Up to a hundred people are to gather in Columbus next Saturday to share memories of a once close-knit community from which only frayed threads remain.
“Boogerville,” it was called, though no one today seems to know exactly why. In the 1950s it stretched from 13th Street north to Linwood Boulevard, and from 10th Avenue east to 13th Avenue. Today it’s primarily an industrial area, a transition former residents say occurred rapidly in the 1970s.
Decades earlier, the neighborhood’s south side was mostly shotgun houses, lining Virginia Street and 14th Street.
Many Boogerville residents were mill workers, some walking to the Swift Mill down on Sixth Avenue, as hardly anyone had a car. Others were truck drivers, store clerks or laborers who took whatever work was available.
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Folks depended on each other to get by, a dependence that made Boogerville one large, extended family, in which neighbors often shared whatever they had, and any adult might act as a parent to someone else’s child, correcting misbehavior and reporting transgressions.
It was also a tough neighborhood, all white in then-segregated Columbus, where fights between teen boys were not infrequent and outsiders dared not venture.
A few traces of what used to be remain: The kids all attended Linwood School: Today the big white building on the hill at 1125 15th St. houses the Stewart Community Home. They all went to what was then the Linwood playground for softball and other games; part of that remains, part of it’s now the Gallops Senior Center at 1212 15th St. Over on Virginia Street, once lined with rows of shotgun houses, one house still remains, just down the block from the vacant, cinderblock building at 11th Avenue that used to be Cain’s 11th Avenue Grocery, the heart of Boogerville.
The store belonged to Ulmer Lewis “Cootsie” Cain, who in hard times let neighbors buy on credit and kept accounts on a big ledger. From glass cases in the back he sold meats and cheeses cut to order. Residents called the grocery “Cootsie’s.”
Part of Cain’s credit system was loaning folks signature tokens they could spend only in his store.
Recalled former Boogervillian Jesse “Buddy” Williams: “Boogerville was a poor neighborhood. It was more gray collar than blue collar or maybe even just a dirty T-shirt neighborhood. Nobody went hungry in Boogerville.... If you wanted to borrow money, Cootsie would loan you money, but he would give you bronzines with U.L. Cain’s Eleventh Avenue Grocery embossed on one side and the face value on the other. We call them ‘Cootsie Coins.’ That way you would buy from Cootsie, not his competitors,”
Said Boogerville native Luther Miller, today a retired Columbus police chief: “His grocery store fed about half the people who lived down there on credit, and there’s no telling how much money he lost over the years that he wasn’t paid, but everybody ate.”
Cain and his wife Nellie had seven daughters. They lived in a house right behind the store, and the family business and the family home together were a gathering place.
Asked for a favorite childhood memory, former resident Jean Arambula, now a Valdosta, Ga., printer who hopes to compile a book of Boogerville photographs and memoirs, remembered this:
“It was me and Cootsie Cain’s daughters and the boys sitting on their porch in the evening, out at their house behind the store, and going to the playground at night -- because that was the big thing with the boys was playing ball up there -- and seeing those lights from the playground at night, and sitting out and just being kids with nobody bothering us.”
She also remembers sitting on the curb there one night and watching two boys have a knife fight out in the street, under a light that hung over the road. They cut each other up pretty well, she said.
She recalled how territorial the neighborhood boys were. No black person dared walk through Boogerville at night, and anyone from North Highland, East Highland or Beallwood might not be warmly welcomed either, Arambula said.
A boy from North Carolina once moved in next to her family, she said, and that didn’t go over well: “Those boys didn’t like it. They wanted him out of the neighborhood. They were extremely territorial.”
If Cootsie Cain was Boogerville’s father figure, then the matriarch must have been Mildred Tillis.
They called her the “playground teacher,” though she worked not for the school district but for the city recreation department. For decades she dutifully went to Linwood playground in the morning to open the place before the children arrived. The kids would check out whatever equipment they needed -- softball was the major sport, with rivalries between neighborhoods and church teams -- and turn it in when they were done. Columbus’ Tillis Recreation Center at 13th Avenue and Virginia Street is named for her.
“Miss Tillis would open in the morning, and then she would close and then reopen in the afternoon,” said Boogerville native Charles Rowe, today Columbus’ assistant police chief. “So we would be there in the morning, we’d check out whatever equipment we wanted to use, and play sports, go home and have lunch, and then we’re back up there, playing ball. We were on the ball field playing softball most all the time. Most of our days and evenings were lived out on that softball field.”
Such shared experiences contributed to the sense of community, in a time before children secluded themselves in air-conditioned homes watching TV or playing video games.
A three-room shotgun house, with a living room up front, bedroom in the middle and kitchen in back, has no den or playroom, nor much of any spare space if five to 15 people are living in it.
Among the first residents to get a TV was Luther Miller’s dad, who was employed by the city’s public works department. Luther Miller went on to serve 33 years with the Columbus Police Department, where he was police chief from 1996 to 1999.
He lived at 1501 Harvey Ave. from when he was born in 1942 until he was 14.
Now 69, the retired chief recalled how his dad would turn their TV set to the window so neighbors could watch.
“We were the second family in the neighborhood to get a TV,” Miller said. “And every Friday night, we’d turn the TV around facing out the window, and we’d sit out there in the driveway, with anybody that wanted to come. There would be 10 or 20 people sitting out there in the driveway watching the fights.”
Rowe was among them: “I remember Friday night fights, some of the old variety shows,” he said. “TV was nothing then like it is now. You only had a couple of channels you could watch.”
Miller remembered Thanksgiving as a neighborhood event: “We would eat dinner at two or three different houses. Some of the kids my age, who were raised with me, would eat with me, then we’d leave and go to someone else’s house.... They were always going to feed you, but then at the same time, they’d turn around and spank your rear-end for not doing what you were supposed to do, and your family didn’t get mad if they did.”
Another shared experience was playing cowboys and Indians, said Williams. TV featured lots of Westerns back in the ’50s, and kids got cowboy hats and toy pistols at Christmas. Several of Williams’ old family photos show him and his sister in cowboy outfits.
Today Boogerville exists only in the memories of the people who lived there. That’s why its former residents are holding a reunion 3-9 p.m. next Saturday at the Gallops Center, where organizers hope their old neighbors will bring photographs and anecdotes.
Arambula said computer scanners will be set up to convert hard-copy photographs to a digital format, so they can be preserved and compiled into a book. “That’s what I want to do, is get as many photographs as I can, and get the stories of all these people before we all die, and just preserve it,” she said.
A website featuring family photos has been established at www.boogerville.us, and Arambula, who’s with Snake Nation Press in Valdosta, hopes the images and information collected will make a book. Formerly Jean Williams -- but no relation to Jesse Williams -- she dreams of once more owning property in the place once called Boogerville: the last shotgun house on Virginia Street.
“I would love to buy that house down there, that one house left. I would love to buy that house and put a museum in it,” she said.
She laughed. “I have a lot of dreams,” she added. “But my main goal is to preserve the history.”