Reflections on being of the last generation to grow up truly Southern.
Benson, North Carolina is a remarkably orderly town. The railroad tracks divide the town east and west and Highway 50 divides it north and south. Highway 50 also becomes Benson's Main Street, starting about a mile from the railroad tracks on the end nearest Raleigh and ending at about the same distance on the end nearest Carolina Beach. A block from the railroad tracks Highway 301 carried Yankees to Florida and back home again.
It sits seven miles from Dunn, Four Oaks, Coats, and Meadow, depending on which road you take.
On Church Street, one block from Main Street and parallel to it, four of the town's churches sit on their corners. As you drive down Church Street, beginning at Highway 301, there is the Missionary Baptist Church, the largest and the only one to number its members in the hundreds; then the Methodist with its sturdy brick and its chimes. Two blocks down and beyond the school house is the white wooden edifice of the Pentacostal Holiness Church, and across the street, small and very quiet, the Roman Catholic Church. It had about twenty members, all of middle eastern extraction.
Except for the editor and publisher of the newspaper who had moved to Benson from Maine nobody had a name that ended in "i", or "y" or "o." We were all Johnsons, Holmes, Bonners, Williams, Hallers, Blackmans (or Blackmons, according to whether your people were English or Scotch). We had Allens, Peacocks, Baily's and Woods. All of the names were old names.
Benson, North Carolina was incorporated in 1887 and named after Mr. Mim Benson, a country squire whose two-story, white wood house still stands on the edge of town. Except for the people who live there -- some 2,000 at the time -- and the farmers who lived near it, Benson did not have a great effect people's lives. Some people remembered it from when they were trying to drive from Raleigh to Carolina Beach and couldn't get down Main Street because the teenagers were cruising. Some people remembered it because of the Singing Convention that drew ten or fifty times the town's population on two hot days in June. And some paratroopers from the 82nd Air Borne might remember it from the Saturday nights that they came to the square dance looking for country girls.
It's true that the CEO of one of the south's largest banks came from Benson. And we had two good composers, one of national note and the other one, a cousin of the first, more locally known, who grew up there.
But, mostly, Benson was not a center of anyone's attention unless one lived there or grew up there.
It's been thirty years since I lived there and I have just now realized that I was in the last group of people who grew up in a real southern town in a real southern environment. I am a part of the last group who remembered when the mules were tied among the cars on Main Street and the sidewalks of the town was as crowded with farmers and their families on Saturday nights as they were deserted during the week. I am part of the last group to hear excited stories from school friends whose homes had just received electricity or indoor plumbing or who remembers outdoor wash pots and scrub boards.
I am part of the last group to reach puberty in an unhomoginized southern environment. After we grew up, we thought of ourselves as the children of the Fifties. But in Benson and towns like Benson in the south we were watching the end of an era that was as old as the country, and we didn't even know it.
In the 1950's three important things happened in Benson that changed the town. I-95 was cut along the east edge of town. A television station was built in Durham. And the farmers started coming to town during the week.
There were more important things that happened in the 1950's, things like the Korean War, and Brown v. The Board of Education. But these did not touch the town so much, nor did they change the way people lived.
In 1955, I-95 was just a wide gash running north and south. The heavy equipment parked along the work sites made convenient and dark places to park, and more than one promise of love was made in the moon-shadow of a huge road scraper. It was quiet there at night, and even if we could have seen out of the steamed up windows, we would not have seen what the four-laned road meant.
It meant, for instance, that Mrs. Dixon's Tourist Home at the corner of Main Street and Highway 301 would no longer graciously, if somewhat haughtily, serve the traveling Yankees. It meant that the Carolina Hotel, diagonally across the road, wouldn't provide food and lodging for the salesmen working their way through Johnston and Harnett and Sampson Counties. In fact, thousands of people, Yankees and otherwise, would eventually pass Benson and never know it was there.
And instead of Mrs. Dixon's, they would stay with Howard Johnson or in a place called the Dutch Inn. Mrs. Dixon had her Tourist Home sign taken down and the Carolina Hotel closed. It has been condemned but never demolished.
Television was slow in coming. A lot of people in Benson saw television through Hallie Bain's appliance store window a long time before they saw it in their living room. If a family got a television, they were guaranteed plenty of company, especially on Sunday night. We didn't know that it was going to change so much.
Suddenly there were large doses of the rest of the world coming into Benson. American Bandstand out of Philadelphia began to influence the way we danced at Williams Lake. We spent time with Ed Sullivan and Sid Caesar. While we were home watching television, the Princess Theatre closed. It was on the same block as the Carolina Hotel and owned by the same family.
It didn't make a lot of difference, since Dunn was only a few minutes away by I-95. We were mobile.
Perhaps that mobility was the reason that the farmers quit coming to town on Saturday. This was the biggest change, because Benson and the other market towns were not really needed anymore. The farmer could drive through three towns dotted seven miles apart and go to Raleigh or Smithfield or wherever he wanted to do his shopping.
At the beginning of the 1950's Benson was not notably different in any significant way from the way it was in 1930 or 1920. There was no real change in our social structure or our thinking. We ate the same foods raised the same way. Perhaps we drove a little faster, but no further. The occupations were the same; the attitudes the same.
When the '50's were over, much had changed. Much more was changing. Benson would never be the same again. Nobody else would ever grow up truly southern.