Thursday, May 22, 2008

Saying So Long to the Mayor of Main Street

Wednesday evening, as gusty spring winds swept Elkton, I attended Tony Trotta’s viewing at Hicks Funeral Home. Born four years before young men from Cecil County marched off to fight in World War I, the popular 95-year-old passed away Monday. Later that night as I drove past his place on Main Street, the shop was dark except for two light bulbs softly illuminating a mirror, the chair in the big window where he sat waving at passersby was empty, the red and white barber pole wasn't revolving, and the closed sign informed everyone that the barber would not be in again. As I gazed out my car window on this unseasonably cool late May evening a few sprinkles feel on the quiet street that had bustled with activity for much of Tony’s life, and my mind wondered over nearly a century’s worth of town history.

Tony started cutting hair at this location during the dark days of the Great Depression, when he first came to work for his future father-in-law, Anthony Williams. In time, the 23-year old married the owner’s daughter, Jessie, and took over the business. It was the place to get your hair cut in the county seat and the Elkton shop owner had a regular clientele of judges, lawyers, courthouse regulars, businessmen and everyday people. As the decades passed quickly by in this old-fashioned shop, his customers grew old with him and retirees beginning spending hours hanging out, swapping stories, and playing the banjo. Often strangers walking down the street back in the 1970s and '80s were startled as they looked into the window of the shop to see two or three people playing guitars or plucking a banjo.

At age 90 he was still working six days a week, but as he grew older he gradually cut back, while the retirees started slowly disappearing as many of them passed away. But you would still see him sitting in his window waving to passers-by while people stopped in for a quick chat. Even in his ninth decade you would see him around town, out for a stroll with his dog, enjoying a meal at a restaurant, or sitting on one of the park benches. The last time we talked, probably a month or so ago, his mind was as sharp as ever, never forgetting a name or elements of events from a long time ago.

I always enjoyed my chance meetings with the 95-year-old and his daughter, Patty, for those visits were filled with decades of local history. His stories were about Elkton’s heyday, the marriage racket, World War II, big fires on Main Street, lively small town personalities, a bustling downtown, and much more. In fact anytime someone wanted information on Elkton’s 20th century history, we’d send them down to see Tony. Afer all he was born when Howard Taft was in the White House. If they were early enough (he opened at 5:00 a.m.), they would find him in his window. They always came back pleased with the keen insights, as well as the hospitality he provided. Through that very same window since 1935, in a quaint shop that didn't change, Tony watched Main Street change and history march along, as young men went off to war, couples came here for quick marriages, and the era of shopping centers and Internet retailing fueled the decline of main streets across the nation.

They laid Tony to rest today and as I pass by those three empty old-time chairs and the shop with the sign saying closed, I know the barber will never be in again at 118 E. Main Street. Although I’ll miss the chance to pop in for a few minutes to talk with him or to simply wave as I rush by, my knowledge of the 20th century is much greater for having had the privilege to hear so many of Tony's wonderful recollections.

The Mayor of Main Street has passed away. His friendly greetings, conversation and keen memories provided us with connections to the town's past. He will be missed.

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