My Time in The Town
1953 and forward a few years
1953 and forward a few years
In the 1980s, when I was in my thirties, I was in a bookstore when the title of a book grabbed my attention—The Last of How It Was.
It turned out the book was a novel, a story about a fictional town in North Carolina. A little village moving past its better years. I knew that I had lived the title of this book, but my town was not fiction. My town was real. I lived in Cliffside from 1950 to 1968.
When I was born in 1950, Harry Truman was President and the Korean War had not yet started. This meant that a few years later, I was just old enough to see Cliffside in the early fifties—a time when the village was still much like it had been at the end of World War II. But real change was coming, and I, a little kid, was just in time to see the change begin.
This is no formal history, not going to mention a lot of names and dates. These are just the blurred memories of a boy growing up. What I saw happen to Cliffside, and a few stories about what folks said and did along the way.
Let me start by sharing a list of descriptions and impressions—what a young child saw—my earliest memories.
Downtown was always busy. The Esso station was crowded with cars. The Dixie Home Store, at busy times, propped open its screen doors. And in the Drug Store, sometimes customers had to wait their turn for a booth—waiting to sit and talk with their friends and enjoy fountain drinks and treats.
There were buildings and houses everywhere there was a space: Furniture stores, two barber shops, an upholstery business on the street behind the Café. Even across the river from the mill, a row of houses, each built partly up on posts, hung their backsides out in the air over the long steep riverbank.
The Library in the Memorial Building impressed me with its hanging lights, and, on a pedestal, a stuffed hawk with large spreading wings.
My father would take me in the old post office in the mill’s Office Building. Down the short hill from there was the west-side mill gate where the trains came and went. By the railroad tracks I would see outside-workers draw and drink water from a well.
All over town, here and there, people were on top of their houses strapping a TV antennae to their chimney.
All over town, here and there, people were on top of their houses strapping a TV antennae to their chimney. Catching-up with their many neighbors who were already watching, these folks were coming around to this new television thing. I would understand later that two channels came in good, maybe three.
A few times I was in the original Graveyard Grocery—and I was in the other grocery on Main Street, Mr. Davidson’s store, the grocery down the hill from the school. This was the building which would become Dr. Radford’s first medical office. And speaking of the doctor, boys and girls loved him. If you kept still while he gave you a shot, Dr. Radford wrote you a real prescription for “Grape Popsicle.”
Although there were a few NO SPITTING signs posted around, Mama was afraid of germs and would never let me go downtown barefoot in the summer. When I was downtown—wearing my shoes—one thing I liked to do was watch people working in the Cannery that was behind the Memorial Building.
In the Store Building downtown, upstairs above the Towel Shop, my mother took me to the Dentist. Hurt like hell!
We lived on North Main Street, down the hill a few houses from the school, just below the funeral home. When I was four or five years old I would play with other boys in my yard, or in the woods behind my house. Just beyond those woods, toward the school, was the White Line community. Sometimes a few black boys, little boys our age, would come in the woods, and we would all run around and laugh and jump from trees pretending we were Robin Hood or Superman.
After a while, our black friends stopped coming. Maybe they got old enough to be told how things were in America in 1955. All I know is this: they never again came into the woods to play. I missed them for a long time.
1956 and a few years beyond
I was getting old enough to start school. A Big Boy. I was doing new things. Daddy was working second shift in the mill, and often I helped my mother take him a warm meal which we would leave at the mill’s gatehouse. Mama would drive downtown, and I would hop out to walk the rest of the way to the gate. Often a few men were standing around inside the gatehouse, most visiting just a minute to talk or tell a joke. Sometimes one of the men would throw at me a challenge, something like: “Are you a boy or a little girl? Do you squat to pee?” Everybody would explode laughing. I knew they were just pokin’ fun and didn’t mean no harm. Still, I was kind of shy about going to the gatehouse until I was a little older.
Some changes in town were starting to happen. I watched as the last of the old-timey streetlights were replaced. The old lights with their curvy flower-petal shades were swapped for new lights which had no charm— just a bright glowing orb. The grown-ups called them modern.
At the edge of town, on a small dirt field, my father taught my mother how to drive. A couple other families also used the field to teach driving and practice parking. All over America, for the first time, many housewives were getting behind the wheel. Over a few years, this patch of dirt would be fully developed into an area that included the Little League Baseball Field, the tennis courts, and Honeysuckle Park.
They ripped the booths out of the drug store. You could still get a Coke® on ice or a milk shake, but there was no more sit down and talk a while.
The Graveyard Grocery built itself a bigger building a tiny bit up the road offering more variety and better parking. Importantly, the new store was still close enough to the cemetery so that its name continued to make sense. On the screen doors, in new bright paint, was the advertisement you couldn’t miss: “Try MERITA BREAD Today!”
One day, tagging along with an older boy who was delivering the “Grit” newspaper, we went inside the Bowling Alley upstairs above the Esso station. I thought the lunch counter and bowling lanes were great, but it would be the only time I was ever there. Soon after, the Bowling Alley closed. Downstairs the ESSO sign changed to EXXON, and sometime later Cliffside also lost the gas station in the curve.
The town’s independent phone system was replaced. Southern Bell Telephone took over, and, in my house, the old-timey wood box came off the wall—no more crank and speak to the local operator, Mrs. Callahan. Installed was a black plastic table-top model with a round finger-holes dial. My family’s new number was OLIVE 7-5750. We had a party line for a while. All pretty exciting.
One of my favorite things was a place in Cliffside—actually a tree. Maybe I liked it because Daddy liked it. He thought it was a great tree because of its tall trunk and long spreading limbs.
At that time, when all the old roads were still in place, if you started from downtown Cliffside and drove down the hill to the river, the road curved south, crossing the bridge, going toward South Carolina. Or, you could continue east taking the other road toward Boiling Springs.
Beside the road going east was a small area of grass and dirt under this tall spreading tree. A couple of wood benches were there, and almost always you would see a few men. Someone may be standing around trying to thumb a ride, but most times the men were sitting in the shade while they smoked and talked and spat and joked.
In my family, the tree got mentioned in a story told over and over. Mama would tell us about when I was born. The plan was that little me, his-majesty-the-new-baby, was to be born at Boiling Springs Clinic.
Mama said that one afternoon at home she went into early labor. Daddy was there, and he helped her get into the backseat of the car with some pillows. They hit the road. And as Mama would tell it, “As we were driving by that tree where men sit around—with me hurting and big as a house—I couldn’t believe it, your daddy stopped to give a ride to some old man he knew. Together, off we went to Boiling Springs.”
In later years, in the sixties, when the roads changed and the Bypass was made, they cut down the tree Daddy thought so handsome.
1960 and a few years beyond
In the late fifties, and moving into the sixties, there were a few new things and changes.
After the class of 1959, high school students were driving their cars or taking the bus to Chase, the new consolidated school six miles away. The elementary classes took over all of Cliffside Public School. With the high schoolers gone, we kids were now permitted to go up on the third floor. This was important to us. We were the Big Dogs now.
The Boy Scouts moved out of their log cabin on Main Street and went to a house on the far edge of town. The cabin became the headquarters for the Rescue Squad. The Boy Scouts of America cabin was built in the late 1930s, and it had been a special place for a lot of families. With this change—added to the high school going away—there were sometimes comments about end of an era in the grown-ups’ conversations.
The Haynes Bank butchered a hole in its side to add a drive-through window.
An attractive new Post Office was built. On the front was a wide decorative column of stones. During construction, they started at the roof placing the stones, and built the stone column from the top working down to the ground. Kind of surprising to see it done that way. This modern method gave Daddy something to talk about for days.
Along the way in the blur of time, Dr. Radford built his new medical office next to the Baptist church. And across the street, also showing an embrace of progress, the Haynes Bank butchered a hole in its side to add a drive-through window.
Overall, while there were some good changes in the village, there were other things you could observe. The houses across the river had been torn down. There were beginning to be empty houses on the side streets. And while the buildings downtown had not changed on the outside, inside there was more vacant space.
In the early sixties, the most visible sign that Cliffside was changing was not the actual buildings—it was what happened to the hedges, the green thick hedges that were the border of almost every front yard on Main Street, and many yards on the side streets.
When I got old enough to trim the hedges neat and straight, Daddy surprised me—we weren’t going to have hedges anymore. Too much trouble. He paid me to dig out every stem and root. It took a couple weeks. The sisters who lived beside the school hired me to rip out theirs, and I was hired by two more families.
Around town, I don’t know what family was first to clear away their hedges. I do know that what I did was early in the wave of so many families who did the same. I felt bad. The hedges had always been a symbol of the town’s uniqueness and charm. I’ve always felt that cutting down the hedges began the murder of true, historic Cliffside—more than a half-decade before most of R.R. Haynes’ creation was also cleared away.
1966 and a few years beyond
In 1966, a high school kid needing a summer job, I worked second shift in the mill. I “laid-up filling” in the weave room. This meant that I brought to each loom a full box of threaded bobbins. I had to visit every loom during the eight-hour shift. My father, Byron Bailey, was the first-shift weave room supervisor. But everybody on second shift also knew “B.R.” Many had worked with Daddy sometime during the last twenty-five years. Every night the weavers would nod and be friendly, or give me a hard-time in fun.
The last night I worked that summer, about mid-shift, a few laughing men surrounded me and honored me with an old tradition. They celebrated my last night by cutting off my pants below the knee. We all had a good time. It was an “honor” to be part of their tradition, but I knew I didn’t deserve it. They did it because of my father who they had known forever. I was a stand-in. In 1966, maybe the old-timers, with the son of an old-timer, wanted to do the old times some more.
Some History Lessons
Once, I rode on top of the weave room elevator sweeping cotton dust off the walls of the shaft.
The next summer, I didn’t come back to the weave room. I worked at the mill during first shift on the maintenance crew. Along with a few other summer-work-boys we helped with all kinds of jobs in and around the mill, and all around the village. We painted, hauled stuff, cut weeds. Once, I rode on top of the weave room elevator sweeping cotton dust off the walls of the shaft. I was with others a few days in the coal pit above the furnace while repairs were being made. At the beginning of shut-down vacation week, I was in the mill for a while when the entire factory was amazingly quiet. And someone showed us the legendary “petrified cat.” The bones and skin of a kitty that had died a long time ago in the mill’s oldest part.
Sometimes, outside the mill, some things caught our eye, and we got to hear the story behind them.
One day, near a trash dump, we saw a big pile of broken concrete that looked like it had been there a long time. What did this come from?
Our foreman reminded us that the town was started at the turn of the century. And in the old days, until indoor plumbing was everywhere, many outhouses in the village were on a concrete foundation. All of them had been removed with the progress of modern conveniences. It was Cliffside’s potty history out there in the weeds.
Another time, we ran across something far more interesting. In the Memorial Building, in a bottom-floor storage room, we saw two sets of something that was green metal with three short rods sticking out. Hey, what’s this? In a story that goes back to 1934, these two things had been overlooked and left behind when what happened was all over.
In the 1930s in the South, large groups were traveling from mill town to mill town seeking to unionize the textile mills. A big crowd would stand and shout in front of the mill gate, some seeking to talk to the workers. In some places there was violence. They came to Cliffside.
Years later, what we summer-job-boys were looking at were two short tripods, each used to support a machine gun. During the unionizing demonstration near the mill entrance, law officers and the National Guard were present hoping to keep things peaceful. One machine gun was mounted on top of the office, the other atop the Hardware Store. It was a tense time, but there wasn’t any trouble.
Outhouses! Machine Guns! I was a half-century late in the life of Cliffside. What did I know about my hometown? I had the ignorance of the young.
1968 Leaving home
The company who owned the mill, and owned the stores and houses, had earlier announced their intent to stop maintaining mill towns as part of their business. When the future time came, things would be torn down. The village would be diminished. Already people were drifting away.
A sign of the times, the Graveyard Grocery stopped making home deliveries. Except for the store quietly continuing to help some shut-ins, I made their last delivery, and I was told I would be their last hired-boy. Calling the store to “order out groceries” was no longer part of village life.
I didn’t mind losing my delivery job because I was busy at school. In the spring of 1968 I was a senior at Chase High School. Each year Chase had a speech contest where you had to write and deliver an original speech. I entered the contest and took my turn before a panel of judges. Lo and behold! I won.
The Cliffside Woman’s Club was one of the contest sponsors, and they were pleased the winner was a Cliffside boy. In late spring, 1968, they requested that I repeat my speech at a gathering of the Woman’s Club in the Memorial Building in the Library.
As I was giving my speech, my mother was in the audience, and she was smiling like I had gone to Paris and won the Olympics. But I wasn’t looking at Mama. I was looking at the faces of many women who had been my Sunday school teachers, or the nice ladies who gave me graham crackers at Vacation Bible School.
As I stood before them, I was thinking that in a few months I would go far away to college, and maybe my speech that day was going to be sort of a “goodbye moment.” Meaning that in my life’s memories, I would consider this the last meaningful event before I left Cliffside—before I moved away from my family and all that had been home.
I was wrong. A few weeks later, because I lost my wallet, my real “goodbye” to Cliffside would happen differently.
My Goodbye Moment
One day, I realized my wallet was missing. I thought maybe I had dropped it at a dance in the Memorial Building. Some nights, a room was opened-up on the top floor of the Memorial Building, a large room which had been part of the old hotel. A local band would play and the kids would dance—sort of a teen club called “The Attic” or something like that.
That afternoon, I went to the Memorial Building. The main door was unlocked, but the Library was closed. Nobody around. I went up the long stairs to the top floor and looked in the teen club’s room. There were chairs, a little trash, but no wallet.
I opened a closet and found a built-in wood ladder going up to a dark space. Up I went.
I had never been up in the old hotel in the daylight. I had to take a look around. The hall and all the rooms were empty, peeling, and shabby. In a front room, I opened a closet and found a built-in wood ladder going up to a dark space. Up I went. Then it came to me where I was—I am in the Clock Tower—Jesus! I’m climbing-up inside the Clock.
At the top of the ladder, I was in the small square space that was the workings of the clock. Bright sunlight filled the area through the clock faces on each of the four sides. Mechanisms and black iron rods were connected to the hands that pointed to hours and minutes. And right beside the ladder were huge bells. I was seeing the chimes that could be heard all over town—and had been heard by generations. The sound that was everyone’s shared experience, every day, each hour.
I stood on the ladder tickled to see all this. I wanted to watch awhile and see the hands move—BONG! The bells went-off loud. Startled, I jerked around into a bee’s nest and I was getting stung. I was hurting, cursing, crying. No last look. Adventure over. I got down out of there.
The Title of a Book
The Title of a book
The summer went by and I left for college. No other adventure, no other event, would mark the end of my boyhood in my hometown. We simply got in the car one day and drove me and my stuff to school.
I was a freshman at a campus over six-hours away. Life had changed, everything for me was different. No car, no money, it was a long time before I came back to see my parents.
My first visit back, my parents were now living in a place that was out of town, a few miles up the road at Six Points. The house where I had grown up—59 North Main Street—had been demolished. Most of the houses were gone. And I never saw downtown again. Later when I was back for another visit, downtown was behind a chain-link fence. Once so busy, it was empty. Behind the industrial fence, the ongoing destruction of the downtown buildings and the closing and destruction of the mill would continue for years.
At that time, visiting from school, I didn’t even think about it. I was young and busy. But looking back, many years later, I am sentimental. Sometimes, it is sounds that I remember:
The slap sound made when screen doors shut; The old-time steam locomotive blowing the whistle: Whoooo Whoo as it pulled train cars to and from the mill; In Mr. Randall’s barbershop, music always playing softly on his Zenith radio; In the mill’s weave rooms, the constant thunder of the looms: CLACK-clack CLACK-clack; and, of course, the Town Clock’s chimes, the sound I remember above all others.
Born in 1950, I saw Cliffside in its last two decades as a model textile town. During that time, I was all over the village again and again riding my J.C. Higgins bicycle from Sears & Roebuck. Because of the jobs I had, I got to see more of the mill than many workers ever did.
My time in Cliffside was the same as the title of the book I would find years later, my time had been: The Last of How It Was.
Copyright © 2017 Benjamin Bailey. All Rights Reserved
Read more reminiscences on Benjamin’s Flashback page.