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Historic Rural Resources in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina

Sherry J. Joines and Dr. Dan L. Morrill
Charlotte - Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission


Many thanks are required for everyone who expressed an interest in this project. We are particularly grateful for the assistance of Mr. Seamus Donaldson. Without his help the high quality fieldwork completed would have been impossible. We would also like to thank the Board of the Charlotte - Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission, the Projects, and the Survey Committees for their support of our efforts.

Table of Contents

This report spans several pages. Use the navigation arrows at the bottom of each page to move from section to section.



In this time of rapid development and extensive growth in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County one can easily forget that until the mid-twentieth century the community's history was essentially rural. Also, contrary to popular belief, there are areas in Mecklenburg County that retain their rural character. The purpose of rural preservation is not to prohibit or inhibit growth. Its purpose is to manage growth, so that areas that are significant to the rural history of Charlotte-Mecklenburg are preserved within the context of economically viable development. To do nothing will assure that sites, structures and places that contribute to the rural heritage of our community will continue to be lost at an increasing rate.

The techniques for preserving historic rural buildings and landscapes are not limited to creating an unyielding museum setting. Instead, reusing the property for a purpose other than that for which it was originally intended (adaptive reuse) is a popular option. Adaptive reuse and the relatively new theory of Open Space Design are encouraged by many preservationists, because these mechanisms preserve the property while allowing sensitive and often very successful development. These techniques along with a wide variety of others will be discussed in a later section of this report with an explanation as to how they might apply to rural resources in Mecklenburg County. The intent of this project in identifying and evaluating significant rural properties was not to highlight one particular period of time, group of people, or geographic area of the county. Instead, the properties selected represent a comprehensive sample of sites and buildings that document the broad pattern of the historic rural development of Mecklenburg County. That properties seem to be unevenly dispersed is not intentional, but is either caused by the actual historic occurrence of such properties or is due to the destruction of certain groups of historic properties. That some segments of society are under-represented is not an affront, but an unfortunate indication of the loss of certain types of properties. Small houses, service buildings, slave quarters, and tenant houses are a few examples of properties that are missing or rare in the existing stock of historic properties in Mecklenburg County.

The goals of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission in producing this report are to identify significant rural properties in Mecklenburg County and propose ideas for their preservation. And finally, a goal in all preservation work is to contribute to the community's understanding and appreciation of its history while suggesting areas of potential additional research by scholars.



Once the objectives were identified, the work in identifying and evaluating rural properties began. The basis for this work was the 1988 - 89 historic property inventory of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County conducted by Mary Beth Gatza for the Historic Landmarks Commission, hereinafter cited as the Gatza survey. A perusal of the base zoning maps labeled with the location of each surveyed property indicated where potential rural resources were located. The files on almost three hundred of these properties were examined, and a list of potentially significant building and sites was created for fieldwork. The fieldwork consisted of visiting most of the potential properties, making notes, filling out a survey form, and taking photographs. Once completed, this information was transferred into a database, and a map was created identifying the more important properties surveyed during the fieldwork. Final recommendations about significant properties or groups of properties were made after a second field visit.

The reconnaissance done during the initial stages of the fieldwork consisted of a list of 289 properties. Of these approximately 187 were surveyed, and another 30 were not found and likely have been destroyed since the Gatza survey of 1988 - 89. Additionally, at least 32 properties were identified that were not included in the Gatza survey.

For clarity, a few definitions may be helpful at this point to enable readers to obtain a more complete understanding of the content of this report. A property is a building, structure, or other man-made element along with its pertinent landscape. A farmstead is not just the farmhouse, but also includes the historic outbuildings, fields, fences, etc. This means that rural Mecklenburg is best described as a vernacular historic landscape. This term is defined in the Secretary of Interior's Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties with Guidelines for the Treatment of Cultural Landscapes as


a landscape that evolved through use by the people whose activities or occupancy shaped it. Through social or cultural attitudes of an individual, a family, or a community, the landscape reflects the physical, biological, and cultural character of everyday lives. Function plays a significant role in vernacular landscapes. This can be a farm complex or a district of historic farmsteads.

And finally, the deceptively obvious key word for all preservation is historic. There is no universal standard for determining historic significance. Indeed, most preservationists agree that each community should develop its own definitions of "historicity." Especially in places like Mecklenburg County, where the rural landscape is being subjected to intense developmental pressures, one must expand the scope of inquiry to include properties that are of relatively recent origin. Most properties included in this survey were built before 1950, but some are of more recent origin.

Every effort was made to conduct a thorough and objective survey while maintaining efficiency and expediency. As the process evolved, certain criteria were used in identifying the most significant rural resources. First was integrity. As defined in the Secretary of Interior's Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties with Guidelines for the Treatment of Cultural Landscapes, integrity is the


authenticity of a property's historic identity, evinced by the survival of physical characteristics that existed during the property's historic or prehistoric period. The seven qualities of integrity as defined by the National Register Program are location, setting, feeling, association, design, workmanship, and materials.

As applied to this survey, integrity of the building as well as its surrounding landscape were given approximately equal weight. Thus, a pristine farmhouse currently surrounded by insensitive modern development would likely be judged less important than a good farmhouse with its historic outbuildings and fields intact. This report contains many properties that were deemed to hold the greater integrity among several surviving examples of a certain property type.

A second criteria was historic significance. A property's place in history is directly related to its ultimate significance to the county. In some cases, this historic significance is due to the property's association with important historic people or events. In other instances, the property is representative of an architectural style or building type that was common or important historically.

Thirdly, it was important to recognize that rural life was not centered entirely on individual farmsteads but that small rural communities were vital to rural existence. Thus, the report contains a balance of clusters of properties and individual ones. Accordingly, the scope of this undertaking had to take potential historic districts into account.

A fourth consideration for selection was to include historic properties where the historic use (generally farming) was still being practiced. This feature is important since it best preserves the historic character of the property even if it may alter the historic appearance of the property. In other words, greater importance was placed on a farm that was still in operation, despite modern outbuildings and alterations to the house that would have excluded the property if it was not being farmed. This method was not arbitrary, but recognized the importance of preserving historic uses as part of the overall character of rural Mecklenburg. This consideration should not suggest, however, that all properties must retain their historic uses. Most properties can not be used as they were historically, but a representative few are important to balance the comprehensive goals previously set forth for preserving rural Mecklenburg.

A Brief History of Mecklenburg County and Its Architecture


When the first white settlers arrived during the 1740s, the Piedmont area that would become Mecklenburg County was still inhabited by the Catawba Indians. Most of these newcomers had traveled down the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road from central Pennsylvania, while others migrated north from the port of Charleston. The majority of the early settlers in Mecklenburg County were Scots - Irish Presbyterians.

Interested in the fertile, albeit hilly, terrain to the east of the Catawba River, many farm families came into present Mecklenburg County. The Spratt and Polk families are reportedly some of the earliest settlers. These families settled near the present site of uptown Charlotte in 1753, about ten miles from the Catawba River near the crossing of two ancient Native America trading paths. Mecklenburg County was created from Anson County in 1762, suggesting that the preceding twenty years had brought numerous farmers to this area. The log courthouse was located near the trading path intersection, and the little community was incorporated as Charlotte in 1768. The choice of this name for the town and the name of the county were made to honor Queen Charlotte, the new bride of King George III.

The abundant timber available in Mecklenburg allowed settlers to erect log dwellings, typically with only one story. Although the Scots - Irish emigrants had no log building tradition of their own, they had acquired this skill from their German neighbors in Pennsylvania. The simple dwellings were built from large horizontal logs squared with broad axes and adzes. The logs could be joined in a variety of ways, including dovetail, half-dovetail, and saddle joints, at the corners eliminating the need for rare, expensive nails. The spaces between logs were chinked with wood chips, stones, and mud. Log structures were widespread in Mecklenburg County by the late 1700's.

These log dwellings were often improved in later years with the addition of a second story, weatherboard exterior sheathing and interior finishes such as mantles or decorative molding. Clay was also available for the production of bricks, allowing the construction of brick chimneys. Chimneys were usually located on the exterior ends of houses in the South. The owners of these simple residences were often subsistence farmers, raising enough produce to consume and trade for their family's livelihood. Charleston was the main link to the outside world. Settlers traveled there to buy merchandise such as salt, iron, and household goods. A typical farmer might have fifty head of cattle, several horses, twenty hogs, some geese, and a few sheep.

Ante-bellum Period

As the number of farmers increased, blacksmith shops, carpenters, grist mills, and country stores developed in Charlotte, Paw Creek, Hopewell, Providence, Sugar Creek, and Rocky River, as well as other rural sections of Mecklenburg County. Another institution that was extremely important to these small communities was the church. Rev. Alexander Craighead was the first Christian minister in Mecklenburg when he arrived in 1759. As noted earlier, the majority of settlers were Presbyterians. There were also some Lutherans, along with a few Baptists. Sugar (Sugaw) Creek (c. 1755), Rocky River (c. 1755), Steele Creek (c. 1760), Hopewell (c. 1762), Poplar Tent (c. 1764), and Providence (c. 1767) were among the first churches in the county. Closely following these Presbyterian churches was the Lutheran church at Morning Star (1775). The Associated Reformed Presbyterians built churches at Gilead (1787), Sardis (1790), Steele Creek (1794), and Back Creek (1834). An open air Methodist congregation began near Pineville in 1785. The first Baptist church was constructed in Charlotte in 1833, the Episcopalians in 1834, and finally the Roman Catholics in 1851.

By 1800 the county's population was 10,439. Most of these families were modest yeoman farmers without any slaves. Cotton cultivation was becoming increasingly important, however, especially after the invention of the cotton gin in 1793. Mecklenburg County led the state in the tax paid for the use of the cotton gin patent in the early 1800s. The sixty-two stills and twenty-one mills in the county in 1850 demonstrate the continuing importance of corn and grain to the economy. An 1850 North Carolina agricultural analysis shows that Mecklenburg actually had a strong and diverse economy. It ranked third in cotton production, fourth in butter production, eleventh in corn production, and twelfth in wheat production. All of these activities increased the wealth of the area and, unfortunately, the demand for slave labor. Around 1800, the largest and wealthiest slaveholding planters were T. Hood, John Ford, and James Walkup, owning eight, nine and twelve slaves respectively. In 1850, seventeen planters owned more than thirty slaves, and by 1860 this number had increased to thirty planters. Much of the local agricultural produce was shipped to the port of Charleston via Columbia, South Carolina rather than to the more distant port at Wilmington. This transport was made even easier when the Charlotte and South Carolina Railroad was completed in 1852. The railroad, in addition to the discovery of gold in 1799, followed by the establishment of a branch of the United States Mint in 1837, brought Charlotte into the forefront of the Carolinas' economy. By 1860, four converging railroads had made Charlotte a trading center surrounded by a few prosperous plantations and numerous small farmers. The city's population had doubled between 1850 and 1860.

While log construction was still being practiced by most farmers, a few of the earlier settlers became successful enough to erect more fitting residences. These ante-bellum farmhouses were constructed using the heavy timber frame method and sheathed in plain weatherboards. They were generally in the I-house form of two stories with one room flanking each side of a central hall and a one story rear ell or shed addition. Front porches were often found, and any decorative treatment would be in the restrained Federal manner through the 1840s or in a vernacular rendition of the Greek Revival style during the 1840s and 1850s with the carryover of symmetry from the earlier Georgian period. There are a few examples of more elaborate ante-bellum houses in Mecklenburg County. The Greek Revival style Cedar Grove(1833) and the Federal style W.T. Alexander house (1799) are both notable brick dwellings along with the stone Hezekiah Alexander house (1774). Most plantations were rather modest due to the tradition of each generation subdividing the land. In addition to the "Big House," often a simple I-house form, there would be a detached kitchen, smokehouse, well house, carriage house, plantation office, barns, slave quarters, and occasionally a blacksmith or carpenter shop staffed by trained slaves. Most of these ante-bellum dependencies have vanished from the inventory of rural resources, the best remaining example being found at Latta Place where some outbuildings have been reconstructed.

Reconstruction Era

From the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, the lives of Mecklenburg County citizens were disrupted until the close of the conflict in 1865. Although Mecklenburg County lost many young men in the Civil War, the economic situation after the war was actually better than in many areas of the former Confederacy. Because large plantations were few and small farms plentiful in Mecklenburg, reduction of capital due to the loss of slaves was minimal. The average farm size after the Civil War was one hundred acres. These smaller farms had not been dependent upon slave labor, giving the owners an opportunity to replant and recover quickly. The railroads that were still in place in Charlotte were also crucial to the quick recovery of the area. This advantageous position paid off, as the city of Charlotte grew at a significant rate -- doubling its population from 2,265 persons in 1860 to 4,473 in 1870. And by 1880, the town claimed 7,094 citizens making it the fifth largest city in the Carolinas. During this period of expansion, farmers in the area began to make a new place for themselves.

Cotton was not an easy crop to grow in Mecklenburg County. In fact, only 6,112 bales were ginned in 1860. However, after the discovery of the fertilizer, Peruvian guano, the production rapidly increased to 19,129 bales in 1880. The production of cotton peaked in 1910 with 27, 466 bales. Thus, between 1860 and 1880, the image, economy, and lifestyle of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County changed dramatically. These changes may be observed in the built environment via the substantial collection of late nineteenth century farmsteads. Replacing log construction and simple I-houses were more ornate Folk Victorian dwellings inspired by the exuberant Queen Anne style popular in the United States at this time. I-houses were decorated with sawnwork, vergeboards, spindlework, and a wealth of other ornamentation indicating the farmer's wealth and status. Examples of this type of abode are the Ewart House near Huntersville, the James A. Blakeney House on Blakeney-Heath Road, and the J. M. Alexander House on Beatties Ford Road.

It should be remembered that buildings designed by an architect or taken from a pattern book were still fairly rare in the area. Yet, even smaller cottages of this period would often receive ornament unheard of a few decades before. Double pile (two room deep) cottages with hip roofs may be found along with the typical double front gable or gable and ell form cottages. Two story houses still tended to be of the I-house form, particularly the variety known as "triple A." This house would have a pediment in its roofline over the central entry bay of the house. Often, wrap-around porches, and decorative elements were added to an older home in order to modernize it. Other two story houses exhibited a more modern form, however. Irregular plans were inspired by the Queen Anne style and often took the shape of an "L" or "T" in plan. The period between the close of the Civil War and 1910 was one of rapid development and change, and these characteristics are expressively shown through the inventory of farmsteads.

Despite the prosperous mood during the Reconstruction Era, the life of the Mecklenburg farmer was still challenging. Rural residents frequently depended upon other counties for manufactured goods, such as cooking utensils that were supplied primarily by Lincoln County. Meals of coffee, fried chicken, biscuits, sweet potatoes, hog jaw, turnip greens, and opossum with brandy or cherry bounce for the wealthy and corn whiskey for others were common, according to local historian John Brevard Alexander. Cooking was done in heavy cast iron cookware over hot fireplace coals. Farm work was labor intensive and time consuming. The production of cotton was still laborious even with the advent of fertilizers. Thus, the system of tenant farming that developed after the Civil War remained in place.

Former slaves, many having no money and nowhere to go, often elected to stay on former plantations and grow crops for the owner in return for a share of the yield. In 1910 and 1920 most farms in Mecklenburg County were operated by tenants rather than the owner. Most owners were white, but approximately one-third of the owners during this period were African-American. Furthermore, only fifty-five percent of the white farm population owned their own farm, indicating that there was a significant number of white tenant farmers in addition to the African-American slave descendants.


At the turn of the century, a wave of industrialization brought an easier life for many farmers and a way out for many more. The Charlotte Cotton Mill, Charlotte's first mill, opened in 1881. This was followed in 1883 by the arrival of D.A. Tompkins. Tompkins became a spokesman for the so-called New South through his innovative mill designs, mill construction and engineering firm. In publications such as Cotton Mills: Commercial Features, and by the example of his own Atherton Mill, which opened in 1893, Tompkins influenced an entire generation of cotton mill owners. Following the prosperous cotton mills, clothing manufacturers, foundries, ginneries, and a cotton seed oil mill (a product developed by Tompkins) opened in Charlotte in the late 1800's. In 1873, only thirty-three mills existed in North Carolina; by 1902, however, three hundred mills had been built within one hundred miles of Charlotte. This number comprised more than one-half of the looms and spindles in the entire South. While such growth was centered in Charlotte, the impact of industrialization reached onto the county's farms as well.

The first years of the twentieth century were, quite literally, electrified with change. New South industrialist James B. Duke began developing hydroelectric plants that would forever change Mecklenburg County and the Piedmont of the two Carolinas. Founded by Duke and other New South entrepreneurs, the Southern Power Company began producing electricity in 1904. Slowly, cotton mills began to convert from steam power to electric power. One of Duke's other contributions to the growth of Mecklenburg County was the establishment of the Piedmont and Northern Electric Railway in 1911; the city's seventh rail line. Connecting Charlotte and Gastonia with a separate line from Spartanburg to Greenwood, South Carolina, the P & N symbolized the dominant position Charlotte was assuming over the surrounding countryside. Industrialists were now able to commute out to their mills from the city. And as mills began to be constructed farther from Charlotte, the impact on the rural areas of Mecklenburg County was tremendous.

New communities were developed around mills located in the countryside. This phenomenon is easily seen at Thrift. Growing with the construction of Thrift Mill and the P & N Depot in 1912, the curved streets of the Thrift Mill Village were laid out around 1913. Although engulfed by urban expansion today, this was a rural area when construction began. While Thrift may be the best example of the type of rural community spawned by mill development, there are numerous small Mecklenburg County towns that owe their existence to late nineteenth century railroad and mill development. The college village of Davidson grew into a mill town; as did Cornelius, Matthews, Pineville, and Huntersville, which were all incorporated in the 1870s. Derita, Newell, and Mint Hill emerged as prosperous unincorporated communities in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. This growth meant that Mecklenburg County farmers could buy goods and sell their cotton crop in small towns closer to their farms. The existence of these outlying communities changed the patterns of rural life, both on the farm and off. People were linked more closely to each other and became more dependent upon their immediate community for trade.

Modern Era

The expansive growth of Mecklenburg County continued during World War I with the establishment of Camp Greene, a major military base, at the western edge of Charlotte and persisted into the 1920s. Especially important during the 1920's was the "Good Roads Program" of Governor Cameron Morrison. A resident of Mecklenburg County, Morrison turned the state's resources toward the development of a system of paved highways throughout North Carolina. These roads had a dramatic impact upon rural Mecklenburg, as residences were upgraded, small towns expanded, and new schools were built. One particular influence was the Julius Rosenwald Fund, supplying money to build twenty-six high quality schools for African-Americans in Mecklenburg County during the 1920s. Often located near a church, these schools became centers for African-American communities.

In Charlotte, the 1920s was a time of maturation and exponential growth as new industries flocked to the city. By 1930, Charlotte had surpassed Charleston as the largest city in the Carolinas. Increasing numbers of farmers began to sell their land for development or leave the farm for greater opportunities in urban areas. The 1920s witnessed the beginning of the decline in the number of Mecklenburg County farms. In 1900, Mecklenburg had been 32.7 percent urban and 62.3 percent rural. By 1910, the urban population was 50.7 percent, exceeding for the first time the number of residents in the rural areas. And in 1920, Mecklenburg's urban population had grown to 57.4 percent, and farm production declined for the first time. This trend continued with the onset of the Great Depression in October 1929. Between 1930 and 1940 the number of farms in Mecklenburg County dropped from 3,773 to 3,223. By 1940, the decline was 27.4 percent from the 1910 peak of 4,339 farms.

As mechanization took command of rural life after 1900, farmers were increasingly forced to abandon traditional farming methods. Since the Civil War, most Mecklenburg County farmers had been small landowners or tenant farmers using mules, plows, wagons, hoes, sacks for picking, and scales for their cotton production. But with the advance of the boll weevil into North Carolina around 1920, farmers were forced to turn to more expensive planting and cultivation techniques. Cotton production moved westward where modern machinery and more advanced farming practices could be utilized without the encumbrances of the tenant farming system. Small farmers and tenant farmers were unable to benefit from governmental programs designed to aid cotton farmers because they lacked education and credit. The few farms dating from the late 1920s and 1930s, such as the Washam farm on Davidson-Concord Road, have houses in either the bungalow form with Craftsman details or in the more imposing Colonial Revival mode. Perhaps indicating the period of modest prosperity, many nineteenth century dwellings have front porches with the tapered columns of the Craftsman style.

The final blow for Mecklenburg farmers came in the form of the emergency programs of Roosevelt's New Deal. The Agricultural Adjustment Administration began to encourage the reduction of crop acreage and livestock production, driving small farmers and sharecroppers from the land and effectively killing the Reconstruction Era tenant system. This was not without benefit though. To educate those remaining farmers and future farmers, several agricultural buildings were constructed at schools. Long Creek Agricultural Building is an excellent example of this type of facility. These distressed economic times produced a precipitous decline of construction in rural Mecklenburg (except for schools) from the 1930s, however.

After World War II, a new era in Mecklenburg County history began to unfold. By 1948 a new ring of suburbs sprang up around the early twentieth century neighborhoods of Charlotte. Accommodations for the automobile also began to have greater impact with the widening of thoroughfares, such as Independence Boulevard in the late 1940s and the advent of the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s. With better roads, stores began to migrate from the center city to suburban shopping centers like Park Road Shopping Center, which was built in 1956. Suburban sprawl was backed by Federal Urban Redevelopment projects that viewed the older center city as rundown and dangerous. These post-World War II developments meant that rural Mecklenburg County would see growth that was unprecedented. In retrospect, it is evident that much of the rural character prominent in Mecklenburg County history has been destroyed forever by unrestrained expansion. Yet, there are many important resources in Mecklenburg County that can preserve a portion of our rural past. Even now, though, they are threatened by the continuing development of suburbia that will obliterate them if they are not thoughtfully protected.