John Howell’s Column
Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 22, 2007
We have seen ‘good ole days’
By John Howell Sr.
The boy was zipping along on a skateboard through the crowd at Springfest Friday night, nimble and graceful. Later, he came scooting along on small wheels built into the heels of his sneakers, still nimble and graceful, making it look so easy.
When he sat down next to the old man who had been watching, the old man asked the boy if he knew how much fun it was just to watch him.
The boy said little in reply and just shrugged. He was well-brought-up enough not to tell the old man to his face that he must be crazy.
“They’re heelies,” the boy said, pointing to the small wheels in the heels of his shoe that had so fascinated the old man.
I asked Jim Pitcock if he recalled coming to the Batesville Square on election nights when he was young.
We stood side-by-side last Friday night in the Rotary Club’s tent making barbeque sandwiches for the Springfest crowd. The weather had turned unseasonably cool but pleasant. People were hungry and there were many to feed. Candidates were busy hustling votes for the coming election. Children of all ages were lining up for carnival rides. Musicians made music.
Yes, Pitcock said. He remembered election nights on the Batesville Square in the 1950s and 60s.
“Kind of reminds you of the same atmosphere,” the Chancery Clerk continued, recalling the festive tumult of those election year gatherings of long ago.
Good old days.
During the late 1960s, in a well-intentioned but ill-guided attempt at downtown revitalization, the old oak trees that surrounded a bandstand park were removed along with the fire house and bandstand that stood in their midst. The motive was to attract more retail business to the Square by making it easier to park and to navigate.
A century earlier businesses had migrated from the banks of the Tallahatchie River at the town of Panola, severing dependence on often unreliable and always seasonal steamboat shipping. They moved about a mile away and arranged their businesses in a public square with the new railroad depot in its center. Named it Batesville.
When city leaders in the 1960s tried to improve traffic flow and parking in the Downtown Square with those drastic changes, they failed to recognize that what had occurred in the 1860s had begun anew. Retail businesses were migrating toward Highways 6 and 51. The eastward migration continued as Interstate 55 was completed in the late 1960s and is accelerating at a dizzying pace even now, right before our eyes.
Most of us who remember the old Downtown Square as it was 50 years ago have by now spent too much time lamenting its loss, especially in light of what has been happening there during the last 20 years.
Entrepreneurs and developers who appreciate the architectural significance of the remaining commercial buildings on the Square have remodeled, renovated and built additions consistent with the period of their original construction. These significant improvements to the Square’s structural and physical appearance have created an environment to house a healthy mix of businesses and professions.
City and county leaders, in cooperation with the Main Street Committee of The Panola Partnership have through tax abatement and tax credits encouraged these private developments. The city has also focused on the public areas of the Square, first with the construction of the bandstand and then with the recently completed Memorial Park. All of this, coupled with ongoing attention to landscaping detail and repaving has brought the Square to its present appearance. It has never looked better.
What Springfest does each year is to provide us with a great excuse to come out and enjoy our Downtown Square. The organizers put together rides, food, music and other attractions in the middle of the Square and we turn out for it with pocket money, appetites and expectations.
This year’s Springfest was the best ever — music, weather, food — made better because we enjoyed it with other folks who were having a good time too. And when it’s over — the ride money spent, the appetites satiated and the expectations exceeded — we’ve made some good memories. We’ve seen folks we had not seen and maybe not even thought about, in a long time; old friends nonetheless.
We’ve asked about mama and ‘em. We’ve gotten older; they’ve gotten older. We’re wider and they’re wider. Yet we still stood in a ridiculously long line waiting to buy a funnel cake.
And kids everywhere. And grandkids and great-grandkids, all having the best time of all, heady on atmosphere alone.
Somewhere 50 years from now, the small boy who showed the old man his heelies will think back and recall Springfest days and nights on the Batesville Square.
Good ‘ole days.