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Like most things, shopping centers and malls are nothing new. In ancient Greece, every city had an open space near the center known as the agora where merchants could display and sell their wares. About 2,000 years ago, the Roman Emperor Trajan built a shopping center in his forum. It was semicircular and multilevel, with vaulted ceilings and contained bars and restaurants as well as shops.
Trajan’s market center
In 1907, a group of Baltimore merchants took a step toward the modern shopping center when they established a common off-street free parking area for their customers. The first suburban shopping center in the US, Country Club Plaza, was established by J.C. Nichols in Kansas City in 1922. But by the end of World War II, there were still no suburban centers in North Carolina.
The Messick family was involved in the grocery business in Winston-Salem from the earliest days of the 20th century. In 1947, they opened their first modern supermarket, Food Fair, on south Main Street. By 1953, they had six Food Fairs scattered around town.
One of the earliest initiatives of Dwight Eisenhower’s administration was the National Defense highway system. Ray Messick had been reading about that and a concurrent phenomenon, suburban shopping centers. He thought it would be a good idea to put a Food Fair in a shopping center, but the only one in North Carolina at the time was the brand new Cameron Village in Raleigh.
Then he met a man who had just moved to the Twin City from San Antonio, Texas. Earl Slick also had an interest in the new thruways that were a part of the new highway system, and in suburban shopping centers. He noted that Winston-Salem would soon be getting one of those thruways. Ray Messick and Earl Slick and W.B. Leverton formed a business known as the Merchants Development Company. They bought a 14 acre farm on south Stratford Road that abutted the future site of the local thruway. On June 24, 1953, they got the first look at the plans for a $1.5 million shopping center.
In 1946, at age 26, Earl Slick founded Slick Airways, the first, and for some years, largest air freight service in the USA
There, at 9 AM on October 13, 1955, mayor Marshall Kurfees presided over a ceremony that included the principals of the Merchants Development Company and George L. Irvin, Jr. and Fred Linton from the Chamber of Commerce and J. Ernest Yarbrough and William N. Dixson from the Merchants Association. The Thruway Shopping Center was open for business.
The parking lot had room for 1,200 cars. There was space for thirteen businesses in the original building. Of course, one of the them was a brand new Food Fair, with seven electric conveyer checkout stations. The other large tenants were F. W. Woolworth and an Eckerd’s Drug store. The remaining businesses were Artistic Flowers, a new local business created by Bud Smith and George and J.G. Walker, Jr.; a branch of Dewey’s Bakery, with its own baking staff of fifteen; Laun-Dry-Clean, with 20 commercial washers and one day dry cleaning service; Hugh Butler, Inc., a self service hardware store; a branch of the downtown McPhail’s Gift Shop; a branch of Tiny Town, managed by Sidney Shapiro; Marken’s children’s wear; William Lamberti’s beauty salon; The Buena Vista Shop, medium to high end women’s clothing; and Stanley Shoes, which featured spotlighted displays, pile carpeting and mahogany paneling.
The first Thruway managers
A planned menswear store was still vacant, subject to contract negotiation. That would soon become a branch of another downtown store, Hine-Bagby. And another large space at the north end of the center, intended for a department store, was still in negotiation. That would soon become the site of another suburban branch of a downtown business, Davis Department Stores.
Romper Room star Miss Melissa was on hand
City National Bank had a temporary location in the building, awaiting completion of their free standing drive-through building. But perhaps the most innovative tenant was Dalton Williams, Inc, Lincoln, Mercury and Continental automotive dealers. Their space could accommodate two cars at a time. The glass front was easily removable so that they could rotate display models.
The center as a whole was an immediate success. Some businesses would do better than others, which would lead to a slow, consistent shuffle of tenants. The only remaining original tenant today is Dewey’s Bakery. On December 20, 1955, City National Bank moved from their temporary quarters to one of North Carolina’s first drive-through banking facilities.
The bank stood at the end of the former Smokehouse restaurant and retail meat sales building, which was being renovated for future Thruway tenants. On July 18, 1956, Slick Enterprises, Inc., the new name of the development group, made an announcement about who those future tenants would be. WTOB radio and television (UHF channel 26) was already operating upstairs in the building, with the channel 26 transmitting tower dominating the landscape. The TV station had gone on the air Labor Day weekend, 1953.
Sammy’s Kitchen and a General Electric retail store were also already open. The two new tenants, to open by the end of August, were to be the Town Steakhouse #2 and the Thruway Barber Shop.
The Town Steakhouse #2 would be a branch of the original Town Steakhouse located on Lockland Avenue at Hawthorne Road, across from a Bobbitt’s Drugstore. They were famous for their house salad, which was produced by applying a balogna slicer to a head of Iceberg lettuce. And the barber shop would be operated by Clyde C. Cranfill and George Y. Minor, my barbers, relocating from their original site on Hawthorne Road near First Street, which we always called “the foot of the hill”.
By the early 1960s, business was booming at Thruway. Slick Enterprises acquired the remainder of the land extending to Knollwood Street to the south and began planning a major expansion of the center. While that was underway, Reznick’s Music, a downtown mainstay, opened a branch in the old Smokehouse building in 1963. The next year they were joined by yet another downtown business, Norman Stockton, menswear. Reznicks would eventually move to the original Thruway building, while Norman Stockton would settle into the new extension.
In October, 1964, Thalhimer’s opened a suburban branch in the new section. Other original tenants there included Rose’s Department Store and Jacards. The extension was bi-level. One of the new businesses in the lower level was Arden Farms cheese store. In July, 1966, Sam Pappas opened his famous Sam’s Gourmet Restaurant there. Another nearby tenant, still much missed to this day, was the Thruway branch of the Forsyth County Public Library. Right across from the library was a an unmarked door, easily mistaken for a broom closet, where, for a time, Earl Slick maintained an office.
Sam Pappas was born in Athens, Greece. He worked as a chef in several US states before coming to Winston-Salem in 1956 to run the kitchen at Town Steak House #2. On July1, 1966, he opened Sam’s Gourmet Restaurant on the lower level of Thruway’s newest section. Overnight, it became the most popular restaurant in the Twin City. It closed in 1990.
The new section brought about one tragic moment, the closing of Lawrence Staley’s legendary Stratford Road drive-in restaurant. That was the place where we high school basketballers went after both home and road games for a snack before heading back to the family. And of course, it was the cruising ground where many other high school boys and girls met their future loves…doo wop.
Staley continued to operate his other drive-ins at Five Points in Waughtown, on North Patterson Avenue and on Reynolda Road near Crystal Lake, and of course, the magnificent Steakhouse across from Reynolda, but a little something special went out of our world…something a savings and loan could not replace.
WTOB TV was handicapped by the limitations of UHF television, so they went after the youth market by featuring teen dance parties in their studio and outside in a roped off area of the Thruway parking lot. But Thruway would also host a more serious dance party.
When Wake Forest College moved to Winston-Salem in the mid-1950s, many members of the State Baptist Convention became concerned about the spiritual atmosphere on the new citified campus. A committee began an investigation, and in 1957, the convention formalized a long standing rule against dancing on campus. When the formal ban was announced at a program in Wait Chapel, the entire student body got up and walked out. Dozens of students began dancing on the terrace outside the chapel. Later that evening, hundreds of students gathered in the Thruway parking lot to make their protest public by dancing into the night.