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Katherine Springs, 105, storyteller who chronicled Charlotte century

By Dannye Romine Powell
dpowell@charlotteobserver.com

Katherine Wooten Springs, a Charlotte native whose grandfather’s orchard once flourished where the Carillon Building now rises on West Trade Street, died at The Cypress senior community on Friday. She was 105.

Her grandson, York County, S.C., Assistant Solicitor Eli Baxter Springs IV, says his grandmother “remembered the days when Civil War veterans were everywhere.

“She remembered waiting to hear the names of the survivors of the Titanic. She watched the doughboys come back from World War I. Her stories were unreal.”

Once in the 1950s, visiting the Florida Keys with her late husband, Eli Baxter Springs II, the couple stopped in Miami for dinner, then drove up the coast to a nightclub. There, Katherine Springs saw, for the first time, a dancer perform nude.

“Aside from the novelty of it,” Springs recalled in a 1995 Observer interview, “I did not think her performance was attractive. I held – and still do – to the idea that a little chiffon draped deftly about the body is sexier than nudity.”

Springs, with her silver trays and pecan-topped cheese biscuits, was a lady to the core. She was a woman who believed in family, a stellar stock portfolio, ESP and continuity between generations.

The family wealth came through inheritance and investments in cotton, railroads and mercantile establishments. Family legend has it that her father, Frank Wooten, invented the Coca-Cola coin machine.

Springs IV says that his uncle Eli Baxter Springs, a Charlotte mayor in the 1890s, was a founder of and one of the largest stockholders in the Southern Railroad.

A graduate of Hollins University in Virginia and the New York School of Fine and Applied Arts, Katherine Wooten married in 1927 into one of the oldest and wealthiest families in the South. Eli Baxter Springs II, born in Fort Mill in 1894, was the son of Brevard Davidson Springs. His ancestors – the Springs, Davidson, Alexander and Brevard families – owned property at the Square in uptown Charlotte as early as the 1700s.

Katherine Springs was always quick to clear up any confusion with cousin Col. Elliott White Springs, the World War I flying ace who turned his father’s Fort Mill cotton mill into a textile dynasty.

“We are not Springs Mills,” she would say. “Eli was with the New York Stock Exchange.”

Eli Springs II, who also held membership in the New York Cotton Exchange, maintained offices in New York, Paris and Liverpool.

Katherine Springs once confessed to calling her husband off the NYSE floor from Saks Fifth Avenue to ask if she could buy an ermine-trimmed evening gown.

When the market crashed, some of the family fortune went with it.

As she revealed in her 1965 book about the family, “The Squires of Springfield,” Eli’s father, Brevard Springs, “had owned enough lard (commodities) to cover North Carolina and South Carolina three inches deep.”

The couple and their two children returned to Charlotte from New York in 1936 and built Springfield, a mansion with a heated, indoor swimming pool and a tropical garden on the Providence Road property the family had owned since 1766. The Arboretum Shopping Center at Providence and N.C. 51, sprawls over parts of the original farm.

In 1977, Eli Springs died at 83, and in 1995, Katherine Springs completed a 681-page memoir, “Singing My Song,” which traces her birth on West Fourth Street to her life as a widow at Springfield.

Katherine Springs is listed in Who’s Who in America. She served as vice president of the board of trustees of the Mint Museum of Arts and founded and served as the first president of the Charlotte Debutante Club, which raised money for the Mint. She especially enjoyed talking about her memories of early Charlotte, both at schools and at the First Presbyterian Church.

“I think she had a great sense of the ages,” says Springs IV. “She believed that we’re all here for awhile, and we live our lives, and then we meet our maker and meet again in heaven. She was quite positive about that.”

The family will host visitors at The Cypress, 4 to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 26. Funeral services will be held at the First Presbyterian Church, 200 West Trade St., on Wednesday at 2 p.m.

Powell: 704-358-5230
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