Thank you for being one of our most loyal readers. Please consider supporting community journalism by subscribing to The Wilson Times.
As Rufus Hawley swung open the door to the old tobacco packhouse, light glinted off hundreds of moments frozen in time, headlines from the past.
“Hurricane Hazel hits Wilson with full force.”
“President Kennedy killed by assassin’s gun today.”
“Market marks 125 years.”
“Ringleader locked away.”
“Whirligig Festival keeps growing.”
Just inside the doorway, Hawley pointed to a picture window-sized assemblage of photographs arranged neatly and evenly.
“These are all of Thurston employees,” Hawley said, running his fingers over old black-and-white pictures of people he had worked with at the Wilson-based company. Hawley worked for Thurston Motor Lines in various managerial jobs for 35 years until 1988, when the trucking business was sold.
“I remember all of them. You see, I typed the names on every one of these. There are 134 pictures here,” Hawley said. “All these are Wilson people. They were all in Wilson when I went to work for them. Yep. All these are Wilson people also. Thurston stayed in Wilson about 50-some years.”
Putting all of the loose photographs into one large frame was the first project Hawley did while recuperating from open-heart surgery in 2003.
“I reckon the reason is I just had to do something,” Hawley said. “When I got sick, I still had to keep doing something.”
Hawley figured that relatives of the employees would be interested, and he didn’t want their memories to be lost.
“A lot of people would certainly want to go see their family or their father’s picture that has been made 50 years ago. That was my interest in it when I started working on it,” Hawley said. “I had nothing else to do anyway, so I started up and just kept going.”
And keep going he did, gathering old window frames and affixing decades-old copies of the Thurston newspaper, Trucking Along, to the panes.
He gathered up old family photographs, wrote the subjects’ names in the margins and created more collages using any window frame he could find.
When the personal pictures were all done, Hawley turned his attention to the stacks and stacks of old newspapers. Many of them were from the 1940s and ’50s. They had been collected by his father-in-law, Henry Bailey. Boxes and boxes of papers were located in an old tobacco packhouse on family property just over the Johnston County line from Wilson County.
To wife Mozelle’s disappointment, Hawley carried the boxes to his home in Wilson and set up his framing operation in the living room.
“It just looked terrible,” Hawley said. “I had to take all the furniture and put it in the corner. I had a real long table, and she didn’t like that too much.”
Hawley started going through the tall stacks of papers, mostly The Wilson Daily Times, but also the Kenly News and The News & Observer.
“Anything I saw of interest, I would lay it there, takes the scissors and cut it out,” Hawley said. “I would put like stories together and maybe how they fit to occupy all the space.” Hawley used old glass doors, picture windows, glass bathroom shower stall doors and really any flat item with glass or Plexiglas to mount the clippings.
Mozelle was so ashamed of the way the clutter had taken over the living room that she insisted on keeping the doors shut. She wouldn’t allow any neighbors or friends to enter.
“‘It’s a shame for people to go in my living room,’” Hawley recalled his wife saying. “She tried her best to get me rid of it a long time ago. We kept it vacuumed and things like that, but it didn’t look too good.”
Cutting, clipping, stacking and organizing newspapers created quite a clutter.
“It had to look junky,” Hawley said. “If you spent all your time cleaning up, you’d get nothing done.”
As Hawley completed a frame, he would carry it back out to the old packhouse.
In the end, he had more than 200 frames. In some cases they were stacked 10-deep over walls of all three rooms in the packhouse, plus filling a storage shed in the backyard of the couple’s Meadowbrook Lane home.
“It went on for eight or 10 years to her dislike, but I finally got it cleared up,” Hawley said.
WILSON COUNTY ROOTS
Hawley, a Wilson County native, was born on Dec. 12, 1930, and grew up off Springfield School Road between Rock Ridge and Lucama.
He graduated in 1949 from Rock Ridge High School, which is currently Rock Ridge Elementary School.
As a teenager, Hawley drove the school bus. He remembers one of the passengers on his route was a young Jim Hunt, who would grow up to be governor of North Carolina.
“He was just on the tail end of my route,” Hawley said. “I had to go to Buckhorn and unload for grammar school. The rest had to go to Rock Ridge. We’d swing by the road that Jim lives on and pick up all the kids on that road. I never had any problem with Jim. He was quiet. His mother was working with his father, and they groomed him pretty well. They were good people, very good. They had a lot of influence in the community and they were hard workers.”
As a 19-year-old, Hawley worked for the government for a short time measuring tobacco land acreage.
“They had crop allotments you had to go on to the farm and measure, but then they started taking plane pictures and they didn’t need that any more,” Hawley said. “I walked a many a field dragging that tape.”
In his early 20s, Hawley got a job as a Linotype operator at The Wilson Daily Times.
“Mrs. Elizabeth Swindell was the lady that hired me,” Hawley said.
Swindell was the editor and publisher of the newspaper.
“She was a highly intelligent lady,” Hawley said. “She was tough. She was a strong-willed woman.”
Hawley worked for about a year and a half punching the hard keys of a machine that created a line of type on a strip of hot metal that was part of the newspaper printing process at the time.
“The day I quit, I told her I had found something else. She said ‘Young man, I’ve got too much invested in you. You can’t leave me’ but the Lord made plans,” Hawley said. “I didn’t leave her. I gave her notice. She was a spunky little lady. She was smart.”
Hawley had found as job with Thurston Motor Lines.
“I found out they had a need for a night billing clerk, and I applied for it and got it,” Hawley said. “I stayed there about two or three years. I transferred to Fayetteville for a year, back to Wilson, then back to Williamston for another a year, to Richmond for about a year and then back to Wilson. I was there 35-36 years. They sold out in ’88, and then I went into business for myself.”
Hawley started his own trucking companies, Hawley Logistics and Hawley Transport, out of Lucama, which operated until 2006.
LEGACY UNDER GLASS
In the packhouse, Hawley’s finished frames contain a myriad of headlines — local, state and national.
Of course, there are the airplane crashes, bus wrecks, hurricanes and tornadoes, but there are also local superlatives including state champion high school sports teams, a new business coming to town, a married couple celebrating a diamond anniversary, a citizen earning a law degree.
Hawley figures he has at least 25 or 30 pictures of Wilson Mayor Bruce Rose.
“There’s some interesting stuff in here about the Wilson tobacco market,” Hawley said. “What would strike my fancy in the paper, I liked, and I figured everybody else would, so I cut it out. Well, it’s a lot of memories. I’ve put a lot of time into these, as you can tell.”
In the packhouse, Hawley points to a gap in the wall above a door.
It is apparent that water from rain is getting through as a few of the nearby frames have water spots.
“As you can see, they are not going to stay dry much longer,” Hawley said. “As you can see, the building is just about to come down.”
Hawley said the old red barn won’t stand for much longer because the tin roof is coming loose.
“It is just about ready to call it quits,” Hawley said.
Hawley said he is up in age and hopes that someone in Wilson who has an empty building will take the frames and invite the public in to see them.
“I would like for them to be preserved,” Hawley said. “A lot of Wilson history. A lot of Wilson history.”