The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Tornado: Columns

August 6, 2011

Wally Kennedy: Southtown Sporting Goods down, but not out

JOPLIN, Mo. — There are a handful of places in Joplin that are original to this city. They were built from the ground up by hardworking families. One of them is Southtown Sporting Goods, 3030 S. Main St.

The May 22 tornado knocked the wind out of Southtown. It’s down, but it’s not out. An effort is afoot to rebuild the store.

John Butler, the owner, said, “I am going to retire, but not the way I wanted to — thanks to the tornado. My store manager, Richard Ramsey, is going to build a new store on the same property. It’s just going to take a while.’’

I have had a lot of inquiries from readers wanting to know about the status of Southtown. After the initial inquiry about the store, they invariably ask: “What happened to the fish?’’

The fish was a big old bass that stood on its tail outside of the store for more than 45 years. It was a landmark on South Main. I asked Butler about the fish. He said, “I thought the right thing to do was to give it back to them (the Aggus family).’’

The Aggus family operated Southtown from 1956 to 2001, when Butler took over.

Dee Aggus, daughter-in-law of the founder, Pete Aggus, said, “The fish is back home. He took a beating, but we are going to get him fixed and get him standing on his tail again. We’re going to take it down to the lake house on Grand Lake.

“I can just imagine that people will be pulling up in their boats with their minnow buckets, saying: ‘We need some bait,’’’ she said, with a sweet laugh. “His frame needs to be reworked, but we can save it.’’

The story of the Aggus family and Southtown is an American classic. It began in 1956 when Pete Aggus was working at his dry-cleaning business at 30th and Main streets. Across the street was a small bait shop owned by an elderly man. Aggus thought it might be fun to own a bait shop. He asked the man how much he would take for his business. The man said he would sell it for $500.

Steve Aggus tells this story: “Dad loved to fish. The cleaning business had gone sour and he sat there and looked at that bait shop. He thought it would be a lot of fun to make your living at something you enjoy.

“The old man did not have $250 worth of inventory. He had some hooks, sinkers, bobbers and bait. Dad approached Frank Baldwin, who owned Consumer’s Market, and asked him if he wanted to go in with him at $250 apiece to buy the bait shop.

“Baldwin said he would. Then, Dad asked him if he could borrow $250 because he didn’t have it. Baldwin loaned him the $250. That’s how it started.’’

In time, the bait shop would be moved to a two-bay garage down the street that Aggus rented. Baldwin was eventually bought out. Aggus left the cleaning business because he could see more of a future in sporting goods. At the time, America was changing. Young men had come home from World War II. They had more leisure time. A lot of new products were entering the market.

To get the word out about his business, Aggus bought time on the Johnny Holmes Sports Show on local television.

“He bought the show on Thursdays. It was a live show and it was wild. Anything could happen,’’ Steve Aggus said. “It was an expensive thing to do for a business trying to make a go of it. It was a huge drain financially. It was an uphill battle. He took his banker fishing every week.’’

Aggus said Holmes came up with the expression: “For Pete’s sake, let’s go fishing.”

“That’s because Pete was broke,’’ Aggus said. “Their other expression was: ‘Come to where the big bass stands on its tail.’”

When Baldwin moved Consumer’s to 31st and Main streets, which is now the post office, Aggus rented the old Consumer’s from him. After a few years, he bought the property and a service station next to it. The gas station and the old Consumer’s store were torn down, and a new Southtown Sporting Goods was built.

“We all worked it. The whole family did. I started when I was 13 years old,’’ Steve Aggus said. “We didn’t get much pay. Dad said our pay was food on the table.’’

My family, like so many in Joplin, had a connection to Southtown. My dad was a fisherman. He spent a lot of time there. Every summer we would head for Table Rock Lake for a week, where we would camp out at a place called Viney Creek and catch catfish. So many of our family vacation photos from the 1950s and 1960s are of me and my sister holding up a big old catfish.

On the Fourth of July, we would fry the fish and serve it with corn on the cob and sliced tomatoes from our garden, some cornbread and blackberry cobbler. Those fishing trips were a lot of work, but they were worth it.

I didn’t know it then, but I do now — those were the best of times.

PIZZA TO GO

Papa John’s Pizza, 1931 S. Main St., will reopen Monday. The store, which was damaged by the tornado, has had a major makeover.

If you hadn’t noticed, there’s a shortage of pizza places in Joplin right now. At least five of them were taken out by the tornado.

I dropped into Mazzio’s Pizza at Fourth Street and Range Line Road on Friday for the buffet lunch. It was packed with customers.

If you have news about something that’s happening on Range Line Road or Main Street, dial 623-3480, ext. 7250; send an email to wkennedy@joplinglobe.com; or send a fax to Wally Kennedy at 623-8598.

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