In 1973, the youth of Trinity Lutheran Church in Vale, a rural community in northwest Lincoln County, decided to hold a Christmas parade. Most parades happen in a town, of course, so the idea of holding one at a location that is little more than a crossroads was almost a joke. Even by 1990, the population of Cat Square was only 150.
But there’s something about this place that seems to call for a gathering. So gather they did, with the usual floats and marching bands, Brownies and Shriners. There was a rural flair, too: chicken trucks, with their wooden crates; tractors and tractor-trailers, folks eager to show off that big equipment that, on any other day, is strictly utilitarian.
The annual Christmas parade, to be held at 2 p.m. Dec. 8, has become somewhat of a phenomenon, drawing spectators and participants from states away.
This place has another history, too: one more distant, but still rooted in the church community and the simple joy of gathering.
Although it is perhaps the best-known of the old “opry” houses where pickers and grinners gathered on Saturday nights, Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry wasn’t the only one.
There are folks in western Lincoln County who remember a similar haunt in Cat Square.
In a yellowing pamphlet, typed on an old-fashioned typewriter and fastened with staples, is the work of a self-styled historian of Lincoln County. Mrs. Ernest Wise’s “History of Cat Square and the Grand Old Opera,” circa 1960, is the briefest of chronicles: that of Cat Square, located approximately 10 miles west of Lincolnton, and its once-beloved “opera” house.
Here, on Friday and Saturday nights – for a few years, at least – the rural community gathered for music and dancing. By day, the country store housed a barbershop, simple pork-processing supplies and packaging and a creamery where local farmers’ wives could sell dairy and eggs.
Before the opera, and even before the store, Cat Square was a gathering place for both people and animals. According to Wise, “the Reepsville Road was built in the year 1914-1915 and it crossed the Shoal road.” Here, a group of young men who called themselves the “Dirty Dozzen” would meet and walk to church together.
Wise writes, “At this time, each corner of the square was wooded area, honey suckle vines, briars, weeds and such like. This seemed to be an ideal spot for the passers-by to throw out their surplus or unwanted cats. So one night these boys ‘The Dirty Dozzen’ came back to the cross roads from the church meeting and they saw so many cats of all sizes and colors, so they talked awhile and all decided to go home, and one asked, ‘Where will we meet tomorrow night?’ and one replied, ‘Cat Square.’ So from that day until now it has been called ‘Cat Square.’”
Eventually, the brush was cleared, and homes and chicken houses and a feed store were built at the crossroads. Instead of walking to church, people drove. The daylong trip to Hickory was cut to less than an hour. And an unused 20-by-40-foot feed warehouse at the crossroads was turned into a music hall.
At night, the parking lot, rudely paved with bottle caps, filled quickly. Cars lined the roadside near the store. Some folks didn’t like that. So they petitioned the Sheriff’s Office to keep the roadsides clear. Eventually, the opera crowd dwindled.
But people still wanted to gather, even if only once a year.
On Saturday, the roadside along the 2-mile parade route will become not only a parking area, but also a daylong carnival of sorts, where old friends hold tailgate parties and kids flag down cotton-candy vendors while waiting for the parade to begin. The only cat in sight is the one painted on the pavement at the crossroads, complete with a bow tie.
But the authorities don’t seem to mind. Each year, a “mayor” is elected to preside over the parade. His or her only duty is to participate. Riding atop a carriage, the mayor dons formal wear and waves to the crowd. Usually, the position honors one of the community’s older citizens – one who remembers not only the early Christmas parades, but the Cat Square Opera, too. Now, as then, it’s worth the trip.
Erica Batten is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Erica? Email her at email@example.com.
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