I must have circled that square and passed those old willow oaks between 50,000 and 100,000 times, just in my working career. If I repaired your automobile at my shop, just below the courthouse, over 30-odd years, I probably took it around the square to before-and-after test drives on U.S. 220.
The Daily Journal’s circulation manager, Mr. Leslie Hoyle, hired me for my first job within sight of the trees, delivering to downtown customers between late 1969 and 1973. Afternoon deliveries began under the watch of those oaks as I left the Journal’s office, en route to Mrs. Margaret Short at the Leath, Bynum, Blount, & Hinson law firm; then, passing the oaks, to Rockingham Hardware’s original location — adjacent to Southern National Bank (now PNC) — before passing them, again, for deliveries to the Chamber of Commerce in the square’s southeast corner.
Like so many, I watched homecoming parades wend their way through town and past the oaks. For a year or two, I even marched past them, myself, with Rockingham’s junior high band — gamely puffing on my clarinet. Rockingham’s finest were dispatched from the little police station between the oaks, in past times, to nab local scofflaws or to protect the afflicted. From under their canopy, local street ministers — notably the late Wriston Deese — implored souls to eternal salvation.
A plan of development that included removing the oaks, briefly considered over a generation ago, sparked a protective public response.
On occasions, I have visited the likes of New York’s Empire State Building, Chicago’s Sears Tower, and the buildings of uptown Charlotte. New York’s late twin towers have become iconic to our nation. But growing up in Rockingham, apart from those glass and steel marvels, you appreciate that our skyline is defined by trees. Think of Harrington square’s willow oaks, and the 1850 cedar of Lebanon at the Leak-Wall house, over the lifetimes of us all. Consider, too, the drive into town along Fayetteville Road, and, the drive along West Franklin from West Greene to the courthouse.
Despite the town’s best efforts over recent years, we learned this week that the elder of our square’s oaks has lived out its life. I can’t help the thought that it deserves an organized send-off of some kind. As for me, I’ll just rest under its branches one last time, soon, between 5 and 6 a.m., after a walk or jog through downtown, and think of its good times.
Douglas Smith is a Rockingham resident.