Murphy to Manteo
The State Magazine, August 31, 1963.
Printed with the permission of the publisher.
Verse In Politics
How a bit of caustic verse won an election in Rutherford County was recounted by Historian Clarence Griffin.
William Green had been elected to the General Assembly 18 times, and seemed invincible. This in spite of the fact that he had been a Tory. He was among those captured at Kings Mountain, had pleaded for his life and it had been spared. A strong minority, including old soldiers, disliked Green and plotted his defeat at the polls. In 1823, Elias Alexander, a veteran and staunch Whig, brought out his son, Elias, Jr., against Green. He made a strong race, and Green became apprehensive of defeat.
He professed conversion and joined the Baptists. His baptism was given wide publicity and an enormous congregation assembled on the banks of the Broad River for the ceremony.
Among the spectators was young Alexander, who leaned against a tree and watched the baptism. Everyone appreciated the dramatic situation and all expected a declaration from Alexander. They were not disappointed.
As Green emerged from the water, wet and gasping for breath, Alexander rose to his full height, slowly raised his hand and pointed to Green. The crowd listened breathlessly while he called out in loud and measured tones:
Here stands old Major Green, now neat and clean
Though formerly a Tory.
The damnedest rascal ever seen,
Now on his way to glory.
The Alexander supporters took up the rhyme as a battle song, and it swept the county. Green figuratively was laughed out of office.
Rutherford, like most of the state, was swept by the “Great Revival” early in the 19th century, and witnessed some of the strange “exercises” which accompanied religious fervor. “Exercises” was the term given the strange behavior of converts under the spell of “conviction.” One curious exercise was the “barking” exercise, during which the happy victim would bark like a dog. There was the “laughing exercise,” which compelled its victim to laugh constantly.
In Rutherford, the Knobb Creek Presbyterian congregation seemed afflicted by a peculiarity known as “the impression exercise.” The person under its influence had an impression that the Lord wanted a certain thing to be done.
One old woman in the congregation had an impression that one of her neighbors should break her crop of flax, and he accordingly broke the flax, as the Lord directed. At the evening meetings, the congregation might assemble at two or three different places in one night because one of the members might suddenly have an impression that they ought to go elsewhere.
The Knobb Creek congregation’s revival was, in fact, so strange that the North Carolina Synod in 1809 sent a minister to the church to investigate the exercises which prevailed so extensively among the members.
Of the several huge land schemes of early North Carolina, the Speculation Land Company founded by Tenche S. Coxe was the largest and most successful.
The real estate company was formed in 1796 and dissolved in 1920, so its activity spanned 125 years, making it one of the longest-lived enterprises in the south. In 1796, Tenche Coxe owned three-fourths of Rutherford. His company held over half a million acres in Buncombe, Rutherford and Mecklenburg, later adding even more acreage. Polk, Henderson, Cleveland, Gaston, McDowell and Union counties were formed partly from this land, which came to Coxe through 76 grants, and purchases.
Coxe himself was a Philadelphian, prominent in his day. Originally a Loyalist, he switched allegiances after his capture by Patriots. He was a prosperous and daring operator, made money by building up coal and oil properties, and was called “father of the cotton textile industry in America.” He also held various public offices of importance, and was a writer on political and economic subjects.
The Speculation Company had agents throughout the area to handle land sales, and vast chunks of it moved into the hands of others. But in 1819, Augustus Sackett of New York state bought nearly 400,000 acres for around $200,000. Sackett organized the New York Speculation Land Company to handle this property and launched a nationwide campaign to entice settlers to the territory. Advertisements appeared in newspapers and handbills were widely scattered telling of the glories and opportunities of the Carolina foothills. James D. Justice of Rutherford represented the company until 1853 and was succeeded by his son Rev. T. B. Justice, also of Rutherford. G. W. Justice of Henderson, grandson of James, was the last agent.
The company retained mineral rights to the land and is said to have profited from the gold boom. Its efforts to enhance the value of its property through development and migration undoubtedly hastened the growth of the whole western section.
To this day, old-timers refer to some property in western North Carolina as “Speculation Land.”
Rutherford’s minerals include monazite, a material used in the manufacture of mantels for incandescent lamps. Ellenboro was a center of the mining, which, however, came from other mines in several sections. The first shipment of monazite was from Burke County in 1887. L. A. Gettys, “the monazite king,” prospered by shipping the ore for refining in a plant at Shelby. The monazite boom ended in 1911 when local suppliers were unable to compete with cheap ore from Brazil and India.
But the mining era brought a famous visitor. In 1906 Thomas Edison and a party of scientists came to Rutherford in two White Steamer automobiles to look over the deposits.
A pleasant little page from history tells that the Rutherford County Court took especial pains to see that apprenticed orphans were well treated. This court often made stipulations which went even beyond the law’s requirements.
In the case of one apprenticed orphan, it specified that at the end of service the apprentice be given a horse, bridle and saddle valued at 20 pounds.
Another was to get two suits of clothes, good feather bed, spinning wheel and furniture. Still another, a horse saddle and cash for a value of $100. Another $60 in cash, one suit of homespun and one suit of storebought clothes.
In its frontier days, Rutherford had a vigilante organization. But records of the “Civil Volunteer Society” indicate it drifted more into social and cultural fields than in crime prevention.
Organized in 1801, its roster included most of the prominent men of the county, and its preamble noted the “prevalence of crime,” suggesting the need for “a society in order to bring condign punishment to such persons as may be guilty…”
For about five years, the members (around 50) met regularly, debated public questions and elected officers. Though the members were pledged to “make information” against all “thieves and robbers, counterfeiters or papers of counterfeit” little of this apparently was done. The treasurer was authorized, however, to offer a reward for murderers. Records of the club ceased abruptly in 1805 and no one knows what happened to the society.
Henrietta village and mills occupy a site once known as High Shoals, noted for its tremendous water power on the Second Broad River. It was the site of one of the first iron foundries in the Carolinas. Nearby, a powerful plant of Duke Power turns out electricity for Piedmont industry.
During the Revolution, the state offered land bounties to individuals who produced iron on their properties. Peter Fisher established a forge at High Shoals. Nearby James Inglish, a native of Pennsylvania, established another forge. The race between these two to produce iron was the talk of the countryside. By installing three pairs of bellows, Inglish generated heat sufficient to melt the ore, and was able to produce plowshares first. He was granted 500 acres of land as a reward. Fisher kept on working and in 1791 got his High Shoals Iron Works into production and also was given a prize. The iron around High Shoals was of good quality and plentiful, and produce of the forges found a ready sale.
The Golden Valley
One of the most picturesque rural sections of Rutherford is Golden Valley, a cove hidden in the South Mountains. At one time it was said to be the source of much of Rutherford’s blockade whiskey, but the coming of roads and schools opened up the section and it is now one of the county’s prize communities, its rich bottomland yielding good crops. A factor in its progress has been an active community betterment club.
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Bank in Store
Inconvenience led to Rutherford’s first bank. K. J. Carpenter and D. F. Morrow had a store in Rutherfordton and found banking in Shelby was a nuisance. So they opened a banking department in one corner of their store. In the first year, deposits were less than $2,000. The pair dissolved partnership; Morrow continuing as the Bank of Rutherfordton.
U.S. 74 follows one of the most historic routes to the west. In 1820 it was improved and designated the Charlotte-Rutherfordton-Asheville Post Road. It was crossed by the Salisbury-Lincolnton-Rutherfordton highway, also a popular route.
Harris Tavern, owned now by Jim Washburn, probably was built as early as 1785 and was an inn on the post road – first night’s stop out of Asheville. A toll gate stood here. Mrs. Frances Hodgson Burnett stayed at the Tavern while writing her novel Esmerelda.
The Chimney Rock country was used as background by the early version of Ben Hur, perhaps because Lew Wallace stayed at Esmerelda Inn for a while. Clara Kimball Young, Anita Stewart, Edith Story, and Harold Lockwood were guests while on location for “In the Heart of the Blue Ridge,” “The Battle Cry,” “Ben Hur,” and other pictures. Col. Bob Ingersoll also was a guest.
One “traveler” was not welcome. Colonel William J. Palmer found the gap a convenient path for his Union raiders during the war. Later he came back as a tourist.
In 1916 47 professional people lived in Rutherford, according to the tax returns. These included all the doctors, lawyers, dentists, photographers and architects in the county.
The Troubled Era
In 1935 the national textile strike hit Rutherford. A “flying squadron” of 5,000, mostly of people from outside the county, closed all but two of the county’s mills.
Rutherford pioneered in group hospitalization and surgical fee insurance, and acted as a sort of testing ground for the new-fangled idea in 1930. The first group policy was written for a group of school teachers at Baylor University in Texas about 1928. The first contract to cover employes of a single employer was for the Carolina Cotton and Woolen Mills plant at Spray, at that time owned by Marshall Field. In 1930, several plants in Rutherford joined the plan and it was not long before almost all the textile mills in the county were covered.
Bull of the Brushies
One of Rutherford’s notable native sons was Rumulus Z. Linney, known as “Bull of the Brushies.” He was wounded at Chancellorsville, later after the war admitted to the bar, and entered politics in Alexander County.
As a formidable Republican, Linney had to cross swords with his former Confederate associates. He served three terms in Congress, and in his last campaign defeated the popular Rufus A. Doughton after a bitter campaign.
For a long time Rutherford County was so devoted to growing cotton that it was virtually the only source of farm income. Farmers then with large families–or tenants with large families–were at an advantage, for the crop required much labor. An old saying was “never plant more cotton than your wife can cultivate.”
Several of the old pioneer names disappeared from Rutherford because their holders moved to Tennessee, to claim lands awarded them for Revolutionary service.
At one time, Rutherford County had more than 100 covered bridges. There are today only two or three in the entire state.
Noted Native Son
One of Rutherford’s interesting sons was Dr. Ben E. Washburn, who became famous for his work in public health for the Rockefeller Foundation. He was field director for programs in the Caribbean and other parts of the world, and was widely known and honored for his crusade against tropical disease. Dr. Washburn retired to the old family home, which he restored, and made the old farm productive again. He emerged briefly from retirement during World War II to head the Rutherford-Polk County health district.
One of Rutherford’s ghost towns is Ayr. It was located in the western part of the county on Cove Creek, and was the site of a prosperous tannery. The tannery was purchased by Frank Reynolds, and he named it for his native Scottish town, Ayr. A post office was established in 1880, discontinued in 1911. After a prosperous career, the tannery was discontinued because of scarcity in the area of tan bark and because of Reynolds’ financial reverses. With the mill closed, the population dwindled away, and there is no sign now that there ever was an Ayr, N. C.
“Second Monday “
For 51 years, Forest City has been having a monthly “trade day,” when townsmen and their rural neighbors gather in a vacant lot to swap, buy and sell. It is held the second Monday in each month, and most of the traders and swappers are regular attendants. While produce, livestock and other farm items are on sale, the traders also bring household items, pets, second-hand clothes and nondescript junk in the hope of exchanging it for something more useful. It also attracts medicine men and other pitchmen from afar. The volume of business isn’t great, but the sociability is high, and it gives many people a good excuse to come to town.
Brittain Presbyterian Church at Westminster, in northern Rutherford, was established in 1768 on land granted by the crown. It is the oldest church west of the Catawba River, and the present building is its fourth. The first pastor was the Rev. Daniel Thatcher.
The section was the center of the first settlements of Rutherford, and Patriots camped here after the Battle of Kings Mountain. The church’s cemetery contains the graves of over 75 Rutherford Revolutionary soldiers and several Tories. Nearby are the remains of the old Westminster High School and junior college, which was founded in 1902, abandoned in 1907.
The Baptists organized Bill’s Creek Church in 1785. Oak Grove, Methodist, was organized by Bishop Asbury about 1792. In the opinion of Bishop Asbury, the settlers sorely needed spiritual help. His diary of 1795 contains this comment about Rutherford:
“My body is weak and so is my faith for this part of the vineyard … This country improves in cultivation, wickedness, stills and mills; a prophet of strong drink would be more acceptable to many of the people.”
Among those who helped Asbury was William Mills, a Tory veteran of Kings Mountain, and a figure in the history of Henderson County. One of his daughters married a Methodist minister, Rev. Samuel Edney, who carried Methodism across the mountains. Both Mills River and Mills Gap are named for him.