The Williamston Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2001. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [‡]
The Williamston Historic District comprises the vast majority of historic residential, religious, and educational resources in Williamston, a town of approximately 6,570 residents in northeastern North Carolina. It complements and is adjacent to the Williamston Commercial Historic District, listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1995. Williamston was settled in the 1730s as a trading center along the Roanoke River, became the seat of newly-created Martin County in 1774, and was incorporated in 1779. During its 222-year history, the city and its residents have witnessed the rise, success, and decline of river and rail systems of transportation and profound changes in the commercial and agricultural traditions of eastern North Carolina. While the Williamston Historic District does contain six large, important antebellum residences — among the oldest and most important of their genre in the county — it primarily reflects the growth spurred by the arrival of the railroad in 1882 and the rapid expansion of peanut and tobacco culture between 1890 and 1920. As such, it contains the residences and institutions associated with the people responsible for the town's development since its founding. The Williamston Historic District covers forty-two irregularly-rectilinear blocks and largely surrounds the town's small, five-block commercial core.
The District is overwhelmingly residential in character, with 295 (ninety-four percent) of its 312 primary resources being dwellings that encompass all of the town's pre-1951 residential neighborhoods that retain architectural integrity. These residential areas illustrate a typical pattern of small towns in which older, nineteenth-century dwellings — usually the large and impressive houses associated with leading families — are located near a central commercial area, while more recent houses from the first half of the twentieth century fan outward from this older core. Houses were erected during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries not only for descendants of the early leading families, but for county farmers attracted by the town's superior educational, mercantile, and cultural opportunities, and ambitious businessmen from other, primarily North Carolina towns, who sought economic success in the bustling little town. The Williamston Historic District's domestic resources were exclusively of frame construction prior to 1915, and then decreasingly so. The district does contain significant nonresidential contributing buildings, including five churches, three schools, and three governmental/civic buildings. Among these are the sanctuaries of the town's leading historic congregations, the county's oldest two-story brick school, and the 1885-1887 (former) Martin County Courthouse, listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 as part of a thematic nomination of the state's courthouses.
The Williamston Historic District is significant in the area of Community Planning and Development because of its reflection of the growth and development of Williamston. It is also eligible at the local level in the area of architecture because it contains notable examples of the Federal, Greek Revival, Italianate, Queen Anne, Late Gothic Revival, Colonial Revival, Bungalow/Craftsman, and Tudor Revival styles. The Williamston Historic District contains a high degree of architectural integrity, with 247 of the 312 primary resources (seventy-nine percent), and 396 of the total of 609 resources (sixty-five percent) being contributing. Seven buildings — including four that predate the Civil War and none younger than ca.1900 — were moved between 1913 and 1928 from a site within or immediately adjacent to either the Williamston Historic District or the Williamston Commercial Historic District and was moved to prevent its demolition in the course redevelopment. The six dwellings remain in residential settings and environments, with a former office converted into a storage building adjacent one of the moved houses. The Williamston Historic District's period of significance begins ca.1800 with the construction date of the Williams-Waters House, the oldest house in town, and ends in 1950, after which construction in central Williamston decreased sharply as most of the land had already been developed, with future residential construction largely occurring in adjoining and outlying suburban areas.
Settlement and Early History until 1800
The first English settlement at Williamston occurred in the 1730s along the broad Roanoke River near the ruins of a Tuscarora Indian town. Growth in the village — named Tar Landing — was slow, but was fed by an increasing flow of settlers southward and eastward from more heavily populated sections of Virginia and the Albemarle region of North Carolina. By 1774, when Martin County was created by the General Assembly, the settlement had become the section's principal shipping point for products from the forest and farm, and so was named the county seat. A courthouse was soon erected in the riverfront community. However, this area was prone to seasonal flooding, and by the 1780s the fledgling business section began a gradual migration westward toward and up the so called "river hill," now the 300 and 400 blocks of East Main Street, with the courthouse being relocated by the 1780s as well. In 1779 the town of Williamston was formally established by the General Assembly, named in honor of Colonel William Williams, a large area landowner. The original town boundaries did not extend to the river, suggesting that relocation from along the river was well underway. There was no church in the Williamston area, or in Martin County for that matter, until August 1785 when Skewarkey Baptist Church was established at the present site about two miles southwest of the Williamston Historic District. Methodism was advanced locally through the efforts of pioneer bishop Francis Asbury, who first visited Williamston in January 1792 (Manning and Booker 1974, 69-71, 1-9, 82-83; Butchko 1999, 453-454). The establishment in 1793 of a post office, also the first in the county, added to the growing importance of the little town of Williamston, and by the end of the decade the town was poised to enter the new century as the largest and most important town between Plymouth, twenty miles east near the mouth of the Roanoke River, and Tarboro, about thirty miles west (Manning and Booker 1977, 3-5, 60-61, 65, 85; 1979, 21, 163-165).
Antebellum Development: 1800 to 1860
From a population of 248 in 1800, Williamston became established during the early nineteenth century as a small but active trading town and the seat of county government, not unlike other regional maritime trading towns and county seats such as Washington, Windsor, Plymouth, Halifax, Edenton, and Elizabeth City. The livelihood of its residents was dependent on trade along the Roanoke River, which extends from what is now Roanoke, Virginia, through fertile fields and dense forests to its mouth into the Albemarle Sound east of Plymouth. Throughout the nineteenth century, it served both as a highway for passengers and the region's major artery for shipment of farm and forest products to markets along the east coast. As seen in other river towns, Williamston's main economic focus was as a local market and shipping point for products and as a supplier of the needs of farmers and town residents alike. The economic health of the town was directly and inseparably linked to the prosperity of the nearby farmers (Manning and Booker, 1977, 64, 103-108, 122-131; 1974, 83; Brazeal, etal. 1979, 9-12).
The improvement of navigation on the river was a continuing concern for Williamston citizens and merchants throughout the antebellum period. A succession of transportation endeavors began locally with the 1812 incorporation of the Roanoke Navigation Company to promote trade on the river. A period of rising prosperity for Roanoke River towns began with the 1823 completion of a canal around the river's falls at Weldon (Roanoke Canal Historic District, National Register 1976) and the 1828 enlargement of the Dismal Swamp Canal (NR 1988) farther east near Elizabeth City. These linked regional farmers and merchants to the Virginia ports of Norfolk and Portsmouth, northeastern North Carolina's main trading destinations until the 1900s. The increased use of steamboats ushered in a period of heightened activity along the Roanoke River, and the citizens and merchants of Williamston were determined to share in the improving regional economy (Manning and Booker 1979, 2-3; Black 1991, 2-3; Glass 1076; Butchko 1989, 133 134, 135, 137-138). However, competition from railroads at Weldon after 1836 diverted much of the trade in the upper Roanoke valley from the river, forcing the Roanoke Navigation Company out of business. Among several steamboat companies operating on the Roanoke River during the 1840s and 1850s were the Roanoke Steamboat Company, organized in 1856 by lawyer Asa Biggs (100 East Church Street) and others, and the Roanoke Steam Navigation Company, which included among its organizers in 1857 merchant and preacher Cushing B. Hassell (138 West Church Street) (Manning and Booker 1979, 3-11). Such was the importance of the river that overland travel during the antebellum period remained laborious, with the first significant advancement not coming until the 1830s when the stage coach route from Williamston to Tarboro was improved (Manning and Booker 1979, 22-23).
Williamston's role as the seat of county government brought prestige and growth, with county residents coming to town to record legal documents, attend court in various capacities, partake in elections and military musters, and take part in a variety of political, social, and educational functions. Accordingly, Williamston, as did other small county seats in North Carolina, grew to meet their needs for accommodations and supplies. Most of the town's early merchants resided within the district, including Richard Williams, Sr. and son Richard Williams, Jr. (203 E. Main Street), who started their business soon after 1800; Cushing Biggs Hassell (138 W. Church Street), who entered the mercantile business in 1831; Amelek C. Williams (300 E. Main Street), who moved his mercantile business here about 1843 from Jamesville, a small trading town down river from Williamston; and Franklin A. Rhodes (407 North Smithwick Street), who moved here from Tyrrell County just before the Civil War. These men and their contemporaries propelled Williamston to be as ambitious and up-to-date as any small town in northeastern North Carolina during the antebellum years, and their residences stand today to embody their careers and the town's antebellum prosperity (Manning and Booker 1979, 175-184; Democratic Banner, especially October 16, 1856, and Williamston Mercury May 18, 1859; Butchko 1998, 444-445, 419-420, 393-395).
These were just some of the businessmen operating in Williamston during the antebellum years. In 1850 the town had a population of 268 — an increase-of twenty persons over fifty years — that included seven merchants, five lawyers, three physicians, two clerks, two coach makers, and one each tailor, shoemaker, and innkeeper. The larger of the coach makers, Stanley Duggan, several years later erected an impressive house (110 Marshall Avenue) that remains the oldest residence southeast of the railroad. The county's agrarian economy is reflected by the most prevalent occupation being that of farmer, with seventeen farm households being enumerated (1850 Martin County Census). Tradesmen in 1860 included three seamstresses, two coach makers, two shoemakers, and one each blacksmith, tailor, harness maker, miller, liquor dealer, and tavern keeper. In 1850 Williamston was home to five carpenters and one each brick mason; brick maker, and cabinetmaker; ten years later there were only three carpenters (1850 and 1860 Censuses).
The antebellum period witnessed the organization of religious congregations that have influenced Williamston residents ever since. The first church, a small log building, was erected in 1828 by the Methodist Society near the present church (120 E. Church Street); a larger frame building was built in 1836. Local Episcopalians organized in the early 1840s, and in 1849-1850 built a Gothic Revival frame building on a site to the rear of the present church (114 W. Church Street); a rectory (103 North Haughton Street) was built nearby in the early 1850s. Because of the strength of the Skewarkey Baptist congregation just outside of Williamston, no Baptist church was organized within the town until the 1870s (Manning and Booker 1974, 84, 86-89, 69-74; Butchko 1999, 11-12, 453-454).
Until the 1810s, education in Williamston was a private matter for those who desired or could afford it. In 1816 the General Assembly incorporated the Williamston Academy and by August 1818 a frame building had been constructed by Thomas Grimes on a lot now the site of the (former) Church Street Elementary School Annex (300 North Watts Street). The Academy was coeducational until 1849 when a female academy was established. A two-story frame building (demolished in the 1970s) was erected in 1850 for the Female Academy at what is now 211 South Watts Street; the builder was Albert Gamaliel Jones of Warren County (Manning and Booker 1974, 183-187, 191-193, 201, 196-198; Sanborn map 1913, 1; 1921, 4, 8). North Carolina did not enact an effective public school law until 1839. While six common schools for white children were reported in the county's 1840 census, there is no indication of their location. Surely one must have been in or near Williamston, the largest town (Lefler and Newsome 1976, 368-369; Manning and Booker 1974, 206-208).
Civil War and Recovery: 1860 to 1880
The Civil War effected major changes to the economy and lives of Williamston residents but, fortunately, brought little physical destruction or damage. Even though it was of local economic and political significance, the town's strategic value was less important than that of other towns on the Roanoke River. The end of hostilities in 1865 found Williamston businesses struggling to recover. A March 1866 issue of a short-lived local newspaper included advertisements from just five Williamston businesses, while thirty-two advertisements from Norfolk, Virginia, reaffirmed that port city as the major trading partner of local merchants and citizens (Williamston Expositor, March 17, 1866). The next year, the first Branson's Business Directory provides a more complete listing of local business activity: three physicians, five lawyers, eight general merchants, and one each boarding house and hotel (Branson 1867-1868, 70). Subsequent Branson editions record a gradual improvement among the professions and a marked increase in the numbers and specialization among the merchants (Branson 1869, 94-95; Branson 1872, 137-139; Branson 1877-1878, 186-188).
Transportation remained a major concern to local merchants, farmers, and residents. Like before, the most reliable route was the Roanoke River, and a number of steamers carrying freight and passengers plied the river during this period (Manning and Booker 1979, 5, 16). In 1878 the Roanoke River Transportation Company was organized in Hamilton by firms and individuals from throughout Martin County, including merchant Cushing Biggs Hassell (138 W. Church Street). In 1880 the company was absorbed into the Baltimore, Norfolk, and Roanoke River Transportation Company, which dominated river traffic for a period of time (Manning and Booker 1979, 11-13).
As did the rest of eastern North Carolina following the war, Williamston leaders recognized the growing importance of the railroad and quickly sought to connect the town to an existing line. Such sentiments had been expressed in the county before, but nothing became of railroads chartered by the General Assembly in 1831 and 1861. Hopes were revived in December 1873 with the incorporation of the Seaboard and Raleigh Railway Company to connect Williamston with an existing railroad to the west in Tarboro. Construction proceeded slowly until early 1882, when activity accelerated, leading to a grand opening of the railroad in the fall of 1882 (Manning and Booker 1979, 47-61).
Changes in the town's religious, educational, and social traditions after the end of the Civil War were immediate and profound. The antebellum Primitive Baptist and Methodist congregations were joined in 1870 by the formation of a Baptist fellowship, now Memorial Baptist Church (101 W. Church Street). Many of the area's black citizens joined one of two black congregations established during this period; the earliest, now Mount Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church (205 North Elm Street), was organized in 1874, followed by Williams Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in 1878 (Manning and Booker 1974, 94-95, 115, 118, 99). The Male and Female academies were reunited into a single academy in 1866 and remained the leading school for white children (Manning and Booker 1974, 198-201, 208-209, 215; McCallum 1971, 18; Branson 1867-8, 69,70; Branson 1877-1878, 187-188). The post war period also saw a considerable improvement in public education for white children and the first formation of schools for blacks in the county's history. A school for whites was in operation by August 1873, and in May 1874, land was acquired "upon which to build a free public colored school House." Its location "on the Hamilton road not far from the western boundaries of the town of Williamston" indicates that it was clearly intended to serve the town's black children, a site near the vicinity of old Woodlawn Cemetery (Deed Book V, p.346; Deed Book W, p.214; Manning and Booker 1974, 215-216, 226, 253).
Return to Prosperity: 1881 to 1929
The completion of the Seaboard and Raleigh Railway in October 1882 (the name being changed in 1883 to Albemarle and Raleigh Railroad, again in 1894 with its consolidation into the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad, and still again in 1900 after merger into the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad) radically changed the prospects of Williamston, bringing the town into the company of progressive towns such as Tarboro, Elizabeth City, and Edenton. The local freight depot and passenger station were first located at the river wharf with the ticket office located on the west side of Smithwick Street across from a house at 503 N. Smithwick Street. By the early 1900s they were relocated to near South Haughton Street a block outside of the Williamston Historic District. With the completion of an extension to Plymouth via Jamesville in 1889, and another extension from Parmalee through Hassell and Oak City to Weldon in 1890, all sections of Martin County were connected by rail to Williamston, enabling increasing numbers of county residents to come to the county seat on a regular basis to transact business, shop, and sell farm produce (Manning and Booker 1979, 61-87, Sanborn map, 1913).
As was seen in waterfront towns throughout northeastern North Carolina during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the introduction of railroad service in the 1880s was complemented by improved maritime and land transportation. A succession of steamship lines that stopped in Williamston between 1882 and World War II not only transported produce and freight from the fertile fields and forests of Martin, Edgecombe, and Pitt counties to markets in Norfolk and Baltimore, but provided increased contact between local residents and places like Plymouth, Edenton, Elizabeth City, and Norfolk (Branson 1884, 439; 1890, 428; 1896, 399; Manning and Booker 1979, 18-19, 189-190; News and Observer 1905, 376; 1910, 304; 1915, 302; Butchko 1989, 155-162; Butchko 1992, 40-47). Improvements in overland transportation were more gradual, with major advancements not coming until the 1910s when the increasing popularity of the automobile made passable roads and bridges necessary. In 1911 the town's residents joined others in Williamston Township to become the first township in the county to vote for a bond issue for road improvement. Although the town commissioners issued $25,000 in bonds for street improvements in 1919, it was not until the end of 1923 that such major thoroughfares as Main, Washington, and Haughton streets were graded and paved. Some secondary residential streets were not paved until the 1930s (Manning and Booker 1979, 23-25; Manning and Booker 1977, 94). The completion in September 1922 of a new Roanoke River bridge at Williamston, the first modern bridge to span the river between Martin and Bertie counties, further expanded the reach of Williamston's markets and businessmen (Manning and Booker 1979, 23-25, 27; 1977, 94). The rapid increase in the number of automobiles along with the start of bus service to Norfolk in 1927 resulted in such a decrease in train travel that passenger service to Williamston was discontinued in 1928 (The Enterprise December 20, 1927); January 13, February 21, 24, 28, March 2, 1928).
Far-reaching changes in agriculture, the lifeblood of the county since settlement, occurred in northeastern North Carolina during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, greatly affecting the farm economy of Martin County and the development of Williamston. The introduction of peanuts and tobacco into the county occurred during the 1880s and 1890s, respectively, and their almost immediate success challenged and eventually surpassed cotton and corn as the primary crops of the area. In 1928, Martin was the only county in the state to claim three million-dollar crops, being ranked second in peanuts, seventh in tobacco, and thirty-fourth in cotton (Manning and Booker 1997, 98, 109, 112; The Enterprise April 20, 1928). With the success of these crops came the construction of cotton gins and peanut mills in Williamston. Two of the peanut mills were the Virginia-Carolina Peanut Company in 1907, led by banker Joseph G. Godard (110 Marshall Avenue), and short-lived Roanoke Peanut Company, founded in 1915 by district residents Leslie T. Fowden (100 E. Church Street), Henry Herbert Cowan (620 W. Main Street), and Joseph H. Saunders (119 E. Church Street) (Branson 1884, 438; 1890, 428; Sanborn maps, 1913, 1921, 1926; Incorporation Book 1, p.63, 170; Manning and Booker 1979, 108-109, 98-106, 263; Incorporation Book 1, 133, 227; Book 2, 31; The Enterprise, October 18, 1907).
It was flue-cured tobacco; the "golden weed," which made the most profound change on the economy of Williamston and Martin County. Tobacco, though a cash crop during the colonial period, was absent in the Martin County landscape until the 1890s. In 1900, the census report of 1,996 acres being raised the previous year heralded the start of a revolution in the county's agrarian traditions, and within thirty years tobacco acreage surpassed that of cotton and peanuts. During the early decades, eager local farmers encouraged experienced tobacco men from the established tobacco belt in the piedmont counties along the North Carolina-Virginia border to relocate in Martin County and instruct local farmers in the growth, curing, and marketing of tobacco. These local captains of tobacco assumed leading roles in the town and built or bought important dwellings for their families. They included Roger Samuel Critcher (119 E. Church Street and 118 N. Watts Street who came from Granville County in 1898; William Thomas Meadows (502 W. Main Street), who migrated from Granville County about 1903, and James Edwin King, who arrived from Caswell County in the late 1920s (120 E. Main Street). Such was the impact of tobacco that these and other tobacco men became among the most influential residents in town, with the Williamston tobacco market becoming the primary business endeavor of the town. Joining them in the local tobacco industry were a number of county natives who moved to Williamston, including John R. Peel (123 E. Main Street), a "bookman," or bid recorder, for various tobacco warehouses (Manning and Booker 1979, 111-112, 114-116, 121-122; Critcher 1980, 154).
The establishment of tobacco auction houses enabled Williamston to compete with towns such as Robersonville, Tarboro, and Greenville for the expanding tobacco crop of eastern North Carolina. The first, the Martin County Tobacco Warehouse Company, was incorporated in 1901 by several leading businessmen, including merchant Noah Staton Peel and banker Joseph H. Godard. Two warehouses, the Roanoke and the Dixie, were erected the next year near the railroad at the intersection of Washington and Haughton streets (outside both the Williamston Historic District and the Williamston Commercial Historic District). These two warehouses counted among their early managers and proprietors district residents James Daniel Leggett and W.T. Meadows; Hugh M. Burras was a manager during the 1910s, as was Harry L. Meador during the 1920s. The rapid and continual increase in local tobacco production resulted in additional warehouses being organized by local businessmen and entrepreneurs to capture a portion of the increasing flue-cured tobacco profits. Many of the founders and managers of these warehouses resided within the Williamston Historic District, including Joseph G. Godard (110 Marshall Avenue) of Farmer's Warehouse; Burrous Allen Critcher, Sr., (111 North Watts Street) and Hugh M. Burras (406 West Main Street) of the Brick Warehouse; newspaper publisher W.C. Manning (119 N. Haughton Street [now a vacant lot]) of the Roanoke Tobacco Warehouse; and Roy T. Griffin (103 Williams Street) of the New Brick Warehouse in 1928. The wide importance of tobacco in the county's economy was underscored in the incorporation of the Martin County Warehouse in 1929. There were seventy-nine stockholders from throughout the county, with a large majority from Williamston where many resided within the Williamston Historic District. Some of the largest were wholesale merchant C.A. Harrison (112 Academy Street), attorney Clayton Moore (106 East Church Street); general merchants Lovette B. Harrison (118 North Haughton Street) and Thaddeus F. Harrison (307 N. Haughton Street); farmer Claude C. Griffin (217 Williams Street); and lumberman Francis M. Barnes (113 West Church Street) (Incorporation Book 1, pp.41, 24, 262; Book 2, pp.5, 150, 165; Manning and Booker 1979, 121-126; Sanborn maps 1913, 2; 1921, 6, 7; 1926, 4, 10).
Numerous farm-related industries were established in Williamston during the early twentieth century. Tobacco-related firms included a prize house, or prizery, in 1902 by the American Tobacco Company to grade, stem, moisten, redry, and then pack the tobacco for shipment. A steam redrying plant was built the next year by Meadows and Staton, and was replaced and then considerably enlarged and modernized after 1925 (Manning and Booker 1979, 128-129; Sanborn maps 1913, 1921, 1926). County native J.L. Woolard (201 West Simmons Street) was an ingenious maker of farm tools, opening a shop in Williamston early in the twentieth century, with J.L. Woolard and Son enjoying success in the manufacturer of tobacco flues, wagons, and cultivators for a brief period between ca.1907 and 1913 (Manning and Booker 1979, 128-129; Sanborn maps 1913, 1921, 1926; Incorporation Book 1, p.212). The largest farm-related industry in Williamston was the Standard Fertilizer Company, incorporated in July 1927 by Baltimore interests and opened by December 1927 (Incorporation Book 2, 130; The Enterprise, January 3, 6, 9; April 20). Forest products were also important in Martin County's economy, with most industrial endeavors involving lumber manufacturing, such as the saw mill begun in the late 1910s along the railroad (southeast of the historic district) by tobacco pioneer Roger S. Critcher (118 North Watts Street) and continued until 1970 by sons Roger A. Critcher, Sr. (116 North Watts Street) and Titus S. Critcher (301 North Smithwick Street). A related lumber industry was operated by Francis U. Barnes (113 West Church Street), shipping timber to Maryland where it was turned into baskets and crates (Sanborn 1921, 5; 1926, 10; Hughes 1980). Other Williamston Historic District homebuilders and residents involved with the county's farming and forest industries included; county farm agent Thomas B. Brandon (108 West Grace Street), grain-feed mill owner William W. Gurganus (607 West Main Street), district manager for a Virginia fertilizer company Vernon J. Spivey (206 W. Simmons Street), saw mill proprietor Henry H. Cowan (620 West Main Street), and lumber dealer Mortimer J. Norton (205 N. Haughton Street).
Williamston's prosperous and expanding economy attracted ambitious merchants, professionals, businessmen, and craftsmen, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, who, along with the industrial and tobacco leaders, assumed leadership positions in every field that affected the manner and direction by which Williamston grew during the early and mid twentieth century. By erecting handsome commercial buildings (Williamston Commercial Historic District, NR 1995) and stylish dwellings within the Williamston Historic District, they shaped a small but bustling trading town that was, in many ways, little different from other small towns in the region such as Robersonville, Tarboro, Greenville, Washington, Plymouth, and Windsor. Among these businessmen and leaders were bankers Joseph G. Godard and John D. Biggs, Jr.; attorneys Robert L. Coburn, Wheeler Martin, Jr., and Hugh G. Horton; and physicians William H. Harrell, Joseph H. Saunders, Hugh B. York, Josiah B.T. Knight, and James Slade Rhodes, Sr. The district was home to many county officials, such as Clerks of Court Noah S. Peel and L. Bruce Wynne; Register of Deeds Samuel S. Brown; treasurer Hugh M. Burras; and Superintendents of Schools Robert J. Peel and Asa J. Manning. Most of the town's municipal officials before 1950 resided in the Williamston Historic District, civic leaders such as N.C. Green, Robert L. Coburn, C.A. Harrison, W.T. Meadows, and Leslie T. Fowden (Manning and Booker 1977, 78-87, 193). Others employed in the public sector included teachers William V. Ormond, Sr. and Jr., Edna B. Andrews, and Walter B. Mizelle; federal magistrate Walter Halberstadt; postmasters Joseph M. Sitterson and Leslie T. Fowden; and rural mail carrier John A. Ward.
Downtown merchants who resided in the Williamston Historic District offered patrons a wide variety of merchandise and services. Before the 1920s, general stores dominated the local commerce and almost all the proprietors of such establishments resided within the district, including James D. Leggett (302 N. Smithwick Street), Noah S. Peel (210 N. Haughton Street), and brothers Lovette B. and Thaddeus F. Harrison (118 N. Haughton Street and 307 N. Haughton Street). During the 1910s, stores began to specialize, and Williamston's merchant variety rivaled those in any nearby town: grocers Salmon P. Godard (411 N. Haughton Street), and Rosa H. Robertson (100 Harrell Street); farmer supply companies operated by brothers James D. and John M. Bowen (422 W. Main Street and 601 W. Main Street) and brothers Roy T., William O., and James E. Griffin (103 Williams Street, 104 Williams Street, and 202 Williams Street); druggists C.B. Clarke, Jr. (106 Academy Street) and David R. Davis (118 Academy Street); furniture dealers B.S. Courtney (316 School Drive) and Garland G. Woolard (311 Hassell Street); clothiers Cora Proctor Critcher (111 North Watts Street) and Frank N. Margolis (303 N. Smithwick Street); and meat market proprietor W.S. Manning (301 S. Watts Street). Other district businessmen included oil and motor company owner N.C. Green (108 Academy Street), building supply owner Jesse S. Whitley (106 W. Church Street), theater owner James W. Watts (206 Ray Street), power company manager Ray Goodmon, Sr., (114 W. Grace Street), railroad agent W.H. Crawford (216 South Watts Street), ice company owners L.P. Lindsley (318 W. Church Street and K.P. Lindsley (403 S. Watts Street), telephone company manager John W. Manning (319 W. Church Street), machinists Thomas C. Cooke, Sr. (400 Park Street and 312 E. Main Street), A.E. Browder (507 W. Main Street), and Raymond A. Robertson (100 Harrell Street), livery operator James P. Waters (300 East Main Street). While the builders and contractors known to have worked on the district's buildings will be discussed later, at least two full-time contractors, Albert T. Perry (104 E. Church Street) and Hugh Wyatt (107 West Grace Street), resided in the district, as did plumbing contractor W.E. Dunn (403 S. Watts Street) and electrical contractor John M. Manning (319 W. Church Street). The careers of other resident builders, such as Roger S. Critcher (118 N. Watts Street), Roy T. Griffin (103 Williams Street), and Simon C. Griffin (217 Williams Street), were either less active or of shorter duration.
The addition of these merchants, businessmen, and professionals to Williamston resulted in dramatic population growth during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The town nearly doubled in population in the first two decades after the arrival of the railroad, rising from 482 residents in 1880 to 912 residents in 1900. This trend continued in the new century, increasing to 1,574 persons in 1910, expanding to 1,800 residents in 1920, and rising to 2,731 people in 1930, a threefold increase in thirty years. While some of this increase can be attributed to an extension of the town limits in 1901, a greater majority of the increase was because of the influx of new residents, the extension of residential development out West Main Street, and the construction of houses in the northwest quadrant of the district defined by West Church, North Smithwick, and Elm streets (Manning and Booker 1977, 63-64).
In solidifying its position as the largest town in Martin County, Williamston was able to offer its citizens religious, educational, and social opportunities unparalleled in the county. Inhabitants had their choice of attending not only the four older antebellum congregations — Methodist (First United Methodist Church, 120 E. Church Street), Episcopal (Church of the Advent Episcopal Church, 114 W. Church Street), Primitive Baptist (out of the district), white Missionary Baptist (Memorial Baptist Church, 101 W. Church Street) — and a black Missionary Baptist church (Mount Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church, 205 N. Elm Street) — but other denominations as well. These included Christian (1889), Pentecostal Holiness (1923), and Presbyterian congregations, with only the latter within the district (First Presbyterian Church, 125 E. Main Street) (Booker and Manning 1974, 99-101, 103, 105-106, 110).
The town's educational opportunities improved dramatically during the period between 1881 and 1929. The Williamston Academy, which enlarged its antebellum building in 1883, remained the leading school for white children in town until the late 1890s. In 1903 it was merged into the newly-created Williamston Graded School District and was enlarged and used until replaced by the Church Street Elementary School in 1918; only a portion of the Church Street building, the (former) Annex (300 N. Watts Street), survives (Manning and Booker 1974, 200-201; Incorporation Book 1, p.39; Sanborn maps 1913, 1921, 1926). The town's first known public school for white children (Williamston Graded School, 107 North Pearl Street) was built in 1885 at what is now 601 West Main Street, a site occupied since the 1920s by the John M. Bowen House. It was closed in 1903 when the school moved into the old academy. In 1929 the two-story brick Williamston High School (600 N. Smithwick Street) was erected as part of an ambitious building program in the county that saw the completion of a nearly identical building in Robersonville. These were the first two accredited high schools in the county and both buildings were designed by architect Eric Flannagan of Henderson (Manning and Booker 1974, 226-228, 235-236; Butchko 1998, pp.313-314; Deed Book GG, p.431; The Enterprise, December 23, 1927, Butchko 1998, 446-447).
School facilities for black children also improved dramatically during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but, as was typical throughout North Carolina, were almost always physically inferior to the white schools. A new school was built ca.1882 on Rhodes Street near Williams Chapel A.M.E. Zion Church (one block out of the district); this two-story frame building burned ca.1927. School was then held in various black churches until the completion in 1930 of the E.J. Hayes School, outside of the district at 705 Washington Street (Manning and Booker 1974, 253; Deed Book EE, p.61; Sanborn map 1926; Butchko 1998, 451-452).
An increasing variety of educational, social, and entertainment possibilities were made available to town and county residents during the early twentieth century. During summers, training schools were conducted for teachers (The Enterprise, June 14, 1907) and institutes for farmers were held periodically to appraise them of the latest information on topics such as forestry, fertilizer, cotton, roads, peanuts, and hogs (The Enterprise, August 9, 16, 1907; January 24, 1908; June 13, 1922, February 10, 17, 1928). The Anti-Saloon League in 1908 mixed education, religion, and politics during a series of meetings and programs, and though victorious in passing prohibition statewide in May, the issue was resoundingly rejected by county voters; Williamston "drys" barely outnumbered "wets," 135 to 128 (The Enterprise, March 13, 20, 27, May 29, 1908). These and similar events were held at several venues in town, including the Martin County Courthouse (215 E. Main Street), tobacco warehouses, the upstairs of the 1908 Town Hall (burned 1958), and the Masonic Hall. Traveling circuses came to town periodically, promising an "Array of Astounding Arenic Acts." When the 1908 visit of Cole Brothers Circus coincided with the Democratic County Convention, the newspaper wryly noted that "Williamston has had two shows in one week...Too strenuous for the average person" (The Enterprise, September 18, October 2, 1908). In 1928 the Women's Club of Williamston was organized "to promote the charitable, sanitary, social and civic life of the community" (Incorporation Book 2, p.156).
Sports were a popular recreational diversion in the early twentieth century as people had increasing amounts of time away from the job and farm. Baseball was played throughout the county, with residents often following their favorite teams to games in Washington, Greenville, Windsor, and Tarboro (The Enterprise, June 28, July 17, August 16, 23, 30, 1907). Horse races were also popular, particularly so after the construction in 1907 of a race track and a "delightfully cool and comfortable" grandstand by the newly-formed Williamston Trotting Club west of what was then the town limits (Incorporation Book 2, pp.28, 76; The Enterprise, September 20, 1907; Manning and Booker 1979, 144-145; Sanborn maps 1921, 1926). Williamston's position as the county's social center was underscored during the early 1900s with the establishment of moving picture theaters. Movies were shown in the Masonic Hall as early as January 1908, and later on the second story of the Town Hall. With the construction in 1928 of the Watts Theatre at 140 West Main Street (WCHD, demolished 1996), Martin County had its first modern moving picture house (The Enterprise, January 24, 1908, Sanborn maps 1913, p.3; 1921, p.4; 1926. p.2-3; Skewarkian 1985, 43; Butchko 1998, 33-34; The Enterprise, March 3, May 1, 25, 1928).
Depression, War, and Recovery: 1930 to 1950
Like other small, agrarian-based towns of northeastern North Carolina, the Great Depression wreaked havoc on the economy and residents of Williamston. Difficult times on the farm reverberated throughout the economy and were keenly felt in Williamston's warehouses, mills, and stores as farmers had less reason to spend the limited money they had. Times were so bad during 1931-1932 that The Enterprise, which was accepting peanuts in payment for subscriptions, reported in January 1931 that it was starting out the New Year full of hope and peanuts (Manning and Booker 1979, 159-160, 110, 125-126,130-132, 149, 225). By the mid 1930s, government programs such as price and acreage controls provided enough stabilization that economic recovery became evident (Manning and Booker 1979, 104-105, 149, 157-160). During these lean years, tobacco remained the most important local crop, and in 1938 the Williamston Tobacco Board of Trade was organized by, among others, tobacconist James R. King (120 E. Main Street) (Incorporation Book 2, pp.339, 153). Three Williamston tobacco warehouses — the combined Roanoke-Dixie, the Farmers, and the Planters — operated during the 1930s, and where joined in 1938 by the Carolina and continued to provide a competitive market for farmers in Martin and neighboring counties throughout the 1940s (Manning and Booker 1979, 125-126, 129). Peanuts remained an important cash crop as well during the 1930s and 1940s, with the construction of the county's first cleaning and shelling facility since 1915 by the Columbian Peanut Company in 1930 not only provided a local market but seasonal employment for as many as 125 workers. It was sold in 1940 to businessmen Jesse S. Whitley (106 W. Church Street), N.C. Green (108 Academy Street), and George H. Harrison and continued as the Williamston Peanut Company into the 1960s (Manning and Booker 1979, 227-228; Incorporation Book 2, p.390). Limited commercial growth in downtown Williamston during the Depression included the formation of Clark's Drug Store in 1931 by C.B. Clark, Sr. (106 Academy Street), and the Van Dyke, later Woolard, Furniture Company in 1933 by Garland G. Woolard (311 Hassell Street) (Incorporation Book 2, 176, 193). S.C. Griffin (217 Williams Street) was among the founders of two new automobile dealerships in town, the Roanoke Chevrolet Company in 1933 and the Dixie Motor Company (Dodge) in 1939 (Incorporation Book 2, 198, 378).
There were only minor changes in religious, educational, and social opportunities during the 1930s and 1940s. No new congregations organized, and after the construction of an annex (300 N. Watts Street) to the Church Street School ca.1930, no improvements were undertaken to the town's schools until the Williamston Middle School was built ca.1950 to accommodate increased "baby boom" enrollment. In 1938 the town's first public library was organized by the Williamston Woman's Club, first occupying the (former) American Legion Building (106 S. Watts Street). Moving pictures remained popular throughout the period, with the Watts Theatre, which was remodeled and modernized in 1940, remaining the only commercial venue in town. The town's — and county's — most passionate diversion was baseball. The first organized baseball team in Williamston was in 1880, and local teams such as the white "Giants" and African American "Quick Steps" and "Braves" played county and regional rivals throughout the early twentieth century. The peak came between 1937 and 1941 when Williamston fielded the "Martins" in the minor league Class D Coastal Plains League composed of nine teams in eastern North Carolina. The team's owners and chief promoters were brothers and county farmers John D. and J. Eason Lilley, with the latter also having commercial and rental interests in town (115 N. Elm Street). District resident Ray Goodman (114 W. Grace Street), served as league president from 1939 to 1941 and 1946 to 1952. The baseball diamond was located on what is now the playing field of the (former) Williamston High School; it was removed by 1960 (Butchko 1999, 33-34, 38-39; Johnson and Wiles 1993, 26, 191, 194, 197, 201, 205).
The federal government took significant roles in Depression relief and labor shortages during World War II. Like it did in many small and medium towns in northeastern North Carolina, the Works Progress Administration raised local employment by contributing to the construction of two public buildings within the Williamston Historic District, the 1936-1937 Martin County Agriculture Building (205 E. Main Street) and the 1936-1937 (former) American Legion Building (106 S. Watts Street). A third building, the 1938 United States Post Office, abuts the district as part of the Williamston Commercial Historic District (NR 1995). An even greater federal presence in town was the construction in 1943 of a prison camp for Italian and German prisoners of war. Located near the Roanoke River bridge, one of the primary purposes of the camp was to provide much-needed labor in the Standard Fertilizer Company mill, its operation being critical to expand production on the region's farms. It is considered to be one of the first uses of prisoner of war labor in an industrial plant in the country. Prisoners, who were primarily Germans from Rommel's elite "Desert Corps," were also utilized to harvest peanuts and work in lumber and pulp industries (Manning and Booker 1979, 156-157, 107, 226; Butchko 1999, 438-439). Williamston residents took active roles during World War II. Not only did several hundred of the town's young men and women enter the armed services, but the home front was under strict rationing of items such as canned goods, metals, meats, tires, gasoline, and shoes. Through regular newspaper exhortations such as a monthly column entitled "Town and Farm in Wartime," citizens were urged to sacrifice, prepare, and invest in war bonds (Butchko 1998, 39-40).
The twenty-year period between the onset of the Great Depression and the end of the Williamston Historic District's period of significance in 1950 saw Williamston's population nearly double, from 2,731 persons in 1930, to 3,966 residents in 1940, and 4,979 citizens in 1950 (Manning and Booker 1977, 64). While a portion of this increase was due to minor annexations of outlying areas, these two decades saw the construction of several dozen dwellings along West Grace Street, South Haughton Street, Ray Street, Marshall Avenue, Warren Street, and Williams Street. The Grace Street dwellings extend the district one block north from the older residential areas along Church, Academy, and Simmons streets, while the other streets comprise much of the Williamston Historic District south of Main Street. While most of these streets contain houses older than 1930, and some older than 1920, the building boom between 1930 and 1950 utilized most of the available lots in central Williamston, pushing post-1950 residential development to suburban areas north and west of the Williamston Historic District (Sanborn Map 1921, pp.7, 8; 1926, pp.4, 5).
Williamston After 1950
Changes in agriculture and transportation continued to affect the Williamston Historic District after 1950. Tobacco remained the mainstay of the local agricultural economy, and by the early 1970s the local crop was worth over $10 million annually. As was typical of other tobacco market towns in eastern North Carolina, the opening of the local market in late summer was a period of great anticipation and commercial activity, bringing many of the county's residents into town for a variety of market-related activities. However, during a span of just three years between 1959 and 1961, the local tobacco market relocated to modern facilities along the US 17-64 Bypass, leaving the old buildings along Washington and Haughton streets (outside of the district) vacant or occupied for other purposes. A further blow to central Williamston's tobacco heritage was the fiery destruction of the two original warehouses, the Roanoke and Dixie, on June 1, 1963 (Manning and Booker 1979, 112-3, 126-130). The county's peanut production enjoyed considerable growth during the half-century after World War II, with production per acre more than quadrupling between 1953 and 1973. Like with tobacco, various control programs have resulted in a decline of acreage since the 1970s; yet, the importance of peanuts in the county's economy has increased monetarily (Manning and Booker 1979, 106-107). Cotton declined considerably in importance, reached a low in acreage during the late 1960s, and began an increase in acreage in the late 1970s and again in the 1990s (Manning and Booker 1979, 110). Soybeans, which were not planted in the county prior to 1925, became widespread after World War II, joining tobacco, peanuts, corn, and cotton as mainstays in the farm economy (Manning and Booker 1979, 135).
Advances in transportation, education, and society effected profound changes in Williamston after World War II. Continued improvement of the state's highway system brought modern highways through town, with three of eastern North Carolina's major thoroughfares, US routes 13, 17, and 64, intersecting in Williamston. The completion of a five-lane bypass for these routes — now Boulevard Street — in the 1970s removed much of the traffic from central Williamston and brought the advent of highway-oriented shopping centers (Manning and Booker 1979, 221-223). The end of legal segregation in education in 1970 resulted in the completion three years later of a new Williamston High School in a newly annexed area southwest of town. The district's old school buildings then found new uses, the former Williamston High School (600 North Smithwick Street) as a junior high and elementary school, and the Central Elementary School Annex (300 North Watts Street) as administrative offices for the County Board of Education (Manning and Booker 1979, 228, 292-193). The operation since 1963 of what is now Martin Community College, located just southwest of the current municipal limits, has proved highly successful in bringing college courses and technical training to county residents (Manning and Booker 1969, 298-300).
Williamston's population growth during the last fifty years of the twentieth century at first increased from 4,979 persons in 1950 to 6,924 in 1960, and then began a nearly forty-year trend of gradual decreases or little change. In 1995 the town counted 6,570 persons, a decrease of five percent since the peak in 1960. However, it remains the largest municipality in Martin County, being more than three times the size of the next largest town, Robersonville, and containing one-quarter of the county's 25,078 residents (Manning and Booker 1977, 64-65; North Carolina Employment Security Commission 1995).
The buildings in the Williamston Historic District represent the broad range of architecture fashion typical of residential, religious, educational, and governmental buildings in eastern North Carolina during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. As various sections of the forty-two-block district were laid out, each was relatively densely developed, providing few available lots for later, and sometimes intrusive, development. Because the town's commercial development was generally limited before World War II to the downtown core that now comprises the Williamston Commercial Historic District (NR 1995), and post-war commercial development occurred along Washington Street leading away from downtown and on an outlying bypass, the Williamston Historic District has been able to remain overwhelmingly residential with minimal late-twentieth-century commercial intrusions. The most visible noncontributing buildings in the Williamston Historic District are a modern county courthouse (305 E. Main Street) and an office building (222 E. Main Street), built in 1982-1983 and 1965, respectively, which replace the historic Martin County Courthouse (215 E. Main Street) (NR 1979) and enable the seat of county government to remain in the district. Also notable are two public libraries (former library, 100 East Grace Street and Martin Memorial Library, 200 N. Smithwick Street), constructed ca.1961 and 1997, respectively, in close proximity to the town's elementary and junior high school (600 N. Smithwick Street).
The Williamston Historic District contains seven antebellum buildings, the oldest being the ca.1800 Williams-Waters House (300 E. Main Street). Having a crossetted, two-part surround that enframes a large, six-raised-panel door, it illustrates a retardataire Georgian feature that rarely survives in Martin County. Following a pattern common in Martin County and eastern North Carolina during the nineteenth century, the house was enlarged and modified during the 1840s and 1850s using Federal, Greek Revival, and Italianate elements, the most prominent being a polygonal bay window with bracketed eaves that gives the house a subdued Italianate flair. The 1812 Hyman-Rhodes House (407 N. Smithwick Street) is the county's only example of both the tripartite form and the transverse-hall plan, a form and plan favored by the plantation elite of the Roanoke Valley between 1790 and 1830 (Bishir 1990, 88-96). Its central, two-story, gable-front block is flanked by one-story wings, with central portico and cornices embellished by sophisticated transitional Federal-Georgian moldings and dentils. Traditional vernacular Federal style elements popular in the region are seen in the 1810 Williams-Knight House (203 E. Main Street) and the 1833-1834 Asa Biggs House (100 E. Church Street) (NR 1979), both of which have Federal style, side-hall-plan cores that were enlarged during the 1840s and 1850s into center-hall-plan residences. While the former retains an original chimney with "1810" datebrick, the Biggs House is a notable example of a vernacular Federal style house that was enlarged at least four times before 1921. It still retains an asymmetrical five-bay facade with enlarged Greek Revival windows on the lower facade and small, nine-over-nine sash Federal windows above, and exterior end chimneys.
The Greek Revival style found its finest development in Williamston between 1848 and 1854 with the construction of two impressive two-story, double-pile houses. The center-hall-plan Cushing Biggs Hassell House (138 W. Church Street) is a superlative illustration of the style, executed in 1847-1848 by master builder Albert Gamaliel Jones of Warren County whose known body of work includes a dwelling with similar finish in Martin County near Oak City and buildings in Hertford and Halifax counties (Butchko 1998, 56-57. 176-177; Bishir and Southern 1996, 273, 275, 303). Embellished with academic Greek Revival ornament, the house features a splendid Doric entablature, bull's-eye window surrounds, and Jones's trademark reel molding in the outer corner of the paneled pilasters that frame the house. Its construction is the most thoroughly documented in the county, with Biggs, a prosperous merchant and the leading preacher in the entire Primitive Baptist denomination, making regular entries in his diary as to its progress. The notes are so complete as to include the names of the sawyers Ausbon Dunce and Acrel Johnston, both being free blacks, brick mason and plasterer G.A. Ellington, painter John W. Rodgers, tinner Mr. Womack (installing gutters), and even wallpaper hanger J.C. Wagstaff (Hassell Diary, January 17, June 9, 1847). The 1853-1854 Duggan-Godard House (110 Marshall Avenue) is a smaller; side-hall-plan Greek Revival house with more austere finish, having monumental pilasters embellished with sunburst capitals, molded window surrounds with cornerblocks, and the original one-bay portico facing what appears to be the side of the house because of the opening of Marshall Avenue in the 1930s. A former office on the 200 block of Williams Street is an intriguing and important example of small frame offices erected ca.1835, especially in light of two larger offices, both ca.1850, in the Williamston Commercial Historic District (NR 1995). The diminutive building has differing door and window surrounds on each elevation.
Even with the arrival of the railroad in 1881, house construction in Williamston did not boom until the start of the Williamston Tobacco market in 1901. Hence, few houses survive that were built during the last two decades of the nineteenth century. Both the ca.1890 Harrell-Moore House (110 W. Simmons Street), a large L-plan house with paneled and bracketed cornices and peaked window hoods, and the diminutive one-story house at 310 East Main Street with large windows surmounted by similar peaked windows, are the finest of a limited number of Italianate dwellings in the district. The town's Queen Anne houses date from the style's later years when the style's asymmetrical composition was increasingly rendered with elements of the emerging Colonial Revival style; similar Queen Anne-Colonial Revival hybrids were chosen by ambitious businessmen and entrepreneurs throughout northeastern North Carolina (Butchko 1989, 186-188; Butchko 1992, 70). Notable examples include the ca.1902 Biggs-Coburn House (201 Biggs Street), on which each elevation has a projecting wood-shingled gable and the wrap-around porch is embellished with turned posts, balusters, and spindlework frieze. Other large, ambitious, early examples as the 1903 Hassell-Barnhill House (115 N. Haughton Street) and the 1907 Herbert Henry Cowan House (620 W. Main Street), each of which has a complex roofline accented by sawn gable ornaments, were updated with Colonial Revival porches. The 1914 Dr. Hugh B. York House (204 W. Simmons Street) displays a definitive Queen Anne tower with octagonal roof and a porch of fluted Doric columns. On a more modest scale, the one-story, ca.1903 Thaddeus F. Harrison House (307 N. Haughton Street) retains its wood-shingled projecting gable and turned porch posts. The 1908 Critcher-Saunders House (119 E. Church Street) is noted for the fact that its rectangular Colonial Revival main block, while surmounted by a tall, truncated hip roof embellished with stylish Colonial elements, is finished with Queen Anne sash windows and a porch of turned millwork.
The Colonial Revival houses which dominated residential architecture in Williamston during the early twentieth century reflect the several forms of the style as it existed in eastern North Carolina. Among the earliest examples were two-story, double-pile, center-hall-plan houses such as the 1907 James Daniel Leggett House (302 N. Smithwick Street), on which a porch of stylish fluted Ionic columns with terra cotta capitals wraps the main block. The 1911 Burrous A. Critcher, Sr. House (111 N. Watts Street) is more austerely finished. An asymmetrical version of the two-story Colonial Revival residence is illustrated by the hip-roofed, L-plan 1923 Robert J. Peel House (300 N. Haughton Street), which has prominent pedimented gables containing demilune louvered vents and a wrap-around porch carried by pairs of Tuscan columns raised on brick pedestals. The 1921-1926 John M. Bowen House (601 W. Main Street) and ca.1927 James D. Bowen House (422 W. Main Street) also utilized the Peel House plans, providing the Williamston Historic District with rarely-seen three versions of the same house.
The two most prevalent forms of the Colonial Revival style in Williamston followed national trends during the 1920s and 1930s. The most impressive locally is the large, rectangular, two-story house that has a central, one-bay portico and flanking side porches and is illustrated by a number of examples, the earliest being the 1922 Moore-Whitley House (106 W. Church Street). Its diminutive pedimented portico has Doric columns and a curved lower edge that implies a barrel vaulted ceiling that does not occur, a distinctive feature echoed by other Williamston examples. The Williamston Historic District contains at least twelve examples of this genre, making it one of the finest such collections in northeastern North Carolina, in fact, few similar houses exist in historic districts in Edenton (NR 1973) and Elizabeth City (NR 1977, Boundary Expansion 1994). Local examples include the 1929 N.C. Green House (108 Academy Street) with true barrel-vaulted portico and the ca.1928 Hugh G. Horton House (200 E. Main Street) with semi-circular portico. During the mid 1930s the genre was executed in brick, with six handsome residences raised between ca.1934 and ca.1938. These large and more stylishly ambitious houses benefited from the sophisticated design of architect Charles Collins Benton (d. 1960), a master of the style from Wilson where several notable commissions are located in the West Nash Street Historic District (NR 1984). His finest domestic commission in Williamston was for the 1934 C.A. Harrison House (112 Academy Street), a large two-and-a-half-story residence that illustrates the style at its most elegant, with flat-roofed portico and flanking porches topped by balustrades, cast concrete accents, and a Palladian window on the rear. Other houses feature two-story porticoes, a central pediment on the ca.1936 Dr. J.A. Eason House (107 Academy Street), and a full-width, flat-roofed portico on the 1937 Dr. William C. Mercer House (207 W. Church Street); both are attributed to Benton and his brother Frank Whitaker Benton, who practiced for a number of years as Benton and Benton. The most numerous Colonial Revival houses in the Williamston Historic District, however, are the several dozen one- and one-and-a-half-story cottages erected for middle-tier home builders between 1927 and 1942. These designs were heavily influenced by rising interest in the historic houses of Tidewater Virginia and the early restoration of Colonial Williamsburg. The examples in Williamston illustrate the full spectrum of the style: frame or brick, with or without dormers, covered or uncovered entrance, and with or without side porches. Notable examples include the 1927 J.R. Leggett House (500 Warren Street), whose symmetrical design with pedimented portico is similar to "The Crescent" as advertised by Sears, Roebuck and Company; the brick 1942 Herman A. Bowen House (202 W. Church Street) with three gable dormers and uncovered entrance; the brick 1932 Elbert S. Peel House (116 Academy Street) with simple portico sheltering only the entrance; the 1932 Perlie M. Brown House (111 Academy Street) which has original shutters with cut-out shield motifs; 116 Marshall Avenue, which has two dormers and a central portico with barrel vault; and a charming, ca.1940 duplex at 203/205 Marshall Avenue, with each unit having a small portico framed by cornice returns that has a curved fascia to suggest a barrel vault.
The Bungalow/Craftsman style is second in popularity only to the Colonial Revival style in the Williamston Historic District. This style is characterized by low, horizontal profiles, juxtaposed gables with deep eaves accented by exposed rafter ends and triangular brackets, porches carried by tapered pillars raised on brick pedestals approximately three feet tall, and window compositions containing multiple, often four, vertical panes over one large lower sash. Immensely popular in North Carolina during the 1910s and 1920s, the style, because it was so suited to smaller, unpretentious dwellings, continued in popularity during the 1930s when the Great Depression resulted in less expensive building practices. Most Craftsman Bungalows in the Williamston Historic District are one story tall, with larger one-and-a-half-story versions contained beneath gable roofs. The ca.1913-1921 Wheeler Martin, Jr. House (214 E. Main Street) is a superb example of the style as seen in eastern North Carolina, combining multiple gables, flared eaves with shaped rafter ends, and wood-shingled gables. The engaged porch is carried by heavy, weatherboarded pillars that rest upon a sophisticated wood-shingled balustrade wall that continues with a wood-shingled apron to extend around the house. The form of the ca.1918 Critcher-Corey House (209 Ray Street), a one-and-a-half-story, gable-roofed dwelling with large gable dormer and engaged porch, is prevalent within the district. It is seen in a variety of finishes: wood-shingled gables; shed, gable, or hip dormers; and Tuscan or tapered Craftsman columns.
One of the most distinctive examples is the ca.1922 Mae Smith House (513 Warren Street), with recessed second-story porch and prominent eaves brackets; the plans are believed to have come from Sears, Roebuck and Company. One-story Craftsman Bungalows were especially popular for rental houses, with a quartet of nearly identical houses erected between 1919 and 1921 having shallow gable and wide shed dormers, while simpler gable-front bungalows, such as the ca.1921 Critcher-Harrison House (316 E. Main Street) and the ca.1940 Bowen Rental Houses (108 and 110 N. Pearl Street), were built as rental houses over an almost twenty-year period.
Although represented with much fewer examples, two other architectural styles provide added depth and breadth to the domestic twentieth-century houses in the Williamston Historic District. The Tudor Revival style, which was almost always erected in brick, had limited popularity during the 1930s for modestly-scaled houses in northeastern North Carolina. Its characteristic multiple steep gables, arched windows, prominent front chimneys, and the decorative use of stucco, false half-timbers, and stone accents is eloquently expressed by the 1939 Lamm-Bailey House (601 N. Smithwick Street) and the 1937 James E. Griffin House (202 Williams Street). The ca.1949 A.E. Browder House (507 W. Main Street) illustrates the continuation of the style past the end of World War II. While the Spanish Colonial Revival style is illustrated in the Williamston Historic District only by the 1929 Frank N. Margolis House (303 N. Smithwick Street), this two-story, stuccoed masonry house handsomely illustrates the round-arched openings, clay roof tiles, metal casement windows, and uncovered terraces that were typical of the style. The style enjoyed wide popularity in Florida from the 1920s to 1940s but is rare in northeastern North Carolina. The Margolis House is the only example in Martin County.
The five contributing churches follow popular forms of the Gothic and Colonial revivals rendered in frame and brick. Four illustrate Gothic Revival ecclesiastical traditions, with the only frame example, the 1902 First United Methodist Church (120 E. Church Street), being also the oldest church in town and the only Gothic Victorian building. The gable-front building is framed by partially-inset corner towers with crenellated tops while lancet-arched windows and entrances add definitive Gothic character. The 1915 Memorial Baptist Church (101 W. Church Street) was designed by James M. McMichael, a prolific church architect from Charlotte, whose designs in northeastern North Carolina include churches in Edenton, Elizabeth City, and Washington (Bisher and Southern 1996, 135, 103, 177). It follows rectangular, auditorium-plan churches nationally popular during the period, and its hip roof is expanded by large, cross gables and anchored at each corner with a tower or tower representation. Gothic-arched windows, stone accents, and decorative brickwork are similar to those in McMichael-designed churches throughout North and South Carolina. The 1916 Church of the Advent Episcopal Church (114 W. Church Street) is the most architecturally sophisticated church in Martin County, following a gable-front, cruciform form and handsomely rendered in gray brick. Designed by Charles Collins Benton, the building features a three-stage crenellated tower, Gothic-arched windows and red clay roof tiles. While Church of the Advent exhibits academic stylishness, Mount Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church (205 N. Elm Street), the only African American church in the district, displays the type of vernacular Gothic Revival elements that are found in rural churches throughout the state. As remodeled ca.1940, the building has a pair of unequal towers, a veneer of rock-faced concrete block, and brick surrounds at the Gothic-arched windows applied in a quoin-like manner. The Williamston Historic District's only Colonial Revival church is the 1930 First Presbyterian Church (125 E. Main Street), designed by Eric G. Flannagan of Henderson. Handsomely raised in Flemish bond brick, it has a pedimented Tuscan portico, splendid Doric entablature, and round-arched nave windows with brick archivolts.
The most important of the three contributing governmental and civic resources is the (former) Martin County Courthouse (215 E. Main Street, NR 1979), an imposing Italianate brick building having a central, three-stage bell tower and segmentally-arched windows; its fortress-like appearance is unique among the state's historic courthouses. The adjacent 1936-1937 County Agriculture Building (205 E. Main Street), an austere, one-story Colonial Revival building with pedimented Tuscan portico, is typical of public buildings erected during the Depression through the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Another WPA project, the 1936-1937 (former) American Legion Building (106 S. Watts Street), is, however, a large, gable-front, frame building with notable Craftsman elements. These last two buildings, along with the 1938 United States Post Office a block southwest in the Williamston Commercial Historic District (NR 1975), comprise an important collection of WPA buildings in such close proximity to each other.
The main educational resource in the district is the (former) Williamston High School (600 N. Smithwick Street), an impressive brick Colonial Revival structure with fluted Corinthian pilasters and a cast concrete entablature. Designed by Eric G. Flannagan and erected in 1929 along with a near twin in Robersonville, it was the most modern school building in Martin County, heralding a period of improved educational facilities in the county, with architect Flannagan designing other school buildings in the smaller towns of Bear Grass, Jamesville, and Robersonville (Butchko 1998, 117, 118, 279, 90, 313-314, 316). The adjacent ca.1950 Williamston Middle School is a similar, though slightly smaller and more simply-detailed, building as the High School. The (former) Williamston Graded School (107 N. Pearl Street) is a one-story, L-plan, frame building erected ca.1885 as the first post-Civil War public school for white children in town, and is one of the best maintained of the approximately ten nineteenth-century frame schools surviving in Martin County (Butchko 1998, 88-89, 190, 191, 240-241). Modestly finished with large windows and simple turned porch posts and attic vents, the building is a notable survivor of the first generation of improved schools erected after the Civil War.
In addition to the aforementioned architects of Charles Collins Benton, Benton and Benton, James M. McMichael, and Eric Flannagan, and builder Albert G. Jones, numerous other contractors are represented by buildings in the Williamston Historic District. Chief among them are Albert T. Perry, who built, in addition to his own ca.1917 residence (104 E. Church Street), at least four other houses during the early twentieth century. Two other resident contractors were Hugh Wyatt, who renovated the landmark Cushing Biggs Hassell House (138 W. Church Street) in the early 1930s, built his residence (107 W. Grace Street) in 1946, and enlarged the 1812 Hyman-Rhodes House (407 N. Smithwick Street) in 1950; and Roy T. Griffin, a farmer-carpenter who built his residence (103 Williams Street) in 1918, dwellings for two brothers (104 Williams Street and 202 Williams Street), and at least five family-owned rental houses on Williams Street between 1930 and 1940. Each of these contractors/carpenters no doubt built other resources within the Williamston Historic District which local remembrances or records have overlooked. Other resident contractors/carpenters who did work that is largely unattributed include John R. Mobley (620 W. Main Street), Simon Claude Griffin (213, 215 and 217 Williams Street), and Asa James Manning, Jr. (106 W. Grace Street). The most notable out-of-town contractor was Julius Martin of Robersonville (eleven miles west) who erected at least three known dwellings (Frank Earl Wynne House, 100 W. Church Street; James Warren Andrews House, 102 W. Church Street and Robert J. Peel House, 300 N. Haughton Street) and most likely many more.
The resources of the Williamston Historic District provide an important look at the development of a town that was typical of northeastern North Carolina during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. While following national trends of architectural style, the owners and builders/carpenters chose forms and features that suited their needs, from impressive, architecturally sophisticated residences and churches to modest dwellings exhibiting vernacular adaptations of the prevailing styles. With houses of differing form, scale, age, and style usually within the same block, the resultant district eloquently, yet reservedly, illustrates the multi-layered development so typical of small towns in northeastern North Carolina.
Seven buildings in the Williamston Historic District have been moved from their original locations, all before 1928 and all to prepare the old site for new construction or development. The most important is the Cushing Biggs Hassell House (138 W. Church Street), the city's finest Greek Revival residence that was erected 1847-1848 by master builder Albert Gamaliel Jones of Warren County. It was moved in 1925 from the Main Street site almost directly behind (southeast) its present West Church Street address to prevent its demolition as its old site was to be developed for commercial property (The Enterprise, August 25, 1925; see also Williamston Commercial Historic District, 1995). Between 1913 and 1926 the block bounded by West Main, South Haughton, and Washington streets, an area outside of the Williamston Historic District but partially inside the Williamston Commercial Historic District, was cleared of three frame dwellings prior to new construction. Each of these houses was moved to a site within the Williamston Historic District: the ca.1860 Hassell-Muse House (315 W. Church Street) about 1914 to West Church Street; a ca.1900 house between 1914 and 1921 to 400 Park Street; and the ca.1870 Moore-Carstarphen House between 1921 and 1926 to 209 Williams Street (Sanborn 1913, 2; 1921, 7; 1926, 4). Also between 1921 and 1926, the ca.1885 (former) Williamston Graded School, the oldest education resource in the district, was moved from West Main Street to 107 North Pearl Street to enable the construction of the John M. Bowen House (601 W. Main Street). Perhaps the move with the most far-reaching consequences was that of the 1812 Hyman-Rhodes House (407 N. Smithwick Street), which in 1927 was moved within the district a distance of about 200 feet from a southeast-facing orientation in the middle of North Smithwick Street to a northeast-facing orientation on the same property. This was required to extend North Smithwick Street northwestwardly to the new Williamston High School (600 N. Smithwick Street), and in so doing allowed eventual residential development northwestwardly from Simmons Avenue, including Grace Street. It is the only move for which there is some record of the moving crew, they being an African American crew from Goldsboro (Butchko 1999, 445, 446, 387 n. 37; The Enterprise, May 8, 1928). The original location of only one moved building, the ca.1835 Antebellum Office (207 Williams Street), remains a mystery, as does its use during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries before its relocation. It is shown at its present site on the 1926 Sanborn map, the earliest to include the block, as an outbuilding to the adjacent, and moved, Moore-Carstarphen House. Earlier Sanborn maps provide few clues as to the previous location of the diminutive building, although as an office it was most likely located within the town's commercial area (Sanborn 1926, 10).
These seven buildings remain in domestic use on residential streets and largely follow the known setbacks and spacings of their original lots. All were moved from within or immediately adjacent to either the Williamston Historic District or the Williamston Commercial Historic District; in two examples, the Hyman-Rhodes House and the Cushing Biggs Hassell House, the houses were moved to rear or side portions of their original lots.
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Academy Street • Biggs Street • Church Street East • Church Street West • Elm Street North • Grace Street East • Grace Street West • Harrell Street • Hassell Street • Haughton Street North • Haughton Street South • Leggetts Lane • Main Street East • Main Street West • Marshall Avenue • Park Street • Pearl Street North • Ray Street • Rhodes Street • Route 125 • Route 17 • School Drive • Simmons Street West • Smithwick Street North • Smithwick Street South • Warren Street • Watts Street North • Watts Street South • White Street • Williams Street