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Lee County North Carolina

Lee County administrative offices are located at 106 Hillcrest Drive, Sanford, NC 27331; phone: 919-718-4605.

Beginnings [1]

Lee County is a small county of 255 square miles located at the geographic center of North Carolina. The county was formed in 1907 from parts of Chatham and Moore counties. It is located at the head of the main branch of the Cape Fear River at the confluence of the river's two main tributaries: the Deep River, which forms the county's northern boundary, and the Haw River.

The settlement of Lee County by Europeans (mostly Highland Scots) and African-Americans commenced about 1740. The early economy of the county was based primarily on agriculture, naval stores production, and lumbering, although the establishment of an ironworks at Gulf in the 1760s presaged the larger-scale extractive industries to come. Unpaved roads and the Cape Fear and Deep rivers provided the principal means of transportation. Presbyterianism developed as the principal religious denomination, although Quakers were present, and towards the end of the period Baptist and Methodist congregations were formed. Nearly all of Lee County's early inhabitants lived on dispersed farmsteads. Most dwelling houses were probably small log and frame structures, although the county's elite constructed larger frame dwellings with Georgian, Federal and (at the very end of the period) Greek Revival detailing. Few dwellings and apparently no domestic or agricultural outbuildings survive from the period. Highland Scot cemeteries with notable wood and stone grave markers (some dating to the late eighteenth century) survive in the northern and western quadrants of the county.

Improvements in the area's transportation infrastructure transformed Lee County during the third quarter of the nineteenth century. Plank roads, river improvements, and railroads were constructed, opening the county's forests and mineral deposits to exploitation and enhancing access to markets. Communities such as Carbonton, Chalmersville, Egypt (Cumnock), and Jonesboro had their start during the late antebellum period, and Sanford developed at an important railroad junction in the 1870s. The prosperity of the period enabled the county's wealthier inhabitants to build large Greek Revival farmhouses, many of which have survived to the present. Slave houses and domestic and agricultural outbuildings also survive from the period.

The economic expansion initiated by the transportation improvements of the preceding period continued apace during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Lumbering activity consumed the county's once extensive longleaf pine stands, coal mining increased at Egypt (Cumnock), and brownstone quarrying became an important industry beginning in the 1890s. Sanford and Jonesboro emerged as manufacturing centers, and the towns of Lemon Springs and Broadway developed as commercial nodes serving the southern and eastern quadrants of the county respectively. Cotton figured as the county's principal cash crop during most of the period, with tobacco gaining importance during the 1910s. Opportunities for the cultivation of both crops attracted settlers from other parts of North Carolina, populating theretofore underutilized areas such as the Sandhills. African-Americans established commercial and residential district in most towns, with the largest black community taking shape in Sanford. Houses, farm buildings, commercial buildings, churches, and other resources survive in large numbers from this period, many ornamented in variants of the Victorian style. All of this growth contributed to the creation in 1907 of Lee County out of Moore and Chatham counties, effective April 1, 1908. The new county was named for Robert E. Lee.

The economic growth of the early twentieth century continued during this period of Lee County's history. Tobacco eclipsed cotton as the county's principal cash crop, and log, frame, and brick tile tobacco barns and pack houses appeared on the landscape. Brick production began on a large scale at Colon in the 1920s, contributing to marked growth in nearby Sanford. Sanford's downtown expanded in the 1920s, with multistory brick commercial blocks replacing earlier buildings. Extensive residential neighborhoods populated by Craftsman-style Bungalows, Tudor Revival-style residences, and other eclectic dwellings were laid out adjacent to Sanford.

The transportation infrastructure and industrial base established during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries enabled Lee County to participate in the unparalleled national economic expansion of the post-World War II years. In 1948, Sanford Brick and Tile (now Cherokee Sanford Group, Inc.) embarked on a modernization program that led to the construction of a vast facility at Colon with a peak production of 400,000 bricks per day (Sanford Herald, March 3, 1967). Lee Brick and Tile was formed in 1946 and presently operates a large brick plant north of Sanford. By mid-century, the complex of Lee County brick plants was one of the most productive in the nation (Robert Brickhouse interview). Several Lee County-based firms established regional service areas during the post-war period. Arthur H. McIver's five-and-dime store, opened in 1923 on Steele Street in Sanford, eventually grew into the Mack's (later Maxway) chain with forty-four stores and 866 employees in four southern states by the late 1960s (Sanford Herald, March 3, 1967). Another, more recent Sanford-based commercial concern is the Pantry convenience mart chain. The L. P. Cox construction firm became Lee County's largest contractor after the war with operations in three southern states and a headquarters building on West Main Street in Jonesboro Heights in the 1960s.

  1. J. Daniel Pezzoni, Preservation Technologies, Inc., Historic and Architectural Resources of Lee County, North Carolina, ca. 1800-1942 nomination document, 1993, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.
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