Rockingham Historic District
The Rockingham Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983. 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 Rockingham Historic District is the largest concentration of architecturally and historically significant structures dating primarily from the mid-nineteenth to early-twentieth century in Rockingham. Within the boundaries of the Rockingham Historic District are located the oldest surviving structure in the immediate Rockingham vicinity (the Steele-Johnson-Cole House, built in 1838; 816 Fayetteville Road), the Everett Family Cemetery, and the three oldest remaining institutional structures (the Church of the Messiah built between 1899-1900 (202 North Lawrence Street), the First United Methodist Church constructed in 1899 (410 East Washington Street), and the former Rockingham High School erected in 1922 (415 Wall Street)). Also included are outstanding examples of architectural styles associated with the period and significant vernacular examples which absorb aspects of each. Today, the broad, shaded streets, so admired in Rockingham, act as the cohesive units which tie this rich and varied display of architectural styles together.
The area of Rockingham now known as the Rockingham Historic District developed as the primary residential suburb of the commercial center during the post Civil War years. The early pioneers of textile manufacturing in the Rockingham vicinity constructed impressive residences along Fayetteville Road, the major thoroughfare, as well as Randolph, Rockingham, and East Washington streets. By 1910 a large, prestigious residential district had developed east of downtown. This development pattern is readily observed today by the concentrations of architecturally significant houses east of Rockingham's urban core.
The town of Rockingham was created by an act of the North Carolina Assembly which met at Hillsborough on June 2, 1784. The town was named for the Marquis of Rockingham, Charles Watson-Wentworth (1730-1782), a strong friend of the American colonies. As prime minister of England in 1766, he supported the repeal of the Stamp Act. A commission headed by General Henry William Harrington, Robert Webb, and John Cole had the duty of laying out the town as close to the center of the county as feasible. The Ledbetter community is actually closer to the geographical center of Richmond County but it is thought that the Rockingham site was chosen because it is at the junction of Hitchcock and Falling creeks. Potential water transportation routes and settings for saw and grist mills were given high priority in the selection of the site. The original town of Rockingham comprised fifty acres. Eighteen acres were purchased from John James, Sr. for the equivalent of thirty dollars, and thirty-two acres from John Cole, Sr. for fifty dollars.
The growth of the newly established town of Rockingham was slow prior to the Civil War, in part because many of the influential county leaders lived on large farms outside of town. In 1843, according to the former county historian Captain W.I. Everett, only sixteen dwellings were within the original town limits and some twenty dwellings on the outside. The population at that time was less than 200 people. Today, none of the original sixteen houses stand. The Steele-Johnson-Cole House built in 1838 at 816 Fayetteville Road is the only documented structure of that vintage near the original city boundaries.
Captain W.I. Everett (1835-1911) was the first of many prominent Everett family members to be buried in the Everett Family Cemetery off LeGrand Avenue, a well maintained graveyard located in the Rockingham Historic District. A distinctive wrought and cast iron fence surrounds the small burial lot.
Other houses dating from this early period include the Steele-Fisher House at 613 Fayetteville Road and the Steele-Gibbons House at 621 Fayetteville Road, both built in the 1840s, and the Robert L. Steele, Sr. House at 705 Fayetteville Road and the Leak-Wall House at 405 E. Washington Street, both constructed in the 1850s. Including these four houses, only about six percent of the present buildings in the Rockingham Historic District were built by ca.1880.
In May of 1861, the Pee Dee Guards, the first of several companies in Richmond County, was formed to furnish eighty-two men to the Confederate cause. The great send-off for the Guard took place on June 27, 1861 at the site of the present First United Methodist Church (410 East Washington Street). Although no major battles were fought on Richmond soil, the county was not left unscarred by the war.
On March 7, 1865 foragers from the Federal Army skirmished with the Confederate troops under General Joseph Wheeler on the outskirts of Rockingham, while another similar outbreak occurred within the town limits. General Hugh Judson Kilpatrick's advanced guard of Union calvary arrived later in the morning and forced the Confederate soldiers to retreat. General Kilpatrick, on the highway from Cheraw to Fayetteville, occupied Rockingham several days before moving on and maintained headquarters at the Steele-Fisher House at 613 Fayetteville Road.
Several houses east of the Union headquarters in the Steele-Fisher House lived Dr. Steele's cousin, Colonel Walter Leak Steele, at 621 Fayetteville Road. The colorful story is often told that, knowing the Union soldiers were after him, the colonel hid up to his neck in the cold waters of Falling Creek until a slave revealed his hiding place. He was then forced to walk to Fayetteville, sixty miles away, "clad only in his shirt, drawers and shoes," where he was kept hostage several days and then released.
Due to the effects of the Civil War, a revival of a purely agrarian economy proved impractical. The end of slavery reduced the agricultural labor force after the war, and resulted in the breaking up of many of the larger estates. More and more of the county aristocracy were drawn to the growing town of Rockingham. As an alternative to farming, landowners turned to industry and the professions. Taking advantage of the potential water power provided by Hitchcock and Falling creeks, many invested in textile mills.
A number of the principal engineers and promoters of the textile industry in Richmond County built extremely fine residences within the Rockingham Historic District. Today these substantial houses command the immediate attention of passers-by as symbols of the industrial wealth of Rockingham.
The textile pioneers who lived in the Rockingham Historic District included Walter F. Leak who lived at 704 Fayetteville Road and John Wall Leak who built a residence at 405 E. Washington Street. This father and son-in-law team, along with Robert L. Steele, Sr. were responsible for the building of Great Falls Mill in 1869. Robert L. Steele, Sr., who has been called the main entrepreneur and engineer of the textile industry in Richmond County, maintained a residence at 705 Fayetteville Road. He was not only a promoter of Great Falls Mill, but also the driving force behind the founding of Pee Dee No. 1 Mill in 1876, Roberdel No. 1 Mill in 1882, and Steele's Mill in 1895. John S. Ledbetter, who lived at 804 Fayetteville Road, along with his uncle, Thomas B. Ledbetter, was responsible for the founding of Ledbetter Mill in 1881. W.B. Cole, who made his home at 806 Fayetteville Road was the principal promoter behind the founding of Hannah Pickett No. 1 in 1906.
The Leak, Steele, and Cole families were among the early settlers of the county and developers of the textile industry for several generations. Until the mid-twentieth century, the textile firms were largely owned and operated by members of these families who were either related by direct descendency or intermarriage. Many of these administrators made their home within the Rockingham Historic District. H.D. Ledbetter who lived at 618 Fayetteville Road served as president of Ledbetter Manufacturing from 1922-1949, and George and Sam Steele who maintained residences at 617 Fayetteville Road and 1011 Fayetteville Road respectively, were responsible for the operation of Roberdel No. 1 Mill in the early 1900s. Robert L. Steele, Jr. who built at 708 Fayetteville Road and later at 804 E. Washington Street served as president of Steele's Mill from 1900-1925 and was succeeded by John W. Porter from 1926-1945 who lived at 905 Fayetteville Road. LeGrand Everett and W.C. Leak were among the major incorporators of Leak Mill in 1923. Mr. Everett maintained a residence at 208 North Randolph Street and Mr. Leak at 506 Rockingham Road. W.C. Leak also Col. Walter L. Steele who built at 621 Fayetteville Road as president of Pee Dee Mills from 1891 until 1918. William H. Entwistle, another noted second generation industrialist served as president of Pee Dee Manufacturing from 1934 until 1946 He also constructed a residence in the Rockingham Historic District at 916 Fayetteville Road.
During the late 1800s and early 1900s increasingly progressive strides were made in Rockingham's growth and development. Fortunes were being made in the textile industry and related commercial enterprises. The newly acquired wealth was reflected in a residential building boom. Between ca.1880 and ca.1910, thirty-three percent of the extant buildings in the Rockingham Historic District were constructed and another forty percent between ca.1910 and ca.1930. Thus by 1930, seventy-nine percent of the buildings now present within the Rockingham Historic District had been erected. Many of the buildings constructed after 1930 have been replacements for earlier structures. Some of these are compatible with the character of the district and some are not.
Among the more than 200 properties in the Rockingham Historic District, a rich variety of styles can be seen, many of which represent excellent examples of Greek Revival, Queen Anne, Colonial Revival, Neo-Classical, and Bungalow styles. Key or pivotal structures remind the viewer of the former grandeur and are instrumental in giving the area an identity or personality associated with Rockingham life at its height.
Between 1900 and 1925 church and school construction was also at an all time high. Surviving church and school structures within the Rockingham Historic District include the Gothic Revival style Episcopal Church at 202 N. Lawrence Street built between 1899 and 1900, the Romanesque Revival First United Methodist Church at 410 E. Washington Street begun in 1899, and also the former Rockingham High School at 415 Wall Street erected in 1922.
In the early 1900s the prosperous county seat not only attracted textile industrialists, but also a host of bankers, lawyers, doctors and merchants, many of whom made their home within the Rockingham Historic District.
Prominent bankers residing in the Rockingham Historic District over the years included W.L. Parsons at 408 East Franklin Street, Walter L. Scales at 704 Fayetteville Road, and John Armistead at 607 Fayetteville Road, all of whom were associated with the former Bank of Pee Dee. Another notable banker is John W. Covington, Jr. who lived at 515 Fayetteville Road and was past president of the former Farmer's Bank and Trust.
As the county seat of Richmond County, Rockingham attracted several distinguished lawyers. Frank McNeill, former district attorney, built at 321 N. Randolph Street, J.R. McLendon, attorney, at 913 Fayetteville Road, and Hon. A.A. Webb at 109 Scales Street. In addition, one of Rockingham's most distinguished citizens, Judge F. Donald Phillips, came to Rockingham in 1915 and has resided since 1925 at 622 Fayetteville Road. In 1946 he was appointed by President Harry Truman as one of the judges of the International Military Tribunal for the trial of major war criminals in Nuremberg, Germany. Other important citizens related to the legal profession who at one time resided in the district include Thomas L. Covington who lived at 1101 Fayetteville Road and served as Clerk of Court in Richmond County from 1906 until 1914 and W.S. Thomas who constructed a house at 207 Everett Street and served in the same position from 1922-1942 and as Register of Deeds from 1900-1906.
Prominent physicians living in the Rockingham Historic District included Dr. F.J. Garrett who had built in ca.1903 a handsome Colonial Revival house at 1020 Fayetteville Road and his son, Dr. F.B. Garrett who in 1916 constructed at 101 Fayetteville Road a notable example of the Bungalow style. In ca.1905 Dr. A.C. Everett commissioned the firm of Wheeler and Stearn of Charlotte to design a highly impressive Classical Revival residence at 201 Everett Street while at the same time Dr. Lorenzo D. McPhail was constructing a modest two-story house across the street at 204 Everett Street.
Local merchants were also well represented in the Rockingham Historic District. Among those who made a significant contribution to the commercial development of Rockingham were W.T. Covington, James H. Covington, T.R. Helms, Jay Helms, W.E. McNair, Claude Gore, and L.G. Fox. W.T. Covington who lived at 519 Rockingham Road and his brother James H. Covington who resided at 1026 Fayetteville Road were co-owners of the W.T. Covington Cotton Exchange. Originally a grocery, the Covingtons expanded their services to include the selling of cotton from a platform behind the building and the grading of cotton in a classing room added to the rear. The firm of T.R. Helms and Sons, Jewelers, known today as Helm's Jewelers, was founded in 1912. T.R. Helms first built a residence at 516 Fayetteville Road and several years later constructed another at 517 E. Washington Street. His son, Jay Helms, took over the firm in 1948 until its sale in 1962. He lived at 603 E. Washington Street. The W.E. McNair Furniture Store, a local commercial landmark, was founded in 1908 and has been at its present location since 1913. Mr. McNair lived for many years at 612 E. Washington Street. Claude Gore, who built at 320 N. Randolph Street was manager of the Operatives Trading Company (later the Gore Company) until his death in 1944. He also served as manager of Great Falls Mill from the early 1900s until the Depression years. L.G. Fox who lived at 510 Fayetteville Road founded the L.G. Fox Drug Company in 1905.
Other notable residents in the Rockingham Historic District through the years have included school administrators, newspaper men, ministers, and the aforementioned political leaders, who have made substantial contributions to the Rockingham community. Because of the roles played by the above described institution and individuals, the Rockingham Historic District has made significant contributions to the development of the industrial, religious, educational, commercial, and political life of the community. Coupled with the notable architectural qualities of the Rockingham Historic District, these factors convey many important and varied aspects of Rockingham development during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
Restoration and rehabilitation of significant structures have had more architectural impact than new construction in the district in the last two decades. Only about six percent of the buildings can be considered as intrusions, detracting from the special character of the neighborhood. The Rockingham Historic Zoning District, created in 1979, is helping to protect the fragile relationship between the individual buildings, green spaces and traffic patterns constituting the local historic district. The eclectic mixture of building types, details and landscaping, which over the years have evolved into the unique character which is Rockingham, thus have been officially recognized by the city of Rockingham as resources worthy of preservation.
Clark, Walter, ed. The State Records of North Carolina, 16 vols. Winston and Goldsboro: State of North Carolina, 1890-1906.
Collins, Herbert. "The Idea of a Cotton Textile Industry in the South, 1870-1900." The North Carolina Historical Review, XXXIV (July, 1957), 358-392.
Corbitt, David Leroy. The Formation of the North Carolina Counties, 1663-1943. Raleigh: The State Department of Archives and History, 1950.
Cox, Clark. General Henry William Harrington and the Harrington Cemetery. Rockingham: The Richmond County Luncheon Lions Club, 1979.
Griffen, Richard W. "Reconstruction of the North Carolina Textile Industry 1865-1885." The North Carolina Historical Review, XLI (January, 1964), 34-53.
Huneycutt, James E. and Ida C. A History of Richmond County. Raleigh: Edwards and Broughton, 1976.
Lefler, Hugh T. and Albert R. Newsome. The History of a Southern State: North Carolina. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1973.
London, Isaac S. The London Papers are found in three separate collections housed at the North Carolina State Archives, the Richmond County Office of the Superior Court, and the Richmond County Library. Only the notes at the State Archives are loosely indexed according to general subject headings. The two other collections are not indexed.
Powell, William S. The North Carolina Gazetteer. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1968.
Rockingham. The Push Rockingham Forward Club. Rockingham, 1910.
Sharpe, Bill. A New Geography of North Carolina, 4 vols. Raleigh: Sharpe Publishing Company, 1956-1965.
________. "Mountains, Piedmont, Sandhills." State, vol. 21, no. 21, (October. 24, 1953).
Spencer, J.E. Tales Told in the Hills, 1939, booklet. J.E. Spencer was a noted photographer who moved to Rockingham in 1894. The booklet contains stories and anecdotes about Rockingham life and its leading citizens.
Spirit of Richmond: Richmond County Magazine, vol. 1 (July 28, 1932).
Thompson, Holland. From Cotton Field to Cotton Mill. New York: McMillan, 1906.
Tompkins, Daniel A. Cotton Mill, Commercial Features. Charlotte: D.A. Tompkins, 1899.
United States Census Records, 1790-1900. North Carolina: Richmond County. Population Schedules, 1790-1900; Slave Schedules 1850-1860.
Vertical file of the Survey and Restoration Branch, North Carolina Division of Archives and,History, Raleigh, North Carolina.
Vertical file of the Rockingham-Richmond County Library.
Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps. North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. (Now placed on file at the Rockingham-Richmond County Library): March, 1885; June, 1899; January, 1900; May, 1905; January, 1911; March, 1918; September, 1924, with 1938 update (in possession of W.H. Parker Insurance Company, Rockingham, N.C.)
Interviews with Rockingham citizens.
† Heather M. Hallenberg, consultant, Survey and Planning Branch, North Carolina Division of Archives and History, Rockingham Historic District, nomination document, 1981, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.