Column: Details lost in sands of time

Mar. 30, 2014 @ 01:31 AM

Not much of our history is written down.

The big-picture history is. Major events, whether measured globally or locally. Wars. Bankruptcies. Arrests. Marriages. Births. They all get in history books, the local newspaper or in some government ledger. They are at least noted. Someone later will be able to find them.

One part of history here that is written down in various places is that Lenoir used to host annual furniture market trade shows. I had forgotten about that until I interviewed Alex Bernhardt Jr. and Rountree Collett last week about the 125th anniversary of the founding of Bernhardt Furniture Co., and the topic of “the Market” came up.

When I first worked here 26 years ago, the departure of the Market was still an open wound, so I heard a bit about it, but not in great detail.

You can find at least elements of the history online, though it takes some work.

The website of what is now the High Point Market is no help, entirely omitting mention of other market trade shows ever occurring anywhere in North Carolina.

From two locally based websites, explorecaldwell.com and cityoflenoir.com, a stranger could learn that Lenoir and Hickory hosted parts of what then was called the Southern Furniture Market. But in 1985, two years before I came to the News-Topic, the trade show consolidated to High Point. But that’s about all those sites tell you.

In the vast, online archives of Google is a scanned copy of pages of the Jan. 28, 1985, Lexington Dispatch, and on page 9 is a story by the High Point Enterprise that gives just a bit more context:

“The Southern Furniture Marked settled along 120 miles of ‘Furniture Highway’ from High Point to Lenoir and prospered. All was well until Dallas began rearing its faraway head with glistening new showroom buildings and hotels. By the mid- to late 1970s some people were talking about the national market shifting there.”

The consolidation took place to fend off competition that could have ended North Carolina’s trade show, in other words.

What the historical elements I can find online don’t mention, however, is the debate and jockeying that surely must have occurred within the industry and among politicians. Why High Point?

History is written by the victors, as Southerners know only too well, and the history that is to be found online presents the image of a seamless, no-questions-asked consolidation to High Point. Where else would the market go?

I’m sure if I searched the microfilmed pages of the News-Topic from that era, which the Caldwell County Public Library has in its collection, I could find more, but I didn’t have the time to hunt it down.

The talk locally that I heard in 1987, which I expect is reflected somewhere in that microfilm, was that Lenoir lost out because the city didn’t have liquor by the drink. In the interview last week, Bernhardt mentioned that too.

Whether that was the deal-breaker or just an element is not my main point, however, because that debate has been written about, even if it’s not found online. A person could find it, and maybe someday Google will digitize it and make it even easier to find. My point is what is not written.

Lenoir didn’t have liquor by the drink, but it's widely acknowledged that doesn’t mean there wasn’t drinking going on when the Market was in town. The cityoflenoir.com site says only, “Furniture executives would host market buyers in their homes and lavish parties made Lenoir’s brand of Southern hospitality famous.”

The details of those parties, I’m fairly sure, are not written down anywhere, even if they were staid and sober events.

Bernhardt and Collett have more specific memories.

Bernhardt mentioned “loud, boisterous affairs” at a house John Christian Bernhardt, their grandfather, built at a place called Rabbit Hill.

Collett, who grew up in Morganton, remembers trips to Lenoir as a child to go to the Market.

“I remember being so amazed and seeming to need a trail of bread crumbs to find my way out,” he said.

Those kinds of specific memories and specific details are 99 percent of what happens every day, and they are what gets left out of the history books, unless the memories and details belong to the victors.