Where is My Old Home Town?
Hamlet - 2002
a disappearing town?
an editorial by Russ Lancaster
Going back to Hamlet, to the place where I grew up, is not as easy as it used to be.
The little town I remember had lots of us Lancasters living there. Now there is just my brother Tim and his family. But, there are even more reasons that make going back a little harder each time.
The town I remember is slowly but surely disappearing. The changes are not so subtle anymore, at least not to those of us who have moved away and only see Hamlet from time to time. For those of you still living there, time has a way of easing change. You might not see the differences as vividly as we from out of town do. For instance, if you see your neighbor every day, he changes as you do and neither of you take much notice. But, if he moves away and you see him only once a year, you both might be surprised.
My last trip to Hamlet, as I write this story, was for the annual Seaboard Festival in the year 2002. I left Jacksonville on October 24th and made the six and one half hour drive up Interstate 95 to exit 181 where I took SC/NC 38 into Hamlet. The drive was mostly uneventful through a misting rain and temperatures dropping from the 80s down into the 50's as I drove North.
Arriving in Hamlet, I noticed a new Highway 74 bypass which probably saves those of you that endure the stoplight at the intersection of Hamlet Avenue and King/Marlboro Street a great deal of frustration. The old beach traffic must now be out on the new bypass which is good for you who live there. But what about the folks who used to stop me on Hamlet Avenue as they were passing through and ask me about Hamlet? These strangers won't be coming through there anymore. They may have increased Hamlet's traffic flow but they gave me a chance to tell them all about Hamlet when I lived there and they took time to stop and ask.
As I came farther North, I turned off onto the old Bennettsville Road that intersects with East Main Street South of the old ball park. The house I used to live in out there is gone..... replaced by a trailer park. There are four or more trailers parked where our old house once stood. They are practically on top of each other and a real eyesore.
I finally turned left on East Main Street and headed West toward my brother's house which is the last house on the left standing next to one of Hamlet's twin water towers. To my surprise, I couldn't get there. The railroad crossing was barricaded. I suppose it was because of the construction going on around the old passenger station.
The station itself is all boarded up for a move that I now suspect will never happen. Hamlet has a way of abandoning or tearing down what would have been landmarks in another town with more vision. Just think about it.... our old Hamlet High School is gone, Hamlet Hospital will soon be gone, Pansy Fetner school is gone..... the fabulous old Seaboard Hotel is gone.... these are just a few of the famous places from Hamlet's great past that could have been preserved.
The old Hamlet Opera House restoration program seems to be dead in the water. Our once famous Opera House later turned Theater has been empty for years. The thermometer showing the progress of money being collected for the project seems to have had the mercury frozen. I drive past that place where I spent so many Saturday afternoons and don't even recognize it without it's once proud lighted marquee tempting me to come inside for air-conditioned entertainment. It hurts to see it so.
I couldn't go West on Main Street so I drove over to Hamlet Avenue to make my Westward trip toward my brother's house. Again, I was shocked. Hamlet Avenue is mostly deserted and shabby looking with the exception of the old Joe Levine building now being a Ballroom. Belk's has long been gone as well as the Enterprise Hardware. Hamlet's favorite supermarket, The Colonial Store, is now a second rate Piggly Wiggly. This section of Hamlet may as well face the same fate as the old landmarks I mentioned. This is a dead street that we once so proudly roamed.
I drove West to High Street and across to Charlotte Street and attempted to cross the railroad tracks on the old wooden bridge on Rice Street. For the second time I was turned back by barricades. The old wooden bridge has somehow been destroyed. You know this bridge... the one we wrote about so proudly a few years ago. The games we played there, the foolish things we did. Gone....
I had been in Hamlet for about 10 minutes and was getting worried. This is a small town and I still could not find a way to my brother's house on West Main Street. Where was my old town?
I finally made my way down Charlotte Street to Marlboro/King Street, up McPhail's Hill and crossed over to the Western end of Main Street. There, by the twin water towers, I found my brother's house. It still looked great sitting there with it's seasonal flags flying proudly and announcing that Halloween was just around the corner. The big old front porch looked out on Main Street and folks passing by on the well kept sidewalk waved and shouted "Hello!" to those sitting there. Now this was a part of Hamlet that has not been neglected or changed much by time.
I did notice that the house next door once owned by Durwood Brown had a "For Sale" sign out front as did the next house down. It seems that the Brown's may have passed away and Roberta and Marshall may be handling the estate. I looked for both of them but saw neither during my three day stay there.
While on my three day stay in Hamlet, I drove around looking for the old places I write about and found precious few of them in the state I remember them in.... some I couldn't find at all, they are simply gone.
The most disturbing was my old neighborhood on Spring Street. The sidewalks are for the most part grassed over and unkempt. The houses in the 400 block where I used to live appear to be falling apart. My old house looks tiny with the awnings gone and the gates I once built to the driveway gone. It needs painting, the front stoop lights are only half working. The yard I took care of for so long is filled with weeds. Mrs. Ketner's house next door looks as if the Big Bad Wolf could easily blow it down. The paint has peeled off and the wood seems as if it is rotting. The old Boney house next door which was bought by someone else years ago has screens fallen off the windows into the yard and is bad need of paint and repair. The only house left on the block that has somehow kept most of it's appearance in tact is the house where Rachel Howell lived. It was awful to see my old neighborhood in such bad shape.
I did find a section of Hamlet that seems intent on maintaining at least some of it's proud past.... Main Street. Tommy Smart has refurbished Mabry's Drug Store and it looked great as well as Billy Horne's Birmingham Drug Store. The sidewalks on that street are free of grass and the houses and yards are well kept. The old Lackey house has folks living there that I don't know but it was in good shape.
It has been nearly 15 years since I lived in Hamlet. That is not all that great a period of time. But, Hamlet seems to be aging much like a dog or cat ages in human years... seven years for one. That would make my departure from Hamlet have happened 105 years ago instead of 15... then I could understand the changes. Otherwise, I have no explanation.
I miss Hamlet and the places I write about... I miss it's people, those friends of mine and those who influenced my life even until today. It hurts not to be able to go back and see them as I remember them. It hurts to see the city that once was one of the prettiest and fastest growing towns in the state now letting itself decay into oblivion.
This is my old home town. The Hamlet once described by the Charlotte Observer as "The Sweetheart of the Sandhills". The Observer article from 1923 said, "Its not hard to identify a Hamlet man anywhere. He bears the "earmarks" of his city. One will remember him too by several pleasing circumstances. For one thing, whenever a Hamlet citizen shakes hands with you, you'll know that somebody has said "howdy." In your palm his hand doesn't feel like a piece of cold, wet limber tripe! No, indeed!" The Observer further described Hamlet as a "bright young star shining in the firmament of Carolina diamonds." A handbill circulated during the Peach Show that year referred to Hamlet as "King City" and "The Metropolis of the Sandhills."
Hamlet had a population of about 5,000 back then and by the time I left Hamlet for good in 1988 the population hadn't changed much. The town was still standing proud and I was more than glad to tell every stranger I ever met about the great city where I grew up.
What has happened? Where is my old home town? I want it back!
I expect many of you will be upset with the description of Hamlet I have given here and that I will receive many e-mails deriding me for this article. I tell you in advance, if I upset you, vent your anger toward rebuilding what once stood so proud so you can be proud again. So that you can again tell folks, even without them asking.... "I'm from Hamlet.... the Seaboard City!".... and be proud you are.
I end this tale as I always do with my familiar... "I remember Hamlet". But, I do so with my memory of that place being better than what I now see....
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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