To Smithfield residents in the 1960s, the land west of the Neuse River was the frontier.
The area now known as West Smithfield was nothing more than corn and tobacco fields, an unincorporated area without the infrastructure needed to support housing. That became a problem as growth arrived on Smithfield’s western border.
Each household had to install its own well and septic tank. And because of poor soils, the septic tanks often leaked, contaminating the nearby well water.
“If you went through a rainy session, there’d be a smell from the ditches you could detect,” said Whit Whitley, a businessman who grew up in the area.
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“It was a sanitary problem – or an unsanitary problem.”
But one West Smithfield resident – Welton “Duck” Strickland – helped solved the problem by rallying his neighbors to build a sewer-collection system. In doing so, he became the de facto mayor of West Smithfield, overseeing the West Smithfield Sanitary District for more than 30 years, until the town annexed the community in 1994.
Longtime residents remember Strickland, who died last month at age 92, as the man who transformed West Smithfield from backwater to thriving community.
“There was a lot of groundwork that had to be laid,” said Harold Tharrington, a longtime friend and former Smithfield councilman. “Duck worked diligently to help the citizens of that community.”
At first, Strickland lobbied the town to annex West Smithfield and provide it with sewer service. But Smithfield didn’t have the interest or the money needed to build the infrastructure, Whitley said.
That’s when Strickland partnered with Whitley’s father, Royal Whitley, to establish the sanitary district. The district operated until annexation in 1994, collecting taxes from residents to maintain the community’s sewer lines.
“We had all the support we needed from the sanitary district,” Tharrington said. “We were self-contained, had our own tax base and paid for what we needed.”
Strickland became the community’s leader and problem-solver – the unofficial mayor of West Smithfield. He even had his own city hall, just off Market Street.
Whitley said he remembers Strickland as a decisive, “get-it-done” kind of leader. “That was his nature,” Whitley said. “There was no hemming and hawing. … Here’s the problem, let’s take it on directly.”
Tharrington said Strickland was outgoing and always willing to help his neighbors with their problems, no matter how small. “He was a caring person, and when people went to him looking for leadership, he was there to support them,” Tharrington said.
It wasn’t until the 1990s – after West Smithfield had solved its problems – that the town became interested in annexing the community. Whitley said Smithfield wanted the increased population and the broader tax base that came with it. People living west of the Neuse weren’t pleased.
“There was definitely a lot of resentment in West Smithfield because here comes the town trying to cash in and develop the cash cow,” Whitley said.
By then, Strickland had done a 180-degree turn on the issue. He and his neighbors had built their own community; they didn’t want to pay town taxes.
“Everyone knew the tax rates would go up,” Tharrington said. “We tried to keep it from happening, but it carried through.”
Susan Lassiter, who was on the Smithfield Town Council at that time, said the area was benefiting from being close to town. Many residents took advantage of the town’s recreation programming and shopped in its commercial districts.
“We felt that part of the community was benefiting from what the town was offering as far as services,” Lassiter said.
The town had far greater resources for things like street lighting and paving, Lassiter said. After annexation in 1994, the town made improvements to U.S. 70.
Tharrington went on to represent West Smithfield on the town council, but resentment lingered. “There are still some people who have a lot of feelings about it,” he said.
But Strickland, apparently, wasn’t one of them. Tharrington and Whitley communicated less and less with their old friend over the years, but they said he seemed at peace with annexation.
Whitley said he’s happy with how everything worked out. And none of it would have happened without Duck Strickland. “Ultimately, Smithfield’s a lot better today,” he said.