All roads into Fairmont slice through the expansive and fertile coastal plain that once was the seed bed of the region’s booming tobacco industry. Located just an hour’s drive from the South Carolina beach resorts, Fairmont today wallows in an economic no-man’s land in a time beyond tobacco, cotton and textiles.
It wasn’t always thus.
Before there was a Fairmont there was Union City, and after that, Ashpole.
Fairmont was incorporated in 1907. Joseph Mitchell, the great New Yorker writer and the town’s most famous son, was born the following year. He grew up alongside Fairmont. His family, with father Averette Nance Mitchell at the head, was part of the engine that drove Fairmont as it developed into a major tobacco hub.
A century ago, Fairmont’s brick-lined Main Street was fresh and inviting. Fairmont bustled with sawmills, cotton gins and an ever-expanding roster of tobacco warehouses. The Fairmont Light and Power Company came online in 1914, and the town lit up figuratively and literally. The Dixie Motion Picture house showed three or four movies a night.
By the 1920s, as Mitchell entered his teenage years, Fairmont was roaring. Tobacco warehouses popped up all over town. At one point, 23 of them were stacked to the ceiling with “yellow gold” during tobacco market season.
For two and a half months every summer, Fairmont transformed from respectable rural town into round-the-clock carnival of roiling humanity. Big shots and small-timers rolled in from all over the south. Money men from the big tobacco houses kicked back on the front porch of the Fairmont Hotel. Seersucker-clad and whiskey-saturated, they swapped stories, smoked fat cigars and reveled in their importance.
The tobacco market was a circus of curiosities, replete with medicine shows and traveling musicians and gypsies. Trains rumbled into town and sidled up to the station, which now houses the Border Belt Museum. Cotton and tobacco went in on one side of the street side, out the other.
The tumbling madness of it all mesmerized young Joseph Mitchell and just about any kid who came of age during the heyday of King Tobacco.
“All kind of things would be going on here, like minstrel shows, circuses, people selling all kinds of snake-oil type medicines,” said Jack Mitchell, Joseph’s nephew. “That really interested Joseph. He loved that. Because the rest of the time there was nothing happening but farming. The gypsies, for instance, he got interested in them. He became a member of some society that studied gypsies.”
Fairmont Mayor Charles Kemp.
That seems a long time ago today. It’s Good Friday in Fairmont, 2013. It is hard to see what else Fairmont could count on that is good, the past notwithstanding. The present is bleak, the future appears forlorn.
A week ago today, a 16-year-old student at Fairmont High School was shot to death while shooting hoops at a local park. Another 16-year-old boy was charged with murder. He rode up in a car with four adults, including the 22-year-old female driver and a 23-year-old woman with her 2-year-old child in tow. Police say the shooter got out, engaged the victim in a brief verbal confrontation and then fired multiple shots.
Two days later, a 34-year-old man accidentally shot to death his 10-year-old son while wiping down his shotgun.
An aura of sadness hovers. It doesn’t matter where you look. Now I’m looking across Main Street at the Hector McLean Public Library. More walk-in closet than library, it’s open just 20 hours a week and contains nary a volume by Joseph Mitchell. The door to the Border Belt Museum is open 12 hours a week.
The town’s website boasts a “beautiful, historic downtown,” but this is pure marketing. The page includes only photo advertisements for chains like Family Dollar, Food Lion and True Value Hardware.
Proud past. Promising future. Yesterday I spent a pleasant hour in the mayor’s office. Charles Kemp is a tireless promoter of both his town and himself. Among the posters on his wall is one bearing the familiar face of an old vaudevillian who was born Samuel Horwitz. Above the face is this caption: Legalize Shemp.
Charles Kemp is nobody’s stooge. He takes himself too seriously. A retired history teacher who taught for 30 years at Fairmont High School, Kemp fancies himself a human bridge from the happy days of the 1950s to a better future.
We sat in his humble office, upstairs in the old Fairmont Hotel at 421 S. Main. The door was wide open when I wandered in Wednesday. A 9-year-old girl named Megan sat at the receptionist desk. We traded smiles. I introduced myself to Mayor Kemp and asked about Willie Broox Webster, who served four term as mayor. The town druggist, Webster was 87 when we met him. He gave us a tour of Fairmont in his Buick Skylark back in 2003. Then I asked if we might talk at length, and he said I should come back this morning.
So here I am.
Today he appeared a bit guarded. He cautioned he had just a half hour to talk. Nonetheless, our conversation had spilled into a second hour by the time I thanked him for his time and made my exit.
Office hours are scribbled in orange marker: 8 a.m to 5 p.m.
At 66, Kemp is old enough to remember Fairmont’s flush times. In 1950 alone, just shy of 50 million pounds of tobacco were sold here.
“There’s a siren on top of this building that went off every day at noon if we paid out a million dollars of tobacco,’ he said. “And it went off every day at noon during tobacco season.”
When he was in college at North Carolina Wesleyan, he came home and worked a summer job for R.J. Reynolds.
“I put many a set of 32 envelopes tied together with string in a tobacco boxcar with 32 hogsheads in it, big barrels of wood filled with 1,000 pounds of tobacco,” he said. “Three cars left each day to go to Whitaker Park and Brook Cove in Winston Salem for American Tobacco Company and R.J. Reynolds tobacco company to start the process of turning it into cigarettes. I did that all summer for R.J. Reynolds. I was the last man to touch that tobacco before it pulled out. I’d close it with an iron bar, put an aluminum seal on the handle and click it. Tobacco. … it was a big deal. You couldn’t find anybody who didn’t have their hands in tobacco in some way. They either grew it, or they were a business person who gave farmers credit until their tobacco was sold, or they worked in fields, or they went to college off the tobacco money their parents made. Everybody was touched by tobacco. It’s like jumping in a pond. You’re going to get wet.”
Those are misty-eyed memories now. The roof fell in on the tobacco market in the 1970s, and Fairmont got crushed. Giant firms like R.J. Reynolds and the American Tobacco simply stopped sending their buyers and circuit riders to town during harvest season, and that was it. Then came NAFTA, which gutted the North Carolina’s textile industry.
I wonder if his pond analogy was intentional. When he was 18, Charles Kemp learned a terrible lesson: When you jump in a pond, far worse things can happen than getting wet.
He was shooting pool downtown when a friend talked him into going along on a swimming outing to an irrigation pond outside of town. On his fourth time down, he got his feet tangled, slipped, landed awkwardly and fractured two cervical vertebrae. He spent two months staring at the ceiling in a Duke University hospital. He stewed in his own bitterness until his doctor walked in one day with a message.
“He reached into his pocket and pulled out a Parliament cigarette, the ones with recessed filters. He stuck it right under my face and said, ‘See how far the filter’s recessed?’ I said, ‘Yeah I see it.’ ‘Well, that’s how close you came to never moving a muscle from the neck down. I was overcome by shock. From that day till this second, I ain’t never had a bad day.”
As it is, he walks with a painful, palsied gait. His legs are bent and gnarled. Just putting one foot in front of the other demands tremendous effort. Watching him rise from his desk and walk across the hall to show me a photographic roster of former mayors was like watching a man climb a mountain on stilts in the teeth of a blizzard with a cast-iron stove on his back. One thing’s for certain, he doesn’t lack determination or can-do spirit.
If anyone is to defy the staggering odds and resuscitate Fairmont, Charles Kemp might be that man. He appears to have something of a savior complex.
Charles Kemp, who chokes up when telling an anecdote about Robert E. Lee, who longs to be the Man in the Arena, like his favorite president, Teddy Roosevelt.
He said when he was 12 he knew he’d be mayor of Fairmont one day. Fairmont is in his blood. He is part Billy Sunday, part P.T. Barnum, part David Brent.
“My favorite person in the world, the person I would love to have interviewed, is P.T. Barnum.,” he said. “P.T. Barnum was the ultimate marketer. He convinced people that if you paid him a nickel and went into that tent, the smallest man in the world was in there. And he got them to go in there. I’ve got to be able to convince people to get off of I-95 at exit 10. And that if you come through Fairmont, and by the way, if you stop and get you a McDonald’s hamburger, or a pizza at the pizza place, or a sub, or by the way you can get you some gas here on the way to the beach, which is the shortest route on that street right there (N.C. Route 41). That’s what I got to do. And if I can do what P.T. Barnum did, then we’ll have lots and lots of out-of-state people coming through.”
He knows this. He convinced Kenneth Rust, who owns the McDonald’s on Walnut Street, to fund the printing of 200 flyers which promote North Carolina Route 41 through Fairmont as the shortest route to the South Carolina beaches from Interstate 95
He might have delusions of grandeur. He has a bit of the David Brent in him. You can’t help but like him, though
When you stroll along Main Street and take in its bargain houses and second-hand stores and empty storefronts and decaying buildings with birds nesting amid crumbling concrete, you begin to think reviving this town would be a daunting task for God Almighty.
Don’t tell this to Charles Kemp.
If there’s one person left in Fairmont who believes in the future, it’s Charles Kemp. He talks a hell of a game. He is unfazed by the troubles pressing in on Fairmont from all sides. And he’ll tell you straight up, he’s the only man for the job. He’ll run for a third term in November.
“Our best days our ahead of us,” he said. “I firmly believe that. If I could ever get my fingernails dug into that proverbial cliff wall and establish a secure footing and we can get this economy turned around, we can really blow up, to use Martin Lawrence’s phrase. We’ve got the people that want the jobs. We’ve go the desire. We’ve got the enthusiasm, the community energy. Bu you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.”
The sow’s ear which concerns Kemp lies beyond his influence. The Republican-controlled state Legislature is going all-in on a boatload of austerity-inflected bills which would slash funding for all sorts of governmental outreach.
“They’re doing stuff in Raleigh that’s going to cripple this town,” he said. “If they pass some of the laws that they’re suggesting, they’re going to wipe us out. And we have to have a balanced budget. There ain’t no deficit spending in this town.”
Will he face any significant opposition on the ballot come November? He responds with typical salesmanship.
“I will tell you this: Whoever it is, be he or she black white or Indian, Native American, they better bring their lunch,” he said. “Because I’ve got a lot invested in this job. I’m just not prepared or willing to give it up without a fight. Nobody else, trust me, there’s no one in this town, male or female, young, old, black, white or Indian, there’s no one who would do the job I do.”
Long odds, formidable obstacles and setbacks only seem to stiffen Kemp’s resolve. All the factors of his life have conspired to breed him a self-confidence that borders on unreasonable. Maybe he’s just watched too many movies.
I asked if his catastrophic injury has something to do with his unwavering optimism.
“Oh yeah,” he said. “That’s an understatement. I won’t quit. My favorite scene in a movie is from “Cool Hand Luke” when George Kennedy keeps knocking down. Everyone’s saying ‘Stay down, Luke. Stay down.’ And Luke keeps getting back up. It’s my favorite scene of any movie I’ve ever seen. I guess I’m Luke.
“I will find a way to be successful. I’ve been trying to find grant funding for a billboard on I-95 to promote exit 10 for two years. I’ve struck out everywhere I turned. I’m still trying. I sent a letter to 10 local businesses in this town to ask if they would give $50 a month toward the $500-a-month rental fee for the billboard. I will be successful. We will have a billboard on I-95, Some way, somehow, I’m putting one out there. I know what it will mean to this town. Ten thousand cars a month gonna come down I-95 during beach season. I know they ain’t gonna all come through Fairmont. I’m not stupid. But some of them are.”
Newly remarried (his first wife died in 2010), Kemp will be 67 when he stands for reelection in November. As long as he’s able, he will continue to bang every drum he can lay his hands on to promote Fairmont. He gets paid $161.61 each month for serving as mayor, and he’s fond of saying he’d do it for free.
“I stopped a car from Maryland in the McDonald’s parking lot last summer,” he said. “On Saturdays in the summertime I drive through town to see how many out-of-state license plates are out there. I got out of my car and walked around and introduced myself. I said, ‘Why’re you here?’ He said, ‘We stopped at Roanoke Rapids at the welcome center.’ He didn’t have to say anything else. He got one of my flyers out of the rack there. We printed up a flyer that says this is the shortest route to the beach. I said, ‘Bingo, you got one of my flyers!’ We put 2,000 of those out in the last six months. I handed him my card and asked him to give me a call and tell me I didn’t lie to him.”
Joey Mitchell poses alongside the historical marker which honors his uncle.
Yet it’s a beautiful day. After a chilly week in the Tar Heel state, I finally found a place in the Carolina sun. A woman parked her truck across Main Street and gave me a smile as she walked toward the door of an unmarked building opposite me.
“It’s a pretty day to be lost,” she said.
I smiled back, but I wasn’t lost. The sky above was a canopy of blue, save for a renegade cloud positioned high above Main Street. I sat a few minutes in the grass beneath the historical marker honoring Joseph Mitchell, which was erected two years ago by the Sidney Lanier Book Club.
I flipped through my ragged copy of “Up in the Old Hotel.” I’ve carried it everywhere on our travels, but I hadn’t picked it up in a long time. A car drove up behind me. It was Joey Mitchell, son of Harry Mitchell, one of Joseph’s brothers. We shook hands, and I hopped into his silver Jeep Compass for my second driving tour of Fairmont’s Mitchell sites in a decade.
Joey eased onto East Thompson Street, named for one of Union City’s first commissioners, Charles B. Thompson, and coasted alongside an old rectangular building of faded orange brick. A metal plaque, inscribed with A.N. Mitchell and Sons, still hangs on the exterior facade.
Averette Nance Mitchell was Joseph Mitchell’s father and Joey’s grandpa. I’ve read several places where Joseph Mitchell was the son of a Fairmont tobacco farmer. This is not strictly true. His daddy was a shrewd, no-nonsense businessman.
“He got started there,” Joey said of his grandfather. “He borrowed some money, and then somehow he had a little bit of money at a time during the Depression when nobody else had any. He bought some land, and one thing led to another. It was after the Depression that things begin to take off. He bought a lot of land and did real well in tobacco and cotton.”
While Joseph Mitchell showed little interest in the family business, he was fascinated by the carnival atmosphere that animated Fairmont during tobacco market season.
His bookish predilections were encouraged by his mother.
“They would go down to Charleston to sell cotton, to buy cotton and to speculate on cotton, and Uncle Joseph would go to a bookstore and buy books,” Joey said. “My grandfather was a conservative type of man, and Uncle Joseph was a liberal.
Joey turns onto South Walnut Street and slows to a stop alongside an open field which used to be home to A.N. Mitchell and Sons tobacco warehouse. It had been rented out to a furniture business when it burned to the ground a decade ago.
At the First Baptist Church, he turns right onto Church Street and glides past the Mitchell compound. He drives around the back of the old Mitchell house at 407 Church. We bounce along a dirt path lined with Pecan trees. Cows, after grazing to their heart’s content, would leave the pasture and lounge here and fertilize the trees.
This is where they laid out Joseph Mitchell after he got hit in the head with a cow.
Joey points across the field to the old barn where that episode unfolded. Mitchell related the anecdote in “Hit on the Head With a Cow,” which tells the story of an irrepressibly eccentric old Yankee who called himself Captain Charley and ran Captain Charley’s Private Museum for Intelligent People in the basement of a New York tenement building.
A.N. Mitchell had hired a man named Alonzo to help butcher a cow in that barn. Ten-year-old Joseph was hanging about, hoping to get in on the action. And then:
We were hoisting that cow up in the air with a block and tackle so we could skin her, and Alonzo and I had hold of the rope. We had the cow off the ground when something went wrong with the gear, and when I came to I was out in the barnyard running around in circles and screeching, and my head was bloody. I was caught and subdued by Alonzo and stretched out on the green grass under a pecan tree, I looked up at my father and said, “What happened, Daddy?” My father had a faraway look in his eyes and said, “Son, you were hit on the head with a cow.”
We moved past the pasture where that cow grew fat before knocking Joseph Mitchell senseless, and Joey reflected on his famous uncle’s work.
“I didn’t understand it, but as I grew older and enjoyed reading more, I kind of eventually understood what he was doing that was so remarkable. The way that he could say something that would sound almost off-the-cuff but would describe chapters of a person’s life. It’ll clean the cobwebs out of your head, that’s for sure. He’s a writer’s writer.”
Occasionally the cows would get a little rambunctious and wander up Church Street in search of greener pastures.
“They would get out every Sunday morning and end up down there at the Presbyterian Church and we’d have to go and get them,” Joey said.
Inevitably, a cultural gap grew between the New York writer and his father.
“My grandfather, I don’t think he was really literate,” Joey said. “He was good with numbers. I mean, I don’t think he would sit down and read Mark Twain or anything. But he was stern. He was an old-time parent.”
We left the Mitchell home place and traveled a mile north to the Floyd Memorial Cemetery, where Joey’s kin rest. No romance in this graveyard. Not a blade of grass out of place. It’s clean-cut and groomed to the point of dullness. This is the sort of cemetery Joseph Mitchell would have visited only on the occasion of his own death.
Not a single wildflower here. Nothing grows here that might’ve provided balm to Mitchell’s soul, nothing of the sort he uncovered on his walks among the old cemeteries on the South Shore of Staten Island. He was an obsessive amateur naturalist. He could rattle off the names of wild-growing flora with encyclopedic brio, as he did in his 1956 tour de force, “Mr. Hunter’s Grave,” based on time spent with 87-year-old George Henry Hunter in the overgrown cemetery at Sandy Ground, a settlement founded before the Civil War by free blacks who’d come to Staten Island from Maryland to work in local oyster beds.
The older graves were covered with trees and shrubs. Sassafras and honey locust and wild black cherry were the tallest, and they were predominant, and beneath them were chokeberry, bayberry, sumac, Hercules’ club, spice bush, sheep laurel, hawthorn, and witch hazel. A scattering of newer graves were fairly clean, but most of them were thickly covered with weeds and wild flowers and ferns. There were scores of kinds. The majority were the common kinds that grow in waste spaces and in dumps and in vacant lots and in old fields and beside roads and ditches and railroad tracks, and I could recognize them at a glance. Among these were milkweed, knotweed, ragweed, Jimson weed, pavement weed, catchfly, Jerusalem oak, bedstraw, goldenrod, cocklebur, butter-and-eggs, dandelion, bouncing Bet, mullein, partridge pea, beggar’s-lice, sandspur, wild garlic, wild mustard, wild geranium, rabbit tobacco, old-field cinquefoil, bracken, New York fern, cinnamon fern, and lady fern. A good many of the others were unfamiliar to me, and I broke off the heads and upper branches of a number of these and stowed them in the pockets of my jacket, to look at later under a magnifying glass.
As we stood there above A.N., Joseph and the rest of the bygone Mitchells and basked in the warmth of the sun, I asked Joey to rephrase what he’d said on the phone yesterday, that Joseph Mitchell’s legacy confers a kind of intellectual legitimacy on the whole family.
“What was that movie called, The ‘Six Degrees of Separation?” that separates you from everybody else?,” he said. “Well, he took out a few degrees of separation from everything.”
Joseph Mitchell came home from New York one final time and was buried here following his death on May 24, 1996. The fourth line of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73, “Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang,” is inscribed on his stone.
Joey’s not so sure about that. Maybe Shakespearean sonnets are not his thing.
“His legacy wouldn’t be bare ruined choirs,” Joey said. “That’s what literature is supposed to do, tell you how it was at certain time at a certain place for generations to come.”
What was it like to hang out with an uncle who just happened to be a famous journalist in the biggest city in the country?
“Uncle Joseph, he was a reporter in every relationship that he had,” Joey said. “He used his ability for listening and included you. You never felt like you were talking to somebody famous. He was always interested in you.”
Much like in New York, when Mitchell came home he liked to get out in the country and collect flowers and artifacts.
“We’d have farms out to the south of town along a run called Hog Swamp, and then he had another of his farms down on 904 called the Butler Place,” he said. “And he would go down there. You’d take him down there in the morning. I think the first pair of Cargo pants I ever saw, he had on. And then you’d go back and pick him up in the afternoon, and he’d have pottery, Indian pottery, shards of this and that. He would go out to the farm and collect mourning doves’ nests, and he would write ‘mourning dove found at Slasher Field,’ or things like that. He was excited just to be here. You kind of expected him to be real sophisticated and real citified, but he wasn’t. He loved eating watermelon, and he was enthusiastic about anything.”
Having paid our respects to Joseph Mitchell et. al, we climbed back into the car and headed back to the Border Belt Museum. I asked Joey about his hometown. He said he likes it more the older he gets. But he’s under no illusions about Fairmont returning to something approximating its former glory.
“It’s kind of the end of the line down here in North Carolina,” Joey said. “It’s us then the South Carolina state line. When you go from Lumberton to here, you probably go back in time 30 years. And from here to Lakeview, S.C., it would be another 50 years back in time. We’re kind of in a pocket right here, too far south for Fort Bragg, and too far northwest for Myrtle Beach.”
I take a couple pictures, thank him for the tour and we part ways. He’s off to play golf with his nephew, the son of his cousin Jack.
I have an appointment to meet Jack Mitchell here in about a half hour. With time to kill, I decide to take a stroll about downtown Fairmont.
I walk past the old Mitchell offices on East Thompson and then come up on an old tobacco warehouse which was run by A.D. Lewis Jr. Fading letters still advertise it as the “Big Brick” warehouse. The tobacco’s gone, but there’s some sort of agricultural work going on here today. An old semi truck rumbles down Walnut Street, aka Route 41, in the general direction of South Carolina. There’s a gas station on the other side of 41 without so much as small sign to indicate who the hell owns or runs it.
I walk through the open field once occupied by the Mitchell warehouse and gaze south across Center Street (formerly Bulldog Avenue) toward the stately, slate-roofed steeple atop the impressive white cupola which crowns Fairmont’s First Baptist Church.
I make a flanking maneuver on the old town, circling in toward the south end. From this perspective, things look shaggy, ragged, shabby and sad.
Discarded tires are piled up outside the Tire Recapping garage. Birds emerge from gaping holes in concrete walls.
Main Street seems a hopeless jumble of peeling paint, cracking concrete and stores that either have gone out of business or are going out of business. As I draw closer, even the First Baptist Church seems more pedestrian. It’s got the antebellum-style columns holding up the portico out front and the big cupola top, but the rest of the structure looks like any other humdrum building erected in 1981.
It used to be called Ashpole Baptist Church, and I find myself wishing it still traded under that name. It dates to 1792, when it was called Pitman’s Church, for early settler Isham Pitman, who preached there until his death in 1825.
The old Fairmont cemetery lies just across Church Street. This is a little more Joseph Mitchell’s style, not that it’s teeming with wildflowers or anything.
He has kin here, too. Quince Bostic Mitchell and Kathryn Rebecca Nance were buried here in 1896 and 1924, respectively. I suspect them as Averette Nance Mitchell’s parents. Later I confirm this suspicion.
Town Hall sits opposite Main Street. This is where the tobacco graders and buyers used to hole up during market season.
I leave the old cemetery and walk north along Main. Golden banners hang along the length of the street, touting Fairmont’s “proud past” and “promising future.” Deep and loud and insistent, the thump, thump, thump of hip-hop bass blares from a passing Toyota 4Runner. I walk past empty storefronts and occupied ones without signage. You can buy some stuff here: beauty supplies, cell phones, medical products. The Webster Pharmacy, opened by our friend Willie Broox Webster in 1948, is still doing business at 214 S. Main.
At the corner of E. Thompson and Main, against all odds, the Fairmont Department Store is open for business.
I am back at the historical marker. And Jack Mitchell is here. He’s found a lovely spot to park his white pickup, in a grassy spot beneath a dogwood tree along Leesville Street. We shake hands, and he invites me to sit beside him on his tailgate.
Jack Mitchell sits on the tailgate of his truck outside Fairmont’s Border Belt Museum.
Averette Jack Mitchell is 75, so he goes back a little farther than his 58-year-old cousin Joey in the family lineage. He is the family’s point man for all things relating to his famous uncle. He said he owes his name to his Uncle Joseph.
“He named my father, so he named me,” he said. “He told my grandfather, ‘We’re going to call him Jack.’”
We talked a bit about Joseph Mitchell’s uneasy relationship with his father. A.N. Mitchell had wanted his son to become a doctor or some other kind of professional. His son had as much interest in medicine as he had in tobacco.
As we sat there, white flowers fell from the dogwood trees at our backs and floated past us on a gentle breeze. I couldn’t help but think of this as an auspicious setting.
I asked him to explore his uncle’s relationship with his hometown. He talked about how the tobacco market had fueled his uncle’s imagination, and how when he arrived in New York City, he found a year-round variation on the theme in the Fulton Fish Market.
Joseph Mitchell said as much in a 1992 interview with the Raleigh News and Observer.
“God-a-mighty, it was like home,” he said. “All that activity, it was the damndest thing. Something about it reminded me of Bulldog Avenue and those fish cafes.”
A.N. Mitchell was a respected pillar of the Fairmont business community, but he didn’t seem to get his son Joseph. He had little experience with literature, and he had trouble understanding what all the fuss was about.
On Joseph’s visits home, they often found themselves at each other’s throats. If the conversation turned to politics, tensions tended to boil over. The old man was conservative by nature. He didn’t, for instance, have much use for civil rights. Jack Sr. witnessed one argument which ended when the enraged son bolted from his chair and kicked the spindles out of the banister on the front porch.
“He was a very kind person and all, but he had a terrific temper about certain things,” Jack said of his uncle. “And my grandfather was that way about making a living, taking care of business. My uncle was one of the most liberal people I knew. My grandfather, I don’t know if he even thought of things as liberal or conservative or anything like that. And he wasn’t very interested in civil rights. He didn’t want anybody to be held back. Joseph really had a bigger heart for things like that. He lived in a completely different environment.
“But there was a great amount of love between them.”
Despite their differences, Joseph Mitchell shared one significant trait with his father.
“He didn’t know anything about literature,” Jack said of his grandfather. “It wasn’t that he was ignorant or anything. But from the time he was 14 years old, he had the responsibility of his whole family on him. So he was very practical. Because the world is a cut-throat place, here and everywhere else, not just in New York and Chicago, survival is important to serious people everywhere. It’s very important, and he was.
“My uncle had that too, about his work. All of his written work. He was a lot like his father. In other words, he was deadly determined, like a hawk diving into a bush after a bird at 90 miles per hour. The hawk can get it just as bad as the bird could if he makes a mistake.”
At least on one occasion, the simmering rivalry between father and son took a humorous turn when the old man took to an accidental pet he’d discovered in the yard.
“We’d been through a drought in the 1950s that was pretty bad,” Jack said. “You could get government money to have these reservoirs or tanks dug so you can irrigate out of them. My grandfather had one made and an alligator came and made it his home. My grandfather used to feed the alligator bread and chicken backs and things like that. He just loved that alligator. He was an old man then. He was 96 years old when he died.
“Joseph couldn’t drive. He didn’t want to drive. He didn’t have a driver’s licence. So when he came home he would go around with grandfather, and while grandfather was glad to see him and all, he couldn’t stop talking about his damn alligator. Joseph mentioned it to his wife, Therese, and she said, ‘See Joe, you have sibling rivalry with an alligator,’ like he was jealous of the alligator. Things like that he thought were real funny.”
Jack spoke in a slow, deliberate cadence. He considered his words carefully. He was dressed nattily, houndstooth cap complementing his dark sweater. Prominent jowls and deep-set eyes give him the aura of an old sage.
It is clear Jack Mitchell battled a bit of envy where his famous uncle is concerned. He left Fairmont for the big city, too. In 1961 he traveled to New York and attended the Art Students League and the New School, where he studied under Hans Hoffman, the German abstract expressionist painter.
Not long after he returned to the south, he got sucked back into the family business. His father was declining, and he needed assistance. He would have preferred to pursue his art, but he felt he had no choice.
“The guys that are really successful painters or sculptors, later on I realized they would about kill their mother to get what they wanted,” he said. “We had to live. I just couldn’t walk off and leave my family and say, ‘the heck with you.’ My uncle, he had a job that went right along with what he was doing. I had to work on an old IBM, nothing like the computers we have today, setting up orders in a fabric house. Orders came in from decorators and fabric houses from all over the United States. They had to be set up with keypunch cards. It’s just the same dead work. Things turned out good for me. Certainly not that kind of life I would’ve liked to have had.”
A solitary bird issues a shrill cry. Teenagers taunt each other as they pass by on bicycles.
“Is that OK,” Jack said. “Does that give you some insight? Anything else?”
I ask him about his time in New York, and whether he got to spend a lot of time with his uncle. Occasionally he’d come into the city to dine with Joseph and Therese, and sometimes they’d come to his place in the suburbs.
I’m worried he thinks I want to know about the fashionable and famous people his uncle knew in New York. He digs deep in his memory to produce names like fellow writers Joe Liebling and Philip Hamburger, and editors Harold Ross and Stanley Walker. I tried to steer him back to the personal and local.
“When Joseph would come to town, he would get in all kinds of predicaments down here,” he said. “He liked riding horses, but he would get thrown off all the time. Joseph liked nature, all the fish, birds, turtles, snakes. My father did too. They were out at some farm some place, and Joseph picked up this turtle. He was going to take it back and identify it with a reptile field guide or something. So he put it in the foot of the truck and they were driving along and all of the sudden he felt the turtle was trying to get away.
“It had climbed up Joseph’s leg and was in his pants. And so they stop the truck and jump out and my father was standing there with his arms folded as if he was Uncle Joseph’s mother, looking at him sternly like was a child. Joseph pulled his pants off and was standing there by the side of the highway, jumping up and down and shaking them out. Joseph with his pants off and my dad sitting there like a schoolmarm. I thought it was funny.”
The dogwood petals continued to fall about our heads. Despite the historical marker at our backs, Joseph Mitchell remains something of a prophet without honor in his hometown. At least as of 2009, he hadn’t so much as earned a spot on Fairmont’s Wall of Honor. Jack said it’s been that way as long as he can remember.
“I had already read everything except when I was in college he finished up the “Bottom of the Harbor” stories,” he said. “His work was never mentioned here in high school. I went to a junior college to begin with, and the English department there had very good teachers, but they didn’t know anything about him.”
As for Joseph Mitchell’s hometown, Jack can’t help but lament its faded glory.
“It’s not like it was when I was a boy,” he said. “Not all. There’s no middle class down here. There are farmers, but there are different kinds of farmers then they were. Big, mechanized farming operations. When my grandfather started out, it was a family farm. He started buying cotton and made enough money to expand his business. He worked for the big people who exported cotton to New York and other places in North Carolina.
“All the people I went to school with and grew up with, they went away. They went somewhere else. They were college educated, and there was not any room for them in a place like this. There’s not even a doctor here. They’re all at the hospital in Lumberton.
We’d passed a pleasant hour and half on the tailgate of his truck. I told him I appreciated his time, and he said he appreciated my interest in his uncle.
Before parting, I asked him one more time to put Joseph Mitchell’s relationship with Fairmont in some kind of neat perspective.
“I remember he told me he’d got to a place after a while where he felt like New York had passed him by,” Jack said. “Then he would come down here and stay and he would get to feeling like North Carolina had passed him by. He couldn’t get straight with either place.
“We’re very proud of what he did. He was very good to me after my father died. Joseph was real kind to me in that way. I don’t know what to say. I loved him to death because he was so good to me and he was so interesting.”