Can you imagine a 9-year-old boy and his mother living above Grant’s in a $9 apartment, with heat and water provided, during the tough times of the Great Depression? They had a little closet for a toilet (only) and the little boy did all kinds of odd jobs for a few coins or, possibly, a dollar.
His grandma Gertrude also lived in the building, and all the upper floors of the buildings contained small families of struggling individuals. His playground was often the roof tops of those building. He was probably saved from delinquency by work and by being a Y member for $7 a year.
Clayton “Cookie” Cook lived much of his life downtown, as well as worked there, on Fifth Avenue. He saw it grow, prosper, and begin to die. He speaks with great love of the street and all its characters and lovely stores. On the south side of the avenue was United Cigar Stores at 201, and then a couple of little shops — one of which became his shoe repair establishment after WWII, in which he served.
Also on that side was the Wilson Building, with all of its professional people. Martin Morris moved there from Second Street, and there was Volckmann’s Furniture, Milo Johns Rexall Pharmacy (with its soda fountain), and — the first place “Cookie” ever had a real job — Laurie’s Women’s Apparel.
The real thriving side of Fifth Avenue was the north side, however, as Saturday night shopping turned into Monday nights. Most folks just sat in their cars and enjoyed seeing who went by.
In the 1930s, traffic centered around Van Allen’s, then McLellan’s and the other two dime stores. People’s Trust and Savings was a neat building with massive pillars, but that was torn down after it went bust during the Great Depression. McLellan’s was a third popular dime store that joined Kresge’s and Woolworth’s.
Going up the street was Mangel’s, Ford Hopkin’s, Maureks, Shinner’s Meat Market and, then, the new City National Bank. Next, came the ever-favorite Allen’s Tea Room — which had been Korn’s during the 1920s. Grant’s came in then, and the National Tea Co. grocery chain (later Hubbard’s Hardware). Armstrong’s (a wholesale supply store) was in the Shoecraft Building (Brown’s Shoes) until they moved to South Second Street. In the Lamb Block, (now the Jacobsen Building) were Penny’s and Walgreen’s Drugstore. Upstairs was KROS, Prudential, the Wapsipinicon (social) Club, the K.of C’s and so on.
“Cookie” had lots of adventures on Fifth Avenue. He loved the wonderful pastries at Allen’s Tea Room. There were two grates outside their door. As people came out, having just been handed their change, they often dropped a nickel, dime, or penny — to the delight of the kids. They would get a yardstick and a piece of gum to try and snare coins from the depths of the grates’ caverns. “Cookie” knew both Clara, who once ran Allen’s, and the Pronger’s who later took it over.
There were many jobs to be had by youngsters during the depression. “Cookie” worked for Mr. Craig at Penny’s and sold newspapers on the Post Office Corner too. (The Holle boys serviced that corner years later.) Some competition was going to try to shove “Cookie” off that corner in 1936, but he brought a baseball bat to work one Sunday…. much to the chagrin of his mother, who said, “It’s too cold to play baseball.”
But, after clubbing one bully, the other one ran off; thereafter, he had no trouble. The Chicago Daily News also gave him a free pass to the Strand Theater, if he sold 10 copies of their paper.
“Cookie” began what would be his life’s work at Kline’s, in the shoe shop. That’s where he first met his later wife, Helen, who also worked in that store. Mind you, he started as a seventh grader. He worked there until 1942 —when boss Henry DuMont fired him when he wanted to finish high school. After serving in the war, and working five years on the railroad, DuMont hired him back during a lay-off, and the rest is history.
“Cookie” went on to peddle Town Talks from the Labor Temple Building across from Marcucci’s, and he even worked for Mr. Grayes at the Coney Island before his own sons became old enough. He got $6 per 58-hour week.
“Cookie” used to get on the old I and I (railway) and head south, getting off near Camanche, and would then hunt his way home. Mr. Grayes would buy rabbits from him — even putting it on the menu during the hard times of the depression. But his most lucrative job was selling Radio Guides in 1937. Then came the war, and off he went, spending some time on Luzon in the Philippines.
On the roof of the Lamb Block was the KROS radio tower, which fell to the ground in a storm during the 1940s. Penny’s moved to the Wooster Building on Fourth Avenue (the Pool Hall), and then back to Fifth Avenue’s ground floor of the Wilson Building. Around the hub of the commercial district were other well-known establishments: the J &P Shoe store on Second Street, above the Brass Rail. Remember looking down into the shoe “x-ray machine” at J & P?
Camille’s was farther down the street, near Boegel’s. Across the street were Benders, the Turner Building and Kline’s in the Howe’s Building. That’s where “Cookie” started his lifelong career with shoes.
In those days, nearly all shoes were repairable, and people would always do that, even if they could afford new shoes. Probably, they were still frugal from the depression. “Cookie” got into all types of repair work and even became a medical shoe expert.
Doctors often called him about children, and others would then call him, due to his training, to design wonderful orthopedic shoes for handicapped people.
Clayton “Cookie” Cook loved his life with the people on Fifth Avenue, and soaking up the ambiance from the exciting business climate of that area. He was well-known and ran his shop with great pride for many decades. After him, his son ran it for another 17 years. However, people would slowly change over to “throw-away” shoes and, sadly, the repair has gone by the boards. At one time though, there were 23 shoe repair shops like “Cookie’s” — Virgil Masse’s in Lyons, Bassler’s, and many more.
They all provided good service for thousands of people…. and many feet were better for it.
Gary Herrity is the Clinton Herald’s historical columnist.
Sources Clayton "Cookie" Cook and city directories from the Clinton County Historical Museum.