STEVE INSKEEP, host:
In 1950, Shuffletown, North Carolina, was a small farming community nine miles outside of Charlotte. Today most of Shuffletown is part of Charlotte, the nation's second fastest growing city. Some longtime residents are trying to keep Shuffletown's memories alive, including the legacy of unusually good race relations in a small Southern town. Here's NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams.
JUAN WILLIAMS reporting:
Shuffletown was never really a town. It was more like a bunch of close-knit neighbors, 110 families by 1953 spread out over dusty back roads 10 miles in every direction from a country store, gas stations and a river ferry that marked the center of town. Judy Rozzelle, whose father and grandfather were Shuffletown farmers, is now the town historian. Rozzelle, now 63, says her family's little town should not be thought of as a place.
Ms. JUDY ROZZELLE (Shuffletown Historian): It's a state of mind. It's a way of life that we had in the '50s and '60s, where everybody lived off the farms and nature.
WILLIAMS: Billy Sherrill, who's lived here all his life, agrees.
Mr. BILLY SHERRILL (Resident): Shuffletown would have been a good Norman Rockwell painting. That's what it was.
WILLIAMS: Shuffletown's recorded history goes back as far as 1764. There are records of a ferry operating here on the Catawba River. It was a key stop on the path to Charlotte for farmers, settlers and salesmen. Slave traders and their human cargo used the ferry, too. The Catawba Indians had camps in the area. Sometime in the early 1800s, Sam Spurrier, the local blacksmith, founded a general store that sold liquor by the dipper on weekends. That store became the town's center. Historian Judy Rozzelle.
Ms. ROZZELLE: The trading path was created by the Indians. Villages gather around crossroads. I think crossroads are magical, and I think that is what really Shuffletown was about.
WILLIAMS: What was also magical about Shuffletown was the intimacy of the neighbors, regardless of their race. In this small Southern town, after Emancipation and the Civil War, blacks and whites lived side by side. Paula Stathakis is a historian for Mecklenburg County, North Carolina.
Ms. PAULA STATHAKIS (Historian): I think that some of the uniqueness of Shuffletown has to do with the fact that most people in Shuffletown, black or white, were small farmers. So those people did live in similar circumstances.
WILLIAMS: Louis Caldwell is the descendant of a black family that moved to Shuffletown in 1911. His grandfather bought a 120-acre farm.
Mr. LOUIS CALDWELL (Resident): We, the white and the black boys, would swim together right down at Long Creek, just below where we are here. And we would swim naked, and it was fun, because we would fight and throw rocks and that sort of the thing, you know. You know how boys are. But then the next day we'd be right back together doing the same thing, and so...
WILLIAMS: With your chums.
Mr. CALDWELL: Yeah.
(Soundbite of motor)
WILLIAMS: For most of its history, Shuffletown's biggest attraction was the ferry. The site is now a boat ramp under a bridge.
Does the ferry actually come in right here? Was this the landing to the ferry?
Ms. ROZZELLE: We think it was. The water was not quite this wide then, because it wasn't dammed. It came from over there. It looks like a boat slip there. That was the original Rozzelle land, and it came in over here.
(Soundbite of motor)
WILLIAMS: Another site well known around here was the Shuffletown drag strip, where souped-up hot-rods raced in dust and exhaust before hard-drinking fans on weekends beginning after World War II. But even before the drag strip, Shuffletown was marked as the last stop before the river for fishermen and hunters looking for bait and beer, even pickled eggs. Today the grocery store is closed because of competition from two shopping centers that arrived in the 1990s and a Wal-Mart under construction. The frames of a few of Shuffletown's older houses remain behind the closed country store. They've been moved here because Shuffletown's residents can't bear to see them torn down. Judy Rozzelle.
Ms. ROZZELLE: The one down there is Earl Rozzelle's(ph) house. This was originally built by slaves, and they lived in it after the war, and then when they moved on, the Rozzelles just moved right back in it.
(Soundbite of door being opened and closed)
WILLIAMS: On a recent visit before the store shut its doors, a woman dressed in a lace gown and gloves, looking like a high-society woman from the 1800s, sat near the cash register. She is Gail Haley, author of a children's book called "The Abominable Swamp Man." Here is the local legend the book is based on.
Ms. GAIL HALEY (Author): There was a trucker coming home one night. Got to the bridge, just came off the bridge, and there was this incredible white, furry creature that ran across the road in front of him. Then things began to disappear. Pies disappeared off windowsills. So the closest sheriff came and organized a posse of all the men who were willing to go out and look, and I could hear the bloodhounds and the guns going off and whatnot all night. And I kept thinking, `Oh, I hope it gets away.'
WILLIAMS: But they never found anything.
Ms. HALEY: No, of course not. But you have to listen to the old stories. If you don't have stories and myth in your life, your world gets to be a very gray place.
WILLIAMS: Shuffletonians have a lot of tales to tell about the exploits and mishaps of friends and neighbors, typical of any small community where everyone knew everyone else, maybe too well. They talk about the time a local character accidentally set his car on fire and still managed to drive it to the firehouse. Even the name of the town is part of local lore. Some say a traveling English salesman suggested Sheffield, after a British city, and it was slurred into Shuffletown. Author Judy Rozzelle's favorite story is that it was a description of drunken farmers wobbling their way home from Spurrier's General Store & Bar(ph). Her least favorite version of the story dates to the end of the Civil War.
Ms. ROZZELLE: Supposedly it was after the slaves were freed, and you could see them shuffling towards the crossroads.
WILLIAMS: Regardless of how it got its name, lifelong resident and volunteer fireman Billy Sherrill says it was a community where everybody knew everybody's name, especially when the fire alarm went off.
Mr. SHERRILL: You knew, when the alarm went off, it was somebody you knew. I mean, it was not going to be a stranger. You know, it was my family or Tom's family or Frank's family. It was somebody you knew.
WILLIAMS: Shuffletown is now full of mini mansions and gated communities and neighbors who don't know each other. Developers discovered the area when the Shuffletown drag strip was closed in the 1990s. Now the question for local historian Judy Rozzelle is whether in five years there will be any evidence that Shuffletown ever existed.
Ms. ROZZELLE: No, there won't be a Shuffletown. That's why I wrote a book. It's really an obituary, as sad as it sounds.
WILLIAMS: It's likely the city of Charlotte will annex the few remaining parts of Shuffletown within the next five years, and even the name might not survive. Developers now refer to Shuffletown and the surrounding area as Mountain Island Lake. Juan Williams, NPR News.
INSKEEP: The time is 29 minutes past the hour.
c 2004 National Public Radio ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information please contact NPR's Permissions Coordinator at (202) 414-2000. Transcript produced by Burrelle's Information Services, Box 7, Livingston, NJ 07039.