Jun 052008

I’m from a small town, Kings Mountain, North Carolina, just across the South Carolina state line. It’s right off Interstate 85. Recently my Mom sent me a clipping from the local paper. It was mostly about a church event (I maintain their website), but the main article on the clipped page was about an effort to restore the downtown local theater. This started me thinking back to the downtown where I grew up, and considering how it’s changed.   

The old Joy Theater is right in the middle of downtown. The main drag through downtown is bisected by a railroad track…so we sort of have two main streets, one on each side of the tracks. The Joy is on the corner of Mountain Street and Railroad Avenue. The other main street is Battleground Avenue.

The Joy sign and marque are still in place. It was built in the 1950s in an art deco style, but the rock face has been painted over several times now. It was one of those places that was air conditioned before most other buildings were air conditioned. The old building has served as a church and most recently as a performing arts theater. The article says the Joy was one of three downtown theaters, but I only remember the one.

I went with my parents at first. I remember the glassed in “crying rooms” at the back of the theater. We need more of those, where they put people with cell phones. Then I remember getting to go on Saturday’s by myself and meet friends there. That was a huge deal for us…we felt so grown up. When the movies were over (there were always cartoons, and often a double feature), they’d put the telephone in the window of the ticket booth, and everyone would line up to call for your ride home.

Back in those days there was Griffin’s Drug store. They had a sandwich counter with great hamburgers, grilled cheese sandwiches, and honest to god milkshakes. I remember going to Central Barber Shop for haircuts. That’s where most of the men in town went. There were three or four barbers when I first started going, and usually a shoe shine boy. They had these old metal frame chairs with green leather covering, and an old black and white TV so they could watch the ball games and races. When they weren’t cutting hair, they could often be found standing in the doorway recess greeting folks and waving as people drove by.

Of course the main bank was right down the street, and we had a two story Belks store in downtown for some years. I shopped mostly at Plonk’s for my clothes. I’ve always been a big boy, so I’d call ahead and tell Paul Walker (who went to church with us) what I needed in terms of a suit or sport coat. A day or two later Paul would call and tell me he had something for me to try on. I’d go down, and it would be exactly what I expected, and usually fit perfectly (but for the pant hem). People today think they are so cool paying for all these concierge or personal shopping services. Heck, we had it back then.

Just up Mountain Street at the corner of Mountain Street and Piedmont Avenue was Kings Mountain Baptist, Central Methodist, the Post Office, and City Hall. City Hall back then had the Council Chamber, The Utilities Department, The Fire Department, The Police Department and the Jail. Right beside the Fire Department across from the Methodist Church was the funeral home. The Presbyterian Church was one block up and a half block down, and the Lutheran Church was two blocks up Piedmont. There were lots of other churches scattered around too…especially Baptist (all of the “Southern” persuasion).

At the funeral home, where my dad worked, they alternated work nights. You’d go home at 5pm for dinner, and come back and work from 7-9pm. When school was out and there wasn’t a “visitation,” I’d sometimes go back to work with dad. Then I got to hang out at the Fire Station or go on into the police department. They had a coke machine and a Lance snack machine in the main hall. At first it was 10 cents for a coke, and 5 cents for a pack of NipCheese crackers. I remember when the cokes went to 15 cents and the crackers to 10. The police officers threatened to shoot the locks off.

We had lots of parades in Kings Mountain. We always had a big Homecoming parade followed a football game. All the school clubs built floats, and I was popular because the funeral home loaned out the big “grass mats” (used to cover the dirt pile at the cemetery) to put on the floats. Every year there was Mountaineer Days. Kings Mountain has an important Revolutionary War Battleground. It’s where the Americans handed the British their first defeat in the South. I’ll write more about that later. Anyway, Mountaineer Days (now called Heritage Day), was a big celebration that included a parade. And of course there was always a big Christmas Parade, and the lights that curled over the downtown streets were first turned on the night after the Parade. I remember the streets would be packed for all the parades.

City Hall and Post Office built new buildings and moved. The Old Post Office is now a museum, and where the old City Hall was, they’ve built a new square brick Police Station.Mr. Griffin is retired. Belks has been closed a long time. I think Plonks is still open, but just barely. The barbershop moved, and all the barbers that cut my hair are retired or dead.  That little downtown certainly isn’t the same. There are still some stores and shops, but lots of empty slots. Downtown Kings Mountain, like in so many small towns, may still be the center of town, but it’s just no longer the center of life in that town. I don’t know where that is now…the mall in Gastonia I guess.

I think I miss that kind of atmosphere. I like when I’m out here in South Tampa and run into people I know from church or somewhere else. If only for a brief moment, it reminds me of that life back in Kings Mountain when everywhere you went, you were around people you knew. We hated it then, but usually grow to miss it later.

Sam Ewing said, “When you finally go back to your old hometown, you find it wasn’t the old home you missed but your childhood.” I think I agree. What do you most remember about your hometown?

  One Response to “Salvaging A Small Part of A Small Town Downtown”

Comments (1)
  1. John, this is beautifully written and moving. Thanks for sharing. I know King’s Mountain, which adds to the interest–but just as someone who has gone there on occasion. For me, the battlefield has some tragic associations, since I had ancestors on both sides of the battle fought there.

    I think you and Mr. Ewing are right: it’s our childhood we miss, when we go back. What I remember, and miss, are lazy summer days when my brother and I would go downtown barefoot, even to the courthouse, where we’d climb the cool marble stairs indented in the middle by generations of feet, and watch our father “perform” in court from the balcony. We’d hop from shady spot to shady spot on the sidewalk, to avoid blistering our feet. We’d go to the movies (yes, barefoot) and watch double features with those old authoritative-voiced black and white news clips.

    And Wednesday afternoons, before choir practice, when my friends John and Joe and I would go to the druggist counter downtown to have cherry Dr. Peppers with peppermint dissolved in them, followed by hamburgers with grilled onions and mayonnaise.

    We can never go back. But we have our memories, and maybe they’re almost as good as going back….

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