Ken Ponton Remembers the 1946 Departmental School Fire

Contributing Author: Ken Ponton

My parents, Earl and Florence Ponton, and my brother, Ron and I lived on the E-Z Way Bumps Road in Limestone from the early 1940s until we grew up and moved out. Dad and Mom continued to live there for the remainder of their lives.

In early February of 1946, Dad noticed a large column of black smoke rising from somewhere in Kankakee. We got into the family car and started into town to see what was burning. At that time, the Court Street Bridge had not been built and the only bridge into town from Limestone was the Station Street Bridge. We took Station Street as far as we could before being stopped just east of Schuyler Avenue by fire trucks blocking the street.

The Departmental School was on fire and burning completely out of control. We parked and walked as close as we were permitted. I will never forget the heat, crackling sounds of breaking glass, and the huge crowds drawn, just as we were, to the fire.

The Departmental School burning in 1946; the school was a forty-four year old structure that was originally built as the Kankakee Senior High School (photos from the archives of the Kankakee County Museum).

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Grocery Stores in Kankakee – Ken Ponton’s 1950s Memories

Contributing Author: Ken Ponton

In the earlier days of Kankakee County, grocery stores did not exist. When Rivard Grocery Store opened in Bourbonnais, and shortly thereafter Erzingers in  Kankakee, and then The Big Bear on East Court Street, a good selection for grocery shopping became available. My mother worked part-time at Erzingers for several years. Erzingers later became The Fair Store, then Carson Pirie Scott, followed by The Kankakee Antique Mall, and finally a parking lot.

I worked at The Big Bear in the produce section and as a bagger in the late 1950s. One of my more disgusting jobs was making up 10 pound bags of potatoes from 100 pounds. Many rotten potatoes were in the big bags, and I was instructed to put them in the middle of the 10 pound bags so they would not show! But the smell was terrible!

The checkout lanes were all manual up to the time Wilson Christensen built a large grocery store at the northeast corner of Curtis and Jeffrey. It had the first automated check outs.

Wilson had a son, Johnnie, who was a neighbor and friend I spent lots of time with. Johnnie had a new motor scooter he would ride around and stop by our place. One day he let me ride it down the E-Z Way Bumps Road. I only got about a half mile down the road and crashed it. I spent several days at St. Mary’s with a bad concussion and many cuts.

Stores like WalMart, Target, and others are serious competition… I have great memories of early shopping and working in Kankakee. It was hard work but left me with experiences I will never forget.

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Erzinger Brothers Grocery Store exterior, located at 242 South East Avenue, Kankakee (from the archives of the Kankakee County Museum).