The riddle of Ninety-six - Across America - 70 years ago - CycleBlaze

The riddle of Ninety-six

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RICHMOND, in Virginia, was a beautiful town, and I found a restaurant whose proprietor was a Yorkshireman. "Forget 'Ye Olde English Shoppe,"" he grinned. "That's for the tourists; I'll fix you some dinner that'll make you think you're in Bramhall-lane, Sheffield!"

Negroes were now frequent, and when I crossed the State line into North Carolina, at a little place called Wise, the roads and fields swarmed with little darkie children. Most of them looked thin and poorly clothed, but if smiles and waving went for anything, they were a contented family.

At Raleigh, the State capital, I stopped two days, but my progress had been so consistently speedy and trouble-free that I could well afford the break. A hostel, very much on the lines of our Y.H.A., attended to my creature comforts, and many nationalities were sheltered within its hospitable walls. Everyone was greatly interested in my journey to the Everglades, and one guest, a traveller for a Chicago firm, related an auto trip he made in 1936.

"From coast to coast, over three thousand miles, and not so interesting as the trip you're doing," he declared. "I had quite a good time on the whole, except in the final stages, and then driving through Death Valley and the Mohave Desert was just terrible."

The negro servant, an obliging white-haired man, showed me a parcel he was sending to friends in the sister State of South Carolina; "Joe cain't get nuthin' where he lives, and I'm for ever sending him t'ings from Raleigh." He showed me the address, and, to my great interest, it was "Ninety-six."

"Why, sho' t'ing, boss," averred the darkie. "Dat ain't de name of de house; dat's de place where he lives."

I couldn't credit it, but a map and a gazetteer gave proof. "Ninety-six; town in S.C., pop. 1,381." I made inquiries during my forty-eight hours in Raleigh, but no one knew a reason for the strange name, and very few residents had heard of it. "Maybe the town was pegged out in 1896," was a policeman's hazard, and it seemed as good a guess as anybody's.

Leaving word at the Post Office that I was going on my way, unable to tarry longer for car drivers who might or might not show up from the Canadian border (!) I left Raleigh behind me with genuine regret. It was late in the day when the Scots engineer tooted behind me, and I had just crossed into the State of South Carolina. I took pace behind the car into the little town of McBee, and listened to a tale of woe shouted over the rumble seat. Apparently riding a bicycle down America's eastern coastline can be safer and less troublesome than in a "foolproof" car!

Over food in a McBee cafe the day ended on a comedy note. A man came over to our table, expressed admiration at the British bicycle leaning against the wall, and said: "I'm a kinda professional cyclist. I'm an agent traveller for a sewing machine firm, and I guess I cover a pretty high mileage in a year. It was in this very burg that I met my funniest, and toughest, customer. I had sold a machine to a dame and called back at least twenty times to teach her how to work the thing, but it was hopeless. She could just about thread the needle, and that was all. At last her husband, a nice guy who deserved better luck, took me aside and asked me to give him lessons I did so, he was a darned good pupil, and now he makes all the children's clothes!"

McBee was one of hundreds of typical American towns that I was sorry to leave. Nothing singles it out for special remembrance, but when I cycle through the lanes of Gloucestershire, as I do in May, 1941, time and again I am whisked in my memory over three thousand miles to that fascinating road, Highway Number One, upon which I ate and slept so many times. Big cities had their queer fascination, but "hick towns" like McBee showed the real spirit of America: easy-going, humorous folk, quick to make friendship with an affable stranger, and interested to the point of downright inquisitiveness when the stranger turned out to be British born and riding a "wheel" to the southernmost State in the Union.

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