Windsor Historic District
The Windsor Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1991. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adapation copyright © 2012, The Gombach Group.
The Windsor Historic District reflects the incremental growth and evolution of a small Eastern North Carolina river port and county seat. Encompassing approximately 68 acres, the Windsor Historic District incorporates the entire area of the town as it was first laid out in 1768 and includes the traditional commercial district and oldest residential sections of the town. Founded as a port on the Cashie River, in 1774 Windsor was made the seat of Bertie County and has been the social and governmental center of the county ever since. Much of the town's prosperity and gradual, but steady, growth was derived from its status as Bertie County's leading agricultural and mercantile trading center — a status that it enjoyed into the mid-twentieth century. Windsor retains a number of residential, commercial, and religious structures exhibiting a wide range of architectural styles and vernacular building forms that mirror the town's major periods of growth. The first burst of construction occurred during the post-Revolutionary period, fueled by the completion of a new courthouse and the development on the adjacent Cashie River of an active ferry service and a port which linked the town with the Albemarle Sound and the ports of the Atlantic coast. The new town quickly became the county's established center for agricultural commerce, drawing farmers with its court functions as well as its convenient access to water transportation.
Like much of eastern North Carolina, Windsor experienced a serious period of economic depression and out-migration from the 1820's to the 1840's — bringing an economic stranglehold that was broken only by the remarkable success of Bertie County's cotton culture during the 1850's. From the late 1880's and 1890's until the 1920's, the wealth produced by the local lumber industry challenged the dominance of the long-standing agricultural staples of cotton, and later, peanuts — resulting in the construction of the majority of the contributing structures within the district, both residential and commercial. Growth and building activity continued at a gradual pace within the historic boundaries of the town until the onset of World War II. The period of significance extends from ca.1790, the date of earliest surviving structures, until 1941.
Windsor is the small county seat of Bertie County. Located in the costal plain of eastern North Carolina, the county is bounded on the east by the Chowan River and the Albemarle Sound, on the north by Hertford County, and to the west and south the Roanoke River divides it from Halifax and Martin counties. Established in 1722, Bertie County was settled by families from southern Virginia and the older northeastern counties of North Carolina. By 1755 only Craven and Edgecombe counties had larger taxable populations than Bertie; at the time of the first federal census in 1790 Bertie County had the third largest population in the state.
With such steady growth and the subsequent development of a stable agricultural economy, the need for a town as a commercial center was clear. In 1768 the colonial Assemby established the town of Windsor on a one-hundred-acre tract of land secured from planter William Gray. The legislative act noted that "the Land of William Gray...in Bertie County, is a Pleasant and Healthy Situation, and commodious for Trade and commerce," and that the town, located on the Cashie River, "will greatly promote the Trade and Navigation of said River." The act appointed five men as trustees to lay off the town and sell lots. The plan of the town was a simple grid, with three north-south streets, King, Queen, and York, intersected by the seven east-west streets of Water, Pitt, Gray, Dundee, Granville, Camden, and Punch. The town, consisting of 154 lots, was bounded on the south and east by the Cashie River. The buyers of the lots had three years in which to "erect, build, and finish, on each Lot so conveyed, one well framed or brick house, sixteen Feet Square at the least, and Ten Feet Pitch in the Clear, or Proportionable to such Dimensions." Only five lots were sold in the new town in 1768, but in 1773 it was noted that "several houses have been built in the said Town, especially Houses of Intertainment (sic], and sundry stores Established therein, and a good Ferry to and from the said Town." The town was incorporated by the legislature on January 6, 1787.
In 1773 ninety-four citizens of Bertie County successfully petitioned the Assembly to make Windsor the county seat, and in 1774 five commissioners were appointed by the Assembly to contract for a new courthouse and jail; the old courthouse had been located on the Cashie River a few miles north of Windsor. With its new status as the county seat, there must have been some growth in the town as twenty-four lots were sold between 1774 and 1777. This growth must have been slowed by the economic conditions caused by the Revolutionary War, for in 1777 the Assembly was petitioned to grant extensions to those who had failed to build structures on their lots within the three-year limit. The petition stated that it had been impossible for many inhabitants to build houses due to "the impossibility of securing nails and other necessary materials for building as well as from many other unavoidable hindrances occasioned by the present contest with Great Britain." These same "hindrances" delayed the construction of the courthouse itself, resulting in the granting of extensions on the contract for its construction in 1777, 1782, and 1784; it appears that Windsor's first courthouse was not finally completed until about 1785.
With the end of the Revolution, Windsor became the social and economic center of the county. Between 1790 and 1840, Bertie County's population declined — as did the populations in most of the counties of northeastern North Carolina — and this trend was reflected in the slow growth of Windsor. One Windsor resident, longing to move to Tennessee, described the town in 1826 as "this poor miserable dirty hole." By 1832 the town's population of 288 consisted of 128 whites and 160 blacks; twenty houses, eight stores, two taverns, four cotton gins, a print shop, and a turpentine distillery then made up the town. The town boasted a Masonic lodge which had been established as early as 1777, but dwindling membership forced it to be rechartered in 1822 as Charity Lodge No. 5. Educational opportunities appear to have been limited to private tutors and Oak Grove Academy for young men which was established just outside the town prior to 1832. The Methodist Church was organized in Windsor in 1811, but it was not able to erect a church building until 1854. The Baptists in Windsor had to travel to the Cashie Meeting House south of town until that congregation, founded in 1770, moved into a church building in Windsor in 1854. The Episcopalians constructed St. Thomas Church in 1839. There were two short-lived newspapers in the antebellum period, The Windsor Journal (1823) and The Windsor Herald (1823-33). The Bertie Lyceum was established in the town in 1850 but was disbanded in 1853; it was replaced by the Windsor Debating Club which remained active until the Civil War. Life in the small village must have been quiet, being centered on work, family, and church activities, and only occasionally interrupted by the arrival of a boat from Elizabeth City, North Carolina, or Norfolk, Virginia. Court sessions and market days must have offered some relief from routine activities of village life. One Windsor resident recorded a market day which could have been typical of the late 1850s: "Every Saturday was a full holiday for the farmers. On that day the vacant lots, the hotel stables and other available spaces would be filled with whinnying horses and braying jacks. By 12:00 half the visitors would be comfortably drunk, the Democrats with liquor from Skirven's bar on King Street, the Republicans and negroes with whiskey from Sheriff Bell's groggery on Granville Street. Presently dispute would arise between the fighting Caspers and Whites and Dudelowes (local families). Everyone would prick up his ears and rush to the scene of battle, where a dozen men were knocking, snatching, and biting one another with great impartiality."
The last decade of the antebellum period was a time of modest growth for Windsor. By 1850, the town's white population had declined from 128 in 1832 to 113, with 46 males and 67 females, but there were 4 lawyers, 5 doctors, 8 merchants, and 8 clerks at work in the town as well as 18 other men engaged in 10 other trades such as shoemaker, confectioner, mechanic, tailor, and painter. By 1860 the population totalled 384, an increase of 33% over the 1832 level of 288. A breakdown of the 1860 census showed that 170 whites, 28 free blacks and 186 slaves were then living in the town. Occupations represented included 10 coachmakers, 9 merchants, 5 clerks, 4 doctors, 3 seamstresses, and 2 lawyers. Twenty-nine other citizens were working in twenty-two other trades such as tailor, blacksmith, cabinetmaker, grocer, and carpenter. Real estate in Windsor was valued at $54,837 and personal property at $160,490.
The growth in Windsor's population and the significantly larger number of craftsmen working in a greater variety of trades reflected Bertie County's general prosperity immediately prior to the outbreak of the Civil War. By 1860 Bertie County had become an area of large cotton plantations; only four other counties in the state produced more bales of cotton. There were twenty-five plantations in the county with at least 1,000 acres, more than any other county in the state, and only Warren and Edgecombe counties had more than the thirty-five Bertie County slaveholders possessing at least fifty slaves. In 1860 the aggregate real and personal wealth per capita of Bertie County was $1,501, the twelfth highest in the state.
The 1850's prosperity in Bertie County enabled Windsor's Baptist and Methodist congregations to construct handsome new Greek Revival style churches, both of which have since been replaced with larger, more modern structures. One writer described the town as it appeared prior to 1861 as "a quaint little village, its dwellings flush with the streets, its yards and gardens in the rear." Of the buildings standing in the antebellum period, those which remain in the present Windsor Historic District are the J.B. Gillam House at 401 S. King Street and the Gray-Gillam House at 305 S. King Street and the Cherry House at 403 York Street, all being Georgian or transitional Georgian/Federal-style dwellings, and the Sutton-Hoggard House at 302 S. King Street and St. Thomas Episcopal Church at 207 W. Gray Street, both Greek Revival structures. The Civil War and its consequences put an end to Bertie County's prosperous plantation economy, as it did throughout the South. In January, 1864, Union soldiers raided Windsor and kidnapped the rector of St. Thomas Church, then returned later in the month to occupy the town; apparently little physical damage was done to the town. Because of the slow economic recovery during the 1860's and 1870's, Windsor did not experience much economic growth or increase in population. In 1870 the town's population was 427, with 199 white citizens and 228 black citizens; in 1883 the population had only increased to 461. Business directories for the period 1867 to 1878 show that the number of doctors, lawyers, merchants, and craftsmen remained at pre-war levels, with three or four lawyers and doctors in practice and from ten to twelve merchants operating general retail stores.
During the initial post-war period, the town's economy was sustained on a marginal level largely by its status as the seat of county government and as the traditional center of agricultural trade and commerce. The last two decades of the nineteenth century brought the development and rapid growth of the Windsor's lumber industry, accompanied by the renewal of active steamboat service, and, most importantly, the town's first railroad connection in 1898. The construction of logging railroads and sawmills throughout the county led to the creation of an industry that was second only to agriculture, bringing to Windsor an extended period of increased prosperity and building activity that lasted until the late 1920's.
The growth of the lumber industry was dramatic in its swiftness and magnitude. In 1872, there were only three saw mills in the entire county — all combination grist- and saw-mills and all located in Windsor. By 1884, Windsor could boast of having seven active saw mills, as well as three corn mills; three additional saw mills were operating in other parts of Bertie County. After 1890, the actual number of mills declined as operations were consolidated and the more successful mills grew in size and output.
Between the 1880's and 1890's, the number of merchants in Windsor doubled, with twenty-one to twenty-eight firms operating general stores, hardware stores, drugstores, and saloons. In addition, a significant number of new businesses appeared, such as milliners, lumber dealers, insurance agents, fertilizer agents, and jewelers. After a fire destroyed much of the business district in 1888, the town commissioners prohibited wooden buildings along King and Granville streets; many of the brick stores standing today were built then by the town's growing business community. In addition to the numerous lumber concerns, a small industrial base developed in Windsor in the late nineteenth century with the establishment of several cotton spindle, coach, and wagon manufacturers; a large number of blacksmiths and millwrights worked in these industries.
By 1890 the town's population had grown to 522, and Windsor was connected to Norfolk, Virginia, by weekly steamboat service; steamers had been docking in Windsor since 1874. In 1898 Windsor saw the arrival of the railroad in the form of the Wellington and Powellsville Railroad, a twenty-two mile long line that connected the town with Ahoskie in Hertford County. In addition to the improved transportation facilities of the late nineteenth century, Windsor saw the establishment of the Windsor Academy, the Rosefield Institute, and the Rankin-Richards Institute, a school for blacks. A number of newspapers flourished in this period, including The Albemarle Times (1873), The Windsor Ledger (1884), Bertie Ledger-Advance (1887), The Home Journal (1890), and The Orient (1897); The Windsor Ledger and The Aulander Advance merged in 1926 to form The Bertie Ledger-Advance which remains the county's leading paper.
In 1887 an entry for Windsor appeared in George I. Nowitzky's Sound and River Cities of North Carolina which described the town's main street and river transportation: "The main thoroughfare, King Street, is well shaded by large elms, which form so perfect an arch that the sun has little chance to throw her rays upon any part of it. It is pleasant to stand upon the deck of the steamer "Bertie" on a spring morning and look through this green tunnel nearly a mile in length. One line of steamers, the Cashie Navigation Company, brings passengers and freight to her wharf daily; and a number of other steam-boats that make irregular trips tie up at her landings."
A map drawn in 1953 representing Windsor as it appeared in the 1890-1895 period shows that the number of dwellings in the town was less than forty, and that most were scattered along King Street with a few on Queen Street. The business district, as it is today, was located at the intersection of King and Granville streets. Among the most notable of the buildings standing in 1895 which remain today in the Windsor Historic District are the brick Spruill Building (125-127 S. King Street), the imposing courthouse (1887) (northwest corner of King and Dundee streets), the Freeman-Mizelle House at 101 Granville Street, and the Mizelle House (309-311 S. King Street) and Livius F. Pierce House at 304 N. King Street, all being examples of eclectic Victorian architecture.
After the turn of the century, a number of families moved from their farms in the county into Windsor, filling in the gaps on King Street with large and attractive residences, while maintaining their farms in the surrounding county. The expansion of the local lumber industry continued into the first two decades of the twentieth century, bringing with it employment opportunities and the resulting growth of the economy; population rose rapidly from less than 600 in 1890 to approximately 1800 in 1924. By 1905 Windsor had an office of the Chowan and Roanoke Telephone Company, and the next year saw the first automobile in town, a Maxwell roadster owned by Mr. A.S. Rascoe. Water mains and fire hydrants were installed in the 1920s, but it was not until 1939 that the town purchased a fire truck. In 1926 a large brick high school building was constructed. With 99 books and $50, the Windsor Public Library was established in 1937; in 1942 it became the county's public library and is now known as the Lawrence Memorial Library, housed in a modern building constructed in 1966 on York Street.
The town's physical growth in the twentieth century has been gradual. The city limits established in 1768 were not expanded until 1883, and have since been changed several times to incorporate small subdivisions and other growth, mainly on the north and west sides of town. In 1959 the small town of Bertie on the south side of the Cashie River merged with Windsor. Since the 1890s, nearly eighty buildings, mainly residences, have been constructed in the area of the historic district, filling in the blocks of King, Queen, and York streets. The business district remains concentrated on King Street above the courthouse and west along both sides of Granville Street. The 1970 population of the town was 2,199, only slightly larger than the 1924 population of 1,800. As the county seat, Windsor remains the governmental center of the county but since the 1950's has ceased to enjoy the commercial and social dominance it once held over the county. With the improvement of the state's highway system and the easy accessibility provided by the automobile, the larger neighboring towns of Edenton in Chowan County, Ahoskie in Hertford County, and Williamston in Martin County have come to overshadow Windsor's commercial and social attractions.
Perhaps because of this slow development, Windsor has retained intact enough of its physical fabric from the turn of the nineteenth century through the early twentieth century to form an historic district representing the evolution of a small eastern North Carolina town. The town's main thoroughfare, King Street, remains tree-lined and residential, with houses exhibiting the Georgian, Greek Revival, Victorian, Bungaloid, and Colonial Revival styles of architecture. The business district possesses a number of two-story commercial structures dating from the turn of the century which feature handsome brickwork. While only a few of the buildings in the Windsor Historic District deserve special individual merit, the district includes a cohesive collection of buildings whose significance lies in being representative of their kind and typical for their time and place.
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