I was born on June 20, 1954, the daughter of George B. “Red” Lee and Sophia Hodges Lee. Daddy was a native of Rockingham, N.C. and Mama was a native of Oriental, the daughter of Branch and Maggie Hodges. They met and married in 1943. The next year, they built their house and business, a gas station and grill, which opened in 1945. Pretty ambitious considering they also had their first child, Rose Ann in 1944! I came along ten years later in 1954 and was named for Daddy, who had wanted a boy! But he told my mother a girl was OK and I took care of him for the rest of his life!
I grew up and stayed in Oriental my entire life. Growing up here was the greatest because of the freedom all of us kids enjoyed. We could bike and boat and swim and be gone all day on our own with no supervision and just had to be back by dark. We kids loved having the three artesian wells that were running in town. I attended grades 1-10 here and then with integration, finished in Bayboro. My first grade teacher was Miss Dorothy Tingle who is still living in Oriental. Brantley Norman’s first grade teacher, Mrs. Norma Smith, lives with her son in Cary. Pretty remarkable! When Brantley and I remember old Oriental, we say, “Back in the Day…” and we speak of those times often.
When I was in my last year of High School, we had a calendar sale drive. I won that contest because I went door to door to every single house in Oriental at that time and I knew every single family who lived here. But after that time, Oriental started changing. I think 1972 was the end of Oriental as I knew it “back in the day.”
After High School, I commuted to New Bern to attend Cosmetology School, opened my Hairstyling Salon in 1974 and am currently celebrating 40 years! Same business, same location, same owner!
In 1982, I married a local man, Benny Powell of Upper Goose Creek/Kennels Beach area. We currently live in the house built by Red and Sophia Lee on Broad Street sleeping in the same room where I was born. How many people can say that?!
I can remember when curbs and gutters were first put in.
Croaker Town was the end of town. Where Brantley’s is now was woods. The highest water I ever remember was from the Hurricane of 1954 and Hurricane Ione in 1955 when it came right up to the stop sign at Red Lee’s Grill. Brantley’s Restaurant and Georgie’s Hairstyling are the highest points in Oriental. They have never been flooded. Red’s Grill was your safe place during hurricanes. People did not evacuate; there was no place to go! People who were scared to death of drowning would ride it out by coming to the Grill and we could cook with gas. Seven people did drown in Hurricane Ione, but none of them were from Oriental.
I helped my parents run the Grill my entire life making milk shakes with Maola ice cream products and cooking those famous 25 cent hamburgers. Daddy never wanted to raise the price and local companies, like Winn-Dixie in New Bern, joined in the effort by calling to let him know when hamburger was on sale (99cents/lb). Merita Bead Company would also discount the buns they sold to Red. Southern Living Magazine and the National Enquirer wrote articles about this unusual business practice. After Mama died in 1986, I continued to help Daddy keep the Grill alive. I would quit cutting hair between 11-1 to get him through the lunch hour. Sometimes it would be so busy, friends who came in to buy lunch would pitch in and help on the grill! Daddy worked until he was 80 years old. The Grill closed in 1998 after over 53 years of business. He lived with me until he died of natural causes at 88 years old in 2006. His body was just worn out from all his hard work.
The best way for me to describe growing up in Oriental is that it was “Mayberry.” We had two drunks, two bad guys, one barber shop, one gas station, three grocery stores and a sheriff in Bayboro. I fished for flounder and crabs, went swimming, rode bikes, went to the artesian wells when I got thirsty, stayed out until dark by myself and I was never scared! I am blessed to have lived in Oriental for 60 years. It’s a special place!
We salute Georgie Lee Powell for her example of a life of family and community loyalty, persistence and hard work. She also makes us laugh and we love her!
Story by Lorraine M. Yaeger
Photo by Chuck Hill
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