Opening of shopping plaza cause for celebration in 1960

By East Benton County Historical Society

When the Golden Arches of McDonald’s first emblazoned across the skylines of Othello and Prosser, the glow dazzled the rural communities with pride and a turnout of civic and elected leaders sharing a first McDonald’s breakfast in their towns.

What occurred in those communities and what occurred in Kennewick 60 years ago this month were more than events.

They were “happenings” — events that excited their communities with the promise of new ways of shopping and of eating.

In Kennewick, Nov. 10, 1960, was a happening day. Midtown Plaza at the corner of Fourth Avenue and Vancouver Street made its debut with a Gene and Jules supermarket on one end and Ray’s Drug and Hardware on the other.

Hundreds descended on the neighborhood to experience the one-stop shopping center.

Six decades later, the neon “Midtown Plaza” sign is an iconic fixture. In 1960, it beamed life to a  neighborhood night sky and welcomed daytime shoppers with its broad-shoulder look.

A festive atmosphere that first weekend filled the market with beaming faces and greetings among friends and strangers negotiating the aisles, which were brimming with well-stocked shelves.

The wide interior opening connected Gene and Jules with Ray’s Drug and Hardware. It was the perfect spot to record shopper observations for a live remote radio broadcast.

Jack and Jean’s Oven Fresh Bakery was another prominent tenant.

It extended gaiety and pleasantries with aromatic pastries, doughnuts and friendly service by Jack and Jean and their employees, like the warm-hearted brunette with a beaming smile, Judy Fogelman.

Midtown Plaza broke ground for one-stop shopping in Kennewick. It replaced a large white home that was set back on what was then an expansive piece of land.

The plaza also offered a furniture store, barber shop, dry cleaners and a laundromat. Today there is a gas station and convenient store at the corner but it is a latecomer. In 1960, the parking lot was filled during peak shopping hours.

Midtown Plaza was the brainchild of Gene Wright and Jules Howard, enterprising Pasco businessmen.

The partners owned two successful stores in Pasco, the Eastside Market and the Westside Market.

On that November 1960 Thursday, Wright and Howard expanded their “customer-is-always-right” philosophy into a Kennewick neighborhood and brought a new air of excitement to grocery shopping in Kennewick, a town of about 14,000.

At the time, residents could shop at Sherman’s and the Campbell’s markets and Safeway in its original downtown Kennewick spot at Auburn Street and Second Avenue.

There were no Albertsons, WinCo Foods or Fred Meyer.

There were no “marts”— Wal- or K- or otherwise.

The land covered by Columbia Center mall was a sagebrush-covered sanctuary for coyotes and jackrabbits. The General Mills grain elevator on today’s Clearwater Avenue was Kennewick’s unofficial western border.

Hustling and bustling on that first day after school were the original seven box boys selected  from Kennewick’s lone high school at the time: seniors Mike Grady, Florian Kuffel, Dick Ward, Jeff Robinson and Gary Evans, and Kennewick High juniors John McCracken and Gale Metcalf.

The box boys wore white shirts and ties under clean white aprons. They called out “coming” and sprinted to calls for “customer service.”

Monte Jensen supervised the teens. Night managers were Bill Sarver, Harley Trapp, Jim Donahue and George Rawlings.

Roy Nelson, former owner of Nelson’s Market, greeted shoppers as the first manager. His No. 2, Jiggs Meyers, was an efficient, confident and friendly charmer of customers who gave them every courtesy.

Barcodes and scanners were decades away. Prices were stamped in ink and tallied on registers by the capable fingers of checkers like Jean Wright, Faye Foster, Amy Hampton, Bonnie Dietrich and a dark-haired checker named Opal.

Even the money was different.

Coins now sought for collections, like the so-called 1943 “lead penny” and buffalo head nickels minted from 1913-38 commonly circulated in the new Gene and Jules.

Silver certificates were still the paper exchange, not Federal Reserve notes.

Produce manager Dale Howard had customers awed by the beauty of his displays and the freshness of his fruits and vegetables.

Meat manager M.E. “Smitty” Smith was excellent on his cuts and in his knowledge of meats he willingly shared.

Frequently supplying Nalley products was Al Robinson, who would become a Little League icon in Kennewick. Al Robinson Park, a home of National Little League baseball across from Westgate Elementary School, is named for him.

That first weekend was a hotbed of activity for Wright and Howard not only for the explosive, exciting business they opened, but because the following day, Nov. 11,  was Veterans Day.

It featured the traditional homecoming for Kennewick and Pasco high schools, and their season-ending football rivalry dating back to when the holiday was known as Armistice Day celebrating the end of World War I. Wright and Howard annually sponsored the Wright-Howard trophy awarded the winner to showcase for a year.

On Nov. 11, 1960, as their namesake store bustled with shoppers, the business partners were at the Lion’s Den presenting the Wright-Howard trophy to Kennewick for its 7-0 win.

This essay made possible by the Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation.

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