Rocky Mount was bustling from World War II to the beginning of the Civil Rights movement.
Tobacco and textile industries were thriving. Rocky Mount Mills, a historic cotton mill, was in full swing.
Downtown retail businesses were packed with customers as the railroad’s Emerson Shops employed more than 2,000 people.
People who lived here during the second 25 years of the Rocky Mount Telegram’s existence, from 1935 to 1959, have fond memories.
“Downtown was vibrant,” said 94-year-old Kate Harrison, whose husband, William, later served as mayor from 1962 until 1964. “We didn’t have shopping centers. This was before any of those came. All three blocks on both sides of the railroad tracks were full of businesses and active. We had probably three or four theaters.”
Kress and Woolworth’s five-and-dime stores drew throngs of customers.
“We had big tobacco warehouses,” Harrison said. “All the tobacco trading was going on. It was a booming time. It was interesting.”
During the war era, the Edgecombe County side of Rocky Mount was as alive and vibrant as the Nash County side, Harrison said.
“(The Edgecombe side) was full of pretty houses and nice homes and people taking care of them,” she said. “It was more of a united town.”
Soldiers regularly came through town on trains, stopping off at the old Masonic Temple on Church Street that served as a USO center for soldiers.
“It was a big dropping off place from Camp Lejeune,” Harrison said. “Volunteers went down to meet trains to serve coffee and donuts for soldiers when they got off.”
Ricks Hotel across from the train station held large parties and banquets.
“We all had a good time,” Harrison said. “If we had dinner together, everyone brought something and put it on the table. Nobody had much money but we had a good time.”
Admission to Saturday night dances at Benvenue Country Club was $1.
People from throughout the region and towns like Enfield, Wilson, Battleboro and Scotland Neck attended the dances.
“There was a live orchestra,” Harrison said. “Something happened every Saturday night, and it was always fun.”
People from all over the state came to Rocky Mount to attend June German dances, where big bands performed in tobacco warehouses.
“It was very well known. You would stay up all night long dancing and going to parties,” Harrison said.
Life Magazine even profiled the dances, which were more popular prior to World War II.
“The war era stopped it,” Harrison said. “Along came going steady.”
That didn’t work at June German dances, where it was normal to regularly switch dance partners.
Helen Wilkinson, 90, said the dances were innocent fun, with boys wearing tuxedos.
“There wasn’t a lot of drinking and carrying on,” she said. “It was just fun.”
The dances had three intermissions, when people would go to someone’s home for a break. Food and refreshments would be served.
“They’d serve you something to drink and eat. It wasn’t always alcohol,” she said.
The June German dances featured cheek-to-cheek dancing with beautiful music, Wilkinson said.
“The jumping jive didn’t start until a little later than that,” she said.
There were June German dances for black people on different nights in the same tobacco warehouses, Wilkinson said.
“We’d all go to the black June Germans, which was wonderful,” she said. “We were spectators.”
Downtown was the focal point of business during the World War II era, she said.
“Everything was downtown. All the dress shops. We had five drug stores on Main Street,” Wilkinson said. “You could drive up and blow your horn and (employees) would come out. You could order a Coke and they’d bring it to your car.”
Residents were frugal and conscious of the war effort, she said.
“We saved tin cans for the war effort,” she said. “We were all on rations. They also saved old tires — anything recycled — to use for the war.”
Wilkinson said people weren’t rich, but that didn’t stop them from enjoying themselves.
“It was a good time,” she said. “We didn’t have a lot of money, but we didn’t know it. You didn’t realize you were poor, but you were. It was a fun time, too. We all had a lot of friends.”
Wilkinson and her friends grew up on the Edgecombe County side of Rocky Mount.
“When some of us moved over to Nash County, we all put on skates and skated across (the county lines) to see friends,” she said. “My husband and I used to ride bikes all over Rocky Mount, particularly on Sundays.”
An economic boost
The railroad and its Emerson Shops were at the heart of the city’s economic vitality during World War II, said Bill Kincheloe, owner of Wildwood Lamps & Accents on Paul Street.
A few blocks away is a building that once housed Emerson Shops, a bustling train car repair and service station for Atlantic Coast Line Railroad.
From the late 1930s through the late 1940s, the railroad shops employed about 2,200 people.
Kincheloe, 73, has fond memories of the busy shops and the numerous businesses that sprang up to serve the railroad employees, who at the time were among the better paid in the area.
The Emerson Shops closed when the trains no longer had to stop in Rocky Mount for coal and water.
“In the late 1940s and early 1950s, they rapidly switched from steam to diesel locomotives, and (trains) would run farther without service,” Kincheloe said.
Kincheloe said the railroad is what put Rocky Mount on the map and played an integral role in the city’s economy during both World Wars and throughout the 1950s.
“There were side tracks that went to tobacco factories, Rocky Mount Mills and other places,” Kincheloe said. “There was a lot more continuous activity on the tracks, plus a whole lot more passenger trains.
“We had north-south trains, principally from New York to Florida. They all passed through Rocky Mount. But then there were local tracks that went to Norfolk, Plymouth, Wilmington, Fayetteville. There were lots of passenger trains.”
The Emerson Shops were a major employer, Kincheloe said.
“The tobacco industry may have had more total employees, but as far as one corporation, I’m sure the biggest employer by far was the shops in those days,” he said.
Many products were delivered to businesses by train, including furniture to his family’s business, Bulluck Furniture Co. on the corner of Western Avenue and Main Street.
Furniture damaged during delivery would be repaired at the Emerson Shops.
“They had a woodworking shop where they could repair the finest piece of furniture,” he said.
Kincheloe said railroad cars delivered coal to the former Rocky Mount power plant, which now is home to businesses such as Chico’s Mexican restaurant.
“There was just lots of railroad activity,” he said. “There were several department stores,” he said. “Belk was downtown. There were several 5- and 10-cent stores.”
Soldiers who came into town by train, including his father, often came with prized possessions — Hershey and Heath candy bars.
“You couldn’t buy them. (Soldiers) could buy them at PXs on base,” Kincheloe said. “My father would come home on leave and bring two or three boxes of Hershey or Heath bars. I’d stand out in front of the furniture store and sell them. You could sell them in a heartbeat, but I didn’t try to make any big money. They sold for a nickel, and that’s what I sold them for.”
Parades drew crowds downtown, including the gallopade.
“It was held every year, I think, in the spring, up through the war,” he said. “I don’t know why it was discontinued.”
In August, department stores would set up outside tables to sell balls of string that were used to tie together tobacco leaves before they were hung up in a drying barn.
“That’s how important tobacco was,” he said. “Farmers came to town on Saturday. I can remember them coming with horse carts even up until the late 1940s. It was vibrant. There was a lot going on.”
He said the railroad still was the dividing line for Nash and Edgecombe counties.
“But the Edgecombe County side was just as vibrant as the Nash side. There were nice residential areas on both sides,” Kincheloe said. “It was a very pleasant place to be.”
Kincheloe, who graduated from Rocky Mount High School in 1955, said students would walk downtown for lunch period.
“We’d walk downtown and eat a ham sandwich at Hicks Drug store. It was so pleasant,” he said.
He also recalled the popularity of the June German dances and the big-name acts they attracted.
In the 1930s, the June German dance really came into its own. It was the era of big dance bands, and Kay Kyser, Hal Kemp, Ozzie Nelson, Little Jack Little, Jimmy Dorsey, Vincent Lopez and Tony Pastor all made appearances in town, according to a paper about the history of the dance written by Rick Mendelson, the director of public relations for Carolina Dance Society.
“The ‘tobacco dance’ as it was known in some parts, still took place in a local tobacco warehouse but now were transformed through elaborate decorations into lovely gardens with fountains and birds and flowers of all kind,” he wrote.
Kincheloe said the June German dances were legendary.
“Everyone in the Eastern U.S. knew about (the dance),” Kincheloe said. “Lots of people came from other places by train. The dances lasted all night. They weren’t over until dawn.”
He has pleasant memories of the era.
“During the war years, there was a certain tension, but even then people were accommodating during (bad) times,” he said. “We had ration stamps. You could only get a couple of gallons of gas. People were just happy with what they had.”
During World War II, the Douglas Block in downtown Rocky Mount was busy, said 91-year-old Dempsey W. Cotton Jr. who used to walk by the block during grade school.
He said the three-block area was a focal point for entertainment for blacks. The Booker T. Washington and Rich Theaters were packed.
“(The Douglas Block) was crowded, especially on Friday night,” Cotton said. “They had barber shops up there, two drug stores, and the restaurant and pool room. That’s where Stokes Funeral Home started.”
He said a makeshift golf course was formed out of a grassy area next to the theater.
During the war era, Cotton worked as a chef at the New York Cafe on Carver Street.
He said customers seemed to have money to spend in that era.
“Folks were working in those days,” he said. “They had the warehouse tobacco factories and somewhere to get money. The farmers came in here to the Douglas Block and brought some money. That’s where they would hang out at.”
Former Rocky Mount Mayor Fred Turnage, who grew up in Rocky Mount, said tobacco and textiles were the major employers during the World War II era.
“A lot of people worked on the farm. They would work on farm in the crop season and work in the textile mill in winter and fall,” he said.
City Lake, located off Sunset Avenue at the Tar River, was first constructed as a Works Progress Administration project under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration in 1937. The lake has undergone many facelifts over the years, with a beautification project concluded in 1993.
The pavement that would become U.S. 301 was laid in the 1920s. But from 1935 until 1959, U.S. 301 developed into a major business corridor that ran right through the heart of towns and cities in the Twin Counties and the rest of the state, said David Robinson, the chief executive officer of the North Carolina Transportation Hall of Fame.
Development along U.S. 301 in those years included motels, gas stations, rooming houses, restaurants and tourism-service businesses in Battleboro, Rocky Mount and Sharpsburg.
“From 1935 to 1959 I think what happened is (the highway) got improved and maintained better. Some four-lane sections were built,” he said. “The railroad went through and U.S. 301 paralleled it pretty much all the way and it was the Main Street for all of those towns.”
Troops return, college forms
N.C. Wesleyan College was started in the second 25 years of the Telegram’s existence. The liberal arts college affiliated with the United Methodist Church was founded in 1956.
“I think that is a significant story,” Turnage said. “I think any time a college locates in a city, big or small, it has a definite impact, bringing in young people, the faculty. It has an economic impact and a cultural impact as it becomes part of the community.”
The college came to Rocky Mount as the result of a community effort, Turnage said.
“The Presbyterians were looking to establish a church somewhere in North Carolina, and Rocky Mount and several other communities were competing for it,” Turnage said. “It ended up going to Laurinburg.”
After the community effort failed to bring the first college here, leaders inquired with the United Methodist Church about opening a college here.
After serving in the Air Force during World War II, Norman Chambliss Jr. came back to Rocky Mount and went into business.
He joined forces with contractor DJ Rose & Son to open a ready-mix business.
“It was a good time to do that,” he said. “People were coming home. Young men and women from the service were all getting their lives together. Everyone cooperated. I don’t remember any political problems in those days.”
The Tower Drive-In was a popular destination for families, he said.
“Things were good,” Chambliss said. “Wages were very low in those days for everyone. I remember that particularly. But they increased as time went on, and people got things going again. During the war, everything stopped. There was no building, other than military, and most men who were capable of being in my (building) field were in service, so it all had to be reorganized.”
In the 1950s, several downtown theaters were playing first runs of classic moves.
An advertisement in the April 29, 1956, Sunday Telegram shows that Rogers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel” movie starring Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae was playing at the Center Theater.
By the end of the 1950s, Rocky Mount residents were concerned about where the city was headed as the railroad Emerson Shops and more than 2,000 jobs were leaving.
“The transferring of the shops certainly was a concern,” Turnage said. “Something had to be done to replace the railroad and begin other industries. That was about the time those (economic) initiatives began to take off.”