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“Witlings Defame Her”: William Gaston and “The Old North State”

18-feb1On February 18, 1927, the General Assembly adopted “The Old North State” as North Carolina’s official state song.

State Supreme Court Justice William Joseph Gaston of New Bern penned the song’s patriotic lyrics in the 1830s, when North Carolina was lagging economically behind its neighbors and masses of people were moving away. A dedicated public servant and advocate for internal improvements, Gaston sought to defend North Carolina against accusations of being backward.

When court was in session in Raleigh, Gaston stayed at the home of Mrs. James F. Taylor. One day after a couple of women in the household returned from a concert by a group of visiting Swiss bellringers, they began to sing and play one of the concert tunes on the piano. Gaston became inspired. At his office on Hargett Street, he wrote several verses of the now-familiar song, adapting it to the melody he had just heard. A chorus of 50 young women first performed the song at the Whig state convention in Raleigh in October 1840.

R. Culver set Gaston’s poem to music in 1844, but the arrangement composed in 1926 by Mrs. E. E. Randolph in Raleigh is the version familiar to North Carolinians today.

For more on Gaston and the state song, check out the Old North State Fact Book from North Carolina Historical Publications.

Loonis McGlohon: North Carolina Was His Home

On January 26, 2002, noted pianist and composer Loonis McGlohon died. Born in Ayden in 1921, he grew up listening to big band music screen-shot-2014-01-25-at-6-12-01-pm1and learning the piano from the church organist. After graduating from East Carolina University, McGlohon moved to Charlotte where he began working for WBTV, first with a jazz show. He moved up to become music director and producer, among other positions there.

McGlohon is perhaps best known for forming the Loonis McGlohon Trio, which recorded more than two dozen albums and toured the world. His compositions include “The Wine of May” and “Songbird,” and have been recorded by scores of performers including Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Judy Garland and Rosemary Clooney.

An ardent advocate of his home state, McGlohon collaborated with journalist Charles Kuralt on North Carolina is My Home, a symphonic work with narration and vocals which has been distributed as a recording, public televison broadcast and video and a coffee table book.

In recognition of his songwriting, McGlohon was honored in 1998 with a tribute at New York’s Lincoln Center where many of the artists who had played with him and sung his songs made appearances. He was inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame in 1999.

Department Store Magnate Paul H. Rose

A Rose's in Asheboro, 1949. Image courtesy of the State Library.

A Rose’s in Asheboro, 1949. Image courtesy of the State Library.

On January 19, 1955, Paul Howard Rose, founder of the chain of Rose’s discount department stores, died at age 73.

Born in 1881 in Seaboard, Rose discovered his knack for merchandising early on. At age 12, he set up a wooden packing crate outside his hometown pharmacy and sold bundles of wood, his mother’s homemade cookies and other items. After business school in Virginia, Rose opened a store in Littleton. At times his capital was so limited he used empty shoeboxes to help fill the shelves. For a time he worked as a traveling salesman. He used that experience to educate himself about competitive pricing strategies.

Rose partnered with two businessmen, purchased stock in United 5 & 10 Cent Stores and opened retail outlets in Henderson and Charlotte. The venture failed, but in 1915, Rose borrowed $500, bought a shop in Henderson and opened the first Rose’s store. Rose removed merchandise from behind counters (where it had to be retrieved by stock clerks) to shelves that shoppers could peruse at their own pace.

The entrepreneur eventually operated 280 Rose’s stores in 11 southeastern states. Today, about 200 Rose’s stores remain.

Origins of Maco Light Legend Date to 1856

Southern Railway trains. Image from the State Archives.

Southern Railway trains. Image from the State Archives.

On January 4, 1856, a train accident on the Wilmington and Manchester Railroad occurred near Wilmington, giving rise to an enduring North Carolina legend. In the neighborhood of Hood’s Creek, about 8 miles outside of Wilmington, the engine of the night train collided with the mail train, upon which Charles Baldwin was the conductor. Baldwin received severe head injuries during the accident and died three days later. He was, for a time buried in St. James Cemetery in Wilmington, but his remains were moved to an unknown location and the headstone was lost.

In determining the cause of the accident, investigators discovered that Baldwin was responsible for hanging a light on the front of the mail train and had not done so. The Legend of the Maco Light that subsequently grew from the accident recounts the tale of “Joe” Baldwin, a train conductor who was decapitated in a collision.

A mysterious light seen frequently along the railroad tracks at the small crossroads was reputed to be Joe Baldwin swinging a lantern as he searched for his head. The light could be seen from a distance but disappeared as one approached it. The railroad tracks were removed in 1977, and the light has not been seen since.

Learn more about the Legend of the Maco Light and other North Carolina lore in North Carolina Legends from N.C. Historical Publications.

Bath to Broadway: Edna Ferber and “Show Boat”

On December 27, 1927, the musical “Show Boat” premiered on Broadway at the Ziegfeld Theatre in New York City. Composer Jerome Kern and Lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II adapted Edna Ferber’s 1926 eponymous novel to the stage.

“Show Boat” was the first dramatic musical on Broadway, featuring a strong plot and incorporating lyrics into the staging. Its classic songs like “Ole’ Man River,’ “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” and “After the Ball” were further popularized by soprano and Winston-Salem native Kathryn Grayson in the 1951 film adaptation.

Ferber’s story about the interconnected lives surrounding a river showboat was based on the four days she spent on the James Adams Floating Theatre in Bath. Already a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, Ferber visited Beaufort County to research river theater and, while on her trip, met performers Charles Hunter and Beulah Adams, who were fans of her work and had staged her stories.

Ferber took a second trip to North Carolina in April 1925 to meet a showboat in Bath. She lived, played, worked, rehearsed and ate with the theater company on the huge boat, gathering inspiration and stories from Charles Hunter and her observations of the audiences. The novel and musical dramatize timeless themes of racial injustice, tragic romance, gambling and small town values.

Other related resources:

Moonshine Runner Pardoned: Last American Hero Junior Johnson

Junior Johnson’s racing helmet and driver of the year plaque. Image from the N.C. Museum of History.

Junior Johnson’s racing helmet and driver of the year plaque.
Image from the N.C. Museum of History.

On December 26, 1985, Robert Glen “Junior” Johnson received a full and unconditional pardon from President Ronald Reagan for his 1956 conviction in federal court for moonshining. Young Johnson was caught firing up his father’s still and became entangled in a barbed wire fence while trying to escape. The conviction put Johnson on a forced 11-month, three-day hiatus from his other career as a rising NASCAR star.

Johnson, like many early NASCAR drivers, got his first high-speed driving experience in a souped-up automobile loaded with illegal white liquor. He was a natural as a driver and always made it a point of pride that the revenuers never caught him on the highway. He parlayed his experience on the back roads of North Carolina into one of the most successful careers in NASCAR history.

When Johnson retired as a driver in 1966, he became one of the most successful crew chiefs and owners in the sport’s history. He was also a thriving and respected businessman in Wilkes County, having made lucrative investments in real estate, livestock and meat processing. Junior Johnson was in the first group of five inductees into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2010.

Other related resources:

Ava Gardner Born

h-122-aOn December 24, 1922, Ava Garnder was born in Grabtown, a small farming community near Smithfield in Johnston County.  Gardner moved around North Carolina as a child, but eventually graduated high school in Wilson County and began a program in secretarial studies at what is now Barton College.


A cut-out book featuring Ava Gardner, now in the collection of the N.C. Museum of History

Discovered by chance after her brother-in-law posted a picture of her in the window of his New York City studio, Gardner was offered a contract with MGM Studios. Since her mother would not allow her to head to Hollywood alone, both Garner and her sister moved to the west coast in 1941.

Appearing in mostly minor and silent parts during the first five years of her career, Gardner’s profile was raised significantly after her 1946 performances in Whistle Stop and The Killers. Gardner went on to make at least 55 movies, including On the Beach (1959), The Night of the Iguana (1964) and Earthquake (1974). She was also known for her marriages to Mickey Rooney, Artie Shaw and Frank Sinatra.

Gardner came back to Johnston and Wilson Counties often throughout her life to visit family and friends, though she died while living abroad in 1990. The Ava Gardner Museum and Festival, both in Smithfield, honor her.

For more on North Carolina’s film industry, check out the article on film-making on NCpedia.