Fair Bluff was a sweet little town in the 1950s, a place sort of like Mayberry if you were 10 years old and didn’t look too closely.
There was the Scottie Theater, where it was a sure bet a boy like me could find a movie he’d like on Saturday afternoons. Elvington’s drugstore down the street had a real soda fountain where the drinks were made from real Coca-Cola syrup with maybe a free squirt of vanilla or cherry flavoring if you asked. The milk shakes were made with fresh-scooped ice cream and cost a dime.
My father once ran a grocery store where he sold cheese from a big wheel. We lived behind the store in a two-story cinder-block house painted pale green. My step-grandmother had a 12-room hotel and café across the street from the grocery store to take care of the tobacco buyers who came to town late every summer when the local tobacco market opened.
The water is but the latest calamity to befall the little town. It started life as a lumber town where the giant cypress trees that grow along the Lumber River and in the swamps west of the river were harvested and floated downstream to sawmills.
Fair Bluff later became a thriving farm town where farmers spent their tobacco money on groceries, clothes, mule collars, brogans, plow lines, pickup trucks and bib overalls. But the town that had 1,000 people in 1950 never grew much and even struggled to keep 900 souls living there long before the river started rising two weeks ago. There have been little but hearts and memories to keep young people there in recent years; few jobs, a lot of closed storefronts and nothing to do on Saturday night.
The stores starting closing one by one when tobacco money quit coming. The drugstore has hung on, and Meares hardware is still there. But the hotel and the café are derelicts now. My father’s grocery store hasn’t sold hoop cheese in years. The tenant there now services computers. The automobile dealerships that anchored each end of the main drag have moved out. And the Scottie Theater where I first nervously sat beside a girl in that flickering light has been closed for years.
It is a shame to see the little Columbus County town wither and now drown. Sixty years ago it could be hard to find a parking place on Main Street on a Saturday afternoon. The sidewalks were crowded with come-to-town farm families, wandering in and out of a dozen stores while others checked out the new trucks at the Ford place by the bridge or the Chevrolet place at the other end of the small town. Kids played by the riverbank while teenagers flirted as they walked up and down the one block of Main Street.
God bless it, the little town has tried to hang on. A really nice boardwalk was built along the wooded banks of the Lumber River, which in more sedate times is pleasantly scenic. The visitor center folks welcome you with open arms. There’s a little museum that recalls the days when Fair Bluff was the heart of the timber business in Southeastern North Carolina and a thriving tobacco town.
I hope Fair Bluff finds a way to bounce back from this calamity as the water flows back into the banks of the river and the residents shovel the muck out of their their stores and homes and start over again.
Fair Bluff will likely never be the prosperous farm town it used to be. The kids who once flocked to the Scottie now stay home and watch television. The teenagers who once flirted over ice cream cones at the drugstore now have cars to take them to malls and multi-screen cinemas. The parents who once shopped for the necessities of farm life in Main Street stores now head for Wal-Marts or log in to Amazon.
But as the folks there look around and wonder what to do with the mess left by the high water, I hope they will know that a lot of us are pulling for them and hope they succeed. Our memories aren’t what they used to be and maybe they’re draped in Technicolor gauze these days, but those of us who walked those streets on Saturday nights long ago won’t ever forget Fair Bluff. For us, it will always be 1955.