Danbury Historic District
The Danbury Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986. 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 Danbury Historic District, retaining much of the physical character it had achieved by the year 1930, encompasses the majority of the town created by the state legislature in 1848-49 to serve as the county seat of the newly redrawn Stokes County. This character was determined by both the geography and the terrain of the area and the broader trends affecting the state's development in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. After more than five decades of steady development as a courthouse town, a commercial and social center for the surrounding rural farming and mining areas, and a mineral springs resort, Danbury was eclipsed by the town of Walnut Cove and the booming metropolis of Winston-Salem. Today, Danbury stands as a picturesque and vivid reminder of these trends in the state's development, with its dominant 1904 courthouse and jail, and attendant office buildings, commercial building, homes, churches, schools, and hotels, representing the major architectural styles of the period, as well as the more traditional building forms typical of small towns across the state.
Unlike most courthouse towns in North Carolina, Danbury retains much of its early character. Its scale, physical relationships among buildings, and aura of isolation remain essentially undisturbed after 135 years. Since commissioners, appointed by the General Assembly of 1848-1849, created the town as the seat of government for the newly divided Stokes County, geography, the county's dependence on tobacco as a cash crop, the proximity of mineral springs and mines, the condition of transportation in the relatively isolated northwestern Piedmont, and the growth of nearby cities have affected Danbury's development. Today, however, Stokes' turn-of-the-century courthouse still dominates this quiet village, even though the county now conducts most of its business in an impressive new courthouse complex west of town.
Geographic aspects of Stokes County have influenced Danbury. The town is located near the center of the county, just east of Sauratown Mountains. This range, whose highest peak rises about 2,500 feet above sea level, extends in a northeasterly direction from Pilot Mountain in Surry County to near Danbury. These mountains and the hills that surround them have for many years attracted tourists, but have also hampered travel and development. The terrain in Stokes County has forced most farmers to cultivate small farms that are difficult to mechanize. Danbury's location near the Dan River and one of its tributaries, once the site of an iron forge and gristmill, also has affected the town's economy.
This hilly and well-watered area was settled first by Indians, then by a variety of Europeans. Saura Indians lived in villages along the Yadkin, Catawba, and Dan rivers as early as 1670. William Byrd of Virginia discovered Saura villages on the Dan River in 1728, but they were deserted. White settlers, primarily of English, Scotch-Irish, and German stock, later poured into the North Carolina back country, especially after about 1750. Many of them journeyed to what then was Rowan County from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia on the "Great Philadelphia Wagon Road." Notable among these settlers were the Moravians, who in 1753 purchased a 100,000-acre tract called Wachovia.
The influx of settlers led to the repeated division of counties. The General Assembly carved Surry County from Rowan County in 1771. To meet the need for more effective government, legislators in 1789 divided Surry County to create Stokes County. The county seat, which came to be known as Germanton, was located near the center of the county and on the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road. The new county apparently proved satisfactory until the 1840s. In 1846 some residents requested the opportunity to vote on whether to divide Stokes; three years later the General Assembly responded favorably to proponents of division. Lawmakers on January 16, 1849, severed from Stokes the southern part of the county, naming it Forsyth County.
The division necessitated the selection of a new site for the county seat of Stokes County. The General Assembly appointed Alexander King, William C. Moore, James Byerson, John Banner, and Stephen Smith as commissioners to select a seat of justice, purchase land, lay off and sell lots at auction, and erect public buildings. The county court in March, 1849, ordered the commissioners to erect a courthouse at a cost not exceeding $3,000 and a jail costing $2,000 or less. In June the commissioners purchased from Samuel Shackleford 47 acres of land on the Dan River and Buck Island Road. Shackleford, who owned a tavern and a small farm, sold the land for $75.
Soon County Surveyor John J. Terry laid off lots, which the commissioners proceeded to sell. Despite a request of 24 justices of the peace in June, 1849, to halt the process, the commissioners held an auction on August 22 and 23 to dispose of additional lots. They auctioned 37 lots at a total cost of $3,356.50. By March, 1850, space for 20 or 25 lots remained. The commissioners surmised that the sale of remaining lots would raise enough revenue to pay for construction of the courthouse and jail. Eventually, Terry laid off 51 lots, leaving space for the courthouse in the center of the town.
The commissioners contracted with the firm of Worth and Houston to complete the public buildings by the second Monday in June, 1851. They rose according to schedule, for in August, 1851, "A Looker On" reported, "the Court House stands in bold relief on an open space or square of one hundred and eighty feet. The Court House is a plain brick building of forty-five by thirty-five feet, with a very plain Courtroom on the second floor. From every window of the Court room you have a commanding prospect of the surrounding country."
The county court made arrangements for improving the appearance of the new county seat. In June, 1850, the court appointed Wilson Fulton, Joseph A. Houston, and E.L. Martin as a committee to effect the removal of trees, shrubs, and rocks from the streets. Appropriate shade trees were to be left in place.
Agreeing on a name for the "county town of Stokes" proved to be difficult. The General Assembly in January, 1851, named the town Crawford, in honor of the wife of John Hill, a long-time clerk of court and member of Congress. The local post office gained the appellation Danbury, the name of Governor Alexander Martin's plantation in Rockingham County. Residents voted their preference in 1852 and petitioned the General Assembly to change the name to Danbury. Legislators acquiesced, and the change occurred in March, 1853.
More significant changes took place. One observer noted in the summer of 1851 that a new spirit captivated the people of the region: "Three years since it was regarded by all as being just beyond the confines of law and gospel. Where the devotees of Bachus, and the furies held their court untrammeled by the formalities of civilization, you now see a Division of the Sons of Temperance, numbering some sixty members, offering their devotions at nature's pure and sparkling fountains as they gush forth from the mountain's side.... On Sunday morning may be heard from the Temple of Justice, prayer and peans of praise to the architect of the Universe for the spiritual and temporal prosperity of the citizens and country."
These people owed their prosperity to more than Danbury's sudden emergence. During the antebellum period the farmers of Stokes County grew tobacco in increasing quantities. Farmers in counties bordering Virginia, from Halifax County in the east to Stokes County in the west, embraced a new curing process that produced what came to be known as bright leaf tobacco. Prior to the Civil War this popular product brought higher land values and widespread prosperity to the Bright Leaf Belt. Farmers sold tobacco in Danville, Virginia, or established small local "factories," where they produced plug tobacco that could be peddled in other areas.
Iron mining also affected the local economy. Although better transportation and higher prices fro agricultural products in North Carolina reduced the incentives for manufacturing iron products for local consumption by the 1840s and 1850s, some forges and furnaces continued to operate. Among them was Moody's Tunnel Iron Works, built in 1843 by Nathaniel Moody and John Pepper on a 107-acre site east of Danbury on the Dan River. Reubin Golding purchased the property in 1854 and formed the Stokes Iron Mining Company. Moody and Golding probably mined ore from the "Rogers ore bank" and floated it to the forge on flatboats. There, in the 1850s, Golding utilized slaves and other workers to produce iron, which was sold to local residents and businesses for 5 cents per pound. By 1860 Golding had invested $5,000 in the forge operation and produced annually 75,000 pounds of iron valued at $3,750. He also operated a blacksmith shop valued at $5,000.
Mineral springs in the area attracted health-seekers and wealthy socialites. Residents of coastal towns sought relief from summer heat and miasma during the colonial period by visiting springs on the edge of the Piedmont. By the antebellum period, however, trips to resorts in North Carolina and elsewhere became a fashionable symbol of prosperity. Piedmont Springs, located about two miles north of Danbury, emerged as a resort in the early 1850s. Thornton Reddick purchased the property in May, 1849, and by August, 1851, he was rapidly improving the property for the "accommodation of the afflicted," who sought the chalybeate water. The facilities included eight cabins (then under construction) and a two-story log hotel. The spring provided income for area residents who worked there or sold produce with which to feed guests. Subsequent owners dramatically improved Piedmont Springs. One visitor in 1858 described the changes that occurred: "It seems but yesterday, I used to come to these springs when in their original native simplicity. The worst kind of 'old corn Whisky' was retailed by 'Flinchem' in a gourd, from a brown jug with a corn-cob stopper. Now champagne, &c., is the order of the day. — We then scraped away the 'trash,' leveled the dirt, and sprinkling down the barn, had the real barn dances of primeval times the music of the Banjo. Now, fair ladies trip the light fantastic in fine saloons, to the music of brass, catgut, or whatever you wish. Then, a tough sheep, stolen by 'Dick Chamberlain,' was a delicacy rare as tough. Now 'anything you call for' is furnished by polite and trained servants. Then, log cabins, ox wagons, and tents sheltered our beavers from the mountain showers. Now, splendid big buildings, all white and stately, cast their proud shadows across the way."
Changes also took place in nearby Danbury. Its role as a courthouse town and the favorable economic climate fostered rapid development during the 1850s. An observer noted in August, 1851, that the principal buildings were being built along the Main Street, which "commences at the river, and runs due west along the undulating slope, five hundred yards, to a pretty oval knoll, the summit of which is on the north side... By 1860 at least forty people, including two free blacks and two free mulattoes, resided in Danbury. They lived in such substantial dwellings as Wilson Fulton's brick house (north side of Main Street, east of the old Courthouse) and the Samuel H. Taylor house (demolished, but stood on the north side Main Street east of the old Courthouse), as well as in modest dwellings like that owned by James Pepper (south side of Main Street, west of the old Courthouse).
Danbury supported a variety of businesses. Wilson Fulton owned a mercantile firm prior to leaving Danbury in 1860. Other merchants included Lash and Moore, King Hiram Bray and Henry Null, a grocery keeper. Joseph W. Kelly and Jacob Waggoner worked as blacksmiths, and B.H. Harris built carriages. William Golding made shoes and boots for the people of Danbury, and D.F. Dalton painted their residences and other buildings. W.W. Hampton and Lafayette Smith dealt in tobacco. Smith, who owned a farm and nine slaves, operated a tobacco factory and store in a three-story structure that also served as his family's residence.
At least one inn accommodated court attendants or guests who found no room at Piedmont Springs. Alexander Moody owned a large tavern or inn just west of the courthouse as early as 1854; in December of that year he deeded it to his brother, Nathaniel.
A variety of improvements enhanced the quality of life in Danbury. The Sons of Temperance erected a two-story frame building in the west end of Danbury by June, 1854, and opened Danbury Female Academy in it. The Pepper School, located west of Dr. John Pepper's home on the south side of Main Street, was in operation probably by the mid-1850s. Local Methodists purchased an acre of land in the west end of town in 1856 and soon erected a church. In 1855 the Danbury Hydraulic Company worked to construct a waterworks located three-fourths of a mile west of the courthouse.
Improvements to public property in the antebellum period included an addition to the two-story log jail and the erection of a plank fence around the jail. These projects, as well as the construction of a whipping post, were completed in 1860.
The Civil War apparently had no overwhelming impact on Danbury, although local men enlisted in the Confederate army and Union troops passed through town. Rufus Pepper, a son of Dr. John Pepper, and other men enlisted in the Twenty-first Regiment of North Carolina Troops in Danbury on May 29, 1861. Pepper was elected captain of Company F. Spottswood B. Taylor served as captain of Company H, Fifty-third Regiment of North Carolina Troops. Enrolling officers visited Danbury on at least two occasions in 1863 to induct men into the 72nd Regiment of North Carolina Militia. Union troops commanded by General George Stoneman passed through Danbury on April 9, 1865. Although they did no damage to the town, the troops did close the Moratock Mining and Manufacturing Company, which had furnished supplies to the Confederacy. Reubin Golding and other investors had formed the corporation in 1862.
The development of Danbury and Stokes County during the late nineteenth century in some ways reflected trends throughout North Carolina. Agricultural production after the Civil War suffered from such handicaps as farmers' lack of credit and labor, poor transportation, tenancy, and low prices. Although production of crops quickly reached pre-war levels (tobacco recovered as a cash crop during the 1880s), prices generally remained depressed throughout the century. Nevertheless, the state experienced rapid industrial expansion during the 1880s and 1890s. Extensive construction of railroads and the rapid development of the furniture, textile, and tobacco industries led to a dramatic increase in material wealth and the growth of urban centers.
Danbury apparently experienced economic difficulties during the late 1860s and early 1870s. A business directory reported in 1869 that the town hosted only two lawyers, two physicians, two dry goods firms, a general store, a drug store, two hotels, a tobacco factory, and an iron forge. Owners of the Moratock Mining and Manufacturing Company soon accumulated excessive debts and mortgaged the property in 1871. Four years later it was sold at public auction to Colonel Jonathan M. Heck of Raleigh. Poor roads, which had always plagued the area, continued to retard growth. A summer resident who boarded with a "clever" family in 1873 complained that "the roads are bad here at best but the rain washed them so its almost impossible to get over them now...." He also observed, "This is a ugly country round here and poor is git [sic] out...."
The economic slump soon abated, however, and Danbury experienced growth during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. The increasing availability of goods and services, new mining ventures, improvements in transportation, building construction, popularity of local resorts, and an increase in population characterized the trend.
New businesses joined established firms. Dr. John Pepper and his sons began publishing the Danbury Reporter and Post in a building east of the courthouse in 1872. A business directory in 1878 listed eight merchants, including Aaron Waggoner, who owned a corn and flour mill. Six years later Danbury supported two blacksmiths and wheel wrights; two building contractors, one of whom (Elijah W. Blair) owned a cabinet shop; a distillery; two saddle and harness makers; a livery stable; five general stores; a tannery; a book and job printer; a drug store; two corn and flour mills; and two sawmills.
Tobacco continued to be an important commodity. Lafayette Smith's tobacco factory, where he produced plug tobacco in manufactured boxes, remained in operation during most of the 1870s. Others engaged in aspects of the tobacco business included John Neal, Asa Neal, J.W. Lawson, and the Pepper family.
Investors began new mining operations in the area. J.M. Heck and his heirs operated the Moratock concern well into the 1890s. Thomas Ruffin of Hillsborough and such prominent local residents as William Walter McCanless, Nathaniel Moody Pepper, and Walter Winbourne King mined asbestos, mica, blue soapstone, silver, lead, iron, white fire-proof clay, flexible sandstone, and other minerals during the 1880s and 1890s.
The increasing prosperity apparently created a need for more lawyers, some of whom eventually achieved statewide prominence. Robert Broadnax Glenn, later a governor of North Carolina (1905-1909) practiced in Danbury between 1878 and 1886. When he left, Glenn sold his two-story dwelling to another attorney, W.W. King (north side of Old Walnut Cove Road). Amos M. Stack in 1888 erected a two-room law office behind the courthouse (north side of the Courthouse); five years later Thomas Walter Bickett joined Stack's practice. Bickett served as governor between 1917 and 1921 Prior to 1900 as many as four attorneys at a time maintained offices in Danbury.
Improvements in transportation probably abetted Danbury's growth. The county commissioners authorized work on roads to Danbury on several occasions during the 1870s and 1880s. In March, 1875, the General Assembly incorporated the Dan River Navigation Company, which was organized to render the river navigable for steamboats and other craft "from the Virginia line near Danville, to [the] Virginia line near Danbury..." Danbury's N.M. Pepper served as a commissioner of the corporation. Railroad may have had a greater impact. Residents of Danbury were among the voters of Sauratown and Meadows townships who in 1880 agreed to be taxed for a subscription of stock in the Cape Fear and Yadkin Valley Railway Company. The railroad, which eventually stretched from Wilmington to Mount Airy, included five branches. Tracks reached Walnut Cove, eleven miles from Danbury, in 1888. Within a year the Roanoke and Southern Railway Company had made considerable progress on a line between Winston-Salem and Walnut Cove.
These improvements in transportation stimulated the development of local resorts. The hotel at Piedmont Springs burned in 1880 but a huge facility replaced it in 1889. The rambling two-story structure, noted for its imposing observation tower over the front entrance, could accommodate 150 guests. During the summer of 1890 the Piedmont Springs Company expanded the resort by building cottages, the lumber for which passed through Danbury in wagons. Piedmont Springs featured such amenities as a ballroom located in a separate building, a billiard and pool room, stables, a tennis court and croquet ground, and impressive bands engaged for entire seasons. "Turnouts" from the resort met every train at Walnut Cove. A resort developed by the late 1890s at Moore Springs, located a mile west of Danbury's courthouse.
By the 1890s, then, Danbury evidenced notable growth. The Hornet, a local newspaper, reported in October, 1893, that N.A. Martin was having lumber delivered for a nice dwelling to be built near his store on the east side of the courthouse square. J. Spot Taylor prepared to build a "big store house" on Main Street near the handsome residence he had just completed. Drs. W.L. and W.V. McCanless were in the process of remodeling their drug store. R.H.R. Blair was making arrangements to build a house and cabinet shop on Main Street. Directly across the street, local white Presbyterians had already completed the stone foundation for their new church (Danbury Presbyterian Church; south side of Main Street, east of the old Courthouse). Local blacks assembled lumber for their new Presbyterian church, to be built at the extreme east end of town (Clark Memorial Presbyterian Church; north side of Old Church Road). By 1896 Danbury's population, only about 145 in 1880, had grown to 265.
Cultural and social amenities accompanied the growth. Such prominent men as Robert B. Glenn, Drs. W.V. and W.L. McCanless, J.W. Pepper, and J. Spot Taylor in 1882 organized a cornet band. Spottswood B. Taylor, who by 1869 had opened a hotel in his home for the accommodation of court attendants and tourists, eventually developed it into a facility that attracted lavish evening dances and other social events. In 1893 Danbury Male and Female College flourished, and the white Presbyterian congregation planned another school for the rear of their new church.
Danbury continued to grow during the first quarter of the twentieth century, a period characterized by improvements in the status of agriculture, better transportation facilities, and industrial expansion in North Carolina and the nation. New public buildings, businesses, and residences enhanced the town. Local resorts flourished. Nevertheless, the faster development of Walnut Cove and nearby Winston outstripped Danbury's progress. Ironically, improvements in North Carolina's roads and the widespread use of automobiles eventually diminished Danbury's importance as a tourist center.
New public buildings rose after the turn of the century. The Stokes County commissioners in 1903 hired the architectural firm of Wheeler and Runge to design a new courthouse. Contractor L.W. Cooper of Charlotte built the imposing brick structure on the site of the old courthouse, which was torn down. The structure was completed late in 1904 at a cost of $20,000 (Stokes County Courthouse; Courthouse Square). The following spring the commissioners voted to have a stone wall built on the south side of the courthouse square. Concurrently, the Pauly Jail Building Company of St. Louis and L.W. Cooper built a new brick jail on the east end of town (old Stokes County Jail; north side of Old Church Road). County commissioners accepted the completed building on January 16, 1905. Danbury received its first public school building, a two-room, frame structure, in 1905 (Danbury School I; north side of Main Street, west of the old Courthouse). In July, 1925, the board of education awarded a contract to contractor Sam T. Johnson, of Graham, for the erection of a large brick school west of Danbury. It was to cost $17,835 (Danbury School II, intersection of NC 89 and Old Sheep Rock Road).
Local congregations built new churches. The Methodists in 1904 erected a frame building in the west end of town (now demolished). The Danbury Baptist Church, which was organized in 1926, dedicated their frame edifice, west of the Methodist Church location, in 1929 (north side of Main Street, west of the old Courthouse).
Merchants and other investors opened new businesses or built new buildings during this period. Danbury acquired its first bank in 1905 when the Bank of Stokes County opened a small brick office on the north side of Main Street (east of the old Courthouse). The bank improved and expanded the building in 1910. Another financial institution began a one-story, brick building on the south side of Main Street in 1919 (Northwestern Bank; south side of Main Street, east of the old Courthouse). Danbury's worst fire on the evening of February 8, 1925, destroyed six frame structures fronting the courthouse on its east side, including the stores of N.A. Martin, W.G. Petree, and J.J. Booth. Martin soon decided to replace his frame store with a brick building (east side of Courthouse Road); eventually the other buildings were also replaced. By November, 1927, J.R. Leake had erected a store and filling station and garage at the other end of Main Street.
Construction of residences proceeded apace. The Martin and Petree families built two-story, frame dwellings around the turn of the century (south side of Main Street, west of the old Courthouse), and the Methodist congregation erected a parsonage near their church about 1914 (north side of Main Street, west of the old Courthouse). A flurry of building activity took place after World War I. Among the new homeowners were E.P. Pepper (south side of Main Street, west of the old Courthouse), N. Earl Wall (south side of Old Church Road), Harry H. Leake, and Roy E. Leake (north side of Main Street, west of the old Courthouse), who built their houses between 1921 and 1927. H.M. Joyce in 1922 extensively renovated the home he had built about forty years before (north side of Main Street, east of the old Courthouse).
The popularity of Danbury's nearby resorts peaked during the first quarter of the century. Piedmont Springs operated until 1930, when it was destroyed by fire. Moore's Springs flourished until about 1921, when the family closed it rather than undertake repairs. The hotel at Moore's Springs burned in 1925. A third resort, Vade Mecum, attracted pleasure-seekers until its primary hotel was destroyed by fire in 1924. The fires ended an era that had already begun to fade. Better roads and widespread availability of automobiles by the 1920s allowed vacationers to forsake Stokes County's resorts for the mountains or the coast.
Development in general forsook Danbury for such places as Walnut Cove and Winston. Walnut Cove grew rapidly after two railroad companies built lines passing through it. In 1910 the Danbury Reporter noted that the Cove was enjoying strong, healthy growth, with new citizens, enterprises, and dwellings. The same year the Stokes County Farmers' Union organized the Stokes County Dry Prizery in Walnut Cove to dry tobacco and pack it in hogsheads. By about 1913 local promoters touted Walnut Cove as the "ganglonic commercial center" for Stokes and parts of Rockingham and Forsyth counties. Winston undoubtedly had a significant impact, as one sarcastic observer noted in 1929: "Today...[Danbury] is merely a little village near the mountain. It's [sic] sole attraction is the courthouse and its sole connection with the outside world a state highway. Mail is brought once a day by a star route mail carrier. A six month's school is provided for its children. The politicians of both parties continually scheme to keep the county from being absorbed by the neighboring county of Forsyth."
Danbury's character has changed very little since the 1920s. Although Stokes County now possesses some industry and nearby Hanging Rock State Park, developed during the Great Depression, draws thousands of visitors to the county each year, the area to a certain extent serves as a "bedroom" community for persons who commute to Winston-Salem and other cities. The public buildings, residences, and commercial structures that line Main Street, some of which are in need of rehabilitation, stand as reminders of more energetic days.
Perhaps a poet's assessment in 1927 remains true today:
What an image of peace and quiet
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† kathy Goddard and Maurice York, consultants, North Carolina Division of Archives & History, Danbury Historic District, Stokes County, NC, nomination document, 1984, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.