clark Street, was built in the early 50s. It provided adequate low income housing. Something the town had needed for years. Not sure of the year that the city annexed Eastland. Everything on the south side of Forest Avenue from the present Browning warehouse all the way to past Clark Street was in the county. No paved streets. No plumbing. In fact, Woodleigh School at that time was a county school. Mr Hume was the county school superintendent. He ran the school system, Woodleigh, Orangeburg, Mayslick, Lewisburg and Minerva, out of the trunk of his car.
Maysville had a "town drunk". It wouldn’t be appropriate to give his name but stories about him are classics. I was walking past him, sitting in a downtown doorway, and heard him say, "The hold world is an S.O.B. but me". Once when the jailer had him sweeping Market Street he sold his broom to a farmer and they had to go get him out of one of the bars. Another time police told him they weren’t going to arrest him and let him spend Thanksgiving in jail. He threw a brick through a plate glass window downtown and sit on the curb until they came and got him.
I left in June 1957. Mr Robert Hetrick, manager of the G. C Murphy store was instrumental in getting me a position on the Murphy Company Management Training Program. We returned in May 1968 and worked at January and Wood. We left again in 1978. Maysville will always be home. We try and visit at least once a year. With every visit there is a strange sensation. Everybody I know has gotten a whole lot older than me. Those that say nothing ever changes just didn’t grow up in Maysville in the 50s.