Remembering Orphan Home Day
CRESCENT — On any given first Wednesday of August from the late 1940s to the early 1960s, our house was buzzing with excitement which was only surpassed at Christmas. My father would get off his first shift job at Cannon Mills in Kannapolis, gulp down a quick supper, feed the chickens, pigs and cows and maybe repair a fence post or two. After a short rest and with dusk approaching, he was off for what would be an all-night adventure of barbecuing pork shoulders with other men from the neighborhood. Making sure there was enough good barbecue for Orphan Home Day was a big responsibility.
Nazareth Orphans’ Home was founded Aug. 13, 1903, and opened Dec. 2, 1906. The moving spirit in the conception and founding of the home was the Rev. Dr. J.M.L. Lyerly. He was elected to the board of managers, elected president Oct. 13, 1903, and served for 20 years until his death March 17, 1923.
The official name for the celebration on the first Thursday in August was Anniversary Day Picnic. But most people in the area who came simply called it Orphan Home Day. And brother did they come. Records show that from 6,000 to 10,0000 guests, depending on the weather and economic conditions of the land, came to celebrate at Nazareth.
The home’s first anniversary was held Sept. 12, 1907, and organizers raised $400. Most of the income from this and subsequent anniversary celebrations came from stands operated by Ursinus, St. Luke’s, Lyerly Memorial, Shiloh, Mt. Hope, and Lower Stone churches. These churches erected large permanent stands to handle the picnic sales. The barbecue pits were permanent and were located for many years where the parking lot for Nazareth Community Church is currently located.
The amount of profit from Anniversary Day gradually increased from that $400 amount to over $4,000 in the 1950s. Records from the book, “Nazareth Orphans’ Home, Golden Anniversary 1906-1956” show there was an anniversary celebration each year from 1907 until the book was written in 1956. There were three exceptions. In 1935 and 1948, events were canceled due to the polio epidemic, and in 1945 no picnic was held because World War II was coming to an end.
My memories of Orphan Home Day were more along the lines of what was important to me as a young boy growing up on Crescent Road in the 1950s. By mid-morning on that day, cars were lined up all the way from Nazareth to our home a quarter of a mile away. I couldn’t wait to see who would climb the greasy pole and claim the $10 attached to the top. Notice I was a spectator. I couldn’t wait to see who would catch the greasy pig, although I would give a feeble swipe at it if it got near me. I couldn’t wait to slide down the 25 foot fire escape behind the boys’ dormitory. Time and again, boys and girls would slide down and walk back up in small steps to give it another go. To us, it seemed like a hundred feet down and back at the time. I couldn’t wait to have a barbecue sandwich with a cold “dope” at lunch followed by the best pineapple sherbet on God’s earth. Some activities went on all day and I can’t imagine a day at Disney World being any more fun. Children like me who had trouble going to sleep the night before would have no trouble falling asleep after this busy day.
Linda Lefler Merrell, my next door neighbor on Crescent Road, also shared some of her memories of Orphan Home Day. She recalls that as a kid in the 1950s her parents allowed her to sell eggs from the family’s chickens to raise money to spend that day. In addition, they gave her a few dollars. Her favorite treat was to indulge in a pineapple sherbet made from fresh pineapple, crushed ice and pineapple juice.
Linda hardly slept the night before the big event. Neither did her father, because like many other men in the neighborhood, he was up most of the night barbecuing pork shoulders. One event that eclipsed all others in the Lefler family occurred in 1932. Linda tells the story:
“My parents, Oliver and Pauline Lefler, wanted to get married, but Grandpa Lyerly was very stern and didn’t want his girls to leave the farm. So they planned to meet at Orphans’ Day on Aug. 4, 1932, and elope to South Carolina to get married. Grandpa wouldn’t think anything about letting Pauline go to Orphans’ Day because it was a big event in the rural life of eastern Rowan County. They did meet there, asked another couple to drive them to Lancaster, since Oliver didn’t own a car, and eloped in a 1932 Model A Ford, sitting in the rumble seat. As my dad would tell it, ‘We got to Charlotte and it commenced to raining. All four of us had to get in the front seat, and Mom had to sit on my lap, but I didn’t mind.’ On the way back from Lancaster, however, Dad got cold feet about what Grandpa was going to say, so he took Pauline home and left her a week before going after his bride. It must have worked, because they were married 62 years when Dad died.”
Sue Ritchie Misenheimer and her two brothers and sister were true orphans when they came to live at Nazareth in 1946. Their mother had died in 1944 of cancer and their father died in March of 1946 in a sawmill accident. At the time of their arrival, they were the only orphans living at Nazareth.
Despite the circumstances, Sue always looked forward to Anniversary Day. Sue said the residents worked extra hard to clean up the campus to make it look better. “Even the trees were whitewashed up to five feet high to make the campus sparkle.”
One part of Anniversary Day that Sue did not particularly like was participating in the program that was given by the residents in the boys’ dormitory. Mrs. Moose, wife of Superintendent Tom Moose, would try to get Sue to sing along with everyone else. Sue says, “I couldn’t sing then, and I can’t sing now.” But when a boy named Dick Cook, who resided at the home, played the piano in the dining hall and asked her to sing along, Sue remembers belting out in song and sounding “pretty good.” Dick asked her why she didn’t sing like that for the program and Sue had no answer for that question.
After the conclusion of Anniversary Day on Thursday, the residents who had family were allowed to go home with them for the weekend. But for Sue and the others Thursday was a glorious day of freedom to mingle with the crowd, eat barbecue and ice cream, and just to have a good time with the thousands of people who came. Sue lived at Nazareth from 1946 when she was 12 until her graduation from high school in 1952.
Linda Benge grew up on Pop Basinger Road not far from Nazareth. She remembers loving to go to Orphan Home Day because she had friends and good relationships with many of the residents. And she too remembers how good the pineapple sherbets were.
Linda started working at Nazareth in 1970 as a part-time secretary to Superintendent Howard Regan and his wife. At the time, they were the only three employees in the administrative offices. Ms. Benge ended up working at Nazareth for 40 years in various capacities. After serving as interim superintendent when other superintendents left, Dr. Theodore Leonard, chairman of the board of trustees, asked her if she would like to be named superintendent herself. She said yes and served in that position for eight years.
Vernon Walters is currently serving as superintendent of Nazareth Children’s Home. There are 30 residents living on campus, and none are orphans. No one but old timers refer to Anniversary Day as Orphan Home Day. The date has been changed to the first Saturday in June with this year’s June 7 marking the 107th celebration. Much has changed over the years. The crowds will be smaller, there will be no greasy pole or greasy pig. The boys’ dormitory is now Nazareth Community Church, and the sliding board which served as the fire escape has been removed. Instead of winning $10 by climbing to the top of the greasy pole, you can now buy raffle tickets to win a brand new Honda Civic and other valuable prizes.
Some things do not change, however. I plan to have a barbecue sandwich, a cold “dope,” and a pineapple sherbet. And even if I don’t win a new car or any of the other prizes, I will always have fond memories of this special day. The tradition continues.
A valuable reference book used for this article was “Nazareth Orphan’s Home, Golden Anniversary, 1906-1956,” compiled by Thomas L. Moose, Terrell M. Shoffner, and Mrs. Daisy F. Patterson.
Thanks to Linda Benge for providing pictures.