Downtown Clinton Comes to Life

By Joel W. Rose

Small towns love a Christmas parade. It’s an annual opportunity for them to show their community pride and Clinton, North Carolina, is no different. The traditional pastime of a Christmas parade fills us with excitement and a sense of nostalgia of years gone by. Who can pass up a parade? People stand curbside around the courthouse and cheer as the procession of high school bands, dance teams, floats, fire trucks, antique cars, clowns, beauty queens, and politicians riding in fancy cars pass by. The grand finale, of course, is the ritual arrival of old Santa himself, merrily tossing candy out to the crowds of children with outstretched hands, and adults with the quicker feet. No matter what kind of entertainment you enjoy, parades seem to outdo themselves every year in fun, excitement and visual spectacles.

The City of Clinton’s annual Christmas parade was held last Saturday and our downtown area was packed with kids of all ages. It’s a long-standing tradition here that has been taking place for so long that even some of the old timers can’t remember when it began.

The parade is sponsored by our local Chamber of Commerce. Sure they’re fun to watch, but one of the original reasons for a parade was to bring people to town in hopes they’d do their last-minute Christmas shopping with the local merchants. The streets were fairly crowded last Saturday so there’s a pretty good chance our downtown business owners had a good day.

But downtown Clinton, like most all cities and towns across the U.S., has changed dramatically over the years. Shopping centers and malls, with their large anchor stores, variety of shops, ease of access and free parking, have taken away most of the regular shoppers from our downtowns and moved them out to the suburbs, forever changing the way we do our business.

It wasn’t always this way. I thought back to those distant days when I was a boy and things were different, when downtown Clinton was a busy place, a beehive of activity, particularly towards the end of a month. Folks from all over the county would come to Clinton on Fridays and Saturdays “to do a little tradin’,” as just about anything one could possibly want could be found here, confined to an area of just a few city blocks.

The court square was a bustling scene, with cars competing for parking places and more people on the sidewalks than you could shake a stick at. It was certainly a place for one-stop shopping, as once your car was parked, you could take care of all your needs with just one visit.

You could buy fresh flounder from the fish market, visit your doctor, or stop by the newsstand for the latest copy of the New York Times. You could purchase a new pair of shoes, pick up a bag of chicken feed, or enjoy a good hot dog while sitting on a stool at Knot’s. You could get your prescriptions filled, look for a new freezer, or buy a bag of warm cashews from Eagle’s dime store. You could find fresh produce, rent a hotel room, or attend a wedding at a nearby church. You could get your oil changed or chow down on a barbecue sandwich from Dock’s Place. You could buy your groceries or have a tooth pulled. You could get your shoes shined at one place and resoled at another. You could mail a letter or put a bicycle on layaway for Junior. You could treat the kids to a cherry smash or a banana split at one of the many drugstore soda fountains. For a little adventure, you could ride the elevator at Belk’s.

There were more clothing stores than I care to count: Leder Brothers, Fleishman’s, Belk’s, Wimbish’s, The Children’s Shop, Bell’s Clothiers, Jackson’s Ltd., Leon’s, Dulaney’s, Wendell’s, Turlington’s, Hargrove’s Men’s Shop, Gay’s Men Shop, and Fields’ Ready-to-Wear. Ladies could look for the latest in fashion styles at any one of the trendy, boutique dress shops, such as those owned by Tressie Campbell or Polly Pool. You could dress the kids in new clothes, but since everyone shopped the same stores, all your friends knew exactly where the item came from and how much it cost.

The men could walk the lots of the new car dealerships and admire the latest models. They could browse a men’s store for a snappy new tie for Sunday, or kill some time by shooting pool at Pookum’s. (By the way, a lady was never seen at Pookum’s.) If a man was lucky, he might finally find that odd screw at the hardware store and a bag of fertilizer was always good for the garden.

Some men might even manage to slip by the liquor store, careful not to make eye contact and praying not to bump into anyone from church. But that brown bag was always hard to hide.

Without fail, the ladies made sure to keep their appointments at the beauty parlor, as getting hair permed and ready for church on Sunday was and still is a priority. Catching up on the latest gossip was secondary but always a nice bonus.

On the other hand, the men would stroll into the barbershop, take a seat, read the newspaper and quietly wait their turn for a haircut. Methodically, the barbers snipped away, one customer after another, with few words spoken. Eventually, one of the barbers would yell “Next!” as he “popped” the apron, clearing it of newly cut hair as you took a seat.  For a little extra, you could get a splash of aftershave. Though a surprisingly quiet place, the barber shop was always an interesting venue for watching people.

On a hot summer afternoon, you could sit through a double-feature at the picture show and enjoy the air-conditioning.  I’ve spent many a Saturday afternoon in the cool, dark confines of the Clinton and Austin Theatres, watching John Wayne westerns and not wanting to be anywhere else in the world.

If it was in the middle of the summer, you could stop by the ice plant on the way home and buy a bag of ice for making home-made ice cream, or just to have on hand. It was fun to watch those big blocks of ice slide out of the chute.
Police officers, such as Leo Benson and Forest Hargrove, visibly walked the streets. Just their presence lent a sense of calm and security, though if the truth were known they probably weren’t needed that often. Downtown Clinton was a pretty safe place, but on Saturdays it was a busy place. And all that business had to be done by 6PM, as no one stayed open after that; everyone closed up and went home. The lights were turned off, the doorlocked tight, and they wouldn’t open again until Monday morning.

Nowadays, many of those retailers are gone and Saturdays are kind of slow. It’s a fact, too, that there just aren’t as many small, family-owned businesses these days as there used to be, anywhere. They’ve been replaced by superstores like Walmart. But the downtown area of Clinton still serves as the heart of this community and some gradual changes are taking place.

One of the more recent demographic trends in merchandising is shifting away from the all-enclosed indoor malls. The latest commercial idea is towards “lifestyle” shopping centers, developed to resemble downtown streets with broad sidewalks, colorful pavement, fountains, benches, sculptures, playgrounds, and nostalgic facades. These centers have an urban inner city street (Main Street) theme, with parking on either side of the street, and one or more anchor buildings located at the ends of the streets as vistas. They’ve proven to be very popular among consumers and families with money to spend. The new Mayfaire Towncenter in Wilmington is an example of this “lifestyle” shopping center concept.

Ironically, they’re designed to resemble the old small towns that they replaced… Clinton. Who knows, perhaps one day we’ll see downtown Clinton become as popular a shopping destination as the malls have been.

Christmas Parade in Clinton– 1960’s