Imagining what Salisbury was like 100 years ago

Looking east down West Main Street, the Levi Parsons building located on the east side of Division Street stands where East Main Street begins today.

Recently I was asked to describe the Salisbury of 1920, as part of reflections on the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Salisbury Chamber of Commerce, Perdue Farms, and the Rotary Club.

If that weren’t enough, that was the same year women finally got their long overdue right to vote. What a time!

The nation had ended a world war, unaware one day there would be another. The automobile replaced the horse — even though Salisbury as yet did not have its “first bypass,” known as Salisbury Boulevard — and the Route 50 path that would slice through the city was still nearly 30 years in the future.

Salisbury was physically changing. Humphreys Lake, a dominant geographic feature, had drained in 1909, but it took a decade to build atop the lake’s bottomland, acquired by Salisbury Realty Co., which saw opportunity to the lake’s dam not being repaired.

That lake prevented Main Street from extending eastward, until 1913 at least, when the city condemned the Levi Parsons building, an impressive structure located on the east side of Division Street at the head of Main Street. The demolition opened the eastward extension of Main Street.

The Parsons building was three stories high and included a grocery store, as well as the Parsons Opera House, an auditorium which also hosted a number of political events — convenient since the building was next to the Wicomico Courthouse.

In 1920, the courthouse was still its original size. The rear extension/annex was not added until the 1930s, and behind the courthouse was a separate jail.

Some perspective: There was no Wicomico Hotel. When it was built in 1924, its height made it the tallest building south of Wilmington.

Yet, the building was initially designed to be just a four-story structure.

In the 1920s, a few buildings were built on the new Main Street extension, but there was no Post Office or the other later buildings along that stretch of Main Street.

In 1920, Capt. Otis Lloyd worked to drive piles for the foundation of the Odd Fellows building, which later included the New Theatre, and today is being converted into a massively tall building, called The Ross. Pile driving was needed because of the soft former lakebed.

Even English Grill was not yet in Salisbury. The original diner, the Thompson Grill, was brought to Salisbury in 1930 by Edward Thompson of Delmar.

It became a place to buy tickets for the buses which stopped at the establishment. Later the English family bought the Thompson Grill. But back in 1920, diners were not yet a thing.

Woolworths was around, but occupied only a small portion of the building that is now Salisbury University’s Downtown campus.

Israel Benjamin had arrived in Salisbury in about 1915, and about three years later opened his landmark store, which expanded over the years.

In July 1919, regular ferry service began between Annapolis to Claiborne. The Baltimore Sun reported: “Shore Isolation Ends” — because for the first time Eastern Shoremen could read the current news, instead of reading the Baltimore papers delivered a day later.

“Literally, the Sun came to the Eastern Shore home with the morning milk yesterday, and that has never happened before in the history of the Eastern Shore,” the newspaper reported.

The news would come by other means, but the ferry established the regularity and a time savings.

The Wicomico Hotel was originally designed to only be four stories tall.

In early 1920, Salisbury announced its first motorbus line, delivering people from the Peninsula Hotel on Main Street to Union Station, replacing the horse drawn vehicles. The Daily Banner of Cambridge chided Salisbury when reporting this, boasting that Cambridge had its first motorbus in operation for nearly six years.

Some things remain the same.

The Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce has recently moved into just such a structure, the former Old School Baptist Church. Looking at the building, one can almost visualize the lake that had once been at its back door.

The renovated brick building dates from that site to 1913, when a brick façade was added to the frame structure, which dated from 1820. Until 1913, the church’s front entrance was oriented to Baptist Street; the brick structure was later reoriented to Church Street.

In 1920, Dorothy and Beulah White had not yet opened their Blue Bird Tea Room into the Cinno Building on Division Street. But they were not there long, as in the same year of 1926, they opened the Chantry House on Water Street, which was once next to the north side of the courthouse, a block away from the now-gone Catholic Church.

In 1920, the Odd Fellows organized concerts in the park – Central Park, not today’s park which was not established until the 1930s. Central Park was near the hospital, along the east tributary of the Wicomico River, before there was a Carroll Street.

There was no Mill Street bridge or Riverside Drive. The route to the Camden neighborhood was accessible by the Camden Street Bridge.

Former liveries were turning into sales for automobiles. In 1923, jeweler Guy Fisher sold his business to his employee John Kuhn. Businesses began expanding at a time when Downtown continued to be the shopping destination.

The city was not yet 200 years old, its bicentennial would be held in 1932. At the time of these now century-old events, Salisbury was enjoying a young century with automobiles, with an eye to improving the roads for this new invention.

Now, a century later, and a dozen years shy of its tricentennial, Salisbury has quite a history on which to reflect.

Linda Duyer lives in Salisbury. Contact her at lindaduyer1@yahoo.com.

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