Benson Historic District
The Benson Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2012, The Gombach Group.
Located in the southwestern corner of Johnston County in a fertile agricultural region, the town of Benson, North Carolina, developed along a railroad line which in 1886 passed through a large tract of land principally owned by Alfred Monroe ("Mim") Benson. With physical ties to the railway and a close proximity to productive farmland, the town, which was chartered in 1887, developed a diversified economy in its formative years, centered around such enterprises as turpentine distilleries, cotton gins, mercantile establishments, and the produce and cotton trades. The entrepreneurs who settled in Benson between 1887 and 1920 erected many of the brick commercial buildings which line Main Street and a majority of the frame and brick houses, churches, and school in the areas contiguous to the commercial core.
The Benson Historic District is comprised of the most cohesive group of architecturally and historically significant commercial, residential, educational, and ecclesiastical structures in the town, most of which date from the years 1900 to 1930 and provide a strong visual link to Benson's early development.
The town of Benson, which derives its name from early settler Alfred Monroe Benson, owes much of its historical development to the advent of a railroad line from Contentnea to Fayetteville which passed through the present location of the town in 1886. A.M. Benson, originally from Black Creek, had purchased a 402-acre tract along the Smithfield-Fayetteville Road from J. Green Rainer in 1874, initiating settlement of the area which is now Benson. During the 1880s, Benson sold portions of his original tract to incoming settlers, many of whom were farmers attracted to the rich agricultural lands of the region. When the railroad project was begun in 1885, ownership of some of this land was surrendered to railway officials requesting right-of-way permission.
Construction of the 70-mile railroad line, known as the Fayetteville cutoff, was part of a plan by the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad to shorten the traveling distance between North Carolina and South Carolina. In addition to accomplishing this goal, the railroad provided the impetus for the growth of the small commercial center of Benson in a heretofore rural section of North Carolina. Benson was incorporated in 1887, and soon attracted a number of individuals who were to shape its physical appearance and economic climate as they took advantage of the entrepreneurial opportunities presented by a new town along an important transportation route.
The earliest known map of Benson, dated December 28, 1892, shows the town streets laid out in a grid pattern with individual blocks divided into numbered lots. The railroad is depicted as the central focus of the town plan, running north and south and effectively dividing the community into an eastern and western portion. The Benson Historic District, which encompasses a section of the town shown on this early map and also includes an area known as the Mrs. Mary C. Benson addition of 1903, essentially has a commercial and residential component. Historically, the three blocks of Main Street between Wall and Elm streets formed the commercial core of the town and are thus an integral part of the Benson Historic District. Most of the brick buildings in this area were built between 1903 and 1925, following three fires during 1902 and 1903 which damaged or destroyed a majority of the early frame structures. The 1918 Sanborn map of Benson indicates that the blocks between Wall and Market streets were almost entirely built up by that year, while the 1925 map shows that the block between Market and Elm acquired its present appearance primarily during the years 1918 to 1925.
The predominantly residential blocks contiguous to the commercial area and roughly defined by West Main, East and West Church, and East Hill streets were home to the town's most prosperous citizens, many of whom operated businesses along Main Street. The abundance of fine early twentieth century residences lining these streets recalls the favorable economic conditions which produced the distinctive architectural character of the area. This neighborhood is also the location of Benson's six major churches and its two surviving school buildings, underscoring the strong relationship between this part of the district, which retains much of its historic integrity, and the town's development.
Between 1896 and 1916, Benson's population increased from about 400 to 1,711, and the town had such diversified industries as turpentine distilleries, lumber and brick yards, and cotton gins. Several produce and cotton markets opened after the turn of the century, catering to the farmers of lower Johnston County who wanted to sell their crops to Benson dealers or trade them for needed supplies. Mercantile businesses flourished at this time as well, supported in part by the agricultural markets. These developments are consistent with those occurring around the turn of the century in other small North Carolina towns with an essentially agricultural economic base. In 1901, the Bank of Benson opened to serve the growing number of residents with financial interests in the community. This institution was incorporated into the Bank of Smithfield in 1905 and later became the Farmers Commercial Bank. In 1921, the latter establishment was responsible for constructing the massive Neoclassical Revival bank building at 100 West Main Street (Farmers Commercial Bank — First Citizens Bank and Trust [now Mary Duncan Public Library]) which is the most impressive structure of its type in Johnston County and perhaps more than any other exemplifies Benson's prosperity during the 1910s and 1920s.
During the first four decades of its existence, Benson's growth was influenced by a number of individuals whose commercial establishments and residences, many of which still survive, were significant elements of the town landscape. Among the early arrivals were C.T. Johnson and J.D. Parrish, both of whom established businesses in Benson. By 1890, the town had no less than nine general merchandise stores, a drugstore, and a hardware store. J.D. Parrish's son Alonzo, who initially went into business with his father as manager of the J.D. Parrish and Son store, became one of Benson's most prominent citizens. He built his impressive Neoclassical Revival home at 206 West Main Street between 1905 and 1906, and constructed the Carolina-Parrish Hotel, originally known as the North State Hotel, on the same street around 1918 (corner of West Main Street and South Wall Street). In addition, he operated an automobile dealership in town for nineteen years and served as president of the Citizens Bank and Trust Company. C.T. Johnson, who came to Benson around 1890 and built his grand-scale Neoclassical Revival residence at 109 Northwest Railroad Street in 1912, made his fortune in the cotton-buying business. In addition to several farms, Johnson owned a West Main Street dry goods store (107-111 West Main Street) and an adjacent establishment which sold men's and women's clothing (corner of West Main Street and South Railroad Street). With its unusual decorative metal facade featuring Classical elements, the clothing store, constructed about 1910, is one of the most architecturally distinctive structures on the street.
Other prosperous merchants who built commercial buildings on Main Street and large-scale Neoclassical or Colonial Revival homes in the Benson Historic District include William Daniel Boon and Preston Woodall. Boon's father, J.H. Boon, came to Benson around 1900 and initially managed a livery stable. He built the traditional I-house with Victorian detailing, which is among the oldest in the district (212 West Main Street) soon after his arrival. William Boon later went into business with his father, running the J.H. Boon and Son store 120 and 123 West Main Street that sold groceries, fertilizers, and cotton, and was constructed in 1916. In 1918, Boon built his residence, the design for which was taken from a Sears Roebuck catalog, on the same street (301 West Main Street, Rose & Graham Funeral Home). Preston Woodall, who established his business in 1899, operated a department store at 105 East Main Street, and erected his home at 201 East Hill Street around 1910.
Additional individuals who owned businesses on Main Street and played a role in Benson's early development into a commercial center include James Benson, who operated the first pharmacy in the town (104 East Main Street); Moses A. Peacock, who also ran a drugstore (101 West Main Street) and built his residence at 208 West Church Street in 1922; Jake Greenthal, a merchant originally from Baltimore who came to Benson in 1910 and opened a department store (113 East Main Street); Eli S. Turlington, who ran a furniture and hardware store (213 East Main Street) and erected his home at 207 North Market Street around 1914; and James E. Wilson, a livestock and horse dealer and cotton buyer who built his house at 205 North Market Street around 1915, and whose store building retains architectural features from its original function as a livery stable and livestock shelter (222 East Main Street).
With the growth of the town came the establishment of the educational and religious institutions which were vital parts of community life. The Benson Graded High School, built in 1905 and moved to the location at 208 East Hill Street around 1915, soon became too small for the town's educational needs, and the well-executed Colonial Revival school building on the 300 block East Church Street currently known as the Benson Elementary School was constructed c.1915 to accommodate grades 1 through 12. The six churches encompassed by the Benson Historic District were constructed between about 1895 and 1945 by the town's Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal Holiness, Pentecostal Free Will Baptist, Presbyterian, and Catholic congregations. The Baptist and Methodist churches, from 1914-1915 and 1911 respectively (200 West Church Street and 205 East Church Street) are particularly noteworthy for their ambitious design and creative interpretation of popularly-accepted ecclesiastical forms.
An article about Benson that appeared in the Smithfield Herald in 1924 described the physical appearance of the town in that year, stating that within the past decade (Benson) has made rapid strides in different phases of improvements and now presents to the visitor a neat, clean little town sprinkled about with a goodly number of lovely homes, handsome churches and school building, a modern brick hotel, (and) two large banks, the Farmers Commercial occupying one of the most expensive and up to date buildings in the state.
Another account published in the Benson Review during the following year made the optimistic prediction that by the year 1950, "all the one story brick buildings (on Main Street) will have been replaced by skyscrapers."
The depression era had a severe effect on Benson, causing the collapse of the cotton market and forcing many local merchants, who had traded with the farmers, into insurmountable debt. During this time some of the town's most prominent citizens, including C.T. Johnson and Alonzo Parrish, lost possession of their homes. Although Benson recovered in the decades following World War II, the declining importance of the community as a railroad stop and agricultural trading center contributed to a change in the economic base which had spurred its early development and produced its historic architecture. Taken as a whole, the Benson Historic District represents the most cohesive group of intact commercial, residential, religious, and educational structures in the town built between about 1900 and 1930. Through their significant historical associations and architectural integrity, these structures, which are interrupted by a small number of intrusions, provide a direct visual link to the town's pre-depression era growth and affluence.
Annual Catalogue of Benson High School, 1910-11. Wilson, N.C.: Barrett's Print, 1910.
Annual Catalogue of Benson High School, 1911-12. Wilson, N.C.: Barrett's Print, 1911 .
Assorted articles, unpublished local histories, and historic photographs lent by Mr. Harold Medlin of Benson.
"Benson Has Been on the Upgrade for a Great Many Years," Benson Review, February 12, 1925, p.1.
Benson High School. The Popular Leaf, 1916. First Issue. Benson, N.C.: Senior Class, Benson High School, 1916.
Benson in Pictures. Benson, N.C.: Benson Kiwanis Club, 1925.
Branson's North Carolina Business Directory. Raleigh, N.C.: Levi Branson, 1889, 1896.
Eastern North Carolina Chamber of Commerce. Builders of Eastern North Carolina. Kinston, N.C.: Eastern North Carolina Chamber of Commerce, 1931.
Johnston County Census, Banner Township, Town of Benson, 1900 and 1910.
Ledbetter, Herky. "The Benson Story." Series of articles appearing in the Benson Review during 1964.
London, H.M., ed. North Carolina Manual 1935. Raleigh, N.C.: Legislative Reference Library, 1935.
North Carolina: The Old North State and the New. Vol. III. Chicago: Lewis Publishing Company, 1941.
The North Carolina Year Book and Business Directory. Raleigh, N.C.: The News and Observer, 1903, 1907, 1912, 1916.
Ragsdale, G.Y. and W.M. Sanders, Jr. Johnston County: Economic and Social. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina, 1922.
"Sounds, Reads and Looks Like Sure Enough Fairy Tale," Benson Review, July 16, 1925 p.1.
"Three Destructive Fires," Benson Review, December 2, 1982, n.p.
Wilson, Leonard, ed. Makers of America. Vol. III. Washington, D.C.: B.F. Johnson, Inc., 1917.
Benson, North Carolina. New York: Sanborn Map Company, 1918 and 1925.
Mrs. Mary C. Benson Addition. Johnston County Deed Book L-8, p.293. May 4, 1903.
Town of Benson. Johnston County Plat Book 2, p. 12. November 22, 1892.
Town of Benson. Riddick, Mann and Hales, made July-August, 1914.
Mr. N. Coats
† Dana E. Mintzer, Preservation Consultant, North Carolina Division of Archives and History, Benson Historic District, Johnston County, North Carolina, nomination document, 1985, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.