Franklin Street Stories

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Charles: My name is Charles House, I'm the owner of University Florist on Franklin Street. I grew up in Chapel Hill, went to Chapel Hill High School when it was on Franklin Street, and have been a proprietor of this business since 1980. The florist was opened in 1946. My predecessors in the business, James and Francine Davis, happen to be my back-door neighbors. My father died early on and I needed a job, and so I went to them and asked them for a job. They gave me one and I worked here the whole four years I was at Carolina in business school.

[0:38] Then I ended up going into the Army after that, ended up in Washington, D.C., got married. My wife and I decided we didn't want to necessarily live in Washington and raise kids, so we figured "What can I do?" So I wrote James a letter and said "Well, one of these days you'll want to retire. When you do, I want to buy the business." And so I came back here in about 1973, and after working with them for a few years, they retired in 1980. Before the Davis', there was a little place down on Henderson Street where it actually got started. Then it moved up on Franklin Street.

[1:17] My understanding was that it was in the neighborhood of where Franklin Square is right now, the little multi-unit building down on Franklin Street that used to be J.B. Robin's. My understanding was there was a little facility there, then they moved into this building. There was a bakery in this building to begin with, and the walls; I mean, it was kind of partitioned where the bakery had a small space in the front, for selling their products and a larger space in the back to be able to have the ovens and the presses and things like that.

[1:57] Conversely, for the florist there was a larger display space in the front and a smaller work room in the back. So for years and years that worked out fine. Eventually, after I bought the business, the bakery went through some transition. After a period of time, I decided to just take the whole building, and I've been doing it ever since.

Interviewer: [2:21] Now, you grew up here?

Charles: [2:22] Mm-hm.

Interviewer: [2:23] One of the stories I'm interested in talking about is the high school, when it was on Franklin Street.

Charles: [2:30] Well, it was a special place. It was sort of the traditional Georgian brick high school. It was two stories tall, it occupied the space which of course is now the Granville Towers University Square complex. In fact, there was a grammar school there too, I went to grammar school there. They did not have a preschool at that time, so actually I attended first grade in the basement of the Baptist church on the corner. Then we ended up going through the process of going through grammar school in the big brick building next to the church.

[3:10] Then, as you matured a little bit, the high school was located next to it. That was built in the '50s, I believe, as I recall. At any rate, the high school, we did not have a junior high at that point, or a middle school as everything is gravitated towards now. So the junior high, there was the basement of the high school. The basement of the high school actually became the junior high. And so I matriculated through that process. It was interesting, this was all in transition. Of course, this was a time right before the integration of the two school systems, the Lincoln school system and the North Side school, where the African Americans went to school and the Chapel Hill system.

[4:01] Probably right after I graduated in 1962 was when they put together, within a year or two after that they put together the consolidated school system. The high school and several schools were all located out off of Homestead Road, and that's where they are now. Of course that's when Granville Towers was constructed.

Interviewer: [4:29] Now my understanding is that at that time, Franklin Street wasn't quite; I had talked to Sid about this, with all of these stores could you just walk out of the school and go over?

Charles: [4:40] Oh, yeah. One of the favorite hangouts was Sloane's Drugstore which is where Spanky's is now. You'd go up there and you could sneak out of school. You're not supposed to leave the campus during the school day but hey, come on, it's going to happen. You'd sneak up and you'd get a Cherry Coke up at the soda fountain at Sloane's Drugstore, which was on the corner. Yes, you could just go. You'd go out the front door and hang a left, there was a dairy bar here and then there was Long Meadow Dairy up there on West Franklin Street, and so you could get milkshakes and things like that.

[5:16] Back in those days too, downtown was the center of commerce for the whole community and the surrounding area. This was before all the proliferation of all of those shopping centers that are out there now. So you had a number of clothing stores, both men's and women's, you had hardware, you had dime stores. Delk's was located downtown. You had a lot of shopping opportunities down here. When I was coming along in college, of course people dressed a lot differently then than they do now, so that allowed the clothing stores to prosper and to do well.

[6:07] On campus now you see tees and flip-flops and t-shirts and that's unfortunately what a lot of our clothing emporiums have gravitated towards, because the demographic has changed. Therefore, the commerce has to change with that. Opinion here might be swinging a smidgen in the other direction now but we'll see how long that's going to take.

Interviewer: [6:36] What were some of your favorite haunts growing up?

Charles: [6:39] Well one of the things when I was in the junior high level, or early high school, we had the rec center. The rec center was located in a small church that used to be on the site of where the expansion of the University Methodist Church is now. It was an old chapel, an old church chapel, an old brick building. It was a neat place, it was run by a gal by the name of Sarah Umstead, who was, I think the daughter of one of the former Governors. She lived here in Chapel Hill, she was great. It was a place that you could go and be safe. It was fun and it was a nice opportunity to get together with people in a clean and wholesome environment.

[7:36] The other things too of course, our gym had sock hops and things of that nature, which were a lot of fun. Those were usually Friday night. There was a lot of school spirit then; I'm sure there is now. A lot of times the community is kind of overshadowed by the University and what goes on there. For the most part, we had a lot of spirit back then. Its different than it is now, and of course the pressures on the kids in school is a lot different than it was then too.

Interviewer: [8:14] When do you think it started to change, or what do you think may have started to change it?

Charles: [8:21] That's a good question. As far as the change, I think that it was a gradual process. I don't think it was just one instant that happened overnight. I think one of the things that's caused it is, of course, our explosive population growth. We now have three high schools and four or five middle schools and multiple elementary schools, whereas before we had three elementary schools and no junior high and one high school. Actually we had two because of the non-integration at that time.

[8:57] I think with the explosive growth in the population and the increase in the size of the University, all of those kinds of factors have contributed to a change in our overall demographics. Also, the competition for good school placement has taken on a whole new meaning. Right now the cost of higher education is just incredibly expensive. When did it start to change? I think its just changed over time, depending upon what the external forces are. I don't think its one event that did it.

Interviewer: [9:37] Can you think of any events that you've been witness to that have happened on Franklin Street? Not to put words in your mouth, but from any of the demonstrations to victories to; just times when Franklin Street seems to have been a place that was the foundation for the event, was where it happened.

Charles: [9:58] Well obviously every time we win a national championship there's always a focus. I remember one instance, the last championship that we won. Our friends, the Foxes, and I, they were running Julian's at that time, watched it in their store. This was really very interesting. It was very quiet on the street. Of course, everybody was in the bars and at the games and glued to their television sets. The most amazing thing was to watch the amassing of people on the street after the victory and the bonfires- it was just fun to watch.

[10:45] It would spill out of the bars and they'd come up Franklin Street and then the police would have to come and block off the street. It was kind of a neat experience. I'm not sure if we'd do it again, if I'll be up here to watch it again, but at least it was neat that time. As far as other things, of course I was not around when they may have had some integration issues.

[11:15] Also, back in the old days, we used to have parades. It was the big Duke parade and that was always kind of fun. Then there, obviously there were other events, but the unfortunate thing is, as a lot of these other shopping districts have proliferated recently in the last 15 to 20 years, even though Chapel Hill downtown and Franklin Street is the core, I don't think quite as much emphasis is put on it as there used to be.

[11:50] Back then, it was "the only". Now its one of several areas where people can congregate. Sutton's now has sort of become what Sloane's was. It was a gathering place, especially for the teenagers. It was a gathering place that you'd meet your friends after school and you'd get Charlie Morrow, who is now on the Sheriff's department, he worked behind the counter. He would do a grilled cheese sandwich and just squash the bejesus out of it. You'd have a flat [sandwich], but that was part of what it was supposed to be.

[12:35] So you have memories like that, but it was a gathering spot. It was where a lot of people, because it was right close by where the school was, and you had the opportunity to see people. Right next to it was a place called Scheall's Grocery Store. And then the hub, the men's store, came in after that. It all went by the wayside finally after, I guess Starbucks decided it needed a home in Chapel Hill. Then you move on down the line, you get Bennet Blocksage, they did appliances and they were the coal supplier and oil heat people. Farther down you had Rose's Department Store, which is where the old Carr Drug, which is now vacant and being renovated.

[13:31] Then there was another neat little place where Creative Metalsmiths was, it was a place that you could go get breakfast and lunch; that was fun. Then you had Bourbon's Department Store, where the Intimate Bookstore was. Of course the Intimate burned at one point, and that's when they constructed this new building over here from sort of the shell of what the Intimate was. Unfortunately, the Intimate's gone, I mean we could certainly use a bookstore downtown, again. The movie theater, and then you had Dr. Khan's optometrist. It goes on and on and on, as far as what used to be here.

Interviewer: [14:21] If you were walking into Sloane's, what would it have looked like?

Charles: [14:25] Lets see. You walk into Sloane's on the left hand side. There was a, as I recall, I can't remember whether it was cosmetics or... I think it was on the left hand side. Further back on the left you had the prescription pharmacy portion of it. The right hand side you may have had magazines, you may have had stuff like that. The back right hand side was where the grill was. Its just those kinds of things. You had stools, you had a low counter. You had the counter up here and then the counter where people sit in the back. You had, as I recall, little red-covered, vinyl stool covers on little silver posts. It was like a little ice cream shop back in the old days.

Interviewer: [15:20] So grilled cheeses were kind of the norm?

Charles: [15:22] Oh, that was the norm, yeah. Of course you could get other stuff there too. It was a lunch counter, but as I said it was just sort of a gathering spot.

Interviewer: [15:31] You worked on Franklin Street while you were in school. What kind of role has it played in your life?

Charles: [15:40] Well its been sort of the core of my life because I come here every day. I've certainly seen it change dramatically over the course of the last 40 years, but it still has some ambiance that you just don't find. The people have changed, we never had beggars on the street, we never had panhandling, that's a more recent issue. I never felt unsafe walking up and down this street, the streets seemed to be cleaner than they are now. I think more emphasis needs to be placed by the city fathers on maintaining this area, the hundred block of East Franklin and then going down all the way to the end of West Franklin.

[16:34] It's an important part of the community and its a resource I think that is often overlooked when a lot of people are doing development projects around here. It's interesting that, in the whole town center, the properties; the biggest problem that you have in a street like this is that you have multiple property owners who have multiple ideas of how they want to lease their properties. Some people are more enthused about the type of business that go in, others are more conscious of the amount of revenue that they can gain for it.

[17:26] I don't think that the town center properties are any more expensive than others, we just have to deal with other issues that other centers might not have to. That is parking and certain perceptions which are, there's some reality in it, but there are a lot of perception problems too, that cause our street to be seen as something other than what it really is.

Interviewer: [17:54] Like?

Charles: [17:54] Well, again, the safety issue. Certain things need to be done to address that perception. Again, a lot of this has derived from the growth of our community from the certain elements that are attracted here that were never attracted before, based upon what the offerings are or what is allowed to happen, let's put it that way. I'm not poor-mouthing the street scene itself, I'm saying that because certain things are allowed to go on its going to propagate this whole process of perception.

Interviewer: [18:43] Right. That makes sense. I'm going to go back to the high school now.

Charles: [18:46] Sure.

Interviewer: [18:46] You talked about sock hops. Was that every Friday night?

Charles: [18:50] Usually in the winter it was every Friday night.

Interviewer: [18:54] You were there in what time period?

Charles: [18:56] From '62 to '66.

Interviewer: [18:59] OK. So what kind of music was playing?

Charles: [19:02] Oh, just music that was popular in '62 to '66. [laughs] It was prior to the heavy metal blow-your-eardrums-out music. I know I'm sounding like an old fuddy-duddy right now, but it was music that had a beat and had a rhythm and things like that that you could dance to. A lot of the music now, you can dance to, but obviously in a, perhaps, different way. It seems to be more individual dancing as opposed to dancing with a partner. You could just go out and do your own thing, and, as I say, get your ears blown back. I'm sounding like my father, I'm sure he said the same thing about my music.

Interviewer: [19:53] Well, I was just thinking, because my vision of, kind of, what a sock-hop looks like is limited sort of to movies, where you see, like, the 1950s thing or you see ...

Charles: [20:04] That's not far removed from what it was. Because Sarah, I understood that she usually ran the sock-hops. She borrowed a record player, you didn't have massive stereo systems and all this kind of stuff, and it was set up. And you could go with a date or you could go stag and just meet somebody there. But Coach Culton would make sure, he would not permit shoes on his basketball court. So you had to take your ... It was a sock hop, that's exactly what it was.

Interviewer: [20:35] Did you go stag, or did you meet people there?

Charles: [20:38] Both.

Interviewer: [20:39] When did you meet your wife?

Charles: [20:41] In Washington, D.C. so it was after the time.

Interviewer: [20:46] OK. So before I wrote. .. [laughs]

Charles: [20:48] Of course!

Interviewer: [20:49] So, if you're walking into the gym, could you describe that for me too?

Charles: [20:54] The gym was built almost like an afterthought to the high school. You walk into the gym, there was a little ... well, if it's a church, it's a narthex, but a little pre-room, so to speak. And then you would walk directly into the gym more or less under a net, and there were bleachers on the left that could pull out, bleachers on the right that could pull out, because they had gym classes there as well.

[21:27] And during the games, of course, all the bleachers were pulled out to the court level. And then you'd go down to the far end of the gym from the entrance, and to the right, you'd turn to go into the high school itself. Dead ahead, you'd go down to the locker rooms. Girls on the left, boys on the right.

Interviewer: [21:51] And for a sock-hop, how would it be set up?

Charles: [21:54] Just like that. [laughs]

Interviewer: [21:56] Were there decorations, just kind of ...

Charles: [21:57]No, no, no. Occasionally, you'd have what's developed into the proms, you'd have your Juniors/Seniors, and you'd decorate the gym, and do all that kind of mess. Again, right after the '50s and '60s movies. That's exactly what it was.

Interviewer: [22:12] So, what would you wear?

Charles: [22:15] Socks. [laughs]

Interviewer: [22:17] Of course. [laughs]

Charles: [22:18] It was not coat and tie but... are you talking about for just sock hops?

Interviewer: [22:23] Just for a sock hop, yeah.

Charles: [22:24] You'd wear slacks and shirt or something like that. You would dress, but not "dress," so to speak, if you understand.

Interviewer: [22:31] Were jeans very popular?

Charles: [22:33] No, they were popular for one group of kids, but not necessarily... It's not the mainstream like it is now.

Interviewer: [22:42] OK. I'm trying to think what other areas we could talk about. What did Sarah... you said Sarah Umstead?

Charles: [22:52] Umstead, yeah.

Interviewer: [22:53] And she was, you said, a governor's daughter? What did she look like?

Charles: [22:58] As I recall, she was short, had short hair, sort of graying short hair. She ran it with an iron rod. She didn't take any sass. Everybody loved her. She was great. Just one of those people in your formative years that you'll always remember. She and May Marshbanks. May was the principal at that time. In fact, she was one of the first female high school principals in the state. And she was quite a gal too.

[23:29] Then there was an English teacher everybody had to go through for senior English: Jezebel Lewis. She was a character. And then you had your Eli James who did distributive education, being shop and so forth and so on. And also he would do the driver's education, which was... You have to have it now, you didn't have to have it back then, but a lot of people took it anyway.

Interviewer: [23:56] What was the coach's name?

Charles: [23:57] Robert Culton. In fact, I think the gym out at the new high school, or ... Some facility out there is named for him.

Interviewer: [24:08] Was it just basketball, or was it ...

Charles: [24:10] He was sort of the ... He was basketball coach, football coach... he became the athletic director. And, again, as the schools grew in size and everything like that, you'd get your football coach and your basketball coach. Back in the day one guy did just about everything. And this, of course, is before the proliferation of some varied sports that came in.

Interviewer: [24:34] Was there a football field out there?

Charles: [24:37] Not here. We played in the old Lion's Club field that was out beyond the town hall and firehouse in Carrboro. You'd go out there and turn left and it had a big old fence around it and everything like that. There was a field. It had bleachers on two sides. It was just bleachers, it wasn't the collapsible kind as opposed to something that was more firm.

[25:10] And of course, then you get characters like George Cannada. "Cat Baby" Cannada. He was a fellow who had, let's say, limited mental capacity, but he was very much a spirit of the school. He would lead the charge out onto the field every football game. There's a band here in Chapel Hill named "Cat Baby" after him.

[25:40] It's the characters that you meet and you see as you grow up, I'm sure you probably had ones equally as colorful in some capacity where you grew up, that you will remember. But that was just part of the fabric of Franklin Street at that time. It was a community.

[26:09] I remember the people on the street. I did not grow up on the street because I didn't mind the business until later. My father was a faculty member in the Physical Education department here. But I knew a lot of people on the street, a lot of the shop owners knew me, but I couldn't do anything bad because it would get back. Even though I was not on the street every day, it was a small enough community where you did know who it is. Now, I know a lot of people in the community, a lot of people know me, but there are vast numbers that I don't know just because we've been growing so much.

Interviewer: [26:51] Well, and the people don't necessarily own the building they're in, and...

Charles: [26:54] Well, it's not necessarily just the business part of it, I'm just talking about the population in general.

Interviewer: [26:58] Right, the people walking on the street. I have to go back and ask why was he called Cat Baby?

Charles: [27:04] That was just something that he picked up as a nickname.

Interviewer: [27:08] Was he in school at the time, or was he older?

Charles: [27:11] No, he went through the high school system, but... I think he graduated from high school. I'm not real sure whether he did or not. But anyway, he became a newspaper carrier for, I think it was the Durham Morning Herald. He always had a big old Stogy in his mouth, you know? He was a spirit of the school at that point. It was neat to see that, and you'd go up to him and say, "What's happening, Cat?" And he would just gush forward. Just a real interesting character.

Interviewer: [27:51] What did he look like?

Charles: [27:53] He was about 5'7", respectably rotund, and his arms would just be flying. When he would come out and lead the charge, he was just ... It was just an interesting spectacle to watch, as much as anything else.

Interviewer: [28:13] Who were your biggest rivals at the time? I mean, so far as the high school.

Charles: [28:18] Well, we had our ... I think it was Pac-6. Now you're asking questions I'm not real sure about. There were a couple of schools in Durham, there was Rocksboro, Hillsboro ... generally, in this general area.