By Diane Silcox-Jarrett
From a distance the early 1900s might seem like an unhurried time in Fayetteville. It was a time when a walk down the tree-lined streets of Green and Gillespie meant a stroll, when children played with their marbles and yo-yos on front porches and tunes like “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” and “It’s A Long, Long, Way to Tipperary” floated out of windows from spinets hidden by the lace curtains. But don’t let relaxing images of reading a book on a wrap around porch or tending to a garden full of roses and white spirea fool you. Things were bustling in Fayetteville at the beginning of the 20th century. It was quite the vivacious place.
Fayetteville was a center for trade and commerce. One of the best known businesses was Huske Hardware Store, which catered to merchants and travelers by supplying goods from stoves to sashes. Founded by Benjamin Huske in 1904, Huske Hardware became known as one of the central places to shop and gather. Another landmark was the five-story Stein Building, the tallest building in the city in the early 1900s. “It was built in 1917 by brothers Jacob and Kalman Stein and was a department store which mainly sold clothing,” said Bruce Daws, director of the Fayetteville Transportation Museum and Local History Museum.
Transportation was changing the face of Fayetteville in these decades. It wasn’t just the new fangled automobile that was making its way through town; the electric street car debuted at the turn of the century. It was noisy and scared what most people in town still used as transportation, horses and buggies. It was later replaced with a gas powered street car, which also chugged down Fayetteville’s streets for only a short time.
However, these jolly, bustling times in Fayetteville came to a stand still at the end of the summer of 1908. Rains fell hard in the region starting on August 25, 1908. That day, a Sunday, was a typical of late summer in town — hot, humid and muggy. Most Sundays back then people enjoyed the hours after church by sitting in the shade and enjoying some fresh peach ice cream one last time before peach season ended. But that Sunday the rains came in the early evening, and the constant hard downpour didn’t stop for two days. The Fayetteville Observer of August 27th reported that 4.86 inches of rain fell from Sunday to early Monday morning. According to Mr. Frank Glover, the local representative of the Government Weather Bureau back then, “it was the largest rainfall recorded for any 24 hours in the last seventeen years.”
As the rains continued, the citizens of Fayetteville were likely pondering the possibility flooding on the Cape Fear River, something they referred to as a “freshet.” Some of the older folks in Fayetteville might have had an idea of what was to come having lived through previous freshets — even naming a few of them. The Sherman’s Freshet occurred in 1865 when the river rose while the Yankees were leaving town. It was followed by the Populist Freshet in 1895 and the Prohibition Freshet of 1901. As the rains drenched the area, people reacted much as we do today when an ominous natural disaster is impending; they rushed to Huske Hardware to buy boots, umbrellas and eggs. Boats normally used for leisurely fishing were secured tightly in the anticipation of their becoming the only mode of transportation once the floodwaters came.
What did come that late August of 1908 was beyond anyone’s expectations or fears; according to the Fayetteville Observer, the Cape Fear River crested at “the phenomenal height of 71 feet.” In the newspaper’s recounting: “The flood extended east of the river as far as the eye can see, and west one and one-half miles, to the heart of town.”
It was estimated at the time that two-hundred homes were surrounded by water. Any sense of adventure soon vanished. The Fayetteville Observer reported, “The novelty of using boats as a means of transportation through the streets, and to homes, has about worn off and it is now looked upon as a matter of course… Several accidents in this mode of transportation have happened, but all more or less of a ludicrous nature, especially where some clumsy citizen shifts too near the side of a bateau and turns it over, sending its occupants into the water.”
Humor did prevail despite the flood waters running through the city, as humidity hung in the air. It was reported one family was amused that one of their turkeys decided to become the “guardian” of the house and stood “proudly on top of the house surveying with dignified nerve, the flood around him.”
Eventually the flood waters receded, and the citizens of Fayetteville, having survived a yet another freshet, returned to the business of growing their city. The electric street cars came to town in 1911 and by 1919 the street car lines reached all the way up to Haymount Hill. In 1912, the first paved street in Fayetteville was Green Street, with its stately trees shading the new pavement.
Three new hospitals were built, the Cumberland General Hospital, Highsmith and St. Lukes. During this period two of the downtown churches built large structures; Hay Street United Methodist Church completed their Gothic Revival structure in 1908, and First Baptist Church completed their Roman Revival Brick Church in 1910. Orange Street School, the first graded public school for African American children, was built in 1915. Two stories tall, it welcomed 853 children through its doors. “The attendance at the school daily was approximately 500,” explained Daws.
And March 7th, 1914 brought Fayetteville’s baseball fans a moment in sports history they would never forget. A young 19-year-old named George Herman Ruth, a rookie pitcher with the Baltimore Orioles, was at a training camp in Fayetteville. During his first professional game at the Cape Fear Fairgrounds, fans from Fayetteville witnessed history. Ruth hit his first major league home run that day, which amazed and dazzled the crowd who had gathered on the chilly March day. Some there claimed the ball landed in a cornfield next to the baseball field while others say they saw it land beyond in a millpond. It was also in Fayetteville where Ruth acquired his nickname — Babe — and began to cement his position as a baseball icon.
In 1918, the Department of War made the decision to locate a field artillery cantonment near Fayetteville. They named it Camp Bragg. “At the end of World War I the camp might as well have been 100 miles away from Fayetteville,” said Daws. “There just wasn’t a good way to get there. The camp was growing and needed trades people to come and work. A rail system was put in for the trades people in Fayetteville to ride to Camp Bragg,” he explained. “From that time on the relationship between the town and Camp Bragg grew.”
Families grew along with the town, families such as the Poes, who lived on Bradford Avenue. Edgar Allen Poe (not the famous writer) was in the brick business, and his daughter, Lillie, kept a diary which gives us insight into life in Fayetteville during the early 1900s. Just like children today she celebrated Halloween. (Modern day residents can partake in a Poe family Halloween experience by visiting the Historic Poe House this month, see page 71.) Her entry from Saturday Oct 31, 1903: “Fair and warm. Went to ride with Elisabeth and France to get pumpkins. All the school children went over to Mrs. Morrow’s Halloween night; we had a delightful time. We carried lanterns made of a hat box.”
The first twenty years of the 20th century were a very active time in Fayetteville, a time when parades were popular, with cars and buggies decorated with flowers and pretty young ladies waving from them; a time of growth and of people unflinchingly facing their difficulties. Take a walk by the Stein building, Orange Street School, or through the downtown. Stop for a second and imagine the sound of the street cars or maybe a melody from one of the long ago spinet pianos playing, “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.” But don’t imagine Fayetteville was just a sleepy little town, the people who lived then were anything but idle.