I recently interviewed some of Fort Mill’s longstanding citizens for a project I’m working on for the Fort Mill History Museum and I learned that if you went a mile in any direction from Main Street as late as the 1940s, you would find yourself in a cotton field. Our little town was surrounded by the ubiquitous crop, and a ten-mile journey north would take you to another little hamlet, Pineville, N.C. To get all the way to Charlotte you had to venture through yet another ten miles of the snowy crop. Urban sprawl had not yet caused the boundaries between towns to disappear along with their unique identities. Making the journey in the 19th century meant a long, bumpy ride in whatever horse-drawn conveyance you had at your disposal. But that all started to change one day in 1906 when C.H. Branson made his way into town in one of those newfangled automobiles—those sputtering contraptions that boasted horsepower with no horses in sight. Branson had bought the 1906 Reo secondhand and he took some of his friends for a spin down Main Street. I imagine it was quite startling to Old George, the horse A.O. Jones Sr. used to pull his grocery delivery wagon. Old George would soon enough get used to the sight, because Fort Mill’s love affair with the automobile had officially begun.
In 1926, the town got in on the action with its first modern fire truck, a brand-new Dodge. Instead of water tanks, it had two 30-gallon chemical tanks for fighting local fires. If the gentlemen on Main Street weren’t busy checking out this new addition, they could be found lining up their shiny Fords to be admired in front of Mills and Young or any of the other stores lining Fort Mill’s main drag.
Without a doubt, the fanciest wheels in town belonged to Col. Elliott White Springs, president of Springs Cotton Mills. The Colonel had a great love of gadgets, including cars and airplanes, and he could be seen driving around town in a rare Cord model or his Rolls-Royce with the custom chrome hood ornament depicting Miss Springfield. The Rolls still makes an appearance most years in the Fort Mill Christmas Parade to the delight of today’s car aficionados.
My two sons, Chase and Ethan, have always had an affinity for everything auto-related and can regularly be seen driving the streets of Fort Mill and enjoying the freedom that comes with having the window down and one foot on the gas. Though they are driving decidedly less glamorous models than the Colonel used for tooling about town, they are continuing the tradition started by C.H. Branson in 1906 and known to be a right of passage in every American town. It’s just those Fort Mill boys (and girls now, too) and their four-wheeled independence. Somebody toss me the keys.