ROCKINGHAM — Every small southern town with a little bit of history has its ghosts.
In many cases the towns themselves are what haunt people with their abandoned buildings and crumbling facades. Memories of better times and long gone places brush the edges of the mind like an early autumn wind announcing the cold to come before retreating like waves into the greater body of fluid consciousness where they are lost.
Rockingham is no different. The once-bustling downtown area is but a ghost of what used to be. All of it is part of the Rockingham Historic District. Vacant buildings and office spaces constructed from the mid-19th century to the early 20th century stand proudly trapped between the pride of architecture and lack of modern building code compliance.
Gone are the elite clothing stores that once lined West Washington Street and Harrington Square: there were Collins Department Store, Gaddy’s, Economy Auto Supply, Rose’s 5-10-25 Cents Store, Kay’s “Clothes of Charm,” Long’s Mens and Boys store, the Orange Bowl restaurant, Belk, The Richmond and The Strand theaters and several other stores drawing customers from as far as 40 miles away to shop downtown Rockingham.
Today, the old buildings remain. But most of the people and businesses that gave them life and identity are gone.
Joel Bailey grew up in this town and lived the first 40 years of his life here before his job with the railroad forced him to move to Florida. He is administrator for two popular websites, www.rockinghamremembered.com and www.rockinghammemories.net, both of which are filled with stories from local writers remembering the old days. Since starting the first website in 2002, people have submitted Rockingham-area memorabilia in the form of photos, postcards and even menus from restaurants that no longer exist.
“It’s just a shame things changed so much,” Bailey said. “Urban renewal came in here, and the shopping centers. The textiles left. Those are some of the reasons downtown is in the condition it’s in today.”
Neal Cadieu, corresponding secretary for the Richmond County Historical Society and former owner and publisher of the Richmond County Daily Journal, looks back fondly on the golden years of downtown Rockingham while maintaining a realistic approach to assessing its future potential.
“It has died as far as being the ‘Star City’ of the Sandhills,” Cadieu said. “To re-invent it, the Rockingham Downtown Corporation was formed by G.R. Kindley in 1991 during his time as Rockingham’s mayor. The hope was that we could join the N.C. Main Street program, but we could not qualify at that time due to the loss of business and retail.”
According to the N.C. Department of Commerce’s Rural Development website for the Main Street program, selected communities have experienced a gain of $2.06 billion in new investment, net gains of 18,000 jobs and 4,300 businesses and the renovation of 4,600 buildings and 4,700 facades since the program launched in 1980. The program is not accepting new applications.
In the meantime, the grand old buildings sit in various states of disrepair. A walk west on East Washington Street, south around the square and back down East Franklin Street reveals a quiet world of abandoned structures, crumbling concrete and brickwork and shattered glass.
“Big box stores came in,” Cadieu said. “The downtown converted to boutiques, antique shops, jewelry stores and banks. The population has a lot to do with it. In my life I haven’t seen a lot of change in the population of Richmond County, but the demographics have changed drastically. We’ve lost our middle class. The blue collar jobs that used to support the population have gone.”
Cadieu mentions the textile and cotton industries that attracted workers to the region and gave them a reason to stick around. Now, he explains, most of the jobs are white collar or “that other collar, between white and blue,” in fields of medicine, government and education. The young people leave town, go off to college or find jobs elsewhere. They don’t come back.
Rockingham Downtown Corporation President Susan Kelley explained that much of the work she’s done for the economic growth oriented nonprofit group has been organizational; assigning roles and setting up committees has taken the bulk of her time. She believes one idea on the table will have a positive impact on downtown.
“I am working with my group (subcommittee) and the Richmond County Farmer’s Market Association to rejuvenate the Rockingham Farmer’s Market,” Kelley said. “Plans are underway to have a Wednesday afternoon and a Saturday market downtown and more vendors and children’s activities are being planned. We thing this is a first step to attracting more people to the downtown area, which hopefully will lead to more interest in renting, buying and renovating buildings.”
Dave Strom has owned Sandhills Pharmacy for 30 years and is a supporter of the farmer’s market, but is not convinced that will have much of an impact on downtown rejuvenation. He’s seen the downtown area during good years and bad and has noted a sharp decline in his own business since the arrival of Walmart and chain drugstores along U.S. Highway 74.
“I would love to see more businesses come downtown instead of just office buildings,” he said. “I’d like someone to show some initiative to encourage businesses to open up here.”
Rockingham native James Young, 54, is a self-described lover of old Rockingham. A history buff with lots of fond memories, he’s got ideas about why more people aren’t opening businesses in downtown.
“People don’t have the funds to make individual businesses right now, so the law offices are about all we’ve got,” he said.
The opening of Discovery Place KIDS marks a turning point for Rockingham. It is hoped that this, along with outdoor tourist attractions in other parts of the county, will keep visitors flowing through the town in spite of the U.S. Route 74 bypass that will eventually divert traffic around it.
Elaine Wilson, an associate at Helms Jewelers in downtown, thinks there is bounce-back potential for the area around the square where the buildings with the most visible exterior neglect are located.
“With the new restaurant going in across from Discovery Place,” she said, “if just a couple more businesses would open up I think it would catch on and eventually move this way (to the square.)”