Richmond County lost a unique and dedicated businessman with the passing of Claude Felton Smith Jr.
Smith, 85, of Marston, died on Tuesday at his home, ending his many years of service to the community and economy of Richmond County.
“He was a very focused and very talented at what he did,” said Rockingham City Council member John Hutchinson.
Smith’s name is known throughout the county as a business man who helped provide jobs to the residents of the county and pave the way for how Richmond County looks today.
“What really stands out to me is in the late 1950s it was a very difficult time in the county,” Hutchinson said. “One particular business, Safie Mill, had closed and put a lot of people out of a job.”
Hutchinson said that during that time there were a lot of people who tried to bring jobs to the county since the residents took a big hit with the loss of the mill, but not all of them were successful.
“Claude saw an opportunity to bring jobs to the town,” Hutchinson said. “He opened up the Plaza Shopping Center, where Belks is located, in 1964. It was one of the biggest shopping centers between here and Wilmington.Six years later he opened up the Lowes shopping center, which was known as the Tri-City Shopping Center.”
The opening of the two shopping centers started a completely new trend for an area that was known for its mills.
“Because of what Claude did, we (Richmond County) became a major retail area,” Hutchinson said. “People would come from all over, including South Carolina, to do their shopping here. He brought a lot of jobs to the county at a time when the county really needed it. It was really a beginning point for him in this county.”
Along with his contributions to the county, Smith was also a family man.
County Commissioner Kenneth Robinette, son-in-law to Smith, knew Smith for 29 years and became part of his family for 28 years ago when he married Smith’s daughter, Claudia S. Robinette.
“He loved his family,” Robinette said. “He worked hard for them.”
Robinette said Smith grew up in the small community of Marston on a farm where he helped his father and family in the orchard business. His family also owned the Marston Broom Factory and Smith worked there before owning the property. It was at the broom factory, as a young adult, where Smith came up with a patent on a broom making machine and method. He began selling that patent all across the nation, and it was this move that allowed him to get into the real-estate business.
Since a young age, Smith has worked hard to be the best business man that he could be, though not many people would know this.
“He was a very unassuming, soft spoken brilliant business man,” Robinette said. “He was a true workaholic, but he was also a very humble person. He did so much for so many people without wanting any attention drawn to himself.
Hutchinson agreed with the fact that Smith was not as recognized as he should have been.
“He was so quiet about what he did as a businessman,” Hutchinson said. “But ultimately he really helped and contributed to the economy here in Richmond County.”