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Interview with Benjamin F. Withers

Withers, Benjamin F.
Causby, Anna
Date of Interview: 
railroads; streetcars; construction business; Horner Military Academy; Presbyterian College; Queens College; education; Camp Greene; parades; Charlotte Motor Speedway
Benjamin Withers paints a fascinating portrait of the city of Charlotte in the first half of the twentieth century. He discusses his early years and education at the Horner Military Academy and Presbyterian College. He relates stories of the first automobiles in the city and his experiences riding the streetcars as a boy. Withers discusses the growth of Charlotte during this period and provides information on many local business, buildings, railroads and streets. He describes the recreational opportunities in Charlotte at the time including baseball, car and horse racing, rodeos, theatres and May 20th celebrations.
Charlotte, NC, 1910-1970
Interview Setting: 
Interview as part of the WSOC-TV Oral History Project. Interviews conducted at either the downtown public library or the Midtown Shopping Mall.
WSOC-TV Oral History Project
Collection Description: 
The Oral History Project of 1979, headed by Dr. Edward Perzel, was an effort to gather and preserve spoken recollections. Interviews were conducted with older citizens, primarily over the age of 65, who were encouraged to share their memories and stories.
AC (Anna Causby): This is Anna Causby, May 25, 1979, interviewing Benjamin Withers. Okay, Mr. Withers?
BW (Benjamin F. Withers): Well, right here where we're, the thing comes to mind right now is right here where we're sitting, I went to school here, back about 1912. You know the Charlotte University School is the upstairs of this building, sat on this corner, and was operated by H.W.--and his brother--Glasgow. [pause] They later moved to the, up on Tryon Street, over Gilmer and Moore shoe store, which was in the first block of South Tryon Street. Course I went to Sunday School and church at the First Baptist Church, see it was the old church that used to sit, before this church was built. And it was, it was, this church was built, I forgot the exact date of that. But my father and mother were married in the old church that sat right there. And I grew up on East Avenue it was then, right where the law building is. The county condemned that whole block and bought that property to build the courthouse on it, and turned around and sold, that corner lot there took up half of our lot, to the lawyers build a law building on it. And they sold some of the other property in there, but they turned around and had to buy it back again. They bought it all back now except where the law building is. And course there was no pavement in Charlotte. Then the only pavement was Independence Square and it was brick. Rest was just from the macadam out of the streets. They first started paving here, I don't know the exact date, but I do remember the contractors on it was Simmons Hart and ( ) Whitman, that did the paving of the streets. We used to follow the pavers around at night, the new sections that they paved, to skate on while it was nice and smooth. And then before Myers Park developed, then Mr. Myers was my neighbor that developed, his son-in-law developed Myers Park. And I went to school there at the Horner Military Academy, which was, is the site of the Myers Park Country Club now. That was 1914. And [pause] they converted the, after the school closed, they converted the barracks into the Rockledge Apartments, and the mess hall and all was developed into the Myers Park Club. And between Roswell Avenue then on out to Selwyn Avenue was the athletic field and drill ground. And course Queens College moved out there from, about 1912, I believe, '11 or '12. I was the only male student at the Presbyterian College. It was eventually Queens, but it was Presbyterian then. It was on College Street where Sears Roebuck is.
AC: Hmm.
BW: And where Sears Roebuck's Automotive, but on College Street, then, that's the way College got its name, from Presbyterian College. It ran from Ninth up almost to, almost to Eleventh. It was two houses between that property there up on to Eleventh. And at twelve years old, I left and went to Charlotte University School, which one I mentioned a while ago. And Charlotte has, oh it's, you got no idea what it was then and what it is now. The, well, back in those days you could play baseball in the streets or anything else. It was rather fun. Course everything was horses and buggies most then. I do remember one funny thing. It happened right around here. They were demolishing the original Baptist Church. And Mr. Barringer, Osmond Barringer, who was a automobile dealer around the--he was a pioneer automobile dealer in the south-attached a cable to that steeple. And he was trying to pull it down with an automobile. Every time they'd jerk the end of the cable, the automobile choked down on it. And we thought if that thing ever had fallen, his automobile would have crushed him to death anyway. (Laughs) But Osmond's quite a character. And course, going down East Trade Street from College on down to Brevard Street, you went over the railroad. There's no underpass there then. Those buildings that are at the underpass now were the basements of the two buildings that originally when you went over the tracks. And, [pause], and...
AC: The railroads were a lot more important.
BW: Huh?
AC: Weren't the railroads a lot more important?
BW: Oh yes, everything was railroad, that whole freight coming in, of course there's no trucks.
AC: Um-hmm.
BW: I started the first heavy trucking over the lines in Charlotte and its part of the country. And, but back in those days, my father was in the building material business. And course we had to have a warehouse on every railroad which at that time, we had our yards down on Eighth Street, which was on the Norfolk and Southern Railroad. And Seaboard was down on Fifth Street, between College and the railroad. And the P and N was down on First Street across from Duke Power, where Duke Power Company is. A ( ) down there. And the Southern tracks were on warehouse, down on College at the 300 block of South College. And now it's on Fourth and College. You had to, you had to have railroads for everything. Cause they built the, [pause] Central High School down there, which was just a swamp. They had, they had to pile at it and drive piles to get those buildings in down there. It was just a swamp through there.
AC: When were they built?
BW: That one must have been [pause] around the 20s, early 20s, approximately. And I was married in 1924. And so--
AC: What was your occupation? You just got retired?
BW: Well, I was with my father in the building material business as a young man. But then I started my own hauling business, trucking.
AC: Mmm.
BW: Which was, I started it with A and P Tea Company, help doing their hauling. And that liner became Associated Transport. And then I was in clothing manufacturing, for the last ten years, before I retired.
AC: Do you remember the development of Dilworth?
BW: No, I lived 2001 Queens Road East.
AC: Do remember hearing about it?
BW: Well, we built, I been living in the same house there for fifty years, over fifty years. We built there when Myers Park was first starting, you might say. In 1929, I moved in February of 1929, and still live in the same house. And when they, the city, the county took the property on Trade Street under condemnation proceedings there, father bought the house back, and tore it down and rebuilt it. And it is still standing in front of Queens College on Selwyn Avenue today.
AC: Hmm.
BW: My sister live there. And [pause] course we've had some changes here, you just couldn't believe it. There's, back in those days, you couldn't buy an automobile on time. Bankers thought you were crazy. They wouldn't have loaned you money to buy an automobile. There wasn't no such thing as financing (laughs) an automobile. All that came along later.
AC: Did you have to ride the street cars?
BW: Oh yes. We had street cars. In fact, we had a P and N Railroad passenger, P and N Railroad ran passenger trains, cars that came right up to the Square. And the first block of West Trade Street on the left hand side was the P and N passenger station. And they ran these great big passenger cars through. And there they could just barely squeak around, make that turn at the Square, and it was, wasn't practical. So they built a, they moved it down on first block of First Street. Then the cars didn't have to come up through town, the P and N Railroad. And they moved it from there then down to, the last place they had it was at, right behind the post office at Fourth and Mint. That was a block, a block north of the, the freight station, the freight station was on Second and on Third. And the passenger station was up on Fourth. Course the P and N did the freight, freight business even then. That's when it was built. And they had a, they owned, Duke Power Company owned a, well they wasn't Duke Power Company, it was Southern Power Company then. They had, Lakewood Park had a lake and everything out on, off Tuckaseegee Road. And then, they had another park out at a, Riverside Park at Mount Holly, that was to get up business for their passengers. But the passenger, it was never a successful operation, I don't think. Wasn't enough passenger traffic on it. But we used to run, they'd run street cars, these big old open street cars, to Lakewood Park. It was, had boats and everything so, roller coaster, merry-go-round, everything out there in a big pavilion. It was quite a place. Course all of our fire equipment was horse-drawn and [pause] there was several fire departments uptown. There's one on Church Street, where the Wachovia Building is, behind that. And then there's one on, right behind the City Hall on Fifth, course that was all horse-drawn. And we had, oh, a lot of movies uptown. And in fact at one time, Charlotte was the movie capital of the world. It's a distribution center, I mean, not a, not movie capital, but distribution center. And it was just like it is now, about second I think, in truck transportation. There's Chicago, Charlotte, and then New York, the way that was lined up years ago. I guess it's, I imagine it's been taking the same status. [pause] But, of course, there where the Presbyterian Hospital was, that was a girl's college, Salem, they moved, Elizabeth College. They moved it to Salem, Virginia and incorporated it with another school. Dr. King was president. That was, it took in the, well do you think that old hospital, that old school is still in the center of that project? Now why they don't tear it out, I don't know, because the great big old wooden and brick building back in there, it's, I don't know why they haven't torn it out.
AC: You remember any political rallies?
BW: No politics.
AC: No politics?
BW: No, I'm not a joiner. No, no politics. Father was on the Board of Alderman, that's the only thing and that was back in the days. Peter Marshall Brown was the mayor. In fact, Chief got in his buggy and came down to the house and got father to come up and cast the deciding vote to buy that little steamer that they had in the, the, sitting down on the boulevard in the glass house now. That was the first piece of mechanized equipment we had, was the steamer, pumper. Everything else was just hose wagons, ladders. [pause] If you could ask me a few questions about some of the things here, I might recall something that you'd like to hear.
AC: (Clearing throat) Clear my voice. Can you remember any of the, like, celebrations?
BW: Oh the twentieth of May celebrations here. The, when Taft was here the bottom fell out of the skies and just flooded everything. That was, I don't know the year now, but they had great big wooden arches built across Tryon Street and Trade. And they had one great big one down by the YMCA, which was on Second Street, yeah Second, Second Street, yeah, YMCA's on Second. And it was quite a thing. I know sister was graduating Chevy Chase, and I wouldn't go to the, to the festivities with, with family. I wanted to stay for the parade, Twentieth of May Parade. And course we had Wilson here. That was a, he spoke one afternoon at, down on College Street where Sears Roebuck is, in the yard of the, of the old Presbyterian College. [pause] And the man that, I'm not going to call his name because some of this might hurt, but the man that introduced him talked, talked and talked and talked, thought he never would stop. And course Mr. Wilson had very little to say-he took up all the time.
AC: (Laughs)
BW: Well, we had another big parade here, during the war, on Camp Greene. At one time we had, I think it was 85,000 soldiers in the mud out at Camp Greene. And Charlotte had a population of about 40,000. In other words, it's better than two-to-one soldiers out there. They had a big parade for that here. It started in the morning and ran until way late in the afternoon. In fact, the parade had, part of them were back in camp and back, came back to see the rest of the parade. And course it was, those soldiers used to bring in a, the wild, not the, bucking broncos. The soldiers themselves, we had a bunch of army and cavalry here that were, it was composed of quite a few professional cowboys. And they would ship those horses in and have rodeos in the old ballpark, which is off of Mint Street and, about that time. And the, well the first ballpark I remember was down on South Boulevard right at where Park Road goes off. That was, and the fairgrounds were out there because there's a big amusement center, center. Mr. Latta who was president of the power company, Four, it was the Four Cs Company then, the Charlotte Consolidation Construction Company. And they had, down where the rose garden and all this ( ) place all down through there, Dilworth Road West, there's a big lake in there, and pavilion and everything, that was Latta Park. Course Mr. Latta lived in the, that, but the whole block there, that the Greeks have a church on it and a building now. And Mr. Latta left Charlotte and moved to Asheville. He sold that property to Mr. J.A. Jones, and Mr. Jones lived there, of Jones Construction Company. [pause] And now the Greeks have it for their Greek Church and I don't know what they use that other building, that building, main building for. [pause] Cause they have, still have the whole ( ). [pause] Plus we had the, these little old, for a while we used to call them hobbyhorses. They had these little one-man street cars that make you seasick riding them, just (Laughs)--
AC: (Laughs)
BW: --they were so, they were so short, and the springs on them, they'd get to running but they'd just get to bouncing. They make you seasick riding those little old things.
AC: When did they do away with the street cars?
BW: Oh, [pause] in about, early 20s, it was the early '20s they did away with street cars. You see, the street cars used to run from the Seaboard's passenger station down on Tryon and well, well it's about Thirteenth Street. It's where the old station is down there now. And they went all through Dilworth. And they ran from Biddle University, which is now Johnson C. Smith, to Elizabeth College. And there was no, there was street cars out through Myers Park. But they started those street cars out there about 1914. They went out about, oh it took them two or three years to get all the way out to where they are, to Roswell, is where they finally ended up at. Well no, they, they finally did get back as far as Selwyn Avenue, last year, that last block they got. Then when Chatham Estates was being developed, Paul Chatham, they were developing Chatham Estates, where the Charlotte Country Club and all is now out at the Plaza. But the only two or three nice homes built on the Plaza at that time. And Myers, George Stephens, Mr. Myers' son-in-law, started Myers Park, the Stephens Company. And it just killed the Plaza development for, the idea of the Plaza development is what Myers Park turned into be.
AC: Some of these neighborhoods?
BW: Hmm? Yeah. See now, see there was a big dairy on Providence Road where the Manor Theatre and all, all through there, big Watkins' Dairy through there and up on Queens Road is where their main, right, right below where the little theater is, where the dairy barn, barn was. But, [pause] and then we've had [pause] oh yes, we started our Speedway out here. That was 1924, down at Pineville, Charlotte Speedway. It was a wooden track. And [pause] it lasted for, oh a couple of years before it started rotting. It was just a, a wooden track made out of two-by-fours edgewise. But we had the top cars of the day back in those days, the Indianapolis type open-cockpit cars. Barney Oldfield raced here before that on a dirt track at the fairgrounds down off the boulevard. He came in here with his Blitzen Benz. Well, I was just a little kid when that happened. Of course the, the Charlotte Speedway out here was, you had Ralph DePalma, Tommy Milton, Pete Dris, Benny Hill, Earl Cooper, all the big names, Pete DePaulo, Fred Comber, Benny Hall, you had all the big names. They had a regular circuit like they do now. But they were Indianapolis type and these, Mr. Prince built these tracks. And every track he'd build, he'd bank it a little steeper. And course the steeper the banks, the faster the cars would run. Every track would get just a little bit faster. It, they weren't permanent at all, course it was just a, I don't think we even thought about that, that it was going to rot out. (Laughs)
AC: (Laughs)
BW: I don't think-
AC: When did you have your first car?
BW: When my first car? Ooh, I started driving [pause] oh it must have been 1909 or 10, an old Rambler. Now they went out of business and came back, and of course, you still got the Rambler now, but that's a different company altogether.
AC: Really?
BW: But the first automobile I owned was a Maxwell 1917, 1916, 1916, the first car I owned. But I had one older than that, back as a, after that I had 1908 Hubmobile. Mr. Barringer was a great friend. He was a pioneer dealer here. He had his, lived right two blocks down on the corner of Eighth, right across from the Barringer Hotel. And he had, well he was in, back in the steam car days, which they may come back, I don't see why they don't.
AC: The ( )?
BW: Mm-hmm. There's, there were two, there were three, Stanley Steamers and White Steamers. They were both steam cars. There weren't too many of them. And then, way back in the, let me see, it was in the early 20s, they were making quite a few gas-electric buses. And I don't know why they never, why they ever stopped it or didn't pursue it further. But Baltimore-Ohio Railroad ran hundreds of them, because ( ) built them. You see, you had a motor, but you didn't have a driveshaft, transmission, all like that. Your motor ran a generator that you ran your, your bus off of electricity. It's the same principle as a diesel locomotive.
AC: Um-hmm.
BW: Your, your, your motor, motor generates electricity. You really run those locomotives on electricity.
AC: Hmm.
BW: But everything down through here, you, you'd see the cotton business here, for instance. You would see wagons lined up on College Street from down around First Street all the way to Salem, and up and down East Trade Street down to even Davidson Street--cotton wagons. And the buyers going around sampling cotton and buying cotton. And oh there's, and then you'd find the back lots, hitching lots all uptown now, behind all the buildings where farmers would come to town and hitch up their horses and wagons. And even mountaineers would come in during the, in the fall and all with apples, and course most of them had a little bit of corn liquor, too. But the main thing was the load of apples coming in from the mountains. They'd come down til they sell their loads, then go back. [pause] We had our police force first, when they first mechanized it they had two Model T Fords. And those drivers, those hustlers would ride those Fords around over the town, just like the patrol now, only Charlotte was so much smaller. It wasn't anything to it. [pause] And the fire department, of course they started mechanizing it. [pause] And we had several nice theaters in uptown. Oh, let me see, they had Edisonia, Amuse U, Ottoway, Orpheum, Academy of Music, Broadway, and-- [pause] Oh there's, we had Keith Vaudeville over here then. That's a lot of years. Well it's a funny thing, in Charlotte until the last ten, fifteen years, we'd never support a school. There wasn't but one successful school that is still in Charlotte--King's Business College. I think it was down, I believe it was the only one that survived it, because the other, they just wouldn't support it. Just like they wouldn't support, Charlotte will not support anything unless it's tops. You can--shows, theaters or anything--if it's tops, they'll support it. If it's not, they won't. It's always been that way. Have you noticed it?
AC: Mm-hmm.
BW: It's got to be good. If it's good, they'll stay with it. [pause] When they, Mr. Latta first started developing Dilworth, I can see the sign now, the, on First and Tryon Street across from the Catholic Church on top of that building there. "Buy a home in Dilworth with rent money." Course Mr. Latta owned, oh, all of Dilworth practically. And most everything up and down, well Latta Arcade, ( ) Hall, all up and down there. He was the largest landowner of business property in Charlotte and real estate back then. [pause] Course now, the old Charlotte Hotel, now I'm not speaking of the one you're thinking about. I'm speaking about the old Charlotte Hotel, that's where Efird's Department Store was. It was torn down to build Efird's Department Store. It was a little old, two-storey wooden hotel. Sat right behind, right next to the City Hall. And it was sold to Efird's, and Efird's built a department store there. And course you had the Central Hotel on the Square. And diagonally across the street from the Realty Building, and where Eckerd's is, was the leading drugstore in town, Jordan Drug, Drugstore.
BW: And then down on the other corner of Fourth and, and Tryon, South Tryon, there was a Buford Hotel. And then course a new hotel, one was the Selwyn Hotel on Church Street. But where the Realty Building is, little old Sheppard Drugstore. And let's see, on West Trade Street there you had Ivey's, and then across there, next, across the alley there was Yorke Brothers and Rogers. Then you had an old movie house back in there. It was a tin shack of a building. If it's raining, you had to carry an umbrella (Laughs) with you. I guess that's about enough of this, isn't it?
AC: Well you certainly have told us a lot. A little bit about everything, haven't you?
BW: (Laughs) Well, I don't know, it's-
AC: Yes, you've been, we thank you very much.
BW: No, no it, I was-
AC: Got something else you want to--?
BW: --talking about tops. I don't think many people realize that back around this part of the country, Bill Gallon [famous harness racehorse] one of the leading Hambletonian winners of all time, was raised and training right, wasn't, most of his training was done away from Charlotte, it was right here. Mr. Horace Johnston had it. It, out off 49, it's where Bill Gallon was raised and all. We've had, I'll say if you, if it's tops, why it will go here. But if it's not, it won't.
AC: Okay. (Laughs)
BW: That goes for all of it, I think. Oh, I could sit down and ramble on this way forever, but I don't think-
AC: Well thank you very much. I certainly have enjoyed talking to you.
BW: Thank you.