I can remember being in high school and anxious to leave home. I couldn’t wait to go to college and escape the boredom of a small town. I wonder if all teens feel the way I did? For example, do kids growing up in destinations like San Francisco or Boston find their hometowns too small for their blossoming egos? Things look very different for me 54 years later and I now view my hometown as a great place to have spent my childhood and adolescence.
Over the last five decades, the population of my hometown has declined. We lost several core industries. The old downtown buildings, often owned by absentee landlords, fell to disrepair. Some were torn down — the cheaper solution — that left ugly gaps on Main Street, while others were simply boarded up. There were times when you could drive downtown and not see a car parked for blocks. Stores closed or moved to the outskirts of town. Real estate prices, in general, dropped sharply. In 2010 a tornado ripped through town and took homes and century-old trees with it. It was depressing to view the aftermath.
I’m a member of a Facebook group dedicated to my hometown, Streator Illinois. Someone posted a plea a few days ago for a community effort to get our town considered for a new show on HGTV called “Hometown Takeover.” The show crew will go into a community with a population of fewer than 40,000 residents and makeover homes, businesses and community spaces. Over 2,000 current and former residents signed a petition of support for Streator and many people sent pictures, videos and testimonials in to HGTV as part of the submission process.
I showed my support for the process with the following submission:
“Streator, Illinois is my hometown. I left there decades ago, but I still visit whenever I can. Each time I reach the city limits, I feel a sense of excitement “going home” — wondering what is new, what stayed the same.
Streator was founded in 1861 as a settlement originally called “Hardscrabble.” It developed among the coal mines, railroads, corn fields and factories, like many small towns in central Illinois. I spent my adolescent years in an old Victorian style house built in 1901 on a street paved with bricks. In my neighborhood near the river bottoms, there were other Victorian houses, prairie-style brick homes with wide front porches, Tudors and mid-century ranch homes. Main Street was also paved with brick at the time and stretched for eight blocks. It was the gathering place for farming and town families, especially on Saturday night. While in high school, we slowly cruised Main Street gathering with our friends or meeting them at Hills, a local soda fountain. Some of the original buildings on Main Street remain intact today. Many were “modernized” over the years and beg for their original identity.
Streator is not just a collection of buildings. It is a community. Roots go deep. Six generations of my family are buried there. Women from my high school graduating class of 1965 gather once a month May-October for a luncheon. Last June we had 37 women attend from all over the country. Most recently, when I’ve returned home for a visit, there is evidence that a dedicated group of citizens care enough about this place that I still call home to work hard to restore its original energy. Store fronts have been refurbished, new small businesses occupy stores on Main Street, the Walldogs painted historic murals around town, festivals and events populate the community calendar, but there is so much more that could be done.
I know that there are multiple submissions for Streator in this contest, so I chose to focus on an aspect that others might not think to include in their list of homes and businesses that could benefit from a do-over. Streator has always been a working man’s town. Taverns were an important part of the history of this blue collar town and they were more than a place to buy liquor. Each ethnic group, construction trade, union, or neighborhood had a favorite spot where the men gathered after a hard day’s work to have a drink with friends, relax or just “shoot the breeze” before heading home. Later, food was served in most establishments and women joined the clientele — sometimes popping in at lunchtime for a sandwich, other times joining their husbands for a “night on the town.” In 1959 there were 45 “taverns” listed in the city directory and many of them clustered along Main Street vying for the title of “best hot roast beef or ham salad sandwich.” Most of these taverns had elaborate wooden back bars, some of which I’m told remain intact today in the remaining taverns. They are beautiful examples of the craftsmanship that built Streator and they need to be showcased again. I suspect that other examples of craftsmanship are hiding in homes, commercial buildings or storage just waiting for a second life.
There are a few nondescript restaurants currently on the outskirts of town and I understand that a new restaurant just opened on Main Street, but I have no knowledge of the interior or setting. An old back bar could function as a great display in a store or as a focal point for a refurbished restaurant/bar or a soda fountain. Every town needs a gathering place where it’s citizens of all ages can come together and it would be great to incorporate a piece of Streator’s social history using an original back bar that has stories to tell.”
I also attached to my submission a poem written in the 1920’s by an accomplished citizen of our town, Reuben Soderstrom. The poem captures the spirit of Main Street in that era:
STREATOR ON SATURDAY NIGHT
We’ve been used right royally elsewhere, In visits to towns of more fame—
And enjoyed the sights and many bright lights While playing the visiting game;
But however joyful and rosy The appeal of a foreign sight,
We’ve oft found ourselves a-longing for Streator on Saturday night.
Streator boasts of no world attractions,
Has no seashore, nor mountain peaks high— But while roaming afar, where these things are
Our people admit (on the sly) That New York is all right on Sunday
And ‘Frisco on Wednesday is bright— But no place in our splendid nation is
Like Streator on Saturday night.
All things unite in an effort
On this famous eve of the week
In a manner caressing, with nothing distressing To of hospitality and good fellowship speak;
There’s a smile on each face congenial, There’s the handshake that you feel is right
The place of which I am speaking,
Is Streator on Saturday night.
For a pleasanter and happier Saturday, With crowds more generous and kind,
It’s our proud boast—from coast to coast- Would be mighty hard to find;
For Main Street its kings and its barons, With our toilers join hands in delight,
And surely make all tilings alluring In Streator on Saturday night.
Any city may have a feature
That brings to it fortune and renown,
But to my notion there’s no mountain or ocean Looms up like this night in our town.
Friends—Let’s give a toast to our people— Whose sorrows and troubles take flight,
To the love and cheer that’s displayed—no discomfort In Streator on Saturday night.
Poets who rave of the Rockies Of oceans, of cities, of flowers
It’s one safe bet that they haven’t yet Witnessed the feature that’s ours;
Because then when their minds are a-pondering And in memories allowed to delight,
They’d find but one topic to write on—
That’s “Streator, on Saturday Night!”
Reuben Soderstrom was a union organizer and a member of the Illinois House of Representatives. He was also the grandfather of one of my classmates. Most people remember him for his political accomplishments, but my memory is of a winter night when he knelt in the snow to tie the laces on my ice skate when my friends and I were skating on the river near their family home. It’s simple memories like that which made Streator a great place to grow up. It would be wonderful to see my hometown get a fresh start with the help of HGTV, but I am hopeful that even without their help, the current citizens of this town, originally called Hardscrabble, will show their grit and make good things happen again.