By STEVE EIGHINGER
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
HANNIBAL, Mo. -- Ila May Dimmitt sits behind the counter at Show-Me Antiques, just like she has most days since 1968.
She's as much a part of the historic downtown district as the Tom and Huck statue, the tribute to Baseball Hall of Famer Jake Beckley and all of the Mark Twain references.
Ila May will greet those who walk the front door with a smile. Once inside her shop, people likely will be involved in a discussion about the colorful history associated with the north end of Main Street where Show-Me Antiques is situated.
Or possibly, the conversation will simply be about life in general.
"The Good Lord has been good to me," she said.
It's difficult to argue with her on that point.
Ila May turned 95 last week and is still going strong. She doesn't plan to retire any time in the near future, so don't even bring up the subject.
She tries to lead a quiet life and enjoy her sunset years. She has a "job" she enjoys, loves where she lives and enjoys the company of a 25-pound cat named Billy.
"And I take a lot of vitamins," she said.
Ila May has operated the business on her own since 1973 when her late husband, Melvin, died during the cleanup after the famous flood that year.
"This gives me something to do, and I meet a lot of nice people," she said. "A lot of people call (the store) a junk shop, but I don't call it that. People come here from all over the country.
"No two days are the same."
Some of shop's customer favorites include unique collectibles and items connected with railroading, such as lanterns and switch locks. But it's the down-home charm of Ila May and the overall warmth of the building that dates to the 1830s that are arguably the biggest draws.
"We should all be her. She is amazing," Sarah Antone North said.
North and her husband, Frank, operate Becky's Old-Fashioned Ice Cream Parlor and Emporium just down the street from Ila May's shop.
"She's seen 'em come, and seen 'em go," Frank North said.
"Ila is very aware of the world around her," Sarah said.
And Ila May has no problem telling you about that world, both present day and in the past.
She believes the downtown area needs more family oriented sites and fewer specialty shops. She believes many of the attractions are too expensive for the average mom, dad and kids.
No person in the area likely knows more about the downtown than Ila May.
"At one time, North Main (where her shop is located) was a ‘rough area,' " Ila May said.
Women rarely ventured into that part of town. Well, not all women.
"There were a lot of brothels and taverns," Ila May said. "There are a lot of wild tales you couldn't publish in the paper, a lot of history."
Ila May said the very site where her business now resides once was home to an establishment called "Pauline's Place."
"Pauline was rumored to be known for sweeping the front sidewalk wearing only her shoes," Ila May said with an ornery smile.
Ila said things began to change in the late 1960s, with more of an emphasis on Mark Twain and the city's heritage, eventually building toward how the downtown area now looks.
The most important point in the city's timeline, however, came in the early 1990s -- at least according to Ila May -- when the city introduced its floodwall and floodgates. She said the added flood protection was the key for the downtown area evolving into the attraction it is today.
"The downtown has improved a lot since then," she said. "Prior to that, people hesitated to repair their buildings after the floods because (they knew there would be another flood)."
Ila May works 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day, seven days a week. She might run late if the weather is bad. If she happens to be a little under the weather, she just might take the day off. She lives in Hannibal, just a couple of miles from the shop.
Her oldest son, Barry, 68, lives in Quincy and helps when needed. Another son, Bob, 65, lives in the Kansas City area.
Before Ila May and Melvin moved to Hannibal, they crisscrossed the country.
"I was a military wife," she said. "We were stationed in Nebraska, Texas, Arizona, California and Illinois."
Along the way, she taught school for a while.
"I didn't like that at all," she said.
She wound up in sales, which she found to be her calling. That eventually led to couple opening Show-Me Antiques after he left the armed services. That was 46 years ago.
The world has changed quite a bit since Ila May and Melvin first opened their shop, which is little more than a good stone's throw from the Mississippi River. Hannibal has changed, too.
But Ila May hasn't.
Never once has she thought about doing anything else, not even after Melvin's death.
"It gives me something to get up in the morning for," she said.