HAMLET — Back in the day, every shopfront in Hamlet decked out its panoramic front windows with holiday displays. Merchants advertised their brightest wishes in the hometown paper. And people lined up 10 deep for the annual Christmas parade.
Now, Hamlet’s lineup of storefronts looks a bit like a smile missing a few teeth, but the Christmas spirit still reigns — especially this week, with the coming of the parade (Thursday afternoon) and Old-Fashioned Christmas celebrations (Friday and Saturday evenings).
“The parade was quite an event” in the 1960s and ’70s, when Hamlet’s affair with the railroad was strongest, said Lenna McLean, one of a large troupe of parade organizers back then. “We were the second-largest parade in North Carolina,” after Charlotte, and festivities surrounding the parade took nearly two full days, including dinners for organizers, participants and dignitaries before and after.
Local merchants supported the parade with contributions, and wished their customers well in newspaper ads: Ruby and John’s Drive-In offered four foot-long hot dogs for only 97 cents. Prentice Taylor and Liles grocery stores extended warmest holiday wishes. And Purity Cafe advertised that the only day it ever closed was Christmas itself.
In 1961, the “friendly merchants of Hamlet” gave away a “1962 Deluxe 4-Door Corvair.” The winner was “Mrs. R.C. Melton of East Rockingham,” a music teacher with cat-eye glasses.
Business was robust, and so was the parade, which boasted more than a dozen marching bands, a couple dozen large commercial floats — “they would come from Charlotte straight out to Hamlet,” McLean said — and beauty queens from surrounding towns and counties, who would stay with local families the night before the parade.
Often, the governor would attend, alongside local dignitaries.
“(And) oh, good gracious, the streets were always full,” remembered C.B. Utter, 79, who grew up in Hamlet. “It was always fun back in them days.
“The (thing) I liked more than anything else is that we had so many merchants in town” who would sponsor floats, Utter said. “The kids would climb on, (and) they’d throw candy in the streets.
“It was something to see.”
Fire Chief Calvin White remembers the candy, too, and dodging for it from a streetside crowd 10 people deep.
“Every store in town was open, and people were very cheery,” White remembered. “It seemed to be more of a happy time for everybody, (but) maybe I looked at it with those younger eyes.”
The parade, he remembered, was “a small version” of the Macy’s Thanksgiving day parade, “without the big balloons and all that.”
Back then, remembered White and Utter, firefighters strung arches of red, green and blue lights across the downtown streets – “we just didn’t cater to yellow for Christmas,” Utter said.
The parade also had horses, a notable lack these days.
“(They’d) bring up the rear of the parade, behind Santa Claus,” Utter said. “Nobody wanted to walk over the horse manure.”
At some point, the horses were allowed to move further into the center of the parade.
Minty-colored Kodacolor photos from the 1970s show them pulling wagons and buggies, and beneath mounted riders in Western garb. Videos from the mid-1990s, when the local Rotary organized the parade, capture horses with adorned tails prancing down Main Street.
But the animals disappeared entirely some years later and are unlikely to return. Manure and high-stepping musicians and cadets apparently do not make for a happy mix.
Stephanie Thornsbury, now the city’s downtown development coordinator and last-minute parade organizer — the former organizer quit in October — remembers parades past because she, too, grew up in Hamlet. She wants her young children to enjoy Christmas in Hamlet as she did.
This year’s parade, she said, “changed up a little bit, but we kept the old-fashioned sense.”
Finding participants is more difficult these days, she said — the kinds of people who used to volunteer to perform now wish to be paid, so there are budgetary concerns. And, “we had a lot more (business) on Main Street then,” so more resources.
”All of the businesses used to have big Christmas displays in the windows,” she remembered, wistfully. “It would be so awesome to get them to do that again …”
Reach Christine Carroll at 910-817-2673 or [email protected]