North Main Avenue Historic District
The North Main Avenue 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 chiefly residential North Main Avenue Historic District, incorporating a significant segment of North Main Avenue and portions of ten blocks to the west of this important thoroughfare, represents an interesting paradox. Its handsome residences, an abandoned hosiery mill, churches, and public school buildings reflect much of Newton's development since its creation in 1842 as Catawba County's seat of government. This growth — primarily a result of the town's role as a trading center for the outlying farming areas, railroad construction before and after the Civil War, the presence of Catawba College, and rapid development of the textile industry during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries — changed Newton from a sleepy village into a significant commercial center. Nevertheless, the neighborhood also exhibits continuity. Main Avenue still serves as the principal link between the industrial section of the city, to the North, and the southern part of Newton, once the site of Catawba College. Furthermore, the impressive houses that line North Main Avenue, which date from the mid-nineteenth century to recent times, reveal the neighborhood's continuing popularity among some of the city's most influential families.
The significance of the North Main Avenue Historic District can best be understood as an integral part of Newton's overall development. The North Carolina General Assembly in 1842 authorized seven commissioners to establish Newton as the county seat of Catawba County. The act, which created Catawba from the northern section of Lincoln County, required the commissioners to select a site of at least fifty acres for the new town. The home of Mathias Barringer, near the center of the county, was to serve as a temporary courthouse.
The county court soon fulfilled the objectives established by the General Assembly. In April 1843, Mathias Setzer, Jacob Deal, and Jacob McGee deeded to Jonas Bost, chairman of Catawba's "select court" of five men, fifty-one acres to be used for the town of Newton. The land lay in the heart of a productive agricultural area that produced primarily various grains and fruit. Newton was located on Three Creek Road, which originated to the South and intersected Island Ford Road near the present site of Conover. Within a year the court hired David Setzer to build a temporary jail and sold lots to raise money for the construction of public buildings.
Plans for the public buildings developed during 1844 and 1845. The court, in June 1844, appointed Jonas Bost, a local carpenter and farmer, as treasurer of public buildings. The following April, Jonas Bost, Joseph Bost, and George P. Shuford received instructions to formulate plans for erecting public buildings. The county court, in June 1845, appointed Burton Craig, H.H. Shuford, John H. Wheeler, W.W. Robinson, and Henry Whitener, Jr. as commissioners to contract with a builder. The commissioners advertised for bids in newspapers, stating that the Catawba County Courthouse was to be constructed of brick, rough coated with cement, on a basement of granite. The 40-x-60-foot structure and the jail were to be completed within eighteen months after a contract was signed. The courthouse probably was completed prior to April 1847 when the county court directed the commissioners of public buildings to sell the "old" courthouse in Newton. The court made plans in 1845 for fencing the public square and selecting a site for the public well.
Newton experienced slow, steady growth during the antebellum period, an era characterized in North Carolina by vastly improved agricultural conditions, the beginnings of industrialization, internal improvements, and increasing economic prosperity. The town began to develop as a center of trade and education, but agriculture dominated the economy. In 1850, Newton's eighty-four white inhabitants lived in the area that had become Catawba County, but others had come from surrounding counties and the states of Virginia, South Carolina, Kentucky, and New York. Among the wealthiest citizens were Jonas Bost; E.R. Shuford, a tavern keeper; physician R.S. Shuford; George Setzer, a merchant; and Adam Gross, a farmer. John Pope crafted furniture, Levi Plunk established himself as a saddler, and three members of the Murphy family made shoes. Newton also supported three blacksmiths, two grocers, two tailors, and two carriage makers, among other merchants and craftsmen. Five carpenters constructed the growing community's residences and businesses. Several heads of households owned small farms; of them, E.R. Shuford, Jonas Bost, George Setzer, Jr., and Adam Gross owned a total of thirty-five slaves.
During the 1850s, Newton's expanding population partook of a wider variety of goods and services, possessed greater wealth, and built new residences. Among the 312 white residents in 1860 were 23 slaveholders who owned a total of more than 130 slaves. By this time, Jonas Bost and Adam Gross had opened hotels, and Matthew Locke McCorkle, Newton's first lawyer, had established a practice. Three physicians — T.M. Abernathy, A.B. Paine, and O. Campbell — treated Newton's sick. Other new residents included John Wilfong, an extremely wealthy farmer; F.H. Brune, a German silversmith; and Andrew J. Seagle, part owner of a large tannery. Newton also supported two "Grecian Painters," eight merchants, six shoemakers, a dentist, three teachers, and eight carpenters. The number of houses grew from 18 in 1850 to 54 in 1860. Dwellings standing along or near North Main Avenue by this time likely included the Berrier-McLelland House (710 North Main Avenue), the Andrew J. Seagle House (500 N. Main Avenue), and the Pope-Rudisill-Gordon House (25 West 8th Street).
Advancements in education also reflected Newton's growing importance. In 1851, the Reformed Church established Catawba College in the "Old Town Academy Building." Chartered by the General Assembly the following year, Catawba College served students — many of German origin — who otherwise would have attended Reformed schools in Pennsylvania. Matthew L. McCorkle played a pivotal role in securing the college for Newton.
The Reformed and other denominations affected the religious life of Newton's citizens. Grace Evangelical and Reformed Church was established in 1845, and Lutherans formed Beth-Eden Church in 1850. The Methodists founded their congregation in 1854, and the Presbyterian Church organized their flock in 1858.
The town's steady development led the General Assembly in 1855 to incorporate Newton. Lawmakers appointed M.L. McCorkle, S.G. Miller, George Setzer, O. Campbell, and D.B. Gaither as commissioners and set forth regulations for managing the town. The assembly established corporate limits 1,000 yards in every direction from the courthouse.
The Civil War abruptly arrested Newton's development. The people of Catawba County like other citizens throughout North Carolina, suffered because of high prices, depreciation of currency, and shortages of food, clothing, and other goods. Local men left home to participate in the war effort. Company A of the 12th Regiment of North Carolina Troops — the Catawba Rifles — organized in Newton on April 27, 1861. M.L. McCorkle assembled 146 men in June 1861 to fight as Company F of the 23rd Regiment of North Carolina Troops. One hundred and thirty men enlisted in Company C of the 28th Regiment of North Carolina Volunteers, which left Newton on August 13, 1861.
The absence of young men during the war retarded the progress of Catawba College, which in 1859 had been invigorated by the arrival from Pennsylvania of the Reverend A.S. Vaughan and his family. By the fall of 1860, Vaughan had raised a substantial endowment, but the Civil War caused him to return to Pennsylvania. An academy was conducted in the college facilities until the end of the war.
Soldiers of General George Stoneman's army, noted for their destruction of private property in Western North Carolina during the final days of the conflict, raided Newton in April 1865. George Pope described the episode in a newspaper article written in 1947: "They came up the old Laurel Hill road, which is on the right of the present post office, yelling, shooting and swearing. They then began to ransack the town. My mother, who was a very small child at that time, was...frightened by the din. The Union soldiers took my Grandfather Beard's cow, hogs, and chickens. My grandmother...went to the commanding officer and tearfully begged for the return of the cow because of her small children. The Yankee Officer relented and the cow was returned."
The state slowly recovered from the war's drain on economic resources. Between 1865 and 1880, farmers gradually achieved a volume of production comparable to pre-war levels. Industrial concerns, including cotton mills and tobacco factories, also regained a sound footing. The economic condition of North Carolina significantly improved after about 1880. The rest of the century, although a time of financial uncertainty for many farmers, was characterized by increasing investment of local and outside capital in such manufacturing enterprises as cotton mills, large tobacco factories, and furniture plants. Material wealth increased, and towns and cities quickly grew. Extensive railroad construction abetted and resulted from the state's industrialization and growth in prosperity.
The construction of railroads facilitated Newton's development during the late nineteenth century. The Western North Carolina Railroad, which had been chartered in 1855 to provide rail facilities between Salisbury and Asheville, had reached a point thirteen miles east of Morganton by the summer of 1860. An amendment to the charter provided for a branch road from the main line to Newton, a strong interest of such prominent stockholders as D.B. Gaither, Dr. A.M. Powell, George Setzer, and M.L. McCorkle. The depot at Newton was under construction by August 1860. The Civil War halted construction of the railroad, however, and, although tracks reached Old Fort in 1869 it was not until 1880 that the line fulfilled the intentions of its original proponents.
The Chester and Lenoir Narrow Gauge Rail Road, which was chartered in 1872 and 1873, reached Newton in July 1883. Four years later, the Newton Enterprise described the new railroad's effect on the town: "The Narrow Gauge (sic) is 'little, but it's loud;' it blows, vigorously, for thirteen road-crossings while passing through town, besides blowing for every chicken path, or pig track that does not fail to escape the vigilant eye of the ever alert engineers. We think, if a stray butterfly should start across the track it would be tooted at."
The Chester and Lenoir Rail Road approached Newton from the southeast and converged on the Western North Carolina Railroad at the extreme northern end of town. Most of Newton's industrial development occurred in this section, in close proximity to the rail facilities and depot.
Newton's development during the post-war era paralleled state-wide trends. The town experienced slow growth prior to about 1880, and rapid development thereafter. The population, which had been 219 in 1860, grew only to 323 in 1870 and 584 in 1880. The residents in 1880 lived in 111 dwellings, an increase of 57 in twenty years. Among them was the residence of Catawba College Professor John A. Foil, built about 1873 on South Main Avenue. Other new construction included the modest "cabins" of freedmen, built after the Civil War in Snow Hill, a settlement located east of town.
Business slowly recovered from the effects of the war. By 1869, H.F. Carpenter had established a cotton gin. The number of professionals, tradesmen, and merchants gradually increased until, in 1880, Newton supported eleven carpenters, eight physicians, seven merchants, six clerks, four lawyers, and three sewing machine salesmen. A brickyard operated by William Riley Self as early as 1880 probably supplied bricks for new commercial structures. Among the black community were a variety of servants, laborers and artisans, many of whom bore the surnames of their former owners. Black tradesmen in 1880 included Gus Harris, a barber; Ed Harris, a carpenter; and Edward Morehead, a brick molder.
During the two decades after 1880, Newton experienced increasing prosperity. The development of industry — especially textile mills — the physical growth of the town, and various improvements in public facilities characterized the trend. All of these changes took place in an essentially rural context, a fact reflected by farming operations within the town's corporate limits.
New businesses and industries joined established firms during the 1880s. By 1884, A.H. Sherrill and Sam Jarrett & Son operated building and contracting firms. William H. Williams presided over Newton Cotton Mills, a substantial steam-operated factory opened early in 1883 in the northeast section of town. The one-story brick carding and spinning facility, which operated 200 spindles, relied on machinery purchased in Lowell, Massachusetts. Michael, Sherrill & Co. produced tobacco products at their factory which was located at the corner of Pine and Eighth streets. By 1885, Rhyne, Mehaffey and Company had opened Newton Flouring Mill near the depot, about three-fourths of a mile north of the courthouse. Another mill, Killian & Cline, stood three blocks south of the courthouse. J.F. Finger's foundry and machine shop occupied land one-fourth mile northwest of the seat of government. A visitor in 1886 noted the recent construction near Newton Cotton Mills of a shuttle block factory at which a variety of implements were manufactured from local hardwoods. Wheeden and Wanamaker, two northern capitalists, operated this concern. An annual mercantile trade of $225,000 supplemented a considerable barter of local produce.
The expansion of business and commerce continued during the next decade. Newton Hosiery Mill began operations at the northeast corner of West 4th Street and North Ashe Avenue. A sash, door, and blind factory belonging to the firm of Finger and Dakin supplied building materials as early as 1897. Newton Cotton Mills enlarged its factory and expanded its capacity to include 7,500 spindles by 1902. Businesses carried a wider variety of merchandise, including furniture, millinery, marble products, and musical instruments.
A substantial increase in population and concomitant improvements in public services accompanied the growth of business. Between 1880 and 1890, Newton's population increased from 584 to 1,038. Within another 10 years the town had a population of 1,583. By 1887, Newton had acquired useful fire-fighting equipment. The Newton Enterprise reported on March 15, 1889, that steps would soon be taken to light the town with electric lights and complete the macadamizing of streets and paving of sidewalks. Some of the street lights had been installed by November 1889, and more were being put up at that time.
The built environment changed apace. By 1888, county government had outgrown the antebellum courthouse. In June 1888, the county commissioners voted to enlarge the courthouse and improve its interior arrangement. Soon a two-story addition to the rear of the building rose, giving the structure a "T" plan. Other institutions built new buildings or renovated old ones. By 1886, four congregations had constructed churches along North Main Avenue. The following year the members of Grace Reformed Church began a new structure on Main Avenue in the heart of the city. The Baptist congregation built a church on the southeast corner of Main Avenue and Fifth Street prior to 1896. In 1885, Catawba High School returned to its original status as Catawba College. By 1896, the college, located at the south end of Main Avenue, had remodeled what came to be known as Matron's Hall for use by female students. A newspaper writer noted in 1886 that a female academy, presided over by Stephen Frontis, had just been built. A new depot containing a freight room, office and two waiting rooms was completed by April,1892, at the bustling north end of town.
Considerable residential development accompanied this growth, but construction apparently did not keep pace with the demand for housing. In 1885, many homes were still located in the blocks surrounding the courthouse square, but a new trend soon emerged. The Newton Enterprise observed in 1887 that no rental properties in Newton lacked tenants: "Full houses speak well for a town; empty houses show no progress." Early the next year, the editor noted the recent construction of residences in different sections of town and predicted that carpenters could be busy in 1888. Among the new houses of this period was the two-story brick home at 128 West 7th Street of L.L. Witherspoon, a local lawyer. An impressive Queen Anne style house belonging to George McCorkle, a prominent attorney and farmer, rose about 1890 on North Main Avenue near the industrial section.
Perhaps the most significant residential development of this period, however, was Middlebrook, begun in the summer of 1891. On July 11, 1891, the Newton Land and Improvement Company auctioned 120 of 300 lots in a 100-acre parcel in "Eastern Newton," bounded by the two rail lines. A new cotton factory was to be the centerpiece of this neighborhood. Such prominent individuals as J.H. McClelland, E.M. Deal, Junius R. Gaither, W.B. Gaither, George A. Warlick, and George McCorkle purchased lots. By September, eleven new houses, including those of Perry Deal and J.E. Fry, had been begun. The new factory company had started four houses for its future operatives. The Newton Enterprise confidently stated that Middlebrook would open "...a new era for Newton. Many who have never before owned property here have bought the land on which they will build for themselves houses, and it opens up a place where the great demand for houses can be supplied."
As late as 1891 the local newspaper claimed that Newton was a farming town. Townspeople grew surprisingly large quantities of corn and wheat within the corporate limits. The somewhat bucolic atmosphere soon would change, however. The first three decades of the twentieth century transformed the community into a larger, more heavily industrialized commercial center. During this era of Newton's growth the North Main Avenue area experienced its principal phase of construction activity.
For twenty-five years after 1900, North Carolina, like the rest of the country, enjoyed considerable economic development and prosperity. Improved transportation facilities and the development of hydroelectric power fostered the changes. Production of such crops as cotton and tobacco expanded significantly, especially prior to 1920. The state's tobacco, wooden furniture, and textile industries outstripped agriculture as the chief source of wealth. In the first quarter of the century, the burgeoning textile industry in North Carolina led the nation in the production of cotton goods and the South in the manufacture of all knit goods.
Newton secured its share of new industrial enterprises. By 1902, Catawba Cotton Mill had erected a one-story brick facility on North Main Avenue, near Newton Cotton Mills. John P. Yount served as president. Within three years this enterprise had begun an expansion project. In 1905 D.J. Carpenter erected a factory for producing pasteboard boxes to be used by Newton Hosiery Mill and other concerns. Clyde Cotton Mills, a substantial yarn facility, was in place by 1905 near the depot. R.B. Knox served as its secretary and treasurer. Despite a few lean years for the textile industry, the growth continued. Ridgeview Hosiery Mill Company established its plant by 1910 one-third mile north of the depot. Later, Fidelity Hosiery Mill occupied the old buildings of Newton Hosiery Mill and expanded operations there. Additional enterprises developed during the 1910s and 1920s included City Cotton Mills, H.M. Yount's glove factory, and Warlick Manufacturing Company, which produced woven dress goods.
The prosperity was manifested also by the establishment of new businesses and the construction of solid blocks of brick buildings downtown. Such firms as the brickyard of Yount & McCall and the Gaither Manufacturing Company, a lumber concern, abetted the growth. The Newton Enterprise reported in March 1905 that the building and loan association had been receiving applications for loans with which new storehouses would be built. By September of that year, contractor G.W. Setzer had nearly completed the walls of the new McClelland store building. Virginia Shipp's three-story brick hotel rose on the corner of Third Street and College Avenue prior to June 1907. Between 1907 and 1924, the fronts of the blocks on the north, east, and south sides of the courthouse gained full complements of brick buildings. These new facilities were patronized by a growing population.
The number of inhabitants steadily increased during the first three decades of the century. Between 1900 and 1910, the population rose from 1,583 to 2,316. Ten years later 3,021 persons lived in Newton, and in 1930 the number had risen to 4,394.
Local government responded by providing improved services and facilities. The Newton Electric Light Company stood one-fourth of a mile west of the courthouse by 1902. The town installed a water system by 1908. In September 1905, sidewalks were being installed around the courthouse square. By 1920, the town had gained eight miles of sidewalks and paved streets. G.W. Setzer built the graded school building at 607 North Ashe Avenue in 1905, and Thomas R. Owen, foreman for the J.J. Stroud Construction Company, supervised the construction of the town's first high school building in 1923. The structure, located at 710 North Ashe Avenue, cost $100,000. Catawba's antebellum courthouse was replaced in 1924 with a granite-veneered structure designed by architect William G. Rogers of Charlotte.
Town ordinances adopted in 1915 testify to the local government's commitment to making Newton an attractive community. The regulations authorized "sanitary policemen" to inspect homes to insure that they were clean. The town prohibited the construction of frame buildings within Newton's fire limits and made it unlawful to "...write, print, or make signs or pictures, or to skate, either with roller skates or in any other manner, or to spit, place or throw filth, fruit or fruit peelings, or any other substance liable to cause pedestrians to slip or fall, upon any sidewalk or walk in any public place within the town." The ordinances warned that "Any person who shall, within the town or within 1 mile thereof keep any disorderly house, or keep any bawdy house or house of ill fame, shall pay a penalty of ten dollars...."
During the first quarter of the century, the construction of respectable dwellings continued at a rapid pace. As residential development expanded throughout the town, unprecedented construction occurred along North Main Avenue and in the area directly west of it. The local textile industry influenced much of this growth, although prominent lawyers, physicians, and merchants contributed to the trend. Many new houses rose during the first five years of the century. Attorney Walter C. Feimster prepared, in October 1900, to build his imposing two-story residence on the west side of North Main Avenue (436 N. Main Avenue), next to the home of Andrew J. Seagle (500 N. Main Avenue). Eli M. Deal, a brick manufacturer, constructed a one-story house about 1904 on the northeast corner of North Main Avenue and Eighth Street (731 N. Main Street). By March 1904, carpenters had completed the framing of hardware merchant Samuel L. Rhyne's two-story house on the west side of Main Avenue (demolished), next to the Lutheran Church (demolished). A building and loan association organized about 1904 by cotton mill superintendent J.C. Smith, lumber dealer and merchant J.R. Gaither, and attorney William B. Gaither, among others, may have stimulated further construction activity. Houses were being built also in Middlebrook and in the northwestern part of town. The Newton Enterprise reported in March 1905, "Mr. J.R. Gaither, president of Gaither Manufacturing Company, tells us that this is going to be a great year for building in Newton. Even at this early part of the season, there is a great demand for lumber, and the carpenters are all busy. This will be, by far, the busiest year in house building that Newton has ever had."
Homeowners continued to build residences on North Main Avenue between the present Fourth and Eighth streets until, by the mid-1920s, most lots had been filled. By 1910, many influential citizens lived there: William Trott, a grocery store salesman, Harry Smith, superintendent of a cotton mill; Milton Deal, foreman of a brickyard; James H. McLelland, secretary of the building and loan association; John Wagner, foreman of an ice factory; George Warlick, manager of a roller mill; physician H.W. Everhart; T. Walter Long, a doctor; Mary Gaither; Bill Wilfong; William B. Gaither; Andrew J. Seagle; Walter C. Feimster; Rufus P. Freize, a retired merchant; Robert Knox, a manufacturer of cotton yarn; physician George A. West; and Samuel Rhyne. Among the homes built later on North Main Avenue was the brick bungalow of David B. Gaither, constructed shortly before July 1922 (615 N. Main Avenue).
Concurrently, residences rose in the neighborhood west of North Main Avenue, including the present North Ashe Avenue, Cline Avenue, and streets running perpendicular to Ashe and Main avenues, between Fourth and Eighth streets. Some of these were in place before 1910, but most of them date from the 1910s and 1920s. D.J. Carpenter inhabited an imposing residence at 630 North Ashe Avenue, near the hosiery mill, prior to 1907. When Robert B. Knox built a residence at 428 North Main Avenue prior to 1910, the Bost family home which had stood on the property was moved westward and turned to face Ashe Avenue (421 N. Ashe Avenue). The house located at the northwest corner of North Ashe Avenue and West Sixth Street was built about 1910 by D.J. Carpenter for one of his employees. Residents who built residences in the neighborhood about 1922 included Fred E. Garvin (204 West 6th Street), George Powell (309 W. 6th Street), and Dr. Wade C. Raymer (815 N. Main Avenue).
Buoyed by improved roads and additional industrial development during and after the 1920s, Newton continued to grow. Highway 10, which facilitated east-west travel, followed Main Avenue through town. Newton, like the neighboring cities of Hickory, Lenoir, and Statesville, attracted furniture factories, including the Southern Furniture Company. Such firms as the Carolina Glove Company, founded in 1943, maintained the town's reputation as a textile producer. The population reached 6,039 in 1950,and steadily increased during the ensuing decade.
Newton's continued growth has left the North Main Avenue Historic District largely unchanged. Although some residences in the North Main Avenue Historic District have new owners and the buildings constructed for Fidelity Hosiery Mill and the high school no longer serve their original purposes, the section reflects considerable continuity. Many homes remain in the hands of the families who built them. North Main Avenue, with its churches and impressive residences, continues to be a fashionable and important corridor. The recently constructed houses of Justus C. Rudisill (420 N. Main Avenue) and druggist Edward Haupt (606 N. Main Avenue) constitute impressive additions to a neighborhood that originated before the Civil War and flourished during Newton's heyday as a significant textile center.