The Earl Scruggs Center–A Trip Report
By Robert A. Williams
Shelby: The Scruggs Center is now open to the public. The gala opening, the political speeches and the associated thunderstorms are over. Citizens of Cleveland County get in FREE on Wednesdays. The controversy over what to do with the Historic Cleveland County Courthouse has reached a new level-it is now “put-up time” for the County Commissioners who promised all the hundreds of millions of dollars of economic development impact for the county. Will this project that transformed the Historic Courthouse to the Scruggs Center be able to make good on all the promises made? It is time for all of us to see what has been done. So, it being Wednesday March 19, 2014 and a nice bright sunshiny day, I went for an inspection tour of the Scruggs Center. Note that I am old enough to remember the Old Courthouse when it was the “official” Courthouse for Cleveland County as well as the center of County Government up to the early 1990’s. The Sheriff’s Department, the only County Courtroom, the DA, Clerk of Court, Tax Collector, Finance, etc. were all located on this site in downtown Shelby. Today, these functions have all grown into big bureaucracies scattered amongst other County Buildings that were built in the 1990’s at great costs. But, that is another story for another day.
I parked on the Courthouse Square where there were plenty of parking spaces. I proceeded to the “Well House” (what used to house the entire Sheriff’s Department) to get my ticket. I got my free ticket from the “Volunteer” and also received a set of free “ear buds” to plug into the exhibits in the Scruggs Center. I hate ear buds. I will take my own head phones on any return trips to the Scruggs Center. I recommend that you also take head phones if you have them. The exhibits take the same connection for head phones as well as ear buds.
The Well House volunteer showed me where to proceed to the main door to the Scruggs Center. However, I first looked around the Well House building from top to bottom. I did not buy any Earl Scruggs CD music as I have most of his music already-from years ago. I did not buy any Tee-shirts or other paraphernalia either. I’m cheap I reckon.
I did not see anything that stated the Well House building ever housing the entire Sheriff’s Department. Every part of the building’s old interior was ripped out and hauled to the dump. I was disappointed about that.
When I entered the Scruggs Center main entrance (facing Washington Street) another volunteer scanned my ticket. Then another volunteer showed me a display that contained one of Earl Scruggs’ banjos and a guitar that Earl traded Hank Williams, Jr. out of. Then I was directed to a “movie” area that played a 10 minute or so program about Earl Scruggs, Earl’s history and his rise in the music industry through Earl’s skill in banjo picking. The movie area had 30 to 50 seats-I didn’t count, but no problem. It was about 2 PM and I was the only one watching the program.
Then I started with the exhibits. I started to my right, but another volunteer said I should go “clockwise” as the exhibits were in chronological order clockwise from the movie area. Everybody remember that.
So I went to my left. My intention was to inspect every exhibit along with every part of the building interior. Other volunteers told me about things but they were mostly distracting as I was reading every plaque and plugging in to every exhibit that I could plug into. There was some Cleveland County history mixed in with the exhibits. Maybe 10% at the most. There was one additional displays under construction. I will go back another Wednesday to check that one out.
As I am old enough to remember watching the movie Bonnie and Clyde and the Beverly Hillbillies TV series, I remember Foggy Mountain Breakdown and the other music. As well as my own collection of music that includes probably all of the Earl’s banjo picking music and some of Lester Flatt’s singing. I saw the displays about Earl joining Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys and Earl and Lester breaking off to form their own band-Flatt and Scruggs. Then Earl and Lester’s split in 1969 and Earl taking off on his own with his sons to play different music. I remembered most of that from my own memories of those times, so the exhibits were accurate.
One of the displays had what looked like nice brickwork arch and a brick column enclosing another TV screen that played mostly a repeat of Earl figuring out his three-finger banjo picking style. I thumped a brick to see if it was real. It was plastic but it looked real enough.
I finished up inspecting and plugging in to all the first floor displays and started to climb the right side stairs up to the second floor. I noticed the stair handrails and looked at them closely. These painted steel handrails with heavy cut steel curved decorative panels underneath were old and sturdy and probably the only thing that was original in the whole of the ground floor. I was kind of disappointed about that too, but I am a traditionalist regarding old building restoration. I like to see old building restorations make the building look original with upgrades hidden from view. Not the other way around. That is just me and should not necessarily affect your own opinion.
It was about this time that I recollected that I had only seen about five or so other visitors to the Scruggs Center on this sunny spring like Wednesday afternoon. I also recollected that County Commissioner Susan Allen said at the Commissioners meeting the night before that she had already seen the bus loads of tourists coming to the Scruggs Center. After the meeting I asked Commissioner Allen just when were these bus loads coming? Commissioner Allen said that I “should come to town more often.” Well, here I am Commissioner Allen and I don’t see any tour buses. They probably don’t come on the days the locals get in free. All in all, I hope the buses come and tourist money pours into Cleveland County. At least enough to make sure the Scruggs Center will pay for itself and replace the volunteers with jobs that actually pay a wage. I would rather see high paying manufacturing jobs a bit higher on Cleveland County Commissioner’s economic development priority list though.
Back to the Scruggs Center and I am at the top of the stairs. I see an old heavy steel door with bars to my left. It is definitely a leftover from the old Courthouse days, the door is unlocked and nobody is around. So, I open the door and it goes nowhere. Maybe that dead end wall was the back side of the new elevator shaft?
I look at the exhibits on the North side of the second floor and they are basically repeats from the first floor.
Then I enter the area where the old Courtroom used to be. Everything, and I mean everything, related to the old Courtroom is demolished and gone to the dump or somewhere else As previously stated, I am a traditionalist in regards to renovating historic properties, it saddened me to see about 100 years of Cleveland County tradition gone forever. What was the old Courtroom is now a big fancy room with a full service kitchen and all modern furnishings, including what seemed to be a movie theater size projection screen on the South wall. This room is available for rent. Of course the LeGrand Center also has such rooms for rent with much better parking. But not so many restaurants nearby for tourists to spend their money.
Now I go outside for the rest of my inspection trip. Probably nobody else will do this. The outside is not officially the responsibility of the Scruggs Center but the responsibility of the Cleveland County Commissioners. I circle the Historic Courthouse (no longer historic) on the sidewalk close to the building. The azaleas that were once planted alongside the building are gone as per the City of Shelby’s 10 year plan that the Commissioners said would not apply to County property. A number of big trees further away from the building are missing. No new trees are planted. The lush grass that used to be around the property is green but cut too short to prosper. It looks like the Commissioners are slack on their end of the bargain. (Another story for another day about that.)
Then I went all around the property on the outer sidewalks along the streets. The Confederate monument is still there although the Shelby 10 year plan says it will be gone soon. The World War monuments and Vietnam monuments are still there too. We had better keep watch or one day when we are not looking all this will be gone too.
The bottom line on destroying the “historic” and “Courthouse” part of the Historic Courthouse that the Cleveland County Commissioners-our elected representatives- who most often refuse to listen to us, except around election time, is this. The Historic Courthouse is no more. What we have now is NOT a historic courthouse but the Scruggs Center. Every citizen, taxpayer and voter in Cleveland County should visit the Scruggs Center and form your own opinion on whether or not the millions spent on the renovation is worthwhile or whether or not the Commissioners abided by the will of the citizens by allowing such changes to our historic property to have been made. To have allowed the “heritage” of the Courthouse to be demolished and hauled to the dump.
To wrap up my visit to the Scruggs Center, I strolled over to Smoke on the Square restaurant and spent $22.22 on a big plate of brisket, something to drink and a tip. According to the tourism folks and the NC Dept of Commerce, the $22.22 I spent will be spent and re-spent such that jobs and additional dollars of economic impact will be created in Cleveland County, which will save each taxpayer several dollars in taxes this year. (This is another story for another day.)
Folks, whether you like banjo picking music or not, take a trip to the Scruggs Center and make your own inspection. Take someone with you. You are bound to learn something from the experience. There is nothing wrong with learning.