Time changes everything, even Frog Level. Progressive citizens proclaim that progress is good. However, old-timers, wallowing in nostalgia, often are grieved by evolution of the landscape. For example, the I-66 interchange under construction in the western part of the county has wiped the heart of Possum Trot from the face of the earth. Now, the new Monticello Street, when it opens to traffic next fall, will bypass a busy section of Somerset that three-quarters of a century ago was known as Frog Level.

At last count, there are about 18,000 traffic movements a day through this southern section of town. Growth and ensuing vehicular activity around Somerset Community College and the Center for Rural Development keep a constant line of traffic jockeying for position to get through the tunnel at the entrance to Frog Level.

The demise of Possum Trot already has been recorded for posterity on these pages. Frog Level deserves its moment in the spotlight before its place is further clouded by memory’s blur.

Chamber of commerce types frown at unflattering names attached to communities from a lingering past. Matter of fact, few, if any of today’s moderns could direct a lost traveler to Frog Level. The name and place are fogged in the mists of time.

Don’t feel bad if you can’t locate Frog Level. Most people furrow their brow when the name is mentioned. They don’t have a clue.

James A. “Onion” Eastham knows about Frog Level. He can take you there. The former member of Somerset City Council remembers when Frog Level was a thriving business section.

“Frog Level basically was from the railroad underpass on Monticello Street to the foot of Monticello Street hill,” Eastham said. It included parts of Beecher, Grove, Langdon and Denham streets and Railroad Drive. “Frog Level did a big business in those days,” said Eastham, referring to the mid-1930s.

Eastham still has a mental map of the thriving businesses in Frog Level, along Johnson’s Block and up South Main Street toward the depot.

Along Monticello Street there were Sam Colyer’s Grocery, McKinney’s Grocery (where Eastham’s mother worked), Prather’s Grocery Store, Tuttle and Lee Grocery Store, a saloon (Somerset was wet in those days), Sears Coal Yard and a gasoline station.

On Railroad Drive there were a storage house for curing cow hides that often emitted a foul odor, Sandy Valley Grocery, Shell Oil Company, Somerset Milk Plant, Somerset Ice Plant, a massive tie yard and a freight depot.

“How Frog Level got its name, I don’t know,” said Eastham. “I’ve asked a lot of people and they didn’t know. I guess the people who know are all dead,” he said.

Somebody suggested that beleaguered Sinking Creek, a meandering stream that runs through the heart of Frog Level, may have given rise to the name. Back before pollution disfigured and diminished bullfrogs, it stands to reason that the banks of Sinking Creek could have been a haven for the throaty amphibians.

The late Sandy Offutt, mayor of Somerset for about 20 years, with tongue in cheek often gave Sinking Creek an unflattering label. He called it “Stinking Creek” and in those days the tiny stream could have earned its mayoral put down. Offutt may have been around when the curing cow hides in the storage place on Railroad Drive sent off a nose-twitching scent.

The creek has been cleaned up a lot since then and its channel widened to prevent the oft-flooding in the heart of Frog Level. It used to be that a quick downpour would send water flooding across Monticello Street in a low place between the tunnel and foot of Monticello Street hill.

Frog Level was just a part of a sprawling business district in South Somerset during the early part of the 20th century. Businesses and residences stretched from the foot of Wait’s Hill on South Main Street south to the railroad depot and Bourne and Griffin avenues.

Eastham said there were a row of mostly white frame houses from the old City Lumber Company (now Mikes New and Used Furniture) south to Dearl Whitaker Way (formerly Swain Street). He noted that City Lumber Company started out as Fish Lumber Company. The late Ira Yeary bought the business and changed the name to City Lumber Company.

Also, there was a row of houses on the west side of the street from about the junction of South Richardson Drive south to about where the Chevron bulk plant is now. The bulk plant, then called Standard Oil, was founded by Morgan Crane, father of the late Blanche Waddle, for many years society editor for his newspaper.

The late Alonzo Carter bought the bulk plant from Crane and operated it for many years until he sold it to Oscar Hornsby, former Democrat party chairman and now president and owner of Statewide Transport Corporation. Hornsby no longer owns the bulk plant.

Eastham said he doesn’t know when Crane built the bulk plant. “It was there when I was a boy,” Eastham recalls.

The section of South Main Street from South Richardson Drive to where it forks with Monticello Street is called Johnson’s Block.

“I never knew why they called it Johnson’s Block,” said Eastham. “I never knew a Mr. Johnson; anybody they could have named it after.”

South Main Street, from the “Y” with Monticello Street up the hill toward the depot and the vicinity of Bourne Avenue was the location of several businesses during the heyday of South Somerset.

Eastham said there were a general merchandise store, a bank (”I don’t remember the name of the bank.”), the old Cumberland Hotel, Haynes and Massey Grocery Store, the Tent Restaurant operated by a McBribe family, and a concrete block building that housed a barbershop, dry cleaning establishment and several other small businesses. Buck Gossett operated a restaurant in the area and Southern Railway had a general store at the corner of Griffin Avenue and Jacksboro Street.

“That (railroad store) was the biggest store in the area,” said Eastham. “They had everything -- groceries and a full line of men’s and women’s clothing. If you worked for the railroad, you could buy groceries and merchandise on the credit and it would be taken out of your next check.”

There was a small jail near the depot, apparently to detain unruly passengers who got off a train.

“El morro,” Spanish words meaning “the bluff,” is inscribed on the rocky cliff on the west side of South Main Street facing the railroad tracks. Legend has it that the writing in mussel shells cemented to the rock was done by a Mexican, keeper of the small, one-cell jail operated by the city.

Reportedly the small jail was often called “El Morro.” The Mexican worked at the jail for his keep, according to the legend. The historic inscription and imbedded brick from the jail structure may have been destroyed by construction of the new Monticello Street.

Those were the days when Somerset was a “Saturday town.”

“Everybody came to town on Saturday,” Eastham reflected. “Saturday was a big business day.”

Passenger trains were the chief mode of travel in those days. Meeting the trains was a favorite pastime for the entertainment-starved populace.

The courthouse and Fountain Square were located at the same place as today. There were businesses uptown and people were shuttled from one part of town to the other by numerous taxicabs and in earlier days by electric streetcars. Eastham said the electric streetcars, or trolleys, had been retired and stored by the time he got old enough to remember. Tracks on which the streetcars operated were visible in the streets until the early 1960s.

Until recently, shells of several of the old business buildings remained along South Main Street. However, the landscape is rapidly changing as construction of the new Monticello Street continues. The new street will be four lanes and take traffic from South Richardson Drive south along South Main Street and up the hill to the vicinity of the railroad depot.

From the depot area, the new street turns west across a 670-foot overpass of the railroad tracks, Railroad Drive and Sinking Creek. It rejoins Monticello Street at Hope Way and extends to Oak Hill Road.

When the new Monticello Street is completed late this year, most of the traffic in the area will bypass Frog Level. The 100-year-old railroad underpass on Monticello Street will be closed to vehicular traffic but left open for pedestrians.

Many an old-timer will be grateful for preservation of the tunnel. With most of the traffic on the new Monticello Street, the community of Frog Level will become a placid neighborhood. It will be a wonderful place to take a leisurely walk and reflect on the glories of the past.

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