The North Main Street Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1999. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2012, The Gombach Group.
The North Main Street Historic District, an extremely well-preserved residential district containing sixty-four principal historic buildings, primarily houses, built from the mid-nineteenth century to 1949. It is the most intact late nineteenth and early twentieth century residential neighborhood in Graham. Established in 1851 as the county seat of Alamance County, Graham evolved during the second half of the century as a small trading and government center surrounded by rural estates owned by such industrialist and professional families as the Holts and the Kernodles. A few miles away, Company Shops, the repair shops for the North Carolina Railroad established in 1855, began to attract textile mills in the 1880s and soon outgrew the county seat, renaming itself Burlington in 1887. Graham, lacking railroad access, experienced a smaller amount of mill development in the late nineteenth century. By 1911 there was sufficient economic interaction between Burlington, Graham and Haw River, a mill community on the Haw River a few miles to the north, that an interurban trolley was established between the three towns.
The North Main Street Historic District contains handsome residences built for mill owners, superintendents, lawyers, doctors, educators, merchants and others from the 1890s to the 1940s. A small group of the houses built in the third quarter of the nineteenth century as the seats of rural estates stand as a reminder of Graham's rural past. These include the ca. 1860 Holt-Klapp House, the 1879 Parker-Long House, and the 1875 Staley-Kernodle House. Other landmarks of local historical and architectural significance are the 1903 brick Gothic Revival style Graham Graded School and the Graham Methodist Episcopal Church of 1914. The locally significant district's period of significance begins with the oldest building, constructed about 1860, and continues to 1949, the last year in which the fifty-year-old criterion is met.
Historical Background and Community Development Context
The North Main Street Historic District has evolved over more than one hundred years to its present dense appearance. Graham itself was created out of farmland as the county seat of Alamance County, carved out of Orange County in 1849. An appointed commission purchased seventy-five acres in the county's geographical center for the county seat. After a heated debate in the General Assembly, Giles Mebane, sponsor of the bill creating Alamance County, named the county seat Graham in honor of the contemporary governor, William A. Graham. Silas M. Lane, a local surveyor, laid out the town in a square extending from present Market Street on the north side of the courthouse to McAden Street on the south side. Once completed, the plan contained sixty-eight lots on seven streets surrounding a smaller square reserved for the courthouse and jail. In January of 1851, Graham was incorporated.
Many of the sixty-eight original lots were sold at an auction sale in 1851, while the rest were purchased at later dates. During the town's first few decades it established a strong presence in the region as a trading and legal center. The first courthouse, a two-story brick building, was erected in Graham on the Court Square in 1851. Mercantile stores, small brick and frame offices, and several hotels were built surrounding the courthouse. A saloon, drugstore, female seminary, and several private dwellings were also erected in the area. Graham quickly emerged as a trading center not only for Alamance County residents but for those in the neighboring counties of Orange, Chatham, Caswell, and Randolph.
The mid-1850s brought about a major decision for the town leaders. The North Carolina Railroad, the only east-west trunk line through the state, made plans to lay tracks through the county seat and make the town the site for its repair shops. Town leaders decided that the railroad would pose a negative impact upon the trading center, disturb the operation of the court, and possibly destroy the carefully laid out town plan. The decision was made that the North Carolina Railroad was not allowed to lay any tracks within one mile of the courthouse and another location had to be selected for the repair shops. As a result, the North Carolina Railroad bypassed Graham and laid its tracks two miles northwest of Graham to create Company Shops (now Burlington) in 1856. The decision to deny the railroad to build through Graham proved to be a momentous one. Because of its advantages as the hub of east-west railroad traffic in North Carolina, Burlington attracted textile mills and soon outgrew the county seat, while Graham remained a small country town.
Until the late nineteenth century, Graham remained strictly rural in character, with residential development dispersed on large tracts scattered around the courthouse. Edwin M. Holt, pioneering Piedmont industrialist, and his family played a major role in Graham's history. In the 1870s Holt built a home for each of his three daughters along South Main Street, two of which still stand as major landmarks. About 1873 Holt built an Italianate villa for his daughter Emma and her husband Captain James White House at 213 South Main Street. This was recently restored as the Alamance County Art Center. In the adjoining block at 141 South Main Street, Holt erected another villa in 1878 for Mary Holt and her husband Captain James N. Williamson. This landmark now serves as the NationsBank office. Holt's son, industrialist L. Banks Holt, owned a nearly 500-acre tract south of the courthouse, and in 1884 built a splendid Victorian villa (now demolished) in the center of it, along present-day South Maple Street.
The original northern town boundary, West Market Street, marks the southern boundary of the North Main Street Historic District. During the later 1800s, the area in which the North Main Street Historic District is situated remained strictly rural, with scattered houses similar to those built south of the courthouse. The east side of the 400 block of North Main Street was the old James H. Holt Estate. Holt, an industrialist associated with his father, Edwin M. Holt, bought the seventeen acres in 1868, and built a house on the east side of North Main Street in the curve of the road where Albright Avenue now intersects, about 1870. Holt moved to Burlington in the late 1870s. The house was demolished in 1974 and Graham public housing was constructed on the site. In the 1870s Captain E.S. Parker purchased a forty-acre tract of land on the east side of North Main Street, in the 500-600 blocks between present day Water and Providence Streets and built a house, now 609 North Main Street. Parker, a lawyer, founded the Alamance Gleaner in 1875, and published the newspaper until 1880 when he sold it to J.D. Kernodle. Parker farmed his land, raising cattle, hogs, chickens, and vegetables, and had an apple orchard at the southeast corner of present day Parker Street and North Main Street. The Staley family bought a four-acre tract on North Main Street in 1875 and built a two-story house, purchased in 1889 by J.D. Kernodle, publisher of the Gleaner, who moved it about 1900 to 315 North Maple Street, where it still stands. The vernacular Italianate style house at 309 North Maple Street was built in the mid-nineteenth century by the Holt family (either Joseph H. or his son the Rev. John H.), who owned a large tract in this vicinity.
Graham's quiet rural atmosphere began to change in the 1880s when the textile mill boom of the region first entered town. The Scott family built the first two textile mills in Graham. James Sidney Scott and his brother-in-law, W.C. Donnell, financed construction of the first cotton mill on West Harden Street in 1882. Shortly after, L. Banks Holt bought the mill and renamed it Oneida Mills. Although still standing, it is no longer in operation. In 1885 James Sidney Scott and his sons, J.L. Scott and H.W. Scott, constructed the Sidney Cotton Mill in north Graham, still in operation. Sidney Cotton Mills manufactured textile goods until 1929 when the firm became the Sidney Hosiery Mills. West of the former Oneida Mills office, a two-story brick structure was erected in 1898 for the Scott-Mebane Manufacturing Company. H.W. Scott and J.K. Mebane started the firm, which was financially backed by their mutual father-in-law, L. Banks Holt. The presence of textile mills accelerated Graham's growth, and the solid streetscapes of stylish houses along North Main Street, North Maple Street, Albright and Long Avenues reflect the growth from the 1890s to the 1940s. Most of the farmhouses that surrounded the courthouse in the late 1800s have been demolished in the twentieth century as their estates were subdivided and newer residences built.
During Graham's early history, Elm Street, the east-west main axis, was considered the principal street, but as Graham developed, Main Street became the more important artery, probably because the Graham depot was built in the mid-1850s along the North Carolina Railroad tracks one mile north of town at the terminus of the street. North Main Street was the link between downtown Graham and the North Carolina Railroad depot. Before 1888, the street was a plank road running from Graham's business district one mile north to the Graham depot. Passengers and mail were carried by stage coach to and from the depot. It was not until 1892 that Graham's streets were officially named by the town commissioners.
During the 1890s and early 1900s the district assumed its current street plan and lot subdivision pattern. Prominent businessmen, physicians, and lawyers began building houses north of the town square along North Main and Maple Streets. Albright Avenue, Long Avenue, and Marshall Street, the east section of the North Main Street Historic District, occupy the farmland of the old James H. Holt Estate, subdivided in the 1890s. Albright Avenue was laid out by W.P. Albright, who acquired the Captain James A. Graham House at the southeast corner of North Main Street and Albright Avenue. (The First United Methodist Church now stands on the site of the demolished house.) In the words of local historian Durward Stokes, Albright Avenue's "opening provided numerous residential lots for sale." An observer noted in 1930 that there were more than a "dozen nice homes where once was a field devoted to the usual farm crops and a pasture for stock." William Long, a dentist and local fire chief, built one of the first houses in this new section, the large two-story gabled Queen Anne style house at 200 Albright Avenue, around the turn of the century. In the 1890s A.L. Bain, a superintendent of Oneida Mills had a two-and-a-half story Queen Anne style house built on the west side of North Maple Street. The house was later sold to Dr. J.B. Thompson. Dr. Salesmen and brothers Ben Farrell and Robert Farrell, built a frame I-house and a Victorian cottage respectively in the early twentieth century on the west side of North Maple Street. Three pyramidal-hipped roofed cottages on raised foundations were built in a row along the east side of North Main Street. One was built as the Methodist Episcopal parsonage while the other two were apparently built for school superintendents and teachers of the Graham Graded School across the street.
After a 1901 failed attempt to establish a streetcar in the county, Graham was first introduced to this form of public transportation in October of 1911. Plans for the line were started in 1908 by the Burgrahaw Traction Company and nearly completed in 1909. The plans were delayed by company financial troubles leaving the car line to be sold at public auction. The newly-formed Piedmont Railway & Electric Company purchased it for $10,000 and completed the line by 1911. The car line began in the northern section of Burlington at the E.M. Holt Plaid Mills and wound its way through town stopping at the railroad station, major streets, and Harden Junction. At this junction, a branch line extended east stopping near the west end of the bridge over Haw River. The main line continued south across the railroad to Climax Street in Graham thence one block east to North Main Street and down that street to a stop in front of the Graham courthouse.
The North Main Street Historic District contains two historic school buildings, the Graham Academy, built in the late 1890s by the local Presbyterian Church at the corner of North Marshall Street and Albright Avenue, and the 1903 Graham Graded School, located in the 600 block of North Main Street on the west side. Both schools are now adaptively used for other functions. The Graded School, Graham's town school until the 1960s, resulted from an appeal by townspeople for a new public school. About 1896 town officials appropriated $500 to purchase the lot on the west side of North Main Street between present College and Parker Streets, from L. Banks Holt. The 1891 school building on Melville Street was moved to the new location by contractor, N.R. Wood. In 1903 a request was made to the General Assembly for the creation of a Graham School District and for a graded school financially supported by the town. As a result the Graham Graded Public School opened in December of 1903 under the superintendency of C.R. McIver. The two-story brick structure valued at $16,174.18 replaced the frame 1891 school which was dismantled in 1906. The school had eight teachers serving 350 pupils in nine grades.
By 1914 Graham remained a quiet residential community when compared to Burlington. Graham's growth was inhibited by its geographical location as it was bounded by the textile community of Haw River to the northeast, the rapidly growing city of Burlington to the north and west, and the vast L. Banks Holt estate covering most of the southern area of town. This development ring around the town shaped Graham's future. New industries increasingly located in Burlington rather than in Graham, causing Burlington's population to grow four times faster than that of Graham. Graham, however, took pride in its quiet, genteel atmosphere.
The arrival of the automobile doomed streetcar transportation, and the trolley line ceased to run in 1923. Residential development continued in the district until World War II, when all but a few of the lots along North Main, Albright, Maple and the other streets in the district had been developed. The presence of the Graham Graded School and several churches stabilized the middle-class neighborhood.
Presently, in the late twentieth century, the regional growth of the Burlington area is affecting the North Main Street Historic District as well as other Graham neighborhoods. The construction of Interstate 85 one mile to the south of the courthouse in 1957 has drawn development in that direction, away from North Main Street. The Graham Graded School closed in 1971. The decline of the textile mill industry has eliminated many jobs from the town, and changed Graham into a suburban community from where people drive to jobs in Burlington and other nearby cities, such as Chapel Hill. The Graham business district has struggled to maintain its economic stability. Perhaps the major disruptive force in the North Main Street Historic District is heavy traffic, both automobiles and trucks, along North Main Street, the main artery leading through town to northern destinations. The Graham Planning Department hopes that the prestige that will result from listing in the National Register will help the district to attract new residents and will encourage restoration of the old houses. Rehabilitation Tax Credits available from both the federal and state governments may bring a much-needed boost to rehabilitation activity in the North Main Street Historic District.
Community Development and Architecture Context:
The North Main Street Historic District represents the overlay of a grid-patterned residential neighborhood onto the nineteenth century farmscape that surrounded the small county seat of Graham. Rural estates owned by the well-known industrialist clan of the Edwin M. Holts and lawyers such as Capt. E.S. Parker and J.D. Kernodle were broken up at the turn of the century to create lots for town houses. The Parker House, Kernodle House, and Holt House still stand, although moved and remodeled. The four solid blocks along North Main Street, and the flanking blocks of North Maple, Albright, and other streets that compose the North Main Street Historic District represent middle-class development spreading from this main artery that lead from the courthouse to the depot on the North Carolina Railroad between the 1890s and the 1940s. An interurban streetcar line, called the Burlington, Graham and Haw River Line, ran along North Main Street from 1911 to 1923, turning the area into a streetcar suburb of Burlington, where most of the county's economic activity originated. Burlington, the location selected for the North Carolina Railroad's repair shops when rejected by Graham, became a textile mill center that has nearly gobbled up Graham.
Residents of North Main Street were not mill workers, but merchants, managers and professionals who built along the trolley line because of its location along prestigious Main Street. A number of the most significant houses along North Main Street were erected during the streetcar era: the bungalow of Edward S. Parker Jr. at 601 North Main; the Neoclassical style Parker-Long House remodelled by lawyer J. Dolph Long at 609 North Main Street; the stately Colonial Revival style house for Donnell E. Scott, owner of the Scott Mill, at 619 North Main Street; the house at 701 North Main Street for former Elon College president Dr. W.S. Long; and the Dutch Colonial house at 707 North Main Street for Walter Smith, owner of Smith Feed Company.
Comparable streetscapes of streetcar era architecture exist in a number of Piedmont North Carolina cities. Greensboro's first trolley, completed in 1902, ran from downtown to South Greensboro, to Proximity Mill Village, and to Lindley Park at the west terminus (many trolley developers placed rural parks at the terminus as an incentive to ride the trolley). This line provided transportation out to Proximity Cotton Mill, northeast of town, as well as other mills throughout Greensboro. Certain streets along the trolley route, such as West Market Street, became prime sites for fashionable dwellings. The finest houses in the new Charlotte suburb of Dilworth [see Dilworth Historic District], laid out in the 1890s, were built along East Boulevard, the route of the trolley line from downtown Charlotte out to Latta Park. In Winston-Salem the fashionable suburb of West End [see West End Historic District] developed from the 1890s to the 1920s along the streetcar route from the business district out to the Zinzendorf Hotel, a resort destination. One of Durham's first streetcar lines, established in 1901, ran out to Lakewood Park [see Lakewood Park Historic District]; another to Trinity Park, a subdivision where development was densest close to the trolley line. In nearby Burlington, the most exclusive suburb that developed in the early twentieth century was the West Davis Street-Fountain Place neighborhood [see West Davis Street-Fountain Place Historic District], located just west of the town limits and served by the Burlington, Graham and Haw River Trolley Line.
The trolley lines controlled suburban development in North Carolina Piedmont towns from the 1890s to the 1920s. The prime building sites were located directly on the trolley lines. Just as previous generations had built their Italianate villas and Queen Anne showplaces along the railroad tracks, so early twentieth century homeowners selected the choice lots along the avenues and boulevards where the trolleys ran to erect their large Queen Anne, Neoclassical Revival, Colonial Revival, and Craftsman residences. Although Graham's trolley did not begin to run until ten to twenty years later than those in larger Piedmont cities such as Durham, Greensboro, and Charlotte, it had the same result — the development of a fashionable avenue of middle-class houses.
Bishir, Catherine W. and Lawrence S. Earley, Early Twentieth-Century Suburbs in North Carolina. Raleigh: North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, 1985.
Black, Allison H. An Architectural History of Burlington, N.C., Historic District Commission of Burlington, 1987.
Brown, Claudia Roberts, Graham Historic District National Register Nomination, On file at the State Historic Preservation Office, 1983.
Burlington, Graham and Haw River City Directory, Piedmont Directory Company, Asheville, 1909-10 and 1929- 30.
Hill's Burlington City Directory. Hill Directory Co., Inc. Richmond, VA. 1935, 1948, 1952-53, and 1954.
Lounsbury, Carl. Alamance County Architectural Heritage, The Alamance Historic Properties Commission, 1980.
Interviews with the following Graham residents: Dan Homer, Drucilla Hearn, and Nita McMullen, November 1998; Helen Walton, Burlington, December 30, 1998.
Stokes, Durward. Auction and Action: Historical Highlights of Graham, North Carolina. The City of Graham, N.C. 1985.
Whitaker, Walter. Centennial History of Alamance County 1849-1949. Alamance County Historical Association, Burlington 1949, 2nd printing 1974.
Alamance County Tax Map of Graham, North Carolina, Map No. 151, 1948.
Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, Graham, North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, N.C.: 1910, 1924, and 1931.
† M. Ruth Little and Michelle Kullen, Longleaf Hisoric Resources, North Main Street Historic District, Graham, Alamance County, N.C., nomination document, 1999, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.