They’re in there.
A century’s worth of memories pack Cara Holbrook’s still-fertile mind. The images sometimes need a little coaxing to come to the surface, but eventually they take on new life, sprouting like the corn and cotton that once covered the land on which her modest, one-story brick house now stands, and along the Huntersville street that bears her family’s name.
“This was a Holbrook family farm,” says the woman known simply to most people as Miss Cara. “When farming started dwindling, the property was divided among the family.”
Part of that property, along Gilead Road between U.S. 21 and N.C. 115, would eventually become Holbrook Park. The Holbrooks also gave the land on which Huntersville Elementary School now stands.
“At one point many years ago, the school board decided it wanted to move Huntersville Elementary,” she recalls. “The school board was advised that it might want to look at the deed. They found out that according to the deed, if the school was ever moved, the property would revert back to the original owners.”
Those original owners, of course, were the Holbrook family.
Many — if not most — of the well-wishers who stopped by Huntersville Presbyterian Church this past Saturday to wish Miss Cara a happy 100th birthday were probably unaware just how rich in history her century of life has been. But she’d be more than willing to tell them.
Miss Cara’s eyes, still clear as a cloudless autumn sky, brighten with each recollection, even if the memories sometimes take a wrong turn between her mind and her mouth. That’s when she simply smiles and shakes her head quickly, as though she might jar the words loose.
But when the words come, they are delivered with 100 years of perspective and immeasurable wisdom.
“When I was growing up, the closest houses were miles away, but the people were our neighbors,” says Miss Cara, who was raised on a farm where the Montieth Park development now stands, off Stumptown Road in Huntersville. “Now you have people next door who aren’t even neighbors.”
In fact, when Cara Holbrook was born on Sept. 1, 1911, her family’s Stumptown farm and what then was a bustling downtown Huntersville seemed worlds apart, even though just two miles separated them.
“I didn’t even know Huntersville existed until 1918,” says Miss Cara. “That’s when we moved to Huntersville.”
Not that the 7-year-old girl was all that impressed with her move to the city.
“It was a wide place in the road,” she recalls with a mischievous grin.
Holbrook and her family moved into a house on Church Street, which is now the home of Nate Bowman, the developer of Vermillion, among others. Her father, Roy Holbrook, had grown up just a few blocks away on Maxwell Street in what would become known as the Holbrook House. The 110-year-old, two-story landmark is now home to Mama Mia Too restaurant.
Cara Holbrook’s grandfather, Mack Holbrook, ran a livery stable where Huntersville Town Hall now stands. As a boy, Roy Holbrook worked at the stable, which put him in the middle of Huntersville’s action, Miss Cara says.
“People would come in on the train — peddlers and vendors,” she says, “Daddy would take them where they wanted to go, often to Concord. Or, they’d hire a horse, or a team of horses and buggy, and go to Charlotte.”
Roy eventually left the family business and became one of Huntersville’s four mail carriers. Roy’s route alone covered 75 miles, Miss Cara recalls. When the weather was bad, it would take Roy all day to deliver the mail. But on a good day, she adds, he’d be home in time for lunch.
Roy bought his first car in 1923, although Miss Cara says she’s not sure what kind it was. What she does remember is that her father seldom took the vehicle out in the winter. Nor did many other vehicle owners, she says. When asked why, Miss Cara’s face lightens with amusement.
“Everything was dirt back then — roads, sidewalks, everything,” she explains. “What happens to dirt when the weather is bad? You wouldn’t take a car out on a dirt road in bad weather. You just took the horse and buggy instead.”
Miss Cara never married or had kids of her own, but she devoted 42 years of her life to children as a third-grade teacher, first in Mecklenburg County, then in Catawba County.
“I was in third grade for a long time,” she jokes. “I stayed until I just about got it right.”
Of course, living for 100 years means Miss Cara got more than just the third grade right, although it’s hard to argue that good genes didn’t play a role. In fact, she’s not even the oldest survivor among herself and six siblings. That honor goes to her 102-year-old sister Ella Goodnight, who now lives in Salisbury.
Miss Cara and five of her six siblings graduated from Catawba College in Salisbury. The only one who didn’t was a brother, who went into the Army instead. Her father, Miss Cara says, was motivated to send his children to college because of his own lack of education. Like many kids growing up in the late 19th century, Roy Holbrook was committed to helping his father on the farm and in the stables — at the expense of attending school.
“Two months into the school year, my granddaddy would tell my daddy, ‘Okay, you can go to school now,’” Miss Cara says. “Daddy would say, ‘Well, it’s too late.’”
But Roy Holbrook still learned to read, a necessity for passing the U.S. Postal Service’s requirements.
“Momma would study it,” Miss Cara says, “Then when Papa got home, she’d help him study it.”
Roy Holbrook’s children would need no such help, though.
“It was hard work,” Miss Cara says of her father’s sacrifice. “It was his wish for us to go to college.”
And while she never had children of her own, it’s safe to say that hundreds of Miss Cara’s former students went to college, too.
In the end, not only did Miss Cara get third grade right.
Over 100 years, she got life right.