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A Tour of Downtown

Nov 12, 2012 12:38PM ● Published by Emma Dittmann

By: Chuck Oestreich

Editor’s note:  Woefully missing from this author’s childhood memories are the specific names of places in long-ago Beaver Dam.  Readers are invited to recall the establishments noted and numbered (1) through (23).  Please see contest details below this tale of childhood memories.       

Going down the South Spring Street hill is a slide and a slip, my whole second grade (well, at least half of it) tumbling through the snow, climbing the plow-cliffs, pushing, shoving, releasing energy stored up all day long under the all- encompassing eyes of the Sisters of Notre Dame. 

At the blacksmith's shop (1), the street levels off.  A blast of heat hits us, seemingly from a snorting horse with brand new Christmas shoes, but actually from the glowing forge in the back of the smith's dark leather-smelling cavern.  We peek in, but do not stay long.  A faintly heard melody pulls us toward the downtown.

Silver bells, silver bells – It's Christmas time in the city

Crossing the street, we are drawn to the sweet sticky smells coming from the narrow entrance to the candy, ice cream and tobacco shop (2) run by a little man with a cryptic smile and a stained white apron.  With no nickels or pennies, we only linger slightly before passing the just as enticing bakery (3). Then it is past the all-purpose clothing and furniture (4) run by one of the few Jewish families in Beaver Dam.

We cross the railroad tracks and the entrance to the parking lot, subconsciously checking to see if the cadre of old men is lingering on the porch next to the shoe repair shop (5). Some of my pals take off on the riverside shortcut; perhaps we will meet them again at the narrow walk-through across the street from my dad's studio.

Just a few of us rush down the street and pass the department store (6), lured by the red and green festooned light poles, the increased pedestrian traffic on the sidewalks and the magnetic melody coming from just around the corner.

            City sidewalks, busy sidewalks, dressed in holiday style

We reach the corner of Spring and Front, and the cold Wisconsin winter becomes as warm and familiar as the kitchen at home at 218 Fourth Street, the library (7) on one corner, the five and dime (8) on another, and across from it the corner popcorn stand (9) with the pool hall (10) on the last.  This is the core of town, its epicenter.  And now its heart is beating as fast as mine when I run down the stairs on Christmas morning.

Front Street is a universe of light, movement, smell, and most wonderfully, music.  Where is it coming from?  I cannot tell.  To a young boy, it is one of the mysteries of Christmas in a small town in Wisconsin in the '40s.

            I'm dreaming of a white Christmas just like the ones I used to know

Now my pals scatter, but I am a reindeer, dashing through the crowds, drinking in the color and spirit.  I romp past families, the drug store with its rows and rows of cards (11) and hardly pause at the soda fountain and box-of-chocolates store with the mysterious double row of booths in the back (12), speed by the larger drug store (13) and the men's clothing store (14) to get to my goal – Dad's studio (15).

Up the long flight of narrow stairs, past the loan company (16) and the medical office (17), I burst into the big waiting room with its framed photographs on the walls, its well-thumbed Life magazines, and now – in December – its garlands of green and red on the walls and counter.  There is no one waiting.  I push my way through the hanging cloth doorway into the office and yell, "Hi, Daddy.  It's me, Charles."   Expecting to find Dad waiting with his big grin and developer-stained hands, I hear a muffled call from the black-curtained darkroom.   "I can't come out now, too busy.  You run home and, oh yeah, tell mother that I'll be a little late. I have to get this set of prints done."

I am disappointed.  I wanted a penny for the candy counter at the dime store below (18).  I say goodbye, but down the stairs I am quickly heartened as I wander through the crowded aisles of the store, making mini-inventories in my mind of the things on my Christmas list, and – I almost forget – the things I am buying the others in my family for Christmas.  Even through the crowded store, the magic music seeps.

Good tidings we bring to you and your kin 

I amble down the street all the way to the movie theater (19) and then turn up Center Street heading for home.  But when I pass the crowded-with-boys newspaper shack (20), a hint of music sends my mind and memory reeling and I know I have to make a detour down the alley to the hardware store (21) and its moving animated Christmas display.  As an adult, I have seen Chicago's Marshall Field’s store windows displays, but nothing ever can compare to the brightly colored figures with moving arms and legs in the back of the hardware store on Spring Street. (Second in my memory is the Christmas crib display at St. Pete's. It did not move, but its background of light-filled greens was awe inspiring to me, especially when I half-crossed my eyes and the whole right side of the church became a kaleidoscope of shaded color.)

            O Come All Ye Faithful, Joyful and triumphant 

It is getting late, and I know mother will be anxious.  I reluctantly leave the store heading up Spring Street to the Post Office and then turning on Maple Avenue.  I pass a Catholic Church (22) before turning north on Center Street and running up the hill, past the gas stations (23) to Fourth Street.

I am almost home, only a block to go, but the snow banks that have to be climbed, the ice patches that command sliding and the tumbled down snow fort needing inspection all slow me down.

And then I am home, bursting through the back door into the roasting kitchen alive with the smells of mince meat being prepared.  Mother is busy at the stove.  When I tug at her apron, she turns around and smiles, "Hi, Charles."

I hardly hear her, so filled am I with being home with my mother in my Christmas-smelling kitchen.  No radio is on, the only sound is mother cutting candied fruit at the counter, but the kitchen magically is filled with music – wonderful Christmas music.

            Silent night, holy night – All is calm, all is bright

Dear Reader:  You are invited to identify the numbered places in this story and send your list along with your name to:  LocaLeben Magazine, N8369 South Sunset Point Road, Beaver Dam, WI  53916 or email  

Anonymous submissions will also be accepted; however, we would like to recognize the historians that submit a complete list in our next issue, along with that complete list – which at this point we do not have!  There are a few clues in the text of this issue, but we are hoping that someone will recognize all 23.       

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