Fifty years ago this month, an era ended. Marshall Kurfees, the longest serving mayor of Winston-Salem, retired. His twelve year reign,  from 1949 to 1961, was one of the most eventful and progressive in the city’s history. Read on…
The Committee to Restore Old Salem presents their report to Mayor Marshall Kurfees in 1950. L-R: C.T. Leinbach; R. Arthur Spaugh, Sr.; Mayor Kurfees; Charles Siewers; James A. Gray, Jr.; Agnew Bahnson, Jr.; Frank Willingham; Fred Bahson, Jr.; Charles Babcock. The NC Room has books published by Siewers and Agnew Bahnson, the latter signed by him to his good friend, Charles Babcock.

In 1928, Marshall Kurfees had just gotten into the dry cleaning business when his landlord, William Neal Reynolds, the president of the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, suggested that he might have a future in politics. He ended up heading the local campaign of Al Smith for president of the United States. His side lost, but he began a love affair with politics that would last the rest of his life.

Between 1928 and 1948, Kurfees ran eight times for various local offices and lost every time. Then, in 1949, he ran for mayor of Winston-Salem against popular incumbent George Lentz. He didn’t have a chance of winning, because people liked Lentz and the established powers, especially the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, did not like Kurfees.

He made two campaign promises: he would get the city a winning baseball team and a new hospital. He also suggested that he would work for a new library, a coliseum, a needed fire station and liquor stores.

On election day, before the polls closed, he received a phone call from James A. Gray, Sr., the chief financial officer at R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, congratulating him on his victory. The baseball team won the Carolina league pennant the next year and the hospital (Forsyth Memorial) came later.

The library, coliseum and fire station got built, and the liquor stores, immediately nicknamed “Kurfees drugstores”, were not far behind. Kurfees pushed for new roads, which included Peters Creek Parkway, Silas Creek Parkway, US 52 and Interstate 40. Of course, I-40 had this notorious curve over Hawthorne Road, which naturally became known as the “Kurfees curve”.

Kurfees also played a major role in the passage of the “Powell Bill” in the state legislature, which gave cities a cut of the state road-use tax money. Defying the racism of the times, he hired black firefighters and policemen and appointed black citizens to local boards and committees.

Kurfees won six consecutive two year terms as mayor, making him the longest serving in that job ever. And when he stepped down in 1961, he left Winston-Salem a much better city than it had been in 1949.

Kurfees probably knew more people than anyone else in town. He certainly knew me, because he lived on Melrose Street right behind my usual Safety Patrol station at Ardmore School. I was a New York Yankees fan and he was a Brooklyn Dodgers fan, so each morning as he left for City Hall, we would exchange barbs about the fortunes of our respective teams. As a precocious sixth grader, I would sometimes offer him advice on city affairs as well. He always said “I’ll look into that.” That always made me feel good, until one day when I realized that he probably said that several hundred times a day.

There are a million Marshall Kurfees stories. My favorite takes us back to his political beginnings in 1928. The US was almost a decade into the great prohibition experiment, and talk of ending that experiment had already begun. Kurfees was an enthusiatic “wet”. Santford Martin, the editor of the Winston-Salem Journal, was an adamant “dry”.

Once, while they were arguing, Kurfees said “I could stand in your office and throw rocks on three different places I could buy whiskey.” Moments later, Kurfees found himself in a courtroom under orders to name the places.

He did: the Robert E. Lee Hotel, the Twin City Club and the bus station, all well within rock throwing distance of Martin’s office. Then the judge ordered Kurfees to name the people who had been present when illegal liquor was being sold. He named the biggest druggist in town, the city’s top stock broker and the secretary of the Chamber of Commerce. The reigning mayor, who happened to be in the courtroom, started sweating bullets.

“He’d been up there to the hotel with me,” Kurfees later told a reporter. “I didn’t name him.” The Journal ran a story about the incident the next morning, but it did not name names.

 Thank you, Mr. Mayor!

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