DO YOU REMEMBER
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Paw Paw River Journal
Willis Dunbar’s Hartford
Green summer wind sighed through the big old trees of Maple Hill Cemetery just south of Hartford. Marion and I had brought my Mom and Dad out there to check our family plot. This was some years ago, and we were talking with young Don Cochrane. His father owned and operated The Hartford Day Spring for many years. And I must confess I got some of my inspiration for writing from years of Editor Cochrane’s column on local happenings. Young Don had gone into the repair and maintenance of printing presses. What with the entire computer printing now, I am afraid in our modern world he would not find much work along that line. I think any more printing presses exist only in museums. Anyway, Young Don knew everyone in Hartford, and he had a delightfully cynical view of local society. I enjoyed hugely talking with him. Young Don (who was in his 80s at the time) said, “I have just been reading Willis Dunbar’s book, How It Was in Hartford. And, you know, he did not tell the whole tale! I would like to write a history……..and I could tell some things Willis never thought of…..or else did not want to say!” After he left, my Dad said, “Well, we all have our own stories of this town……and I will bet I could tell some that Young Don would never put in his!” And that made me think…….no one can ever tell the whole story. Any written history is going to reflect the biases and viewpoint of the writer, no matter how objective he tries to be! So there is Willis Dunbar’s……and it is an interesting one indeed! Willis was born and raised just a few houses south of where we live now. Of course that was quite a bit before my time. His parents owned and operated a meat market on the south side of Main Street, just a few doors west of where now stands Kellogg’s Hardware. When I was but a wee nipper, it had been Dunbar’s Meat Market until they sold it to Salnave and McCotter. This was one of two such stores in Hartford. The other meat market was Warren Clark’s, which was even farther west next to the drug store. My Dad, being in business himself, believed in shopping around, because most of the merchants came to him when they needed floral pieces for a funeral. So he divided his business evenly. Dunbar’s Meat Market was operated by Willis’ parents. Nettie worked in there right along with her husband, wearing overalls and everything. One old town philosopher said her sex was finally determined once and for all when Willis was born! As a lad, Willis was precocious, curious, and adventuresome. He was fascinated by the railroad, which was Hartford’s connection to the outside world. At that time, early 20th century, Main Street was not even paved. Truck delivery was still in the future, and the new fangled automobiles were just toys to be enjoyed by wealthy people. Willis spent a lot of time at the meat market, where he did clean-up chores. And he describes the business in detail. When I was a kid years later, it looked much the same……sawdust floors, and a glass display case across the middle. Behind that, two big butcher’s blocks for cutting and trimming meat. We now take refrigeration for granted. But back in Willis’ day, there was no such thing. Huge blocks of ice were cut from local lakes in the middle of winter, and then stored in a huge warehouse behind Main Street, with the blocks of ice securely packed in sawdust. Then it was brought out as needed to keep the meat selections cold in ice boxes. In his book Willis describes the local election process in detail……more than the average reader would perhaps care to know. Back then people seemed to have a vital interest in who was running the ship of state. I am not so sure about now! And the trains……they connected us to the outside. We had not yet been involved in the First World War, and the rest of the world seemed far away. Hartford had two railroads….the mainline running north and south and called the Pere Marquette. We still have that rail service. The other one was the KLS&C, which ran from Kalamazoo through Hartford and up to South Haven. Those rails have since been pulled up, and the right-of-way is now a hiking trail. Both lines ran passenger trains, and for a couple of summers Willis had a nice little business. His Mom helped him make popcorn and pack it in small paper bags. Both lines laid over in Hartford for switching. So Willis hopped on the waiting passenger cars, walking up and down the aisles, selling his popcorn. He said he made a tidy sum at it too. Those days in Hartford were an adventure for a boy with ideas. It was the early 1900s……and he evokes the feeling of the times very clearly. Theirs was a simpler world, but if you, Dear Reader, would wish to be back there…..just remember there were no antibiotics, nor modern medicine. So sickness was a really serious matter. Willis Dunbar has certainly captured the flavor of small town life. If you have never read his story, I would suggest you check a copy out at the library and do so. If you read it in the past…..perhaps it is time to go back and take another look at what it was like in Hartford. Small towns were then viable places, and the people therein were all busily engaged in weaving golden threads into the rich tapestry that depicts a way of life that is no more.