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Grand Old City


Looking back on downtown Fayetteville in the 1950s

Nat King Cole’s “Unforgettable” was not the No. 1 song of 1951.

But, given the luxury of time travel, you’d be hardpressed to find a more memorable tune that year.

Sixty years ago young lovers were whispering his words as they walked through downtown Fayetteville, which at the time was a mecca for large department stores, boutiques, beauty and barber shops, billiard halls, soda shops and fine dining, movie theaters, churches, schools, drug stores, motor vehicle showrooms, grand hotels and working-man motels, with people hanging out on street corners just to feel the pulse of an energized city.

Hank Gilbert was there 60 years ago, having just arrived at the bustling Atlantic Coastline Depot as he prepared to have the paperwork completed for his discharge from the U.S. Army.

That was the moment the New York native fell in love with the city. So impressed was he with the downtown atmosphere, Gilbert decided to live there for the next two decades.

“It had anything and everything you could ask for in abundant supply,” said the 93-year-old Gilbert, who now lives in Tampa but can relive snapshots of the downtown as if it were an 8mm home movie.

“I had purchased a camera in Germany and took five rolls of film that November day in 1951,” Gilbert said. “I pull them out now and show them to my children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, and they are amazed when I tell the stories behind them. For me, it was truly an unforgettable time and place.”

That month President Harry Truman had officially declared an end to the war with Germany and a new era had started nationwide.

Post-World War II Baby Boomers were hard working, progressive, and explored the landscape, including downtown Fayette- ville, which served as their commercial center and playground.

Their children would save their allowances to attend Saturday Westerns, such as John Wayne’s iconic “Rio Grande” at the Broadway, Haymont, Colony and Carolina theaters.

Adults showed up for movies such as MGM’s movie version of “Showboat,” which starred Smithfield’s Ava Gardner, “Alice in Wonderland,” “A Streetcar Named Desire” and Humphrey Bogart’s “African Queen.”

Fayetteville movie houses were packed and anyone wanting a seat needed to arrive early, according to Gilbert.

“Going to the movies wasn’t the only thing to do, but it was something everyone did,” he said. “And before or after you took the time to eat, maybe shop and walk about. You didn’t have to go far to find something interesting.”

The Point News, Carolina Soda and Brady’s were popular soda shops where people would grab a hotdog, burger, French fries or milk shake, and throw a coin into the jukebox.

There were more than 13 billiard halls in the downtown district and the Lucky Strike Bowling Alley was at 334 Franklin St.

At the time there were no warehouse-style hardware super stores — and none were needed. Friendly service and selection could be found at hardware stores such as Huske Hardware on Hay Street, A.E. Rankin on Person Street and Dixie Paint and Hardware on Gillespie Street.

Malls were likewise a future concept, too. That need was met by the downtown retailers — Belk Hensdale, JC Penny, Sears Roebuck and Co., Montgomery Ward, Capitol Department Store, Fleishman’s Big Store and the Raylass Department Store — all of which catered to the needs of the masses.

If you couldn’t find what you needed there or wanted to stretch the dollars in your wallet, you could browse through the aisles of Kress Department Store, Rose’s 5-10-25 Cent Store or McCrory’s Department Store, all on Hay Street. You could often find items there you had no idea you needed.

Specialty retail shops sold the latest hats, shoes and other finishing items. If you bought a wedding ring, watch or necklace it most likely came from the windows of the Jewel Box, Hatcher’s Jewelry and Henebry’s Jewelry, all on Hay Street.

Barber and beauty shops provided basic and pampering services. Waiting in line was not looked upon as a chore, but rather a time to chat.

The superhighway of the day was U.S. 301 and attracted travelers of all categories since Fayetteville was the halfway point between New York City and the Florida hotspots.

The city’s classiest hotel was the Prince Charles. The Old Lafayette Hotel (at 207 Hay St.) and the Millbrook (at 101 Green St.) were nice but were beginning to show age spots then.

The Rainbow Hotel, located at 221 Hay St., was the pick for many traveling businessmen. Trailer camps, motels, and tourist homes offered additional lodging. Travelers frequented tourist homes in part because of the Southern cooking and hospitality that were offered.

Bender, Horne’s, MacKeithan and the Fayetteville Drug Company were pharmacies where people would purchase medicine, first aid and health supplies. Since the nation was still segregated, the Henderson Drug Company on Person St. and Service Drug Company on Matthews Street were popular pharmacies for the city’s black residents.

Detroit’s Big Three ruled the automotive industry and anyone wanting a new vehicle had an array of choices: Yarborough Motor Company and Bleecker Motors on Russell Street, M & O Chevrolet on Franklin Street, Wheatley Motors on Russell Street, T & B Super Service on Hay Street, Bryan Pontiac on Russell Street and Dickinson Buick on Maiden Lane, which is now the location of the Headquarters Library.

“Buying a car was more of a pleasure than a chore back then,” Gilbert said. “You were treated different and everyone waited in anticipation for the release of new models.”

Fayetteville had bubbling bottling business in the 1950s and its own version of cola wars, with Pepsi Cola, Double Cola, Royal Crown, Dr. Pepper, Grapette and 7-Up bottling plants here.

Churches were a bigger part of the culture in 1951, making the downtown an inhabited hub seven days a week. There are at least six churches in the downtown area that have stood the test of time and today are on the list of the National Registry. They include: First Baptist Church, Hay Street United Methodist Church, St. John’s Episcopal Church, First Presbyterian Church, St. Joseph Episcopal Church and Evans AME Zion Church.

Children were a part of the scenery downtown during the week as well, as Central School on Burgess Street, Fayetteville Jr. High on McGilvery Street, Fayetteville Sr. High on Robeson Street, Haymont School at the corner of Hay Street and Hillside Avenue, Person Street School, E.E. Smith on Washington Drive and Orange Street School (which is now on the Historic Registry) were educational outlets.

The four streets — Gillespie, Green, Person and Hay — that grew from the Market House were the arteries of the city. History spews from this centering point. The Market House was the original site of the State House. The current building was built in 1832.

City Historian Bruce Daws had a similar experience to that of Gilbert. He came to Fayetteville in the early 1970s, taking over his current position in 1996.

While he wasn’t in Fayetteville in the 1950s, he sees the imprint it left.

“It was a different time, a hopping downtown that was the place to see and be seen,” Daws said. “Houses were within walking distance, people bought their necessities there and it was a place where it all happened.”

But so-called progress happened, too and the downtown was slowly abandoned. And while it will never be as it was in 1951, it has taken on a new image. Though it may never again be the commercial center it was in 1951, it is beginning to have the same feel as it once did.

“It’s become like a phoenix reinventing itself,” Daws said. “It’s become a place of culture, studios, museums, art, theater, and so much more. “It’s rising again. I’m very proud of our downtown.”

In the past 20 years scores of cities and towns across the country have tried and failed to revitalize downtowns, despite pouring millions of dollars into them.

Judged against all others, Fayetteville’s downtown ranks among the best.

Daws said many “modern” structures built from 1950 through 1970s have been torn down.

“We’re losing them at an alarming rate because they’re not historic in terms of age,” he said. “Endangered modern architecture looks dated to people even though I’d beg to differ.”