How a Chance Encounter Changed Our Local Destiny
This is reprinted from July 27, 2005.
The poet William Carlos Williams, who eschewed capital letters, enigmatically wrote:
so much depends upon a red wheelbarrow glazed with rainwater beside the white chickens.
Those lines must be open to a thousand interpretations. But in college, I assumed they dealt with the chance images and random encounters from our childhood and how they end up fundamentally affecting the course of our adult lives.
That goes for communities as well.
Today, my family and I live in a 55-year-old house on Weymouth Road between two avenues named Connecticut and Indiana. Southern Pines has other avenues called Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Vermont, Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan, New York, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Delaware, Maine and the little-known, truncated Ohio.
I had always imagined that these street names, so improbable for a small Southern town, were bestowed by Yankee transplants homesick for their home states. Wrong. They were made up by an audacious, shoestring Southern promoter, who grew up not far away in Wadesboro, and calculatingly named the streets for the Northern states he hoped to attract buyers from.
One of the oddities of Moore County life is that many of us who live in Southern Pines may know more about the origins of our upscale sister community, Pinehurst, than we know about our own. Some of us over here on the other end of Midland Road may even suffer from a bit of an inferiority complex.
But, as I’ve been reminded while doing a little research for a writing project, the fact is that “we” were here before “they” were and our founder was every bit as colorful as theirs was. And Pinehurst never would have happened if Southern Pines hadn’t happened 10 years earlier.
In the case of Southern Pines and how it came to be, so much depends upon the seemingly insignificant fact that a bearded young man named John Tyrant Patrick visited a tiny, frontier-looking southern-Moore rail stop named Manley in the late 1870s and, with a little time on his hands, happened to strike up a conversation with the only man in sight who didn’t seem to be involved in cutting down trees or making turpentine.
“Patrick asked him questions,” wrote Manley Wade Wellman in his 1962 book “The County of Moore, 1847-1947” (which is a lot more fun to read than it sounds), “and he replied that he had come down from the North at the orders of his physician, because he suffered from tuberculosis.”
Patrick, we are told, “pricked up his ears.” He asked the man if he’d gotten better since coming down here. Yes, the man replied, he was almost recovered.
Whereupon, in author Wellman’s words, Patrick “felt a sense of flaming inspiration.”
Though scarcely past his mid-20s, Patrick had somehow gotten himself appointed as North Carolina’s commissioner of immigration. He had been wondering how to sell Northerners on the logged-over Sandhills region — where, the saying went, “the land was good only to hold the surface of the world together.” His chance conversation with the cured consumptive had given him the perfect sales pitch.
“At once,” Wellman tells us, “he returned to his office in Raleigh and began to bombard newspapers in New York and New England with reams of publicity releases that sang the praises of the healthy region of the longleaf pine.”
Of course, most of the once-majestic pines were gone by then, leaving the area such a devastated “Sahara” that it was said a crow flying across it had to pack his lunch. And the health claims for pine-scented air turned out to be bogus. But Patrick persevered, and soon more and more winter-weary Northerners were buying into his dream.
He returned to the vicinity of Manley station and purchased land on which he founded a village in 1884. At first he called it Vineland. But by the time he incorporated it on March 7, 1887, he had taken to calling it “Southern Pines,” a moniker that some wags poked fun at.
A piece of Patrick’s marketing propaganda eventually found its way into the hands of an idealistic Boston Yankee named James Walker Tufts, who had made his fortune in soda-fountain paraphernalia and was looking for a new challenge. Tufts decided to take a train down to Moore County and check out the possibility of starting up a utopian vacation community of his own.
He did so in 1895. And he gave it a name that people also wondered about, since nobody knew what a “hurst” was.
Steve Bouser is opinion editor of The Pilot. Contact him at (910) 693-2470 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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