The Tarboro Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [‡]
The Tarboro Historic District is significant as a moderate sized river side community established in 1760 that has flourished for over two centuries as a regional trade and governmental center. The role of such communities in North Carolina is vital, for the state has always (until the last half-century) been almost exclusively composed of agricultural communities relating to small county seat towns. The town exhibits many important aspects of the life, scale, ideas, and components of such small and moderate sized communities, here preserved in an ensemble of variety and unity. The town retains its early grid plan stretching back from the Tar River that gave it its economic life as well as the Common to the north of the grid — one of the few survivals of its kind recalling this aspect of eighteenth century town planning. Tarboro contains as well a rich collection of commercial, industrial, and institutional buildings from the last hundred years of its development, together with dwellings and churches from ca.1800 to the present. With minor exceptions of a few recent structures, Tarboro's architectural character maintains the modest scale and important early urban and suburban density of its past, creating a townscape of unusual consistency and high quality. After a period in the mid-twentieth century of considerable demolition of landmarks, the town has witnessed a progressive and exemplary combination of planning and preservation activity.
Located on the Tar River in central Edgecombe County is the town of Tarboro. In 1732, according to tradition, county residents settled the community. But the town was not incorporated until 1760 when Joseph Howell, who owned a ferry on Tar River and considerable land, deeded 150 acres of his land to five town commissioners. They instructed Howell to begin work laying out the town and to supervise the construction of buildings there. The village was to be divided into lots and an area set aside for the town common, fifty acres surrounding the town. In November the Colonial Assembly designated the settlement as Tarborough, and four years later it commissioned Howell and four other men to oversee the building of the Edgecombe County courthouse and jail to be located in the new county seat.
"In all urban settlements," writes one historian of colonial North Carolina, "the single most important function was trade. The kind, amount, and direction of trade varied from place to place, but it was the one function common to all of the urban settlements and often the dominant factor in their growth (and decline)." Trade indeed was the key factor in the founding of Tarboro and the decline of trade often resulted in a drop in the town's growth and prosperity.
Although little is known about Tarboro as a colonial trade center, since "it was established too late to become of much importance before 1775," it was one of four "midland" towns that developed in colonial North Carolina. These "midland" towns, Halifax, Cross Creek, Campbellton, and Tarboro, were located between "the east coast and the mostly westerly portion of the settled area" of the state and usually at the highest navigable point on rivers flowing to the coast. All four were founded in the third quarter of the eighteenth century and served as trade links between east and west. They existed primarily to handle internal trade, and the merchants in each town used both overland and river transportation to move goods and supplies.
Tarboro's chief commercial activity was in exporting goods from the interior and importing goods from the east, mainly the port of Washington, for distribution. Citizens built large warehouses to handle the large export trade, and, in fact, one of the first actions taken by the town commissioners after the formation of the town was to decree that as "much of the Land upon the point betwixt (Tar) River and (Hendrick Creek, as is requisite for Publick Ware house [,]" be laid off for that purpose. In trade with areas east of Tarboro, merchants and businessmen of the town relied upon the Tar River for the transport of their supplies. Goods brought in from the west, however, were generally transported over the roads which led into Tarboro from the west, north, and south. Tar, pork, and corn were probably the most important export items, although tobacco became an important commodity during the 1770s and 1780s.
But the trade center grew slowly. Not located on a main trade route to Virginia, South Carolina or the sea, and dependent on the Tar River which was not navigable year round, the town saw little growth in the fifteen years following its founding. In 1773 it was even denied a representative to the General Assembly because it did not have as many as sixty families, being only half the size of Halifax. The visitor to early Tarboro saw little more than a few hastily constructed houses on less than half-acre lots, the public warehouse, and a fifty-acre town common set aside for public use.
During the American Revolution a number of men in the area served in the American ranks. Also, Major William R. Davie, the state's commissary general, established a supply center at Tarboro probably because of the availability of storage facilities and the town's peacetime role as a commercial supply center. Later, however, he moved the depot to Halifax. A brief skirmish was fought near Tarboro between local patriots and the regiment of British cavalry colonel Banastre Tarlton, part of Lord Cornwallis' army, moving north through North Carolina.
Following the Revolutionary War, Tarboro showed some signs of growth and lively commercial activity. Visitors on various occasions described its late 18th century appearance. When the state legislature met there in 1787, a traveler to the area elected to stay at an ordinary outside of town because, he declared, "We...were not sure of obtaining a lodging in Tarboro if we went there, as we had heard that every house was crowded, the assembly being then at that place." Upon entering Tarboro he observed, "the size of the town appear'd so inadequate to the comfortable accommodation of a legislature composed of about 120 Commons or Delegates and about 60 Senators, together with the people attending the Sessions in business or going there on motives of pleasure, that you will not easily believe that it was possible to provide for them. Yet provided for they were, and they said themselves very comfortably; one old gentleman said that he had cause to be satisfied that he lived there much better than at home."
A London merchant, Robert Hunter, Jr., traveling in North Carolina in 1785, noted that a good deal of corn and tobacco was grown in the surrounding county, much of which would probably be exported through Tarboro. He also witnessed "some Negroes, with their overseer, going up (to Tarboro) with a large flat (boat), setting against the current with poles. She was loaded with sugar, rum, and molasses. They will be some days," he noted, "in getting there, but return very easily with the current. Its laborious work going up, this hot weather."
By 1810 the river community was improving. In 1810 Tarboro became one of six North Carolina towns to boast a branch of the state Bank. Its first president was Thomas Blount. An important early social institution was the Masonic Order. Only the town government predates in Tarboro the formation of Concord Lodge No. 58, Ancient, Free and Accepted Masons. The Grand Lodge of North Carolina was organized here in 1787. A monument stands in the Town Common to commemorate the founding date.
Tarboro included in the early nineteenth century a number of notable business and political figures. Merchants and planters came to the community, and some took active roles in state political and business circles. Blake Baker (210 St. James Street), an early town commissioner, served as state attorney-general (1795-1803). Theophilus Parker was a merchant, planter, and banker, and is recalled as part owner during the War of 1812 of the celebrated privateer Snap Dragon. He owned a house on the edge of Tarboro (302 East Church Street) that was not a town house, but the dwelling of his plantation, Panola, adjoining the town.
Also prominent was Thomas Blount, a Revolutionary soldier, merchant, and politician. After the war he joined his brother, John Gray Blount, in the mercantile business and opened a branch store in Tarboro.
Blount rendered considerable and extended political service to North Carolina. He held local offices in Edgecombe County and was a member of the North Carolina Legislature and Congress from 1788 to 1812. He is described as "an adroit politician of the old Revolutionary school." Blount's fine house, The Grove, survives (130 Bridgers Street).
Despite the trade based wealth of some merchants and entrepreneurs like Thomas Blount in the late 1700s and early 1800s, it was the later growth of the cotton economy in North Carolina, particularly in Edgecombe County, that created flush times in Tarboro and insured the town's place as an agricultural trade center. Around the time of the Revolution, North Carolina was one of the chief tobacco-producing states in British America, but when the northwest United States was opened after the war, the state could not compete with richer soils of the Ohio, Wabash, and Kentucky river basins in tobacco production. Consequently, many of the farmers of the state and Edgecombe County turned to the production of wheat, corn, and especially cotton. The invention of the cotton gin and the development of upland cotton also made the growing of that staple a more profitable venture. With the growth of the New England cotton industry and a great demand for the commodity in the European mills, especially in England, there were even greater temptations for the planters and farmers of Edgecombe, like others throughout the South, to engage in cotton production.
During the antebellum years, 1820-1860, when the cotton economy reigned supreme throughout most of the South, Tarboro prospered by serving as an export and import center for many planters of Edgecombe County. This role and its ensuing benefits was primarily made possible by a relatively new invention — the steamboat. Prior to the introduction of steam packets, all river traffic on the Tar was downstream by keelboat, and the return up river was extremely slow and difficult. But with the birth of the steamboat and its rapid development in the 1820s and 1830s far less time and effort was required to ascend the river. Not only could the cotton and other agricultural products of Edgecombe be sent downstream to the town of Washington for export elsewhere, but goods could more easily be brought back upstream for sale by Tarboro merchants to planters and farmers in the hinterland.
Tarboro probably lost much of the trade associated with the cotton economy because it did not have a railroad traversing its borders. Many Edgecombe cotton growers as well as producers of other commodities preferred to take their cotton and other goods to Rocky Mount (where the Wilmington and Weldon had a depot) or other towns where there were connecting railroad lines. They also obtained their needed supplies at those places. A branch of the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad did not arrive in Tarboro until 1861. Nevertheless the flush times of the antebellum period brought enough trade for all the nearby towns to enjoy the profits of exporting cotton and selling supplies. Tarboro took its share, its greatest period of growth probably being the decade 1850-1860. Today a reminder of the cotton economy can be seen in the 1860 cotton press taken from the plantation of Isaac Norfleet in 1938 and placed in the town common.
Beginning around 1835 a general improvement in economic conditions throughout the state also brought greater prosperity and growth to Tarboro. This era of economic progress began with the rise in state government of the Whig Party which launched a program with a statewide emphasis on internal improvements. During the period 1835-1860, as historian Hugh T. Lefler points out, there was an increase in the number and sizes of towns in North Carolina, many of which had been "mere villages" before 1835. By 1860 Tarboro had a population of around 1,000.
In Edgecombe County as throughout the South, the growth of a cotton economy meant an increase in the use of slaves, and the institution of slavery became a more firmly entrenched part of the economy. By 1830 there were almost as many slaves (7,075) and free blacks (220) as there were white persons (7,630) in Edgecombe County. The black population was vital to the agricultural production, the building trades, and other aspects of the society.
Free blacks living in antebellum Tarboro contributed greatly to the town's economy. There were 64 free blacks living in the town at the time of the 1860 census. These consisted of five carpenters, two brick masons, and the town's only "engineer." The rest of the adult free blacks were laborers, farmers, or house servants. Some whites feared that free Negroes might provide the leadership necessary for slaves to stage a successful uprising, and they tried to control the number of free blacks within the city limits.
When Nat Turner's Rebellion occurred in Southhampton County, Virginia in 1831, white citizens were apprehensive that their own slaves might revolt. Tarboro residents also became strongly embittered against abolitionist attack: The Free Press heaped bitter scorn on the abolitionists and their "incendiary publications" like William Lloyd Garrison's newly published Liberator. In response to abolitionist agitation and the news of slave unrest, Tarboro strengthened its patrol regulations and restrictions on blacks.
Disease was a constant threat in the community. Small pox, yellow fever, and malaria were among those epidemics most feared. The possibility of fire also struck terror in the hearts of the town dwellers in Edgecombe County. In 1820 the state legislature authorized the formation of fire engine companies in Tarboro and allowed their members to be exempt from militia duty. But it repealed the authorization five years later because the fire companies had "served as a screen for those wishing to escape military duty."
For Tarboro the antebellum years were a period of significant intellectual and cultural development which reached its peak in the decade 1850-1860. The Southerner reported on July 16, 1859, that in 1850 the town had boasted "9 stores, 3 physicians, 6 lawyers, two tailors, 2 milliners, 1 saddler, 1 shoemaker, 1 coachmaker, 1 cabinetmaker, 1 jeweler, 6 confectioneries, and 2 ten pin alleys — 3 meeting houses, 2 academies, Court House, Jail, Post Office, Printing Office, and Branch of State Bank." Teachers, craftsmen and merchants of foreign birth added a cosmopolitan note to the community. To educate its future citizens the river community had built a private academy in 1814 and employed as its first principal, Robert Hall, a graduate of the University of North Carolina and a former teacher at Raleigh Academy. The curriculum included reading, writing, arithmetic, English grammar, geography, and the use of globes for the cost of sixteen dollars per year. If Latin and Greek languages or higher mathematics were included, the cost was twenty-two dollars. A notice by the academy declared that "the price of fire wood is included," and "genteel boarding can be procured." In the 1820s Tarboro Academy had both male and female departments and the female program embraced "all those branches of education, which constitute useful, accomplished, and polite literature." It also included chemistry, astronomy, natural philosophy, rhetoric, and history. "Such as desire it," read an advertisement,"may be taught plain and ornamental Needle Work, Painting on Paper and velvet, and music." By the time of the Civil War Tarboro had two private academies.
But in the first quarter of the century the town, like most of the region, paid little attention to public education, and in 1839 Edgecombe County voted 1,075 to 165 against a proposed statewide system of free common schools. Although the state legislature approved the program, no taxes were collected in Edgecombe for that purpose until 1853. The 1850 census indicated that in Tarboro and all of Edgecombe County there was no public library, nor a private library containing as many as 1,000 volumes. Nevertheless in Edgecombe County by 1850 there were 43 public schools with 1 teacher and 30 pupils each. In 1860 $1,914 in taxes was raised in the county to support public education, and there were 13 private academies and 7 private libraries with over 1,000 volumes, many of which were medical and law books.
Antebellum Tarboro boasted a newspaper begun there in 1826, established as the Tarborough Free Press. Editor-publisher George Howard had come as a printer from Baltimore to Halifax in 1824 and then made his way to Tarboro, where his paper and his family would have an important influence on the town to the present time. From August 24, 1830, to January, 1835, he called the paper the North Carolina Free Press, and it communicated the staunch Jacksonian/Democratic views and general conservatism of Howard. Tradition claims that in 1834 B.F. Moore, outspoken Whig, sought to have a political article published and complained, when Howard refused, that the name Free Press was a misnomer; Howard by 1835 changed the name to the Tarborough Press, and by 1852 to the Tarborough Southerner. The Southerner, still active, is a prime source of data on the town's history, and is one of the longest-running papers in the state. Howard let his son, George Howard, edit the paper as a young man; the son was to become a powerful force in the community in the middle and late years of the century. By 1860 Christopher Callen became editor and proprietor of the paper, with the Howard family essentially ending their association with the paper; George's son William regained ownership in 1861. George died in 1863, and L.D. Pender became wartime editor and publisher. A series of owners and editors operated the paper after the war.
Despite the occasional visit of a musical or theatrical troupe, antebellum Tarboro "had few opportunities to spend its money on commercialized recreation." In 1832 the town "had only one public performance of any kind and in 1852, twenty years later, it had only five: three concerts, one circus, and the exhibition of a natural curiosity." Cock fighting, horse racing, barbecues, and gambling were popular sports and pastimes in most antebellum towns in North Carolina, and they were probably a part of Tarboro's recreational life.
One of the chief forms of social entertainment in towns throughout North Carolina before the Civil War was the public subscription ball. Tarboro sponsored a number of these festive affairs. One such ball was held at the Howard House Hotel on George Washington's birthday in 1860. Although these balls were public affairs, social classes still remained sharply defined. As historian Buion Griffis Johnson has noted, "a gentleman's daughter seldom danced with a mechanic's son."
Churches were active in the river community during the antebellum days. The congregations included the Primitive Baptist, Missionary Baptist, Saint James Methodist, and Calvary Episcopal churches. In 1830 the Primitive Baptist Congregation, formed in 1819, constructed a church on the corner of St. James Street and Albemarle Avenue. It is now the only surviving church completed before the Civil War. Calvary Episcopal Church (411 East Church Street) was begun before the war but not completed until 1867. Its architect was William Percival who designed the Barracks (1100 Albemarle Avenue), home of industrialist William S. Battle in Tarboro, and other impressive buildings in the state, including the First Baptist Church in Raleigh in 1856. Thomas Coats was the contractor for the handsome church whose yard of foreign and domestic trees planted by Dr. Joseph Blount Cheshire, a prominent Episcopal priest, makes the sylvan cemetery one of the state's loveliest spots. Many of the town's renowned past citizens are buried in the graveyard there.
On the eve of the Civil War, Tarboro displayed some of the improvements and refinements that antebellum prosperity brought to many southern trade centers. A branch of the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad arrived in 1861, plantations were thriving, and the population was growing. A correspondent of the Salisbury Banner who visited the community in 1860 proclaimed that it was "without the slightest doubt the prettiest place in the state. "The village," he wrote, "is mostly inhabited by men of wealth, who have the ability and the desire to indulge their tastes. There is a great deal of taste displayed in the architecture of the houses and also in laying off grounds in selecting and setting out the shrubbery." A newspaper reporter from Petersburg observed that the "taste and refinement of Tarboro has often been spoken of by those who have visited it, even from Virginia's favored soil. The very great improvement which is now going on would not fail to be perceived by the most casual observer," he noted, and "if the beauties of nature have the power to call forth the poetic muse, this is certainly the home where those who are thus inclined, may while their life in pleasant dream away."
As earlier, the town included a number of prosperous merchants, planters, and political leaders in the antebellum era. Francis Little Dancy (1776-1848) (601 St. Andrew Street) was born in Edgecombe County in 1776, a descendant of French Huguenots and the son of William Dancy who had migrated from Virginia. Although he "had no taste for political life," his reputation as a lawyer brought him a degree of fame, and he did serve for a time as the county attorney for Nash County.
Louis D. Wilson, who lived at the Blount House (130 Bridgers Street) in Tarboro, was a prominent planter and lawyer who served in the state house of commons and senate for most of the period 1814-1846. A delegate to the state Constitutional Convention of 1835, he was also a strong supporter of public education (despite opposition in Edgecombe). His considerable political influence in the county was followed after his death by great celebrity as a Mexican War military hero. Throughout the entire Mexican campaign only three North Carolinians were killed by enemy action. Wilson was one of 93 who died from "other causes," including disease. At 58 years old, he raised a company in Edgecombe County, resigned from the senate, enlisted as a private, was later chosen Captain of his company, and finally died in Mexico of yellow fever. Wilson Street, Wilson County, and a memorial in the Common honor him.
Reverend Joseph Blount Cheshire, D.D. (1814-1899) (302 East Church Street), while not a business or political leader, wielded a great influence in Tarboro and the surrounding area. He came from Edenton and after practicing law briefly determined to enter the ministry. He came as an Episcopal priest to serve several congregations in Bertie, Halifax, and then Tarboro in 1841 and 1842. He married the daughter of Theophilus Parker (senior warden of Calvary Church) and made his permanent home in Tarboro (302 East Church Street), serving Calvary Church and Trinity in Scotland Neck. His strong interest in exotic plants and landscape gardening had a lasting influence in the region. Calvary Churchyard in Tarboro reflects in its collection of specimens and layout his handiwork over many years. Trinity Churchyard, Scotland Neck, as well as the lawns and gardens of residences in the region, also reflect his impact. Cheshire's son, Joseph Blount Cheshire, Jr., was born in Tarboro in 1850 and followed his father into the priesthood. In 1893 he became bishop of the Diocese of North Carolina. Descendants of the Cheshire family have remained important in the town and region to the present time.
James West Clark, a graduate of Princeton, served in Congress and subsequently became Chief Clerk of the Navy Department in President Jackson's first administration. His home, which he is thought to have built (407 St. Patrick Street), was also the childhood home of his son, Governor Henry Toole Clark.
Henry Clark succeeded John W. Ellis as governor of North Carolina. He was born in Tarboro in 1803, son of James West and Arabella Toole Clark. A successful farmer, he was elected to the State Senate and took over as chief executive when Ellis died. He served the state well during the crucial early stages of the Civil War but did not seek re-election after his initial term. His historical marker on Main Street states that "he prepared the state for war."
William S. Battle (1823-1915), son of James Smith Battle, a wealthy planter, large slave owner, and owner of the Rocky Mount Cotton Mills, had inherited the family mills and moved to Tarboro in the late 1850s, erecting a large villa there in 1858 (The Barracks, 1100 Albemarle Avenue), Edgecombe County chose him and Judge George Howard to serve as delegates to the Secession Convention of 1861.
William F. Dancy (511 St. Andrew Street), son of Francis Dancy, was active in local politics, serving in the State House of Commons from 1846 to 1849. According to Kemp P. Battle, he was "a Democrat after the school of Jefferson and Macon," and the "socialistic tendencies of government had no charm for him." He opposed granting an extension of time to the Raleigh and Gaston and Wilmington and Raleigh (later Wilmington and Weldon) Railroads when their obligations to the state came due, and he proposed "to sell the former road outright under the mortgage." A strict constructionist; he maintained that the Constitution protected slavery and had no authority to prevent its extension into the territories.
In contrast to Dancy's conservatism was the energetic, innovative spirit of Robert R. Bridgers (1819-1888), a leader in North Carolina railroad development. A graduate of the University of North Carolina, he entered law, mercantile business, and politics in Tarboro in the antebellum period. He was an organizer and president of the Tarboro Branch of the Bank of North Carolina, and he accomplished the construction of the Tarboro Branch of the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad to Tarboro in 1861 — the town's first rail link. After the war (when he served in the Confederate Congress 1862-1865), Bridgers became president of the rail line, moved to Wilmington in 1871, and led in the development of the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad, of which his Wilmington and Weldon line was a part.
The Civil War altered life in Tarboro, as throughout the South. The Confederacy used the town as a depot for government supplies and located a wayside hospital there early in the war. The community also became the site for factories making Confederate army caps and waterproof cloth. The inhabitants frequently anticipated Federal raids, particularly after Union troops moved into the New Bern area in 1862. A Confederate ironclad was also under construction at Tarboro in that year. A raid finally came in July, 1863, when Brigadier General Edward E. Potter led an attack from New Bern on Greenville, Tarboro, and Rocky Mount. Union troops entered Tarboro on the 20th, where they met a small number of the enemy who fired a few quick shots and "fled across the river." During the brief raid, General Potter "found an ironclad on the stocks and two steamboats on the river, "All were burned," reported Potter, "together with some railroad cars, 100 bales of cotton, quartermaster's subsistence, and ordnance stores." Then the Union officers adjourned to the local hotel and dined. Before leaving Tarboro the Federals burned the bridge over the Tar River.
The river community was plagued by many of the problems and hardships that the war inflicted on the homefront populace throughout the Confederacy. The wholesale issuance of virtually worthless Confederate script by the Richmond government made inflation rampant, and acquisition of life's necessities difficult. Shortages of food, clothing, and other supplies were felt by all citizens. But especially hard hit by shortages and inflation were the poor of Tarboro and Edgecombe County, most notably the families of soldiers in the Confederate Army. "When," cried the Southerner in 1863, "corn is selling at twenty dollars per barrel, bacon at one dollar and half per pound, a cord of wood for fifteen dollars and an ordinary pair of shoes for forty dollars," a private's pay of eleven dollars per month was not enough to purchase the essentials. Speculation by some merchants also made many items difficult to obtain.
The war had a discouraging effect on the inhabitants of the Edgecombe town, and despair increased as the conflict wore on and many of the community's sons fell on distant battlefields. "Another soldier and good man gone" was a frequent notice in Tarboro. Possibly as an escape from the heart-rending effects of the war, alcoholism became a serious problem. The Southerner in 1863 referred to the war years as "these days of villainously mean liquors and villainously high prices" and endorsed the idea that "the use of spirituous liquors is more destructive to the Southern cause than Lincoln's minions."
At the close of the Civil War the residents of Tarboro could look upon cessation of the conflict with relief. Death and homefront deprivations had taken their toll, and the local economy had suffered greatly. The Union blockade had sorely hurt the import trade and the sale of supplies to local cotton growers who had also felt the pinch of financial drought. Uncertainty lay ahead as Tarboro citizens pondered the problems of economic recovery, political readjustment, and the difficulty of race relations resulting from the emancipation of Edgecombe County's many slaves. Reconstruction was not to be an easy time for the river town, and it would be a number of years before its people would once again know the bustle of a thriving economy.
The war had significantly changed the agricultural system of Edgecombe County. Abolition of slavery resulted in a dissolution of the plantation system. Smaller farms appeared as part of the farm tenancy and sharecropping system. The crop-lien arrangement often meant debt for many small farmers and former planters. During most of Reconstruction a scarcity of capital kept the county tied to a staple crop agriculture, and that same scarcity of ready cash kept Tarboro economically static. The Southerner in 1866 remarked that there was a "shortage of greenbacks" in Tarboro, and a traveler from New Bern in 1867 noted that the town looked "a little shaky."
Although the sectional conflict was over, war despair left its mark on the residents of Tarboro. Alcoholism continued to be a problem, and a number of concerned citizens formed a temperance society to combat the problem. In 1866 a newspaper editor noted that "twenty-five cents for 'blue ruin' and considerable energy of some of our people, have been the cause of establishing a Temperance Society in our 'burg.' In fact," he went on, "a steady one who likes the 'critter' has one of three chances, join the sons, switch off, or burst, unless he owns a National Bank, Farming in copartnership with the Freedmen's Bureau, or in some other 'smart' business." 
In an attempt to restore an element of antebellum gaiety to the threadbare days of Reconstruction, the people held balls and a number of other social events. One popular diversion was the "medieval" jousting tournament and coronation ball.
The tournament was held in the northeastern suburb of the town, reached by tramping "through the slush of Main street," where the knights performed various jousting feats. A ball was held in the evening and a queen crowned. Baseball and reading clubs also provided social diversion for the town's residents in the years following the Civil War.
The community sought in the years after the war to regain stability. The good cotton crop of 1866 permitted completion of Calvary Church, and a number of new houses were built. A new Presbyterian congregation formed in 1867, led by several Tarboro women. The history of the denomination actually began in the 1750s when Presbyterian missionary, the Rev. Hugh McAden, came to the area in 1755 and wrote of stopping at Mr. Toole's on Tar River, but it was not until 1867 that services were held and a congregation organized. The first building was erected in 1874 (now moved from that site and donated to the Eastern Star Baptist Church). The present church dates from 1909 (303 East St. James Street).
Perhaps the people most affected by the war were the former slaves of Tarboro and Edgecombe County. At the war's end in 1865 many of them, along with some slaves from rural areas, settled across Tar River in a community called Freedom Hill. (In 1885 the settlement was incorporated and named Princeville after a resident named Turner Prince.)
Many of the freedmen who left the Edgecombe plantations and came to Tarboro were served by the Freedmen's Bureau as were those who remained in the countryside. In the early years of Reconstruction the Bureau also rendered valuable aid to white refugees and those white persons hit hard by the war. Nevertheless, many of the citizens of Tarboro had little use for the Bureau or the freedmen it aided. Efforts were made by some whites to keep blacks at a social distance, and because Edgecombe County was a stronghold for the Democratic Party, politically inactive. The Ku Klux Klan, whose state "director" was William Saunders, was active against blacks during Reconstruction. Saunders, a powerful force in the postwar climate of the state, was North Carolina's Secretary of State from 1879 to his death in 1891, founder of the Raleigh Observer in 1876, and the editor of the monumental Colonial Records. Though not a resident of Tarboro, he is buried in Tarboro's Calvary Episcopal Churchyard. His marker states, "For Twenty Years He Exerted More Power in North Carolina Than Any Other Man."
In the postwar period the black community established, often with the assistance of white congregations, black congregations of various denominations. These became important social as well as religious focal points of the black community. St. Paul A.M.E. Zion Church (destroyed 2/6/2002) was established in 1866; St. Luke's Episcopal Church (301 Panola Street) was established in 1872, with its initial membership coming from the black communicants of Calvery Church, which assisted the new congregation. Other black congregations, such as Eastern Star Baptist, Union Baptist, and St. Paul Baptist developed over the years.
As before the war, many of Tarboro's builders were blacks and thus were responsible for a substantial proportion of new buildings in the community. Many of these were former slave craftsmen, who became successful contractors after the war.
Several black leaders emerged in Tarboro in this period, some of whom gained statewide importance. Blacks were active in town county government from the onset of Congressional Reconstruction, 1867-1868, until around the turn of the century. Many received local offices in the 1890s when the Republicans merged with the Populists. By 1898 thirty-one blacks had become county magistrates in Edgecombe County. This situation ended, however, with the assumption of white supremacy in 1898. One of Tarboro's most respected black citizens during Reconstruction was Henry C. Cherry, a carpenter (300 Granville Street). He was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1868 and elected to the State House of Representatives in that year. Local historians J. Kelly Turner and John L. Bridgers, Jr., described Cherry as a good citizen and an excellent carpenter." Two of his daughters were married to black congressmen, George Henry White of Tarboro and Henry Plummer Cheatham of Granville County.
A Tarboro leader who rose to considerable political prominence in the last two decades of the century was George Henry White (300 Granville Street). One state historian has called him "unquestionably the most brilliant Negro in public life during the period." Born in Bladen County in 1852, White graduated from Howard University in 1877, served as principal of the State Normal School of North Carolina, and studied law under Judge Walter Clark. He was a member of the State House of Representatives from Edgecombe County (1880), the State Senate (1884), solicitor of the second judicial district of North Carolina (1886-1894), and a delegate to the Republican National Convention (1896) and the United States Congress (1897-1901). As a member of Congress, White supported the civil and political rights of blacks. After leaving Congress in 1901, White practiced law and engaged in banking in Philadelphia where he died in 1918. He was the nation's last black congressman until 1930. (His house still stands in Tarboro).
Equally prominent in the late nineteenth century was John Campbell Dancy. He was born of slave parents in 1857, and his father, John C. Dancy, was a skilled carpenter who became a successful builder and contractor after the Civil War. Dancy graduated from a school in Tarboro in 1873 and trained in the printing office of the Tarboro Southerner. After attending Howard University and serving a brief period as a clerk in the Federal Treasury Department in Washington, D.C., he returned to Tarboro to teach school.
In Tarboro in 1882 Dancy directed the campaign which made his brother Franklin the mayor of the town and Dancy himself register of deeds for Edgecombe County. During the 1880s Dancy served as secretary of the North Carolina State Republican Convention and a delegate to the National Republican Convention. He became the editor of The Star of Zion in Salisbury, North Carolina, and the A.M.E. Zion Quarterly Review, which was "perhaps the most important of the magazines published by a [black] religious denomination in North Carolina." In 1889 President Benjamin Harrison appointed Dancy collector of customs at the port of Wilmington — "the most important post held by a Negro as a result of federal patronage during the period." In 1902 President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Dancy recorder of deeds in the District of Columbia, and he retained that office until 1910. Dancy's house has been destroyed but once stood in southeastern Tarboro.
Tarboro merchants who survived the hardships of the war became a part of the new crop-lien system brought about by post-war financial stringency, the abolition of slavery, and the dissolution of the plantation system. Under the crop-lien system, small town furnishing merchants provided goods and supplies on credit to farmers and share-croppers in return for a lien on their crops. Supplies sold on credit cost more than those sold for cash, and a high rate of interest was added. The furnishing merchants frequently took liens on farms as well as crops, and they speculated in cotton-buying the staple locally and selling it to larger dealers.
The best-known and most successful of Tarboro's furnishing merchants was William S. Clark (1846-1923) (601 St. Andrew Street). He was born in Martin County in 1846 and was educated at Hillsboro Academy. He came to Tarboro in 1872 and opened a business as a merchant. The family became prominent in the business community. As a result of his retail and investment activity, his business grew to be the highly successful W.S. Clark and Sons in which Clark was associated with his sons Samuel Nash Clark and Daniel Russell Clark. W.S. Clark also served as mayor from 1888 to 1890 and became the director of the Fountain Cotton Mills founded in 1900. His son William G. Clark worked with his father's retail business until around 1914 when he became a real estate developer and president of the Cotton Belt Land Company. The younger Clark was town commissioner, 1900-1904, and chairman of the county commissioners in 1914.
In the 1870s Tarboro began to pursue the industrial development that was beginning to appear in much of North Carolina. Although limited in scope, as it was throughout the state and the South, this postwar industrialization played an important role in Tarboro's revitalization. In 1870 John L. Bridgers and other interested businessmen formed an organization known as the Progressive Association, which advocated programs for the establishment and growth of local industries, particularly cotton mills, to manufacture cotton goods from cotton produced locally.
John L. Bridgers (1821-1884), brother of Robert R. Bridgers (1819-1888), was a successful farmer and lawyer who served as a commissioner to the convention held in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1861 to form the Confederate States of America. He served briefly as commandant at Fort Macon. In 1862 he worked with his brother Robert in the operation of the High Shoals Iron Company which manufactured iron products for the Confederate Government. Bridgers also served as director of the Branch Bank of the North Carolina Bank. Bridgers lived at The Grove (Blount House, 130 Bridgers Street) most of his adult life. His son, John L. Bridgers, Jr., (1850-1932) was a prominent community leader who practiced law and at various tines served as attorney for the Atlantic Coast Line Railway, as presiding judge of the county, county attorney, town attorney, and director of the First National Bank of Tarboro, and president of the Macclesfield Company of Edgecombe County. He was also co-author of a history of Edgecombe County. In this period (1875-1881) Dorsey Battle, a colorful political figure, gained wide recognition as editor of the Southerner. He was a strong proponent, a later issue of the paper noted, of "diversification of farming, home industry, clean government, and the Democratic Party."
Although Tarboro citizens sought industrialization in the 1870s, no significant industrial development occurred until the 1880s and 1890s when a new class of men, industrialists, began to appear in the South and Edgecombe County. These men with capital to invest realized that future wealth lay in manufacturing.
Frank Sheppard Royster of Tarboro, born in Granville County in 1849, came to Tarboro in 1820 and joined O.C. Farrar (500 Trade Street) a furnishing merchant, as a clerk. Farrar, who came from New Bern to Tarboro in the 1870s, established a general store and then the regionally celebrated Hotel Farrar. He was also a founder of the Tarboro Cotton Factory and an important business leader in town. Royster soon became Farrar's confidential clerk and later his partner. In 1876 Royster, with C.C. Lanier, established a general brokerage and commission business in Tarboro. In 1882 they joined Edmund Strudwick of Hillsboro and established a cotton commission house at Norfolk, Virginia.
In his business dealings in Norfolk, Royster became convinced that the future lay in manufacturing fertilizers for the soil-depleted postwar South. In 1885 he built a small fertilizer plant on the Tar River in Tarboro which produced 250 tons its first year. He used guano but introduced potash, which would control the dreaded cotton rust. Tried by local farmers, potash worked, and Royster's firm boomed. In 1897 he transferred his fertilizer headquarters to Norfolk, to provide the firm access to distribution facilities. There the F.S. Royster Guano Company soon built a large plant with a yearly capacity of 75,000 tons. By the turn of the century the Royster Company included six plants located in Norfolk, Tarboro, Columbia, and Spartanburg, South Carolina, and Macon and Columbus, Georgia, an operation that was valued at three million dollars with a capacity of 200,000 tons. Royster maintained a plant and a local distribution center in Tarboro. C.A. Johnston, a young man who came from Norfolk and became associated with Royster's firm as bookkeeper, eventually became president of Royster's mercantile operation in Tarboro. He was an active business and community leader. The Royster firm continues as a major fertilizer producer nationally, prospering from constant improvement of the product.
A strong backer of industrialization in Tarboro in the late nineteenth century was the influential community leader, George Howard, Jr. (210 East Church Street). Born in Tarboro in 1829 be was the son of George Howard, Sr., founder and editor of the Tarboro Southerner (1852) which was called the Tarboro Free Press when it was begun in 1826. At age fourteen the young Howard is said to have become editor of his father's newspaper. After studying law, he was admitted to the bar in 1850 and soon was elected solicitor of the Greene County court. In 1854 and 1855, as a resident of Wilson, he served in the General Assembly, where he was, according to Henry G. Conner, "largely instrumental in securing the passage, against most active opposition, of the bill establishing the County of Wilson." He also became a recognized leader in the Democratic Party.
In 1859 Governor Ellis appointed Howard judge of Edgecombe County Superior Court. Along with William S. Battle he served as representative to the secession convention of 1861 in Raleigh. In 1865 he was a member of the state constitutional convention and the following year of the national Conservative Party held in Philadelphia. In 1867 he served in the state senate where he introduced a bill to permit blacks to testify in courts. At the end of the term the following year he returned to Tarboro to practice law. Here he became a strong force in the development of the community.
Howard for many years was director of the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad and the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad Company. He was the first president of the Pamlico Banking and Insurance Company and a director of the Tarboro Cotton Mills and Fountain Cotton Mills. He was a member of the Board of Town Commissioners and the board of Trustees of the Tarboro Academy. He died in 1905 and was survived by his six children.
A number of cotton mills appeared in the town. These included the Tarboro Cotton Mills built by O.C. Farrar in 1888. (They later became the W.A. Hart Mills.) Around that time Jonathan F. Shackelford, owner of a fertilizer house in Tarboro, constructed the Shackelford Riverview Knitting Mills. Runnymede Mills was established in 1889 by George Howard, Jr., on the old Runnymede Race Track north of town, and housing was constructed for the workers. By 1890 the knitting mills had increased their profits by fifty percent. In 1899 W.E. Fountain began the construction of Fountain Cotton Mills with a capital of $150,000. Fountain was elected mayor in 1887 and 1889. In 1890 he joined with Royster, Shackelford, Howard and others to organize the Tarboro Board of Trade to aid agriculture and develop the county's manufacturing interests. Although he was a relatively wealthy man and active in the Democratic Party, he left that organization in 1890 and became chairman of the Populist Party in Edgecombe County. He returned to the Democrats in 1898. These industrial ventures by Farrar, Shackelford, Fountain, and others were part of the partial transformation of Tarboro from purely a supply center for Edgecombe County farmers to a town which would also hear the hum of the mill loom far into the twentieth century.
The wealth of these new industrial leaders, who were the forerunners of the so-called "new South," enabled them to live in a style rivaling, and occasionally surpassing, antebellum, luxury. One typical example was the Second Empire house on the corner of Pitt and Main streets (300 Main Street) belonging to Jonathan F. Shackelford and his wife, the former Kate S. Redmond.
The growth of cotton mills, however, was not the only reason for Tarboro's late nineteenth and early twentieth century good fortune. Varying prices in cotton and tobacco stimulated or depressed the market and the operation of cotton and tobacco storage and sales facilities in Tarboro. In the late nineteenth century the increased demand for bright leaf tobacco particularly in cigarettes led to more income for farmers of Edgecombe and resulted in the construction of a number of tobacco warehouses in the county seat. Tobacco eventually became Edgecombe County's biggest crop. A smaller acreage could produce a more profitable yield with tobacco than cotton. This, plus the use of guano needed to grow the demanding "golden weed" made tobacco culture vastly popular in eastern North Carolina, where the number of farms had risen and acreage per farm diminished after the Civil War. Tarboro's fertilizer plants and tobacco sales houses were keys to tobacco prosperity in the area. The revival of the agricultural economy depended heavily upon tobacco.
The 1890s witnessed a real estate boom in the river community. In West Tarboro the land of William S. Battle's family, which had been lost due to bankruptcy brought on by the Civil War, was cut into lots and sold at auction. Some investors formed the West Tarboro Land and Improvement Company, one of whose purposes was to erect a cotton factory on the Battle property. "We are glad," announced the Farmer's Advocate, "to note this effort on the part of home and foreign capital to enhance the interests of Tarboro. Our town, like all Southern towns, needs more factories, workshops, and warehouses.
The final twenty years of the nineteenth century were perhaps Tarboro's greatest growth period since its founding.
A number of public buildings were constructed during these boom years. These included a county home, enlargement of the jail, an opera house, and a city hall. The city hall was the subject of financial disagreement which left the citizens feeling that its site was "twice paid for." (These buildings were subsequently demolished.)
With a general improvement in economic conditions in Tarboro in the last two decades of the nineteenth century there was an upsurge in intellectual and cultural life. In education the common and graded schools began to overshadow the private academies in the town. Concerts and traveling productions by traveling theater troupes were popular and most of these events were held in the town's opera house on Main Street. Another social function which began during the period was the "german" (public dance) frequently held in the local armory. Usually "the occasion was one of genuine enjoyment and for many hours the happy young people 'tripped the light fantastic.'"
Religious evangelists also called at the river town. One of these traveling preachers, Rev. W.P. Fife, arrived in Tarboro in February, 1892, and began holding revival meetings "day and night" in the opera house. According to the Tarboro Farmer's Advocate, "Mr. Fife said that he did not think there was any place this side of hell meaner than Tarboro," and he had learned that card playing, dancing, and gambling were chief amusements indulged in here, but he intended to hit sin in whatever quarter he found it." Mr. Fife further declared that "the aristocratic people of the town would go to hell for two and one-half cents and not return if they could by paying five cents." Despite some religious fervor of the evangelistic brand, most Tarboro church-goers continued to attend their established congregations which provided them social outlets as well as religious instruction.
Early Twentieth Century
The depression of 1894 inflicted some financial injury on the farmers of Edgecombe and the merchants of Tarboro and in the mid-1890s the tobacco market folded. But by the turn of the century conditions had greatly improved, and the next decade witnessed some of the town's best economic years. More tobacco, peanut, and other agriculture-oriented commercial operations were built in the early years of the new centuries, mills expanded, and the town prospered. In 1918 the Tarboro tobacco market increased from one to three warehouses; by 1930 the market sold nearly 8 million pounds of tobacco. In 1911 Tarboro had a population of about 3,000 and was earning $50,000 to $60,000 a month in the freight business alone, most of which was handled via railroad. In fact, by that year the railroad had virtually replaced the steamboat as a transportation system for Tarboro freight, both export and import. In 1892 the branch of the Wilmington and Weldon which reached Tarboro had been extended to Washington and seven years later to Edenton. By 1894 the Carolina and Norfolk tied Tarboro to the Virginia pert city. (Both the Wilmington and Weldon and the Carolina and Norfolk later became part of the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad.)
The decline of the steamboat trade to and from Washington was in large part attributable to the shallowness of Tar River and the failure to improve the navigation on the river by dredging or removing obstacles. According to a Congressional report of 1911 the steamers, drawing two to three feet of water, could operate only eight to nine months per year. Still another reason for the decline was that some steamboat lines were "purchased by railroads and discontinued" to eliminate the competition in transporting supplies. Some citizens argued that water rates to Washington were lower than those by railroad, and if navigation was improved the water route could prove a more economical way of shipping goods. But the railroad could bring supplies directly overland from northern commercial centers decreasing the need for a port like Washington. Immediately after the Civil War there had been six steamboats operating out of Tarboro, but the number had declined to two by 1911.
The potential of the railroad was recognized by Tarboro's most enterprising entrepreneur. One of these in the early twentieth century was Henry Clark Bridgers. He was born in 1876, the son of John L. Bridgers. He graduated from the University of North Carolina with honors in 1897 and became a part of his father's law firm. His most enterprising achievement was the building of the East Carolina Railway from Tarboro to Hookerton in order to tap the trade of the farm area and towns at Pinetops, Macclesfield, Fountain, Farmville, Maury, and Hookerton. Bridgers was his own civil engineer and constructor and built the forty-mile railroad without issuing bonds. He later became the president of seven banks at once, including the Trust Company of Tarboro. He served as attorney for the Southern Railway Company and was owner of the Bridgers Building in Tarboro, a concrete and steel building 50 by 50 feet.
Early twentieth century Tarboro's business climate was enlivened by many bright young men who later went from Tarboro to Norfolk to found businesses which gave impetus to the growth of the young Virginia city, brought each man a personal fortune, and became important over a wide area in the South.
David Pender (1874-1950) came to Tarboro as a boy, began work as a grocery clerk at age twelve, where he learned the business and developed ideas. Pender as a young man worked briefly in New York before returning to the grocery business in Norfolk, Virginia. By the turn of the century Pender had formed the David Pender Grocery Company, which he developed first into the DP or Pender stores. After the Depression, Pender pioneered the regional establishment of supermarkets, and his chain became the Colonial Stores, a major regional enterprise.
Arthur Morris (1882-1973) was born in Tarboro and lived, according to one source, in a house on the site of the present post office. His father operated a dry goods store on Main Street. After completing his education he entered the practice of law in Norfolk. Here Morris developed an innovative financial institution called the Harris Plan System which he described as the "democratizing of credit." Begun in 1910, it provided a system for installment payment of loans to clients relying on the assumption that "the average man or woman on wages or salary, could be trusted to pay their debts." Morris's firm also began "the first installment financing of cars in the nation," according to one report, and the system now known as credit life insurance.
During the first fifteen years of the twentieth century many internal improvements were made in Tarboro: streets and sidewalks were paved, a new county hospital was built, water and sewer facilities completed, police and fire protection improved, and electric lighting installed. The Carolina Telephone and Telegraph Company, incorporated in 1900, was begun in 1895 by George A. Holderness (508 St. Patrick Street) (son-in-law of Judge George Howard) and others in Tarboro. W.H. Powell, Jr., ("Buck") (111 West Church Street) was elected president of the company in 1900. The company rapidly expanded to serve much of eastern North Carolina. It has been a major impetus for growth in Tarboro. Holderness (1867-1947), a leader in the burgeoning telephone company, also served on the boards of many other businesses in the state. His children have been active in agriculture, business, politics, and other areas of accomplishment.
In this period, banking in Tarboro grew, making possible increased industrial and residential growth. First National Bank, the Bank of Tarboro, the Pamlico Insurance and Banking Company, Edgecombe Homestead and Loan, the Farmers Banking and Trust Company — involving several business leaders — were among the firms that operated.
World War I stimulated the agricultural and mercantile economy of Edgecombe County, but the war effort left little room for the construction of new buildings in Tarboro. The town's citizens marked the war's end with jubilation.
Although the 1920s were difficult for the farmers of Edgecombe,Tarboro's trade and manufacturing remained relatively stable. Spurred on by the war-stimulated economy some business and industry showed considerable growth. A particularly large boom occurred in the selling of real estate and housing. In Tarboro, as in the entire nation, credit was easy, and a good deal of borrowed funds went into land schemes. Many new houses were constructed during the twenties to house mill and other workers, a number of whom had left the farm for town after the war. The town grew rapidly. In 1920 the town built a municipal milk plant, the first in the state; and space and equipment were added to the county hospital in 1928.
Disaster struck both town and county during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Nevertheless some development took place in Tarboro during the decade. In 1934 a municipal swimming pool and a new water plant were constructed with the aid of federal funds and the Works Progress Administration. In 1938 the W.R. Long Manufacturing Company, which grew to be a large producer of the state's farm machinery, was founded. It was also during the Depression that some of the more wealthy merchants of the town who had money to lend and capital to invest increased their fortunes by buying up the mortgages or taking liens on the lands of farmers who had fallen on hard times. Some merchants profited by allowing farmers to buy groceries and other essentials on credit at high rates of interest. In 1939 the population was around 7,000, and among the community's surviving industries were the Hart Cotton Mill (400 employees), Mayo Stocking and Sock Mill (200 employees), Runnymede Mill (300 employees), the Southern Cotton Oil Company, two fertilizer plants, the Tarboro Veneer Company, two tobacco warehouses, two lumber companies, and several cotton and peanut storage houses.
World War II brought Tarboro, and the nation, out of the Great Depression. The area's cotton industries sped up to meet wartime demands, and farmers labored to feed the nation's army. One of the new war industries established in Tarboro was a tent-making plant.
Following the war, the people of Tarboro enjoyed a period of economic improvement. Home construction spread outward from the established areas in town, and more suburban homes and mill houses began to appear on the edges of town. A brief recession occurred in the 1950s, but the next decade was marked by further economic growth. An attempt was made to reject the sleepy village era and become a modern bustling town. To promote industrialization, Tarboro in 1958 established an Industrial Development Commission and employed a full-time industrial engineer. The chief crop of Edgecombe farmers remained tobacco. "In the fall," wrote one observer in the 1950s, "the town is given a boost by operation of its six tobacco auction warehouses, which ordinarily sell around 14,000,000 pounds of tobacco."
In the 1960s and 1970s new industries like the Anaconda Wire and Cable Company and the Black and Decker Manufacturing Company were established in Tarboro. Apartment complexes and a shopping mall have been constructed as well as many suburban homes. A number of the older buildings such as the old courthouse and the city hall were razed and new ones erected. Despite this growth and the destruction of notable old buildings, much of the downtown residential area remains unchanged since the nineteenth century. Preservation activity has been notable in the region. Many structures from that era stand along Main Street and its connecting side streets. They surround the beautifully shaded town common, which has been part of Tarboro since 1760, and overlook long-travelled thoroughfares.
‡ Catherine Bishir and Joe Mobley, North Carolina Archaeology and Historic Preservation Division, Survey and Planning Branch, Tarboro Historic District, Edgecombe County, North Carolina, nomination document, 1979, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.
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