Catawba Historic District
The Catawba Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986. 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 Catawba Historic District in the town of Catawba is significant as a remarkably intact example of a small railroad and commercial center of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, composed chiefly of commercial buildings, residences, and churches dating from the 1870s through the 1920s. The Western North Carolina Railroad constructed the station at Catawba in 1858 as part of an important link between Salisbury, in the western Piedmont, and Asheville, in the mountains. In 1893, the town of Catawba Station acquired its present name, an indication of the community's increasing importance as a center of trade. Although some industry, including a tobacco factory and small textile mills, at times provided employment for the several hundred inhabitants of Catawba, the condition of local cotton and grain farms had a greater impact on the town's development.
Catawba originated about 1858 as a station along the Western North Carolina Railroad and developed primarily as a center of trade for the east-central section of Catawba County. Spurred by the railroad, farmers' need of a commercial outlet, and, to a lesser extent, by the textile and tobacco industries, Catawba Station grew during the nineteenth century into an incorporated town bearing its present name. Development continued during the first quarter of the twentieth century, but the remarkably intact Catawba Historic District, composed chiefly of early twentieth century commercial buildings and dwellings that span a half century of the town's history, reflects Catawba's lack of significant change during the last fifty years.
The development of the Western North Carolina Railroad, a manifestation of North Carolina's antebellum prosperity and interest in internal improvements, led to the establishment of Catawba Station. During the 1840's and 1850s, North Carolina shared the nation's increasing economic well being. Agricultural reform and development of mining, fishing, and manufacturing enterprises — including textile mills — facilitated this growth of material wealth. Railroad construction, including lines financed in part by the state, also contributed to the favorable conditions. In 1855, the General Assembly chartered the Western North Carolina Railroad and the state purchased two-thirds of its stock. Planned as a link between Salisbury and Asheville, the railroad stretched to a point thirteen miles east of Morganton by the summer of 1860.
The company completed work in the vicinity of Catawba Station between 1858 and 1860. The engineer reported in August 1858 that the station house at the Catawba River was being constructed. By the end of the year, grading had been completed from Statesville to the river, and the bridge spanning the Catawba lacked only one pier. A year later, trains traveled as far as the river and additional track awaited completion of the bridge. At that time, the three granite piers had been erected and workmen were framing the bridge. The chief engineer told the company in August 1860, "The Catawba River bridge has been completed, notwithstanding the many prejudicial reports to the contrary, and I challenge a comparison with any other bridge in the Union, of similar construction, either for stability, workmanship, architectural skill, or symmetrical portion."
The construction of the new station led the United States government to establish a post office at Catawba Station, but the Civil War prevented additional development that might otherwise have occurred. A post office, which had opened in 1856 at Chestnut Grove in Iredell County, was moved to Catawba Station in December 1859. Gilbert M. Sherrill served as the first postmaster. The Civil War halted railroad construction and resulted in deterioration of the Western North Carolina Railroad. Although tracks finally reached Old Fort in 1869, financial problems prevented the important East-West link from fulfilling the goals of its original proponents until about 1880.
Completion of the Western North Carolina Railroad and other rail facilities coincided with and fostered North Carolina's recovery from the economic hardships caused by the Civil War. During the 1870s and 1880s, the tobacco and cotton textile industries expanded, and production of furniture emerged as a significant enterprise. The state's industrial revolution stimulated rapid growth of cities and a significant increase in per capita wealth. In Catawba County, two textile mills located on the Catawba River near Catawba Station were in operation in 1867. The Long Island plant, owned by the firm of Powell and Shuford, had been established long before the war. Powell and Tate managed a mill at Granite Shoal. Production in North Carolina of such crops as oats, cotton, and tobacco reached pre-war levels by the 1880s, but high taxes and interest rates, generally low prices for crops, unfair railroad practices, and a lack of inexpensive labor often prevented farmers from sharing the state's increasing wealth. After the war, Catawba County's farmers emphasized the production of corn, wheat, oats, and cotton; by 1884, the county ranked as one of the state's most productive wheat-growing areas.
After the war, Catawba Station, buoyed by its rail facilities, slowly developed as a trade center for the surrounding farm country. The growth that had taken place prior to 1872 led the General Assembly that year to incorporate the community as Catawba Station. Lawmakers established corporate limits one-half of a mile in every direction from the train depot which stood north of the present historic district. At that time, three general stores located in or near the town filled some of the needs of townspeople and area farmers. In addition, Frank Powell operated a tannery. By the beginning of the next decade, Catawba Station had grown to include 142 persons who lived in 24 households. Among them were merchants Jeptha U. Long, Henry D. Lequent, Michael Rufty, Alexander H. Houston, Jacob H. Trollinger, and William H. Trott. Quintus M. Little maintained a medical practice, and Alfred M. Yoder worked as a carpenter. Hosea A. Darner made shoes, and Sidney Reinhart, a Negro, labored as a blacksmith. Noah Fry, a carriage maker, fulfilled the community's transportation needs. Additional residents included Henry F. Powell, a shoe merchant; sewing machine agent William L. Moore; and a number of farmers, farm laborers, and Negro household servants. John E. Forney and James Phillips, two of several boarders in town, worked as telegraph operators — probably at the train depot.
Events during the 1870s undoubtedly gave Catawba Station an air of permanence. Dr. Q.M. Little and general store owner J.H. Trollinger built substantial two-story homes south of the train depot (Quintus M. Little House on West 1st Street; Trollinger-Sherrill House on South 1st Avenue). The Baptist Church organized a congregation in 1873 and subsequently erected a church on W. 1st Street. In 1874, the Methodists established their church.
Influenced by the railroad, changing agricultural conditions, and the increasing importance of the tobacco industry, Catawba Station developed erratically during the remainder of the century. Considerable growth occurred in the 1880s. By 1884, Jeptha U. Long and John W. Blackwelder, both inhabitants of Catawba Station, had established sawmills, and William H. Trott had opened a hotel. A school had been built northwest of the Methodist Church prior to 1886. A spirited correspondent of the Newton Enterprise claimed in December 1887 that the town was very lively and that business had been good. Splendid crops had lifted the spirits of area farmers. The Rev. Mr. Cooper, pastor of the Methodist Episcopal Church, had bought a lot and was building a nice cottage. The Methodist Church planned to build a parsonage on its newly acquired lot in the near future. Several residents sought lots on which to build dwellings. The following spring the Newton Enterprise noted the arrival of a new guano agent, the delivery of lumber for the Methodist parsonage, and J.H. Trollinger's work on a neat cottage in Black Diamond. A year later an enthusiastic observer claimed that "Catawba has awaked from her long sleep, wiped her eyes and gone to work. She is on a boom."
Perhaps the most significant manifestation of the "boom" was the creation in 1889 of a syndicate for the manufacture of tobacco products. Beginning in the 1870s, a few farmers in Catawba County and a warehouseman in Hickory had promoted tobacco as a solution to the area's agricultural woes which had been caused in part by low prices for cotton and other crops. During the 1870s and 1880s, farmers in the western Piedmont and the Blue Ridge Mountains grew increasing quantities of leaf. This trend coincided with the proliferation of large tobacco' factories in such cities as Durham and Winston, as well as smaller concerns in other communities. Investors, including James H. Sherrill and John W. Blackwelder, organized the Sherrill Tobacco Company in the spring of 1889 with the intention of competing with factories in Durham and Winston. Subsequently the firm erected on Main Street a three-story brick building in which to manufacture plug tobacco for chewing. Their brands included "Ten Cent Cotton," a reflection of low cotton prices of the period; "16 to 1," a reference to the controversy concerning the coinage of gold and silver; and "Little Marian," named for the daughter of a local physician. The company failed prior to March 1900 when the factory building was being considered as the location for cotton spinning machinery. The Sherrill Tobacco Company, like a host of other small firms in North Carolina, could not compete with the powerful American Tobacco Company.
Another large company, the Southern Railway System, apparently had a more consistently positive effect on Catawba Station. The state, in the 1880s, sold the Western North Carolina Railroad to the Richmond and Danville Railroad. That company, in turn, became a part of the Southern Railway in 1894. While in the hands of the latter system, Catawba Station developed as a center of distribution for railroad crossties. The railroad hired additional employees who boarded or established residences in Catawba Station. In 1900, railroad laborers included John B. Gibbs, William Asbury, and Clora Shuford. Ten years later, seven railroad workers lived in Catawba Station: a Negro cook, three "operators," a section foreman, an engineer, and a Negro brakeman.
During the 1890s, the railroad undoubtedly reinforced Catawba's continued emergence as a commercial center. Perhaps in response to the town's gradual metamorphosis as a commercial center south of the depot, the General Assembly in 1893 incorporated it as Catawba and established town limits one-half of a mile in every direction from the store operated by Jacob D. Little. This act soon led to tangible civic improvements, including new streets and sidewalks.
New business enterprises and services changed the built environment and gave Catawba a more progressive, energetic air. Among several new structures was the two-story brick store built about 1895 by J.U. Long at the northwest corner of Main Street and Central Avenue. The Newton Enterprise in 1896 noted Catawba's three dry goods stores, two shoe stores, barber shop, and two tanyards. The large tannery of Smith and Price manufactured large quantities of leather, shoes, saddles, harnesses, and horse collars. The Abernethy family of Newton installed a small telephone exchange in Catawba in 1898. Several doctors opened offices prior to 1900. Charles A. Little, son of surgeon Q.M. Little, practiced dentistry, and Thomas W. Long, a surgeon, lived in town by the turn of the century. Jeptha Long's son, Fred Y. Long, also began a medical practice. Later he erected a two-room office and a two-story residence on opposite sides of South 2nd Avenue.
Despite these improvements, Catawba's population, which was 196 in 1890, had dropped to 169 by 1900. The townspeople lived in 32 dwellings, an increase of only 8 since 1880.
Conditions in Catawba, like the rest of North Carolina, improved during the first quarter of the twentieth century. Farmers experienced greater prosperity, and the development of hydroelectric power and improved rail facilities and highways fostered considerable expansion of the textile, tobacco, and furniture industries. An increase in the number of banking institutions also reflected the more favorable economy. In Catawba, the prosperity was manifested by a slow increase in population, establishment of new businesses, construction of residences and institutional buildings, and civic improvements.
Catawba experienced a slow increase in population during the first decades of the century. By 1900 the number of residents, 222, surpassed that of 1890. Among the new townspeople were Bart A. Lowrance, a shoemaker, who operated his business in a small frame structure facing East Central Avenue, and Edgar M. Crider, a house plasterer. A number of railroad workers, merchants, and farmers also lived in town. One of these farmers, a Negro woman named Mira Shuford, was a middle-aged widow. Catawba's citizens lived in forty-nine dwellings, an increase of seventeen in ten years. Among the new or remodeled houses was that of dry goods merchant L.H. Lowrance, located near the high school in the southwestern part of town. The population continued to rise, reaching 250 in 1920 and 340 by 1930.
Development continued at a somewhat accelerated pace during the 1910s and 1920s. New enterprises and services reinforced the town's role as a center of trade. Investors opened Catawba's first financial institution: Peoples Bank, in a two-story brick building about 1912 on Main Street. J.H. Pitts served as president, and William B. Walker assumed the position of cashier. Catawba Inn, which had been established by J.U. Long as early as 1905, added a livery stable prior to 1912. J.H.L. Coulter and Charles A. Little formed the partnership of Coulter and Little as early as 1912, and in 1919 purchased the old tobacco factory property, to which they moved their general store. They sold clothing, shoes, staples, sewing machines, furniture, floor coverings, country produce, and other goods. By 1922, the company also offered undertaking services. Catawba Drug Company, formed in 1915 by F.N. Long, Vernon Long, Glenn Long, and W.B. Walker, soon constructed a two-story building on Main Street. Additional enterprises included a farm machinery and supply house operated by Ralph R. Boggs and Catawba Ginning Company, established about 1915. The firm of Coulter and Little maintained the town's telephone exchange in the former home of Q. M. Little after 1919, when they acquired the property. By 1916, Catawba supported two dentists and a lawyer, Mayor Oscar Sherrill.
A variety of construction activity during the 1920s reflected Catawba's prosperity. Dr. Charles A. Little erected a two-story brick dwelling in the southwest part of town on S. Second Avenue. A masonry bridge built in 1928, which bore handsome lamps, undoubtedly impressed travelers approaching Catawba from the north. Locals expressed considerable pride in their two-story brick school, which was completed in 1921 at a cost of $27,000. One resident proudly stated that ...we shall always look upon (the school) as the very best investment we have ever made....Because we have come to believe that our assets primarily do not consist of lands and gold and bonds and automobiles, but that the greatest gift that God ever gave man are the children that bless his home.
Additional civic improvements enhanced the quality of life in Catawba. Electric lights were installed in 1925. The town acquired paved streets and sidewalks, beginning in 1927 and 1928.
Although Catawba experienced slow population growth and acquired small industries and some new houses within and outside expanded corporate limits, the built environment and atmosphere of the town underwent little change in the half century after the 1920s. The number of residents rose to 504 by 1960. New enterprises, including several hosiery mills, two building contractors, and a furniture plant provided employment at various times. Nevertheless, today most business activity still takes place in Main Street's early commercial structures, many of the town's citizens inhabit dwellings that date from the 1870s through the 1920s, and open fields punctuate the landscape — facts that underscore Catawba's slow development from a railroad stop to a small commercial center.
Branson, Levi (ed.). Branson's North Carolina Business Directory, 1867, 1872, 1884, 1897.
Catawba County Records. Deeds. Archives, Division of Archives and History, Raleigh.
Catawba News-Enterprise (Newton).
Fourth Annual Report of the Western North-Carolina Railroad Company. Document No.18, Executive and Legislative Documents, Session 1858-1859.
Hickory Daily Record.
Lefler, Hugh Talmage and Albert Ray Newsome. North Carolina: The History of a Southern State. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, third edition, 1973.
Observer-News-Enterprise Catawba Report (Newton).
The North Carolina Year Book and Business Directory. Raleigh: News and Observer, 1905, 1910, 1912, 1916.
Preslar, Charles J., Jr. A History of Catawba County. Salisbury: Catawba County Historical Association, 1954.
Private Laws of North Carolina, 1871-1872.
Private Laws of North Carolina, 1893.
Proceedings of the Western North-Carolina Railroad Company, August 30th, 1860. Document No.21, Executive and Legislative Documents, Session 1860-1861.
[Report of the Western North-Carolina Railroad Company]. Document No.23, Executive and Legislative Documents, Session 1866-1867.
Report of the Western North Carolina Rail Road Company, for 1859. Document No.20. Executive and Legislative Documents, Session 1860-1861.
Reports of the President and Chief Engineer of the Western North-Carolina Railroad Company, . Document No.34, Executive and Legislative Documents, Session 1858-1859.
Robinson, Joe F. [Map of the] Town of Catawba, N.C. Newton: Joe F. Robinson, 1969.
Third Annual Report of the Western North-Carolina Railroad Company. Document No.17, Executive and Legislative Documents, Session 1858-1859.
Tilley, Nannie May. The Bright-Tobacco Industry, 1860-1929. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1948.
United States Bureau of the Census. Tenth through Fifteenth Censuses, 1880-1930: Population Schedules.
Yoder, R. A. Map of Catawba County, North Carolina. Newton: R.A. Yoder, 1886.
† Kirk Mohney, North Carolina Department of Archives and History, Survey and Planning Branch, Catawba Historic District, Catawba County, NC, nomination document, 1985, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.