Friday, December 3, 2010

End of an era - 1952 Apex movie theater fire

Old Apex Theater - source unknown
End of an era - 1952 Apex theater fire

The now missing white building on Chatham Street (beside the railroad track) was the original and only local Apex movie theater from the years before 1952. The theater burned one Sunday morning in 1952 while many of its long time  patrons attended church a short distance away. It was the nearest and most popular movie theater for local patrons and was a favorite among local places to be.

The theater is fondly remembered as the local destination on any given Saturday to visit with friends and see the latest black and white movies of the era - Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and Lash LaRue cowboy adventures, Superman and Buck Rogers adventures and other action movies. The theater also featured weekly serial adventures based on Superman, Batman, Flash Gordon  and other characters of the time. There were always cartoons featuring Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Felix the Cat, Popeye the Sailor and other characters from the early days of Walt Disney Studio productions and other producers.

Admission to a full day of entertainment was 10 cents. If you had a little extra change, theater snacks were available - popcorn, soft drinks, various candies and the ever popular Cracker Jacks.

Segregation was prevalent during this era and a balcony was provided for black customers and downstairs seating for white customers. Restrooms were also segregated and signs were ever present on bathroom doors indicating "white only" or "colored only". There were occasional rounds of throwing popcorn and empty boxes to and from the balcony and occasionally animosity would lead to a fist fight erupting in the adjacent parking lot after the movie.

The movie sound would often be drowned out by the sound of passing coal powered locomotives pulling hundreds of freight cars past the theater. The point thought to be the highest level of the railroad track was near the theater so trains were always laboring to get over the rise as they passed by.

Following the great theater fire of 1952, patrons were left to find other sources for movies and entertainment and many ventured to Raleigh, Cary and Durham to other theaters. During the rapid growth phase of Apex in 2000 and beyond, a large multi-theater facility was constructed in the local Beaver Creek Shopping Center bringing family movie entertainment back to the local area.
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Sunday, November 21, 2010

Lookin' for the apple - Summer 2002

One of the occasional visits from a friend that passed through our back yard from time to time in Hanover, Virginia.
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Fire in the night - February, 2002

In the wee hours of one February night in 2002, we awoke from a sound sleep to see glimmers of red light dancing on the windows and walls of our bedroom in Hanover County, Virginia. The phone was ringing and brought one of those sickening moments when you get a call in the early morning darkness and you wonder if something terrible had happened to someone you know.

As we jumped up to look out the window, it seemed as if every firetruck in the County had parked along the streets bordering our corner lot and firemen were everywhere pulling hoses up into the yard.

The firemen were rushing to put out a fire that had climbed up the steep bank from the side street as it turned the dry leaves and pine needles under our trees into a layer of ash. That winter had been unusually dry and the leaves under the trees were prime fuel for the flames as they quickly ran up the bank. The fire crept to about ten feet from the end of our home and stopped only when reaching the green winter grass between the trees and the house.

Fire investigators never settled on a definitive cause for the fire at three o'clock in the morning, but suggested it had been caused by one of the ever present careless smokers that drive around thumping cigarettes out of car windows. The investigation concluded with a statement that the fire was most likely caused when a cigarette had been tossed out and rolled down into the ditch, then smoldered until the dry leaves caught fire. Once the fire started it roared up the bank and into the grove of trees.

As we stood in the road next to the fire trucks along the front, we learned from our neighbor across the street that they just happened to see the flames during the night and called 911 to notify the fire department. We will be forever grateful to caring friends for making that call in a neighborhood where neighbors knew neighbors and watched out for each other. The end of the story could have been much different had the neighborhood been one of those where people don't know or care who lives next door.

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Friday, September 24, 2010

Out for a stroll on Red Hill

On any given spring or summer day you may find these geese strolling along the side of Red Hill on West Chatham Street in Apex NC. The geese have become a regular part of the character of that area and they frequent the small pond just up the hill from this scene.

In May and June of each year the hill in the right of the picture comes alive when the Erin's Prairie daylily flowers come into full bloom.

During winter months Red Hill, a name that goes back to the 1940s-60s, was a favorite place for local sledders when winter days were short and snow blanketed the town. The hill was routinely blocked off by local police for a day or two, depending on the severity of the snow, and sledders from all over town would flock to the spot to race down the steep hill. Many a run down the hill would end in the ditch on either side or sometimes lead to crashing into a tree along the way. Rarely did anyone ever get seriously hurt, much to the surprise of the many that raced down the hill.

Even during modern times, the hill continues to be a destination location for sledders on the occasional day when a deep snow falls around the town. This has truly become one of the places where memories are made and remains a site for one of the traditions locals remember long after they have grown up and found other activities to bide their time.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Dad's garden

In the 1950s and 60s my Dad always planted a garden in the back yard. He labored long and hard all summer to raise a crop of vegetables and melons when the days were long. He would get up early before the day got hot and go out and labor in the garden each day to make sure everything was done that could help produce a bounty my Mom could can for the winter. When times were good and the rain came, most times the garden did well.

My part of the job was to pull weeds and chop the garden with an old hoe. Several days each week after school I headed to the garden to carry out the work assigned to me to help the process along. Chopping, pulling weeds, setting stakes, tying up tomato plants and later picking the beans, okra, tomatoes and squash as they began to come in made up a daily routine. The days got hotter as they got longer and each year the task seemed to last forever. When I got older, I was allowed to spray a white powdered insecticide with an old tin hand-pump sprayer onto the blossoms and plants in a continuing struggle to stay ahead of the season's bugs that also wanted their share of the produce.

After most summers we ended the season with a lot of jars of all the items the garden produced and stashed them in the small pantry in the kitchen. During the winter, one or two of the jars would be taken out every day or so to add to the other food items my Mom would bring home from the grocery store. The old garden went a long way to help provide the food we needed and is now a cherished memory of life "back in the day" when times were slower and life was good.

As I got older, the garden slowly faded into the past. My Dad continued to make the effort to have a garden most summers, but as he got older his time was more often spent going to his day job at the local auto dealership each day. The space the garden occupied gradually became part of the lawn I continued to mow until I graduated from college. My Dad passed away a month before I graduated from college and the annual garden became a thing of the past and a distant memory of how it used to be.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The old leather belt


Ahhh... the old leather belt. The one that served through many years in my career job and through all the years of raising four wonderful children with my wife and lifetime partner. The belt that was my favorite for some 25 years or so. It recently wore out from buckling it too many times and almost broke in half at one of the holes. I tucked it away thinking that after a while I would eventually decide to part with it.

Then one day I discovered a new product called Gorilla Glue! The glue that can hold most anything together. Almost as popular as Duct tape!

I applied some Gorilla Glue to the leather along the tear and clamped it to dry overnight. The next day I checked back to see if the glue had worked it's magic, and surely enough the belt was in good enough shape to occasionally use again. It hangs proudly once again on my clothes rack next to the new one I purchased when I thought this one was gone for good.

Yes, it does get to be worn again from time to time and will eventually become one of the items I pass on to my family.

Monday, September 10, 2007

The old drugstore telephone booth

The old telephone booth in the back of the downtown corner drugstore was among the favorite places of many young students on their daily after school adventures. There were no cell phones in the 1950-60 era so the phone booth served as a primary communications spot for teenagers. The booth always had a line of customers waiting to deposit their dimes and quarters after school and at night and the pressure was on for anyone that tied up the phone for a longer than their allotted time as they took their turn on the small wooden seat in the tight fitting booth. Sadly, the old booth disappeared in recent years when cell phones became the ever present means to keep in touch and pay-phones became a losing business for the telephone companies.

The daily after school ritual usually for many local students consisted of a walk or ride to downtown (depending on whether you had a car or had or had a buddy with one), rushing into the corner drugstore and ordering your favorite drink or milkshake with a grilled cheese sandwich and then spending some much anticipated "quality time" with all the friends you already saw at school all day.

Those days have faded into the past along with the old telephone booth. The drugstore has been renovated and turned into a favorite local pizza-pasta restaurant always crowded with a mixture of adults and families. The teen crowd has moved on and some now return to the former after school spot for their favorite pizzas and new friends found along the way...

Friday, July 20, 2007

Solitude of days gone by

Gone are the days of quiet solitude in many of North Carolinas small towns. In fact, most of the small towns are gone. Time and evolution has made its impact and changed the character of most small communities and the quiet has been replaced by the constant rumble of commuter traffic and an ever present background noise.

In times past, residents living in the older houses in a small country town like Apex, NC, would often be seen sitting on the porch or in the yard enjoying a little peace and solitude. Those times now only exist in memories of days gone by and residents are usually inside in front of the TV or gone to the many shopping centers nearby.

I remember well just how quiet it was sitting with my Dad on the front steps late in the afternoon after he returned home from work at the local Ford auto dealership. Those quiet, peaceful times sitting on the steps were only occasionally interrupted by a car on the way out of town.

On occasion, we would venture across the lawn and out into the street to make the two block walk to downtown, past the railroad tracks, to the small, quaint neighborhood gas station to have a 10 cent Coca-cola and sit around the pot-bellied stove to hear the latest gossip. Now and then a passing car stopped out front to purchase gas at the astounding price of 15 cents a gallon. After filling the tank, customers often walked into the one room brick structure to pay for fuel and peer into the glass display cases at cigarettes and snacks or purchase a cigar or some other needed item.

After a time socializing at the station, we would make the short walk back home to sit for a little longer on the front steps until it was completely dark. Then we could see the display of stars and the Milky Way or watch a display of "heat lightning" from a passing summer thunderstorm in the distance. Those days are long gone but the peaceful times will always be remembered in stark contrast to life in current times when most families are caught up in the blazing fast pace of a day with both parents at work and children in day care followed by dinner at a local fast-food diner and another evening doing homework in front of the TV and rushing to run clothes through the washer and dryer for the next day.

Fast paced growth has taken away the serenity of old neighborhoods and being outside near the more heavily traveled town streets is always accompanied by the sound of approaching trucks, motorbikes and loud, fast moving cars producing a constant roar of engine noise and the scent of air pollution that comes with greatly increased traffic.

The character of the central neighborhoods has changed completely now and most of the older residents have passed away or moved on after selling their homes to younger residents. In many cases buyers simply wanted to turn old family homes into rental houses that in turn brought even more turnover and change. The families that lived across the intersection in all three directions from our home are gone and two of the homes are now rental properties. The turnover of residents in rental homes has produced an added effect of shuffling the neighborhood mix and character every couple of years or so.

With the passing of time, town planners and council members have approved changes, often driven by a desire to simply grow the tax base, allowing multi-family apartment buildings to be built in the middle of single family residential blocks, again changing the character of neighborhoods forever. Roads have also been changed to accommodate significant increases of commuter traffic passing along former small town streets.

Consider, for example, the neighborhoods around the intersection of Mason and Center streets. Long ago, Center Street was the end of state road 1010 and it served as the main path in and out of town from the east. Years ago only a small number of cars traveled the road into town bringing students, teachers and business employees into town along with customers for local businesses and shops. Center Street is now considered to be a "thoroughfare" to and from town, carrying thousands of cars a day, most from large new residential neighborhoods outside of town traveling to distant corporate jobs in Raleigh, Chapel Hill, Durham and the Research Triangle Park. Traffic into town to local stores continues but is far overshadowed by the huge volume of non-resident traffic each day.

Town planners, recently moving into a new town office building along Mason Street, recently chose to widen Mason Street to three lanes to accommodate the heavy volume of pass-through traffic, rather than focus on adding new streets better designed to handle traffic through less populated areas and preserve the so-called "historical district" with so many older homes and driveways on the crowded streets. Much talk has been made of preserving the "historic district" but this quickly gives way to approval of new development that might add to the town tax base.

Open land in this former small, rural town has been developed rapidly in recent years and the old practice of dividing land into one half to one acre lots has given way to builder "greed" and a desire to place as many homes in a given space as possible in order to generate profits and increase the tax base. The only homes remaining  with larger lots now belong to a few original residents or to those that purchased them and chose to keep the property intact. Builders choose a different path if they purchase older properties. they frequently divide an acre lot into three or four smaller lots to maximize income with no thought given to bringing an end to another of the "small town" benefits from the past.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

The red dirt road

Back when my family's new home was built at the edge of town in 1950 there was a red dirt road along one side of the property connecting with Center Street two blocks from downtown Apex. It left the edge of town and headed out into the county north toward Raleigh and ended a few miles away at the original town water reservoir next to the old water treatment building.

Many times my neighborhood friends and I would ride bicycles down that dirt road to go to the town pond just to wander around the pond or to walk over to the town's water treatment plant and look down into the clean water in the holding tanks after it was processed. Sometimes we would carry BB guns on the journey to do some target practice in the woods near the pond after having a picnic complete with peanut butter sandwiches and a 10 cent coke.

During that time period the town had made an interesting deal with the local fishermen to the exclusion of any of us that did not have the luxury of belonging to the local "fishing club" as dues paying members. No one was allowed to fish in the town pond or venture out onto it in a boat unless they had been granted the priveledge to join the club. Only the local men that had joined the club and paid an annual fee could fish in the pond. Our relationship with the pond consisted of skipping rocks across the surface, walking along the wooded edges by the water and sitting on the edge of the dam watching water flow down into the creek below.

The old water treatment plant is gone now and the pond has been turned into the centerpiece of a community park complete with walking paths, picnic areas and ballfields and is open to all citizens. The town has teamed up with other local communities and gets it water from a new facility built further out in the western part of the county. The land across the road from the pond was developed long ago and now there is a neighborhood of folks living in typical modern homes and the residents likely don't even know what the wooded area was like long, long ago.

As for the red dirt road, it was paved over many years ago, then repaved every few years, widened and then modernized with curbs and gutters required by the town as progress took hold in the area. The quiet solitude of the old red dirt road has been replaced by the daily roar of noise created by thousands of cars and big trucks speeding by several times a day heading out of town toward Raleigh and the Research Triangle Park to nearby places of employment and to the new town high school a few miles out along the road. Another of the old landmarks of this former small town has passed into history in the name of progress.

Oil on the red dirt road and DDT in the wetlands

Back when environmental concerns weren't so much a part of daily living a few things were done that have been completely banned today. I clearly remember two activities that were a routine part of the operating style of the town utilities department that would raise a major alarm in our current society.

One of the rituals of summer living in rural North Carolina, at least in my home town, was the occasional assault on mosquito colonies around town. During the hot, humid days of summer town utility workers would drive into the wetlands down by the creek adjacent to my home with motorized spray units spewing clouds of white "smoke" all over the marshy area nearby. Water that was routinely backed up in the wooded area on my neighbors property provided a large perpetually wet area for mosquitoes to lay eggs in and hatch new waves of insects. In those days DDT was the insecticide of choice for most anything and it was sprayed several times each summer and fall all over town. No one knows what effect it had on the crawfish and tadpoles growing in the creek or the birds and other animals living in the wooded area or the citizens living nearby. As you can imagine this practice has now been outlawed and there jeeps are no longer seen wandering through the woods trailing clouds of insecticide.

Another practice of those days was to scrape red dirt roads like the one adjacent to our property and spray used motor oil on the surface for dust control. The road, muddy, potholed and soft during rainy times, gradually appeared to take on the look and feel of an asphalt paved road at times until the oil soaked in and disappeared. Then the town would return with more tank truck loads of oil and soak down the surface again in a futile effort to reduce dust and try to keep the road from eroding. Although I never saw this practice in any other area it's a sure bet that this was done in many areas until environmentalists ended the practice with modern laws prohibiting oil disposal on roads and in landfills.

Bow and arrow battles in the swamp

Some of the craziest activities from our young days took place in the neighborhood marsh where dreams became real and lifelong friends were made. Among the activities we treasured were catching crayfish in the murky stream, paddling down the creek while standing in a wash tub like we were piloting old river barges, climbing the tallest trees in the woods and rocking them back and forth and having neighborhood bow and arrow fights with homemade bows and arrows made from tall weed stalks. It's a small wonder we grew up with no remaining injuries from those days and retained our eyes, fingers and health.

Of all these adventures the bow and arrow fights were perhaps the most dangerous. Each of us would craft a bow from a skinny sapling and string it with heavy twine. Then cut stalks from tall dry weeds and notch them so they could be used for arrows. When the designated time arrived we would divide into two sides and start walking through the swamp grass looking for the other team. Then we would shoot at each other until one side was wiped out or gave out of arrows. This might compare somewhat to modern day paint ball wars where two teams battle it out until one side is wiped out.

The old marsh has been gone for some time now since our grown up neighbor decided to dig a trench and "drain the swamp". Gone with it are millions and millions of mosquitoes, all the crayfish and tadpoles that became part of our many adventures and the source of much learning and contentment. Life is perhaps much safer and saner now, but the adventures of our youth brought endless hours of excitement, building friendship and learning how to survive in a world of constant change where very little remains from the past and the "small town" spirit that fueled our youth and fed our imagination.

Town police chief's toll gate

Our town had a typical small country town police force - a chief and a few officers to cover all shifts. High crime in a rural community was not a great a problem back then so there were always interesting little events to remember about interaction between the town's police, fire and support staff and community residents.

The town police chief was a man of many hats. He was the police captain, a member of the all volunteer fireman team and even drove the fire truck at times. He was vigilant in his police role but at times exhibited peculiar personal quirks not seen in modern times. He was an alcholic so on occasion was observed to be a bit drunk around town no doubt from the stress of wearing so many hats.

One day while at work under the influence on a hot Saturday afternoon, he decided to set up a "toll gate" on the sidewalk in front of downtown businesses along the sidewalk near the fire station. For at least part of that day, he demanded pedestrians "pay a toll" in order to walk past the barricade. He continued in his role as police chief and after I later moved away from town I lost track of him but always laugh when stories are told of the police chief's toll gate on the sidewalk a long time ago.

Friday, February 23, 2007

The day they tore down my treehouse

When I was very young my parents had a small home on the corner lot right next to the local school. Every day was met with excitement to see what activities would unfold next door in and around the schoolyard. This proved to be a constant source of new and interesting events brought about by the activities around having all twelve grades in a single location right next door.

One of my fondest memories of that time was of having a small tree-house in a china berry tree in our yard right beside the end of the schoolhouse. I could climb up in the tree and perch on the flat platform suspended about 10 feet above the ground and survey the whole world. From that lofty place I could look toward the row of windows in the end of the school building and see a room full of fourth graders learning about life and preparing for their move to the next grade at the end of the year.

Occasionally the teacher and students would spy me sitting in the tree-house and would wave for me to come over to the window for a visit. I would climb down the tree and trot over to the window where they would often talk for a few minutes and sometimes help me climb up onto the window ledge and down into the classroom for a short visit. This was always an exciting event and there would always be conversation about what the students were doing on that day and what was going on around school.

I will never forget learning one spring that the county school board has made my parents an offer on our home and then finding out that my parents had agreed to sell the house to the county. It seemed that the school needed a new cafeteria and the plan called for adding it on the end of the building where our home was. Unfortunately this meant we would have to move in order to allow the school addition to be constructed.

During the early part of the summer on a bright and sunny day I remember a small group of construction workers marching over to our yard and hooking a chain to the tree my treehouse was perched in, attaching the other end of the chain to a tractor and then ripping the tree down along with my treasured "happy place". In a short while the entire tree and platform were a hundred feet or so behind the schoolhouse where the buses usually parked and thrown onto a pile of rubble. They tossed a little kerosene onto the platform and other debris and flipped a match into the pile. In the twinkling of an eye the pile was blazing right up to the clouds and my tree-house was disappearing in a stream of gray smoke. In a few hours the whole pile was reduced to a little mound of ashes with a few nails, metal fasteners and miscellaneous unidentifiable items left behind when the fire burned out. The tree-house was gone forever and soon the home by the schoolhouse was to be home no more.

That summer my parents began the process of having a small home build a few blocks away and moving to the new address. A short time after that the old house by the school was lifted onto a house mover's truck and moved a block down the street from the school, then later restored for a new resident. To this day the old house is still there and has been remodeled as is often done with older homes in the area.