BYGONES & OBSOLETE STORIES: Merchants & Farmers …by Clark Phelps

My dad, like many people in 1911, was born at home in his parents apartment, without the assistance of medical professionals. My grandmother Phelps lived in that apartment above their store from the time it was built in 1906 until she couldn’t handle the stairs. My father was raised in the small apartment on Midvale’s Main Street, and was saved from farm labor and yardwork until he was a young married man with children when he bought a home.

My mother, and her four sisters grew up on a farm in Murray. Their father, Fred Bird, was of the belief that young women should not be involved in active farmwork. Farm work was for men, boys, mules and horses. He was blessed with five daughters and no surviving sons.

With Grandma Phelps on Main St. Midvale 

When I was growing up, my Grandma Phelps [Marie] lived in a small apartment above the flower shop on Midvale’s Main Street. My grandfather Howard Phelps had drifted into Midvale in 1903 and set up a confectionery, cigar stand, and soda fountain on Main Street when the town was known as Bingham Junction. He married Marie Stokes from Draper in 1905. The small frame building burned down and 1906, and he set about to build the two-story building that stands there today.

On the ground floor he and my grandmother opened up a classic soda fountain with showcases of cigars, a variety of notions and a flower shop. In the same building on ground-level they had a much smaller storefront that was rented out through the years as a small office. For a long time, Ben Bagley, who later became the Midvale City attorney, and father of our mayor JoAnn Seghini, rented the small space as his lawyers office. Upstairs were two modest apartments. My grandparents lived on one side [circled in the 2nd photograph below] from 1906 ’till the mid 60s. My father was born in the apartment. It was small and smelled like grandmas pot roast. They never had a car but the floral shop had a Model T delivery truck. Grandma never learned to drive.

As a kid, when I went to visit grandma, it was in her upstairs apartment on Main St., Midvale. I don’t remember her as being friendly. The photograph below shows my brother and sister [Fred and Bonnie] with some apprehension as my grandmother has her arms about them. I knew her to be decent and hard-working, but not very warm. She was an award-winning and talented flower arranger. She put that skill to use as the largest florist in the south end of the valley for many years. One of the fun things about her apartment was to watch the parades from her second story balcony. She had her choice of three grocery stores: PC Rasmussen’s, Berns, and OP Skaggs. She preferred “Cy” Rasmussen at PCs. She sent me around Midvale to do her errands. Those were the days when you paid your telephone bill at the Telephone office, the fuel bill at Mountain Fuel’s office, the water bill at City Hall, and the electric bill at the Utah Power and Light building. No stamps needed. She liked to watch staged wrestling matches on TV.  She had a roll of white butcher paper and would roll out a few feet and hand me a box of crayons to keep me busy and out of her hair.

When Norval Vincent built his drugstore just north of my grandparents’ he put in a first class soda fountain. I was told more than once, by old-timers, that the Vincent Drug soda fountain did a better job than my grandparents’. So it wasn’t too long after, that my grandparents’ soda fountain succumbed to superior competition. They took the empty space to expand their successful and ever growing floral shop. My grandmother sold it to Gene Millerberg who changed the name from Phelps Floral to Gene’s Floral. Later Harry Zabriskie ran it for years.

My father Gene Phelps built a pool hall a block north of the flower shop on Main Street in 1944. In the back of the pool hall was an active discrete poker room with four large round sturdy card tables. Our family has always been around gaming. All my siblings know their way around a deck of cards.  In 1950, the year I was born, he built another building as Amusement Sales, the spot my shop now occupies.

I moved from Midvale to Salt Lake City in 1966 and have lived in the historic Avenues District since 1969. I still have my warehouse on Main Street, Midvale and have been kicking around that street all my life.

It saddens me when I see 5 buildings burn down, 2 buildings collapse due to heavy snow, and just recently, the plundering of the most iconic old building: Vincent Drug. I’m concerned that the old Walker Bank building, with it’s unauthorized basement remodeling, will be condemned. It was bad enough that Main Street lost its old town feel in the 70s as the natural result of modern times, but it’s painful when the buildings are razed by fire, collapsed, or ravaged.



As a child, often we would have Christmas dinner at grandma and grandpa Birds. We lovingly called their house the aviary because it was home of Bird family, Fred and Florence Bird and their five daughters. My mother’s maiden name was Virginia Bird. Grandpa built 2 modest homes with some of the money from the sale of their farm on 5900 South and about 400 West. The youngest daughter, Lyle Bird Johnson, lived next-door in the matching house with different colored brick.

Around noon the extended family would crowd into Grandpa’s 850 sq. ft. one bedroom home. The double bed would be stacked with 2 feet of overcoats. Good chairs were at a premium. The kids sat on the floor until dinner and were relegated to flimsy card tables. Aunt Vera brought her famous beans, Aunt Ione [Onnie] brought the purple Jell-O fruit salad with walnuts and a spot of mayonnaise. Aunt Lois contributed her scalloped potatoes, Aunt Lyle brought her savory green beans, and my mother, not wanting to cook, brought cans of olives, canned cranberry sauce and punchboard chocolates.

Fred and Florence had bought their farm in Murray in the 1920s, just before the depression. They had recently lost their failed homestead in northwestern Utah. The homestead was doomed to fail. Lack of water and the elevation of 6500 feet made profits impossible. Even today, a hundred years later, the area shows no real productive purpose other than fresh desert air and 6 foot sagebrush. The default of ranging cattle also proved unprofitable. Grandpa was more of a bronc buster cowboy and horseman than he was a farmer but did use his talents to hitch up a team of horses to plow his new farm. He grew sugar beets and potatoes. He replaced his team of horses as needed but they were always named Bing and Chub. A new Bing replaced the old Bing through a series of plow horses. And when the horse on the right named Chub would lose his usefulness, he would be replaced by yet another Chub. Grandpa was simple that way. The farm also had chickens in a coop, rabbits in a hutch, and a dairy cow. They never wanted for potatoes, milk, eggs, or the protein of chickens and rabbits. They were poor during the depression but never hungry. They shared their farm food with relatives, and bartered it for other essentials. Grandpa would get odd jobs as a teamster driving a water truck, or a horse drawn back hoe. He knew horses, and as such, he was a profitable horse trader. During the depression they always lived with the threat of losing their farm to the mortgage. The New Deal brought them relief and they were staunch Democrats for the rest of their lives.

Christmas day in the small house was crowded. There was a shortage of seating. There were three card tables designated for kids. As we kids grew up, we would often dine elsewhere and just show up for an after-dinner visit. It was the typical Christmas menu. There were no surprises. The TV in the corner droned on with a football game. If there were any surprises, it was how drunk a couple of uncles would get, and the reactions by the aunts to restrict the consumption.

Aunt Ione married a full-blooded Choctaw Indian: Uncle Perry. He was a college graduate and worked for the government on oil shale retraction. They moved around and lived in Murray, Rifle, Colorado, Colorado Springs, and Novato, California. He was an alcoholic, and often, when he got drunk, he got in trouble. Sometimes he would inadvertently terrify us kids when he would break into an Indian war dance. He would place two fingers behind his head representing feathers and war hoop and dance wildly. He was drunk and our imaginations as children could imagine it was only a matter of time before he brought out his scalping knife. He would beg for his car keys as the adults conspired to hide them them and keep him from driving. It did not always work and sometimes, many hours later, the other uncles, including my dad, would set out on the task of bailing him out of jail in Vernal or Provo or Brigham City. The next day he was cleaned up and went to his government job in a freshly ironed suit.

Fred and Florence Bird.

Uncle Bubs, or so we called him, was a hard-working laborer. He had a history of working in coal mines, cement work, and for the longest time he worked at the flour mill, which is now the famous tourist trap in West Jordan, Gardner’s Mill. We could count on Bubs to get drunk but he was more docile than uncle Perry, the Indian. Bubs would just get comfortable in the Barcalounger, pull out and play his harmonica to compete with the drone of the TV. As a nostalgic adult I was moved to tears when he would play Old Folks at Home on the harmonica. He was my cousin Alex’s father. Alex and I were nearly the same age. My mother would often take me over to Alex’s house for Aunt Lois to babysit me as my mother went on to live her life. My mother liked the idea of being a mother, but she did not like the activity. As a guest in their house I saw Bubs and my Aunt Lois fight often. Bubs could drink until he would pass out. He would drive in a blackout, slow, conscientious and never had a driving problem. He maintained his drivers license until his death.

The Christmas story I really want to tell is that, after dinner was cleaned up and the dishes put away, the dining table was transformed into a poker table. It was a right of passage to be invited to play at the Christmas poker table. I was taught to play poker by my brother Kendall at seven years old but still did not get the coveted invitation to play Christmas poker until I was 13. The table was cluttered with cigarette packs, half full ashtrays, boxed stick matches, a deck of cards, poker chips, whiskey glasses, beer bottles, and a fifth of Jim Beam just off center near the poker pot. It was touted as a penny-ante game.

I had the illusion that I was good at cards. The illusion still persists today, regardless of the fact that I have lost many games. At my premiere appearance at grandmas poker table I was somewhat nervous but, unlike others, completely sober, which might have aggravated my nervousness. Their ability to be old enough to drink and the fact that it was a small change game kept them cool and the banter light. I was serious. I wanted to win and to prove myself. Grandma Bird sat at the far west end of the table which was understood as the head of the table. She was the only woman in the game.

I was coy in my poker play. I folded the first three or four hands as I didn’t draw any cards. Finally – holding two pair – I bet modestly, only to lose to grandma’s three of a kind. Again I went back to my strategy of folding early if I didn’t get cards. When I did bet it only signaled that I had a hand and so I was only able to win small pots as others folded out. Once, I strategized to bluff during a poker session and on that day my bluff was called and I lost half of my stake. After an hour I was down $15, which I did not think was possible in this penny-ante game. $15 was enough to sting. I sheepishly excused myself and noticed that grandma had most of the chips. The uncles had killed the Jim Beam. The air was blue with cigarette smoke as I walked away a loser in my own family’s game of poker.

Clark Phelps lives in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Click Here to Read Clark’s Previous Installment of “Bygones & Obsolete Stories…”

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