Richlands Historic District
The Richlands Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1990. 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 Richlands Historic District, encompassing forty-eight acres, comprises most of the historic commercial and residential areas of the town of Richlands, North Carolina, which functioned throughout its history as the commercial hub of northern Onslow County. Richlands' commercial importance began with the formation of the community in 1850 and accelerated during the early twentieth century with the coming of the Dover and Southbound Railroad and the establishment of Onslow County's first public high school in the town in 1907. Most of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century domestic and commercial structures associated with Richlands' development survive, as do several religious and educational structures. Richlands' domestic architecture displays a variety of styles and forms, ranging from traditional I-houses to elaborate late Victorian houses, bungalows, and Georgian Revival houses. Richlands' commercial architecture is characterized by blocks of one- and two-story brick buildings, most with exterior architectural integrity and some with interior integrity. The period of significance for the Richlands Historic District extends from the circa 1860 date of construction of the town's earliest known building, the original section of the Nathaniel Sylvester House (102 South Wilmington Street), until 1940.
Historic Context and Background
Colonial records refer to the north central section of Onslow County as "the Richlands of the New River" (Ford). The well-drained loamy soils of the section were superior to those around elsewhere in the county, and by the early nineteenth century the Richlands area supported a number of large and diversified farms. The settled agricultural character of the section was atypical of the county, where the predominance of naval stores, livestock, and maritime activities depressed agricultural development and led to an exploitive tradition of land use. As agricultural development and rural population growth gained momentum in the Richlands area, the need for services and social institutions grew apace.
The site of Richlands is a level tongue of land, approximately twenty feet above sea level, between the wide bottoms of the upper New River and its branch, Squire's Run. The Wilmington and New Bern Road, a section of the colonial Boston to Charleston post road, crosses the town site in a southwesterly direction and corresponds to the present Wilmington Street. A secondary road, leading from Kinston in Lenoir County to the Onslow County seat at Jacksonville, crosses the site in a southeasterly direction and corresponds to Hargett Street. The Richlands crossroads was chosen in 1813 as the site for the first Richlands Methodist Church building, a log structure originally known as the Oak Grove Church (Brown: 352). Later a school was built near the church (this school was referred to as "old" in a deed of 1852). By the late 1840s a store stood at the crossroads.
The potential for a town at the site became evident to Nathaniel Sylvester III (1798-1864), a prominent farmer who owned land at the crossroads. In 1850 Sylvester began selling one- and two-acre lots at the location. By 1859 the location was referred to in deeds as the "Village of Richlands." One source states that the embryonic town boasted "a church, two stores, a school building, gin and sawmill and probably five residents" by the early 1860s (Brown: 353). The school was the Richlands Academy, founded in 1848 by Leonard G. Woodward, which occupied an old schoolhouse until circa 1852 when a new two-room structure was built (Morris: 2.). One of the few houses to survive from this period is Nathaniel Sylvester III's house, built about 1860 and incorporated into his son's late nineteenth century house at 103 South Wilmington Street. Another house which may date to this period is the Wallace House, incorporated into the early twentieth century Cox Hotel (106 West Hargett Street) (this house may have been modified in a late Victorian style in the late nineteenth century before its inclusion in the Cox Hotel). One indication of Richlands's antebellum importance as a focal point of the surrounding countryside is given by James Battle Avirett, who described the coming of the circus to the "little hamlet of Upper Richlands" in the 1850s in his book The Old Plantation: "It would appear as though the whole of the upper part of Onslow and the lower part of Jones counties were here to-day" (page 113).
Richlands grew very little during the immediate post-war period. Only one store is known to have operated in the town, that of J.K. Miller. Miller also operated a steam-powered corn and saw mill during the same period. (Branson, 1872: 176; 1878: 228).
Incorporation and Late Nineteenth Century Growth
Richlands did not seek formal incorporation from the North Carolina legislature until 1880, when on March 29 a one-mile square centered on the Methodist Church was designated the town of Richlands (Brown: 353). L.W. Hargett, Uzza Mills, S.J. Veach, F.D. Koonce, and M.B. Steed were named as town officers. McKenzie Bradford Steed (1846-1917) became one of the town's leading merchants in the late nineteenth century.
Growth during the 1880s was modest. By the end of the decade the town's population numbered only 90 (U.S. Census). One source notes that the town had four stores in 1880 (Brown: 353). By 1884 the town had added another store to its incipient commercial district on North Wilmington Street (Branson, 1884: 503). By 1896 the population of the town had grown to 150 — still well below the population of the county seat at Jacksonville, with 450 inhabitants, and Swansboro, with 300 inhabitants (Branson, 1896: 464) .
The 1880s and 1890s witnessed the organization of several Protestant congregations in the town. The congregation of Richlands's First Baptist Church organized in 1880 and built its first meeting house — Emma's Chapel — on the northeastern outskirts of town in 1882 (Barbee: n.p. ). The congregation of the First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ Church) organized in 1882 and built a sizable frame church on the northwestern outskirts of town in 1883 (Jones and Rickett: 17). A Presbyterian congregation had formed in the town by the mid-1890s (Branson, 1896: 465). All together, four congregations, including the pre-existing Methodist Church, had established themselves in the town by the mid-1890s. Three church buildings associated with these congregations survive in the district ((Former) First Baptist Church, 200 West Hargett Street; First Christian Church, 300 West Hargett Street; Richlands United Methodist Church, 102 East Hargett Street).
Early Twentieth Century Growth
Richlands experienced its most dramatic growth during the first decade of the twentieth century. The town's population increased nearly three-fold from 160 in 1900 to 445 in 1910, with much of the growth occurring during the second half of the decade (U.S. Census). One factor in this growth was the coming of the Dover and Southbound Railroad. The Goldsboro Lumber Company built this road from its mill at Dover, in Craven County into Onslow County, primarily to tap the forest reserves of the northern quarter of the county. Agricultural produce was also shipped on the road, and Richlands quickly became the major collection and distribution point for farmers in the surrounding countryside. The Venters & Sylvester Cotton Gin was in operation in the town in 1905; in 1915 it was joined by Grimsley and Brinkley's gin (1905 and 1915 North Carolina Year Books). The Dover and Southbound depot was a frame building located at the northwestern end of the town. The depot became the focal point of small-scale industrial development in the northwestern section of town.
Another important factor in Richlands's growth during the first decade of the twentieth century was the establishment of Onslow County's first public high school in the town in 1907. The school attracted prosperous farmers from the surrounding countryside, who moved to town (keeping their rural farms) to enable their children to attend the high school.
Richlands' growth generated an increase and diversification of town businesses. The six general merchants operating in the town in 1905 were not many more than the four in the town in 1897 (1905 North Carolina Year Book; Branson, 1897: 466). By 1911 the number had swelled to fifteen (1911 North Carolina Year Book). Locally owned and operated banks began to appear in the town. Jonathan E. Steed, business associate of his father M.B. Steed, had organized the Bank of Richlands by 1904; Wayne Brinson Venters' Peoples Bank had opened by 1910 (Onslow County Deed Book 81, page 173; 1910 North Carolina Year Book). By 1913 Venters' bank was the only one in town, a monopoly it enjoyed until it closed its doors during the 1930s (at which time it was known as the Bank of Richlands). (Venters owned one of the largest tenant farms in Onslow County, Venters Farm, NR 1987, a few miles southeast of Richlands). In 1911 two hotels operated in town: the Hardy Hotel (Miller-Venters House) at 160 North Wilmington Street and the Cox House (Cox Hotel) at 106 West Hargett Street (North Carolina Year Books for various years).
Later Twentieth Century Development
The population of Richlands grew still more between 1910 and 1920, to 548 inhabitants (U.S. Census). One source puts the population of the town at 900 in 1916 (1916 North Carolina Year Book). During the 1920s the town's population declined slightly but by 1940 it had climbed to 688 (U.S. Census). New commercial development, which had occurred along the spine of North Wilmington Street during earlier decades, began to shift to West Hargett Street during the 1930s. This shift probably reflected the passage through the town of North Carolina's paved Highway 24, built in the early 1930s, which entered the town via South Wilmington Street and ran west along Hargett Street. The downtown business district continued to grow into the 1950s before the Highway 24 bypass was built west of town, siphoning off commercial development.
Avirett, James Battle. The Old Plantation. How we Lived in Great House and Cabin before the War. New York: F. Tennyson Neely, 1901.
Barbee, Everitte. "Centennial Anniversary Program, 1880-1980... First Baptist Church, North Carolina," Richlands, N.C.: n.d.
Branson, Levi. Branson's North Carolina Business Director(ies). Raleigh: various publishers for the years 1867/8, 1869, 1872, 1877/8, 1884, 1890, 1896, 1897.
Brown, Joseph Parsons. The Commonwealth of Onslow, A History. New Bern: The Owen G. Dunn Company, 1960.
Ford, Byron. "Modest Onslow possesses many natural advantages and excellent folks, too." (Raleigh) News and Observer. v.119 n.48 (February 17, 1924).
Interviews conducted in 1987 and 1988 by Daniel Pezzoni with Annie Koonce Ragsdale Boggs, Ikey Brock, Sylvester Day, Ellie Howard, Mrs. Fowler Manning, and Albert Potts.
Jones, Dennis, and Kenneth L. Rickett. Under the Beechnut Trees. New Bern: The Owen G. Dunn Company, 1983.
Onslow County Deed and Tax Records, Onslow County Court House. Jacksonville, NC.
The Onslow County Historical Society. The Heritage of Onslow County. Winston-Salem: Hunter Publishing Company, 1983.
Onslow County Museum, Photographic Archives.
Morris, Fitzhugh L. "Richlands." Paper given at Richlands, April 30, 1960. In the Tucker Littleton Collection, Search Room, North Carolina State Library, Raleigh, NC.
(Raleigh) News and Observer. North Carolina Year Books (various editions, 1900-1940).
† Dan Pezzoni, Preservation Consultant, Richlands Historic District, Onslow County, North Carolina, nomination document, 1989, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.