Liberty Historic District
The Liberty Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2000. 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 Liberty Historic District is located entirely within the original incorporated limits of the Town of Liberty, which is in the northeast corner of Randolph County, North Carolina. With its impressive collection of turn-of-the-century and early 20th century brick commercial buildings, rail-related resources, and stylish residences, the Liberty Historic District illustrates the economic, social and cultural impact that the coming of the railroad had on towns throughout North Carolina in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The Liberty Historic District contains two residential areas, the downtown commercial core and the railroad corridor along with its associated resources. It is eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places at the local level of significance in the areas of Community Development and Planning, Transportation, and Commerce, as significant for exemplifying events and trends expressed locally that were occurring across the region, state and nation. Also, it is eligible for its significance in Architecture, as a district retaining a high degree of integrity and that contains good examples of building types and styles typical of small, Southern towns of its era. The period of significance extends from ca.1880, the approximate date the Vance-York House (212 South Fayetteville Street) was constructed, to 1949, when the Art Deco influenced Curtis Theater (101 S. Fayetteville Street) was completed.
Prior to the railroad's arrival, Liberty had been primarily an agricultural community. Its lack of available water power produced a dampening effect on attempts at attracting industrial development. However, evolving technology created the capacity to transmit electricity over distances in the early twentieth century and new methods of powering the turbines which produced it. Cost effective available power combined with the railroad's presence created a multiplier effect that stimulated opportunities for industrial growth. The advantage created by increased accessibility to outside markets and the ability to more easily and cheaply acquire raw materials and finished goods placed Liberty and other communities located on the new segment of the rail line, such as Siler City and Goldson in adjacent Chatham County, in a commanding position in comparison to other communities.
As a result of the construction in 1884 of the Cape Fear and Yadkin Valley Railway (later the Norfolk and Southern) through Liberty, coupled with the railway's decision to establish a station there, its growth and development was assured and the local economy invigorated. Now with the main ingredient in place for launching a diversified manufacturing base, Liberty rapidly evolved from a predominantly agricultural community into a railroad boom town. And on January 30, 1889, the North Carolina General Assembly granted a charter to the town of Liberty. In becoming an established regional base of commerce, Liberty was well prepared to enter into its new role as a small service settlement to the surrounding rural area as well as to nearby towns and crossroads settlements not directly served by a railway or near to a navigable waterway. Local farmers began enjoying easier access to markets. Passenger service allowed residents enhanced opportunities to travel for business or pleasure. And local merchants benefited by being able to increase the variety and quantity of their on-hand stock through reduced freight costs and increased access to more goods. To their customers this meant expanded choices and lower prices. And by the end of the first quarter of the twentieth century, was established as a prominent town in the area.
The Liberty Historic District displays the linear development typifying that occurring along the railroad in communities across the region and nation. It is very similar in nature to two nearby communities whose courses followed much the same evolution as Liberty's. Siler City and Goldson in neighboring Chatham County were opened to rail service on the Cape Fear and Yadkin Valley system at the same time as was Liberty. All three share similar resource types and growth trends. In rank order, however, Siler City is the largest of the three and Goldson the smallest. One common feature is that the dominant presence of the elevated rail bed and activity along the rail line continues to remain a prominent feature in all three towns. The integrity of Liberty's nominated resources compares favorably with these other two communities.
In summary, the Norfolk Southern Railroad had a profound effect on the development of Liberty by shaping its physical growth and that of its economy from one of a small crossroads agricultural community into a bustling, turn-of-the-century center for education and light industry and by establishing it as a regional farm-to-market node.
Statement of Significance — Historical Background and Context
Although incorporated in 1889, Liberty owes its initial existence to the commercial and residential development that evolved by 1809 at a crossroads. The first mention of Liberty is in 1809 when a reference to the "new town of Liberty" was inscribed in a Randolph County deed book. The community was laid out at the convergence of two overland trade routes. One of which ran from Cheraw, South Carolina, to Danville, Virginia, and the other connected the North Carolina communities of Greensboro and Fayetteville. As part of the town plan, a public square was established at the junction of these roads, which are presently called Fayetteville Street and Raleigh Avenue. Liberty continued to exist as an unincorporated community of farmers and struggled through the Civil War along with the rest of the South.
At the war's end, though, the families remaining in Liberty endeavored to create a more promising future for their town by lobbying for an extension of the Cape Fear and Yadkin Valley Railway's line, which by 1860 terminated at Egypt (now Cumnock). Records show a representative from Liberty being present at a route-planning meeting held in Pleasant Hill.
Local tradition has it that this attendee was J.W. Brower, who at that time was Liberty's major landholder. And, indeed, it was primarily through a section of land owned by Mr. Brower that tracks were eventually laid for what became the Cape Fear and Yadkin Valley Railroad Company.
The opportunity the railroad offered to securing a better future for Liberty was lost neither on the Browers, nor other area residents. This impact is evident in a petition, filed by A.C. McAllister, who was acting as guardian of J.W. Brower's children, Swanna and Henry Lily. The petition requests permission to deed a portion of the orphaned children's land to the rail company. In it he wrote, "that in the opinion of the petitioner, the said lands are now worth for farming purposes no more than the sum of two dollars per acre...that in anticipation of the construction of such depot and other buildings, should the same be built, there have already been fifty to sixty applications as the petitioner is informed and believes, for building lots for dwellings and business houses...the same land in all probability would thereupon command from five to fifteen dollars an acre."
The petition was granted, and the Cape Fear and Yadkin Valley Railroad Company acquired a 100 foot right-of-way on either side of the tracks and an additional two acres upon which to construct a depot. This watershed event set Liberty on a new course.
The Cape Fear and Yakdin Valley Railway published a promotional brochure in 1889 that offers the following account of Liberty: "Liberty is beautifully situated, and presents a very pleasing appearance to the incoming railway passenger. The extension of its limits and the growth of its population have been very marked in the past two or three years, and the citizens claim a total of between five hundred and six hundred inhabitants. An act of incorporation has recently been passed by the legislature, and many contemplated and actually [sic] improvements evince the spirit of progress and enterprise. A fine school is established here, which, for discipline, efficiency and curriculum of study, has already taken high rank among the educational institutions of that section. A large area of country surrounding Liberty is admirably adapted to sheep husbandry. The land is well-drained, and high and dry, offering fine ranges for flocks. The mutton raised is not very large but of excellent quality and the wool clip is good."
The Cape Fear and Yadkin Valley Railway was chartered in 1879 to construct a 245-mile line from Wilmington up the Cape Fear River to Fayetteville, thence to Greensboro and on to Mt. Airy (in the Yadkin River valley) at the foot of the Blue Ridge. The charter authorized consolidation of the existing Western Railroad with the Mount Airy Railroad, a line that was chartered but not yet constructed, and included branch lines from Fayetteville to Bennettsville, S.C., from Factory Junction (later Climax) in Guilford County to Ramseur in Rockingham County, and from Stokesdale in Guilford County to Madison in Rockingham County. Construction commenced at various points along the line at various times. The rails were laid through Liberty in 1884, and completed to Mount Airy in 1888, but the final section between Fayetteville and Wilmington did not open until 1889 or 1890.
The Cape Fear and Yadkin Valley Railway was the fourth of the five major lines that ultimately radiated out from Wilmington, North Carolina's major port and at the time the largest city. Leadership and finance for the line were homegrown, with the majority of board members in 1889 residents of Wilmington, Fayetteville, and Greensboro, the towns benefiting most from new trade connections established by the line. Greensboro businesses in particular hoped to profit from the direct route to the port at Wilmington. The president of the line was Julius Gray of Greensboro. The route had major connections at Fayetteville (the Wilmington and Weldon RR), Sanford (the Raleigh and Augusta RR, later Seaboard Air Line), and Greensboro (the North Carolina RR and the Richmond and Danville RR). Liberty was advantageously situated on the main line, about mid-way between Mt. Airy and Fayetteville, and the railroad and its connections opened potential markets for the town to all points of the compass.
In spite of high hopes for the new line, the Cape Fear and Yadkin Valley Railway existed as an independent entity for only a few years. The economic depression of the early 1890s and competition from alternate routes forced the line into receivership in 1894. It was sold at foreclosure in 1898 and reorganized as the Atlantic and Yadkin Railway in February 1899. Three months later almost half the line, the section between Sanford and Wilmington, was sold to the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad and became part of the Atlantic Coast Line system in 1900. At the same time the Southern Railway acquired the line between Sanford and Mt. Airy. The section between Sanford and Greensboro, including the tracks through Liberty, still operates as part of the Southern's successor, the Norfolk Southern. The old Cape Fear and Yadkin Valley tracks between Wilmington and Sanford and between Greensboro and Rural Hall were abandoned and removed by the late 20th century.
The opportunities that the railroad presented extended beyond a more accessible market for its agricultural goods and increased access to importing and exporting manufactured goods (sometimes called a nodal region). The location of the railroad was key in establishing the Liberty Academy in 1885, it later became Liberty Normal College. In addition to offering a sound general education, the school trained teachers and established Liberty as the region's educational center. Social and cultural opportunities were also enhanced by significantly reducing travel time to larger cities in the state and region. It also opened opportunities to bring in visiting artists for concerts and educational events. The first of these programs began in 1920 with the Lyceum Series and continued in later years with the Chautauqua movement. These popular events brought luminaries and cultural experiences to the hinterlands as never before practical, for instance William Jennings Bryan came to Liberty in 1914 and spoke to an enthralled audience.
In addition to the market and social opportunities the railroad presented, the location of the railroad also affected the physical layout and appearance of the town. This is evident in the spatial patterns in which its streets developed and that subsequent building activity corresponds to the lineal character of the railroad and cross-axial streets as is typical of turn-of-the-century railroad boom towns of the period, such as Goldson and Siler City to the southeast. Indeed, much of the residential development following the introduction of the railroad in 1885 was reoriented to the railline's north-south linear arrangement. One of the main residential boulevards, Asheboro Street (formally Railroad Street), parallels the elevated rail bed as it curves through town. Along this street were built many fine Victorian era residences that housed the town's new merchants and professionals.
Conforming to the vogue of the era and spurred by the national Garden City and City Beautiful movements and by the growth of local garden clubs, decorative landscape features along the rail corridor were introduced. The railroad right-of-way created a public open space ripe for being lined with flowering trees and shrubs. Its intended effect was to improve the appearance of the transportation corridor and signal to passengers that they had entered a town. Many of the original plantings remain along the rail line through Liberty and the local garden club has continued maintaining the historic landscape's appearance by replacing lost trees with those of the same species.
Most of the original frame buildings in the downtown experienced a fate typical of many communities of the era — destruction by fire. Liberty suffered two devastating fires — one in 1888 and another in 1895. In its subsequent rebuilding campaign, the town originally oriented to the crossroads and the public square, was reoriented to the railroad. The new "main street" of Liberty, Swannanoa Avenue, now led directly to the depot square, which had usurped the former square at the original crossroads as the center of activity.
According to local tradition, few buildings survived the fire of 1895 in Liberty's downtown. The only one that remains is a small frame house built by Dr. Armpstead Jackson Patterson for his elderly parents, George and Sophia Coble Patterson. Dr. A.J. Patterson (1841-1906) was the first of three generations of prominent Liberty physicians (Dr. R.D. Patterson, Sr., 1872-1924, and Dr. R.D. Patterson, Jr., 1904-1960, who was also mayor for three terms). The house (SW side of 200 block of S. Fayetteville at junction with West Brower Avenue) was crossroads. Local tradition holds that a neighbor saved it from burning by continuously dousing the roof with water as the fires raged.
Liberty's first industry, Liberty Picker Stick and Novelty Company opened in 1910. In 1916, the company purchased a dynamo and began providing electricity to the town. It was later renamed the Liberty Chair Company, and the original building burned in 1926 but was replaced by a new one in the same year. Other industries followed soon after and brought with them new patterns of employment and steady wage. Among these companies were the Liberty Broom Works and the Dependable Hosiery Company. Many of these industrial buildings have either burned, demolished or have been drastically altered and are not included in the Liberty Historic District. The legacy of these companies to the growth of the town, and particularly to the development of the bulk of the resources contained in the Liberty Historic District remains evident, however.
The growth of Liberty's population from 1900-1950 is dramatic. In 1900, the census summary states its population was 304, which is likely a bit more realistic than the optimistic estimates of the railway's promotional brochure. By 1950, however, it had blossomed to 1,342 for a net gain of 1,038, which translates to an impressive 340% increase. Looking at the population figures decade by decade provides a clearer picture emerges of how that growth took place.
From 1900 to 1910, the population went from 304 to 474, or a gain of 170 residents and a 55% increase. The rate of growth slowed some over the next two decades, but was still high. For relative perspective, this is about half the size of nearby Siler City (also on the Norfolk Southern rail line) which was undergoing a similar experience Liberty was about twice the size of Goldson in neighboring Chatham County at the turn of the century.
The following decade from 1910 to 1920, 162 residents were added totaling 636 for a 34% increase. This period correlates with the first the industrialization of Liberty's economic base and when electric power was brought to town. As additional employment opportunities arose between the First World War and the first years of the Great Depression the rate of increase rose slightly to 37% and added 237 residents for a population total in 1930 of 873.
From 1930 to 1940, the years that saw the greatest impact from the Depression, there was virtually no growth. By 1950, it was a very different story, however. As the economy geared up as the result of the effort preparing for entry into the war in Europe, Liberty experienced its second highest rate of growth. The population grew by 420 residents and by 1950 Liberty had 1,342 residents representing a 45% increase during those years.
Growth slowed once again the next decade though and saw an increase of only 96 residents or a 7% growth rate. By 1970, however, the population of Liberty shot up by 729 residents to total 2,167, or an increase of 50%. The next two decades saw that growth rate curtailed. From 1970 to 1980 there was a decrease in population of 170 or a net loss of 7.8%. Liberty recovered somewhat between 1980 and 1990 and reached a population of 2,047.
Most of the pre-War industries have shut down, been sold, or bought-out. Liberty Chair, Stout Chair, Quality Veneer, and Liberty Hosiery have been lost. And All Sheer Hosiery and Gregson Furniture have changed owners. New industry such as Kellwood, Worcester Controls, and Collier-Kenworth have come to the town since the 1970s.
Blum, John M. ed., The National Experience: a History of the United States, 2nd ed., New York: Harcourt, Brace & World Inc., 1968.
Brower, Bennie. "Clipping Book." Unpublished compilation containing published newspaper articles and other information regarding the history of Liberty in author's possession.
Burgess, Fred. Randolph County: Economic and Social. Ramseur: n.p. 1924.
Cape Fear and Yadkin Valley Railway (From Mt. Airy, at the Base of the Blue Ridge, to Wilmington, NC.).: Its Origin, Construction, Connections, and Extensions, Philadelphia: Allen, Lane and Scott, Printers, 1889.
Curtis, Mrs. John W., Jr. interview. June 1998.
Grantham, Dewey W. The South in Modern America: A Region at Odds. New York: Harper Collins, 1994.
The Liberty News, 1960-1976. Clipping file of Randolph Communities at the Randolph Room, Asheboro County Library, Asheboro.
Randolph County Historical Society. Randolph County: 1779-1979. Winston-Salem: Hunter Publishing Company, 1980.
Southern, Michael, Raleigh, to Jennifer Martin, 15 December 1999. Memo re: Liberty Historic District.
Swaim, Francine. Our Town — Liberty, N C. 1809-1989. Unpublished manuscript in progress, received 1998.
Swaim, Francine. Liberty High School. Unpublished manuscript in progress, received 1998.
Whatley, Lowell McKay. Architectural History of Randolph County, NC. Asheboro: City of Asheboro et al., 1985.
Yeates, Maurice, and Barry Garner. The North American City. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1976.
† Tom Shaw, Senior Preservation Planner and Krista Hampton, Historian, Benchmark, Inc., Libert Historic District, Randolph County, North Carolina, nomination document, 2000, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.