a kid's challenge
1940's - 1950's
by: Russ Lancaster
I originally wrote this story back around 1998 or so but it somehow got lost in the shuffle as we moved from site to site before finding a permanent home on the web. .So, I give you a later edition here in March 2002 hoping I can picture this place as well as I did before.
The first time I wrote this story, it was titled "McFail's Hill" but one of our readers questioned the spelling. I have done some research and found she was more than likely correct. We will deal with the research first.
I have found documents that show a Doctor "I. McPhail" had an office just east of the Fresh Air Cafe on Hamlet Avenue near Front Street. His office phone was listed as 17-2 in the 1911 Hamlet Phone Book. This is enough to convince me that McPhail is the correct spelling. I am only guessing that he had a residence somewhere near the top of the hill that we called "McPhail's Hill" back in the 40's and 50's.
The hill is located on Highway 177 and runs from its base at Jefferson Street to its crest around Hylan Avenue. We kids from way back in the 40's and 50's always knew its name though I doubt if any of us knew where the name came from.
It was a daunting hill, perhaps the steepest hill in all of Hamlet. My first experience with this place came when Donald Harris, Kent Hicks and some other kids introduced it to me around 1947 or so. My parents had given me a 20" Western-Flyer bicycle for my 6th birthday and I was trying it out for the first time. There may have been more kids that day but Donald and Kent were there with me for sure.
There we stood at the bottom of that monster hill having biked the few blocks over from Washington Avenue and Spring Street. Kent knew the place best. He decided that we would have to pedal our way from bottom to top and so we began.
I don't know how many days or weeks it took for me to finally master that hill but it seemed forever. I eventually mastered it as did most kids of our neighborhood. Few of us tried it again after a successful run. It took all our strength to get to the summit.
Coming back down was a totally different story. A good run at the hill from the top and downward we would fly. The pedals would be in coast mode because there was no way to add to the speed the hill gave up freely. One had to be careful to make sure his Bendix coaster brakes were in good shape in case a car happened to cross at Jefferson Street.
If no car was encountered there, the speed was enough to propel a boy or girl up the hill to the railroad bridge crossing the East-West Main Line double tracks of the Seaboard Air Line Railroad without pedaling.
Once we kids individually mastered McPhail's Hill on our bikes, we passed on the challenge to those younger than us. We were thrilled as we watched one another tackle the hill and succeed. Some kids took forever, some not so long, but I never saw a kid make it the first time.
I have had a couple of bad experiences with McPhail's Hill. The two incidents both happened around 1957 or so and were unrelated.
The first "accident" happened one foggy fall morning as I made my way along my morning paper route delivering the Charlotte Observer before school. I had finished my Minturn Avenue section and was going down McPhail's hill with enough papers left in the basket to handle my Jefferson Street customers.
There was a stalled car without lights on the downward side of the hill. I didn't see it until too late in the darkness and fog and slammed my bike into its rear. I was propelled over the car and my left arm hurt as I picked myself up off the asphalt. Somehow I managed to gather myself and my papers and finish the route. My sturdy 26" Schwinn bicycle suffered no more than a bent basket and handlebars.
I came home after finishing my rounds and redressed for school. My arm was hurting near the inside of the elbow but not too bad.
About three days later, in school, I noticed a deep bruise on the inside of my elbow. If I let my arm rest on my desk, pain would shoot from there... sharp pain.
After school, I stopped by Dr. Garrison's office. He X-Rayed my arm and told me it was broken. He put it in a cast that I would wear for about 6 weeks. I had no idea it had been broken.
The second incident involved my (then youngest) brother David. He was about 6 years old at the time. My dad was at work and my mom either at work or out buying groceries. I only know for sure she wasn't home that afternoon after school.
I heard a knock on the front door. I opened the door and was told by a stranger that my little brother had been in an accident and taken to the hospital. I walked to the corner of Minturn and Highway177 and found only his shoes there. He had been hit by a car so hard he had been knocked out of his shoes.
A woman had been driving up the hill and the afternoon sun had blinded her from seeing my brother, David, trying to cross the street at where Minturn Avenue crossed Highway 177. I was later told that he was so messed up that she was afraid to touch him. He literally crawled into her car and she took him to Hamlet Hospital.
I got in touch with my mom and met her at the hospital. He had no broken bones but had a major concussion. He was transported to Duke Hospital for further treatment. He stayed there for a week or more while his head was so swollen. One entire side of his face was a massive bruise. We said a lot of prayers for him that week and next but he managed a full recovery. He teaches school these days in Fredericksburg, Virginia.
I remember McPhail's Hill in the winter time. There were a few Hamlet folks that dared try to climb that hill in their cars when it was covered with snow. They too found the hill to be too much of a challenge and the road would soon be closed with cars being strung out like "pick-up sticks" along the side of the road.
Most Hamlet folks knew to go to Rice Street or Raleigh Street to get from one side of town to the other during snow storms. The going there was not so tough. I often watched those that tried McPhail's Hill when covered with snow and laughed as I pictured those adults as kids trying to make it up the hill on their bikes as we had done. The results were not much different.
I hope I have painted a proper picture of McPhail's Hill though I still don't know for sure how it got its name. I will always remember that hill and those days. I still picture kids trying to pedal up the monster with their scrawny legs pumping away... then I remember the look on their faces if they actually conquered the hill. Yes, I remember those faces and those feelings because I too had the pleasure of meeting the challenge of the hill.
But most of all.... I remember Hamlet
**note** the following from the great grandson of Isaiah McPhail dated Feb. 13, 2004:
My name is Richard McPhail III, and I am the great-grandson of Dr. Isaiah McPhail, whom you mentioned in your web page. I have been casually researching my family history, and just came upon your website.
Isaiah McPhail was a dentist in Hamlet. He graduated from N.C. State in the early 1900's, and his son (my grandfather), Richard McPhail, was born around 1915, grew up in Hamlet and was a highly decorated WWII vet. I remember my grandfather talking about McPhail Hill, and I believe there is still a McPhail Street in Hamlet.
McPhail Hill, according to my grandfather, was named after my great-grandfather, although I'm not really sure why. I believe that Isaiah was a sort of leader in the community, and perhaps the name stuck from people who knew him.
This section is to honor the works of Russ Lancaster who started the “I Remember Hamlet” web site years ago. Without his pioneering the web at that time we might not have gathered all these memories of our Hamlet, NC. We thank you Russ for what you started in 1996, may you Rest in Peace. Russ was kind enough to let me download his web site before he took it down. Thank you Russ.
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