The Story of Charlotte, Part 9: Radio Signals

After the Roaring ’20s end in Depression, a new form of entertainment lifts the city’s spirits


Published:

In 2013, Mecklenburg County celebrated its 250th anniversary. In this 12-part series, Charlotte magazine is looking back at life in the region through the years. From the town’s beginnings as a rural crossroads, this series traces Charlotte’s growth and highlights the turning points that led to it becoming a major U.S. city. 

February 1920—The lights are off at the East Boulevard mansion where Cameron Morrison lives. The Charlotte lawyer and candidate for North Carolina governor hasn’t left the house in months, not since his wife died of the flu in November. Many days, he doesn’t leave his room. Eighty miles east, in the railroad town of Hamlet, North Carolina, a group of Morrison supporters meets. With the Democratic primary only a few months away, they agree it’s time for Morrison to get out of bed. They send him a message—start campaigning now or we’re supporting someone else. 

Morrison gets the message. On March 4, he launches his campaign on the steps of the South Tryon Street Courthouse. He faces long odds. He’s started much later that his competitor in the primary, Lieutenant Governor O. Max Gardner. Also, Morrison is an urban politician in a mostly rural state. Still, he is conservative and traditional, making him appealing to rural voters. After all, Morrison had been a leader in the Red Shirt movement back in the 1890s. The Red Shirts helped pass the “grandfather clause,” which stripped blacks of voting rights and all but destroyed the more liberal Republican Party in the state. Now in 1920, with states deciding whether to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment, which would allow women to vote, Morrison comes out against that, too. 

Morrison’s staff looks like a Red Shirts reunion. Charlotte lawyer Heriot Clarkson, who led the Young Democrats back in the 1890s, coordinates the campaign. Clarkson, 56, and Morrison, 50, aren’t young anymore, but they adhere to a busy schedule of stump speeches throughout the state, traveling the rails and muddy back roads from the mountains to the coast. Morrison also gets support from the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce and Charlotte mayor Frank McNinch, who joins him in speeches along the trail. “Mecklenburg is strong for Morrison,” the Observer announces. Soon, the rest of the state is, too. 

By the June primary, the race between Morrison and Gardner is close, but Morrison wins by 87 votes. Gardner calls for a runoff, but in a second primary in July, Morrison’s margin of victory grows even wider, and he wins comfortably. With the Republican Party weak, the primary victory means a Morrison win in the general election in November, and he heads to the governor’s mansion in Raleigh. 

In office, Morrison is less conservative than expected. He bans biology textbooks that teach evolution, but he also supports several spending bills, helping to pass measures for $65 million in bonds to pave thousands of miles of roads and $20 million to improve the state’s universities. 

And although some conservatives balk at the spending, Charlotte and the rest of the state are in a building mood. Hotels and office buildings rise uptown: to the north, the eight-story Professional Building at Seventh and North Tryon; and to the south, the 15-story Johnston Building at South Tryon that is the tallest building in Charlotte.

To the east at South Brevard and East Third in Brooklyn, the Mecklenburg Investment Company Building opens, providing an option for black lawyers and businessmen to have office space. To the west at West Trade and Graham, a Greek immigrant expands his fruit cart into the Star Lunch diner, where busy construction workers can grab a quick bite. Two blocks away at Trade and Poplar, bankers and other businessmen make deals in the café at the brand new Hotel Charlotte. 

With textile and construction money flowing through the city, new banks—including the Industrial Loan and Investment Bank, which later becomes the Bank of Commerce—open in the early ’20s to manage the cash. Department stores such as Efird’s and Belk’s expand, stocking new fashions like flapper dresses and baggy pants with high argyle socks. 

***

CHARLOTTE ISN'T ALL BUSINESS. When the banks close or the work shifts are over, there’s a lot more to do here than there used to be. For the wealthy, a new country club opens on what was a military training school’s campus just south of Myers Park. A polo grounds opens near there, too. Others might drive out one of the newly paved roads to Pineville to watch the races at the Charlotte Speedway, which opens in 1924. Fans park their Model Ts in the infield and watch the drivers race along the 1 1/4-mile banked oval made of green pine and cypress. Also in the early part of the decade, in a chicken house near Briar Creek, three men tinker with a radio transmitter, playing records on a phonograph for a small audience nearby.

As the 1920s roar on, the building plans become grander. The city is more crowded now—the population will jump by 78 percent during the decade to more than 80,000 citizens by 1930—so when Cameron Morrison moves back home after serving as governor, crews start work on a new house and massive farm south of town that he’ll call Morrocroft. In 1927, the First National Bank expands into a 20-story building towering above the brightly colored antebellum storefronts on South Tryon’s Granite Row. The same year, the Federal Reserve opens an office on the top floor. More than $1.7 billion passes through the Fed’s office in 1928 alone.

The fun won’t last long. Trouble starts in October 1929, when a crash sends stock markets plunging. As the effects move through the country, bank after bank shuts down. Soon, crowds of panicked customers form lines outside of the bank lobbies along South Tryon Street, trying to retrieve at least some of their money from accounts that only a few years ago helped finance the building boom. One day in 1930, the First National Bank locks the doors to its new skyscraper as the dejected depositors stand in the street. More Charlotte banks—Industrial Bank of Mecklenburg, Independence Trust, and Merchants and Farmers National Bank—will follow. They are among the more than 5,000 banks that close nationwide between 1929 and 1933. 

In town now, 100 storefronts sit dark and empty along Trade and Tryon streets. In the alley behind the S&W Cafeteria, people dig through trash cans looking for discarded food. Out in the rural parts of the county, unemployed men knock on farmhouse doors to ask for work. By 1932, more than $10 million of Charlotte depositors’ money has disappeared. Gold mine owners open the old mines that have been dormant for decades, desperate to find anything of value. The budget for Charlotte’s schools has been cut by more than 50 percent, forcing officials to shorten the school year from nine months to eight.

When Cameron Morrison runs in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate against Bob Reynolds, the Asheville politician uses Morrison’s wealth against him. Reynolds dubs Morrison “the Million Dollar Man.” At campaign stops, he mocks Morrison’s accent and affinity for caviar, made with “red Russian fish eggs” rather than Carolina hen eggs. With one in four people out of work, the Reynolds rhetoric works. He wins the Democratic primary easily, sending Morrison back home to Morrocroft. 

The wooden racetrack in Pineville sits rotting and splintered with no races to host. Even if Charlotteans could afford to go out, there aren’t many places open. So they stay home and listen to the one bit of entertainment they can still afford—the radio. 

***

THE PHONOGRAPH RECORDS playing in the chicken coop on Briar Creek have found a bigger audience. In 1926, station WBT moved into the Coddington Building on West Trade and earned its commercial license to transmit at 500 watts—just enough to be heard throughout the city. By 1933, WBT and its 50,000 watts can be heard throughout the South. Meanwhile, as other forms of entertainment seem out of reach to a town that’s struggling financially, radios keep getting cheaper. The Observer reacts to the new competition by refusing to run radio schedules and even retouching photos to remove radio microphones. 

WBT thrives, though. The station attracts music acts from throughout the mill villages stretching now from Richmond to Atlanta. They mostly play country and gospel, but some of the bands are flexible. When Hawaiian music suddenly becomes popular, some trade their guitars for ukuleles on a few numbers. But that fad doesn’t last long. Audiences crave the banjo and the fiddle of hillbilly music. Thanks to an ad contract with the Crazy Water Crystals laxative company, WBT showcases new acts for hours each week on its “Crazy Barn Dance” show. In 1935, the station creates its own musical group. The Briarhoppers, a variety act made up of a “family” of musicians led by hillbilly “Dad Briarhopper,” cracks jokes and sings. In between sets, Charles Crutchfield advertises tonics and makeup and hair dyes. His pitch for Kolor Bak hair dye: “I guarantee, you might lose most of your hair, but what you have left won’t be gray anymore!” 

Suddenly, in the depths of Depression, Charlotte is the center of country music. 

The radio circuit isn’t easy for the musicians trying to make it. But it beats working in the mills or most other jobs they could get in these lean times. For brothers Bill and Charlie Monroe, a good day starts early with a 7 a.m. appearance on WBT. That’s when the millhands are getting ready for work and listening to the radio. After that, the Monroes make a long drive along one of those newly paved roads the state has invested so much in, traveling to places such as Greensboro or Greenville, South Carolina. There, they’ll appear on another radio station, hoping to catch the millhands and others on their lunch breaks. Then it’s on to a live performance at some schoolhouse or barn in a place such as Patrick, South Carolina. The radio gigs don’t pay much. For the bands, radio appearances are mostly to help plug their concerts. Still, some artists are starting to make records. Agents from RCA Victor and Decca Records set up shop in hotels and offices throughout the city. From 1936 to 1938, Eli Oberstein and RCA Victor record dozens of records by such acts as the Carter Family, Arthur Smith and the Carolina Crackerjacks, and others. On the 10th floor of the Hotel Charlotte, the acts line the hallways waiting for their turn. Inside two rented hotel rooms, the tunes range from religious titles like “What Would You Give in Exchange for Your Soul?” to the romantic “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” to a down-home ode to “Country Ham and Red Gravy.” Even blues singer-guitarist Luke Jordan records his “Cocaine Blues” in Charlotte. 

A few bands get lucky and make it big. Those that do, including Bill Monroe and members of the Carter Family, will soon be lured to the Grand Ole Opry and WSM in Nashville, Tennessee. But music won’t pay the bills for most. 

***

UNEMPLOYMENT REMAINS HIGH in the late 1930s, and Charlotte turns to the federal government for help. The city is initially reluctant to accept money from President Roosevelt’s New Deal, but, as the Observer puts it in its grudging endorsement to pursue aid: “People of this community will be compelled to pay their proportionate part of the federal debt … whether they secure a portion of these funds or not.” Thanks to the federal money, the city puts thousands of people to work paving streets and building a new football stadium near Independence Park. Uptown, crews prepare to expand the post office to keep up with the mail from the city’s growing population. Before they can get started at West Trade and Mint streets, another set of workers disassembles the old U.S. Mint Building and moves it to the Eastover neighborhood, where it’s put back together for a new museum, brick by brick.  

Over on the west side of town, work begins on a new Army Air Corps base that will later be called Morris Field. Charlotte is still growing but at a slower rate than in the 1920s. Even so, the city has passed the old port of Charleston as the biggest city in the two Carolinas. And the city boosters are banking on Charlotte cracking 100,000 residents when the 1940 Census numbers are released. That round number would be great for marketing. So in the spring of 1940, when the count comes in at only 94,501, the Chamber of Commerce conducts its own recount. The organization takes out ads in the town’s two newspapers, the Charlotte News and the Observer, that ask: “Have You Been Counted?” After two recounts, the total comes in 100,899.    

Meanwhile, war rages in Europe as Hitler’s forces overtake most of the continent. The U.S. military has been quietly mobilizing for a year now. The old Ford plant on Statesville Road becomes a storage facility for military supplies. In the spring of 1941, out at the new Army Air Corps base, the first military pilots and parachutists arrive for training.

Chuck McShane is a frequent contributor to this magazine and the author of A History of Lake Norman: Fish Camps to Ferraris. Reach him at chuckmcshane@gmail.com. On Twitter: @chuckmcshane

Edit ModuleShow Tags

More »Related Stories

Before + After: A Home Overlooking Carmel Country Club

Look Inside Denny Hamlin’s Lake Norman Mansion

The NASCAR champion's home is equal parts high tech and high style

New Year's Eve 2017 Parties in Charlotte

Perspective: One, Two, Three, Four

Use this breathing exercise to exhale holiday stress