Published: Sep 21, 2008 06:35 PM
Modified: Sep 21, 2008 06:35 PM
Calendars recall what life was like in Chapel Hill
Like beauty, history has many faces. There are the wars -- the battles, the conquests, the treaties. There are the leaders -- kings and queens, presidents and prime ministers.There are also the customs -- the vehicles, the fashions of the time, the way people cooked, and what, and how long it once took. If The Chapel Hill Historical Society tends to focus on the latter sort of history, it should be remembered that the Battle of Waterloo was fought in another country and the Battle of Gettysburg in another state. Since its founding in 1966, the Society has been preserving Chapel Hill history through its regularly scheduled programs, the acquisition of documents, grants to schools for the study of local history and the publication of books. In 1978, the Society added what would become a series of annual calendars, each one based on a particular theme relevant to local history. "How We Looked" was the theme in 1986. In 1982, we looked at "Social Life," and in 1983, "Getting Around." In short, how we lived. For we did not always have microwaves. Nor ATMs. Nor even cars. Forget SUVs.1903 was the year the automobile came to Chapel Hill -- a one-cylinder Oldsmobile purchased by Professor Vernon Howell, who founded the School of Pharmacy and for whom Howell Hall is named. Alas, it so frightened the horses that despite his efforts to alert neighbors when he'd be going out, Professor Howell eventually drove it to Rocky Mount, where his sister lived, and left it there.All things in good time. Professor Howell was among the early 1920s car owners listed in the 1997 calendar. It featured a drawing by John Alcott titled "Campus Parking Lot," which first appeared in the Society book, "When Chapel Hill Was a Village." The drawing shows six cars in front of South Building. One is driving west on Cameron Avenue. The second, coming east, is turning off onto the grass near the Old Well, where the other four are parked. "To the kids of my time in the little village of Chapel Hill," William W. Prouty wrote in the accompanying text, taken from another Historical Society book, "Bill Prouty's Chapel Hill," "an auto ride was the greatest and rarest of adventures, and even the thought of our families owning an automobile was enough to blow our tops with ecstasy."To us, the automobile was the greatest achievement of all mankind, and the big names of the growing young industry -- Ford, Dodge, Chevrolet, Buick, Oldsmobile, Cadillac, Packard and others -- were spoken in the same reverent tones as those of Robert E. Lee, George Washington, John McGraw, William S. Hart, Walter Johnson, Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Stonewall Jackson, Teddy Roosevelt and others of our heroes."We would spend hours 'driving' a rusty old heap someone had left where it expired, racing with Barney Oldfield round the last turn at Indianapolis, or beating all the others up Pike's Peak, or just touring around town, looking down condescendingly on all the poor pedestrians."There were only a few passenger cars in the village in those days, the early Twenties -- Drs. Eric Abernethy and Brack Lloyd, UNC professors Archibald Henderson, Vernon Howell and Bull Bernard (his being a two-seat tandem number which, happily, expired down the hill from our cottage in Happy Valley), Bull Durham, Will Jordan and Kern Pendergraft, with their for-rent Cadillacs with planks across their jumper seats in back, are some of the best remembered."And when any of these autos passed us youngsters, any and all things we were doing came to an immediate stop."Fashion provided another take on life in Chapel Hill.Hats were featured in two calendars. The 1998 calendar, "Discover the Past ...While Planning Your Future," paired two photos from the 1986 calendar on "How We Looked." In the first, five gentlemen are wearing hats from earlier times, and in the other five ladies are doing the same.The accompanying text by Kimberly Kyser put a frame around the pictures: "Every fashion and function for centuries included a hat to protect the wearer from weather and the worry of being out of step with style and etiquette."Former mayor Roland "Sandy" McClamroch is shown in "a straw boater, fashionable in the 19th century for summer walking, and in the late Victorian era, for both men and women with sporting clothes. It remained popular with men and women well into the 20th century and is still seen from time to time at social events." Jerry Cotten, former keeper of the North Carolina Collection photos, wears "a cap originally designed in the 19th century for bicycling, later used for motoring, and similar to the golf cap."As for the ladies, Kyser pointed out: "As recently as the 1960s, a woman's wardrobe always included an assortment of hats for church, shopping, luncheons, and meetings. The wearing of a hat was a collective nod at propriety that transcended class distinctions. In contemporary America where casual and formal, public and private are blurred, hats are never required and seldom seen except at televised royal weddings and funerals, and, of course, at the Easter parade."The 1999 calendar cover featured a photo of the old wooden post office at the corner of Henderson and Franklin Streets. How old was it? When the picture was taken in the early 1890s, postage for letters cost 2 cents per ounce. Postal cards were a penny.The 1997 calendar added a new feature, which was continued in future calendars: highlighted events on given dates in past years. For example, by perusing the historical society's calendars you might discover the following tidbits: January 15, 1926: Chapel Hill bought a new police car for use in raiding stills.March 8, 1923: Strowd Motor Co. advertised a Ford Touring car for $361.May 28, 1925: The Chapel Hill Weekly reported that jeweler E.P. Cate cultivated his vegetable garden with the help of a plowing goat.September 30, 1927: Season football tickets for faculty were $5.No wonder we like to look back.
Val Lauder is past president of the Chapel Hill Historical Society.
2008 The Chapel Hill News