GREENVILLE — Former President William Howard Taft dedicated the Lincoln Memorial and the fledgling Soviet Union was formed following the murder of Tsar Nicholas II and his family at the hands of Bolshevik revolutionaries.
The year was 1922 and in the relative tranquility of Greenville, for reasons likely to remain forever unknown, several copies of one of the city’s newspapers, The Daily Call, were set aside for posterity.
Flash forward 40 years. The world inches toward the brink of nuclear annihilation as the USSR and United States stand toe-to-toe during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Marilyn Monroe is found dead in a hotel room, the victim of an overdose of sleeping pills, and the first Wal-Mart opens in Arkansas.
And in Greenville, a contractor was getting ready to lay new linoleum in a second-floor apartment at 100 W. Cass St. But before he did, the installer pulled up several loose floorboards and placed those few copies of The Daily Call, already decades old, between the joists. Editions of Greenville’s current paper, The Daily News, also were stacked there, along with newspapers from Grand Rapids and Detroit.
Boards were replaced, linoleum laid, an unremembered contractor’s impromptu time capsule sealed.
Fifty years pass. President John F. Kennedy is assassinated, as are Martin Luther King and John’s younger brother, Bobby. The Beatles, the Stones and Dylan write the soundtrack of a generation. Iran takes America hostage. Former B-movie actor Ronald Reagan enters the White House. The Soviet Union shudders and falls beneath the insupportable weight of its own corrupt bureaucracy. War in Iran. War in Iraq. Presidents come and go.
Present day: In Greenville, Raven and Ricky Baldwin began the renovation of a recently rented ramshackle apartment on the second floor of 100 W. Cass St.
“The apartment was kind of disgusting when we moved in,” Raven says. “We decided to remodel and when we tore up the linoleum you could see the loose floorboards and the newspapers under them, some from the ’20s and earlier.
“As far as I know, they served no purpose. Ricky and I thought they might be for insulation, but there weren’t enough of them. They weren’t there for anything practical, as far as we could see.”
As a time capsule, however, the papers serve a purpose. A Dec. 20, 1962, copy of The Daily News provides editorial insight into the Cuban Missile Crisis, along with news of a decidedly more local flavor, one item of which reads: “Mrs. Wayne Westervelt and Barbara and Mrs. John Buskley and Lee Ann visited her mother in Muskegon.”
Highfield Drug Store — Greenville’s “first” drug store for 38 years — advertised several last minute Christmas stocking stuffers, including Timex watches, ash trays, cigars, pipe racks and tobacco pouches.
Further back, The Daily Call’s Oct. 5, 1922, issue announced performances scheduled at Silver’s Theater — Elaine Hammerstein in “Handcuffs & Kisses” and the Blackallers Stock Company’s production of “The Country Boy.” Admission is 35 cents.
A front page Highfield Drug Store advertisement extolls the virtues of Venida Hair Nets, “When you mention VENIDA, you are mentioning the best. 2 for 25 cents.”
That same issue promises Chamberlain’s Tablets will cure your “muddy” complexion — ostensibly caused by a bad liver — but only if you also “avoid meats, hot bread and hot cakes, take frequent baths and a long walk every day.” Follow these guidelines, the ad assures, and you will soon “be well and as beautiful as ever.”
As interesting as these glimpses into the past may be, the newspapers are not the only fascinating detritus uncovered by the Baldwin’s during the apartment’s renovation.
“There were a few holes in the wall and we found pieces of cardboard with writing on them,” Raven says. “Somebody had written notes, then put them in the wall before putting up the wallboard.”
Unfortunately, the writing has faded to the point where the notes are no longer legible to the naked eye. That’s not the case with a receipt book, however, that Raven and Ricky also recovered from the building’s abandoned top floor.
“The receipt book is from the gentlemen’s club,” Raven says. “The upstairs used to be a brothel, way back when. The notebook filled with receipts was upstairs in a pile of debris.”
“I went through the book and could only find a few names that are still familiar, that I recognized.” Ricky added.
Much of the upstairs is unusable as a result of fires that have taken place there over the years; this includes one room the size of a small warehouse.
Glen Powell, who along with partner Tom Feeney, owns the building, concurred that the structure once housed a brothel.
“We bought the place in 2001,” Powell says. “But we had no idea those old papers were up there. I know we’re in the historic district and I’d heard about the brothel being upstairs. The second floor has doors all over the place, like there were a lot of very little rooms. The third floor was the men’s club; they had the stage area up there.”
Two of the four second-floor apartments have already been fully renovated; the other two are still works in progress.
Over the decades, the top floor has been used by outgoing tenants to dispose of unwanted items. Though Powell and Feeney have done their best to clear out much of the detritus, much remains.
“I doubt there’s anything of value still up there,” Powell says. “We clean it out every so often, but we don’t really want people living up there. It would have to be completely renovated before that could happen.”
If that ever does happen, maybe 90 years or more from now, who knows what history may be unearthed? Perhaps, buried beneath the crumbling plaster and sun-faded wallpaper, a wealth of mildewed enlightenment and papyrus-yellowed news may lie; some from as long ago as the “golden age” of 2012.