Downtown Park Enjoys a Long, Colorful History
By Louise Milliken Howard
Special to The Pilot
In response to Jean Hendry’s Nov. 28 column expressing uncertainty about the original intention for the Downtown Park, my research into the history of my family has shown that the land was indeed intended to be a park.
I am a native North Carolinian, born and reared in Southern Pines. One of my biggest pleasures while visiting in Southern Pines is going to the Main Library in Carthage and reading on microfilm the old issues of The Pilot and The Sandhill Citizen.
I would like to share the small amount of information that I already know, along with the larger amount that I have discovered while reading the papers.
In 1921, facing the railroad tracks on the west side of the block that is now the park, stood two buildings.
On the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and South East Broad Street stood the late Victorian office building of Dr. W.P. Sweat, a much-loved early medical doctor for the town. To the south of his office in the same block, also facing the railroad tracks, stood Dr. Sweat’s beautiful, large, Queen Anne-style home.
Fronting these buildings and the entire block were magnolia trees planted by Dr. Sweat that still exist today.
As most of the buildings at that time were made of wood, fires were frequent. In the early months of 1921, a large fire occurred.
While racing to the fire, Dr. Sweat suffered a heart attack. He died shortly thereafter, thus leaving a vacancy in the medical profession in Southern Pines.
My father, Dr. J.S. Milliken, had recently moved to Pittsboro to establish a practice. He heard about Dr. Sweat’s death, and within a matter of months he had bought his office building and had begun to establish a practice as a general practitioner. He remained there for 40 years.
The Town Fathers for several years had been discussing the need for a municipal building for the town, along with a park for recreation.
In 1922, after Dr. Sweat’s estate had been settled, his son, James Sweat, and his son-in-law, Hugh Betterly, offered to the town the residence and four acres — “already planted with many full-grown trees as well as a variety of shrubs” for $14,000. That was the same amount that Mr. Betterly had earlier paid to purchase those acres from the estate as an investment.
James Sweat had also reserved a small part of the land that was his mother’s garden, where he had worked as a boy.
The pear trees from that garden remained in the park into the 1940s and 1950s. They grew so tall that the local boys had trouble climbing them to sample the fruit, which always seemed to be green.
Another owner of a parcel of land in this block was Mr. Eddy, the prominent photographer of the time.
All parties were willing to relinquish their property for the good of the town. The only parcel that was allowed to remain was that of my father, on the corner. Their reasoning was that he was “a young man newly come to town” and “it would seem rather a pity to suggest his removal.”
Sometime in the next 10 years or so, my father razed Dr. Sweat’s building and built a more up-to-date office that is still there today.
Dr. Sweat’s home was used as the Town Hall for many years before being razed and rebuilt.
At the same time, the recreation facilities in the park were developing. In the 1920s, the young men of the town built the first two tennis courts in the park exactly where they are today. They were made of red clay and had to be conditioned with a large push roller each time before one could play on them.
In those early years before the basketball courts were built, shuffleboard courts were in their location. Shuffleboard was a popular sport for many hotel guests. As far as I can remember, into the 1930s there were swings, a slide and a seesaw in the same location.
Generations of children have grown up enjoying Downtown Park. In its purest form, it has lived up to its potential as stated in a 1922 issue of the Sandhill Citizen — to “make as fine a park as the town could ever buy and fortunately in exactly the right location for the purpose.”
Louise Milliken Howard (Mrs. Harry Howard) lives in Savannah, Ga. Contact her at email@example.com.
More like this story