Aside from the kitchen and three bathrooms, a spare bedroom in our basement is the only room in the house without a single piece of furniture from Priest Home Furnishings.
Our move to Woodstock in 1965 was just a few years after Herbert Priest Sr. moved his business for the last time to the location on Main Street where the business would thrive for half a century.
We had lived in five different cities and 10 different houses. Our furniture had suffered, along with our finances. By the time we got to Woodstock we could have been a poster family for the Beverly Hillbillies.
I often lament the fact that I couldn’t wait to build a “brick ranch” and move out of the big old house that we rented on South Main at the time. (It’s now Tea Leaves & Thyme, often referred to as The Dawson House, and revered by preservationists, yours truly included.) But I was 30 years old, ignorant of the significance of the house and certainly as dumb as dirt about the town’s treasured history.
My dreams of a brick ranch became reality, but with a lot of empty space, and too much bargain basement bedsteads and tables and Naugahyde couches.
I found myself drawn to Priest’s like a moth to a candle. My empty living room, off-limits and useless – was a constant challenge.
Slowly, one painful payment at a time, we managed to help Herbert and Herb (Sr. and Jr.) reduce their inventory. I had often joked with friends who frequented antiques shops that we bought our furniture new and our children made antiques of it.
Someone wisely said if you have children, you don’t have much of anything else; but if you don’t have children, you don’t have much of anything.
There is an element of truth to that. Even my pretty new furniture has a few scars … but many memories.
After a couple of decades, Herb and his parents, Herbert and Evelyn, became more than just “local merchants” to us. Evelyn was one of a little group of gals who ate breakfast together. I was privileged to be among them.
There was Sara Morgan, wife of Morgan’s Hardware owner O. E. Morgan; Rachel Chandler, keeper of the Smith Johnston office; Edgel Mulkey, who worked at City Hall; and Mary Lois Dooley, a Woodstock native whose mother, Jacie Ingram, operated Woodstock’s first beauty shop.
Also, during the 1960s and into the 1990s, the merchants were organized — somewhat — and would meet regularly to discuss the various problems and projects in town. Herb was a guiding force in these discussions, always a voice of reason, and often the voice with a new idea or solution.
It behooved the public library to allow me to participate in these discussions since we shared the common goal to improve the town in every way possible. The library was on the corner in the old bank building, and after its move to a new building north of the old town, we still wanted to be a part of the life of the town.
With the organization of the Downtown Development Authority, Herb was a natural to join the group. He was able to benefit from the experiences of the past, much like seeing the evolution of the town in a rear-view mirror while also foreseeing the future in a crystal ball.
He rightly perceived a progressive future that encompassed a treasured past.
DDA director Billy Peppers has this to say about Herb:
“Herb Priest is the friend that everyone needs. He is a supporter. He is a gentle giant with a heart for people and place. Woodstock may not have been his physical home, but he watched over the city with the eyes of a native, the heart of an entrepreneur and the soul of a statesman. He is surely missed in the downtown and on the DDA Board, but everyone knows Herb is enjoying retirement and it’s something he deserves … spending time with family, working his garden, and telling jokes (he’s the best at that) with his friends.”
Herb’s business no longer exists, but his furniture is always with us, reminding us of the “good old days” and how valuable a family business can be to a community.
So here’s to Herb. Happy Birthday. Hope to see you around 5 p.m. today, down by The Crossing.
Juanita Hughes is Woodstock’s official historian and former director of the Woodstock Public Library.