Rockford Historic District
The Rockford Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2012, The Gombach Group.
Rockford was established in 1790 as the county seat of Surry and remained such until 1851. Though a small town with few buildings surviving, those few compose a compact district representative of the periods of growth in the town. The Grant-Burrus Hotel, Masonic Lodge, and York Tavern date from the earliest days of the town. The Greek Revival courthouse, replacing an earlier one, was built at the zenith of the political history of the community. With the coming of the railroad in 1890 the town took on new life reflected by most of the remainder of the buildings. There has been little development since this turn-of-the-century railroad era.
Rockford is a small, semi-deserted town that once thrived as a county seat and local trade center. Its history lies not in dramatic growth, political importance, or great wealth, but in the story of modest events, local people, and social and economic developments at once typical of many small towns and unique to Rockford. The very personal history of Rockford written by Lucy Hamlin Hauck (long-time resident and wife of the depot agent), contains a wealth of information and recollections that give a vivid picture of Rockford. It is from her work that much of the following account is taken.
Surry County, formed in 1771, was divided in 1789 to form Stokes County. The committee appointed to select a new county seat for Surry, purchased 53 acres from Thomas and Moses Ayers on the north side of the Yadkin River at White Rock Ford. The town named Rockford was laid off with three principal streets: High, Cabin and Water. Five commissioners were named and given power to sell lots and manage the town. The courts of late 1789 and early 1790 were held at the home of Richard Horne, two miles east of Rockford. The court of August, 1790, was held "at the courthouse in Rockford," which is believed to have met at the home of Elihu Ayers, until the courthouse was completed. It is unknown when the first courthouse was built.
The location of Rockford was not to prove conducive to the building of a large town because of the fluctuating river and the hills that rose beside it. Much of the business of the early courts was given to the surveying and establishment of roads and appointing overseers for their maintenance. Wagon and stagecoach roads were established above the river hills following routes more easily traveled, and Rockford was reached by roads crossing or branching off from these.
Despite geographical limitations, the county seat became significant, not only as the center of county government, but as a nucleus for hotels, retail stores, physicians, and the crafts needed and produced in that day. There was a blacksmith, a forge or furnace, a tinsmith, and a tannery with an attendant leather trade. There was a public spring where many families went to do their weekly wash and to carry water for use in their homes.
In 1791, a permit was given to Jesse Lester to run a tavern at his home at Rockford. By 1795 a permit had been issued for operation of a ferry. In 1797 Reuben Grant obtained a permit to operate a tavern in his home, also in Rockford — the beginning of the Grant-Burrus Hotel. Many permits were issued for grist mills, taverns, ferries and forges to be operated throughout the county.
The Masonic Order was first organized at Huntsville as the Shallowford Lodge on January 20, 1795. In 1797 the Charter was changed to Unanimity Lodge #34 and moved to Rockford. The Masonic Hall, still standing [Rockford Road], is among the oldest in the state. By 1800 the population of Rockford was 47 people.
In 1827 the court gave orders for repairs to be made on the courthouse, but two years later it was decided that a new courthouse should be built. A square acre of land on a hill overlooking the town and river was purchased from Matthew Hughes and a new brick building was erected. Court records note that "County Clerk's office moved into new courthouse 5th day of October, 1830, A.D." This building stood intact until 1925, when it was gutted by fire. The walls withstood the fire and later a residence was built, using the walls. Below the courthouse on the west side of High Street [now Rockford Road] was a row of log offices used by lawyers.
Mark York acquired considerable land in Rockford in 1837. He operated the York Tavern which shared with the Burrus Tavern the distinction of entertaining many notables of that era. The tavern still stands.
Rockford, a political center for the area, was largely Whig. In 1840 a prize was offered to the county that would show the largest increase in Whig votes and Surry won the prize — a fully rigged ship, hauled by horses from Fayetteville, and placed between the courthouse and public spring. A house was built over it and it remained there to within memory of people now  living. An interesting sidelight to Rockford politics concerns itself with the story of an old man named Jenkins, who for some meritorious service to the county was granted the privilege of retailing "spirits" in small quantities without license. On Sunday evenings before each court session Jenkins would make his way through Rockford to a lot known as "the devil's half-acre." It was so named because a "grog shop" was operated there by an old woman. Early Monday mornings Jenkins would procure four forked sticks, drive them into the ground, lay boards on these, and set his jug and cup upon his improvised counter, ready for business.
The Baptist and Methodist churches of Rockford were organized at about the same time, 1849. Land was donated by Mark York for the erection of a church for all denominations, except two which were excluded. It is said that York was not a church member, but his son was a Baptist, and the deed to the land was made to the Baptist Church. All the people of the community, Methodist and Baptists, joined in to erect the small church. These two were the only two denominations represented in Rockford The Baptist State Convention was held at Rockford in 1848, and it is believed that it convened in the Masonic building. The Methodists later built their own church, and the old joint meetinghouse was eventually destroyed. Both religious organizations played a strong role in this community.
The decline of Rockford began in 1850 when the county was divided once again, and Dobson, because of its more central location, became the county seat of Surry County. By this time the population of Rockford had risen to 639 — quite a respectable figure when compared with nearby Morganton, 558; Raleigh, 4,518; and Wilmington, the largest city in the state, with 7,264. Court continued to be held in Rockford for three years. After 1853 the courthouse at Rockford was used for the most part as a schoolhouse
In 1890 a branch of Southern Railway from Winston to North Wilkesboro was completed and Rockford took on new life. The need for a railroad maintenance crew and foreman provided employment for some. The Rockford station was one of the busiest on the line, handling passengers, freight, express, mail and telegraph service for Yadkinville, Dobson, and intermediate stores and post offices and the people of the countryside. The growing economy required the establishment of saw mills and expanded the lumber business. The railroad right-of-way and loading yards at Rockford gave evidence of the growth of businesses in the surrounding country. Perhaps nothing received a greater boost or felt the impact of this sudden stimulus more than the Burrus Hotel and livery stable. "Drummers" came from the train to "put up" at the hotel and to engage a vehicle with driver to take them and their huge trunks of samples out through the country to Hamlet and wayside mercantile establishments. Lawyers alighted from and boarded the passenger train as they came and went from court, stopping at the hotel and hiring a horse, buggy and driver to carry them to their destination. Sometimes they found the river so swollen by extended rains or "freshets" that crossing was impossible and a stay of undetermined duration was necessary at the hotel. Mr. Burrus sometimes liked to tell a visitor whose horse was stabled that the horse was resting in the law office of Andrew Jackson, since the new barn was built partially of logs which Mr. Burrus had purchased when the old offices across the street, where Jackson is said to have practiced law, were torn down.
The turn of the century found Rockford doing well economically but the town was no longer listed individually in the population statistics as a city. As the general economy progressed, the railroad became the chief carrier of mail, passengers, freight, and express. Wagons were hauling constantly to and from the local depot, and passengers arrived daily to board the train. Many people were riding into town for their mail or to trade. There were three prosperous general stores, E.S. Reece, J.D. Hamlin and W.P. Dobson and Company. Tobacco was fast becoming the chief money crop, but big corporations were being established and small manufacturers were going out of business. During the tobacco season the depot was often filled to overflowing with hogheads of tobacco being shipped to Winston, and the freight trains ran so far behind schedule that the agent had to remain on duty until far into the night when the east bound freight arrived or an extra was dispatched to relieve the situation. Railroad cars that provided temporary housing for the bridge-force were parked for a month at a time on the side-track and added to the railroad scene and local trade.
Families continued to move to the West by rail, which brought extra business and problems to the railroad agent When one or more wagons drove up with household goods, the agent was said to exclaim, "Where to now, New Castle, Indiany or Marshalltown, Ioway?" The tedious process of determining the tariff for each individual item was not a cherished one, for the tariff was constantly changing.
Bad roads did not deter business. Sheds were erected behind the station for the storage of empty hogsheads and two warehouses stored car loads of fertilizer and other commodities. One could see the long-time mailman from Yadkinville, Nathan Vestal, as he drove up, hitched near a hogshead, and lay corn on it for his horse. Neighborhood chickens would then fly up to share the repast and a war of words and switching would take place until the horse was left in peace to eat. Nathan then took his place in the office behind the pot-bellied coal stove to wait for the train, while local people and passengers congregated in the adjoining waiting rooms or bought tickets through the little window in the wall. The mailman also carried passengers and no trip was greater for any boy or girl who rode with him to visit kin folks.
The river at Rockford does not look so wide today, but to one who forded the river in a buggy or two-horse Nissen wagon, the river crossing was not accomplished by going straight across, for there were too many big rocks and treacherous holes. One followed the ripple which ran in an arc from one side to the other, above which nature had made a good crossing. Below the ripple it was too deep. It was from this that the weekly paper, established in 1892 and presently owned and operated by William E. Rutledge at Yadkinville, got the title, The Yadkin Ripple.
Business had warranted the addition of a second passenger train, a mixed train called the "Shoo-fly." It left North Wilkesboro for Winston early in the morning and returned in the late afternoon, allowing shoppers several hours in the city. This train was often so crowded when it left Winston, that it was impossible to get a seat, and it often ran late.
The flood of 1916 created great excitement and many problems. It was not believed that the river could rise so high. Instead of evacuating the railroad station, the freight and express packages were piled above the level they thought the water might possibly reach, but the water continued to rise. The last to come out was the agent with his pockets and arms full of records. The water rose to a height of nine feet in the office. It was a long time before the station and railway were operating normally, and the sand deposited in the river bottoms created a problem for years.
A better road was finally built through Rockford around 1920. This construction changed the look of things. The rocks over which horses, mules and oxen had, for more than a century, strained and tugged to transport heavy loads, were blasted out and the bed of the road was brought far below the original level. It was several years before the road was hard-surfaced, but it was a great improvement at the time.
After World War I Rockford began to feel the changes that were coming to all the country. Motor vehicles were increasingly taking over transportation and the "good-roads" system was being expanded to accommodate the new method of travel. Though the people sought to get good roads and a river bridge, Rockford was passed by and local travel continued without benefit of either.
Efforts were repeatedly made through the years to get a bridge across the river without success. With motor vehicles fast becoming the common mode of transportation, the ford with roads leading to it on both sides of the river became obsolete and the ferry was the only means of crossing. Frank Bland built a low-water toll bridge of two spans — one connected the Yadkin side with the island and the other connected the island with Surry. Upon its completion, a celebration with picnic lunch was planned for July 4, 1930. The joy was short-lived because soon after the celebration flood waters badly warped the bridge and it required major repairs. The bridge was so badly damaged in the 1940 flood that it was not repaired. After the bridge was destroyed, the ferry was once again put into operation, but in 1944, this too was destroyed by flood waters.
The train doesn't stop in Rockford anymore and it was a sad day for the community when the last passenger train ran through in 1951. It was still furnishing transportation for some who went to Elkin or North Wilkesboro to shop. In 1963 the present, one lane, low water bridge was constructed.
In 1974 the Grant-Burrus Hotel burned while restoration work was in progress. Only a handful of families live in Rockford now and there is a growing interest in retaining what is left of the early and once-bustling, former county seat.
Corbitt, D.L. The Formation of The North Carolina Counties, 1663-1943. Raleigh: Archives and History, second printing, 1969.
Hauck, L.H. The Story of Rockford. Privately printed in manuscript form. Copyright August 31, 1972. Copy in files at Archives and History.
Surry County Records, Surry County Courthouse, Dobson, North Carolina (Subgroups: Deeds, Court Records).
Surry County Records, Division of Archives and History, Raleigh, North Carolina (Subgroups: Deeds, Court Records).
United States Census Office, 1790-1900, Surry County, North Carolina.
† Charles Greer Suttlemyre, Jr., survey specialist, North Carolina Division of Archives and History, Rockford Historic District, Surry County, North Carolina, nomination document, 1976, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.