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Pinellas County
Resident recalls Largo of yesteryear
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Photo by LESTER R. DAILEY
Joyce Meinsen recalls going to a Quonset hut movie theater decades ago where on Saturdays a kid could get a whole afternoon of entertainment for 25 cents.
LARGO – Although she was born in Hartford, Ala., in 1944, Joyce Meinsen (nee Grant) considers Largo her hometown. Her father worked for the Indian Rocks Nursery and the family lived in a small, company-owned house. But when it was time to give birth to Joyce and her brother, their mother went back to her mother’s house in Alabama.

In 1948, the family bought its own home in Roosevelt Groves, behind present-day Largo High School. In 1950, Joyce was enrolled in what was called the Largo School.

“It was the whole school system, grades one through 12, and there was a basement in one part that had the cafeteria,” she said. “When kids went to school back then, they walked in groups. There was no such thing as a school bus for us, although they may have bused kids in from the beaches.”

More than a half-century later, she still remembers the name of her grade school principal, Bentley Lawson; the assistant principal, Nick Mangum; the school librarian, Mrs. Delac; and the teachers: Mrs. Houseman, Mrs. Rosseall. Mrs. Hennesy and Mrs. Harrell.

In third grade, she was transferred to the new Mildred Helms Elementary School, which only had two wings then. The third wing was added later. The kids would hurry home from school in hopes of reaching the railroad station in time to see the regularly scheduled train snag a mail bag from the station as it roared through.

While the new high school was being built, the School Board rented the Largo auditorium and divided it into four sections for four seventh-grade teachers. When the new high school opened, the former grades one through 12 Largo School became the middle school.

Going to the new high school near her home was great for Joyce. On hot days, against her parents’ orders, she and some other girls would bring their bathing suits to school and take an after-school dip in the nearby pond. But she had to hurry home and dry her hair before her parents got home and discovered that she had been swimming.

In those days, downtown Largo was a bustling hub of commerce, with plenty of things for a youngster to do.

The north side of West Bay Drive had a Pure Oil station, a Super X grocery and meat market, a Western Auto store, a dime store, two drug stores with soda fountains, a clothing store, a barber shop and the West Coast Garage. Best of all, there was a Quonset hut movie theater where, on Saturdays, a kid could get a whole afternoon of entertainment for 25 cents.

“Usually they would have a cowboy movie, an adventure movie, a serial and, of course, cartoons,” Meinsen said. “We went in at noontime and got out around four o’clock. It was time to have supper.”

On the south side of West Bay Drive were Happy’s Liquor Store; the Idle Hour Bar, where kids could peek through the screen door to see who was inside; an arcade with a shoe repair shop and a doctor’s office; the Gator Bar, which once had a song written about it; and a hardware store. There was a little shelter near Ulmer Park where the bus stopped.

“When I got into high school, a group of us would ride the bus to Clearwater Beach to swim,” Meinsen recalled.

Ulmer Park had a shuffleboard court and a bandstand where concerts were held. At Christmas, Santa handed out candy, and there were sometimes Easter and Halloween events.

Meinsen described the original police station as being “the size of a good-sized bathroom, with just enough room for a desk and a phone.” But that phone rarely rang because anyone who had a problem would call the police chief at home and let him handle it.

“It wasn’t unusual for the older boys to pick up the police station at Halloween and hide it,” Meinsen said.

Every year, usually toward the end of February, the county fair was held on the fairgrounds, where Largo Central Park and the library are now located.

“It was the old-fashioned kind of fair, with animals on display, rides, games, food and a few sideshows,” Meinsen said. “There was a metal building where women displayed their jams, quilts and things, and where businesses displayed their wares and gave out samples. You always came back with a bagful of things, and there was always a drawing where you could win even more things.”

After graduating from Largo High School in 1962, Meinsen married and lived in Texas and Oklahoma. But when her husband was killed in an automobile accident in 1963, she returned to Largo. She remarried in 1965 and is the mother of three sons, one of whom died 14 years ago.

She plans to spend the rest of her life in Largo.

“When I came back, I said I’d never move away again,” she said. “And I haven’t.”

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