|Royal Oak As I Remember It|
Shirley Morse, a dear friend of mine and a Royal Oak native, asked me if I’d be interested in penning a piece of what I remember about the beautiful Royal Oak of many years ago.
My answer was a speedy “yes”.
Shirley has a keen interest in the Royal Oak Historical Society and through her I’ve come to have the same interest -- that of preserving the precious history of Royal Oak.
The penning herein is for their archives, housed in the Museum. Ironically, Shirley’s father was Royal Oak’s Fire Lieutenant for 27 years and the Royal Oak Historical Society’s archives are now housed in that same fire station of yore.
Kathryn Gillies Hancock
June 16, 2014
This reminiscence takes me back to the Great Depression years,
commencing with the year of 1932. I was eleven years old and
even at that young age I relished hearing my father talking
about the many, many aspects of the retail business (I’m
speaking of retail shoe business). Dad and his silent partner,
Dick Hocking, were involved in working out a plan to purchase
the Home Trade Shoe Store located on the corner of Main and
Fourth Streets in downtown Royal Oak. A man named Mr. Kelly had
owned the business for numerous years. In spite of the
Depression, Home Trade Shoe Store had a large following of
customers. Apparently, he had to sell the business because of
his failing health.
My father, John Gillies, and his partner, Dick Hocking, purchased Home Trade Shoe Store that year, 1932. This was the second shoe store they now owned. The first one, located in Detroit, opened in August of 1929 -- two months before the stock market crash.
I can still remember so many fine things about our business in Royal Oak and the city itself. Across the street on the opposite corner stood Wayne Oakland Bank and on the corner of South Main and 3rd Streets (the opposite corner from our store) stood a similar-looking building. It was no longer a bank due to the ongoing Depression. The building didn’t stay vacant for long, however, as the city fathers felt Royal Oak needed a much bigger library than the present very small library. Thus, in the early 30s, the large building became Royal Oak’s two-story Library. What a joy it was for me to go just a few paces away with my library card and check out numerous books. I was in Royal Oak a lot during those early 30s. We resided in Detroit but sometimes my father would take me to work with him on Saturdays and some summer weekdays. On those memorable days, I would go to the back of our shoe store to visit with one of my favorite people – the shoe repair man. He had had his repair shop in the store when Mr. Kelly was the owner and continued on for several years thereafter, until he retired. He reminded me of Santa Claus with his long white beard and as I sat on a little bench, he’d converse with me as he worked away repairing shoes.
Across South Main Street from our store was a bakery called Hermann’s. It had yummy baked goods that would melt in your mouth. In those years, Royal Oak had several bakeries all known for their delicious goodies, but Herman’s was the nearest to our store. Because of this, I was able to have one of their famed jelly-doughnuts on occasion. I probably would have eaten more of those doughnuts had I’d been able to cross South Main to go over to Hermann’s, but at eleven and twelve years of age, my Father wouldn’t allow me to cross the very busy Main Street alone, even with the light.
All those years ago, 5 & 10¢ stores were in vogue. On Washington Avenue, Royal Oak had Neisner’s on one side of the street and S. S. Kresge’s on the other side of the street. The big Department store in Royal Oak was Montgomery Ward’s located on the same side of Washington Avenue as Kresge’s. In those pre-teen years I wasn’t allowed to go over to Washington Avenue alone, but once in a while my Father would take me over there. I guess I liked the Kresge store the best of the 5 & 10¢ stores. I’m not sure when the big Washington Square building was erected but the main part of the first floor housed the beautiful Royal Oak Theatre. It was located on 4th and Washington. As I got older, a real treat for me was to go to Sanders (also located in the Washington Square building). Can still remember getting one of their pineapple sodas and enjoying every sip of that delightful soda.
For a few years, a Mr. George Ford managed our Royal Oak store but as our stores grew in number, Mr. Ford became manager of our Dearborn store. The “popular” Grant Metcalf (customers would wait in line for Mr. Metcalf to serve them) became manager of the Royal Oak store. Those times were usually on Friday nights when Royal Oak shoppers came out in droves. Mr. Metcalf worked in that capacity for many years and his lovely wife, Mary, worked weekends there also.
I remember downtown Royal Oak as an exceedingly busy place with retail stores in abundance. The popular Field’s (a women’s apparel shop) was yet another older establishment on South Main.
As I sit here writing this piece about downtown Royal Oak, I’m amazed that I can still remember so much about it. We never resided in Royal Oak but I came to love so much about it. In this 2014, my body is a bit crippled but I’m so very grateful that at near 93 years of age, our Heavenly Father has granted me a retained memory and the capacity of being able to put reminiscences like these on paper.
As Royal Oak continued to grow all those years ago, downtown Royal Oak continued to grow also.
The oldest movie theatre in Royal Oak was called the Royal and it was located on South Main Street. Ernie Blair, our late friend, was a resident of Clawson during his growing-up years. He loved to talk about his going nearly every Saturday to the Royal to see the cartoons and his favorite serials.
“Clawson didn’t have a theatre nor did most of the cities surrounding Royal Oak so the Royal Theatre was the favorite for a good many years. It was 10¢ admission and 5¢ for a package of Milk Duds.” This was relayed to my husband and me many years later by the wonderful Ernie Blair.
In spite of the ongoing Great Depression, families found
movies to be their favorite recreation and downtown Royal Oak
was certainly a part of that. Three theatres now existed: the
Washington (directly on Washington Avenue), the Royal and later
the Main (located, of course, on North Main Street). As I stated
before, the oldest theatre in Royal Oak was the popular Royal.
It was a huge edifice and that building was to play a very large
part in the lives of the Gillies family but as a young girl in
her pre-teens, I had no idea that it would become such a
I wish to state here that the reader of this piece will find that whereas I remember a lot about Royal Oak in those 30s and early 40s, I do go into broader detail about our shoe store on South Main Street because Hocking-Gillies Family Shoe Store played a tremendous part in my life.
Eventually, time took its toll on the large but old Royal Theatre. Renovations were sorely needed and the owner decided that it was time to close the theatre and retire. Thus, just a few paces down South Main Street from our shoe store, the building that had housed Royal Oak’s first theatre for many years became vacant. I’m not certain of the year of its closure, but with the Great Depression still existing, the building remained vacant for some time.
I came to know when my beloved father was contemplating something because he’d do quite a bit of whistling. Our Mom, my sister and I then knew without a doubt that Dad was “up to something”. We also were aware that he’d been conversing a lot by phone with his silent partner, Dick Hocking, who was usually on the road selling shoes to retail shoe stores throughout Michigan (and making a lot of money selling a children’s shoe called “Great Scot” – a hardy shoe selling for many years, retail at $1.98. There was no need to ask if we carried Great Scot shoes in our stores. Of course we did… and they sold like “hot cakes”).
Dick Hocking, who was my Uncle by marriage, had commenced selling the Great Scot shoe during WWI when income taxes were practically nil. He was now a very wealthy man, and as said before, my father’s silent partner: Dad, the retailer and Hocking, the wholesaler.
We in the family soon learned that my father and Dick Hocking had signed the papers to lease the shuttered Royal Theatre. It took many months and a lot of money to renovate it - an entire new floor and beautiful display windows being just a couple of the things needed. The unique ceiling of the theatre remained and to this day I believe it is still there in the current Monterey restaurant that came into being after our retirement in 1980.
If my memory serves me right, the Grand Opening of Hocking-Gillies Family Shoe Store was just prior to the declaration of WWII in the year of 1941. Even though we had been in Royal Oak since 1932 with a shoe store, this was a special time for us as now we had a huge edifice to serve our customers. I do believe that my Father was the happiest of all of us involved. He loved every aspect of that beautiful shoe store.
I can still remember the loads of beautiful flowers covering a great deal of the floor. Many well-wishers, including some of the Royal Oak merchants, came to the store that day. The faithful Royal Oak Daily Tribune ran a front page story on the Grand Opening with a large photo. The now-tattered piece was kept by me until recent years when I gave it to the Royal Oak Historical Society.
So many, many years ago with so many lasting memories……
We had the X-Ray machines to fit the children’s shoes properly and a sucker for every child getting a pair of shoes; there were no charge cards for customers to use in those days. In 1932, I knew that Royal Oak had one high school named Royal Oak High. Dad would usually put a Hocking-Gillies shoe ad in their graduation book. In those early 30s there were very few restaurants but the times that I would go to our store, my Father and I would go for lunch at a small eatery on 4th Street. I heard someone call it “Hook and Grab” but I never knew why they called it such. It was always a treat for me to go there.
The old names in Business in Royal Oak are still remembered, even though some of them are gone: Erb Lumber, Sparks and their WEXL, and Sullivan Funeral Home is still very much a part of Royal Oak. As I write this today, I realize that the many churches in Royal Oak opened their doors many years ago.
As the years rolled along, Royal Oak’s Summer Sidewalk Sales came into being and so many other events too numerous to name. Before the passing of my beloved father, Hocking-Gillies had grown to a chain of ten shoe stores. The Royal Oak store had come to be my father’s favorite store for numerous reasons… so much his favorite that he solely purchased the actual building.
I have been very aware that our Royal Oak shoe store was one of our very first stores and also the last to close in 1980. It was time for my husband and me to retire. We had been in the shoe business on South Main Street for 48 successful years.
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Kathryn C. Gillies Hancock
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