Back in the day
SPRUCE PINE – For one man, Spruce Pine’s new police headquarters represents how much the department has grown over the years.
A native of Mitchell County, Jack Young was born in 1926. He grew up on Poplar Drive in a white house on a wooded hillside overlooking Oak Avenue. He graduated from Harris High School – at the time located in the building that is now part of the Pinebridge complex. He joined the Merchant Marines in 1944, returning home three years later.
Young got a job with a mining company in the area, but was fired after workers tried to unionize. He wound up moving to Detroit, Michigan, with his wife, Mary Sue, to work in a Dodge plant.
“They went on strike every day up there,” Young said.
He worked there for about eight months. With his wife preganant, they came back to Spruce Pine in November 1950.
“There was one job open in Spruce Pine that was on the police force,” Young recalled, “I said I’d take it.”
It was a two-man department back then. Bob Buchanan was the chief and Young served as his deputy. Buchanan retired about six months after Young started and Young was named the new chief.
“You drove your own car, and you got a fee for serving papers,” Young said. In 1953, officers got $1 for each warrant served.
Young was able to talk the town into hiring a third officer. The two deputies and Young worked eight-hour shifts with one officer on duty per shift. At Young’s suggestion, the town also bought its first police car, a black 1953 Ford.
The town limits were a lot smaller when he was on the force, Young said. Town Hall was located on Oak Avenue next to what is now the Tokyo restaurant, with the fire department next to it. There was a small holding cell in the basement of town hall where prisoners were held until they could be taken to the county jail in Bakersville.
The officer on duty spent most of his time on Locust Street parked near a small park next to what is now the CSX depot. The police station was a phone on a pole at the corner of Crystal and Locust streets. People would call it when they needed the police.
“You could hear it all around town,” Young said about phone’s loud ring.
Young is very proud of the town’s new police department on Valley Road next to the fire department. The new building is 3,700 square feet and cost $670,000. It’s complete with an evidence room, interview room, security system and offices for state troopers and agents with the State Bureau of Investigation.
“It’s an asset to the town,” Young said.
Today, the department has three Ford Explorers, two Dodge Chargers and two unmarked detective cars. Spruce Pine’s current police chief, Bill Summerlin, has served on the force for 22 years. In that time, he has seen the department’s number of sworn officers grow from nine to 13. When he started, the department had three cars, Summerlin said.
“We’ve really grown,” he said, adding that the new building is wonderful.
On Saturday’s in the early ‘50s, downtown Spruce Pine was always filled with people – hundreds if not thousands, Young said. They’d come from as far away as Newland and Burnsville and would pack lower and upper streets. There were two bowling alleys, a couple of pool halls, department stores, diners and several taxi stands downtown. It was the place to be on a Saturday evening, Young said.
“Spruce Pine was the center hub of the three counties,” Young said about Mitchell, Avery and Yancey. He’d have to direct traffic on Saturday evenings because it was so busy.
Young, who lives on Beaver Creek Road, can still point out where everything used to be as he drives through town in his blue Chrysler minivan.
Most of the arrests Young made were young men who’d gotten drunk and were “acting up.” As for thinking he might get shot and killed, that was one of the last things that ever crossed Young’s mind. The night shift was always pretty quiet, he said.
Young served as police chief until 1954 when he took a job at the Pepsi bottling plant in town – it was located in the brick building next to what is now Stamey’s Grocery on U.S. 19E. Young retired after 35 years at the plant.
Summerlin said he has great respect for the man who held his job over six decades ago.
“There’s nobody like Jack Young,” he said.