Saturday, May 18, 2024

Buggy whipped

Anchoring a southwest corner of the town square in Carthage, the City Barber Shop has long been a daily gathering spot for local news, views and friendly gossip — the ideal place to take the pulse of an old town. “Just about everyone in town comes in here at one point or another: judges, lawyers, farmers, business folks, especially mamas wanting their kids’ hair cut for church on Sunday,” owner Lee Chriscoe says as he works on a squirmy youngster’s buzz-cut late on a warm Friday afternoon. “This shop has always been a good place to find out what’s going on in town. Been that way since Gene Warren opened the place way back when.”

That year was 1946, not long after Warren returned from piloting a Navy minesweeper during the D-Day invasion. He left Moore County only one other time — for a two-month stint at barber school in Durham — and soon opened City Barber Shop in the town’s former movie house, charging a dollar for a good haircut, a dime for a decent shoeshine.

In tribute to his predecessor, who local lore holds was so frugal he once listed his farm mule as a dependent on his federal tax returns, Chriscoe, 49, made only a few updates to the shop when he took over 12 years ago. He kept the antique apothecary jars full of Lance crackers, a humming Coke machine from the Jimmy Carter years and a shoeshine stand that hasn’t had a paying customer in years. Fading sports pennants adorn the upper walls. The only visible nod to 2015 is the flat-screen TV mounted on the wall, silently playing Fox News.

“I watched John Edwards on that TV set when he was runnin’ for president,” says an old-timer waiting his turn for a trim. He grins and winks. “Too bad he didn’t get his hair cut in here. He’d have gotten some useful advice and saved a helluva lot of money.” Edwards, who hails from nearby Robbins, preferred $400 cuts that drew derision during his disastrous run for the presidency in 2008. At City Barber Shop, $12 would have won him a good haircut and some local wisdom.

City Barber Shop is an unapologetic throwback to a slower time in North Carolina, a symbol of the way life remains in Carthage. Its stagnant economy has locals anxious — general-fund revenue isn’t covering the town’s expenses, and expensive improvements for water and sewer systems are overdue. Hundreds of rural towns in the state share the same concerns. Still, many take comfort in a past that shines antique brass, providing a curious tale of what could have been.

Named for an ancient Phoenician city that fought three Punic wars with Rome and produced the legendary general Hannibal, Carthage was established in 1796. It sits on a commanding ridge of land 900 feet above sea level, a spot where the rolling clay of the Piedmont met the prehistoric seabed of the Sandhills. The town anchor-ed the colonial era Plank Road that brought early settlers and commercial interests up from the Cape Fear River to central North Carolina. State lawmakers briefly considered Carthage as a site for establishing America’s first state-chartered university in 1789, before opening about 50 miles north in Chapel Hill six years later.

“Carthage is the location where your industry will make a good and increasing return on the investment,” touts a brochure from the local board of trade in 1915, promising a bounty of skilled labor in everything from ironmongering to agriculture. “No matter what occupation you follow, you will lead a healthy, well-rounded life, a life made joyous by the realization that here you are at the dawn of new and greater opportunities in the spot where the rising sun of the Southland’s prosperity will cast its warmest glow.”

That proved true in 1856 when enterprising shopkeeper Thomas B. Tyson and a sheriff named Alexander Kelly bought Isaac Seawell’s thriving wheelwright shop, then started making buggies. Three years later, Tyson added as a partner William T. Jones — son of a slave and a gifted carriage painter and engineer. By the turn of the century, the business was making 3,000 carriages and buggies a year.

Carthage buggies were the Cadillacs of their time. Lincoln reportedly rode to his inauguration in one; Wall Street’s robber barons preferred them, too. Henry Ford visited Carthage to take a close look at the Tyson-Jones buggy operation’s fabled assembly line and considered the town for his pioneering Model T production facility. The coming of the auto age shuttered Tyson & Jones Buggy Co. in 1925. But the town’s dreams of brighter days didn’t change.

The industrial legacy of that time is memorialized in a new mural by Chapel Hill artist Scott Nurkin, part of a sprucing up of the town square that includes freshly painted buildings around the old Moore County courthouse, a $1.5 million renovation of the county’s new courthouse and the opening of a coffee shop and several restaurants.

It’s the business of government that keeps Carthage percolating as it waits for a new Hannibal, or at least for other business opportunities. Many of the town’s 2,250 residents work in the public sector, including a bunch at the two-year-old Rick Rhyne Public Safety Center, which houses the sheriff’s department, a 911 call center and enough jailhouse beds to accommodate 192 prisoners. Some come from surrounding counties, which pay $40 a day to send their accused to Carthage. The $27 million building created a stir among locals who felt it wasn’t in keeping with the town’s genteel past and questioned the wisdom of an expanded county jail looming over downtown’s southern edge.

“It’s all pretty much quieted down,” says philosopher-barber Lee Chriscoe. “Sometimes you have to accept things they way they are. Government is what we’re now known for in Carthage. Folks around here joke that the only time we ever really see the wealthy folks from the bottom part of the county [Pinehurst and Southern Pines are about 12 miles south] is when they have to come pay their traffic tickets or property taxes. It’s a tale of two very different places, down there and up here.

“Even so,” he’s quick to add, “there’s lots of talk about generating new businesses in town. Things are happening. We just heard about a proposed new bypass that will ease traffic in the square, and a push to make downtown even more appealing is underway.”

Carthage has its doers and dreamers, pushing to make the town more appealing to new residents and employers. Nancy McKenzie’s beautification committee is busy at work installing custom-made cobalt blue planters that will explode with spring flowers just in time for the annual Buggy Festival on May 9. It’s a Mother’s Day weekend ritual that annually draws more than 20,000 visitors.

Back in the barbershop, a mother named Rachel eyeballs her squirmy son, Chad, who is getting a haircut in time for Sunday services at the local United Methodist church and later, a family picnic. “I want him to look real good,” she declares, giving her restless lad a look known by every 9-year-old since the glory days of Carthage buggies. “We have family and new people coming over this year from Charlotte. I want to make a fine impression.”

That’s something everyone in town would agree on.


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Jim Dodson
Jim Dodson
Jim Dodson is editorial director of Old North State Magazines. Reach him at

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