The decade of the ’80s began and ended with winter storms to remember. The decade began with a record-breaking snow fall, exceeding the previous record set in 1927 of 15 inches. This one was 18.5 inches in Tarboro, with drifts even deeper in some places.
The population in the area had increased since the 1970 census and Tarboro had over 9,400 residents and the county was just a dozen shy of 56,000.
One of the major events in the early part of the decade was the dedication of the Blount- Bridgers House and Hobson Pittman Memorial Gallery in the fall of 1982. The community pool built in 1935 behind the house had been closed in 1979 and filled in. The house was renovated and turned into a local museum.
Several hundred people attended the Sunday afternoon dedication. Mayor Bobby Pigg cut the ribbon with the assistance of Alice Weeks Patrick, niece of artist Hobson Pittman. Patrick and other members of the Pittman family donated numerous works by Pittman and other objects to help furnish the house.
Princeville celebrated its 100th birthday in 1985 as the oldest town in American incorporated by blacks. The town had a big birthday party and was featured on area television stations.
There were several new businesses that opened in Tarboro and Edgecombe County. Consolidated Diesel opened a plant near Whitakers in 1983 and employed over 300 people to produce diesel engines. Tom and Patsy Miller began the Little Warren Bed and Breakfast in 1985, opening their doors to welcome visitors to the area.
The 400 block of Main Street saw lots of change in the ’80s. W.S. Clark’s department store, a long time fixture downtown closed in the 1980s. Soon through the efforts of Rusty Holderness, Clark Jenkins and others began a revitalization of downtown.
First Mary Ann Holderness opened Rusty’s Gift shop in 1982 in the old Zoeller Drug Store. Soon Sammy Harrell followed with Sammy’s Men’s Shop. Harrell has worked in Clarks for many years and was experienced in men’s clothing. Then the former Clark’s department store was renovated and became Clark Square with several small specialty shops.
Candace Owens operated Paperworks and sold cards, party goods and a variety of fresh coffees. Peter Pan’s opened as children’s clothing store, Sunset photography opened a studio and next door was Unicorn Books, a general bookstore with a children’s room that featured educational toys as well as books for children.
Across the street, Blanchards’ Bridal Shop offered everything needed for a wedding, in what is now the Roberson Dupree Shoe Store.
Two significant institutions underwent renovation in the mid-1980s. On the north edge of town across from the Tarboro Clinic, Heritage Hospital opened its doors in 1985 replacing the old Edgecombe General located across Main Street. The new facility, had the latest in medical equipment at the time and soon had a helipad for emergency flights to Pitt Memorial Hospital in Greenville.
The Edgecombe Memorial Library expanded in 1986 with an addition of more than 11,000 square feet that included the local history room dedicated as the Janie F. Allsbrook Room for her long time service as county librarian. The library had already opened a branch in Pinetops in 1983.
In 1986 a movie crew came to town and stayed in a local hotel as the filmed an adaptation of a novel by Wilson native Louise Shivers. The book, “Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail,” was set in a small Southern town in the 1930s. Shivers, based the story on her own hometown of Wilson, but changed the name in the book. When the screen play was written, they scouted out Tarboro since that was the name used in the book.
The folks were in and out of town for about three months in the spring and summer. The cast included Anthony Edwards (who went on to star in the TV series “E.R.”), Lori Singer, Kathy Bates and Clu Gulager. Several locals had cameos in the film, especially children like Jessica Kent who had the role of Baby. Others appeared in parade scenes staged downtown. The film was released as “Summer Heat” and had a premier at the Cinema Three Theatre in Park Hill Mall. The audience of all ages who came to view the film made in town were shocked to see the film, rated R because of the sexual situation.
In 1987 the Town of Tarboro put on a huge celebration to mark the 200th anniversary of when the North Carolina General Assembly first met in Tarboro. After the American Revolution, when North Carolina became a state in 1781, the old royal capitol in New Bern was not acceptable, so the assembly moved around from town to town for several years looking for a permanent home.
Tarboro was one of the towns under consideration, but the legislators could not reach a consensus among the towns of Hillsborough, Tarboro and Fayetteville. Eventually Joel Lane of Wake County agreed to contribute land for a new state capitol to be called Raleigh.
The 20th century legislature, numbering over 100 was much larger than its federal era counter part. There was no facility in town large enough to hold the legislature and the spectators, so they held session on the Town Common, an appropriate place for the group to meet since it had been that group that had created Tarboro in 1760 and included the common in the charter.
When the wind blew right, the sweet smell of Sara Lee goods began to permeate the air after the bakery factory opened in 1989. The business brought many new jobs to town, and by the end of the decade a new four-lane U.S. 64 opened from Tarboro to Rocky Mount.
Tarboro Community Outreach also opened its doors in 1989 thanks to the hard work of Nancy Holderness and many others in the area who saw a need for a community kitchen and shelter for those in need. Sister Mary Ann Czaza has directed the program since its beginning and continues to serve our community with the assistance of community groups and volunteers.
The decade ended with one of the worst ice storms in the history of the region. On Dec. 9, Eastern North Carolina was hit with a terrible ice storm that left over an inch of ice on trees and power lines. Dozens of transformers exploded sending blue arcs of electricity across the skyline with sounds worse than most summer thunder storms. Parts of the town were without power for five days while temperatures hovered just below freezing.
On Christmas Eve, Edgecombe County and most of Eastern North Carolina were blanketed with a beautiful snow that spread all the way to the coast presenting the town with its first white Christmas in almost a century. It was picture perfect ending to a decade of growth and change.
Monika Fleming, the Historic Preservation Program director at Edgecombe Community College, is an Edgecombe County historian. Look for her reports each month on the Community page.