With all the summer events Burke County offers each year, I recently wondered what people here did for fun decades ago, since I didn’t grow up in the area. I dropped by the Grace Ridge Retirement Community and spoke with some residents to find out.
John Greene Sr., 82, was quarantined in his yard on West Union Street in Morganton during the summer in 1944 and 1948 due to a polio epidemic. He and his neighbor, Don Coffey, set up a novel way to communicate. They created a mail system with a cookie tin they put notes in and placed in a wall between their properties.
When not confined to home, Greene and his friends enjoyed roller skating and playing hockey with sticks and tin cans, and built a clubhouse in the woods where the houses of West Park Drive stand now.
“Mrs. I.M. Taylor lived in a big house on the hill where the Presbyterian Church is,” Greene said. “She had a swimming pool, and we used to go there and swim. It was just a big concrete thing that didn’t have a filter in it or anything. You just swam in it, and when it got stinky enough, I guess she changed the water.”
They went to the movies at the Alva Theater and Mimosa Cinema. Ed Phifer III, 78, who also grew up on West Union Street, said you could see a movie at the Mimosa when he was a kid for 12 cents or at the Alva for 9 cents. A box of popcorn was a nickel. Betty Ann Elmore, 90, went to the soda shop next door to the Alva with her brother, Bert Harrell, to buy penny candy after watching a movie.
“We used to go to the Saturday westerns, and I became a big fan of Gene Autrey,” Elmore said.
The residents watched the Aggies, a Class-D professional baseball team, play at Morganton High School. Greene’s first job was selling popcorn at the ball park for 10 cents a box.
They also had the Collett Street Recreation Center.
“Back then, it was a big old house with a wrap-around porch,” Greene said. “They had ping-pong tables on the porch. They also had a pool table and a jukebox, so in high school, there was a lot of shagging going on there in the evenings, which seemed to be the most popular dance of its time.”
Later, the house was razed to build the current facility.
“They had bats in it,” Sharon Ivester-Everhart, 78, said of the old house. “I just loved bats, so I got two little bats and brought them home. My mother had a fit. She was not going to have bats in the house, so I had to take my little bats to the country and find a place for them.”
She enjoyed making mud pies.
“My brother and I played outside a lot,” Ivester-Everhart said. “We got into every mud hole you can imagine. I made beautiful mud pies and decorated them with flowers.”
She looked forward to traveling to Hendersonville for Girl Scout camp, water skiing at Lake James, visiting the library and catching crayfish in the creek at her grandparents’ farm with her cousins.
Many of the residents participated in Scouting and remember camping and earning badges.
“It was something I really looked forward to, and I learned a lot from my experiences in Scouting,” Greene said. “It was a big part of my youth.”
Ruth McNeely, 83, lived near the Johns River, where her father had several farms, so her favorite memories revolve around boating and other outdoor pursuits. Katherine Baird, 86, lived on a farm in the outskirts of Drexel. She spent her summers canning what her family grew and participating in church activities.
“It was a big deal to get on the bus and ride to Morganton to the movies or to go shopping,” Baird said.
She and her family would go swimming at Clearwater Beach, later named Optimist Park, and Brown Mountain Beach. When she was in high school, the Drexel Fair came along.
The residents spoke wistfully about the mimosa trees that used to line the middle of Green Street and inspired the Mimosa Festival Parade each summer. They remembered participating in the parade, which ran through downtown Morganton, and seeing the Mimosa Queen crowned each year at a dance at the Armory.
Betty Ann Elmore fondly remembers collecting stamps with her brother. On the weekends, their parents would take them to visit their grandparents in Hendersonville or Newton. A lot of the residents said summer family gatherings were important, the highlight of which was often making ice cream.
Ed Phifer had five sisters and enjoyed adventures with them and a group of neighborhood girls.
“It was 15 girls and me, and our leader was Barbara Cornwell, so in the summertime after dinner, we would do whatever she said,” Phifer said. “We didn’t have air conditioning or TV, so we couldn’t wait until supper was over, so we could find out what Barbara had in store for us.”
They would tell ghost stories or play games such as “Red Rover” or “No Bears out Tonight,” which was similar to hide-and-seek. His family had a large garden and ponies, which often kept him busy, as did Little League baseball and golf.
A particular caper got him and some local boys in trouble. They were 16 and had just gotten their drivers’ licenses and were driving around town. One of the boys had brought some eggs, so they starting egging passing cars. When they ran out of eggs, they drove to Willis’ Curb Market on Burkemont Avenue, stole two bushels of tomatoes and starting flinging them at everything in sight, including a cat and some angry Glen Alpine High School football players, until they were stopped by police and taken to the police station. Mr. Willis, the store owner, agreed not to press charges if the boys would “bring their daddies down there and pay me for my ‘maters.”
In an era where they often only had radio, Baird summed it up best.
“We had to entertain ourselves,” she said.
To watch a video of the residents sharing their memories, visit
Tammie Gercken is a staff writer at The News Herald and a member of the Morganton Writers’ Group.