Migrations Of The Heart

SHS Class of 1966 49th

SHS Class of 1966 40th







Migrations Of The Heart

Documentary by Brendan Camp LeGrand for Shelby High School Class of 1966 41st Reunion June 2007


Nestled in the Western Piedmont of North Carolina, halfway between Miami and New York, lies Cleveland County, “Gem of the Foothills,” with its county seat, the historic, picturesque city of Shelby, home of legendary bluegrass musician Earl Scruggs, Country Music Hall of Fame singer and songwriter Don Gibson, World Heavyweight Champion Floyd Patterson, National Football League Hall of Fame player Bobby Bell, National Basketball Hall of Fame member David Thompson, and the illustrious Shelby High School Class of 1966.

O. Max Gardner, Governor and Ambassador to Great Britain, and Clyde R. Hoey, Governor and U. S. Senator, called Shelby home, along with Cleveland County natives Wilbur J. Cash, author of “Mind of the South”, Thomas Dixon, Jr. novelist and producer of the first million dollar movie, “Birth of a Nation”, and Hatcher Hughes, Pulitzer Prize winning playwright of “Hell Bent for Heaven.”

    The city streets are lined with beautiful stately homes.  Several of them and the uptown district are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  First Baptist Church is adorned with an original Tiffany stained glass window.  Restaurants and art galleries surround the court square that in summer is the scene of concerts and street dances, and at Christmas and Valentines features horse drawn carriage rides.  First National Bank, Shelby Café, and Bobby’s Music Shop have been in existence in the same location uptown for more than sixty years.

The Cleveland County Arts Council has exhibits open year round.  The Herschell-Spillman Carrousel and the Rotary Train at Shelby City Park have both been restored and are again being enjoyed by all ages.

The Cleveland County has the state’s largest county fair, the Shelby Star wins journalism awards, Cleveland Community College is growing, along with Gardner-Webb University, and both are expanding their curriculum.  Cleveland Regional Medical Center’s emergency department is designated as North Carolina’s first Level III state of the art trauma center.  A wide variety of patient-centered care services are provided through Hospice of Cleveland County, the Senior Centers, and Live Enrichment Center.

The public schools have strong academic and athletic records, and the Shelby High School football team keeps bringing home the state championship trophy.  Endeavors here are marked by a passionate and competitive spirit.

Shelby has been named an All-America City, hosted the Tour DuPont bicycle race, and in 2008 will host the American Legion World Series.  The National Ham Radio Festival is held here, as well as national barbecue cook-offs, and Shelby is herald as the Livermush Capital of the World.

The Salvation Army, Red Cross, and United Way attest to the compassion and generosity of the community.

The YMCAs offer activities for the entire family, Moss Lake provides recreation for boaters, fishermen, and jet skiers, and Broad River Greenway has nature and hiking trails.

Diversified industry has boosted the economy, elevated the standard of living and enhanced the quality of life.

Shelby is a nice place to visit and a great place to call home.

Most of us were born here in the post World War II baby boom of the late 1940s, and some of us even spent our first days together in the Shelby Hospital nursery.

Ours was the simple life of a small town, where everyone knew each other, and we were connected by work, interests, blood, and marriage.  It was an era when deals were sealed with a handshake and the doors of our homes could be left unlocked.

Many of us attended the same church and each other’s birthday parties and played together in the neighborhoods where we lived.  These friendships are part of our earliest memories.

After the war, there was a demand for things made from cotton, and for many years Cleveland County was North Carolina’s leading cotton producer, reaching a high of 72,000 bales in 1948.  An abundance of cotton and labor made farming and textiles a way of life.  Cotton fields blanketed the rural countryside and mill villages dotted the town.  Almost everybody was employed by one of the mills, and time was marked by the whistle blowing to signal the changing of shifts.

The county’s economy was dependent on the cotton crop, and the cotton crop was dependent on the weather and pests, and the boll weevil arrived in the county soon after we were born, and chewed up the cotton crop of ’49.  The weevil plus a string of bad weather years in the 1950s made many local growers turn to dairy farming, growing soy beans, or leave the farm to work in town.

The uptown bustled with many people on the street, as banks, grocery stores, service stations, department stores, taxi yards, and car dealers were all located there, as well as hardware stores, restaurants, furniture stores, barber shops, and florists. The post office, police and fire stations, public library and City Hall were all uptown.  Lawyers’, doctors’, and dentists’ offices were located upstairs over the stores, and court was held at the courthouse in the center of town.

Drugstores were hubs where people met and discussed everything from weather to politics.  Ice cream cones and soda fountain drinks made them our favorite spots.  Dime stores with candy counters and toys vied for our cash in the days when the tooth fairy was our major source of income.

Street vendor Charlie Crow sold paper sacks of peanuts, preachers witnessed to passersby and people sitting on park benches, teenagers in cars circled the square and called out to one another, and groups of men stood on the corner and talked.

The Sears-Roebuck store opened in the early 1950s, and it was the first place most of us experienced air conditioning.

Movies were a Saturday treat and the Rogers Theatre hosted a Kiddie Show.  Admission was free with Coke bottle caps, and we watched westerns and ate popcorn and sat as close as we could to the screen.  Sometimes a celebrity came to town to promote a film and we got to meet them.

Baseball was a favorite pastime and Shelby was proud of local major leaguers Tom Wright who had played with the Boston Red Sox, and was a teammate of Ted Williams, and Roger McKee who had pitched for the Philadelphia Phillies.  The schools and most of the mills had teams, and sometimes Shelby had a professional team.  Crowds turned out to see the “boys of summer” hit homerun balls over the fence into Sunset Cemetery.

Radio and television entertained us and local newspapers kept us informed.  WOHS, the first local radio station went on the air in 1946, and television was black and white, had few channels, and signed off at night with the National Anthem.

Telephones were first installed in the rural part of the county.  We had four-digit phone numbers and in the 1950s we shared neighborhood party lines.

Letters were typed on portable typewriters with carbon paper copies and mailed with a three-cent postage stamp.

We said that nothing changed here but the stoplights.  Knox Hardin had been the only Police Chief since 1939, and Haywood Allen was Sheriff for thirty years, but we found comfort and reassurance in the familiar, and the kind of trust that only comes with time.

Church was an important part of our lives.  We learned to interpret Bible truths and to live by the golden rule.  In summer we attended revival and Bible school.  We got new clothes to wear on Easter, and invited the preacher home for Sunday dinner.

Mealtime was family time, and we said a blessing for the food that was prepared.  Meals were a simple fare.  We grew gardens and canned and preserved the harvest.  Neighbors swapped produce, cuttings, and seeds.  Milk was delivered in glass bottles to our doorsteps.  Waldensian and Bost bakeries provided bread and cakes.  Joy Crème offered fresh donuts right off the line.  Livermush was made locally and was a staple meat for any meal.  Empty flour and feed sacks were sown into quilts and clothing.  We rode our bicycles to the neighborhood stores for treats.

We began first grade in the fall of 1954, another class of the generation of school children who were branded by a left shoulder smallpox scar.  We lined up in the hall for a polio vaccine and our cries gave a whole new meaning to the term “shot heard ’round the world.”

Many of us rode to school in taxis driven by Mrs. Helms, Bill Thompson, “Burr Rabbit”, and “Black Cat” Self.

The main disciplinary problems in the classrooms were chewing gum, getting out of line, and talking.

If our parents taught us to walk, it was our teachers who taught us to run.  They filled our minds with wonder and excitement and instilled in us a thirst for wisdom and knowledge.  They shaped our lives and encouraged us to excel, our success perhaps their greatest reward.  They held our hands for a few years, and they’ve held our hearts for a lifetime.

In addition to academics, we were schooled in the arts.  Roving art and music teachers came to our classrooms to teach us to draw and paint and to sing and dance, and some of us took further lessons from private instructors in town.  North Carolina Little Symphony Orchestra performed a concert at the Shelby Armory each spring and school bands played along with them, and we joined in on our black plastic flutes.  We celebrated May Day with a May Pole Dance.

School patrol taught us safety and responsibility, and scouts taught us to be good citizens and to be of service to others.

On a cotton field in 1959 Pittsburgh Plate Glass built a vast manufacturing plant, the world’s largest producer of fiberglass yarn.  School children were among those invited to their open house, and they provided a real train, a Southern Railway “Special”, dubbed the “Fiber Glass Flyer” as transportation for us to and from the plant.

The next year Fiber Industries was built on another cotton field, and also turned out synthetic materials, and the county’s economy was no longer dependent on the weather and the cotton crop.  The new plants offered benefits and higher wages and more people left the farms for manufacturing jobs.  The economy thrived and more businesses came as well as more stores, restaurants, and doctors.

The 1960s opened with a promise of Camelot.  That March we got the largest snowstorm to hit the county in twenty-five years, and it snowed every Wednesday for three weeks.  We made up the missed school days on Saturdays that spring, dining on boxed lunches alfresco in the schoolyard.

We started seventh grade at Oak School, the old Graham Elementary School, a class so large that we had the whole building to ourselves. The baby boomers were becoming teenagers and the classrooms were over crowded.  Shelby implemented the 6-3-3 Plan, six years of grammar school, three of junior high, and three of senior high and Cleveland County build four new high schools in a five year span.  Shelby High, the first to be built, opened in the fall of 1961 and was state of the art.

We spent the eighth and ninth grades at the old high school building and walked uptown to the drugstores after school

We entered Shelby High in 1963, the same year Cleveland County integrated its school systems peacefully and with dignity and respect.

School was a balance of academics, athletics, and extracurricular activities.  We chose courses that prepared us for college or our careers.  Some of us got jobs after school and on weekends, earning money and getting a leg up in the business world.  Team sports gave us a drive and perseverance that make for success.  School united us and gave us a loyalty and pride that would remain with us for a lifetime.  Classmates were our comrades and our best friends.

Shelby was a great place to raise cotton and children and a pretty good place to raise Cain.

Remember soap bubbles in the City Hall fountain

and toilet paper streaming from trees,

the switch that turned on the uptown Christmas lights,

taking the backseat out of our cars

and watching the movies out under the stars

on Sky-vue Drive-In’s dollar-a-carload nights?

Remember sledding the golf course’s snow-covered hills,

Halloween at the bridge on Belvedere

as cherry bombs and M-80’s blew up on the ground,

wading in the water at the Jumping Off Place,

burning rubber in a friendly drag race

from stoplight to stoplight all the way through town?

Remember putting peroxide on our hair,

following the elephants to the fair,

all the way on foot down Marion Street,

pep rally bond fires glowing in the dark,

diving into the pool at Shelby City Park

just trying to escape the summer heat?

Remember making music with our spoons

while we were eating in the school lunchroom

then piling into cars till time for class,

standing in the parking lot at Willis’s Grill,

driving fast down the dip on West Graham Street hill?

It didn’t take much to give us a thrill,

for we were young and time stood still.


The summer of 2007 marks 41 years since we left the hallowed halls of Shelby High School.  The years of growing up and being together every day are long gone.  But nostalgia only comes with time and distance, and in the summer of ’66 we had come of age, and we were leaving the nest.  Life was waiting in the wings and we were eager to try our own.  We were fledglings perched on a ledge ready to fly, and Shelby was our springboard.

Life is a journey, and what we can’t take with us, we must leave along the way.  But we were banded by those years together, and we could take the memories, and on their wings, like swallows, we’d return, for reunions are migrations of the heart.

Our circle has been broken and there are empty places at our tables, but our past is a great part of who we are, our lives are linked by birthplace, memories, and heartstrings, and we come home, for Shelby is our wellspring.