Yesterday & Today

Reminiscing on Fifth Street
Perhaps it’s because several generations of my family have lived
on or near the shaded old thoroughfare that Fifth Street evokes
fond memories for me. My earliest life memories go back to my
grandparent’s house, which sat squarely on the northeast corner of
Fifth and Dowdy streets. For awhile, Mom and I had lived with them
during the war while Dad was away fighting in the South
Pacific.
Reminiscing on Fifth Street

Perhaps it’s because several generations of my family have lived on or near the shaded old thoroughfare that Fifth Street evokes fond memories for me. My earliest life memories go back to my grandparent’s house, which sat squarely on the northeast corner of Fifth and Dowdy streets. For awhile, Mom and I had lived with them during the war while Dad was away fighting in the South Pacific.

During those lonely years, it became an ingrained tradition for Grandma, Mom and me to walk downtown along Fifth every day except Sunday. As we strolled along, we’d admire the large old homes on their well-spaced lots lining the cool, leaf-dappled street.

Even after Mom and I moved kitty-corner into our own house on Dowdy

Street, we crossed over to her parents’ when we needed to borrow the car. The family’s only car belonged to Grandpa. And since he was one of the few doctors in town, he nearly always needed it himself, along with his extra gas ration for house calls. In those lean years, every spare drop of gasoline counted. As a result, we had to have a good reason to ask for the car. Often for out-of-town major shopping we’d take the Greyhound to San Jose. But most of the time a day out for us was nothing more than the Fifth Street stroll.

For a little tot, the five-block walk seemed a very long haul, but one made comfortable by a neighbor’s loan of a little old cream-colored child’s cart with wicker seat. On our shopping treks, Grandma would pull while I’d sit watching those magnificent old residences slowly roll past.

Our downtown forays always included the same stops. First, it was the Red and White Grocery Store, located at today’s Monterey Street Antiques. Then we’d head next door to the butcher shop to see what cuts Mr. Rector might have put aside to help out our boring, war-rationed meals.

Everyone carried a ration booklet, which held various stamps to be torn out in exchange for a limited quantity of scarce goods such as sugar, butter and coffee. Whenever we went in to Mr. Rector’s butcher shop, he’d spy me, pull a square of wax paper from a countertop box, and reach into his cold meat display case to grab a tasty wiener. Clutched upright in its crinkly paper holder while I munched away, the treat made my long shopping day less boring as we continued north along Monterey Street, stopping Sandell’s Hardware Store (now occupied by

Dick Bruhnís.)

A little beyond, at the corner of Fourth and Monterey, a volunteer-run booth was set up to sell War Bonds. Usually the person was someone we knew, requiring a stop to chat. We’d then cross over to the aroma-rich Golden Poppy Bakery to pick up a loaf of Mrs. Chaloupka’s still-warm salt-rising bread and a dozen ladyfingers for Saturday afternoon, when Grandma’s girlfriends came for tea.

Continuing along the eastern side of Monterey St. we’d pass Gilroy

Home Furnishings on the ground floor store in the Elk’s Building. A few doors farther down, the errands ended at Montgomery Ward’s, in the space now occupied by the Garlic Festival Store.

For spending money in those pre-ATM days, cash came from going inside a bank to write out a check and submit it to the teller. Ours was the American Trust Bank, now a shop at Martin and Monterey streets.

Finally, we’d walk back across the street to Wentz’s Rexall Drug Store. The combination pharmacy and soda fountain, today a coffee house, was the place to catch up on Gilroy news and gossip. During the course of a lemon coke or a scoop of vanilla ice cream, one could hear all about the husbands, sons and brothers serving overseas, learn who’d had a baby, who was sick, and who had passed away.

Sometimes on the return walk Mom would talk about the novel she dreamed of writing, a saga she simply titled, “Fifth Street.” Behind every door on that street, she said, was a history all its own, individual stories of Gilroy’s oldest families. She’d point out the homes of Mrs. Robinson, whose house at Fifth and Eigleberry is now a realty firm. Mrs. Robinson’s specialty was fashioning miniature Victorian birthday nosegays for her friends. Next door was the home of long-deceased Justice Willey, of whom the town still spoke with reverence. Directly across, where the modern apartment now stands next to the museum, Mrs. Phiso Staniford never seemed to vacate the front-porch rocker of her Victorian home, watching all the passers-by through a thick Wisteria natural screening. On the corner of Fifth and Church, today a parking lot, Miss Marie Clark’s home was testimony to another longtime Gilroy family.

Back then, as we headed home up Fifth Street, there was always time to stop and chat, with old Mrs. Staniford, Mrs. Robinson, and others who were out front either sweeping or just sitting. Sometimes acquaintances driving along Fifth would spot us and pull over to the curb, roll down the car window, and visit for awhile.

Those pastimes, like many old Gilroy families, are long gone now. But for me, memories of walking a lovely old street in a little farm town reinforce the lasting value of living in a community where friends and neighbors take time to know one another. Especially when there’s a threat of war in the air, and everyone is worried about events far away.

Elizabeth Barratt can be reached via email at: [email protected]

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