Constance Alexander: Marshall County native Gilliard Ross provides vivid images of Murray’s past

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According to the nursery rhyme that begins, “Monday’s child is fair of face,” the baby born on Friday is “loving and giving.”

And while Mother Goose’s predictions have been wrong countless times, she was absolutely right when it came to Gillard Ross, born in Marshall County Ky., nearly one hundred years ago on Friday, April 12, 1918.

Better known to people in Calloway County as Popeye, Mr. Ross moved to Murray when he was five. Over the years, he has become a local treasure. His memories are entertaining and vivid with details, stretching back to the days when there was an opera house downtown.

“They showed silent movies there and there was a lady playing the piano,” he said.

Calloway County Court House

Westerns were his favorite, and Popeye smiles when he explains how the piano tempo accelerated to match the pounding of horses’ hooves.

His recollections of downtown Main Street in the past contrast dramatically with the present. “Streets were dirt and gravel,” he declared.

“The Court House was just like it is today,” Popeye continued, although the Model T Fords and other vehicles of his day have been replaced by pick-up trucks, vans, and sleek sedans.

Popeye does not pause as he names the various buildings that dominated the court square of yesteryear, including Wear’s Drugstore on the north side, with Holland & Hart on the east. Duvall’s, another pharmacy, was on the west side, and he named a few others, including Scott’s Drugs, Jones’s, and Dale & Stubblefield.

When asked why there were so many drugstores, he chuckled. “They sold other things,” he explained, including a little boy’s favorite, ice cream.

The five & ten-cent store was another child’s dream-come-true. “Nothing cost over a dime,” he said.

He also mentioned Hale’s Dry Goods Store, a three-story building with an elevator and a woman who operated it all day for store customers. Hale’s sold necessities, like needles, thimbles and thread, but there were other delights that appealed to children. Chocolate candy was one treasure, and a boy could buy a bag of chocolate pieces for a nickel.

Murray Hospital

The hospital was a major building in Murray, and it occupied the same space it takes up today. “It was huge,” Popeye remembers, mentioning that it had a basement and two floors above that.

Behind it was a kind of zoo, according to Mr. Ross, that included monkeys, buffalo, and all kinds of birds. There were persimmon trees too, and people used them to feed the monkeys sometimes. (I also recall someone telling me, years ago, that there was also a peacock or two.)

Popeye recalls a fire at the hospital, around 1935, he thinks. “It started about daylight and it was right smart below freezing,” he said. He watched as patients were evacuated to safer quarters, including private homes in the neighborhood.

Another memorable historic event occurred in Murray during the Great Depression. As Popeye was walking home from school, he saw big crowds outside the First National Bank. “Has the bank been robbed?” was his first thought.

Later he learned of the Bank holiday, when banks were closed for a “cooling off” period of three days, and nobody could withdraw money until they opened again.

After he married Gretchel Hamrick in 1946, Popeye was a devoted husband and father. Many decades later, as her health deteriorated, he tended to Gretchel’s every need. He was active with the local Alzheimer’s Support Group while she was in the Long-term Care Unit of the Murray-Calloway County Hospital. When she moved to the Spring Creek facility, his dedication never wavered. Even after she died, he continued his regular visits to Spring Creek, chatting with and cheering up residents and staff, earning recognition as Caregiver of the Year. To this day, he is proud of the plaque commemorating this honor.

At 99, Popeye Ross still has stories to tell and memories to share through an oral history project funded by a grant from the Endowment for Healthcare through the Music and Memory Program. For more information about the project, contact Keith Travis at 270-227-0253.

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray, Ky. She can be reached at Calexander9@murraystate.edu. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

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