Maxton Historic District
The Maxton Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1999. 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 Maxton Historic District, containing forty-four well-preserved commercial buildings, railroad structures, churches and houses dating from the mid-1880s to the late 1940s, is the well-preserved commercial and residential core of one of the most intact turn-of-the-century railroad towns in Robeson County and in the Sandhills region of North Carolina. The town began as a railroad depot named Shoe Heel on the Wilmington, Charlotte and Rutherford Railroad, which came through in 1862. The village prospered as the naval stores and lumber industries exploited the vast pine forests surrounding the area. In 1884 the Cape Fear and Yadkin Valley Railroad connected Maxton with Fayetteville and the South Carolina line, placing Maxton at the junction of two important rail lines. In 1887 the town name changed to Mack's Town (shortened to Maxton) for the many Scottish Mc and Mac names in the community. Like many post-Civil War railroad towns, Maxton boomed from the late 1880s into the early twentieth century as a mercantile center with a cotton market. Later, the rapid movement of cantaloupe, watermelon, and strawberries by truck to the railways strengthened Maxton's agricultural base in the early twentieth century. The densely developed Maxton Historic District flanks both sides of North Patterson Street and extends along several intersecting streets.
The Maxton Historic District is also eligible for the National Register for its significant collection of brick commercial buildings, most dating from the late 1890s to the 1920s, railroad-related structures, churches, and houses of Queen Anne, Colonial Revival and Neoclassical Revival styles. The pivotal building is the brick flatiron Patterson Building (201 McCaskill Avenue) designed by architect Clint Parrish for the Bank of Robeson in 1911. Other exceptional brick commercial buildings include the Maxton Supply Company building on Central Street along the railroad tracks, the A.J. Cottingham Store at 127-129 N. Patterson Street, and the ACME-McLean Store at 204-210 McCaskill Avenue. The Robert Lee McLeod House at 143 West Graham Street, and the A.J. McKinnon House, 301 North Florence Street, are impressive examples of the Neoclassical Revival style of the early twentieth century. The First Presbyterian Church at 305 N. Patterson Street is an imposing brick Gothic Revival structure featuring corner entrance tower with crenellated battlements.
Historical Background and Community Development Context
Robeson County, formed in 1786, was settled largely by Highland Scots moving westward from the Lower Cape Fear region of North Carolina. As early as 1740, immigrants were settling in the area as they followed the Cape Fear River and its tributaries from Wilmington. Settlers established small, self-sufficient farms and used the abundant pine trees in the area to produce tar, pitch, and turpentine in the eighteenth to nineteenth centuries. Settled early in the county's history, Lumberton, named for the Lumber River, became the county seat and a trading center of Robeson County after its founding in 1788.
Between 1857 and 1861, the long straight tracks of the WC&R railroad linked Wilmington, Charlotte, and Rutherfordton by way of Lumberton, Rockingham and Wadesboro. The railroad constructed the Shoe Heel Depot in 1862 at the cross roads of the New Bridge and Floral College dirt road. Development of Maxton began with the construction of this depot, named for the nearby creek, and at a later date as Quehele (perhaps Gaelic for Shoe Heel). Although the railroad operated during the Civil War and the Shoe Heel Depot served the area, a town did not develop until after the war when naval stores and lumber industries exploited the surrounding pine forests. In 1865 the firm of Hayes and Strong from Toledo, Ohio established the first store in the community for those who worked in the turpentine industry, the chief industry at that time. It was not until after the Civil War when pine trees were being cleared that farmers in Robeson County were able to take advantage of the flat terrain and rich soil of the area to farm.
After the Civil War, sharecropping and tenant farming became commonplace on large farms in North Carolina. The Maxton economy was largely founded on the establishment of "time stores," a credit-retail system. Because credit was not directly available to the farmer, banks extended credit to merchants who then extended credit to the farmer until harvest time. Repayment to the merchant was guaranteed by requiring the farmer to raise those crops easily converted to cash, like cotton or tobacco. The potential arising from the railroad, fertile land, and timber resources encouraged people such as John C. McCaskill (302 McCaskill Avenue), Frank Henderson, J.A. McLean, and B.F. McLean to move into the community by 1869.
The WC&R railroad, which became the Central Carolina Railroad in 1873, was extended through to Charlotte in 1874. Soon after this change, a more permanent depot was constructed in Maxton (Shoe Heel) which promoted the town as an important trade center. In 1880, the Central Carolina Railroad was acquired by the Seaboard Air Line Railroad.
In recognition of its development as a trading center, the town of Shoe Heel, population of 200, was incorporated in February 1874 by the North Carolina Legislature. In 1875, the businesses of E.L. McCormic, J.C. McCaskill, Dr. Croom's Drug Store, and B.F. McLean & Co. were situated on the town square. The town also had a turpentine distillery, a cooperage, Lewis Lilly's barber shop and a number of private homes at this time. In 1876, the town, one mile square, was laid out by surveyor Malloy Patterson. Patterson measured off one-half mile in each direction, north, south, east and west, from the center point of the town which was determined to be the junction of the original Red Springs (Patterson Street) and Laurinburg (McCaskill Avenue) roads with the Carolina Central Railroad. The plat apparently no longer exists. Laid out in a grid pattern, the present plan varies little from the 1876 configuration. "Stores began to spring up, including a carriage and harness shop, a general mercantile store, and a millinery shop. The first row of business houses [now the site of Maxton Supply Company] was built facing the railroad, and this area, where the dirt road to Centre Church crossed the railroad to Charlotte, became the village square." The earliest surviving frame structure is that of the circa 1885 Gilbert Patterson Law Office (201 W. Graham Street) which presently stands at the southwest corner of Graham and Florence streets. It was moved from Patterson Street in 1972 and is presently occupied by the Maxton Historical Society as a museum.
When the Cape Fear and Yadkin Valley (CF&YV) Railway arrived in 1884 on its way from Fayetteville to the South Carolina state line, Maxton became the first community in Robeson County to have two railroads. Also at this time, shorter lines serving the lumber industry were developed. The increase in railroad activity provided a huge boost to Maxton's economy. The CF&YV Railway Freight Warehouse (north side of the railroad tracks, between Florence and N. Patterson streets) was built beside the tracks when it arrived. The warehouse is the oldest remaining railroad building in Maxton. In 1893, the one-story warehouse had a two-story ticket office on the east and a cotton platform on the west side. Today, the warehouse has been extended by two west additions and the cotton platform and ticket office are gone. In 1893 the Central Carolina Railroad (CCRR) had a similar warehouse with ticket office surrounded by a cotton platform south of the tracks. In the late 1890s two cotton platforms stood east of Patterson Street; one between the two sets of railroad tracks and the other on the north side of the CF&YV tracks. In 1900, the Seaboard Air Line (SAL) Railway took over the CCRR and the CF&YV joined the Atlantic Coast Line (ACL) Railroad.
In the mid-1880s, Maxton had a population of 500 with churches and schools, fourteen stores, and a steam grist mill. Cotton, corn, shingles, lumber, naval stores, and sweet potatoes grown in the Maxton vicinity were stored in Maxton's warehouses and shipped to market on its two rail lines. In 1887 the town name of Shoe Heel was changed to Mack's Town (shortened to Maxton) for the many Scottish Mc and Mac names in the community. At this time the population included the McCormicks, Shaws, McKinnons, McRaes, McGirts, Pattersons, McLeans, Wilkersons, and McBrydes. Many of these families left their nearby farms, rented them to tenants, and moved to Maxton to take advantage of the business opportunities.
Maxton continued developing as a center of cotton, timber and naval stores trade. At the end of the 1880s and early 1890s, Maxton experienced another surge in growth with the establishment of several cotton gins and a spinning mill that started in 1893. Machine shops were organized. A brick hotel, the McCaskill House, opened in November of 1889 (later the Maple Shade Hotel; demolished in the 1950s). The Maxton Union newspaper noted in 1889 that fourteen dwellings were built in Maxton in that year and there were no vacant houses in town. It also noted that Maxton citizens built four brick stores, one town hall, one frame store; improved or enlarged nine other buildings; finished a half built church: and built eight smaller dwellings occupied by African Americans. In May of 1891 a fire destroyed part of the business district. That June, town commissioners decided that no more wooden buildings would be erected in the business district of Maxton. By 1911, all buildings in the business district except for liveries and warehouses were constructed of brick.
By 1894 Maxton contained approximately twenty-five stores that supplied goods and bought cotton and other salable products from a large rural area. Maxton had one turpentine distillery, one saw-mill, two carriage factories, a sash, door and blind factory, machine shops and foundry, an almost complete cotton yarn factory, and the usual supply of blacksmith shops, shoemakers, butchers, and barbers. When cotton began selling at low prices in the 1890s farmers in the county turned to bright leaf tobacco as a substitute money crop. Maxton, as it was so heavily invested in cotton, never became a tobacco market like the neighboring communities of Lumberton, Laurinburg, and Red Springs.
The largest and oldest commercial building surviving in Maxton is the two-story brick Maxton Supply Company located on West Central Street, built in three stages between circa 1887 and 1910. In 1897 J.W. Carter bought the E.L. McCormac's frame store at the corner of Central and Patterson streets. By 1898, Carter had built a new two-story brick general store, adding a second section in 1905 and a third in 1910. After the last addition in 1910, Carter advertised the building as the largest retail store in the town. J.W. Carter and his wife deeded the property to J.W. Carter Company in 1915, which later deeded it to Maxton Supply Company in 1939. Maxton Supply Company operated a hardware store, a funeral home and a movie theatre in the building.
In North Carolina the largest single cash crop prior to 1920 was cotton and Robeson County was among the leading producers in the state. Cotton trading was responsible for many of the fortunes in Maxton. The Elba Manufacturing Company, a cottonseed oil and fertilizer factory developed in 1908 and was the largest in the country in 1923, producing 120 tons of cottonseed per day.
Other money crops brought in by trucks were introduced and made possible by the good rail facilities. A.J. McKinnon encouraged farmers to produce less cotton and more food to force cotton prices up. McKinnon himself introduced the first cantaloupes to market in 1898. Watermelons and strawberries also were shipped from Maxton in large carloads in the early 1900s. T.B. Pace and John Leach were among these early fruit farmers. The Sash and Door factory began producing between 50 to 70,000 melon crates per year to package these new crops.
By 1905, a stylish frame Union Passenger Depot was built west of Patterson Street in front of Maxton Supply Company and was situated between the two recently consolidated railroad lines. Two warehouses and a large cotton platform stood between the two tracks on the east side of Patterson Street in 1905. Except for the cotton platform, the two warehouses on the east side of Patterson Street remained until sometime after 1925. In 1913, the brick Maxton Union Station (127 W. Central Street) was constructed on the south side of the SAL tracks, replacing the earlier frame depot, which sat to its east. Circa 1915, the Seaboard Air Line Railway Freight Warehouse (119 East Central Street) with wraparound platform was constructed on the east side of Patterson Street and the south side of the SAL railroad tracks.
The town of Maxton evolved from a market into a town with modern amenities at the turn of the century. In 1898, A.J. McKinnon, Gilbert Patterson, and J.W. Carter formed a telephone exchange company which operated out of the second floor of the Currie & Patterson Company building at 120 N. Patterson Street. Maxton organized its first bank, the Bank of Maxton, in 1900. Prominent businessmen built large homes close to the center of town. A.J. McKinnon who found his fortune in cotton and truck farming built his two-story Neoclassical Revival house at 301 North Florence Street circa 1905. Successful lumberman R.L. McLeod built an even grander two-story Neoclassical Revival house across the street at 143 W. Graham Street just three years later. In 1906, the Presbyterian and Methodist Episcopal congregations both built impressive churches in town. In 1908, bonds were sold for the installation of a water and sewer system, and the Bank of Robeson was organized in 1909. J. Archie Patterson erected the Patterson Building (201 McCaskill Avenue) as the office for the Bank of Robeson in 1911. Soon after, the clock tower was added at a cost of $1,500, paid for by private subscriptions.
By 1911, the 100 block of N. Patterson Street, the business center, was lined with handsome pressed brick front stores. Much of this block consisted of general merchandise, dry goods, grocery stores, and barber shops. By the 1920s, commercial development expanded up Main Street (present McCaskill Avenue). North of the intersection of Graham and McCaskill Avenues, residential development began.
During the early twentieth century, a result of the Jim Crow laws, black-owned businesses were segregated from main street. Several African American-owned businesses, which survive today, began developing along the 200 block of East Wilmington Street during the 1910s. In the early 1920s, Gaston McKoy moved his grocery store on Patterson Street to a new building at 207 E. Wilmington Street. Ed Ziegler, a one-legged black shoemaker had his store in this block, also in the early 1920s. Other businesses along this block included a barber shop, a restaurant, and offices. Since then, the eastern part of Maxton along E. Sanders (East Martin Luther King Drive), East Central, East Wilmington, and East Graham streets has been the African American area.
Therefore, by the 1920s, Maxton's character as a railroad town was fully evolved. With its village square formed by the junction of two important roads at the railroad tracks, Maxton possessed a plan quite different from the typical grid plan of most railroad towns. Today, the town has changed little. Its small size, the continued prominence of the Union Station and two railroad warehouses, and the historic commercial buildings, including the flatiron Patterson Building, grouped around the tracks, make Maxton the best-preserved railroad town in the Sandhills of North Carolina.
The United States census reported little change in Maxton's population between 1910 and 1930. As cotton trading continued into the 1920s, local businesses continued to be agriculturally related with the sale of fertilizer, equipment, staple groceries, and clothing. Through World War II, local businessmen also sought profit in the trade of railroad ties, telephone poles and cross arms. Road construction through Maxton was spurred by the North Carolina Highway Act of 1921. Most of the major streets in the town were paved in 1924 and 1925. Sidewalks and other street improvements were also put into place.
Maxton's economy began to deteriorate even before the Great Depression began in 1929. Progress of the 1920s was clouded by the sharp drop in farm prices between 1920 and 1922 and the closing of the Bank of Maxton in 1924. Planing mills and sash, blind and door factories gradually closed as local timber became depleted. The Bank of Robeson went bankrupt in the Depression of 1931 after struggling with Maxton's economy through the 1920s.
Following the Depression, the major development in the Maxton area was the establishment of the Laurinburg-Maxton Army Air Base in 1942. Costing eleven million dollars to construct and spanning more than 5,000 acres, the Laurinburg-Maxton Army Air Base was one of the largest glider bases in the world at the time. The base played an important role in World War II as a training base for some 20,000 glider pilots and crewmen practicing for campaigns in Burma, Africa, Sicily, and Normandy. During the rest of the war, Maxton boomed as local stores did record business and every available room in homes and stores was rented to families of servicemen. Construction offices for the air base were located on the second floor of the ACME-McLean building at 204-210 McCaskill Avenue. The air base closed in 1946 but was developed as an industrial park by the towns of Laurinburg and Maxton in the 1950s. In the late 1950s and 1960s, the county's stable agricultural base declined further and has never bounced back.
Demolitions and railroad track removals in the 1960s and 1970s threatened to destroy the historic character of Maxton's business district. In the 1960s, the two-story ticket office attached to the west side of the CF&YV Freight Warehouse was torn down. In 1967, the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad and the Seaboard Air Line Railroad merged into the Seaboard Coast Line Railroad. The northern set of tracks (the ACL tracks) were taken up shortly after the merger. The CSX railroad took over the tracks through Maxton in the 1970s and is still in operation today, sending numerous freight trains through town daily, without a stop. The Maxton Public Housing Authority demolished many houses in the African American area of east Maxton for fifty housing units in 1968. A number of buildings have been demolished since the 1970s as businesses followed to take advantage of the traffic along N.C. 130/71. The imposing 3-story Bank of Maxton building located at the southeast corner of Central and Patterson streets was demolished in 1970.
Since the late 1970s Maxton has struggled to maintain its historic character. The town commissioned architect Philip Letsinger to conduct a historic architecture inventory study in 1979. Letsinger produced a very thorough publication, Inventory of Historic Architecture of Maxton, North Carolina. In the mid-1990s the town published a study recommending appropriate changes to historic buildings to enhance their historic architectural features. In 1997, the landmark Patterson Building was completely restored as the Town Hall. The town's current  preservation effort is the listing of the town core to the National Register of Historic Places in an effort to provide protection to the district and make its contributing buildings eligible for Federal and State rehabilitation tax credits.
The unique architectural and civic character of the Maxton Historic District derives from three sources. The most basic source is the distinctive street plan, with two main streets merging in front of the railroad tracks, thereby creating a village square. Secondly, Maxton retains more of its railroad character than any other town in the region. The Union Depot and two frame warehouses stand along the tracks, and a number of turn-of-the-century stores with cast-iron storefronts face the tracks and Patterson Street. Thirdly, the commercial district retains not only a number of landmark buildings, but also the modest connective buildings which convey the early twentieth century.
The standard town plan of a railroad town consists of the tracks paralleling or bisecting the main street, with secondary streets laid out in a grid pattern. Such a geometric layout creates no town focus, such as towns laid out as county seats receive from the central courthouse square. Because the Wilmington, Charlotte and Rutherford Railroad tracks crossed just in front of the intersection of two important roads, the road to Centre Church and the road to New Bridge and Floral College, the new town had a civic focus from the beginning, unlike regional towns such as Laurinburg and Red Springs which evolved as regular grid plans.
Maxton retains its railroad character by default, since its economy never fully recovered from the downturn of the 1920s, when the town stagnated. Maxton remains a small town with particularly handsome architecture. The effect of the landmarks of the early twentieth century erected in such nearby towns as Laurinburg and Lumberton is diluted by development and alterations brought by growth, while Maxton's landmarks still dominate. Several other towns in the area, created by the two railroads which gave birth to Maxton, have lost their railroad character. Laurinburg, built along the Wilmington, Charlotte and Rutherford (WC&R) Railroad, retains only one freight warehouse out of its collection of railroad buildings. The town also continued to grow in the twentieth century, as the county seat, and therefore possesses a mid-twentieth century character. Likewise, Lumberton, also on the WC&R railroad, grew through the last half century, wiping out the railroad character of its larger, grid-patterned commercial district. Red Springs, built along the Cape Fear and Yadkin Valley Railroad, remains the same size as during its railroad heyday, but the depots and warehouses no longer exist.
Commercial prosperity was often measured by the use of iron fronts or other manufactured metal trim on a town's commercial buildings. Popular cast-iron or metal features included Italianate and classical motifs on columns, arcades, cornices, and quoins. The Mesker Company of St. Louis, Missouri and Evansville, Indiana was one of the major national manufacturers of metal fronts in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The company profited from its success throughout North Carolina as it transported by rail a variety of storefronts ranging from entire facades in single to triple sizes or just lower shop fronts from their factory. The storefronts were assembled on site and came complete with the company's emblem. In the Maxton Historic District, the former Maxton Post Office at 221 McCaskill Avenue retains a Mesker & Co. cast-iron storefront consisting of a dentiled lintel and pilasters with foliage pattern. Several of the state's larger late-nineteenth century towns retain entire facades of ornate cast-iron. The cast-iron facade of the MacRae-Otterbourg Building in Wilmington is among the most elegant and decorative in the state. Introduced as early as 1851, the cast-iron storefronts in Wilmington are generally earlier than those in Maxton. However Maxton's collection of lower shop fronts of cast-iron are unrivalled in the Sandhills section of North Carolina.
While the Maxton Historic District contains buildings typical of the period, Maxton's major landmark, the Patterson Building, is unique. The building owes its existence to the newly ambitious banking industry and to the inherent drama of the wedge-shaped site on Maxton's square. The bank architecture that appeared on main streets in North Carolina after 1900 helped create civic character. "The revival of classicism and the proliferation of financial institutions created a bank architecture whose imagery of temples and vaults invited the confidence of a public only beginning to entrust their money to banking institutions." These commercial palaces were typically built on prominent downtown sites at major intersections. The buildings were designed to take advantage of their settings, emphasizing the side and front elevations. The Patterson Building takes full possession of its triangular lot by the placement of its columned entrance beneath the rounded point of the upper facade and the round clock tower. Two banks in the region represent more typical examples of bank architecture. The Bank of Lumberton built in 1914 is an example of the classical vault type that gained monumentality by its facade of paired Corinthian columns. The 1903 coursed yellow brick Branch Banking Company Building in Wilson asserts an image of prosperity and solidarity through its Renaissance Revival style.
Rockingham architect Clint Parrish, who is believed to have designed the Patterson Building, may have been influenced by Beaux Arts architects such as Daniel Burnham, who designed the most famous flatiron building in the United States, the 1902 Flatiron Building of New York. Burnham, the master architect of the 1900 Chicago World's Fair, was responsible for changing the course of civic architecture for a generation. The style's propensity for grandiose monumentality, and its skillful use of space to orchestrate a hierarchy in the progression of space, transformed many American towns. Beaux Arts monumentality typically appeared in public buildings such as courthouses and in such palaces of commerce as banks. When Parrish was presented with the triangular lot that faced Maxton's main square, he created a suitable town focus with his small but grand Bank of Robeson later named the Patterson Building for the original owner. The citizens' campaign to add a clock tower to the building indicates their understanding of the significance of the building as the focal point of Maxton's business district.
Although other commercial buildings in North Carolina towns occupy triangular sites at the forks of streets, none of these possesses the monumentality of the Patterson Building. Most of these, like the Liberty Point building in Fayetteville, built in the 1830s, and the Trust Building in Durham, built in the 1910s, follow the wedge shape of the parcel but retain an entrance facing the side street, rather than, like the Patterson Building, having the entrance located on the point to dramatize the unusual location. The eight-story brick Flatiron Building in Asheville, designed by Albert C. Wirth in 1925, may be the only other grand example of flatiron architecture in North Carolina. Most towns' traditional grid plans did not lend themselves to flatiron buildings. The Maxton Historic District, with its dramatic flatiron building, railroad architecture, and other complementary historic fabric from its commercial heyday, is one of the most architecturally significant towns in North Carolina's Sandhills region.
"A Growing Town," from the Wilmington (N.C.) Star, March 2, 1894.
Bishir, Catherine. North Carolina Architecture, Chapel Hill, 1990.
Bishir, Catherine and Michael Southern. A Guide to the Historic Architecture of Eastern North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 1996.
Branson's Business Directory, Raleigh, North Carolina, 1884 and 1896.
Croom, Fred. "The Story of Maxton," The Maxtonian, February 26, 1956.
Lawrence, Robert C. The State of Robeson, Lumberton, North Carolina, 1939.
Lefler, Hugh T. and A.R. Newsome, The History of a Southern State North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 1963.
Letsinger, Philip S. Inventory of Historic Architecture of Maxton, North Carolina, Raleigh, 1982.
"Maxton Area Centennial Book 1874-1974," Maxton, North Carolina, 1974.
"Maxton's Patterson Building," Maxton, North Carolina, 1997.
McEachern, D.P. editor, "All About Robeson County," Lumberton, North Carolina, 1884. McKinnon, Henry A. Jr.
McLeod, R.A., "History of Maxton, North Carolina," reprinted in The Robesonian Historical Edition, February 1951 and 1971.
North Carolina Year Book, News & Observer, Raleigh, North Carolina, 1905 and 1916.
Oral history provided by the following Maxton residents: Betty Hasty, Catherine Carter, Patsy Hamer, Bob Midgett, George Ziegler, May-June 1998.
Sharpe, Bill. A New Geography of North Carolina. Raleigh, 1954.
Robeson County Deed Book VVV, page 599, 1897.
Robeson County Deed Book 6L, page 105, 1915.
Robeson County Deed Book 9E, page 121, 1939.
Robeson County Tax Map of Maxton, North Carolina, Map No. 4 and 6, 1977.
Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, Maxton, North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, N.C.: 1893, 1898, 1905, 1911, 1919, and 1925.
† Michelle Kullen and Ruth Little, Longleaf Historic Resources, Maxton Historic District, Robeson County, North Carolina, nomination document, 1998, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.