When most people would look at the on the old DeLaurenti buildings on the village square in Pocahontas, they could only see what was — dilapidated structures that had not seen commerce in half a century.
But not Don and Jennifer Rick.
When the Ricks cast their gaze on the three abandoned buildings in the 100 block of Academy Street, they could see what had been. They saw places in the heart of their adopted hometown that encompassed not only much of the community’s history, but also its soul.
And they saw what it could be again.
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We are restoring it because we love history. We love old things — old buildings, mainly. It’s a lot of fun.
Don Rick, owner of the old Strand Theater in Pocahontas
The Ricks, who live in St. Jacob, came to Pokey in May 2015 to start their business, Pocahontas Antiques at 311 W. Johnson St., and were quickly welcomed into the community.
“I’ve never been in a town where people are more helpful,” Jennifer said.
The Ricks purchased DeLaurenti buildings in July 2016 and have been working to revive them since.
“Those buildings needed us,” Jennifer Rick said. “It was either we save them, or they are coming down, and a little town like this you just can’t keep losing everything.”
DeLaurenti buildings’ history
When the Ricks first purchased the buildings, they did not know much about them. No matter who Jennifer would ask, they just could not recall the name of the old theater. Until one day when one of her regular customers came into the shop and told her that the name had been, “The Strand.”
The Ricks are history enthusiasts, so they decided to do some digging to find out more about their new buildings.
They learned that the buildings were built around the late 1800s. They were first used as a storing location by the Highland Brewing Company. Some time around 1918, it became the home of the Ammann Butcher Shop. Then, in the 1920s, John and Mary DeLaurenti purchased the businesses from the Ammanns and opened their own market.
Jennifer said that when someone wanted to shop, they would enter the store and give one of the DeLaurentis a list, then either John or Mary would gather everything their patrons needed. Customers never touched the groceries. Original marks can still be seen where Mr. DeLaurenti would sharpen his butcher’s knife. She also mentioned that the family had an ice cream shop in the store, and a cone with two scoops of ice cream was only 5 cents.
“Mr. Delaurenit always threw a third one in,” Jennifer said. “It’s all of these wonderful things that I hear.”
In 1921, the DeLaurentis decided to add an exciting feature onto their business, a movie theater.
“In the ’20s, you wanted a movie house on the side of your building, so they added on to this and made it the theater,” Jennifer said.
A movie at the Strand would only cost a quarter, according to Jennifer. The theater was built for silent movies, but often held school and community performances. At the end of the sloped floor, a raised stage could be found. There was also a small orchestra pit, and the movie screen revolved, so ads painted on the backside would show when a movie was not playing.
“It used to be a happening place,” Jennifer said.
The theater first closed in 1931, when movies made the conversion to “talkies.” It would then reopen in 1936, when the theater was rewired for sound. The Strand officially closed its doors in 1949. However, signs of the theater’s operating days were still present when the Ricks purchased the buildings.
Jennifer said that they found piles of old movie chairs inside of the theater room. The ads were still painted on the back of the screen, and movie posters had been laid face down with a protective coating placed to keep them from fading. Even the original ticket window stayed whole throughout the many years.
The market stayed in business years after the theater closed, but finally shut its doors for good in the 1960s. But memories of the DeLaurentis lived on.
Many of the Ricks’ Pocahontas friends are in their later years, and tell the couple in-depth stories about details of the market and movie theater. The Ricks have even walked through the old store with their friends, as they recalled vivid moments of their own experiences in the buildings, from shopping with their parents to seeing the latest flick on their Saturday date nights.
A new life
The couple wants to refurbish the DeLaurenti buildings, using as many original materials as possible, to help keep parts of the DeLaurenti legacy alive.
They plan for the Strand to become a 1930s-themed wedding and event venue, and Jennifer’s vision is all about the details. She sees a rich, gray-and-chocolate-walled ticket foyer, where guests will be welcomed into their elegant evening. Parties will be held in the vast theater room, which will have burlap walls, paired with wainscoting.
Old lanterns will be the main light fixtures in the room, accompanying frames holding vintage ads, cut from the Strand’s original revolving movie screen. Guests will sit at circle tables, with heavy, cast iron bases, in deep-seated, black parsons chairs with mahogany legs. An old back bar will house the spirits and libations for events with temporary liquor licenses.
Those buildings needed us. It was either we save them, or they are coming down, and a little town like this you just can’t keep losing everything.
Jennifer Rick, owner of the Strand Theater in Pocahontas
Inside the shop section of the store, the Ricks plan to create an authentic mercantile that resembles the old DeLaurenti store. The store will feature original light fixtures, cabinetry, wooden walls and will even have the original booth that customers used to sit in. While the store will be called “Pocahontas Mercantile,” the Ricks are planning to have a replica sign made that says, “DeLaurenti Grocery,” which will accompany their own store sign.
The Ricks’ goal is not just to recreate what the DeLaurenti buildings once were. They are hoping that their work will help to preserve pieces of Pocahontas history.
“We are restoring it because we love history. We love old things — old buildings, mainly. It’s a lot of fun,” Don said.
A blessing to call home
The Ricks’ dedication to the restoration of Pocahontas has led them to another blessing.
Last October, they were working outside on the DeLaurenti buildings when a passerby asked them if they were interested in buying the old Methodist Church at 202 Moreland St.
I said to my husband, “What are we going to do with the church?” And he was like, “Well, we are going to live there.” He was like, “God is offering you a church.
Jennifer Rick, owner of the old Methodist Church in Pocahontas
“We heard that the church may be getting torn down, because they don’t use it anymore. They use the small church,” Jennifer said. “So it was just like a money pit. Things needed to be done. The things that needed to be done at the little church couldn’t be done, because they had to maintain the big church.”
Jennifer said that the couple was already up to their eyeballs with renovations and finances, so she began wondering how they would ever take on another project. But the catch was, if someone did not take over as caretakers, the church would be demolished, and another piece of Pocahontas would be gone.
“So we went home that night and I said to my husband, ‘What are we going to do with the church?’ And he was like, ‘Well, we are going to live there,’” Jennifer said. “He was like, ‘God is offering you a church. Yeah, we’re going to live in the church.’”
So they negotiated for the purchase of the building in January and officially closed Feb. 20.
“Every couple of evenings we’ll go over, and he sits on one side of the church and I sit on the other, and you just have to soak it in, because it is just so spectacular,” Jennifer said. “We are just so humbled the church came to us and said, ‘Will you save it? Will you save this building?’”