The Town of Pine Level’s History

The following history was obtained from the Johnston County Heritage Center. Located in Smithfield, the Heritage Center maintains all items submitted to record the history of Johnston County and its communities.

“The Founding and Growth of the Town of Pine Level, North Carolina.”

The following was written by the late Robert L. Fitzgerald, Jr. Resources were the late Elder James Worley, the late Robert L. Fitzgerald, Sr., Mrs. Flora Herring, Ralph Styron, Johnston County Room, Smithfield library. It was printed in 1982 with no other publication information in the booklet.

Preface

I offer this non-fictional story chiefly to the residents of Pine Level and the immediate surrounding area residents and any others that might be interested in the information related. Most of the contents herein were gained through heredity, having been told to me by my father, Robert L. Fitzgerald, Sr., much of which was related to him by the late Elder (preacher) James Worley, grandfather of Mr. Carl Worley, Sr. of Selma.

It could be that I have not listed some businesses that operated in the past in Pine Level; and if I have not, I assure you it was not intentional, due only to my not knowing of their existence.

The North Carolina Railroad, currently the Southern Railroad that runs through Pine Level, was completed in 1854, and in the same year, two men, Messrs. Stallings and Hinnant, established a sawmill on a site where the late Will Starling residence now stands – according to information (authentic) given me, this was Pine Level’s first business. How long this business operated I was never told. One of the two men, Stallings or Hinnant, named the area Pine Level due to such a wonderful growth of pine timber, mostly long leaf (Heart) that covered the entire area in every direction for miles around.

During this same year, 1854, William Berry Oliver and Tom T. Oliver, brothers, came to Pine Level from South Carolina and operated a turpentine distillery and hand press cotton gin as partners. In 1862 William Berry Oliver went off to the Civil War and brother Tom was left to look after the cotton gin and and turpentine businesses, both being very important to the war effort. When William Berry Oliver returned from the war in 1865, he and his brother Tom dissolved partnership.

In 1865 William Berry Oliver opened his business, W.B. Oliver Company, in a wooden building next to the turpentine distillery, on the corner of the south side of Southern Railway at the location of what is known as Godwin’s Drug Store building. In 1866 the building and business were destroyed by fire. Within a short period, Mr. Oliver erected a two story wooden building across from his brother Tom’s business, north side of Southern Railway corner of Selma-Micro road. The building occupied by Tom Oliver is still standing at the original site and is currently occupied by Styron Woodworks. Mr. William Berry Oliver subsequently reopened in his new quarters and continued the turpentine and farm supply business.

William Berry Oliver died in 1902 and his son Doc Berry Oliver purchased the W.B. Oliver Company from the heirs and changed the name to W. B. Oliver and Son. In 1912 Doc Oliver moved the old two story frame building below the cotton gin and a two story brick building was erected on site, currently owned and occupied by Snipes Farm Supply Company. The old frame building was subsequently destroyed by Hurricane Hazel in 1954. In 1932 William Bridgers (“B”) Oliver joined the firm and was manager – president of the firm until it closed its doors in February, 1980. The W.B. Oliver business prospered and flourished for 114 years and was probably the oldest farm supply house to ever operate in Johnston County.

I might mention at this point that the Tom Oliver building was taken over in spring of 1865 by the Union Army, under the command of a General Howard, as area headquarters of Union Army. After the three-day battle between 45,000 Union soldiers under Sherman and 30,000 Confederate soldiers under Johnson, several thousand Union soldiers passed through Pine Level on their march to Raleigh. Several hundred of these soldiers encamped in the area of I-95, Southern Railway overhead bridge. Bentonville was the largest battle fought in North Carolina during the Civil War.

A branch of a Smithfield bank was operated in Pine Level in the early 1900’s; the cashier manager was the writer’s dad, Robert L. Fitzgerald, Sr., until it closed for business.

Pine Level was incorporated in 1873, governed by a mayor and a council of commissioners. At this writing, I have not learned who our first mayor was however. I will mention the following mayors that the writer remembers: Dan U. Oliver, Beverly Strickland, Tom White, Ban Faulk, John Raiford Oliver, Nathan Wiggs, Elwood Parker, Chester Wilkins, Clyde Creech, Ed L. White, Rudolph R. Jones, and our current mayor, Sam Godwin.

The following are past and current Postmasters of Pine Level: Wile F. Gerald, date commissioned not obtainable, Thomas G. Hinnant, commissioned July 1, 1887, and served until November 4, 1889, on which date Mr. William C. (Bill) Gurley was commissioned and served until 1915, at which time Mr. H.R. Gerald took the post and served for a very long period. Graham Hinnant was commissioned on October 1, 1954. Our current Postmaster, Nelle Coor, was commissioned July 27, 1978.

For a number of years following the completion of the North Carolina Railroad (Southern) Pine Level was dispatch station for mail to Micro, Bagley, Shoehill, Glendale, and areas of Northeast Johnston County. The mail was hauled by wagon to those areas, the wagonmaster was the late Mr. John Will Capp’s father.

In 1902, Pine Level Oil Mill and Fertilizer Company was established. Doc Berry Oliver within a few years purchased the controlling stock and incorporated to Pine Level Oil Mill and Fertilizer, Inc. The company grew and prospered, through lean years and good, until a disastrous fire destroyed most of it in 1962. They did continue to manufacture fertilizer for a few years. Eventually the buildings were sold and Tom Mayo operated a grain buying business within its structure until a couple of years or so ago. I understand that Swift and Company is storing fertilizer there currently. During the mill’s peak operation, it employed a total of 90 men during a shift day. I’m sure that no other company or business has ever equaled or surpassed that many employees in Pine Level at the end of 1905.

In 1906, my dad told Mr. Doc Oliver that Pine Level needed a bank and Mr. Oliver’s answer was, “Robert, you go out and get stock subscripted and I’ll meet it dollar for dollar.” The charter for the bank was drawn up in 1906 by Robert L. Fitzgerald, Sr. and the bank opened its doors in 1907 and has operated every business day since then except for the three day bank holiday called by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933. The bank moved into its present location and held a formal opening November 14, 1969. It has increased its assets several fold since and is doing a very rapid business having grown from original resources of $100,000.00 and one employee to today’s resources of approximately $9,500,000.00 and thirteen employees.

The Billy Buck Strickland old homeplace, currently owned by James Barbee, was at one time a store business. It could be the building that operated a general store in that area and the place that my dad had his first bottled soft drink. He was six at the time which would make it the year 1881. Clyde Futrell operated a millinery business in the early 1900’s in the store building operated by Oliver’s Tractor’s Sales division, which is now being operated by Snipes Hardware Co. Along this same area was the State Whiskey Dispensary Building eventually moved to Clyde Futrell Farm and currently used as a storage building. The 1919 Prohibition Act closed the business. It was one of the last dispensaries operated in eastern North Carolina. People came in on early trains, filled up suitcases (some had two suitcases) and returned by next train to from whence they came.

At a time Pine Level had a government licensed liquor distillery being operated about northwest corner of Capps and Blanche streets, house owned by Street Jones, Jr. currently on the site. The land was owned by the then Robert Watson, however I’ve never been told who operated it.

Mr. Bridgers Crocker, grandfather of two or our widowed senior citizens, Mrs. Irene Jones and Lucille Wiggs, residence was located on site of part of Pine Level Hardware and Furniture Company and fronted on Peedin Avenue. The front part of the home was a bar room, by the case or drink. Mr. Crocker had a store business located on site of Busy Bee Oil Company. This building was destroyed by fire around 1926-27 at which time it was occupied as a general store by Mr. Priest Crocker. Mr. Bridgers Cocker, under contract, furnished wood to Southern Railway when the locomotives were wood burners. This all ended in 1887 when the railroad track was altered to meet nationwide standard guages, 591/2 inches in width, and new engines were put in service, all coal burners. In addition to the aforementioned, Mr. Crocker had considerable farming interests. The writer remembers him very well, used to buy candy and brown sugar from him. He always made a lot over children and liked to rub “noses” with you when he was kinda loving you up, a very fine old gentleman.

In a two story building on the site of the fire department, Mr Charlie Thompson and Jesse Parker, T/A Thompson & Parker, operated a general mercantile business catering to farmers needs and fertilizer sale. I believe they were cotton buyers also. After Thompson & Parker dissolved parternship, Mrs. Will (Ella) Starling operated a grocery store in the building for a few years. This building was burned at the time the Bridgers Crocker building was destroyed.

Mr. Fletcher Thompson, son of above mentioned Charlie Thompson, operated a shoe store on the ground floor, a part of the old hotel where the post office and Dale’s Grill is now located. The writer remembers Mr. Fletcher Thompson as a dashing young man and owned a “bear cat” Stutz roadster automobile. It was a fire truck red and always had four or five spare tires hanging on the rear, a trademark of the “bear cat.” It was recognized as one of “the sports autos of the day.”

Mrs. Sarah Stallings operated a ladies dress shop and Millinery business from her very fine old two story New Orleans style residence during the 1910’s and on into the 1920’s or possibly later. The old house had a front porch both up and downstairs and was located where the new fire department building is currently being built. Mrs. Stallings, having children my age, I remember going to parties and visiting there on various occasions during my boyhood.

The first public school in Pine Level was in a building just south of Moccasin Swamp on Pine Level-Micro Road. The building still standing is property of the D.T. Oliver estate. The schoolmaster was Mr. Alex Wiggs, uncle to Mrs. Bettie Woodard. Sometimes later, a larger building was built on the site currently occupied by John Crocker’s residence. A rather imposing one story building, having a bell tower, etc. The writer never attended school there – too young; however, on several occasions I walked with my sister, Mrs. Clara Parker, to school.

During 1914, a new two story brick school building was built on northwest corner of Fitzgerald and Blanche streets. The building consisted of a very wide center hall and for classrooms on the first floor, second floor, two classrooms principal’s office and a nice auditorium with a built up stage. At each end of the stage was a small dressing room or actor’s waiting room when awaiting a cue to appear on stage. Grades one through eleven were taught,and in as much as the building contained only six classrooms, it meant doubling up in grades, 1 & 2, 3 & 4, etc. This old building was hazed and a new agricultural building was built; subsequently this building was not used and is now occupied by Dixie Belle Textile products.

In 1924 our current three story brick school building was built. The contractor was Mr.Blalock, I guess as much for the fact that he had a four cylinder Cadillac, open towing car type, canvas top, etc. Mr. Blalock had a cut-out on the exhaust pipe and when this was open, one could hear it chugging (caddillacking down the street) for easily three to four blocks away, seems that it would hit only about eight strokes in distance of a city block. Then and even today, it was a marvelous automobile, second only to Mr. Thompson’s “Stutz Bear Cat.” Mr. Blalock was accepted as a tall-tall story teller. No matter what one told, he could easily top it.

In the early 1900’s Mr. Clarence Godwin built a hotel, currently occupied by Dale’s Grill and the U.S Post Office, and he and Mrs. Godwin operated this hotel for several years. The writer remembers very well that there was an open second story porch, balcony on the front that was built out over the sidewalk. Weather permitting, the guests would sit out in the evening on this porch for fresh air and talk and rest before retiring. The guests chiefly consisted of drummers (traveling salesmen) that came in by train, called on local merchants, spent the night and after completing their business, departed the next day for their next place of destination. In those days we had several passenger trains passing through our town daily, both East and West.

Floyd C. Price, Sr. opened a General Mercantile Business and Farm Supply in 1911 in a building that was located where Grover Godwin’s storage building is currently. In a few years afterwards, Mr. Price moved into about 2/3 of the ground floor of the aforementioned hotel, as he needed larger quarters. Mr. Price went into the undertaking business and used the second floor hotel rooms to store caskets and other merchandise. The writer and a cousin, John Harrison Parker, were up inspecting these caskets one day. John got in one of them to see how comfortable it was – NOT ME! I was not very comfortable just looking at them and ready to go to start with. Floyd Price closed out this business in the late 1920s or early 1930s and opened Floyd C. Price and Son business in Selma a year or so later. Said business is still going strong in Selma under management of Floyd C. Price, Jr.

Floyd C. Price, Sr. had another business in our town, a very fine cotton gin located on the site that is now the residence of Eugene Whitley and family, formerly the Doc R. and Lucille Oliver home. This gin burned in the 1920s, never reopening. While operating the ginnery, Mr. Price was a cotton broker. In or around 1912, Clarence Godwin organized the North State Power Company to generate electric power for this community. The writer was around four and one-half years of age when electric power was installed in my Dad’s house. Mr. Alex Ray was the electrician who did the wiring, with some help. Subsequently, Mr. Godwin extended his line to Micro. Eventually Mr. Godwin sold the power company to Carolina Power and Light Company.

Around 1914-15, Mr. Berry Godwin built and operated a cotton gin on Blanche Street on a site adjacent to the Methodist Church across from the Clyde Futrell residence. The gin was powered by electricity and reported the first electricity powered cotton gin in North Carolina and possibly one of the first in the nation. This gin never proved to be very successful, I believe, chiefly due to the very limited parking area for wagons and small areas to stake out teams. As I recall, it only operated three to four years at the most. The building was eventually torn down and the late Mrs. Etta Creech’s residence was built predominantly on the site.

Mr. Berry Godwin operated a hardware business prior to and into the early 1920’s, at the southern corner of East Pine Street and Peedin Avenue. This building was torn down to make room for a new brick building for Godwin Drug Company. In 1923-24 Clyde Godwin moved his drug store from North side of Southern railway, from a building formerly occupied by Oliver’s Tractor division.

Police chiefs of Pine Level during the writer’s lifetime were as follows: Zack Taylor, Ashley Price, James French, Mr. Stevens, Daniel T. Oliver, Sun Faulk, Ben Outland, Red Jones, Jay Watson, James Watson, Jack Langley, Milton Oliver, Bud Oliver and our current Junior Creech.

Official Town Clerks have been Nancy Clarke, Alvin Kornegay, Jr., Aileen Walters (only recently retired) and our recently appointed Danny Casey.

Our town has been without a medical doctor since Dr. Robert Oliver practiced here around 1930, subsequently moving to Selma. Drs. Montague and Myerberg practiced here in the early 1900’s. Dr. Myerberg too went to Selma. Dr. Montague left also but I do not know where he continued his practice. At this point, the writer would like to make a comment. I have often wondered why some young doctor has not set up shop in Pine Level. It is my belief that a young practicing physician can make as successful career in Pine Level as in any other small town in Johnston County, even all of Eastern North Carolina. Should a doctor locate in our town, it would in all probability mean the re-establishment of a drug store by a pharmicist seeking a good location to open such a business.

J. J. (Jap) Wiggs owned and operated a barber shop in Pine Level for a period of approximately fifty years. In 1920 my dad had the Fitzgerald Motor Co. building erected (now a part of building occupied by Pine Level Hardware and Furniture Co.) and operated a sales agency and distributorship for the Studebaker automobile. His brother, Alonzo E. Fitzgerald, ran an auto repair shop from the same building and sold repair parts for all makes of cars, tires, batteries, etc.

The population of Pine Level in 1900 was 400. By 1980 it was nearly 1,000 and with the immediate fringe area, I estimate it at 1,500 or greater.

Turner Sims operated a fish market, mostly weekend business in a small building attached to the rear of Styrons Woodworks from about 1925 until probably the 1970’s.

Uncle John Richardson, Gene Richardson’s father, operated a shoe repair shop for many years from his residence located on 70A highway on a site about where Tom Raines Auto Sales office is now located.

In 1924, 70A highway was routed through Pine Level and was paved and completed the following year. This writer well remembers all of the roadbed was built up by hand scoopers and mule team. The commercial, industrial and residential area.

Mr. Joseph Watson extended Capps Street and Fitzgerald Street from Blanche street to the new highway, and today very nice homes cover all of this area. The immediate area of Peedin Avenue and the then new road is surrounded by an auto sales lot, service stations, grocery store, cabinet shop, floor covering shop, and mobile home sales lot. All of this meant additional income to Pine Level and increased property values.

Two comparatively new firms in our town include:
Dixie Bell Textile Co., specializing in ladies’ lingerie and employing 30-40 people. At one time the company provided employment to 55 ladies.
Wilder Bagging Co., located in a part of the old Pine Level Oil Mill building, manufactures and repairs commercial bagging of all kinds and employs several men.

With respect to businesses that I have not mentioned and most of which I remember, I list the following in living respect to those of the past: Zackery Taylor, general merchandise, Dan U. Oliver, cloth and various items, Oscar Wiggs, groceries and meats, Herbert Kornegay, grocery and roasted peanuts, Jay Watson, meat market, D. Priest Crocker, groceries and general merchandise, Joe Price, cabinet maker, Walter Godwin, clothing, Leon Godwin, hardware (now Pine Level Hardware and Furniture Co.) Milford Gurley, grocery and general merchandise, Dewey Taylor, sandwiches and groceries, John Pike, candy and groceries, Clyde Godwin, Godwin Drug Company, A and E Market, operated by Annie and Earl Godwin, later to become Godwin’s Super Market, Ella Starling, groceries and not to be forgotten, Mrs. Giles, a number one seamstress and highly qualified tailor of both men’s and ladies’ apparel.

Resource persons:

The late Elder James Worley, the late Robert L. Fitzgerald, Sr., Mrs. Flora Herring, Ralph Styron, Johnston County Room, Smithfield library.

Supplemental Page to Growth of Pine Level, N. C.

During 1957 a very fine and adequate city water system was installed in our town. Currently a complete sewage system is being installed and is scheduled for completion before the end of the year.

For a small town, Pine Level had a very nice recreational center opened in 1976 comprising of two tennis courts, four basketball goals, courts too, a softball field, and a very fine child’s play area. This center is located immediately behind Old Union Church. Area residents should be grateful to the following donors of land to the recreational center: Rudy and Dave Oliver, and Douglas W. Creech, a former resident. Mr. Creech’s grant contrived of considerable frontage on 70-A Highway and totaled five and one-half acres.

The town is blessed by the following churches:

Pine Level Missionary Baptist
Free Will Baptist
Pentecostal Free Will Baptist
United Methodist
Old Union (Hardshell Baptist)
Giles Chapel
Mount Sinai

The following are former business parties not listed in aforementioned paragraph:

Eugene Parker, service station
Shorty Parker, service station
Mervin White, service station
U. B. Dupree, Sr., service station
Claude Pittman, service station
Paul Pittman, service station
Tom Pittman, barbour shop
D. N. Holt, groceries

At this point, I wish to mention that Mr. Holt was Mayor of Pine Level during the past -inadvertently omitted in list of mayors aforehand listed.
Branston (Slim) Parker, service station and auto repairs
Charles and Helen Strickland, service station

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