Elm City Municipal Historic District
The Elm City Municipal 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 town of Elm City is a small railroad community exhibiting the finest examples of late nineteenth and early twentieth century architecture in any town its size in Wilson County. The town owes its existence to the efforts of Judge George Howard, a prominent citizen of Tarboro who in 1873 acquired a site for the community along the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad and sold parcels to incoming residents. Originally incorporated under the name Toisnot, the town was christened "Elm City" in 1913 and grew rapidly due to the ready availability of local financing and the presence of several industrial and commercial concerns. Because few structures of architectural significance were constructed after 1929, the historic character of the town has been preserved to a great degree, Elm City has a variety of impressive turn-of-the-century commercial buildings with unaltered facades as well as a surrounding residential area comprised of the bulk of the town's earliest houses and its oldest church building. The Elm City Municipal Historic District encompasses the most cohesive group of architecturally significant commercial, residential, educational, and ecclesiastical structures in the town, the visual quality of which is unified and enhanced by tree-lined streets.
The Elm City Municipal Historic District presents a picture of a prosperous small railroad town in the central coastal plain of the late 1920s. The architectural significance, more than the historical associations of the combined properties in the district, make Elm City outstanding. In comparison to the other small towns in Wilson County, Elm City presents the finest examples of late nineteenth and early twentieth century commercial, residential and religious architecture. The town of Lucama, of similar vintage, also possesses much of its pre-World War II character, but its buildings are not so ambitious and the district is slightly less cohesive. The commercial area of Elm City is in a better state of preservation than that of Wilson, the county seat, although Elm City's commercial buildings are fewer and seldom rise above one story.
Elm City, Wilson County's second largest town, had its origins in a community called Joyner's Depot. Joyner's Depot was established circa 1846 to the northeast of the present town as a direct result of construction of the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad which when completed in 1840 was the longest rail line in the world. Joyner's Depot, located in the northeastern corner of what later became Wilson County, was surrounded by some of the richest land in the area, as well as being near some of the largest farms in the eastern part of the county. The community grew and prospered, supporting several mercantile establishments, a post office, a brick hotel and numerous houses in addition to the depot. By the early 1870s citizens in every section of the county were struggling to recover from the negative effects of the Civil War. The growth of the community around Joyner's Depot, however, was stifled by the refusal of the Farmer family, who owned all the surrounding property, to sell any land.
According to an early twentieth century history of Elm City the citizens of Joyner's Depot "were a progressive people and wanted to own their own homes and business houses." Impetus for new progress came in the early 1870s. Judge George Howard, a powerful and prominent citizen of Tarboro, became acquainted with the situation, and when he found he could acquire a site on the railroad tracks about a mile southwest of Joyner's Depot from Thomas Gray Dixon and Jacob H. Barnes, he elected to act as the developer for the new town. Howard received assurances from the president of the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad that if he would acquire the land, clear it, and lay out streets that the railroad depot would be moved to the new site. (Robert R. Bridgers, president of the railroad, was a Tarboro man like Howard, though by 1873 he was living in Wilmington.) The one-half square mile site was acquired, surveyed and streets were constructed. In the spring of 1873 lots in the new town were sold at auction, but Howard retained certain parcels and donated them for religious, educational and fraternal uses. He donated another lot at the rear of the depot for use as a cotton yard, reflecting the importance of this crop to the county's economy during this period.
In December, 1873, the town was incorporated under the name of Toisnot, an Indian name used to identify a swamp which is located to the west of the town. The new town grew up quickly. In 1874, Harris Winstead built the town's first hotel. Residential and commercial development of the town followed hard on the heels of the construction of the Winstead Hotel. Some houses were moved from the vicinity of Joyner's Depot to the new town, but far more new houses were built than moved. Watson, the author of The History of Toisnot-Elm City, described the development of the town: "The town was built very rapidly and, since timber was so cheap and much of it was secured within the corporate limits, every home was built of wood and mostly of one story type." A post office and a depot were constructed in the center of town. The first church was the Methodist Episcopal Church, built circa 1873 on the northeast corner of Pender Street and Church Street which is presently used by the Primitive Baptist Congregation. Four other churches, including the Primitive Baptist Church, the First Baptist, the Missionary Baptist (white and black congregations) and Johnson Chapel Baptist churches were established within fifteen years of the town's incorporation.
The citizens of Toisnot, like those in Wilson, were interested in the establishment of superior schools. Judge Howard donated a double lot on the corner of Branch Street and Wilson Street for a school building. Another school was established on the lot on Church Street given to two fraternal organizations. Both the Toisnot Female School and the Toisnot Graded School existed by 1884.
In the same year the town acquired the Cedar Grove property which now serves as the town cemetery. A plan showing all the streets and property lines within the town limits was drawn in July, 1884. Unfortunately for the town's ambitions a major fire devastated the business district in November, 1884. Over $17,800 worth of property was lost, but the Wilson Advance stated "We have great confidence, however, in the enterprise and progress of Toisnot and expect to see handsome brick stores erected before many months on the site of the old buildings." The commercial section was indeed rebuilt in brick and many of the brick stores which still stand in Elm City date from this period. The first commercial building constructed in town is said to have been a barroom, but soon the town boasted a variety of establishments: a sawmill, stables, a coach maker, a boarding house, an undertaker, a blacksmith, a bowling alley and an ice house. Elm and oak trees were planted along the streets and such ambitious residences as the Bailey-Harrelson House (SW corner Anderson and Nash Streets) and the Winstead House (SW corner Main and Anderson Streets) were built.
The 1890s was a decade of expansion for all of Wilson County as well as Toisnot. A controversy over the town's name began during the summer of 1890. John S. Pridgen suggested that the name be changed from Toisnot to Elm City because of the lovely shade trees. After several changes the town was permanently christened "Elm City" in 1913. The town's population showed a steady increase in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as was the case of most of the towns in the county situated on a railroad line. In 1890 the population was 525 and it increased in six years to 800. By 1910 the population had increased to 1,200, close to the 1970 estimate.
Two more churches, the First Presbyterian Church and Holy Trinity (Episcopal) Church, were organized and constructed in the early years of the century as was the Elm City Opera House (SE corner Main and Anderson Streets). One reason for the physical expansion of the town was the availability of local financing. The Elm City Bank and Toisnot Banking Company were both organized at the turn of the century and provided much encouragement for local building projects. Industry, particularly in the form of building supplies, also formed an important segment of the town's economy. By 1902 John L. Bailey's Toisnot Improvement Company was manufacturing brick locally. Lumber was also vital to the local economy. Rock Ford Manufacturing Company and the Dennis Simmons Lumber Company were both established circa 1907. The increased pressures of industry and a growing population forced the town to face the fact that improved municipal services were in order. The first waterworks was powered by a windmill and in the early years of this century the electric lights were used only at night, the generator being turned on at dusk and switched off at midnight. Dr. E.G. Moore, a local physician, established a sanitorium on Branch Street, providing the first hospital facility outside the county seat. The town continued to place a priority on excellent schools and on July 20, 1904, a contract for a fine new school was awarded to John C. Stout, an experienced Wilson architect.
Elm City's continuing prosperity in the twentieth century is evidenced by its architecture. Leading merchants like George A. Barnes and R.S. Wells commissioned monumental Classical Revival residences (SW corner Nash and Parker Streets and NE corner Main and Branch Streets), and many one-story Victorian cottages were built in all the residential sections of town. In 1903 a new brick depot was built in Rocky Mount and the old frame depot was moved to Toisnot (Elm City). By 1909 this depot had been destroyed by fire and the present handsome brick depot was constructed shortly afterwards (NW corner Main and S. Railroad Streets).
About 1914, leaders of the black community organized the first high school for blacks in the county, and in 1918 the County School Board applied for permission to establish an accredited high school in Elm City.
The present Gothic Revival brick school (now Elm City Middle school) was built circa 1920. Fine residences continued to be built during this period including Dr. Robert Putney's handsome bungalow (NE corner Church and Parker Streets). Paved streets, a Tudoresque Woman's Club building and other refinements came to Elm City in the 1920s, and the town continued to flourish until the economy was interrupted by the depression.
Few building of any architectural significance were constructed in Elm City after 1929. The farm economy that is so profoundly related to the economy of the town was disrupted until very nearly the beginning of World War II. After the war Elm City, like many small towns, suffered a housing shortage and a number of newer residences were built on the north side of town. Few of these were constructed within the Elm City Municipal Historic District boundaries. Very few new commercial structures were built, but a new town hall, located on Railroad Street was constructed. A new spurt of growth has taken place due to the success of the locally founded Teledyne Thermatics Company and the construction of the Donelly Marketing facility east of town of Rt. 301. Both companies are located on the outskirts of town outside the Elm City Municipal Historic District. A number of new subdivisions have been built outside the older areas of town to accommodate the increased population from these expanding industries.
The Elm City Historic District with its variety of late nineteenth and early twentieth century styles of building accurately reflects the most dynamic period of the town's growth to date. The combination which lies within the district of an intact commercial section surrounded by cohesive contemporary residential areas makes the Elm City Municipal Historic District an excellent one. The large number of intact commercial buildings, with unaltered facades, is an unusual feature as is the architectural integrity of more than ninety per cent of the residences. The lovely tree-lined streets beautify and unify the historic fabric of the town. The Elm City Municipal Historic District includes not only the bulk of the town's earliest residences but its oldest church building and the present home of its oldest congregation.
Batts, Ocie. "Elm City, N.C. Centennial 1873-1973." Unpublished Manuscript in the collection of the Wilson County Public Library.
Branson, Levi. Branson's North Carolina Business Directory. Raleigh, N.C.: Levi Branson, 1883, 1890, and 1896.
Map of Toisnot by E. P. Tucke, made July 10, 1884.
Nixon, A, The North Carolina Yearbook and Business Directory. Raleigh, N.C.: np, 1910.
† Kate Ohno, Preservation Consultant to Wilson County, Elm City Municipal Historic District, nomination document, 1981, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.