In the old days before GPS, people navigated by landmarks. Growing up in Wheeling and living in Woodsdale, we navigated by landmarks. The National Road was the main artery at the time. There was no interstate. The National Road was historic, and put Wheeling on the map. If you were going west, chances were you would do it on Route 40. Wheeling Hill on the National Road was a landmark and when you learned to drive, it was the most dreaded thing you might encounter. At the top of Wheeling Hill was a traffic light, and if you had to stop on an incline, your clutch skills would meet the ultimate test. Truck drivers also had to fear the mighty hill. The statue of the Indian was at the top of the hill with an outstretched arm. My older brother would put a roll of toilet paper in the Indian’s reaching hand and sometimes even dress the poor statue in a girdle.
The Suspension Bridge was something to a young kid, and it was a little exciting to drive across it to get to the circus on Wheeling Island. Supposedly my grandfather, Russell Goodwin, who was once mayor of Wheeling, used to dive off the bridge. He lived on Wheeling Island and all things are possible.
Around Woodsdale, the most important place for kids was the drug store. It was the real deal with a marble counter and you could get cherry Coke, and an ice cream float. The drugstore had a nice selection of cigars, which the neighborhood kids would steal for us to smoke under the porch. The creek that ran through the park provided endless experiences. Almost always we came home and someone in our group had fallen into the creek. Sometimes it took some pushing. In the winter, walking on the ice was great excitement. Fishing for fish you could actually see in a couple deep spots was a hopeless event. You could put the bait right in front of them and watch them ignore it all day. I think that ruined me for fishing for the rest of my life.
Wheeling Creek could at times be awesome when it flooded. What fun when Wheeling Creek rose and washed stuff out of people’s homes. When the creek receded you could pick big bottles of Seven-Up out of the bushes. Trying to capture a carp out of Wheeling Creek was another great expedition. Noah built an ark, but the Woodsdale kids built a boat big enough to hold all the local insects two by two. God told us wood was in short supply so he only intended to save the insects. I think that was because the insects had bigger brains than we did. We gathered up the scrap wood, and built the boat. On launching near Washington Avenue, the ship immediately sank. Luckily most of the insects survived and that is why there are still ants and mosquitoes still in Woodsdale.
The park across from Woodsdale school was the park. The park in the old days had very neat little bridges. All major athletic competitions took place in the park. In those days you organized your own softball game. There was no little league. You called up some people and set up the bases. Football was the same way; you went to the park and you set up the super bowl yourself. It was a great learning experience. You learned to get along with other kids or there would be no game. You learned something about fairness.
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Edgington Lane was a neat little area of commerce. Most of important of all when we were young was Jake’s Toys store. It was heaven on Earth. It was a place that you could spend that money you made collecting bottles. You could buy a rubber band driven wooden plane that actually flew, and a kite could be procured to test the wind. A drugstore was there and it had it’s own goodies. The old state liquor store was there for the drunks to refuel. When we were old enough to pass for half-legitimate drinkers it was possible to get some hooch in the state store.
There was the bridge over by Washington Ave. Once the Washington Ave. kids came to Woodsdale School, we soon found out that under the bridge on Washington Ave. was the place to smoke and plot orneriness. As a teenager the most important landmark ever was the bar on Washington Ave. The name of the place will not come to my mind, but I think it had a special policy of not allowing anyone to drink who was of legal age. If you looked big enough you got served. Often people said the legal age to drink in Wheeling was when you were old enough to put a quarter on the bar. In those days it was 3.2 beer. You were more likely to die of kidney failure than get drunk. It was training beer. I remember sitting out front of that place drinking illegally. Some old guy with a car from the thirties would drive down the street real slow. The kids would all run out and jump on the back bumper until the front of the car came up in the air. The old guy would just keep driving with the front wheels three feet off the ground.
I will never forget being at that bar and seeing a pink dump truck come down the street. I wrote pink dump truck, not elephant. Anyway, the truck came down the street and in the back were black Congregationalists from Lonny Banks’ church. Three men each with brass instruments would give the horns a loud toot, and yell, “Come to Lonny Banks’ Church”.
A critical landmark in my life was the Burger Chef on the National Road back near the old neighborhood. My first real job was handing out hamburgers there. That is the real place I learned math. Some good stories came out of that place, but one of my favorites was an unusual hamburger that got sold. Some machine somewhere must have made the hamburger patties. One day an irate customer came back in the door and complained about his hamburger. He opened the burger and put it on the counter. He exclaimed, “Look at this.” The burger had a distinct piece of cowhide in it. The hide actually had fur on it. The idiot that had sold it to him asked, “What do you want me to do about it?”. The man replied, “I want another one”. I don’t know what went through my friend’s mind, but he replied, “We don’t have any more like that.”
Today the world buzzes through Wheeling on the Interstate. Few know the role Wheeling played in shaping the history of the country, but I will always remember how Wheeling shaped my history.
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared on Mike’s blog, Kadizzled. He has generously agreed to look the other way while we pilfer his material that pertains to Wheeling.