An old photograph of shoppers in downtown Somerset revived sweet memories of how things used to be. Best we can tell by car models, the photograph was made about 1962.
The picture, no doubt taken by the late James Slaughter and made available through the courtesy of Rogers Photography, showed the intersection of East Mt. Vernon and Maple streets. It was particularly interesting because one can look through the windows of the Commonwealth Journal building and see the same spot, still relatively busy but not nearly as vibrant as when the photograph was taken more than a half century ago. There are more cars now but fewer shoppers.
Early 1960s was shortly after U.S. 27, known then as the “Truck Route” had been expanded to four lanes between Somerset and Burnside. It was just prior to a mass exodus of downtown businesses to cluster around Tradewind Center.
The under roof shopping complex, anchored by 50,000-square-foot Roses Department Store, was the focal point of a new shopping district that eventually spread north and south along U.S. 27 from University Drive north of Somerset to Burnside.
Growth has been amazing, but then Rose’s was a sight to see. There was a sparkling new restaurant inside the seemingly unending aisles of anything-you-can-think-of merchandise.
Rose’s was a place to take your country cousins and display your urbane manners in a big-city atmosphere. The developing shopping district along a four-lane highway changed our world. Before that, life was still simple. Somerset was a Saturday town.
Sometime during the late 1960s, the Kentucky Department of Highways installed “Walk, Don’t Walk” signals at the intersection of East Mt. Vernon and Maple streets, then the busiest intersection in town. The signs were fascinating. You could tell folks were crossing the street unnecessarily just to see the signals operate.
The Commonwealth Journal, was equally impressed with the “Walk, Don’t Walk” signals. The newspaper, daily since January 1966, carried a photograph and story about the signals on the front page.
Women can be seen in the old photograph hurriedly walking across the intersection, purses in hand, shopping until they dropped. Downtown was the place to be.
J.J. Newberry Company and United Department Store were the two largest retail stores downtown. Somerset’s J.J. Newberry store was one of 565 stores in a five and dime chain. Newberry’s in Somerset had a big-city-type lunch counter that was a bragging point in a small country town.
United Department Store was a sprawling clothing store managed by the personable Marvin Morris. The multi-floor complex was “big time” in a little town. Morris was a close friend of A.A. “Sandy” Offutt, Somerset’s “what you see is what you get” mayor for more than 20 years.
Everybody knew the mayor and he was well liked. Unforgettable was Offutt’s response to a customary greeting: “Good morning, Mr. Mayor, how are you?”
“And why would you care … you’re not a doctor,” Offutt would dryly remark. Then he would grin, and shake your hand.
Mayors have to attend a lot of meetings and if one got long and drawn out, Offutt would get up and stomp out. Voters loved Offutt and his crusty demeanor. He was elected to five terms, serving 20 years as mayor.
Hughes Department Store at South Maple and Zachary Way was part of the retail scene during the early 60s. Owned and managed by Paul Hughes, the store was selling ladies’ sweaters for $1.49 and Men’s dress oxfords for $4.98.
On East Mt. Vernon Street just off Fountain Square was W.D. Gover’s, a high line store for those who wanting something a little better. It was a favorite shopping place for Bob Perry, owner of Perry’s Radio and TV. The late Mr. Perry was the town’s best-dressed man.
Television screens were small, mostly black and white. The Virginia Theater was still in its heyday, and the Kentucky Theater was a short distance away on South Main Street.
Parking meters lined city streets downtown and Somerset City Council, in 1962, increased the fine for overtime parking from 25 cents to 50 cents. A. Goldenberg was selling GE electric ranges for $146.66.
Pulaski Fiscal Court members were looking at mechanical voting machines. This county was the last in the state to change from paper ballots to mechanical voting. Fiscal Court eventually bought voting machines following a lawsuit by the Somerset Junior Chamber of Commerce. Ironically, paper ballots are back in use, this time read and counted by optical scanners.
Despite sometimes resisting change, Somerset and Pulaski County were progressive:
• Members of Pulaski Fiscal Court and County Judge John Garner went to Frankfort to meet with Gov. Bert Combs about building a junior college in Somerset. Fiscal Court’s most colorful member in that era was J. Frank Harris, a magistrate not afraid to speak his mind or give an opinion on any subject.
• Three contracts were awarded by East Kentucky Rural Electric Cooperative Corporation to build John Sherman Cooper Power Station at Burnside.
• Production was just getting under way at Kingsford Company in the old Cumberland Corporation plant south of Burnside.
• The Somerset Chamber of Commerce embraced the county, changing its name to Somerset-Pulaski County Chamber of Commerce. Dr. I. K. Cross was president of the chamber.
• Flameless electric living was being promoted by Kentucky Utilities. Builder of an all-electric home was given a $50 bonus, a princely sum in those good times.
It is a matter of opinion whether all change is good. We tend to forget hard times when we delve in memories. But, no question, the “Good Ol’ Days” were not all bad.