Mebane Historical Museum inducts five into "Makers of Modern Mebane"

On Thursday evening, the Mebane Historical Museum welcomed five new members into its "Makers of Modern Mebane" collection of local honorees. The 2019 honorees are (left to right) Milton McDade, Charles Fletcher Cates, Phonse Bean, and Emma Harris. Phonse Bean's son, Bernie Cletus Bean (not pictured) was also honored at the ceremony, which was held at the Mebane Arts and Community Center. 

On the evening of Thursday, August 1, the Mebane Historical Museum hosted its annual "Makers of Modern Mebane" ceremony at the Mebane Arts and Community Center. It was an evening of stories, nostalgia, and Mebane town pride as the MHM honored five longtime Mebanites for their contributions in making Mebane the town it is today. 

The following are biographies of the five 2019 "Makers of Modern Mebane" honorees, written by Mebane Historical Museum member and Mebane resident Ron Oakley. 

Phonse Bean (October 4, 1908-March 18, 1995) 

Bernie Cletus Bean (May 11, 1930—October 30, 2009)

Born in the furniture city of Lexington, North Carolina on October 4, 1908, Phonse Bean dropped out of school in the eighth grade to help his mother when his father died. He began working in the furniture industry in Lexington but moved to Mebane in 1944 to assume the position of Director of Manufacturing at White Furniture Company.  He served in that position until he retired in 1983. 

Phonse was a member of the Mebane Methodist Church for over sixty years, was a lay preacher, and taught a Sunday school class for many of those years. The Phonse Bean Sunday School Class at the church was named for him.  He was also a member of the Mebane Kiwanis Club. He and his wife Ola were married for close to seventy years.

Bernie Cletus Bean, Phonse’s son, was born in Lexington on May 11, 1930. He graduated from North Carolina State, where he majored in Furniture Manufacturing Engineering and played on the baseball team. He served as an Air Traffic Controller in the U.S. Air Force for four years.  He followed his father into the furniture business at White Furniture, where he was employed as Vice President of Manufacturing from 1944 until 1995. He was also a member of the Mebane Methodist Church.  

Phonse and Bernie Bean both held important positions at White’s Furniture for many years and played essential roles in a company that provided so many jobs for residents of Mebane and outlying areas until it closed in 1993 after operating for 112 years.  

Charles Fletcher Cates (August 15, 1872-October 3, 1947)

Born near the town of Swepsonville in Alamance County, Charles Fletcher “Pickle” Cates attended local schools and then Scottsburg College in Scottsburg, Virginia. After college he worked as a traveling salesman with a wholesale grocery company in Lynchburg, Virginia, before returning to his farming roots in Swepsonville, where he founded the Cates Pickle Manufacturing Company in 1898.  In 1905 he purchased a farm in the Woodlawn community near Mebane where he grew and canned foods that he sold to regional college cafeterias.

The Cates pickle business grew so rapidly that the Mebane farm (Swathmore Farm) was unable to keep up with the demand, so he moved the plant to Faison in Duplin County in 1929. The plant eventually became the largest independent pickle plant in the United States.  It also turned out beef, dairy, and fruit products. Cates and his wife had three sons who also worked for the company at various times.  In 1989 the company and farm were sold to Dean Foods.

Cates was widely known as a progressive farmer. He readily adopted the agricultural innovations of the time, such as using terraces and flumes and making his farm nearly self-sustaining by cultivating his own large colony of bees to pollinate the clover that fed his cows and using chicken manure from his large clutch of chickens to fertilize his fields.  In the 1920s he was awarded the coveted Master Farmer Certification by North Carolina State College and State Agricultural Extension. Today a Charles Fletcher Cates Scholarship is awarded to students in Bovine and Dairy Sciences at NC State University. 

Cates was involved in many political and non-political activities. He was a strong supporter of W. Kerr Scott’s campaign for Commissioner of Agriculture, a member of the Alamance County School Board of Education from 1910 to 1914, and an active participant in the successful attempt to consolidate Alamance County Schools.  In 1922, Alexander Wilson High School became one of the earliest consolidated schools in North Carolina. He was president of the North Carolina Milk Producers Federation, President of the Farmers’ Alliance, and active in organizing the Guilford Dairy Cooperative.  He was a trustee of what was then North Carolina State College and served on the executive committee of the State Grange. Cates was a faithful member of the First Baptist Church in Mebane and a Sunday school teacher there for many years.  

Emma Springs Harris (October 5, 1867-February 16, 1965)

Emma Springs Harris was the first of six children born to Charles Stanhope Harris and Lizzie Turner Harris in the old Harris home place off Stagecoach Road in Mebane, North Carolina. She attended Flora McDonald College and transferred to Greensboro Female College, which later became Greensboro College.   “Miss Emma,” as everyone called her, never married, and lived most of her life in a two-story brick home on the corner of Carr Street and Wilba Road in Mebane with a live-in housekeeper and long-time friend, Miss Georgia Bradley.

Miss Emma was a lifetime member of the Mebane Presbyterian Church and treasurer of her Sunday school class for close to forty years.  She was active in the Girl Scouts, organized and taught a sewing class, and was a member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and several other organizations. She had several hobbies, including Harris family genealogy, needlework, and most of all, gardening. In 1928 she established the first garden club in Mebane, the Mebane Garden Club (later renamed the Emma Harris Garden Club), which was the inspiration for several other garden clubs in Mebane and still exists today. She also instigated the first “Beautify Mebane Project.” 

At a time when many people had conservative views on how proper women should dress and act, Miss Emma could often be seen outside her home dressed in old shoes and overalls digging, shoveling, and pruning in her flower beds, not thinking or caring what people thought. In October of 1964, at the age of 97, she told the Mebane Enterprise that “if I could see well enough, I’d still be out there working in my flowers.”

Miss Emma was known around town for her erratic driving, which led Mebane native and Pulitizer Prize winner Edwin Yoder to write that when Miss Emma left the Presbyterian Church at noon on Sunday, “traffic parted to make way, like the Red Sea before the Children of Israel.” She stopped driving after she had a minor accident in the mid-1950s.

A few days after her death, the Mebane Enterprise wrote that Miss Emma “left behind a life of thoughtfulness; a life filled with enriching our community through her untiring efforts. Her establishment of the Emma Harris Garden Club and her leadership over the past 25 years has brought enjoyment and pleasure to hundreds. It has given our town great beauty. It has left a mark which will never be erased.”

Indeed.

Milton McDade (1911-October 22, 1991)

Born in Orange County in 1911, Milton McDade graduated from Aycock High School to take a course in airplane mechanics at Greer College in Chicago, Illinois. He served in the armed forces during World War II, spending close to two and one-half years in the European Theater, most of it in England, before returning to civilian life.

After his military service McDade worked for a radio station in Fort Bragg before moving to Mebane, where he ran a service station, worked at J.J. Carrol’s Department Store, and sold automobiles at a Plymouth dealership, before going into business for himself as an appliance dealer. He and his wife Hattie owned and operated McDade Appliance Company on Clay Street for many years, where they sold a variety of G.E. appliances and RCA radios and televisions.

Many Mebanites purchased their first television set from McDade in the 1950s.  In these early years of television McDade not only sold television sets but also delivered them to people’s homes, installed the bulky antenna on the roof, and returned if necessary, to service the new entertainment wonder. 

Few people have ever loved Mebane more than Milton McDade. In the late 1940s he began collecting memorabilia about the town. He photographed and filmed all around town and made miniature wooden replicas of old commercial buildings. He never tired of giving talks and exhibitions about his growing collection of folk art. 

McDade kept his treasures in a shed in his yard for many years before donating them in the 1980s to the City of Mebane, which stored and also displayed some of them in the Mebane Public Library  and later moved them to the basement of the police station on Center Street. 

McDade was honored in a mural painted in 1983-1984 on the side of a commercial building in downtown Mebane on the corner of Center and Fourth Street.  Painted by Gibsonville painter and sculptor Ogden Deal and his son Chuck, the mural is still a favorite downtown landmark today.  

 In 2001, the Mebane Historical Society was formed and began working toward acquiring a permanent home for the collection.  The society gained permission from the city to house the collection in the old High School Annex. 

Finally, in 2010, the McDade collection found a permanent home when it was moved downstairs to the re-modeled former classroom space in the new Mebane Historical Museum for storage, public display, and public programs. The downstairs public meeting room was appropriately named the Milton McDade Meeting Room.