Past Times: A typical Tar Heel family travels to the 1940 World's Fair

Posted by Teresa Leonard on April 24, 2014 

In April 1940, newspapers across the country set out to find the typical American family. Forty-eight typical American families to be exact, one representing each state. Each family would travel, all expenses paid, to the World’s Fair in New York, being escorted to the fair in a brand new Deluxe Ford V-8 sedan and living in specially-constructed “FHA approved” model houses on the fairgrounds. A committee of New York newspapermen would then select the ultimate “Typical American Family,” who would receive an additional week’s stay at the fair.

The News & Observer took on the responsibility of selecting the typical Tar Heel family. From 210 nominations, the newspaper selected the Sila Brown family of Snow Hill. Writer Jack Riley introduced the family to N&O readers.

Already the small town dry cleaner and his family are counting the places they wish to see on the expense-free trip – Radio City with Major Bowes and Kay Kyser, a big league ball game, “Romeo and Juliet” on the stage, Coney Island and scores of others.

“I couldn’t believe it at first,” said Mr. Brown. “Now I’m beginning to take in the idea of going to the fair.”

Fourteen-year-old Dorothy said she got the thrill that comes “once in a lifetime” when she saw the announcement last Sunday. Because she knew the winner would be named then, she got up at 6 o’clock to get the paper. Flash – there she was, her picture, with her family, as winners. The rest of the day was a round of congratulations from far and wide.

Father of the typical family is a native of Duplin county, born on a 256-acre farm, where he worked as a youngster. With a ninth-grade education, he started dry cleaning for the 850 people of Snow Hill in 1921.

Mother of the family is a native of Snow Hill, where she received 10 years of schooling, and quit to work in the post office when her father’s health caused him to give up his rural mail route.

Young Sila Brown, then a stranger to Snow Hill, met young Miss Rachel Livingston Hargrave across the mail counter. She pleasantly handed him his mail, and their conversations ran to more than just mail. Their meetings extended beyond Uncle Sam’s property, and on August 19, 1922, they were married.

Sila Jr., first child, was born July 25, 1924. He is a high school senior. With two guns, a pointer named “Queen,” a boat and outboard motor, he hunts and fishes and delights in shooting snakes. He builds airplane models and hopes to study aeronautical engineering at a military school, maybe State College here, and get into the Air Corps.

Dorothy, born January 12, 1926, was valedictorian of her seventh grade and will be in the ninth next Fall. She has studied tap dancing five years and piano almost as long. She loves to swim, and Snow Hill mothers take turns carrying her “gang” of teen-aged girls to the nearest pool.

The family are great rooters for the Snow Hill Billies and love vacations in North Carolina mountains or coast towns. They once went as far North as Philadelphia, but not entirely on vacation. Mr. Brown was looking for a patent and maker for his “invention” to shoe-string and dice potatoes. He got the patent.

Mr. Brown serves as rural mail carrier and does some tailoring, making coats and suits for wife and daughter. Neighbors call him ambitious and energetic. He built his business from scratch twice and now has $2,000 worth of equipment, a delivery truck and two hands and a son to help.

Years ago he paid in installments for a 50-by-100 building lot and planned a home on FHA money. Depression got him, but if Greene County tobacco holds up his business will hold up, and if that is good, he’ll have his home soon. The N&O 6/30/1940

The family started their journey on July 6, traveling first to Raleigh to meet with Gov. Clyde Hoey and receive their official credentials as “Ambassadors of Good Will representing North Carolina at the World’s Fair.” After a sight-seeing tour of the capital city and lunch with the governor and Mrs. Hoey, they set out for New York and their week at the fair. Daughter Dorothy served as correspondent for the group. Her report, “Our Day at the Fair,” was published in The News & Observer and highlighted the family’s adventures, including her audition with the Major Bowes Amateur Hour at NBC.

Judges for the selection of the typical Tar Heel family were President Frank P. Graham of the University of North Carolina; Dr. Jane S. McKimmon of Raleigh, pioneer in home demonstration; W. E. Fenner of Rocky Mount, member of the state committee on World’s Fair participation; Clyde A. Erwin, State Superintendent of Education; and Jonathan Daniels, editor of The News & Observer.

Read more stories from local and state history and send us your own stories on the blog Past Times, newsobserver.com/pasttimes.

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