When The Wake Weekly sat down with the late John Wooten Jr. in 2008 to talk with him about what Wake Forest was like before the college moved away in ’56, the first thing we noticed was the then 86-year-old’s absolute sense of recall.
Wooten described what was in each building in downtown Wake Forest, running down one side of White Street, then up the other, complete with the business name, its owner and the products they sold.
For example, there was the very popular Dick Frye’s restaurant and the Hen House. There were several department stores and side-by-side markets. Next to Harrison’s Grocery, S.W. Brewer Groceries catered to the farm trade with seeds, fertilizer and chickens and a meat market operated by Frank Keith out of its side. Glover’s Electrical Service sold TVs, radios and washing machines. Proprietor Bill Glover was a real-life Maytag man.
“He was an excellent electrician, excellent repairman,” Wooten said then.
Wooten’s description of what was downtown helped our staff, and undoubtably our readers, to understand just how vibrant Wake Forest was back before Wake Forest College moved to Winston-Salem in 1956 and was renamed Wake Forest University.
Local merchants described the loss of the student population as an economic travesty. Thriving businesses closed their doors or laid off employees and the community’s overall population dropped by as many as a thousand people.
That’s when the Wake Forest Chamber of Commerce was formed. With Wooten and others like him as its driving force, the town eventually recovered from its economic doldrums, attracting enough large employers — the biggest were Schrader and Athey —to keep it from falling into oblivion.
For instance, between July 1959 and July 1960 alone, the chamber sought out 15 industrial prospects, fielded more than 150 inquires from potential residents, helped more than 40 with housing location assistance and found 15 people employment.
Not satisfied with fielding prospective employers, it was a trip to New York in 1964 by Wooten, Mayor Wait Brewer and John Sanderford that led to Schrader locating a manufacturing plant in Wake Forest.
Wooten’s efforts didn’t end with business.
He was a longtime Rotarian, served on the town board and a number of civic agencies, served his church his whole life and in World War II, he served his country as well.
Wooten’s entrepreneurial spirit and his commitment to a town when so many had abandoned it, played a large part in setting Wake Forest back on track to the successful and vibrant community it is today.
We see some of that spirit in the people who turned the old Athey building into The Factory entertainment complex; we see it in the local leaders who are helping to revitalize downtown either with street work or hip new businesses and you see it with the continued dedication that civic organizations in Wake Forest have today for their fellow man.
We salute both the John Wooten of yesteryear, the Wootens of today and look forward to seeing the Wootens of the future.
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