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AMERICA was plunged into World War II with the assault of the Japanese upon Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and once again Charlotte was selected as the site of war facilities. Morris Field was established six miles west of the city as a military air base, the huge Ford Motor Company former assembly plant on Statesville Avenue was converted and greatly expanded into a quartermaster depot from which training camps and other military facilities in the Carolinas were supplied, and ten miles southwest of Charlotte on York Road a tremendous shell-loading plant was built to produce ammunition for the Navy. This great facility at times employed some 10,000 men and women. Before World War II ended with the capitulation of Japan, Mecklenburg furnished more than 21,000 men and women to the services, of whom nearly 600 gave their lives.
World War II and the Korean conflict of 1950-53 slowed but did not halt the advance of Charlotte and rural Mecklenburg. During the decade of the '50's the city and county entered upon the most notable phase of their accomplishment in the two-century history of the community. This development was not entirely an expansion in population and economic enterprise. Not only would business already established record remarkable growth and new industry move into Mecklenburg to bring citizens and add millions in payrolls, but also this period would mark a tremendous advancement in the other phases of community life, including the cultural.
As Charlotte through the years has gained a more pronounced leadership in the business and industry of North Carolina, there have been those, even Charlotteans, who have contended that Mecklenburgers have been little interested in phases of life not related directly to economic and industrial expansion. The Chamber of Commerce and other civic groups, they insist, have limited their promotional activities to bringing in new business, building new manufacturing plants, obtaining enlarged and improved transportation facilities, and in other ways developing the financial structure. Bank clearings, cardloadings, sales volume - these things, say such critics, have been emphasized to the almost complete neglect of cultural activities.
But such indictment cannot be sustained. Even the Chamber of Commerce, established primarily to foster such growth, through the years has given considerable attention to the advancement of the community's cultural life. In 1925, the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the promulgation of the Mecklenburg declaration, the Chamber led in sponsoring the production of what until that year had been the largest dramatic spectacle ever to commemorate the Mecklenburg independence day. Several hundred people participated in the planning, production, and staging of The Pageant of Charlotte and Old Mecklenburg, written by Thomas Wood Stevens and staged in the amphitheatre of Independence Park, then a delightfully landscaped outdoor theatre upon which a few years later the city's American Legion Memorial Stadium was built. Clarence Kuester effectively coordinated the activities of the various patriotic societies and other groups promoting this sesquicentennial celebration.
And twenty-three years later Mr. Kuester was the guiding spirit in originating and organizing efforts that culminated in the staging of Shout Freedom! at the Southern States Fair Grounds nightly, with the exception of Sunday, from May 20 through June 3. This production was staged on an outdoor set, the largest ever built in America. A half dozen or more full-size reproductions of the buildings of Charlottetown in 1775 were erected along a stage front of two hundred yards width and across the lake from the grandstand. Some 50,000 persons saw the play in which a cast of several hundred persons presented in drama, music, and dancing a lively story of Mecklenburg's fight for freedom. This huge production was largely written, planned, promoted, and produced by Mecklenburgers, many of whom were descendants of the colonial men and women they were portraying. Mr. Kuester, who had retired form his post of executive vice-president and general manager of the Chamber of Commerce on January 1, 1948, died March 12 a few minutes after his return home from a meeting of the general committee planning the May 20 commemoration. When the play opened in May one of the performances was designated as a memorial to Charlotte's lifelong loyal son and most enthusiastic promoter.
Shout Freedom! was directed by Thomas B. Humble, who eighteen years earlier had come to Charlotte as director of the newly organized Little Theatre. This institution in the thirty years of its uninterrupted activity has produced scores of plays of importance in highly professional manner and hundreds of Charlotteans have had parts in the casts.
In this same period, too, theatrical groups, musical organizations, including the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, the Charlotte Community Concert Association, the Charlotte Opera Association, the Charlotte Community Christmas Chorus, and numerous other organizations in the world of the arts combined to give Mecklenburg wide recognition as a center of culture as well as commerce.
Several Mecklenburgers became famous as entertainers. The best known of this group came into the national spotlight from college bands they had organized or in which they had played, including Hal Kemp and John Scott Trotter of Charlotte, left-handed violinist Johnny Long of Newell, and Betty Johnson of Paw Creek, who went from the Johnson Family singers into radio and television. Cowboy hero Randolph Scott played on Charlotte's streets in his boyhood.
Charlotte would gain added distinction as a center of cultural activities through the removal of the old United States Mint from its original place beside the post office on West Trade Street to a site in Eastover. In the movement to preserve and move the historic structure and transform it into a museum of art, many Charlotte citizens provided support, and through the years its work has been advanced with enthusiasm by such leaders as Mrs. H. C. Dwelle and Mrs. Lewis C. Burwell.
The modern interest in art might be credited to a group of artists whose contributions were made in the early decades of this century. Among them were Miss Blossom Lucas, whose studio behind her home on the corner of East Avenue and Davidson Street was a favorite meeting place of the Charlotte colony of painters. Miss Lucas was known throughout the country for the excellence of her chinaware painting, which was very much the vogue in those days. A Dr. Ortell, and Austrian, who later became an Episcopal rector and left some of his work to Sewanee, was another Charlotte resident distinguished as a painter. For a time Charlotte had as a resident, also, an artist, William Funk, who later became a favorite painter of Kaiser Wilhelm's family. Another painter of that period was Miss Annie Rankin, a pupil of the celebrated William Chase.
In recent years three native born contemporaries would be among Charlotte's more widely recognized painters, portraitists, and cartoonists. Kenneth Whitsett and Eugene Thomason work extensively in both water colors and oils, and Russell Henderson chiefly in water colors. In recent years Dayrell Kortheuer and Charles Clement Tucker, residents though not native Charlotteans, have achieved distinction as portrait painters. And in the years before these men were working, Andrew Hutchinson was widely known as a cartoonist who contributed drawings to the old humorous magazine Life and other notable periodicals of his day. In sculpture Professor Charles Bentine was the first resident to receive national recognition. His work included the Andrew Carnegie bas relief for the Charlotte Public Library and other Carnegie libraries in the nation and busts of Isaac Erwin Avery and John Charles McNeill. Sarah Everett Toy's work in sculpture presently has won her considerable recognition, and there are many Charlotteans doing excellent work in painting, among them Katherine Kortheuer, Alice Steadman, Dorothy DeLaney, and others probably not as well known in their fields. As Mecklenburg approaches the last third of the twentieth century, the participation of its citizens in the various arts, either as amateurs or professionals, multiplies as interest increases and broadens.
The greatest single example of such interest, even to the point of active participation, was the planning, promotion, and production of the largest symphonic drama ever staged in North Carolina. The Presbyterian bicentennial commemoration's Voice in the Wilderness, a play with music, song, dance and pantomime, was staged on June 14-16 and 19 in 1955 at the Southern State Fair Grounds. The site is within a few hundred yards of old Sugaw Creek Church, where two centuries before much of the action of the drama had taken place. Significantly, a great majority of the more than 400 members of the cast - men and women, boys and girls, babies in arms, actors from a few months of age to past eighty years - were descendants of Mecklenburgers they were portraying, and many of the thousands watching likewise were descendants of those pioneer patriots and churchmen.
More than two dozen committees under the general chairmanship of A. Grant Whitney, with John McDowell as production coordinator, Dr. R. H. Stone, clerk of Mecklenburg Presbytery, as secretary-treasurer, and Rufus A. Grier as chairman of the Presbytery's bicentennial committee, directed the project from inception to completed production.
The first recorded effort in the field of arts in Mecklenburg, however, was in writing. It was titled A Modern Poem by The Mecklenburg Censor. Reputed to have been written by Adam Brevard, brother of Dr. Ephraim Brevard, it lampoons in saucy rhyme certain prominent citizens of Mecklenburg. A rare old manuscript of this poem of some 245 lines was preserved in the Charleston, South Carolina, Library. It was distributed, perhaps in a few handwritten copies, in Mecklenburg in 1777. A Modern Poem is published in full in the concluding pages of James H. Moore's Defence of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence.
In those early years the principal writing activities were by ministers developing subjects of a theological character, extensive research by Dr. Chalmers G. Davidson has revealed. The authors of these pamphlets were men like the Rev. James Wallis of Providence and the Rev. Samuel Craighead Caldwell of Sugaw Creek and Hopewell. The purpose of these men primarily was to refute the wave of French deism that gained a foothold in this section in the last decade of the eighteenth century. And until the period of the War Between the States the little writing that appears to have been done in Mecklenburg was in the general field of religion, including such works as collected sermons of eminent divines, or treatises on political and governmental or educational subjects. The only writer of what could be termed belles-lettres in that day in Mecklenburg, Dr. Davidson finds, was a native Mecklenburger, Philo Henderson, who wrote poems. He attended Davidson College and the University of North Carolina, returned to Charlotte as a lawyer and editor of The Hornet's Nest and died young, heartbroken at the death of his beautiful fiancee, tradition declares.
In 1866 General D. H. Hill returned to Mecklenburg and established in Charlotte the first literary periodical in this county. He called it The Land We Love. It contained poems, fiction, and essays; its primary purpose was to insure the recording of the war in a manner fair to the Confederacy.
General Hill, in his earlier career as a teacher at Davidson College, had written an algebra textbook. Some of the problems he had devised indicated quite clearly his strong Southern attachments. One problem, quoted by Dr. Chalmers Davidson in his study of Mecklenburg literature, is illustrative:
A Yankee mixes a certain number of wooden nutmegs, which cost him 1/4 cent apiece, with a quantity of real nutmegs, worth 4 cents apiece, and sells the whole assortment of $44; and gains $3.75 by the fraud. How many wooden nutmegs were there?
One of the frequent contributors to General Hill's The Land We Love was Mecklenburg's first resident novelist. Though a native of Portsmouth, Virginia, Mrs. Fanny Murdaugh Downing came to Charlotte when the Federal forces overran the Norfolk-Portsmouth region. She continued to live in Charlotte until 1869, and it was during the period spent in this community that she wrote countless long and short poems, including many published by General Hill, and the first novel, titled Nameless, written in this county. It was published in Raleigh in 1865; the setting of the story is England.
For the next half century little was written in Mecklenburg, however, except of a biographical or historical nature. Among these were the books of Dr. J. B. Alexander and D. A. Tompkins that provide much of the information available concerning the first century and a half of Mecklenburg life. In 1897 Clement Dowd wrote The Life of Zebulon Baird Vance.
But it was in the first decade of the new century - when the Alexander and Tompkins books and the declaration arguments were published - that writing newspapermen in Charlotte would emerge from the columns of their newspapers to do books that would bring them more than local fame. Three reporters on the staff of The Charlotte Observer, edited by the widely known and still remembered J. P. Caldwell, would be in the forefront of a company of newspapermen who during the next half century would produce scores of volumes, several of which became international best sellers. Two of the three, Isaac Erwin Avery and John Charles McNeill, came to The Observer from other communities, but the third, H. E. C. Bryant, widely known as "Red Buck" Bryant, was a native of the Providence community in southern Mecklenburg. Mr. Avery's volume of essays, Idle Comments, published in 1905, and Mr. McNeill's Songs Merry and Sad and Lyrics from Cotton Land, would be recalled by appreciative readers decades after the deaths of the authors. Each died at the age of thirty-three, Mr. McNeill of what the physicians termed a "wasting illness."
Mr. Bryant, who wrote Tar Heel Tales, went from The Observer to other newspapers and for many years was chief of the Washington news bureaus of the New York World and The Charlotte Observer. In retirement after a distinguished career, he continues to write newspaper columns in which he reminisces entertainingly and nostalgically of the Mecklenburg of years ago.
From the Caldwell era of Mecklenburg journalism through World War I and to the rising shadow of Hitlerism, newspapermen kept busy at their chores. But this dearth of publishing was broken in 1937 with the publication of Marshal Ney: A Dual Life, by LeGette Blythe, which subsequently was published in Great Britain and Germany, and for the next two decades Mecklenburg's production of books - novels, biographies, plays, books of verse, volumes on religious subjects, analytical works - kept pace with its advance in the economics of business and industry.
In this period of resurgence in writing in Mecklenburg the North Carolina Mayflower Cup, awarded annually for the best book of non-fiction and for years given for the best book in any field written by a resident of the state, was awarded to four persons closely rooted to this county. The first winner was W. J. Cash, whose book, The Mind of the South, earned the plaudits of critics everywhere as one of the most brilliant volumes of analysis and interpretation done in that era in the nation. Mr. Cash, though not a native Mecklenburger, wrote his book while engaged as associate editor of The Charlotte News. He died the year the book was released, 1941, and the Mayflower award was made posthumously. In 1958 a former editor of The News, Burke Davis, won the cup with his To Appomattox. But Mr. Davis had begun his publishing during his newspaper career in Charlotte. His first book, a novel titled Whisper My Name, had a Charlotte locale; it would be the forerunner of several important novels and biographical works by Mr. Davis.
The other two Mayflower Cup winners, however, were Mecklenburg natives and one has been a lifelong resident of the county. The book, Miracle in the Hills, by Dr. Mary Martin Sloop and Mr. Blythe, was awarded the cup in 1953. It is the account of Mrs. Sloop's unique mountain school at Crossnore. She was a native of Davidson, though much of her life was spent in the North Carolina mountains. A Japanese translation of the book carried her story into that ancient land. Mr. Blythe had served many years on the staffs of the Charlotte newspapers.
Marian Sims of Charlotte wrote both novels and short stories for the largely circulated popular magazines. Her novels, particularly The City on the Hill, which has a locale and characters bearing a strong resemblance to Charlotte and Charlotteans, are authentic and believable reflections of the current scene. Her Beyond Surrender was a venture, unique for her, into historical fiction; it is the story of the War Between the States. Other Sims titles are Morning Star, The World with a Fence, Call It Freedom, Memo to Timothy Sheldon, and Storm Before Daybreak, published over a decade and a half between the early nineteen-thirties and 1946.
It was a young Mecklenburg newspaperman, however, a resident though not a native, who would in the early years of World War II write a book of non-fiction that within a few months after publication became a sensational best seller and the basis of a successful motion picture. See Here, Private Hargrove, was a compilation of columns Marion Hargrove had sent back to The Charlotte News, on which he was working when he went into the Army. The book sold into the millions, and is listed as one of the twenty-one best sellers of all time. From his Army experience Mr. Hargrove went to New York, where he continued to write, and from there to Hollywood. Other books followed, none comparable in success to the first.
Before young Hargrove was scoring his amazing success, however, another Charlotte News writer, Tim Pridgen, had begun publishing. His first book was Tory Oath, a story of the Revolution in his native Bladen County. Courage, a story of modern cockfighting, followed. West Goes the Road, another novel tracing the early movement into Tennessee, was published shortly after Mr. Pridgen's moving to that state.
Two other Charlotte newspapermen collaborated to do an intriguing novel concerned with Indians thought by some to have been descendants of Croatans and members of John White's lost colony of Roanoke Island. Written by John Paul Lucas, Jr., and Bailey T. Groome, the novel is titled The King of Scuffletown. It was published in 1940.
In that same year one of two historical novels with locales in Mecklenburg was published. It was Alexandriana. The time of the story was early Mecklenburg just prior to and during the Revolution. This novel, by LeGette Blythe, was followed in 1949 by Chalmers G. Davidson's Cloud Over Catawba, a story, done with the care of a professional historian, about the antebellum planters living along the banks of that stream. But for the novel that would outsell all other books written by a native of the county, LeGette Blythe went for his locale to the other side of the world in the time of Christ. His Bold Galilean is the story of Palestine in the ministry of Jesus. Other Biblical novels by him would follow, among them A Tear for Judas and The Crown Tree.
But Mecklenburg authors with little or no newspaper writing background also produced many books. The majority of these volumes were written by ministers on subjects related to religion. This group of authors included Dr. G. Ray Jordan; Dr. Clovis G. Chappell; Bishop Herbert Spaugh, who for many years also was contributing a daily newspaper column of counsel; President Walter L. Lingle of Davidson College; Dr. John A. Redhead, Jr.; Dr. Ernest Lee Stoffel; Rev. J. G. Garth; Bishop Costen J. Harrell; Dr. John R. Brokhoff; Dr. J. S. Nathaniel Tross; and Rev. J. A. Baldwin. In that period, too, Mary Bledsoe Gillett published a novel, Shadows Slant North. And Dr. Davidson added several biographies, including Major John Davidson of Rural Hill (which preceded his Cloud Over Catawba), Friend of the People, and Piedmont Partisan.
In that period, also, books of a local character, including several family journals, were published by Mecklenburg citizens. J. B. Ivey, noted Charlotte merchant who had gained distinction also as a flower grower, published his memoirs. Some years later David Ovens, his associate in merchandising, penned his memoirs under the title If This Be Treason. And through the years Mrs. Ethel Dabbs Thomas brought out several light novels related to the lives of textile operatives of the area.
The newspaper writing fraternity, either active journalists or of former long experience in that field, continued to produce books that propelled Mecklenburg farther into the front rank of southeastern communities distinguished for their writing achievements. In the decade of the nineteen-fifties, these writers were particularly busy; certainly no other ten years in Mecklenburg's history produced as many Mecklenburg-authored volumes, and they were in many fields.
But it was in this decade, as it neared the end, that another resident of Meckenburg would have startling success as author of three best selling books that would attain tremendous national distribution. In hard covers and paperbacks they would sell into the millions. He was Harry Golden, and he had come to Charlotte - he was born in New York's lower East Side - and launched a unique periodical called The Carolina Israelite. His three books were collections of short editorials, criticisms, and essay-type articles taken in the main from the issues of his paper. Much of the selecting and editing was done by his son, Harry Golden, Jr., who had worked for several years on The Observer. The first book, and the most successful, was his Only in America. Two others, following shortly upon the first, also quickly gained enthusiastic reception. They were For 2 Cents Plain and Enjoy, Enjoy! Each book upon publication shot upward in the best selling lists and mounted to a phenomenal sales total.
And certainly not to be overlooked in the listing of Mecklenburg writers is one who in this generation surely has become the best known native in the county, the Reverend William Franklin Graham. Many books have been written by or about him. Billy Graham, reared on the dairy farm of his parents on the outskirts of the Charlotte of his boyhood, has preached to countless millions throughout the world. He will be recorded as the most noted evangelist of the era.
Significant in Mecklenburg's cultural advance in the nineteen-fifties, too, was establishment in Charlotte midway of the decade of a publishing house designed to manufacture and publish books, particularly of a community or sectional interest.
In this time of resurgence in writing, Mecklenburg was also reading. This would be shown in the mounting sales volumes of the book stores, but even more noticeably in the surging monthly circulation reports of the Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County's main library, its various branches and stations, and its traveling bookmobile. Under the leadership of Director Hoyt Galvin, the library, which enjoyed a tremendous expansion of plant in the middle years of the fifties, became an institution fulfilling an increasingly important function in the day-to-day life of Mecklenburg's citizenship. The handsome and highly functional main library on the North Tryon Street site of the old Carnegie Public Library was recognized immediately as one of the finest library facilities in the South, and the several branches in the city and at Davidson, Cornelius, Huntersville, Matthews, and Pineville, each a building planned and constructed to serve the library needs of its community, have contributed greatly to the general advancement of the arts.
So, as the 'fifties ended and emerged into the 'sixties, Mecklenburg had satisfactorily refuted the frequently heard contention that all its interests and efforts centered upon gaining population, increasing its manufactured products output, and enlarging wholesale and retail sales volumes through widening their distribution. Though the city and county were giving much emphasis to the accomplishment of these laudable economic goals, they were not doing so, it was becoming more abundantly evident each year, to the exclusion of the advancement of the cultural.
Blythe, LeGette and Brockmann, Charles Raven. Hornets' Nest: The Story of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. Charlotte, NC: Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, 1961.