Fountains of Fun

Sara and Mamie with dolls

“The years we spent in the house on Strong Avenue were probably the happiest of our childhood. Mama and Daddy made a big production of every holiday and saw to it that we got everything that came to town, and the Christmases were wonderful with the living room always piled high with toys. Back then the stores did not carry toys all year. There were no discount stores, and the five and ten cent stores like Woolworth’s only carried small toys year round, mostly for around ten cents. We bought things like little folding fans, purses, celluloid dolls, little bisque dolls, paper book dolls, and that sort of thing when we went shopping with Mama. I was always the worst one about seeing something I just had to have and pulling on Mama and begging for it until she raised on eyebrow in a special way she had to let you know she meant business. Sometimes even that would not stop me, and I would be threatened with a good switching when we got home.

“The only time we really saw a lot of toys was just before Christmas, and they did not start showing them until after Thanksgiving. Sometimes Fountain’s Store would get in dolls such as the Bye-Lo Babies and Heebie Sheebie dolls at other times of year besides Christmas, and Mama would immediately buy one for each of us. The Bye-Los had breakable Bisque heads, and one of the Dacus girls who lived down the street from us broke mine. Of course I cried buckets of tears and Mama promised to have Fountain’s order another head, but even after the new head was attached it was never quite the same. I never felt quite the same about that Dacus girl.

“The Heebie Sheebie dolls had on different kinds of cute little outfits and are now collectors’ items, but, of course, ours were long ago given away. We learned not long ago that the boys were called Heebies and the girls Sheebies.

“Fountain’s had a wonderful Christmas toyland. Every year they would put a curtain over the side window until Thanksgiving afternoon, when they opened it for everyone to see what the new toys were that year. Billy Fountain, who was in charge of the third floor where the toys were, always set up an electric train in the window and it would be running through tunnels and there would be little houses and other buildings to make up a small village.

“We would always go after our Thanksgiving dinner to press our noses to the big window and start picking out the doll and other toys we wanted Santa Claus to bring us. Mama got just as excited as we did. The stores then had all different types of toys. We did not have Mattel and Fisher-Price or other toy companies which furnished toys for al the stores, so the toys were more unique. I guess we would have lost our minds if we could have gone in a Toys-R-Us store, but somehow I think each and every toy meant more to us then. Otherwise we would not still remember so many of them and the happy hours we spent playing with them.”

Sara loved dolls her whole life and her house on East Adams was filled with them when she died. Dolls that her mother saved, dolls she had as a little girl, dolls she gave to Cathy and me, dolls that she made herself……and the dollhouses that she so carefully fashioned from kits. Several of those we left with the new owners, whose two little girls mirror her own little girls in so many ways. I have no clue what the psychological implications were of all those miniature people that populated her house and her world, and I don’t care. Perhaps they reminded her of those rose-colored years on Strong Avenue or maybe they stood for an idealistic world that never really existed. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that they brought her great joy for 88 years.

Ed. note: Fountain’s Big Busy Store was the culmination of Greenwood merchant W.T. Fountain’s retail enterprises. His first store, with partner F.R. Austin, was in the 200 block of West Market Street; in 1902, he went out on his own and opened a store on the northeast corner of West Washington and Howard, later the site of Barrett’s Drugstore for so many years. In 1914, he bought the lot on the southwest corner of that same intersection, tore down the house which was standing there, and began construction of the largest department store between Memphis and Jackson. A $40,000 project, three-stories tall, incorporating 22,000 square feet of floor space…..Elevators and plate glass windows and a tea room, all in the small but booming town of Greenwood. It had to seem like a mirage. Mr. Fountain sold ladies’ and mens’ wear, luggage, home furnishings, toys, china and all manner of dry goods. His house was a towered Victorian which sat just west of the store, on the site of the original First Methodist Church and, later, the Leflore Theatre. Fountain died suddenly in 1919; the entire downtown business district closed for the observance of his funeral. The store prospered and enlarged, eventually incorporating much of what is now the Bank of Commerce. By the late 1950s, though, competition drove Fountain’s out-of-business. One of my earliest memories, very dim, is walking with Sara through the nearly empty store…..I vaguely remember the staircase at the rear and the elevator and talking with someone in there, and in retrospect, knowing my mother’s great affection for this wonderful building, she was going in for one last look at a place that carried so many memories. I may have this wrong, but I believe she bought some mannequins, which stayed in our attic for years and frightened the bejabbers out of our friends.

Fountain’s closed, a victim of post-WWII progress. Sterling’s Five-and-Dime occupied part of the space, a store which I loved but which Sara always seemed to resent, both for its usurpation of Fountain’s space and the competition it gave Woolworth’s, which was her other mecca. Then even Sterling’s gave up on Howard Street and the old building gradually gave up and went dark. Solid, but unwanted, just another Howard Street white elephant waiting to be torn down for an unnecessary parking lot. Thank goodness for those who never gave up on downtown, as the Fountain Building is now home to two wonderful stores, Turnrow Books (where I spend most of my time and way too much of my money) and Mississippi Gifts, along with luxury apartments. Sara thought those were perfectly nice stores, but they never, never rivaled Fountain’s in her mind’s eye. In her world, the train rolled endlessly along its tracks in the big plate glass window, Christmas was always just around the corner and your Bye-Lo babies never got broken.

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About sec040121

Hello....I'm in possession of a priceless collection of memoirs and memorabilia left by my mother, Sara Evans Criss. She was a native and lifelong (88 years!) devotee of our small town, who covered this peculiar and volatile corner of the world for 30 years as the Memphis Commercial Appeal's Greenwood bureau chief, a job that started out with debutantes and high school football and wound up spang in the midst of one of the twentieth century's most enduring social upheavals. This blog is dedicated to her memory and the legacy she left behind, both for her family and her community.
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