Editor’s note: This week, Weelunk will pause our normally scheduled programming to highlight stories that feature Black narratives. We have chosen to take this time to amplify those voices that are so often silenced and celebrate all that the African American community has contributed to the city of Wheeling. Today’s story originally posted on Dec. 21, 2019.
Ah, childhood holiday memories — those sweet candy cane and hot cocoa ghosts of Christmases past. Is there anything else that can conjure up such nostalgia? For those of us who are Boomers/Gen Xers, many of those cherished childhood memories are firmly rooted in the 1970s.
For writer Gail Blackwell, the ’70s represent a slower, simpler time. Gail, a Wheeling native who writes under the pen name Lucy L. Lowe, wants to ensure that future generations can get a taste of those happy days she recalls so fondly. Her book, “A Funky Christmas,” tells the tale of an East Wheeling family’s holiday celebrated in Vineyard Hills.
“The book is fiction based on true events,” Blackwell reveals. It recounts the adventures of seven sisters and their single mother as the girls anxiously count down the hours until Christmas morning of 1976.
Each sister has a coveted gift on her wish list, but money doesn’t grow on trees. Will Santa find a way to bring that Loud Mouth 8-track player so the girls can hear Parliament sing “Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker)” on demand?
You’ll have to read Lowe’s book to find out for sure. But if you believe in Santa, you already know that he often finds a way to work his magic.
VISIONS OF SUGARPLUMS DANCED IN OUR HEADS
Blackwell grew up in Vineyard Hills and does indeed have six sisters.
“The Christmas of 1976 was a special memory for our family,” she shares. The true reason for the season, the birth of Jesus, was at the center of the family’s celebration. The girls attended church regularly and were required to memorize and recite speeches in church — long passages of Bible Scripture that told the Christmas story. But although they understood and honored the Lord’s birth, they were kids, after all — and kids want toys for Christmas!
“We enjoyed games,” Blackwell remembers. “Operation, Don’t Spill the Beans.” Two games that were childhood favorites of mine, as well. Other beloved board games from my own ’70s childhood are Life, Headache and Masterpiece. Blackwell recalls Stretch Armstrong and the Green Machine ride-on toy that was designed for kids who had outgrown their Big Wheels. And dolls. Most of us girls would get some kind of baby doll from Santa — Baby Alive and Betsy Wetsy were two that required diapers and, shall we say, performed just like a human baby would after eating and drinking.
The Fisher-Price Little People Play Family House and Hasbro’s Weebles were some of Blackwell’s favorites. A new Barbie was always on my extensive Christmas wish list — I would circle everything my heart desired in the JCPenney catalog, daring to dream big but knowing full well I would never receive that nearly life-sized ride-on stuffed pony or gigantic, ornate dollhouse. I could never even get an Easy-Bake Oven for that matter; my mother was sure I’d blister my fat little fingers on the metal that was heated at that time by two 100-watt light bulbs.
Like me, Blackwell recalls scanning the Sears & Roebuck “Wish Book” to preview all the treasures that might arrive in Santa’s sack. She has fond memories of her Hasbro Lite-Brite, as do I. It seems that whether you grew up on Summit Street or Dement Road, toys and traditions were often much the same all over our town.
LIFE BEFORE PRIME: ‘GOING TO TOWN’
Toys in those days did not arrive on the porch in corrugated Amazon Prime boxes. Families actually “went to town” to window shop and then eventually make their holiday purchases. Blackwell and I recalled favorite Wheeling stores from when we were young. Leed’s Candy was popular with kids, of course, as was the warm and fragrant Sherman’s Bakery. Teen girls like us bought our saddle shoes at Baker’s Shoes and our Jordache jeans at Horne’s.
Jupiter was a popular “five-and-ten” store just down the street from G.C. Murphy. Murphy’s offered not only toys, home goods and trinkets, but a lunch counter where shoppers could grab a ham salad sandwich and a cup of hot coffee to refuel before returning, laden with packages, to a snowy Market Street. It always seemed to snow at Christmastime.
Blackwell also remembers the snows of Wheeling, recalling how she and her friends would sled down from Summit Street on oversized pieces of cardboard. “The valley was cold and blanketed with snow,” she smiles. “Christmas in Wheeling was a magical time for me as a child!”
Sears & Roebuck and Stone & Thomas were both popular stores for us kids, as each had an escalator that was a treat for a youngster to ride. Stone & Thomas would be decorated in grand style as our moms dragged us from floor to floor in search of that perfect present for Dad or Grandma.
Other options for finding those ideal gifts were JCPenney, Montgomery Ward, the Betty Gay shop, Lerner’s, and every teenager’s favorite, Slater’s record store. Then there was the ever-mysterious True’s Exotic Attire. All I knew about that place was that in all of our hundreds of trips to town, my mother never once took us in there. Once I was older and wiser, I realized that True’s was Wheeling’s own version of Frederick’s of Hollywood.
Another Wheeling holiday landmark was the famous talking Christmas tree. “The L. S. Good’s talking Christmas tree bid you tidings of joy, repeating ‘Merry Christmas!’ to all who strolled past,” Blackwell remembers. Somehow, that talking tree always knew the names of good little boys and girls! It was a little sprinkle of Christmas magic right in our hometown.
There were red Salvation Army booths on almost every corner where bell-ringers enticed us to drop a few coins in their kettles to help those less fortunate. The Christmas parade was not a lighted evening affair as it is nowadays. In the 1970s, Wheeling’s Christmas parade was held on a Saturday afternoon. Spectators stood three or four deep on the sidewalk, making the view difficult for those not yet over five feet tall. My dad would let my sister and me take turns sitting on his shoulders so we wouldn’t miss the marching bands or Santa’s grand entrance.
“Santa Claus was the show-stopper!” reminisces Blackwell. “We waited in hopes of catching the candy he tossed.”
If parade watching and holiday shopping worked up an appetite, a Slim Jim and shake from Elby’s always hit the spot. A family tradition for the Blackwells was buying a steaming cup of hot chocolate there to sip on while watching the parade. If Big Boy wasn’t your bag, there was always the 12th Street Grill or the Dinner Bell.
If an in-person visit with Santa was on your list, favorite locations for that very important activity were Stone’s on Market Plaza and Cooey-Bentz in South Wheeling.
If you lived in Vineyard hills like the Blackwell sisters, you could also expect Santa to appear on Christmas eve, riding in the back of a pickup truck and handing out red mesh stockings full of goodies to the kids who eagerly chased down his unusual “sleigh.”
Blackwell believes that back then, both Christmas and life in general offered kids intangible gifts that aren’t so common today.
“The chance to use their imaginations, for one thing!” she says. It’s true; today’s toys are much more sophisticated than those that we remember. We were required to use our imaginations quite a bit more in the days before the technological advances of Internet service, cellphones and online video games. Wooden blocks and Toss Across didn’t require charging; in the ’70s, most of our toys didn’t even require batteries.
Other attributes like ingenuity and creativity were also more prevalent at playtime among ’70s kids. It’s a well-worn cliché, but we really were sent outdoors after breakfast and expected to entertain ourselves without adult intervention until the streetlights came on. It was also more common then for kids to be supervised by an entire neighborhood in addition to their parents and teachers. Neighbors were like extended family who kept an eye on us when we were out of our parents’ sight. It was a time of true community, when we knew who our neighbors were and saw them live and in-person on a regular basis. We even — gasp! — eagerly answered our doorbells when they rang instead of peering suspiciously from behind the curtain to see what fresh hell awaits us like we do today.
It’s memories like these that make Blackwell and many of us long to revisit a slower-paced time of our lives. A time when Christmas was more about who you spent it with and at least a little less about what was under the tree. A time when the point of the season wasn’t stress, excessive spending, and endless rushing hither and yon. There are plenty of days when I would love to return to simpler times, especially this time of year.
A CHRISTMAS VISIT FROM LUCY L. LOWE
As a way to set a more mindful ’70s tone for my own 2019 holiday season, I spent a recent afternoon at Blackwell’s book promotion at the Ohio County Public Library. She found herself being reunited with many Wheeling friends and former neighbors eager to discuss her writing and get a signed copy of her book. The event was complete with old-school candy treats and vintage games for kids of all ages in the audience to enjoy. If you are interested in purchasing the book, you can do so here. It’s a fun walk down memory lane and would make a nice stocking stuffer, particularly if you grew up in East Wheeling during the era of funk.
“It’s been a long road, but my self-published book is now available in libraries across the country — Manhattan, Chicago, Los Angeles. It’s very exciting!” Blackwell shares. Her book is also available for sale on Amazon and at other major online book retailers.
Blackwell now lives in Akron, Ohio, and works as an educational assistant in the Akron Public Schools system. She has an adult son, Corey, and is the proud grandma of two cherished grandchildren.
In her spare time, Blackwell is hard at work on her second novel, “The Other Side of the Mountain.” Set in the year 1977, the book will feature major happenings of that year, such as the release of “Star Wars” and the death of Elvis Presley. She expects the book will be published sometime in August 2020.
As much as we might like to visit there, we can’t live in the past. Wheeling will never again be the shopping destination it was years ago, but it now boasts a vibrant arts scene, upscale residences, a public market and other amenities that we never dreamed of before Y2K.
Times change, and there is good to be found in every era. Perhaps the best way to grow older is simply to carry forward with you the best parts from every bygone decade, and then use your gifts to share that good with others as Blackwell has done through her writing. Here’s wishing you and yours a merry ’70s-style Christmas and a happy, blessed 2020!
What’s your favorite holiday tradition? Share it here!
• A lifelong Wheeling resident, Ellen Brafford McCroskey is a proud graduate of Wheeling Park High School and the former Wheeling Jesuit College. By day, she works for an international law firm; by night, (and often on her lunch breaks and weekends) she enjoys moonlighting as a part-time writer. Please note that the views expressed in her writing are solely her own and do not necessarily reflect those of anyone else, including her full-time employer. Through her writing, Ellen aims to enlighten others on causes close to her heart, particularly addiction, recovery and equal rights. She and her husband Doug reside in Warwood with their clowder of rescued cats, each of whom is a direct consequence of his job as the Ohio County Dog Warden. Their family includes four adult children, their spouses and several grandkids.