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Tuesday, May 24, 2016
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home : considered comment : rochester, once the model small town of the midwest May 24, 2016

Rochester came to life only on Saturdays in 1936

2nd in a 9-part series

Fortune treated its 1936 article about Rochester like a current news story and scheduled it for the August issue that would be published in late July. Assigned to the writing was Catherine Hamill, a staff writer for Time and Fortune publications. She arrived in the city on May 21 to begin the research that would occupy her for nearly four weeks, working toward a June 15 copy deadline.

Although a city-bred journalist, Ms. Hamill quickly adapted to the rhythms of this small town's life. Two days after arriving, on a Saturday, she was treated to the spectacle of farm families pouring into Main Street for their weekly shopping and visiting in the city. Her observations about this event and of those who created it provided the subject she needed to introduce Rochester to her readers, as you will see in today's second installment of the article. FYI: The sales barn in 1936 was at Fifth and Main Streets, location today of Topps Safety Apparel, and, the most direct local descendants of the McMahan brothers today are Mrs. Lalla (James) Heyde and Mrs. Becky (Terry) Smith, granddaughters of Otto.



It is only on Saturday, when the farmers come to town for their week's trading, that the square - and the town - really comes to life. By 2 o'clock in the afternoon every slanting parking space in the downtown streets holds a Model-T or Plymouth or Chevrolet or new V-8. The sidewalks are filled with a slow-moving crowd, women carrying paper bundles or string bags and dragging reluctant children past the peanut wagon; heavy-shouldered men carrying sacks of flour from Kroger's store to their cars, stopping at Black & Bailey's hardware, the John Deere dealers to look at a disk harrow, shoving through the crowds to find a seat on the benches overlooking the trading floor in the cattle sales barn.

Inside the barn farmers in overalls and cattle buyers in shirt sleeves move slowly across the hot, ammonia-smelling floor and stand against the boards of the pens looking at lots of feeding cattle. They make their bids with jerks of the head, consulting sometimes with one of the retired farmers who lives in town now but still comes every Saturday afternoon to the sales. There is the continuous shouting and wisecracking of the auctioneer and an occasional burst of bidding and arguing, but mostly easy, heavy joking and slow talk.

The farmers are as important to Rochester as corn is to a hog, and many of the businesses of the town ease around to the sales barn to talk about prices and planting, implements and weather. Hugh McMahan, postmaster and owner of the Barrett Hotel, is there with his coat off and his straw hat pushed to the back of his head, leaning against a greasy post, talking. It's natural that he should be there and there isn't a farmer in the county that doesn't know him, know Hugh and his six brothers and how they came up from their father's farm south of town and worked their way into the business and politics of Rochester.

Ask anyone at the sale and he will tell you how 40 years ago the seven gawky, barefooted McMahan brothers were laughed at and snubbed when they came up to school in town. But after they got out of school they borrowed a little money and opened a small grocery business, and the seven of them together - Hugh and Otto and Tom and Bill and Pat and John and Jim - began to make good. They branched out into other businesses. They bought a bungalow in town for their mother and every Sunday night there were seven Model T Fords outside the door while the sons called on her. A few years later the Model T's were Buicks and Dodges, still later, Cadillacs and Packards.

The brothers owned a dozen or more farms, they were in the road contracting business, the cattle-raising business, the furniture business, the real estate business, the hotel business. They owned houses and office buildings and land. They became the bosses of the Democratic party in the county. Together and against the world they grew rich. If anything went wrong with one the other six stepped in and helped him. They used one another's money and bank accounts, settling everything in one amicable session later. Then four of the boys, Bill and Pat and John and Jim, moved to Los Angeles and went into the furniture business. They own houses there, and cars and polo ponies. They take their families on world cruises and they seldom come back to Rochester.

Otto runs the family business affairs in Rochester but is no longer a political power. Tom still farms in Fulton County. Hugh, less enterprising than his brothers, is satisfied to be postmaster and to own the Barrett Hotel, which his son-in-law, Will Delaney, runs. He leaves the cattle barn now this afternoon to stop in and lean up against the hotel counter and talk to Will. There are half a dozen men sitting at the writing desks in the lobby, looking at the bus schedule to see what time they can get away to Indianapolis, staring out the windows at the crowded streets, looking in vain for the cuspidors that Delaney took away last year because his little boy liked to play with them.

When the sale is over the farmers drift along the street, into Bob's barber shop on the corner, where a line of men in tilted chairs wait their turn, out and along south to Krieghbaum's liquor store. Most of them go on by, but a few stop in and ask for a 77-cent pint of corn, the newer and whiter and rawer, the better. Coming out they nod to Clay Sheets, the chief of police (and entire daytime police force), sitting there in his parked car. They drift on down toward the center of town, where their women are still going in and out of the A&P and Cloud's and Morris's, and Schultz's, the 5-cent to $1 chain store. While the women shop, the men prop their shoulders against the store fronts and talk.

They talk politics - local issues and local candidates. The county is normally Republican by 400 votes but four years ago it swung hard over to the Democrats and two years ago hung near the middle but gave Democrats an edge. The wise boys think Roosevelt will carry the country this fall but not the county. They think, they don't know why, that even the farmers who got AAA checks, even the unemployed who are paid by the WPA, even the veterans who got their bonus bonds, may vote for Landon.

But talk about national politics is less frequent, less spirited, than talk about whether Hugh Barnhart will beat out the Republican, Halleck from Rensselaer, for Congress, whether Bob Shafer will get in again as auditor, whether Dale Poenix, who is only 24, can beat the Democratic circuit judge, Robert Miller, and be elected the youngest judge in Indiana, and whether Mayor James Babcock, the dentist, will be a candidate for a second term.

A 1936 ROCHESTER BUDGET - Totaling $1,962 for well-to-do family of four with yearly income of $2,000 - $76 taxes on $4,000 house and lot, $15 personal property taxes, $226 premium on $10,000 life insurance policy, $45 auto insurance, $200 auto expenses and amortization, $110 coal for furnace, $150 summer lake cottage rent, $25 country club dues, $6 Knights of Pythias lodge dues, $6 water, $18 telephone for four-party line at $1.50 a month, $110 gas and electricity, $540 food, $175 entertainment and travel, $210 clothing, $50 doctors and medicine.

Published February 13, 2001





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