You’ve probably heard of “Where are they now?” stories. This is a “Where is it now?” story.
Growing up, there wasn’t much free time. It seemed like when there was any free time, like on a Sunday afternoon, we were visiting relatives. I suppose it was because there wasn’t much else to do, and we couldn’t afford to do much else, anyway. And we had a lot of relatives.
Some of our kinfolks lived down at the southern end of Sampson County. To a young boy, that was a long way from Clement. The homeplace for my grandmother was a big, white house in a grove of trees about a mile away from Harrell’s Store. (You didn’t call it Harrells back then.) Swinging in the big front porch swing was always the highlight of a visit down to Grandma Johnson’s.
Other times we would take another trip down to the southern end of the county to visit McPhail relatives at Tomahawk. I thought Tomahawk was in the middle of nowhere. (I’m imagine Uncle Kenneth and his family thought the same when they came up to Clement to visit.) There was a little post office and a country store there, and that was about it.
I came across an article from the Sampson County Historical Society that states that Tomahawk used to be a much different place. Oscar Bizzell wrote how the community was like back around 1900.
Mr. Bizzell wrote, “Tomahawk did not really become settled until the railroad came through, as it was the only source of transportation to and from the remote area. The early sawmills must have had gas lights because it is said they operated 24 hours per day. During this time as many as 500 people lived in the Tomahawk community.” There were three general merchandise stores in the village during that time, a school, and a railroad station.
He continued in the article, “Tomahawk at one time was laid off in blocks, and these were 300 to 400 square yards in size. Most of the streets ran parallel with the railroad, with some cross streets at right angles.”
Those days are long gone. The railroad has left, the saw mill is history, and even the little post office is closed. I’m sure there were residents at that time who thought the little town had a prosperous future. So, what happened to Tomahawk?
There may had been several reasons for the town’s demise. But the main reason is simple. They cut down all the trees for the 24 hour saw mill. No trees, then no saw mill, then no jobs, then no people, no need for the railroad, finally no town. Well, there still were the kinfolk down there we enjoyed visiting.
It has happened before. There are cities and towns mentioned in the Bible that are no longer on any map of the Middle East. Some of them were quite large in population and size. One example was Ephesus, the city where the Apostle Paul wrote to its church in his letter to the Ephesians.
Ephesus was a prominent city when Paul wrote his letter to the recently created church there around 63 AD. Ephesus was on the coast of present day Turkey, and was at the crossroads of major trade routes between Europe, the Middle East, and even on into Asia. It was a center for pagan worship, and even had a stadium that would hold 50,000 people. Ephesus, at that time, could have been compared to New York City, or maybe Las Vegas, today.
Ephesus, at the time of Paul’s letter appeared prosperous. But it was actually a dying city. The harbor, which was critical to trade, was slowly filling up with silt. The harbor would eventually become unusable, and the trade routes would move elsewhere. With the trade traffic gone, the pagan worship died, since it was primarily an excuse for prostitution and sex. There is no Ephesus today, only the ruins of a once great city.
I know it’s unusual, comparing the once great city of the Bible, Ephesus, with a little spot on NC 41 in southern Sampson County, Tomahawk. But, in both cases, did citizens see the demise coming? Did they do anything to try to avoid it? Or, did they just assume that since things were prosperous at that time they would continue to be so?
It brings up another question. In fifty years, will people be asking whatever happened to Clinton, Roseboro, Garland, etc.? Will people be asking, “Whatever happened to Sampson County?”
Mac McPhail, raised in Sampson County, lives in Clinton and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org