MODESTO -- In the good old days when Modesto was small in the 1930s when the population was almost 14,000, in the 1940s when it was just over 16,000 and even in the 1960s when it reached more than 36,000 everyone knew exactly where the action was.
It was in busy downtown, where almost everything happened. It had the stores, the movie theaters, most of the grocers, as well as the large hotels.
Downtown was the location of the tobacco businesses that were a big deal during that era. Examples were the 12 cigar and tobacco shops, including the popular Nichol News at 913 10th St. A similar establishment, called Modesto Tobacco, was at 615 H St.
All of the city's banks were downtown, with three on the corners of 10th and I streets. The money business seemed to flourish, even during the town's early years. In the four-year period from 1916 to 1920, there were nine banks, all on 10th Street.
Downtown also had 30 barbers and 14 drugstores, with a few located on 10th Street. There were 12 grocery stores, three of which were Safeways. The Safe-way organization had purchased the Piggly Wiggly Stores owned by the local Laws family. City Market was on 10th Street, Condit Brothers on H, Ayres Market was on 12th and Mellis Brothers had two stores on I Street.
In 1916, J.C. Penney opened its first Modesto store on 10th, and later moved to a new building at 11th and J streets.
Two of Modesto's hospitals were downtown: Robertsons at 12th and J streets, and McPheeters at 10th and L streets. St. Mary's Hospital was on 17th Street; it later became Modesto City Hospital.
The four-story Beaty Building, on J Street between 10th and 11th, was built in 1925 by businessman John "Jack" Beaty.
Originally from Toronto, Beaty came West in 1896 and went into the hotel business, ultimately becoming proprietor of the Lodi Hotel. In 1917, he leased Modesto's six-story, 98-room Hotel Hughson, which had opened just three years earlier.
Beaty's next success was his construction of the Beaty Building located on the opposite side of J Street. Local old-timers will probably remember that the Hughson and Covell hotels were in the same block, facing south on J Street, separated by an alley.
Modesto's Beaty Building became famous for being the state's first building to have electric heat. During its early years, the buidling's tenants included physicians, dentists and a stock broker.
Still standing, the building is now owned by the Reed family.
Meanwhile, in the old days, most of the car dealers were in the downtown area such as Turner Hardware at Ninth and H, which also sold Buicks. F.E. Smith was the dealer for Chevrolets, Hupmobiles and Oldsmobiles at 906 and 920 Ninth St. Later, Frank Helm had the Chevrolet agency at 11th and K, and Bill Silva sold Studebakers on H Street.
For years, the Griswold and Wight Ford agency was at the corner of Ninth and L streets.
So, asked a reader, "When did the stores in downtown Modesto begin to move out?" The answer is in two parts. First answer: when the more than $1 million McHenry Village Shopping Center opened in 1953. Located at 1700 McHenry Ave., it was developed on 35 acres, some of it still surrounded by orchards and vineyards.
Among its openers were Lucky Foods, Sprouse-Reitz, Village Drugs, Village Hardware, Doggie Food Shoppe, Village Trains 'n' Planes and a branch of the Modesto Steam Laundry.
By 1970, the Village had 77 retail establishments such as Joseph Magnin's and Roos/Atkins, a branch of Turner Hardware and several others relocated from downtown.
But the dramatic change in Modesto's retail shopping scene came in March 1977, with the opening of the $75 million regional Vintage Faire Mall just off Highway 99 and Dale Road. During its construction period, it was the subject of considerable controversy. Questions were asked: "Do we need it?" "Do we have to have it?" and "Do we even want it?"
Most of those were probably answered at its grand opening, which drew a crowd of up to 70,000 people, with traffic backed up for miles. The traffic jams continued for days, prompting The Bee's headline "Meet me at the Faire if you can get in."
The mall's success resulted in the downfall of Modesto's downtown, with 18 buildings left vacant. Two of those were anchor stores J.C. Penney and Sears Roebuck, which both relocated to the mall.
Bare is the author of several books about area history and the official historian of the McHenry Mansion. Send comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.