"YOU AIN'T GONNA BELIEVE THIS"
All my life I've been fascinated with the little Mom and Pop stores that cropped up around every elementary school in town, back in the days when students were allowed to leave the campus and go anywhere they wished for lunch! You know the little stores, most of them were small grocery stores with a hamburger grille in the back, utilized to satisfy the hearty appetites of grade school kids! Most every town had these little stores near their elementary schools and Denison was no exception. The majority of these small neighborhood stores appeared run down and some looked to me like they had been in business for years even before my generation came along! Most were small quaint structures that seemed always to need paint. Old soft drink ads could usually be seen fading on the outside exterior. These were the
convenience stores of their day! Neighborhood kids would be sent to the store by a parent to pick up a loaf of bread, a bottle of milk and yes, back then, a pack of cigarettes!
However, my personal favorite, Durhams, located across the street from Central Ward School, had no grocery store within it's confines. They were strictly and purely, a five star restaurant! Ok......five stars in my mind! Durham's offered the three major food groups, sodas, candy and hamburgers! A few years ago I pestered Donna Hunt to do a story on Durham's, especially while the Durham's little place of business was still standing! Donna interviewed some of the Durham family members and did a great story, citing some small details about the old eatery that most of us had forgotten. Today, most all the little buildings that housed these hamburger shops are gone, that is with the exception of Durhams which still stands as a monumental testament to days gone by.
I've driven north and south on Armstrong Avenue probably a thousand times in the past forty years, always glancing over at Durhams little hamburger mecca. I've always wondered about the interior........does it still look the same in there? Did they shut it down and just leave things like they were? Did they rip everything out and leave the place bare? I've always thought that likely they had left the old booths since they were sort of built-in wooden booths. I've always thought, maybe they left the little three or four bar stools and the counter that Mrs. Durham stood behind and flipped those burger patties! Maybe they left the old candy counter where Mr. Durham held sway, after all what else would they do with this stuff? I've always thought that I'd like to just get one more peek in there and possibly revisit these old relics of
yesteryear! Stuff that I haven't seen for, perhaps over forty years! What a nostalgic treat that would be!
Well, believe it or not, I finally did get that opportunity! Seems I was driving north on Armstrong when I looked over at the little aging remains of what was once a shining star to kids, hungry for candy, soda pop and hamburgers! A man and a woman, hammers in hand, were banging around on the building that was an extension built on the north side of the little original part. The little square building that once had a big picture window in it, stood alone at the beginning. When Mr. Durham retired, he added on, a larger building about the size of the average garage. This part housed the juke box, several built-in wooden booths and the candy counter. The couple was apparently tearing it down since it appeared that the roof had caved in, or at least they were removing debris.
I brought my truck to an abrupt stop as I pulled up on the curb aligning the old Central School grounds. Here's the opportunity of a lifetime, I was thinking, "I'm going to get to see the inside of Durham's one more time"! My heart beat quickened and pounded against my chest as I walked over and approached the couple. We did our greetings and I began to tell the story as to why I had stopped. Apparently, this couple was not from around here and literally knew nothing about the history of the wooden structure that they were banging on. I was standing on the vacant spot where Steele Cleaners once stood, as we chatted about the Durham's. I could readily see that the extension that Mr. Durham built, contained nothing, not one item of nostalgic value existed in that pile of rubble! Only the roof that had fallen in, now occupied that
space. The couple was very nice and accommodating and seemed to be interested in what I had to say. A couple of times, the man said, "wow, that's wild man"! I carefully chose the right moment and then I popped the big question, "You don't mind if I look over in the smaller part do you"," the part that housed the heart of the operation"? The little square building that had the picture window was still very much intact. This is where you always found Mrs. Durham, behind the countertop flipping hamburger patties. I remember that there were three or four little bar stools at the counter, stools that had little spin around seats! What once was the main candy case held the cash register and a couple of little built-in booths were positioned under the picture window. A menu board could readily be seen behind the counter, however, the
menu was simple enough that it didn't take long to memorize it. No caved in roof here! Oddly enough, a wall had been built, making the extension a separate garage and you could no longer access the little part through this garage. The gentleman stopped hammering as he looked up and said, "No, go right ahead, make yourself at home"! Forty years I'd waited on this moment! My plan had always been to watch the house and if it ever came up on the market "for sale", I'd get a realtor to take me over there to look at the property! But I could forgo that plan now, I was about to step right smack dab in the middle of the Durham's hamburger shop! I walked cautiously around rubbish and boards with nails sticking out and made my way into the main dining area, I was going to once again sit in one of those little booths and maybe perhaps even
spin around on one of those little bar stools! It was sort of dark in there since there were no lights and the place had been boarded up for years! As I strolled back into what was once a five star restaurant (ok,in my mind!), I was sort of in a trance. You know, when everything is in slow motion and your hearing is shut off from the outside world! Finally, I reached the exact spot where I knew my geography would be correct! I conjured up all my senses and took a deep breath to clear my head! I opened my eyes and took a second to focus! "Lo and behold", right before my very eyes, there it was!!......absolutely nothing whatsoever!! There was nothing, I mean nothing,inside that entire little area! Apparently they had kept it swept out since the floor was free of debris. There was a small cardboard box sitting in one corner and no,
it wasn't full of old receipts from vendors that delivered chips,candy, sodas and burger meat to the Durham's. It was empty! The grille, the bar top, the bar stools, the little "built into the wall" booths, the cash register, signs denoting the menu......all, long gone! Visibly shaken, I thanked the couple for letting me "tour the remains" and slowly walked back to my truck. Before I pulled away, I turned around to have one more look at a tired old run down building, now in shambles! A place that once provided not only food for our nourishment but food for our souls, a place that watched hundreds of kids come and go as they grew up, a place that was, oh so familiar, with the laughter and screams of excited children, a place that resides in it's own special little nook, tucked away in the hearts of those who traversed it's door!
"Goodbye old and faithful friend", you served us well"!
(The author is the retired director of the local public transit service. He now sits home and writes editorials and short stories to amuse and aggravate his friends!)
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