Springtime is the time to refresh my thoughts with some old history lessons of trips down historical N.C. 904, which runs through rural southeastern North Carolina.
I was just 7 years old back in 1958 when I took my first trip down the rural highway, then called Country Road 904, to Sunset Beach. Today the road follows the same terrain, but the scenery changes speak and reveal colorful and valued lessons in rural North Carolina history.
For those not from this area, N.C. 904 is the shortest route from Laurinburg to Holden Beach, Ocean Isle Beach, Sunset Beach, Calabash, Little River and North Myrtle Beach. It starts just east of Rowland and Interstate 95 and flows southeastward, hugging the NC/SC state line until it ends near the ocean in Ocean Isle Beach. In between those two points it reveals a colorful history of rural North Carolina life and its transformations.
On one of my first trips to and from Sunset Beach, my mother drove us down in our 1956 Plymouth. In those days air-conditioned automobiles were only in the experimental stages, so all four windows were rolled down. The feel of the hot, humid summer breeze, the sights of rural farm life and the smell of summer were so real.
About 15 years ago I relived many of those experiences by making two bicycle rides down to Sunset Beach. The rural scents of early May filled the air with freshly plowed topsoil and floral fragrances. The scents experienced differ depending on the time of spring or summer, and the crop being harvested. The bicycle trips became the perfect way to relive the earlier days.
Noted much more on a bicycle than in an automobile is the light traffic passing on a work day, the gradual leveling of the road as the beach approaches and the coastal winds blowing against you the closer you get to the ocean.
Despite having triple bypass surgery just over three months ago, my goal during my rehab and exercise is to raise my stamina where I can once again pedal the 91-mile route from John’s Station to Sunset Beach in either May or October.
Normally the automobile drive takes less than two hours, but traveling slowly with open windows has its rewards of absorbing the ambiance of the roadsides.
As a child of the 1950’s and 60’s the smells of fields full of corn, tobacco, and cotton covered with its now banned “cotton dust” insecticide are readily remembered. Back then tobacco was the king in eastern North Carolina. We led the nation in tobacco growing, harvesting and cigarette manufacturing. The small communities of Fair Bluff and Tabor City were homes to large tobacco markets and warehouses, often long buildings covered by galvanized metal. Today they are gone. Americans are kicking their tobacco habits.
Tobacco harvesting always began in the hot days of July when laborers began cropping the lower leaves from the tobacco stalks, binding them together, and preparing them for drying in one of the thousands of wooden tobacco barns. Cropping tobaccos was and still is nasty and sticky labor, but the major change has come in the curing process.
There were probably dozens if not hundreds of tobacco barn fires each year back in the old days. The barns were often tall square structures. Tobacco leafs were hung up on one of the many racks inside and the heat to cure the tobacco was often a wood burning fireplace connected to flues that circulated throughout the interior. The high temperatures not only converted the starches in the leaves to sugars, but they could also lead to the total destruction of the crop in the occasional fire. Today’s tobacco barns are long metal structures with thermostat-controlled propane heat.
Today, N.C. 904 still sprouts a few of the old tobacco barns falling into ruins and serving as memorials to a past era. Most have fallen down, but some still stand; often covered with vines.
The golden leaf has now largely disappeared, though a few fields remain. It has been replaced by today’s “golden kernels” of corn, sorghum, peanuts, soybeans and other crops making their way into North Carolina’s agriculture.
The old 904 was home to many country stores that also doubled as family residences. Today, there are three country grocery stores, all located between Tabor City and Pireway. None double as residences. One store that until recently was truly a step back in time was Bethea’s Grocery on N.C. 130, or just about three miles from the western intersection with N.C. 904. Bethea’s was owned and operated by an African American family, and remained as a connection to yesteryear — when those stores were then gathering places by the locals.
Bethea’s closed over a year ago and was bulldozed. Another treasured piece of history has vanished.
Numerous small and large churches line 904, and as they have for ages. Cherry Grove Baptist Church between Fair Bluff and Tabor City has completed a large new sanctuary. It also serves as a marker of the half-way point from John’s Station to Sunset Beach.
Weathered wooden tenant farmhouses that once lined old N.C. 904 have largely been replaced by modern mobile homes. Call me a traditionalist, but weathered wooden older homes will always have the look and feel of the rural South, and that look or feel cannot be captured with mobile homes. My favorite such restored home sits on the right side of 904, about a mile from the N.C. 41 intersection.
Just past Cherry Grove Baptist Church — between Fair Bluff and Tabor City — lives a truly unique and proud group of local farmers. Their homes are styled from traditional to modern angular, but they keep a long stretch of 904 beautified with trash removal and keeping the roadsides landscaped and mowed.
Sandy Plain, Guideway, Dulah, Pireway, Longwood and Grissettown were not thriving communities in the 1950’s and remain today mostly as they were then: small communities or crossroads that give its residents a sense of identity. Grissettown is the only one that has shown any economic growth, and that is totally due to its location adjacent to Ocean Highway 17 and the ever-growing vacation economy.
Rural southeastern North Carolina is changing, albeit slowly. It doesn’t change as the more noted urban areas, but it does have measured change, and to a large degree some of its change is for the better. Historical N.C. 904 still maintains much of its natural beauty, its rural character, and its habitat for wildlife. That in itself is a tribute to change that is keeping in tune with nature.
If more automobile travelers would simply respect the natural beauty of the outdoors and keep their litter until arriving at a suitable waste receptacle, our natural and rural areas would be even more beautiful. The natural beauty of southeastern North Carolina is destroyed by litter. We can do better and preserve our greatest natural resources.
Enjoy your next trip down 904.
Beacham McDougald is president of McDougald Funeral Home and Crematorium in Laurinburg. He serves as vice chair of the Scotland County Highland Games, on the Scotland County Tourism Development Authority, and is the founder and liaison of the Scotland High School-Oban High School student exchange program. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.