Perkins, Ella Wallace*

Perkins, Ella Wallace*

Reproduced with permission of Joel Kostyu; Ella Wallace Perkins is a pseudonym. I'd love to know the actual name of the woman who recounted this story to Mr. Kostyu in the mid-1970s.

In bicentennial 1976, our collective thoughts turned backward to earlier times in our nation's history. My own thoughts returned to former days in our own community, this spot we call Durham. Perhaps you might be interested in knowing what Durham was like, roughly from the turn of the century until about 1918.

My recollections are not the result of scientific or historical research. Rather, they are the impressions and memories of a pig-tailed, spindly legged, happy little girl growing up in an average Southern town, a town recovering from the Civil War in a nation not yet embroiled in the first of the great wars that would touch everyone's life.

Durham started out as a pretty rough town. With saloons abounding, the community regarded brawls and knifings and general rowdiness as common occurances. Ladies did not walk unaccompanied on the streets, for one never knew when a body would come hurtling through a saloon door.

But by the turn of the century, thanks largely to the efforts of the Women's Christian Temperance Union, these establishments had vanished or had gone underground. Churches sprang up everywhere, and they, plus the banks and schools, gave the town an aura of respectability.

As I remember it, Durham was rather charming. If all the people in Hope Valley, Duke Forest, Crosdaile, Willowhaven, and points between had been living in well-kept houses on East Main Street, on McMannen Street, on Rigsbee Avenue, on Mangum Street, on Broadway, on Morris Street, on Holloway Street, and on Dillard Street, some idea could be gained of the way we all lived happily and closely together. Those streets were filled with ladies and gentlemen and assorted children walking from place to place. After all, everyone went to church many, many times during the week, with two services on Sunday, prayer meeting on Wednesday, and choir practice on Thursday. We walked downtown for the evening mail; we walked uptown to shop.

The swishing long skirts of the ladies swept the dust. The men always covered their heads with derbies, bowlers, fedoras, or, in the summer, straw hats. I personally have felt the world has never been the same since themen discarded that badge of chivalry, the hat. There was something decidedly graceful in the upswing of a man's arm as he swept off his chapeau, sometimes even to a little girl. How proud she felt, and she walked a little straighter and pointed her long chin just a little higher as she hurried to the meat market for a pound of steak for supper. The prince of all hat-doffers was Dr. William Preston Few, president of Trinity College. He knew every coed and always swept off that soft felt hat with the most courtly gesture imaginable.

People walked and smiled and said "Good Morning," or, after twelve o'clock, "Good Evening," even though one had not the foggiest notion of who the individual addressed might be. We were taught it was considerate to speak.

The unpaved streets were filled with all manner of horse- or mule-drawn conveyances, elegant carriages, and wagons. The people from the country rode in their wagons, conscious of the difference in their way of life ·(rom that of the city folk. Bringing fresh vegetables, cotton, or tobacco, they had a different look from that of the city dwellers. And always, in the very center of the street, the streeh:ars clanged their way from one end of the small town to the other.

Durham was indeed small. Going east and west, its boundaries were, in the east, the beginnings of the Edgemont community, marked by the Golden Belt factory; about where Watts Street begins was the western edge; the north extended to the bridge that goes above the railroad tracks on Mangum Street; the southern border could be placed at what was McMannen Street, now the extellsion of Mangum Street.

The peripheral areas were communities unto themselves rather than part of the town. The campus of Trinity College reposed in splendid Isolation, surrounded by young trees and great vistas of space. West Durham was a village entirely separated from Durham. Its inhabitants and those of the Pearl Mill Village on what was later LO be Trinity Avenu(' W{"I"(' referred [() as "mill folks," and they supposedly basked under the patriarchal prot en ion of W. A. Erwin and George Watts. Edgemont. as always. was the hosiery mill village under the sponsorship of the Carr family. Beyond Edgemont lay East Durham that thousands of people have loved and called home.

To the southeast was the great sprawling community of black people called Hayti. Most of the cooks, maids, gardeners, and handymen hved in that area.

Main Street m those years was a busy and cheerful place. Money was being made, impressive banks were being erected. business was booming. Shopping with my mother was a real pleasure. On those trips a person met old friends and picked up juicy bits of news; chatting with the sales ladies, all of them well known in the community, was fascinating. A choice between going: to G. E. RawJ!;'s. approximately where the Rosme Griffin Shoe Star!;' was, to Kronheimers, where Rose·s store is today. was offered. These large. well-stocked "dry goods" stores had bolts of cloth mounting to fhe rafters. These were the days when ladies' garments wert' made at home or by a local dressmaker. Cloth. trimmings, and panerns were staples. Besides tit(' cloth needed, women bought soutasch braid, bombazine, jet beading, ostrich feathers, fancy buttons called entredeaux, sheer muslin, nainsook, sturdy long cloth, fancy laces, filmy and seductive veiling, whalebone, rats for a pompadour, high buttoned shoes, heavy black silk stockings. or, bliss of all blisses, taffeta petticoats. Linle wire baskets glided high above shoppers' heads on [folley-like wires, transferring articles to and from the clerks.

Sometimes the "show girls," in Durham for some play or musical comedy at the Academy of Music, could be scen. These girls, exotic creatures, had eyes heavy with mascara; the forbidden rouge and lipstick were heavily applied. Their clothing, drenched in perfume, was straight out of New York. Since no matinee occupied their time, they toured the local stores out of sheer boredom. I stared at them in utter fascination and thought how exciting the life of a showgirl must be.

Mr. Bernard's drug store dispensed the B.C. Headache Powder remedy. Mr. Bernard, an ascetic bachelor, happily prcsided over his medicinal paraphernalia. Young blades of Durham, suffering from the torments of hangovers, would rush into the store and wail, "Mr. Bernard, for God's sake fix me up something to take away this headache-quick!" Men in Durham swore by iI, and soon it gained wide popularity. At this point, Mr. Council cntued the picture. He had the money for the mass production of the remedy and for extensive advertising. Soon the famous B.C. Remedy found its way across the Ulllted States.

Opposite the present Wachovia Bank building stood the POST Office, an imposing mass of granite with broad, sweeping steps leading up to (wonder of wonders) revolving doors, The first seen anywhere in these parts. The most pleasant thing I recall aboul. the Post Office was the free performances held on the steps to advertise visiting minstrel shows, so popular dunng that era. The idea was that after hearing the jall band and rich male voices of the chorus, together with a joke or two, listencrs would rush down to the Academy of Music and pUl'chase tickets for the night's performance. Though not permitted to attend thc evening show, nothing kept me from enjoying those free performances on the Post Office steps.

Every small town of [he era h<ld its hat stores; Durham had two-the Misses Albright's establishment and that of Mrs. Piper. Oh! What beautiful hats! Walking into those stores was like strolling through a flower garden. Nothing has ever surpassed them in beauty and grandeur. Each hat had its own pedestal and plenty of space for admirers to view it. The hat boxes were tremendous, with generous sheets of tissue paper tenderly cradling the exotic creations 10 be transported in them. And how I loved the veils! Women looked alluring as they were swathed in some flattering shade of sheer chiffon or were wearing a saucy black nose-tip veil.

My favorite store was the candy store that stood approximately next to what is now the Duke Power Company building. II was a real, honest-to-goodness candy store run by two Greek men. In the front were cases and cases of mouth-watering confections of every kind. I often glimps{'d, in the back, the great copper kettles used to boil the sweet syrup. Occasionally I could see a machine with great revolving arms, pulling taffy. My choice of the many delights was always the chocolate nougat, so deliciously melting on the tongue, the crunchy white almonds to be savored last. I could also purchase another favorite, a colorful sundae, new and extremely popular, and sit at a little metal table, watching the world go by as the sweet concoction trickled down my throat.

There were no vacant stores. Every other site 'was filled with shoe stores, men's clothing stores, jewelry, and imposing banks.

The railroad station at the foot of Church Street was a busy place, with travelers arriving and departing on passenger trains. Huge engines puffed out white clouds of steam. Vast and cavernous, the tiled floors of the station were wonderful for little girls and boys to slide on. Travelers brought great trunks that had to be carted to their various destinations. Lindsey Faucette was a familiar figure, with his horse-drawn dray, clattering over the cobblestones of Church Street to stores and homes all over Durham as he delivered the trunks of the drummers and the visitors.

A particularly fond memory of Main Street is that of the library, situated at Five Points, where the park of a thousand bricks now stands. h was just a house, a rather drab house, but to me it was a wondrous place. There I worked my way through the primers, the Bobbsey Twins, the Hardy series, sentimental love stories, and all the Westerns ever written. Some day we shall point with pride at our steel and glass library, but nothing can ever replace my nostalgia for that shabby house at Five Points.

One of the greatest contributors to the cultural life of Durham was the Southern Conservatory of music. Run by Mr. and Mrs. Gilmore Ward Bryant, this school for music students was housed in a rather large residence at the corner of Main and Duke Streets across the street from one of the Duke homes. The Bryants promoted good music in Durham; their students ranged from boarders from all over the state, intent on getting a degree in music, to fledgling youngsters of Durham encouraged in the art of piano playing by ambitious mothers. Never shall I forget the big practice hall or the cacophony of sounds filling it when all the little practice rooms were engaged by piano or voice students, all plaYlOg different tunes or trilling up and down the scales with varying degrees of fervor. I recall the eXCItement of recitals when nervous boys and girls dressed in their starched best waited to prove (or disprove) their ability. One seldom hears of the Bryants today, but their contribution to the cultural life of Durham lives on through the inspired music teachers who carry 'on their dedication to good music.

Many of the beautiful houses of the period are almost forgotten-the Carr house, across from the East Main Slfeet highrise apartment building; the Toms house, where the bus s\ation is now located; the houses on Dillard Street; the Erwin and the E. K, Powe houses on West Main Street; the Watts and Morehead houses; the various Duke houses-all were classic examples of the architecture of the time.

It is true that the tobacco odor wafted through Durham, for the factory windows were wide open in the summer, and oIle could set' the workers toiling over the yellow leaves of the plant and could hear the clanking of the machines. I can recall the chant of the black workers in the old factory on Main Street, not necessarily from joy but rather as a way (0 ease the monotony of the long hours of going through the same motions day in and day out. The supervisor, eager to increase his weekly quota, encouraged the workers in their chanting. I remember the perfect cadence, the often eerie and strangely moving rhythms of the tunes.

One sight peculiar to Durham was the great number of sacks delivered to the doors of many families each week. The Bull Durham factory had hit upon a method of selling tobacco in inexpensive little muslin bags with little yellow drawstrings at the top coupled with a packet of tissue paper squares. What the machines could not do was 10 attach a little cardboard disc stating that inside the bag could be found Bull Durham tobacco of highest quality. The bull lTademark on the tag attested to that. Here many families could earn a few dollars each week attaching the tags to the bags, using the same looping one finds on price tags of garments in shops today. Tagging sacks was fun as we sat before an open (ire on a cold winter afternoon while someone told ghost stories.

Men with maimed and broken bodies were a cruel reminder of a war that had ended just 35 years before. I saw those casualties, great, disfiguring scars across faces, men with arms and legs missing, the shuffling blind, the beggars asking for coins.

We often forget the great contribution the medical profession has made in correcting such birth deformities as hare-lips, crossed eyes, dub feet, cleft palates. The sight of people so afflicted was nOl uncommon in those early days. Many of the mill people had a strange, whitish pallor resulting from the poor working conditions and the lack of medical attention.

Two sights I recall quite vividly occurred on Mangum Street. One was an old, old woman, fiercely independent and not caring a whit what the world might think of her as she marched her cows up the street to a pasture about where Duke Park is today. To me she seemed like a gray ghost-her clothes werc a shapelcss shrouding of her stooped figure, her shoes heavy brogans, her hair thin and gray, screwed into a tight knot atop her head. She would look neither to the right nor to the left, only at those four or five loping cows she drove before hel'.

The second sight was a much more pleasant one. Captain Edward J. Parrish had but recently returned from several years in Japan as representative of the American Tobacco Company He had built for himself a beautiful, white-columned house out on the Roxhoro Road. Captain Parrish was a dashing figure of a man with his white hair, his modish white goatee, and his immaculate white suits lending an air of elegance to this financially successful gentleman. Mrs. Parrish was just as elegant, with pretty flouncy dresses and the tiniest of lace parasols shading her features. Several times a week in the summer. The couple would ride by in their brougham, the top Iowered and the driver correct in his livelry, proudly guiding the handsome bays down Ihe street at a leisurely pace.

My first introduction to sin occurred on Main Street. Durham had a famous prostitute, and I clearly recall her promenade down Main Street in the afternoon. I had been sent to the new Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company store to buy two pounds of brown sugar, obtained from a big burlap bag, and a pound of coffee beans. The store had a delightfully spicy scent, and I enjoyed being dispatched on such an errand. It was then that I first saw the notorious lady. I had been told she was an "evil" woman and that I was expected to scorn her. But how could one scorn such a gorgeous creature, quite tall, with a superb figure, dressed in the latest fashion. She strolled along with an assured, almost arrogant gait.  Her eyes appeared to glitter with disdain as she looked at the dowdy women who shunned her as they passed. She could have blackmailed half the men in town, and this knowledge gave her an air of assurance that manifested itself in her erect and haughty carriage. I was agog with excitement!

I cannot write of old Durham and omit Lakewood Park. Situated roughly where Lakewood Shopping center is now located, the park was the summer gathering-place for all of Durham. Families took along picnic suppers with great hampers of fried chicken, pimiento sandwiches, ham biscuits, homemade pickles, pies, and cakes. Most people rode on the summer street cars, a delIghtful experience. The seats covered in rattan, ran straight across the car, and the summer breezes blew at will. The conductor walked along a narrow platform on the side of the car and collected the fares. The car rode straight out Chapel Hill Road, and it seemed such a Iong, long journey. Wonderful sounds could be heard as we approached the park. The merry-go- round attracted the small fry, and patient fathers held onto the little ones as they rode the gilded horses. For the emancipated teenagers there was a roller skating rink with its steady roar of wheels going round and round III monotonous circles. For the older boys and girls, the dating crowd, was the pavilIOn whert' they could dallce 10 canned but current mUSIc. Little girls would crowd in, their eyes aglow ,md envious, dreaming of the time they too could get out on that floor with some Romeo and become belles of Ihe ball. After all the activities were over and after stuffing themselves on the contents of th(' picnic baskets. pleasantly tired Durham residents would again board the stl('etcar and relUrn home. feeling that a glamorous evening had ended too soon.

This was Durham, seen through the eyes of a little girl between the years of 1900 and 1918, a never-to-be-forgotten era recalled fondly and with nostalgia.


No comments yet.

Add new comment