My life up until the morning before I got married at age twenty was spent in the same house in Long Creek, a small community in Huntersville, North Carolina. When I was born in 1965, Huntersville was, literally, a one stoplight town. If you were going one way it blinked yellow for caution, the other, red for stop. In 1970, when I was five years old, the population of Huntersville was 1,538.
Back then Elementary School was first through six grade. Kindergarten wasn’t a thing, unless you went to a private one, like I did. Bruce Kindergarten was run out of Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church’s fellowship hall. Mrs. Bruce was a sweet, elderly lady who ran the kindergarten with her middle-aged daughter, Mrs. Davis. Some of my earliest memories are of dancing around the maypole, trailing crepe paper streamers that we wove into an intricate pattern as we moved. I also remember my first time carving pumpkins and roasting the seeds in the church kitchen. I fell in love with the salty, toasted treats then and there.
In the 1970s Huntersville was stable, insular, undiscovered by the outside world. In fact, most of the kids I met when I started elementary school in 1971 walked across the stage to accept diplomas along with me at graduation in 1983. “The new kid” was still a unicorn, something so rare that I can remember the sense of mystery and interest we all felt when one very occasionally popped up, mid-school-year.
During elementary school, I usually walked the mile to school. The road was mostly paved and had one significant hill to climb on the way home (unlike that dirt road my dad walked to school that was “uphill both ways”). A neighbor did double duty as the crossing guard who helped us cross Beatties Ford Road and as the lunch lady who took our money at the end of the lunch line. After school my friends and I often cut across her yard to head into the woods and down to Long Creek where we caught crawdads in a milk jug with the top cut off. We’d gently set the scoop we’d made of the jug down behind the little crustaceans, then pop a stick into the water in front of them, making them jet backwards into our trap. We had contests to see who could catch the most or the biggest, then we’d dump them back into the creek to catch again another day. We picked wild violets and climbed in the mimosa trees that edged the woods. Their profusion of delicate, fragrant, pink blossoms made them my favorite tree to this day, though magnolias and dogwoods aren’t far behind.
My years at Long Creek Elementary were a carefree cycle of being as excited on the first day of school as I had been on the first day of summer vacation. I loved reading more than breathing, so I was always excited to get those new books and to have access to the school library after a long summer. I was also excited to see who my teacher would be and which friends would be in my class. I had a circle of neighborhood friends I saw all year round, but many of my friends who did not live in Westminster Park or go to Hopewell Presbyterian Church I only saw during the school year. It was fun to catch up, to hear about what they had done on their summer breaks.
We worked hard in our classes and played hard in the gym, on the playground, and on the baseball and football fields. Optimist Club football games on cool or downright cold Fall mornings are still some of my favorite memories. Cheering for the Mustangs with my friends was so much fun! I also loved watching Jay McMurry, my childhood crush, play basketball in the beautiful old overheated gym. It was also in that gym that I got to bounce on my first trampoline and bob for apples at the annual Halloween Carnival. Dodgeball tournaments, four square, and Tinikling with bamboo sticks were just some of the fun things our gym teacher, Mrs. Eudy, came up with for us to do to burn off some of that kid energy I wish I still had today. We loved those activities so much that many of us attended a week-or-two-long Summer Play Days event that took place in the gym in the first weeks of summer vacation, even though we had just gotten out of school a few days before.
Our summers were also spent riding bikes around the entire community, safely ranging miles from home; playing tag and hide-and-go-seek in the yard; catching lightning bugs; roller skating on our cement drive; playing basketball; helping in the garden with harvesting and with the prep work for canning and freezing vegetables; and going on weeklong family vacations to Myrtle Beach or weekend day trips to the Blue Ridge Mountains. When I was five, my parents put in an in-ground pool. In no time, I was swimming like a fish. I loved the water and would spend hours diving, swimming, retrieving coins from the bottom of the eight-foot deep end, and floating in the rubber dinghies my parents bought us at Kmart. The pool was a kid magnet, so we always had someone to play with.
J.M. Alexander Junior High was were we went for seventh through ninth grade in the late 1970s. Those years were bittersweet for me. I met many new friends like Jonna Rozzelle, Jill Hobbs, and Marianne Reames because our school had students funneled into it not only from Long Creek Elementary, but from Huntersville Elementary, Cornelius Elementary, and Davidson Elementary. I also made close male friends: Scott Franklin, Scott Bradford, John Maxwell, Mike Meacham, and others in my Academically Talented (AT) classes. At the end of seventh grade those new friendships, especially with the guys, became my lifeline when a Mean Girl caused a rift in my closest early childhood friendships. All of the boys and the new girl friends I mentioned were loyal to me and made those junior high years bearable. The happiest day at JMA Junior High was ninth grade graduation day. I never looked back and, oddly, have few memories of those years.
North Mecklenburg High School was tenth through twelfth grades in the early 1980s. At that time the school was, in my eyes at least, a school of which to be proud. Though we heard that some Charlotte city school students called it Red Neck Tech, we didn’t see ourselves that way. I was always happy to tell someone I was a North Meck Viking! I had been attending the high school’s football games since seventh grade, both because my brother was a student there already and because my dad, who taught Graphic Arts at North, was the announcer for the games. I would hitch a ride with my dad to the games, then hang out on the hill or in the stands with my friends. Full disclosure … we were more into socializing than watching football. The games were very well attended and I knew that just about any boy I had a crush on at the time would be there.
At that time North Meck was the only high school in northern Mecklenburg County. Students from Huntersville, Cornelius, Mallard Creek, Davidson and north Charlotte, went there. During the early 80’s, the school had an enrollment of around 1500 students, roughly what the total population of Huntersville had been when I started school in 1971. Still, the school had a small town feel to it. Everyone mostly got along. Friendships crossed racial and socioeconomic lines. We were all Vikings. We had a spectacular principal who seemed to know every student’s name, as well as that of their siblings who had passed through the school before them. Mr. Hunt was a true leader, admired and respected by teachers, staff, and students. Because he was such a great administrator, he had a staff of mostly excellent teachers. I had always loved teachers who challenged me. Mrs. Maye, Mrs. Cantrell, Mrs. Bratton, Mrs. Sara Miller, and Mrs. Cunningham all had a firm grasp on their subjects and their classrooms. I respected that and loved learning from them. My heart, however, belonged to Mr. Jerry Taylor. I’d never had a teacher who was more invested in his students. On the first day of class he looked us in the eye and told us he loved us. He wasn’t blowing smoke. He would often take extra time with a student who was struggling … not only when they were having a hard time in his class, either. He noticed if a student was having troubles in general, at school or at home. He took the time to mentor, to listen, to help. I was one of the few students who took Biology 1, 2 and 3. I wanted to learn as much as possible from this extraordinary teacher. He taught me about biology, sure, but he also taught me about caring and compassion, honesty and responsibility. Years after I graduated, up until he died, I would seek him out at the gate of the football games just to give him a hug and tell him I missed him.
On Friday and Saturday nights when there was no football game to attend, my friends and I were often found exploring the college town of Davidson, which was just up the road. We’d get an orangeade at the M&M Soda Shop, a bagel sandwich at Pelligrino’s, shop at the Village Store, or just walk around the beautiful campus of the college, meeting up with our friends to socialize. After Friday night football games we met up at one of the Godfather’s Pizza locations in Charlotte, virtually taking over the restaurant there were so many of us there each week. We also went to Putt-Putt and Eastland Mall on the east side of Charlotte, since Huntersville had no mall or other kid-friendly gathering spot. Our parents didn’t worry too much about these excursions into Charlotte, which was mostly a safe place then. As long as I was with a couple of friends and home by eleven, I was golden.
Just like my junior high graduation, my high school graduation was bittersweet. I’d made lifelong friendships there and even made up with those girls who had left me behind in junior high. I’d fallen in love with the boy I would marry two years later. It was exciting and scary to think about my life beyond the insular world of Huntersville.
Very few of my friends would remain in town. Colleges in far flung towns in North Carolina, Georgia, and South Carolina took many of them away from home. The military took others to different states and as far away as Germany and to the first Gulf War. Marriages and, for some, children followed and all that time our town was growing, getting farther and farther from the small town in which we grew up.
When I was around thirty and feeling nostalgic for my youth, I began creating a yearly family calendar filled with pictures and stories. Each of the last twenty-four years that calendar has been a part of my Christmas giving. A few years back, I decided to use the community I grew up in, Long Creek, which I considered the gem in the ring that was Huntersville, as my subject. I took a day off for my photo shoot, filled with excitement about visiting my childhood haunts. By the end of the first hour, I was depressed. Long Creek Elementary as I knew it was gone. The old buildings with the creaky floors and radiator heat and so much character where I attended 2nd and 3rd grade and where we had our music classes, Christmas and talent shows, and Awards Days had been torn down completely. The “new” building where I had attended 1st, 4th, 5th and 6th grade and where the library I loved was housed was now occupied by a Montessori school. A gleaming new Long Creek Elementary School, all under one roof, sat in the middle of the softball field where I had played Optimist softball and cheered for Optimist football. The Optimist Club now defunct, the two remaining baseball fields were disused and grown up in weeds. Across the street, Puckett’s Store, where we made our after school stop offs to buy a Coke and a pack of peanuts had closed several years before, the building now home to Lancaster’s BBQ. The woods we used to play in across Mount Holly-Huntersville Road from my old neighborhood were now gone. A cookie-cutter neighborhood with four or five houses per acre stood in the spot where we used to climb on the biggest, most majestic, oak I’ve ever seen this side of Charleston. My next stop was Latta Plantation Park where we used to go for walks, where I’d gotten engaged in 1984 at an Optimist Club picnic. Instead of the well-kept beauty I remembered, I found the park overgrown and dark. I could no longer find the bench where Darryl had proposed. Feeling down and disappointed, I headed for a place I knew would make me feel better, Hopewell Presbyterian Church. The campus of the church where I grew up was just as I remembered it. A sense of calm and peace rushed over me as I walked through the graveyard completely circling the beautiful old church, marveling still at the precision of the stone wall along Beatties Ford Road which was built in 1928. I wanted to go inside, to sit in the balcony where I had listened to Reverend Wadsworth, Reverend Dodd, Reverend Bullock, and Reverend Smyth deliver their sermons over the years. I was shocked to find the door to the sanctuary locked. I sat on the steps and processed all that I had seen that day. Progress to some, I suppose …. seemed like devastation to me.
In 2020, a year which has pretty much universally sucked, the old Long Creek Elementary gym was torn down. As soon as I found out it was happening, I had my dad, who still lives in my childhood home a mile from the school, drive over and rescue a brick from the old building which held so many of my childhood memories. It was just one more part of my community that has fallen away due to “progress”.
That Huntersville population of 1,538 in 1971 had grown to 57,098 by 2019! When I graduated from North Meck in 1983, the town had about three policeman. Now Huntersville has more than eighty men and women on the force. They see things that old Ernie, the town cop of my youth who also worked at the local Amoco gas station, never even dreamed of.
My printing business is located only a few miles from my old high school. Though I haven’t lived in Huntersville since I married in 1985, I was unable to leave it behind me entirely and have never lived more than fifteen miles from my childhood home in the Long Creek Community. Nostalgia and family ties have bound me to the area for fifty-five years, my whole life, so far. If you had asked me when I was growing up, I would have said I wanted to die here. But “here” is no longer there. My little town is now a bustling hub just north of the city of Charlotte, which is growing at an even more rapid rate than Huntersville. Our secret is out and now, it seems, everyone wants to live here ….. except me. I want my Mayberry back.