Chapter 3: Downtown Mount Vernon in the 1950s

Behind its tranquil tree-lined streets, stately churches, recreational parks, quaint shops and history-laden landmarks, there stand thriving industrial and commercial complexes…solidifying an environment ideal to family life which once again graced all America.” —Mount Vernon Area Chamber of Commerce brochure

Northwestern Elevator & Mill Company, 1954 (c) The Artist's Eye, by Janis Johnson

Mount Vernon in the first half of the 1950s was a model of the post-World War II boom that was transforming towns of all sizes around America. Industries firmly positioned in Mount Vernon before the war were brimming once again with increased activity not only to restore and expand America’s economy but also to shield it against presumed foreign threats of the Cold War. Expansion of the nation’s infrastructure ramped up to full speed, and product innovations fueled changes in consumer behavior. After going without many goods during the Great Depression and the war, people had money to spend again; the uptick in consumer activity and investment benefited local banking, retail and other commerce.

It was an exciting time in Mount Vernon — a stylish community presided over by families who had led commerce and industry for generations. Returning GIs like my father and their wives who had supported the war effort, like my mother in the American Red Cross in India, produced the first children of the Baby Boom generation and brought new energy to community life. Their parents, who had weathered the Great Depression, conserved the gentility of the past while enjoying the luxuries of economic and social progress. Women cut their hair and started wearing pants and shorts, men drove stylish automobiles with fins, and we children walked to and from school — and home for lunch, where our mothers, the housewives, were awaiting us.

Mount Vernon’s city leaders were enthusiastic about its promise, noting in a Chamber of Commerce brochure: “Seventy-five percent of the combined populations of the United States and Canada live within 650 miles of Mount Vernon. More important, within one day’s drive of this city there is concentrated 55% of this country, 63% of its manufacturing plants, 72% of its payroll dollars, 70% of its factory output…” And within a 150-mile radius were all the manufacturing centers of the Midwest, from Detroit to Pittsburgh.

….

“It was a pretty simple period, but it was a very sophisticated little town,” recalled John Beam, a childhood friend of mine. “When you think of all the representative 1950s industry that was going on there. Shellmar [where Dad worked] was one example — they invented cellophane and made the wrappers for Wrigley’s chewing gum. Cooper Bessemer. Lamb Glass. Mount Vernon Bridge Company. There was a terrific working population in these companies that supported Main Street.”

“Mount Vernon is a city in the country. It is large enough to supply urban comforts; small enough for friendliness,” according to a Chamber of Commerce brochure Dad illustrated during that time. “The city’s compactness allows easy access to all its parts; its spaciousness creates a small-town atmosphere. 60% of Mount Vernon families own their own homes; their pleasure and pride make for a clean and gracious place. In ten minutes one can drive from home to modern department stores and major industrial plants. In ten minutes one can drive from home to a countryside of pastoral beauty. Mount Vernon is old enough to participate in the better architectural tradition, old enough to feel the influence of its own and the nation’s past…young enough to have ambition to become better.” For 20-plus years, this was Mount Vernon. Its “profile readily reflects a blending of charm from an era past with modern innovations destined to make it a ‘city for the future,’” pitched the Chamber of Commerce around 1970.

In the book you’ll learn more about the Main Street spirit of a typical small town in the Midwest of the 1950s.

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