The Great Jonesboro Fire

Every Saturday morning I get my haircut at the barber shop in Jonesboro. I normally do this after taking my trash to the recycling center on Wicker Street. This is a really good deal for those of us who live in the county. It only costs me $80 a year and I get to do all the work myself, which my wife reminds me is good exercise and so I should look on it as a sort of cheap gym fees.

Anyway there I was sitting in my favorite chair with my barber, Gums getting ready to do a trim. I asked him one time what his real name was and he told me it was worse that Gums, so I left it at that. I said I’d caught on the news this morning about a fire in Carolina Trace. Apparently it had burned the club house down.

Gums started trimming my hair and mentioned something about old Jonesboro and the Great Fire. I said I didn’t know about that and Gums started to tell me the story he’d heard from his father or uncle or somebody. Gums can be hard to understand and my hearing ain’t what it used to be.

Before I start with Gums’ story let me explain that Jonesboro is sort of a city within the city of Sanford. There’s not much to Jonesboro, but it does have a main street and of course the barbershop. I think the houses in Jonesboro take up most of the land mass of Jonesboro, but I could be wrong. Today Jonesboro has several thriving businesses, but that was not always the case.

How or when Jonesboro became a part of Sanford is a bit of mystery, but most local folks blame Yankee carpetbaggers after the War of Northern Aggression, that’s the Civil War to you folks in Cary.

The way I heard it from Gums was that Jonesboro was the last hold out after Lee surrendered and stayed that way for 2-3 years during Reconstruction until the night of the Great Fire. It seems that there was a livery stable owner, Justin Thyme who was supplying those dreadful blue bellies, that’s U.S. Cavalry to you folks in Cary, with feed, saddle repair, and farrier service in violation of a secret pact made by the other merchants in Jonesboro to boycott the carpet baggers.

Now the reason he was doing this was never really clear, but rumor at the time had it that his daughter, Jessee and a Yankee scum cavalry officer named Captain Bell, that’s gentleman from the North to you folks in Cary, were seeing each other during weekend rides in the country and at one point were caught one afternoon gazing at the Cape Fear River, you know, like they were going to strip down right there and jump in.

It just so happened that the Reverend Burr and his wife were taking a ride along the river road in their buggy. They looked over and saw the couple gazing at the river. Naturally they came to the conclusion that the couple was up to no good, him being a Yankee and her being a single southern girl. Word of the encounter got around pretty fast even without the internet.

About a week later the livery stable caught fire. The fire spread to the hardware store, the boarding house and then it jumped across the street and burned the only church in Jonesboro to the ground and badly damaged the saloon. The last was no great loss since nobody had any booze to drink anyway, but you get my meaning here. This fire was bad. Volunteers eventually put the fire out, but it was pretty clear everyone in town was affected and the town’s economy was devastated even worse than during the war.

Due to the hard times the Jonesboro town council ending up pleading to the town council of Sanford for help. The council, realizing that the enormous loss of jobs meant no tax revenue, went to the damn Yankees, that’s Reconstruction Agents for you folks in Cary, to seek a grant for Jonesboro which would allow them to rebuild. The Reconstruction Agents were from New York and Washington D.C, but they gave Jonesboro twice what was needed to rebuild and enough to pay the town of Sanford city taxes for 5 years. Naturally Sanford passed half the funds along to Jonesboro and did not mention the part about the taxes.

As it turned out the jobs never really did materialize, only some of the houses and commercial buildings were rebuilt and of those about half were ever occupied again. The barbershop was one of the few exceptions. It did a brisk business ever afterward owing to the fact that Sanford had no barbershop. Some people believed that a Sanford City councilman’s son, who bought the barbershop, had something to do with its success, but that’s just rumor based on hard feelings.

Now not everyone in Jonesboro suffered from the Great Fire. The church was rebuilt and the livery stable was turned into a buggy factory that stayed in business for 15 years until the run on the bank in 1879 after which it closed and remains that way today.

The barbershop, as Gums told me, did quite well and still stands today. Indeed it became a well known watering hole replacing the saloon, that later gave birth to a quartet of singers. Folks travelled from miles around on Saturday evenings after market to listen to the various singers. Some folks believe it was this very same barbershop that inspired an entirely new musical genre, but I’m getting away from the point of the story here.

Justin Thyme was voted to a seat on the town council in Sanford and later became mayor for two terms. After that he ran a successful hardware business in Sanford vowing never to return to Jonesboro. Later in life he sold the hardware store to three brothers, Manny, Moe, and Jack who expanded the store when automobiles first came to Sanford and made a fortune in tire sales.

After selling the hardware store Justin went on to a successful career in the state department of corrections eventually becoming commissioner of prisons for North Carolina.  He is believed to be the first commissioner to personally execute a woman, accused of murdering her father, in the state of North Carolina. He held this post for 23 years until dying in his office chair. The coroner ruled the death accidental. Apparently he choked on a wad of chewing tobacco while looking at a girly magazine.

Justin’s daughter disappeared along with that carpet bagging Yankee scum in blue Captain Bell, that fine officer and gentleman from the North to you folks in Cary, shortly after the Great Fire. Anyway the two of them were quite a team. Two years after leaving Jonesboro they became embroiled in a land-lease problem with some Indians in Oklahoma. Their names popped up again in Louisiana in connection with a scandal involving a state legislature, a race horse, Confederate gold and a half-crazy cajun fortune telling woman with a pirate treasure map. I never did get the whole story. Gums was not real clear on that or the battery in my hearing aide was acting up again. Who knows for sure?

The next time Jeesee and Mr. Bell, he’d left the army by then, were heard from it was in New York involving the Vanderbilts, some rather racy photos of her and midget and some diamonds. I think I heard Gums right about the midget. Who would miss that?  It was the talk of the town around here according to Gums. The barbershop singers even made up a song about it called, “Jessee Bell’s Icy Stones.”  I don’t think the song really caught on, but Gums said not at all. He showed me a photo hanging over the mirror in his shop of four guys singing and another of a newspaper story with the headline, “’Jessee Bell’s Icy Stones’ a Hit on Broadway”.

Hmmm… Anyway the whole thing was quieted down or blew over after the blizzard of 1901 that paralyzed New York City. I’ll bet everyone had their fill of icy stones that year.

The last time anyone heard about those two was in 1907 or so in San Francisco. Apparently they were caught in some kind of gold mine deal, saloon partnership, with Wyatt Earp or Bat Masterson that also involved blackmail or something like that. One week before the trial a terrible fire broke out under mysterious circumstances in San Francisco, which destroyed half the city and of course all the evidence against them. Some people have all the luck I guess.

I paid Gums for the haircut and left to run some morning errands. I had to pick up some quarts of oil and a filter for the car at Autozone and then head on over to Lowes for a bag of potting soil. Funny that Gums remembered this story. I wonder if Carolina Trace will rebuild the Golf Club. Too bad about that fire.


About Well of Knowledge Tour Guide

I am a public policy thinker and amateur historian. My interests are seeking knowledge in all areas of life.
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