Tales from Shamokin's past: The butcher shop
From The News Item, August 13, 1988. Resubmitted in recognition of Shamokin's 150th anniversary. (Warning: Contains graphic description of slaughtering)
SHAMOKIN - Donna Crone, daughter of Bert and Gladys Crone and granddaughter of Cyrus and Mamie Crone, is now an Elysburg resident with an avid interest in Gettysburg and The Civil War. As a licensed Gettysburg National Military Park Guide with special interest in the citizens of that era, she writes and speaks on stories and events surrounding those who lived through the Civil War. Donna is also a member of Park Watch, a volunteer group that works with The Protection Rangers. (http://www.nps.gov/gett/supportyourpark/volunteer.htm)
The five Rutkoskie kids enjoyed the distinction of living catty-corner from Crone's Butcher Shop in the western section of Coal Township.
The tempting array of fresh meats and groceries in the butcher shop/grocer's gave little indication of the engrossing activities taking place just beyond the swinging door. The butchering area had walls of brick and cement floors, and was frequently hosed down by men in glistening black rubber boots.
We all knew that Cy Crone was the Big Boss. He always had a broom ready to shoo out the neighborhood kids, or a hose to squirt at them. A white-haired old man with a twinkle in his eyes, Cy loved to play tough with the kids, who tried their best to outsmart him. Step by step, they'd sneak up on him, then run screaming, having narrowly escaped a swat from the broom or a chilly shower! Cy, also called "Pappy Crone," and his son Bert both cherished fat cigars, but more often their cheeks bulged with juicy tobacco. Most of the clerks at Crone's were friendly men who treated kids like real people.
Like many other families, we bought groceries "on tick" at Crone's, paying on the bill every payday. Our mom's store orders were usually quite explicit. She'd drill the unfortunate errand-runner with instructions: "Seven chops if they're big, 10 if they're small, and only get them if they're real nice and not fat." If they didn't suit her, the embarrassed young shopper was sent back to exchange them. Other frequently purchased items were 15 cents worth of minced ham for lunches and 35 cents worth of boiling beef, which made enough soup or pot-pie for the seven of us.
There was no way to avoid this important task. Starting at pre-school age, she'd "cross" a child at the corner. The little one would hand over the list to the clerk and then return to the corner with a loaf of bread, a quart of milk or whatever was needed that day and stand by the telephone pole bellowing, "Mommy, come cross me!"
Besides our daily bread, Crone's provided the best free entertainment in town. The arrival of the cattle truck summoned the neighborhood boys and girls to the shop. The double barn doors were swung out and the inner door of the cattle room opened wise. The truck's tail gate became a wide ramp, the passageway to fame for some of the meanest, meatiest steers in Northumberland County.
After cautioning the watchers to stand back, Bert climbed into the truck, chewing on his cigar, and fastened a bull-rope through the ring in a steer's nose. The rope tying the steer to the sideboards of the truck was loosened and the show began.
Pushing and pulling, the sweating men guided the frightened animal down the ramp and into the stock room. Once in a while an angry steer would make a successful dash for freedom. Three or four surrogate cowboys would run after it, trying to recapture the steer before a tragedy could occur. The audience of wide-eyed boys and girls loved every minute of the unloading, and a runaway steer added thrills of delight to the show.
When I was about six, I was leading my little sister Carol by the hand to Whitey Levan's store (later Gib and Maisie Smith's) down around the corner of First Street, where we would buy candy pies, licorice pipes, watermelon slices and other penny candies. Halfway down the block, a terrified woman ran out of her yard, caught hold of two startled girls, and yanked us into her yard just as an escaped steer galloped down the sidewalk.
The fascination of butchering days drew many neighborhood children to cling to the bottom halves of the double barn doors, accompanied by a swarm of hungry flies expecting a handout. We followed intently every move of the laboring men.
Bert Crone, in undershirt, workpants and rubber boots, was the headline actor in the drama, but the chosen steer was the real star. With one end of the bull rope in its nose-ring, the other threaded through an iron ring in the floor, the doomed animal, reluctantly dragging its feet, would be pulled forward inch by inch until it was drawn down to the floor by the taut rope, and its eyes rolled in fright. Some steers were real fighters, treading from side to side, making a more difficult target.
As I reminisce on the scene, I don't think I could endure watching it today, but back then, it was part of my life and the other kids and I were happy to stand there gawking. (Did I mention that Crone's bologna was the best you could buy anywhere, and their meats were of the highest quality?)
Bert had his 22 ready, and carefully aimed at the steer's head. Usually, the huge animal fell on the first shot, then lay there jerking and kicking. Bert would lift a sledge hammer high in the air and bring it down on top of the steer's head. A few last kicks from the steer, then with a collective sigh, the watchers on the doors resumed their normal breathing. The long tongue hanging out between the dead steer's teeth was evidence the perilous task was done.
To watch them gutting the dead animal, now hung on metal hooks, made our stomachs churn slightly, but only until the butchers had kicked the slippery heap aside with their heavy boots. The next act was the skinning, swiftly accomplished by the experienced butchers. The skin was then unceremoniously dragged over and spread out right inside the doors, the flies buzzing loudly in their hurry to keep up.
There, before our fascinated eyes, the skin of the slaughtered steer would twitch for many minutes, while its former owner was pulled along an overhead track to a cooler awaiting future dissection. The following day, the truly dedicated fans would again hang on the doors to watch the men meticulously scrape and clean tubs full of casings for the new batches of sausages and hot dogs.
A sickening, but sought-after sight among the youthful thrill-seekers, was the occasional glimpse of gouged-out eyeballs. One day a brave boy coaxed the butchers for an eye. We squealed in distaste when the butcher actually handed over the door a staring eyeball on a cardboard meat tray.
Hogs were slaughtered at Crone's, too, brought two at a time, stuffed into the back of a pickup truck. The hogs were just as ornery as the steers, but seemed too fat to do much about it. There was plenty of time to gawk at them as they lolled in the truck parked on our side of Water Street, waiting their appointed time.
A butcher shop - what an unlikely spot to have given us fond memories. But its influence even reached into our playtime, as my brother Ted showed us how he made an intricate little clay steer, filled with clay hamburgers, steaks, Crone's famous ring bologna, minced ham and hot dogs.
Our daily lives were touched by the friendliness and teasing of Cy and Bert Crone and the men who worked for them; by their patience with our enthusiasm for their work. They were the stars of Water Street, performing weekly for the wide-eyed audience of door-hangers just outside of their cement-floor theater.
The old butcher shop still stands at the corner of Owl and Water streets. To us Rutkoskie kids and our pals, it still rings with the clatter of hooves coming down the ramp from the big slat-side truck. The shouts of the children can still be heard echoing in the street. . . . . "Crone's truck is here, come on! They're getting cows!" "Come on, Pat! Audrey, Carol! Hurry up, Teddy, let's go watch 'em!" "Crone's are getting cows again!"