Snow Hill photographer Bob Aiken captured memories
By BRENDA MONTY
The Standard Laconic
Tuesday, December 25, 2018
SNOW HILL — Robert “Bob” Aiken Jr. has photographed thousands of people, from Greene County to California during his 50-plus years as a professional photographer.
The Snow Hill resident who worked as a freelance photographer for the N.C. Press Association and the Associated Press, began tinkering with a small Brownie camera when he was a boy growing up in town. He studied books on the subject and learned how to mix chemicals to develop his own photos in a small room he set up in a barn.
As a young adult, he received just two weeks of formal training in the field and opened Bob Aiken Studio in Snow Hill. As a freelancer, he documened events and snippets of rural life in eastern North Carolina. Additionally, he spent his life as a contractor taking school portraits across the state.
At age 94, Aiken’s interest in people and curious happenings remains strong. So does his ability to recall in keen detail what life was like in Snow Hill in the 20th century.
LIFE OF MEMORIES
Aiken was born Sept. 21, 1924, delivered by Dr. James H. Harper at the family home on Southeast Fourth Street, the youngest child and only son of Rosalie and Robert Aiken Sr.
“I grew up during The Depression. I remember in 1935, everybody was broke. You wouldn’t even ask for a nickel, because you didn’t want to embarrass your daddy,” Aiken said.
He was 5 years old when the stock market crashed in 1929. His father worked as a seasonal bookkeeper with Brooks Tobacco Warehouse in Kinston. He had just deposited his paycheck in Snow Hill the day before, Aiken recalled.
“Daddy had just lost his entire season’s work. That was the beginning of some very hard times for many people during the next few years,” he said.
Unemployment was high, and unless a family had land on which to raise their own food, they had to depend on help from others.
The Aikens had two milk cows, a few pigs, a vegetable garden and several fruit trees and a grape vine. They also had an assortment of poultry and rabbits.
His father was from Granville County. When he settled in Snow Hill, he raised corn and tobacco with only a mule.
“The sweet smell of the corn in the field and the aroma of the tobacco curing in the heated barn lingers to this day,” Aiken said.
Every summer, the children enjoyed playing in the branch that down by St. Barnabas Church, he recalls.
“We dammed it up and played in the water we called the swimming hole,” Aiken said.
Those on the west side of the branch referred to the side of town east of the branch as “Slab Town.”
“There was a saw mill owned by Mr. Gregory on Second Street, behind what is now the primary school. People used the sides of the logs called slabs for firewood, giving us the nickname,” Aiken said.
In 1935, he witnessed the laborious construction of the Greene County Courthouse, when mules and scoops moved dirt and cement was hauled up ramps in wheelbarrows.
Aiken recalls with clarity the bustling business district along Greene, Second and Third streets, like two tobacco auction warehouses, an ice and bottling plant, furniture and hardware stores, five grocery stores, hatchery and pool hall. Aiken was a ticket taker at the theater when he was 14 years old.
“Near where the boat landing is now there used to be a cow pasture, a baseball field, grandstand and swimming pool. The New York Yankees sponsored the Snow Hillbillies team that played ball there. There is a marker there with the names of the players,” Aiken said.
He recounted the boyhood delight of swimming “in the raw” in Contentnea Creek with his pals.
When his friends went off to fight in World War II, Aiken stayed behind. He lost a kidney in a bicycle accident when he was age 12.
Aiken spent a year at N.C. State University before returning to Snow Hill to help his father, who was running a grocery store, Aiken Cash Supply Co.
He vividly recalled when his childhood friend James Hardy buzzed Snow Hill in a B-17 bomber he was piloting during the war.
Before leaving for England to fight the Germans, Hardy got permission to break formation and fly over Snow Hill.
“All of a sudden, we heard this terrible roar. We looked up and here, coming across the bridge was a B-17 flying under 1,000 feet right up the main street. He pulls up and tilts his wings, and then he was gone. A four-motored plane, a B-17, buzzed Snow Hill,” Aiken said, choking back emotion.
He went to Kings Business College in Raleigh to study accounting. That is where he met Seroba, a girl from Bailey he later married and brought home to Snow Hill. They eventually had three children.
Seroba became a bank manager in Snow Hill, an outspoken member of the school board and was active in political affairs. She died from Alzheimer’s in 2010.
Aiken fondly recounted his early years in photography.
He and his buddy Walter Sugg found a camera and converted it into an enlarger. He and Sugg would take photos around town and develop the film themselves in a barn behind Aiken’s house. Aiken’s father purchased the needed chemicals for him at a Kinston pharmacy.
When his father opened the store, Aiken got some lights and set up portrait studio upstairs.
After he married, he set up a professional studio on Frances Street. In addition to portraits, Aiken photographed weddings, funerals and other events.
He also worked as a freelance photographer for state and national news outlets.
“It was mostly human interest news. If there was any news or wreck that I thought was worthy of going in The News & Observer, I had to get it ready by 4 p.m. The bus came through Snow Hill at 4 going to Raleigh every day. I might not have but 20 minutes. I’ve sent a many a picture to them wet; put it between two blotters and send it on,” Aiken said.
He recalled the time he arrived to photograph a wedding to learn it had been called off because the bride had been bit by a Black Widow spider. She was in the hospital.
He went to the hospital and shot a photo of the groom sitting on the bed holding her hand.
Aiken submitted it to The News & Observer.
“The Associated Press picked it up and it went everywhere on the front page with the headline: “Widow Breaks Up Wedding.”
“Locally, I’d get about $3 for a photo. The News & Observer would give me $10. AP would give me $20,” Aiken said. “I’d give The Standard Laconic pictures, and they’d put my name under it. Sometimes they would pay me — sometimes they wouldn’t.”
SCRATCHING THE SURFACE
However, it was his contract with Hunter Publishing that had him traveling extensively.
“Hunter started the first hardcover yearbooks in 1958 or so,” Aiken said. “I traveled to schools all over taking school pictures. They paid me 10 cents a photo.”
He still has the camera he used that took up to 500 photos on a roll of film.
“They would book me and tell me where to go. I did a lot of work up in the mountains. I covered schools in just about every county in the state,” Aiken said. “I photographed the whole Cherokee Reservation for two or three years. I got to know all those kids, like Red Fox and Clinging Bear.”
Aiken was in his 80s when he hung up his camera to become a full-time caregiver for his wife.
Aiken is working on his family genealogy rooted deep in Greene County. For example, Elaney Wood, for whom the local farmers market is named, was his great-great-grandmother. His grandfather, Alonza Edwards Jr., built the two-story homes on both ends of Oak Street in Snow Hill.
This writing merely scratches the surface of Aiken’s entertaining stories and the detailed Snow Hill history he is happy to share.