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INVENTION of the cotton gin had an almost immediately discernible effect upon the economic life of the South, including Mecklenburg, and, despite the fact that Charlotte, significantly and fortunately, would continue to develop as an industrial center, for the first several decades of the new century cotton would be the unchallenged king.
Charlotte's population in September, 1786, totaled 276, of whom 123 were Negroes. In 1790 the village had grown to 325 and the county's population was recorded at 11,395. Ten years later, as the new century began, the county's total had dropped to 10,439 - but some 4,000 had been taken from Mecklenburg with the forming in 1792 of the new county of Cabarrus. Midway of the century the county's population would have advanced to but 13,914; but once more Mecklenburg had lost by the lopping off of a part of her territory, for some 5,000 had been lost to Union, set up in 1842.
Ten years later the 1860 census showed 17,374. In the century since 1860, Mecklenburg's growth has been more than 1500 per cent. Why the slow development during the first century of the county's history?
Some students of history insist that the expansion of cotton production with the attendant dependence upon unskilled slave labor is largely responsible. The Mecklenburg region lost in this era to the deep South and Southwest many of its best citizens, who left in search of more extensive and productive land on which to raise cotton.
Major John Davidson's twenty-six slaves at Rural Hill in 1790 - to go back to the era just before the invention of the cotton gin - decreased to nineteen by 1800, but ten years later would be thirty, despite the fact that Major Davidson had found them unprofitable for employment in the operations of his iron industry. The increase in the number of slaves evidently reflects his need of added labor to work his expanded cotton acreage. And the Major's two sons, Robin and John, on nearby plantations owned another thirty given them by their father. Later Robin himself would own more than a hundred at Hollywood and be the largest slaveholder in the county.
Major Davidson's extensive plantation, which has been estimated to have embraced up to 20,000 acres, though doubtless not so large as neighboring Alexandriana, was, like many another plantation of that era, a little feudal empire almost self-supporting. All food, with the exception of coffee, sugar, tea, and a few other staples, was produced on the acres spreading out from the mansion. Clothing, too, was made from materials grown at home. Cotton bales were hauled on wagons to Charleston, and some were shipped down the Catawba on flat-bottomed scows to Cheraw. Other Mecklenburg produce was sold as far away as Philadelphia. Major Davidson's operations paralleled those of other large landowners of the county, such as the Polks of Willswood and the Frews of Frew's Folly, two prosperous plantations whose handsome mansion houses are among the county's oldest landmarks. Willswood, on Caswell Road at Providence Road, is one of Charlotte's handsomest homes; Frew's Folly, now known as the Craighead Davidson place, is near Sugaw Creek Presbyterian Church.
But as the decades passed and slavery began to be less profitable, the economic emphasis in Mecklenburg shifted from the production of cotton to its manufacturing. Even in the early days of the resurgence of cotton growing, in fact, Charlotte had been industry-minded. As the new century opened, the village had a flour mill, a blacksmith shop, a saw mill, a gunsmith, several tailors, hatters, weavers, and probably other establishments, in addition to several stores and taverns. An authentic, even though brief, view of one of these taverns, as well as the court house at the square, evidently Mecklenburg's third, is provided by William D. Martin's diary, A Journey from South Carolina to Connecticut in 1809, published (1959) in Charlotte.
"We breakfasted this morning late in Charlotte," Mr. Martin wrote, "the county town of Mecklenburg. The village consists of two streets crossing in a square; in the center of the town stands a tolerably elegant Brick Court House with a cupola. In my host & lady, Mr. and Mrs. Huston, were united the rare qualities of attention, politeness & kindness. As the lady having prepared a genteel breakfast, when she observed us setting out again, with all the hospitality of a friend & kindness of a mother, she presented & insisted on my accepting some biscuit and cheese, which, said she, 'will serve as a repast at Noon.' Such disinterested goodness among strangers raised into action the most lively sensations of gratitude . . ."
One of the principal reasons for the continuation and development of industry in the village of Charlotte was the advantage of location. As the economy of the region advanced, Charlotte's situation in the center of it had much to do with its becoming the economic hub about which industry would turn. And not only manufacturing but distribution would become a more important factor in Charlotte's and Mecklenburg's advancement. Within one century after the establishment of the Republic, cotton manufacturing would be gaining ascendancy and within another several decades the Mecklenburg-Charlotte-Gaston area would be the nation's textile manufacturing center.
The second decade of the nineteenth century was hardly under way when the young Republic again became embroiled in a war with England, and Mecklenburg contributed to the American forces 433 men from its population of about 15,000. And some three decades after the ending of this conflict, during the administration of Mecklenburg's James Knox Polk, a company organized in Charlotte saw lively action in the Mexican War.
But Mecklenburg in the first half of the nineteenth century did not achieve the place in history that the preceding fifty years had earned. And the principal celebrations in that period would commemorate the signing of the May 20, 1775 declaration, as they would likewise in the first half of the twentieth century. Remarkably, at the fiftieth anniversary, according to the account in the weekly Catawba Journal, "a band of Revolutionary veterans, wearing badges with the figures '75 stamped on them," were present, and at the meeting in the Presbyterian church, the orator's "address to the patriotic band whose venerable forms were before him, and whose snowy locks and bended frames formed such a striking contrast to the picture he had sketched of their youthful strength and vigor, was peculiarly appropriate and pathetic, and excited emotions in every breast which may be easily imagined but not described."
In the afternoon "about 4 o'clock p.m., a large number sat down to a dinner prepared by Dr. Henderson in the beautiful grove of the college green," the article continues in the flamboyant style of that day, "and after the cloth was removed, numerous toasts were drunk. The first was to 'the day we celebrate' and the next to 'the patriots who signed the Mecklenburg declaration of independence of May 20, 1775."
At least two of the document's signers were still living; David Reese was in Cabarrus and Major John Davidson, his beloved Violet now dead, had left Rural Hill to live with his youngest daughter, Betsy, the wife of William Lee Davidson, son of the general killed at Cowan's Ford, at their home, Beaver Dam, two miles east of what soon would be Davidson College.
Historian John Brevard Alexander states in his Reminiscences of the Past Sixty Years, published in 1908, that he himself was present as a boy of ten at the celebration in 1844. One had been held, too, in 1835, at which some persons had related recollections of happenings on the day being commemorated. At the 1844 May 20 celebration, says Dr. Alexander, "a table was set, a fine dinner was spread, and enough of room was made for fifty guests. Each plate was five dollars. The object was to raise money to build a monument to the signers of the Declaration of Independence of May 20, 1775. . . . This table was set just inside of Wm. Julius Alexander's yard, where the monument to the signers now stands [on the site of First Union National Bank's building at the southeastern corner of Tryon and Third Streets]. . . . At the head of the table a large armchair was placed, and was occupied by Maj. Tommy Alexander, A Revolutionary soldier, in his 85th year. There were but two more Revolutionary soldiers living at this time in the county, and they were not able to be present."
Dr. Alexander describes in connection with this celebration one of the earliest recorded civic campaigns in Charlotte. At the close of the eloquent address of James W. Osborne, he reports, "the chief marshal, Ephraim Brevard, came forward and called up the descendants of the Davidsons, the Alexanders and the Grahams and Brevards, and whoever else had the blood of heroes in their veins to come forward and cover an XX bill he laid upon the table, and a large number responded. Then he called for those who felt able to give a ten, to which a like number responded. But when he called for those who were not able to give ten dollars to give five, the whole multitude would march up and over his five. This appeared to my youthful mind as a wonderful pile of money."
But though for the first half of the century population growth was slow in Mecklenburg and there were no movements as memorable and significant as those of the preceding decades, the era was in no sense a drab, colorless, and unexciting time. Before the War Between the States would destroy the pattern of life, a calm but pleasant culture existed in Mecklenburg. Dr. Alexander, who did more than any one citizen to record it, saw life full and satisfying. "Fifty years ago," the 74-year-old Dr. Alexander wrote in 1908, "we had a civilization that has never been excelled. It is true that a half century ago the millionaires in America might have been counted on less than the fingers of one hand; now they are estimated at many thousand. But then fifty years ago it was a rarity to see a case of poverty, save from sickness or some misfortune. How is it now? From fifty to one hundred in the county home, and double as many more are fed by the city in the cold months of winter."
It was surely a more unhurried existence Mecklenburgers lived in those days. "Sixty years ago," the good doctor went on to recall, "we had much more time than we have now. Then we loved to visit our friends; stay all day, or longer; it was not called a visit unless you tarried for at least one meal. If it was six or ten miles, you were expected to stay two or three days. If it was only a mile or two, the good wife would go in the morning horseback and the husband would go after dinner and come home together after supper. The good women of that day would always take their sewing or knitting with them. I have seen them knitting on a sock while being driven to Charlotte. As a contrast we now see but little visiting and then they have but time to stay only a few minutes; don't even take off their bonnets."
Of education a century ago in Mecklenburg, Dr. Alexander says: "Fifty years ago there were not a half dozen school houses in Mecklenburg worthy of the name. But little money was appropriated for the benefit of public schools, and none for the building houses. The school house was built near a spring; the house was generally built of small logs, notched close, but one door, and one long window; beneath it augur holes were bored and long pins inserted to hold up one or more planks for a writing table. The rudest kind of seats for pupils to sit on, without backs, so that there would be nothing in the way of the ever present rod. This was regarded as a necessary piece of furniture. It used to be said by the teacher when hunting a school, 'you furnish the boy and the book, and I will furnish the hickory.' The pendulum has now swung to the opposite extreme. Palaces now occupy the place once filled by hovels. The time was when the State gave by the hundred, now gives thousands; the rod is seldom used, and a golden road is now being marked out as the only way to learning. We can hardly keep up with the changes time forces upon us."
And this, also from the doctor: "It is now considered almost as essential to be a good football player as it is to be a good Latin or Greek scholar, or be able to work a problem in Euclid. Fifty years ago if a chap would leave Chapel Hill or Davidson to play a ball game in Columbia, Raleigh or Wilmington, he would have been considered only fit for the mad-house."
But listen to Dr. Alexander in this gem delivered long before television was ever imagined:
"I would call attention to the fact that fifty years ago the modesty of the good people was not shocked by flaunting before their faces the advertisements of certain patent medicines, what they will accomplish; they are too nauseous to talk about. Modesty has not the sway that it formerly wielded, or these advertisements would be ruled out of this civilization."
Times - in Mecklenburg as elsewhere - have changed, and the face of the city and county, but the people have changed little, a study of the forefathers of the present residents will reveal.
But the mode of life in Mecklenburg changed less, perhaps, in the six decades or so preceding the beginning of the War Between the States than in any other period. The change since 1920 has been greater than it was in all the previous century and a half of the county's existence.
It wasn't so long ago, in Mecklenburg County, for instance, that all cooking utensils were primitive and scarce. Pots, ovens, spiders and lids were obtained at the iron furnaces in Lincoln County. Cooking was done on the open hearth. A boiled dinner had to be cooked in a pot hung on a potrack, suspended over the fire. The cook was a master of dexterity. She stood before the big fireplace, "with the coffee pot at one side, the chicken frying in a stew pan, the biscuits in a spider, the sweet potatoes backing in an oven, and a pot hanging over the fire with the universally enjoyed dish of hog-jaw and turnip greens, or that never-to-be forgotten dish of o'possum and sweet potatoes . . ."
And nearly everybody drank hard liquor in early Mecklenburg. Corn whiskey was the standing drink, for both winter and summer. Even the poorest could afford it, at ten cents a quart, or thirty cents a gallon. It was wholesaled for eleven cents a gallon. And it was pure corn, four gallons out of every bushel. But though everyone took their toddy, very few got drunk. Corn whiskey was kept in the homes, and offered on all occasions.
In sports, horse racing and cock fighting were popular. Not infrequently a considerable part of the male population was entertained by bare-knuckled fighters who beat each other into gory pulps in improvised rings; often the bouts would go for dozens of rounds and until one of the maulers yelled "Enough!" Shooting matches, with sections of beef as prizes, were frequently held, with one dollar for four shots being the usual charge.
Amazing, almost unbelievable, to young Mecklenburgers of today, was the slowness of communication in the early years of the nineteenth century. There were few daily newspapers in the nation and the cost of subscribing was high. Dr. Alexander remembered having seen the stage coach passing Sugaw Creek Church with a white flag on the back with the announcement in large lettering: HARRISON ELECTED PRESIDENT. The election had been held six weeks before.
It was in the first third of the nineteenth century that Charlotte, still a village, set aside a large section across Trade Street from the site of old Pat Jack's tavern, which had been burned by the British in 1780, for a church to be used by all denominations that might wish to share it. In 1832 the Presbyterians payed off a debt on the building and acquired possession. In succeeding years the present beautiful Norman-Gothic structure was built and later remodeled and enlarged. Stories were told that during Reconstruction times members of the Ku Klux Klan met in the basement.
Behind the church was laid off Charlotte's first cemetery, in which are buried many persons prominent in the early days, including Thomas Polk and his wife, Susan, Governor Nathaniel Alexander, who had been a surgeon in the Revolutionary army and was Governor from 1805 to 1807, Major George Graham, and others of Mecklenburg fame. In 1833 the Baptists erected a house of worship at College and Third Streets. This church did not thrive, but in 1855 a successor built at Brevard and Seventh Streets established the organized denomination in Charlotte, and in the declining years of the Reconstruction the present First Baptist Church was built. In 1908 it was remodeled to its present Byzantine style; in recent years substantial facilities have been added.
When Charlotte's first church was erected, Mecklenburgers for two generations had been worshipping in churches scattered throughout the section, including notably the seven original Presbyterian churches and the Providence congregation of that denomination, organized about that period.
Fine homes, elegant in structure and appointment, were also being built. Perhaps the finest surviving residence of that day, the Torrances' Cedar Grove in northern Mecklenburg, rivaled the Davidsons' Rural Hill. But there were others in which gracious living would not be interrupted until the ordeal of the War Between the States and the Reconstruction that followed that desperate struggle. "The home of Robert Wilson," for instance, writes Dr. Alexander, who knew it well, "was better known to fashionable people fifty years ago than any other place in Mecklenburg County. The family was educated, refined, wealthy, and their hospitality was held as a princely virtue. Their daughters were fond of music and dancing, inheriting the propensity from both ancestors." Around this old homestead, the historian adds, "clusters so many fond memories of a civilization that has passed, much of it into oblivion, but enough has been recorded in history to preserve the truth that the grand race of men who governed for the first seventy-five years of our political history were, indeed and in truth, leaders of men." The Robert Wilson house was erected about 1819. Long unoccupied, it fell into decay, but the drawing room was removed about a decade ago to a north Mecklenburg home and restored to its original appearance.
This was the period also in which Charlotte's methods of transportation began to show themselves inadequate to the developing community, and during the middle of the century the stage coaches were supplemented by railroads connecting Charlotte with the regions north and south. Banks, too, were beginning; in 1834, a branch of the North Carolina Bank was established. In 1853 the Bank of Charlotte was chartered with a capital stock of $300,000. Soon textile mills began operating and little Charlotte was establishing its economic leadership of a vast region.
Blythe, LeGette and Brockmann, Charles Raven. Hornets' Nest: The Story of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. Charlotte, NC: Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, 1961.