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Remembering Tugboats and the Corner Drugstore

Updated on December 23, 2019
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Donna Campbell Smith is an author, freelance writer, and photographer. She has an AAS degree in equine tech and is a certified instructor.

Tugboat on the Roanoke 1960

A tugboat on the Roanoke River, leaving the paper mill after delivering logs.
A tugboat on the Roanoke River, leaving the paper mill after delivering logs.
Ghostly Tugboat on Edenton Bay
Ghostly Tugboat on Edenton Bay

The Tug Boat is Coming

I grew up in a paper mill town - Plymouth, North Carolina. Logs were delivered to the mill not only by trains and log trucks, but up the Roanoke River on barges powered by tugboats. I learned as a young child that tugboat did all the work. The barges had no power of their own. If I thought hard enough, I probably could find an analogy in that someplace. Maybe later.

Barge-tugging tugboats traveled across Albemarle Sound before making their way into the mouth of the Roanoke and on up the river to the paper mill. As a child, I remember crossing the Albemarle Sound bridge with my family as we traveled to a little beach called Sandy Point. At that time the bridge was the longest span of any other bridge in the state. The bridge swung open in the middle to let boats pass by. We often had to wait for the tug and barges to go through the opening before we could travel onto the Chowan County shore where Sandy Point Beach waited.

Some were red, and like the one pictured, others were white. They had black and white trim. The logs were not always on a barge. Rafts of floating logs, bound by rope or maybe cables, were sometimes pulled up the river by the tug. Occasionally a log would disengage from the raft. These maverick logs posed a grave danger to boaters that navigated the black water of the Roanoke.

I did not go boating very often. Water skiing was a popular sport on the Roanoke River and the Albemarle Sound. My Aunt Mary Hazel was a good skier. She and my Uncle Tom took me out boating a couple of times, but I did not like the water and was especially afraid of the deep, dark water of the Roanoke. Stories of its strong currents pulling people to a watery grave were enough to keep me from its edge.

You don't see that many tugboats these days. Or maybe I stopped noticing them. I was in Edenton years ago and there was a ghostly, abandoned tug in Edenton Bay. My nephew and I were walking along the waterfront and stopped to listen to the spooky echo of water lapping against its empty hull. We imagined hearing voices floating around the derelict vessel. That is the last tugboat I have seen.

I think it was the cute boys that drew my friend and I from Arps to Wombles Drug Store. (photo from The Roanoke Log 1964)
I think it was the cute boys that drew my friend and I from Arps to Wombles Drug Store. (photo from The Roanoke Log 1964)

The Drug Store Chronicles

As I grew out of childhood and into teenage-hood my interests moved from the river to things like makeup, hairdos, and boys. I learned about these things in the two drugstores in town. Arp's Drug Store was the smaller of the two. The ladies who worked behind the counter sold fountain Cokes garnished with an orange slice in small and large cups. The smalls were three cents and the large cost a nickel. Also, for a nickel you could buy a square pack of Nabs or a candy bar.

My mother was first to introduce me to the drug stores. On payday, after grocery shopping, she sometimes took me the drugstore to buy me a small Coke. My sister had chronic asthma, and I was sometimes sent to Wombles to pick up prescriptions for her. I do not know why we bought our Cokes at one drug store and our medicine at the other. I think it was rumored that Arp's made the best fountain Cokes in town. In those days Coca Cola syrup was mixed with the carbonated water giving the fountain clerk some leeway in the formula.

I remember how the store smelled with a mixture of the Coca Cola syrup, castor oil, and perfume. The floor was wooden and echoed footsteps: work boots clumping, high heels clicking, and sneakers shuffling. The darkness was accented by the wooden shelves stained a deep walnut, a wooden counter spread down one side of the store. A short space in the middle was clear to make room for transactions, while the rest of the counter held racks filled with candy bars, small bags of chips, nabs, chewing gum and other sundries. The ceilings were high so by the time light from the globe fixtures reached the floor it seemed to dissipate into the dark furnishings. The brightest section of the store was in the front where the glass windows spanned the wall looking out onto the street.

Once I became a teenager my best friend and I walked from school downtown almost every afternoon. We could be found in Arp's playing with the makeup. I look back and really do not know why the clerks did not shoo us right out. We must have driven them crazy smelling the perfume and trying lipstick colors on our wrists. But the ladies were always kind and friendly. We did occasionally spend our allowance on teen magazines or a tube of lipstick.

As we got a little older we gradually began to migrate down the block to Wombles Drug Store. It might have been the comic books Mr. Womble let us read for free - the old ones. Or maybe he was the first to introduce Plymouth to Cherry Coke. But I think the real reason we carried our patronage to Wombles was because he hired the cutest boys to work behind the counter. Yes, I am sure that was the draw. Boys! The booths, covered in comic books, were always crowded with teens after school. My favorite booth was the one at the front because light from the windows made reading easier. We did not mess with the makeup; it was strategically kept in glass cases. But that didn't matter because we made it a point to have our makeup and hair done before we walked downtown.

My memories of hanging out in Wombles are a fuzzy collage of friends, funny books, cherry Cokes, Frito Corn Chips, boys, and voices. There is one memory that stands out. It is of a rare snowy day when my friends and I met at Wombles after a day of building snowmen and pelting snowballs. I don't think you ever get to old for that in North Carolina. Tired of being cold we tramped in making frozen footprints that quickly melted into puddles. Other groups from other neighborhoods also congregated in the small store. We ordered our Cokes and filled all the booths. I slipped into the one at the front of the store. I was normally shy, but the snow must have excited me so that I actually found myself talking to a boy named Jimmy. By late afternoon the crowd thinned until there was only Jimmy and I. Somewhere in our conversation I mentioned my loathing for Algebra. Jimmy offered to walk me home and help me with my Algebra assignment, just like in the movies or a novel. He really did help with my homework, and I made my first A in that class. We dated a few times, but my usual shyness returned and our dating never blossomed into a romance. Still, I remember the snowy day at Wombles Drug Store and my algebra lesson.

Tales from a Tugboat Captain


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