The more things change...

Residents recall Washington Co. of 50 years ago

Residents recall Washington Co. of 50 years ago

December 24, 2005|By DANIEL J. SERNOVITZ


William "Buzz" Neikirk, former owner of Neikirk's of Hagerstown, remembers how downtown Hagerstown once bustled with activity, trolleys clanged along the streets and you could catch a show at any one of a number of downtown theaters for about 50 cents.

"The thing about the downtown, it was the main shopping area, and on Friday night, you had a hard time walking downtown, and all the stores were open on Friday nights," Neikirk, 90, recalled.

"It was hectic," added Vivian Neikirk, 86. "There were always a lot of people shopping."

That was 1955, the center of a decade that saw many changes in Washington County, including the formation of a plan for Interstates 70 and 81, groundbreaking for the Long Meadow Shopping Center, the beginning of zoning in Hagerstown and a $1.8 million transformation of Washington County Hospital into an eight-story building with an additional 133 beds.

Much has changed in the half-century since 1955 - socially, politically, technologically and economically. Not all of the change was positive nor was it all negative. For good or ill, some area residents said, change has come and shaped the quality of life in Washington County.


A sense of community

"Definitely, the pace of life has accelerated, and the electronics have something to do with that," said Hagerstown resident Lester James Powlen Jr., 77. "It's definitely brought people closer, the fact that you can be in immediate contact with anyone in any part of the world."

Growing up in Indiana, where the basketball film "Hoosiers" was staged, Powlen said he remembers listening to high school basketball games, particularly the state championships, over the radio before television took its place as the preferred medium. In those days, there was a certain amount of magic involved in listening as radio announcers called the games that is missed watching the games on television, he said.

"Businesses closed down for the state finals. They might as well have not been open, and everybody listened to the games on the radio," Powlen said. "I believe it was more exciting hearing it on the radio. (The announcers), that was their profession, and they were good at it."

Powlen, a salesman by trade and father of five, said that during his professional life, he sought to be home in time to sit down for dinner with his family and talk about the day's events. He said that while advances such as cellular telephones have helped bring people together, he believes they also have quickened the pace of people's lives.

Williamsport resident Henrietta Potter, 92, who grew up in Hagerstown, remembers a stronger sense of community in the 1950s and a stronger bond among families.

"I loved Hagerstown," Potter said. "Everybody knew everybody. It was so strange. It was like everybody was one big family. There was more family life back then - families, children living closer together."

Williamsport resident Alice Hartman, 74, said that while there still is that sense of family and closeness, it has become de-emphasized with the increase in two-wage-earner families and advances in technology.

"For many, I guess it's still there, but it seems to have a different quality to me," Hartman said. "Everything's getting faster and faster."

Hartman and her husband, Paul, also 74, moved back to Hagerstown around 1955 from Washington, D.C., where they lived while he was serving in the U.S. Army Medical Corps.

"As I recall, it was a good year," Paul Hartman said. "We were back in familiar territory again, and we just enjoyed it. We enjoyed being back in Hagerstown. Hagerstown was so different then. The main shopping was down on Washington Street."

Good changes ... and bad

William Neikirk said he remembered going to evening shows in Hagerstown and gathering for weekly meetings with a club of fellow World War II veterans, followed by an evening of socializing in town.

"We had a young men's club, and it was most of the fellas who were in World War II," he said. "When it was all over, we would go somewhere, and those who would have a beer would have a beer, and we'd dance and it was a good time."

Paul Hartman said there have been some positive advancements, including a wider variety of products in grocery stores and automatic thermostats controlling heat. He wasn't as enthusiastic about some other advances, including being able to watch live television feeds of high-speed police pursuits.

Hartman said some of his nostalgia of 1955 might be caught up in the notion those were the days of his youth. Still, he said: "I'm thankful to be up and about and everything at age 74."

For all of the changes, though, some things have stayed the same.

Vesta Myers, 73, said that back then, as now, people complained about the rising cost of fuel. Myers, 73, fielded more than one call from upset Sinclair Refining Co. customers during her tenure at the former fuel company, where she worked up until fuel costs climbed to 18 cents for a fill-up.

"I used to get all those rate calls from customers," Myers said. "In the summer (of 1955), you could fill up your fuel-oil tank for 13.9 cents a gallon."

Myers said she remembers community service having played a stronger role in the Hagerstown community in those days.

"Community service was a big part of everybody's life," Myers said. "Now, I don't know that that's No. 1, or even No. 2. Now, it seems, personal comfort comes first."

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