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Commercial Expansion (1.6.3)

As stated earlier, the addition of a new railroad line and the improvement of area roads attracted customers to Elizabeth City from adjoining rural areas. The city boasted a superior variety and quantity of mercantile establishments in large part because it had more than twice the population of the next largest town within the Albemarle region. In fact, its population in 1940 (11,564 according to the census) was greater that of each of the other five counties in the northern Albemarle region: Perquimans, Chowan, Gates, Camden, and Currituck. Independent local merchants oftered a full range of goods and services, and the railroad provided easy access for those wishing to shop in larger cities, primarily Norfolk and Richmond, Virginia. The early twentieth century also saw the first introduction of national and regional mercantile chains into Elizabeth City; the first was the F. W. Woolworth Company, an original tenant in the Kramer Building in 1909 (Butchko 1989, 251). It shared the structure with a locally-owned competitor, department store Rucker and Sheely. By 1942, department store branches of Belk-Tyler (based in Charlotte), W. T. Grant, and McLellan Stores occupied prominent locations in the 400 block of East Main Street (Miller 1942, 285).

While the major commercial establishments remained exclusively along East Main and Water streets, by the early 1920s pockets of retail neighborhood stores were beginning to develop along major thoroughfares. With the construction about 1910 of a new Norfolk and Southern Railroad Passenger Station at the end of West Main Street, the area along what is now Hughes Boulevard began to develop into a small mercantile and service section. By 1931, the area boasted two filling stations, an automobile repair garage, a grist mill, and three stores. Nearby were a meat-packing plant and a fertilizer factory (Sanborn 1923, 1931). Although Ehringhaus Street--today the city's prime example of strip commercial development--remained predominantly residential until the 1960s, as early as 1942 there were a half-dozen businesses located on it between Water and Road streets. These included the Coca-Cola Bottling Company and the Elizabeth City Hosiery Company. Several others were small businesses owned by and catering to blacks (Miller 1942, 296-297).

 

The effect of the Depression on the city's commerce was most immediately felt by the banks. In 1929 there were four banking and trust companies operating in the city, all located on East Main Street (Telephone Directory 1929-30, 88). Of these, only the Carolina Banking and Trust Company failed completely, and only the First and Citizens Bank, the successor to First National Bank, survived the crisis without a change in name. The others, the Hood System Industrial Bank and the Savings Bank and Trust Company, reopened by mid-decade as the Industrial Bank and the Guaranty Bank and Trust, respectively. The city's other early twentieth century hank, the Citizen's Bank (200 South Poindexter Street), had failed earlier in 1918 during the post-World War I economic slump and never re-opened (Butchko 1989, 283).

The economic ramifications of cutbacks in the mills were widely felt, from the idling of small independent loggers working in the woods and a drop in cotton prices due to low demand, to the decline in sales at the corner grocery which supplied the mill hand's family. As a result, numerous small businesses suffered hard times or failed completely. During the worst of the Depression, Elizabeth City native and attorney John C. B. Ehringhaus (1882-1949) was elected governor in 1932, the only county native to serve in the state's highest office. It was during his administration that state and federal programs were initiated to bring the nation out of the Depression.

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