It was just sixty-three years ago that Judge McCoy was pounding the gavel and calling for order in the February term of court. People from all over Sampson County had started long before daylight in order to be in town when the justice called the session to order. Court week overshadowed all your conventions or drug store get-togethers ever thought of today. Damsels fixed their hair at home instead of going to the beauty parlors, and fancy mustaches adorned the upper lips of the gay young blades about town.
Clinton’s main street was a mass of carts, wagons and buggies. That was the hi-ho era when a rainy day turned the thoroughfare into a glorified playground for kiddies wishing to make mud pies, and the livery stables nearby were doing a brisk business. Vance Street was then known as Grog Row, and it is said it derived its name from the fact that whiskey was sold in every building on the street.
Court week in those days was a cross between our present day county fairs and a horse trading convention. All your relatives came to spend the week and quilting bees were the order of the day for the women, who traded gossip, recipes and quilt patterns industriously. Horse trading, cock fighting and attending court kept the men busy throughout the day, while at night, young and old alike, “joined hands, circled to the right and promenaded home” to the command of the fiddler, who scraped his bow far into the night at various homes during the week.
It was in those days that the rumble seat was still unknown, and most of the belles were tired of trying to pitch the proverbial “woo” in a hard backed porch swing. Anyone with a horse and buggy could cause the feminine heart to flutter. Honestly, you’d be surprised at the glamour that could be inspired by an old plug mule.
Yep, the old cracker barrel and the red-hot pot bellied stove were found in all the stores, the mule twitched his tail at the tying rail, and the loafers even as now, were discussing politics, religion and women.
The judge came to town on Saturday before court convened and remained until it was over. They had no court stenographers in those days and jurors and witnesses were required to sleep in the courthouse. Fires were built on the grounds to warm by, and open wells on the north, east and west sides of the square furnished drinking water for man and beast alike.
Buck Hill was Sheriff then, James S. Bizzell was holding down the job of Clerk of Court, and Joe Robinson was Register of Deeds. Court records, which were written in longhand, show J. I. Beaman, L.A. Powell, R. M. Crumpler, and A. B. Chesnutt to be members of the county Board of Commissioners. Lisbon Township hung up a record that year by being the only precinct in eastern North Carolina to vote for prohibition.
One of the greatest trials ever to be held in the county, according to the late Henry E. Faison, was “The People vs. Williams Mill Pond”, in which the said people of Clinton contended that the millpond at the base of the hill on Beaman Street contaminated their drinking water.
Another sensational case was the suit of Mrs. Arabella Peterson against Sherwood Barksdale for breach of promise. It is said that the trial so affected the feelings of the lady that she wrote a book in later years called “The Wounded Dove” in which she described her trials and tribulations in great detail.
One of the most gruesome executions of a decade occurred in Clinton several years later. In 1900, Art Sauls, charged with the murder of Jim Herring, attempted to commit suicide the night before he was scheduled to be hanged by slashing his throat with a the jagged edge of a pie tin. He was granted a reprieve of thirty days for the wounds to heal. The story goes that the rope was placed around his neck and tightened, and when the trapdoor fell, so did Art. The stitches on his throat tore loose, causing blood to spurt in all directions while poor Art danced in the air. This hanging proved to be such a gory sight that many of the onlookers became ill and fell sick to the ground. It left such a bad impression on the locals that a petition was drawn up asking that the place of future executions be changed to Raleigh.
The first automobile was seen in Clinton between 1912 and 1915, and Jamie Hubbard was the proud owner of this snorting, groaning monster that frightened children and horses alike almost out of their wits. The first typewriter was owned by the late Richard L. Herring, and ’tis said that his office was jammed for several days by curious sightseers. It was one of the old blind models and would seem like something out of the Ark to our present day stenographers. However, it was a step up in the town’s march of progress and they were accordingly proud.
With the advent of 1946 A. D., it’s a far different story. Most of the muddy roads are gone, streamlined cars fill every available parking place and gals talk “dirt” in drugstore booths.
The only building now standing on the courthouse square to remind us of the gay 90’s is the brick structure occupied by the firm of Kelly and Best hardware (on the corner of Vance and McKoy Streets).