Contributed by Andy Poore, Mooresville Public Library
Early this fall Mooresville Public Library’s Local History & Archives (LHA) received a donation that is representative of the LHA’s collection goals and priorities in the documentation of notable citizens of Mooresville. The collection, comprised of photographs and documents, was given in memory of Dorothy Brown, who was known throughout her life as “Long Sam” and had attained fame for her likeness to the cartoon character of the same name. Through collections such as this, the archives endeavors to develop an intellectual and comprehensive understanding of the lives of citizens from Mooresville who achieved fame both within the town and the beyond the community.
Dorothy Mae Brown was born in 1940, one of ten children, to a rural family in Wilkes County. At the age of three her family moved to Iredell County and the Mooresville community. Raised in a small house along the banks of the Catawba River, Dorothy dropped out of school in the 7th grade to help her mother with her younger siblings and to help provide for the family by babysitting for others.
In 1954 Al Capp and Bob Lubbers, best known for their creation of “Li’l Abner” launched their newest comic strip “Long Sam” about a young woman who lived in a small mountain community. The strip dealt with her growing up and venturing into the “outside” world from her mountain community. The strip was a hit and was quickly syndicated in all major newspapers in the U.S. In 1956 Tom McKnight, owner and publisher of the Mooresville Tribune, and photographer Fletcher Davis were out along the Catawba River working on a story about a local moonshine operation when Dorothy Brown stepped from the woods and “Long Sam” became one of Mooresville’s famous citizens.
Amazed at how much she looked like the cartoon figure, Mr. McKnight wrote a story titled The Girl in Black which caught the attention of Kays Gary, a columnist for The Charlotte Observer. The story was soon picked up and quickly appeared in all the papers, which caught the attention of Life magazine, who sent someone to photograph Ms. Brown. The story and the photographs caught the attention of one of the members of the Ed Sullivan Show, and soon an invitation was sent to her to appear on the show. This young woman from a small town in North Carolina was soon standing on the stage of one of the nation’s most famous television shows, and that story was picked up by Newsweek magazine. She was then asked to appear on the Steve Allen Show and to appear on Broadway in a live version of L’il Abner. She turned them down.
After her trip and brief stay in New York, she returned home where friends of Mr. McKnight, Ross and Virigina Puette, paid for Dorothy to finish her high school degree at Wingate Junior College. After Wingate, she attended The Women’s College of the University of North Carolina (now UNC-Greensboro) where she graduated with her B.A. and teaching certification. She returned to Mooresville and eventually moved to Charlotte where she taught at Idlewild Elementary until she retired. She passed away March 5, 2023.
For Dorothy, never having traveled much outside of Iredell County, the experience of becoming a celebrity was a whirlwind introduction to the world outside her community. She was exposed to life outside a small Southern town and was presented with opportunities that, under normal circumstances, would not have been available to her. Although she chose not to remain in the limelight, she was able to realize her dream of becoming a teacher and helping others through education.