When people complain about changes in Healdsburg, I often tell them that they wouldn't have wanted to live in the town that I grew up in. That isn't to say that it was bad, it just isn't the thriving town that people see today. But, there are things that I miss and things that I think i would miss if I were older. Every Halloween, the local merchants would donate their windows for the window painting contest. As I kid, I never thought about who organized it, or who provided the supplies. All I remember is that each team was assigned to a window and the paint and paint brushes were waiting. After we did our best to draw witches, ghosts and pumpkins the adults would take over and judge all the windows in town. We never won, but we had fun. When and why this tradition stopped, I don't know. I just miss it and the festively painted windows around town.
I've seen plenty of pictures of the water parade that was an annual event in Healdsburg long before my time. Water Floats resplendid with flowers and decorations dotted the river at Memorial Beach with thousands watching on the beaches and bridges. I never saw it, but I would have like to.
On Easter there was also a parade and this I'll never forget. I don't remember the particulars of the parade, only that it was on a weekday because my parents were at work. Both my parents worked, but the four brother's were never at a loss for something to do. We gave our parents a call and told them that we were going to dress up and enter the parade. We also told them that we were going to win the first prize for the best costumes. They told us to go ahead - we've always had supportive parents.
For a bunch of kids, there isn't any way to describe the decision making process. Was it Steve who decided to use the wagon? Bruce who thought a Mexican Easter Bunny would be funny? Maybe I'm the one that thought of using the sarape and sombrero that we had from our trips to Mexico. One thing that I'm sure of; it wasn't Michael's idea to be the Mexican Easter Bunny.
So, at midday, we found ourselves pulling 4 year old Michael in the Red Flyer wagon. He had painted wiskers, and was dressed in every piece of Mexican clothing that we had. He looked great.
We showed up at the office with the first prize Easter Basket in the wagon because it was bigger than Michael. Our parents stared, open mouthed and speechless. We weren't sure if they were in awe of the prize or our creation, but it didn't matter. We just did what we set out to do.
Maybe that's what Healdsburg has done. Back in the days when store windows had kid drawings at Halloween, our town plaza looked quite different. The south side of the plaza was dominated by Garrett's Hardware Store. An old fashioned hardware story with wooden floors and large nail bins. They kept the rope downstairs and threaded the ends through holes in the floors where they were tied off. From the top, there were just dozens of different size knots that could be pulled, measured and cut-off when needed.
The U.S. Post office was on the east side of the plaza in the current Center Street Deli. Observant visitors today notice the mail drop at the entrance which is the only clue to the former occupant. A few doors down was Western Auto, which held much more interest for us kids. Western Auto was the home off all new bikes. Shiny and bright, these were such a focus of our attention that, athough I was in the store often, I can't tell you if they sold anything else. I'm sure that they did, but all I remember are the bikes.
The side of the plaza that has gone through the largest transformation is the entire western block. Nothing remains of what was there. On the site of the Hotel Healdsburg was the Healdsburg Hotel. A multi-story brick structure that I never set a foot inside. I have a vague recollection that seedy types lives in this Hotel and that it was a Hotel only in name. But I did spend a lot of time in the various retail establishments that occupied the streetfront.
Montgomery Wards had a "store" there. It wasn't much of a store. Just a small thing with nothing but catalogs and a large counter for picking up stuff. The best part of Montgomery Wards were the cool stamp books that I got to paste stamps into. Don't ask me how my Mom earned the stamps, I just know that my job was to paste the into the book. When we collected enough books, we could order stuff from the catalog. What a great business model these guys had, and so far ahead of their time. It was on-line buying before the Internet was even a twinkle in someone's eye. The history of Montgomery Wards is fascinating, but their failure to adapt to changing times was it's downfall. They kept their downtime stores and pickup locations while the big box stores moved to malls. Ironically, many of these big box stores like Sears, J.C. Penneys are now having a hard time competing in the on-line world of today. If Montgomery Wards could have survived, they would have found that their centralized warehousing and nationwide shipping model would have proven successful.
The Office Cafe, Medico Drug store (with it's long, wooden back door hallway) were also in that block. Perhaps a bar or two, but I wouldn't have paid any attention. In fact, I think that there were a lot of bars downtown in those days. And, when the Hells Angels came to town with seemly hundreds of motorcycles, we stayed away. I think they were here for the bars.
So, our little plaza was practical and small town. But, seldom exciting and certainly not vibrant. Most of the weekends and evenings, the sidewalks were rolled up and there wasn't much activity. That's a far cry from the tourist town that we have today with world-class restaurants and bookstores open until 10pm. Sure, on a Friday or Saturday night you can’t eat downtown without having reservations. But, during the week, they are all ours!