By RAHN ADAMS
After last weekend’s Historic Morganton Festival, Timberley and I had to watch our step on our evening walks downtown. For a couple of days, gobs of gum, shards of glass and doggy IEDs littered some of the sidewalks on our usual route.
If you’re wondering, that’s Impromptu Excremental Doo. And, yes, I hate getting it on my shoes worse than anything. So now I carry a tactical flashlight on our zero-dark-thirty patrols around the Historic District—just for self-defense, mind you.
Last weekend our schedule didn’t allow us to attend the Friday and Saturday evening concerts that attracted the largest crowds downtown, but we did manage to walk through the festival booths on the courthouse square and on Union, Sterling and Green Streets around noon on Saturday. It was gratifying to see so many folks downtown, even though attendance seemed down somewhat.
Not only were the walkways through the rows of booths less crowded this year, we also noticed more empty vendor spaces than usual. Maybe it was the sunny, humid morning. Having walked the three blocks into town from home, I was looking for relief from the mid-day sun once we reached the festival, but most of the shade under the trees on the square had already been taken.
Or maybe folks were elsewhere for other good reasons—tailgating in Boone before Appalachian State University’s first home football game, viewing fantastic sculptures in Lenoir at the Broyhill Walking Park, or enjoying homecomings and other get-togethers here or there, as was the case with Timberley’s family Saturday afternoon. It was a busy weekend.
Now, I could be completely wrong about attendance and participation being off this year, though I did walk past the row of porta-potties on Avery Avenue to see if former mayor Mel Cohen was there counting empty toilet rolls. When he served as the city’s downtown coordinator and helped organize the festival 35 years ago, that was how he claimed to estimate attendance.
Mel did a great job back then as Main Street Program director, helping to keep our downtown alive longer than the central business districts of other area municipalities; and as mayor for the next 30 years, leading efforts to revitalize our downtown and the city’s many parks and recreation areas, in particular. Mel was Mr. Morganton, and he certainly deserves our thanks.
If I had run into Mel on Saturday, I would have bought him a funnel cake with extra powdered sugar. When I was news director at WMNC in the mid-1980s, he always did the little things to let me know that my work mattered, like delivering Christmas cookies to my house one night, making sure I had tickets to the opening night of the City of Morganton Municipal Auditorium (CoMMA), and later encouraging me—day after day after day—to cover a Beatles tribute band coming to town as if they were the real Fab Four. Again, thanks, Mel.
Downtown Morganton does occupy a special place in our hearts and always will. Timberley and I were both born in the old Grace Hospital, located on College Street where the CoMMA now stands. We both worked downtown in the 1970s and 1980s—both of us starting out at The News Herald, then me working at Morganton Hardware and Timberley handling advertising at Belk.
In fact, my first real job ever was delivering tearsheets—copies of newspaper advertisements—to businesses around town, back when The News Herald was a weekday afternoon daily. After separating and sorting the inky pages of maybe 30 copies, I would set out on foot from the newspaper’s parking lot on Collett Street and deliver first to downtown advertisers before returning for my car. I enjoyed walking around town, and I still do.
Of course, I also had to cruise past every record rack in town as I made my daily rounds. I had begun building my collection of (real, not fake) Beatles, solo Beatle, and Wings LPs, and I can tell you even now where I bought every single album. I’m not sure if my boss at the paper knew what I was doing. If so, he didn’t reprimand me—or hold it against me later when I started dating his daughter or after I eventually married her.
On Valentine’s Day 1982, I offered Timberley a diamond ring over dinner at Johnny Barron’s Stone House Restaurant, located in the cottage-like structure on Meeting Street where Wisteria Southern Gastropub now operates. During our courtship, we listened to local rock bands like C.O.Y.O.T.E. downstairs in the bar then called Fanny Hall’s, now Wisteria Pub. On the Saturday after Thanksgiving that same year, we wed at the First United Methodist Church downtown, where we still worship. I liked that gray-stone building across from the newspaper office long before Timberley and I met.
And someday we will be buried in the city’s sylvan Forest Hill Cemetery. Funeral arrangements are incomplete and hopefully will remain so for a long, long time. We bought plots 20 years ago but have never located them, partly because the cemetery office is always closed when we visit. We did learn, though, that they don’t lie next to Timberley’s father, as we had assumed they would. But that’s what we get for letting the “wicked step-mother” make the deal for us.
I just wish downtown Morganton could celebrate something each September other than its history, although autumn is the season when we seem to begin looking back at the past year. The urge to reflect usually wanes at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve as we begin looking to the future in earnest. Still, Marion and Shelby celebrate livermush; Lenoir, one of my other hometowns, celebrates blackberries, BBQ, blues music and high school bands; and Valdese, another hometown of mine, celebrates its Waldensian heritage, not just the historic nature of the town. You’d think Morganton could come up with something more specific than history to celebrate.
To explain, my list of hometowns includes Morganton, Towanda, Ill., Zion, Ill., Lenoir (Yadkin Valley), Valdese, Calabash, Ocean Isle Beach and Boone (Valle Crucis and Rutherwood)—all places I’ve lived for at least a couple of years. I’ve been an immigrant all my life.
Also, I do know that fall doesn’t officially start until Sept. 22nd; however, my four seasons differ from those in the almanac. In my book, summer is from Memorial Day to Labor Day; fall, from the Tuesday after Labor Day to the first good snowfall (which in Boone, where we’ve lived for the past 20 years, could be as early as Halloween); winter, from the first good snowfall to the last piddling one (which in Boone is usually after Easter); and finally spring, whatever is left.
But I digress.
Sometimes I wish downtown Morganton could celebrate not just the historic structures that line the city’s historic streets but also the people who bring those special places to life, whether in the here and now, or in our memories. Morganton’s history may be the subject of books—like those written by J. Alex Mull, Dr. Edward Phifer and my old history teacher Larry Clark—but ultimately the city’s past is something personal to each of its citizens, based on the individual connections we have made with the people in those places that we cherish. Simply put, most man-made places are only as special as the men and women who inhabit them.
I still associate certain places with certain people downtown, even though the individuals are no longer with us and the places have changed—for example, publisher J.D. Fitz, editor Stanley Moore and advertising director Nat Gilliam, my father-in-law, with The News Herald building, in its same Collett Street location; owners Bootsie and Ed McGimsey, hardware manager Walt Hennessee and sporting goods manager Bill Crites with the old Morganton Hardware building on West Union Street; and store manager George Williams and department managers L.G. Hamrick and Minnie Williams with the old Belk building on down West Union.
Whenever I think of those people, I see them in those particular places, even though the old hardware building now houses law offices and the Burke County Republican Party headquarters; and the old Belk building is now a fitness center. But that wasn’t Ed, Walt or Bill whom I saw standing outside the hardware during the festival on Saturday. No, it wasn’t one of those down-to-earth men of integrity from whom I had learned the hardware business; it was a larger-than-life, cardboard cutout of Donald Trump. Some things do change.
So when you think of Morganton on the whole, whose face do you see in your mind’s eye? Who is your Mr. or Ms. Morganton for all time? Who made Morganton—or the Mimosa City, Motown or Ton City, whatever you call it—a special place for you?
Senator Sam? Coach Mac? The News Herald’s Beatrice Cobb? Educator R.L. Patton? Dr. Phifer? Paramedic, fireman, teacher Randy McKinney? Maybe a former mayor like Andy Kistler or Paul Cash? Attorney Bob Byrd? Insurance man Frank Bowers? Cafe owner Pat Callahan? How about a famous golfer like Billy Joe Patton or Joe Cheves? Blues legend Etta Baker? Motown Records’ Johnny Bristol? Or any number of other individuals—well-known or not, living or dead—whose contributions and characters have made Morganton the place it is today?
And that’s the rub of the green, as Billy Joe might have said after almost winning the ’54 Masters as an amateur—or maybe it was some guy down at Sterling Billiards who said that after sinking the eight-ball. That’s probably why downtown Morganton celebrates its history, not a single individual or group—because our city on the whole has always been greater than the sum of its parts. Ol’ Aristotle Duckworth said something like that.
And that must never change.