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Historical Perspectives of Caswell County


[Presentation by Lib McPherson, President of the Caswell County Historical Association, on July 29, 2005 for the Middlebrook Family Reunion luncheon in the Richmond-Miles reunion, Yanceyville, North Carolina]
Welcome to Caswell County! Locating your family reunion in areas where your ancestors lived and worked is a wonderful idea. It has been a pleasure to be a part of your planning this year and I commend you for your efforts to preserve your heritage. Neal asked me to talk about the early history of Caswell County - that period of time when Middlebrooks were an active part of this community. Your family researchers have focused on the Middlebrooks.

I will focus on the times in which they lived with brief comments to bridge Caswell's Childhood and Adolescence with its present Golden Years status. Much of the information which I will share is from When the Past Refused to Die - a History of Caswell County by William S. Powell. This book is available from the museum gift shop.

I am sure that Tom Magnusun's time with you last night left you with a new appreciation and understanding of the "back county" quality of life in Caswell County in the 17th and 18th centuries. Geography and established Indian trading paths were the backdrop for Caswell as it became the cross roads of history as early settlers traveled to new frontiers in the west from the north, east, and south. Tom's passionate search for evidences of the past continues to reveal new dimensions of our past from that time of "unwritten history."

An act to form Caswell County was ratified on May 9, 1777 by the 1777 General Assembly (the first to convene under the new constitution of 1776) to be laid out effective June 1, 1777. It was named for Richard Caswell, newly designated for a full term as the first governor of the new state. In the coming months the officials and commissions needed for effective government were duly appointed and by September, the county settled down to business. All leaders had taken an oath which left no doubt but that they were thoroughly loyal to the State of North Carolina, and all fondness for George III was gone.

It must not be forgotten that Caswell County was formed during the American Revolution and most events in the county between 1777 and 1783 reflect that. Winning the war was the prime objective and the county was involved in this. Many young men were serving in the militia or the Continental Line; money was scare and goods expensive; necessities were often not available, and the threat of enemy invasion became a reality as the war neared the end. I am sure that Tom Magnusun included the Race to the Dan in his comments. From what I have learned of this event which had a major impact on the outcome of the war, Cornwallis and his troops certainly traveled in the vicinity of Middlebrook lands.

The prosperity of the county is evident in the descriptions of property offered for sale in the Virginia Gazette on August 8, 1777: Thomas Mutter offered to sell a tract of 300 acres, all prime tobacco land "and on which is a good Dwelling-House and other Outhouses." Also on this tract was "a fine Peach Orchard." Other tracts offered in this same issue promise similar quality.

There is no question but that Caswell County has a prosperous past. Rich soil, good climate, and economic and social structure based on slavery produced wealth, which provided fine homes, clothes, jewelry, carriages, academies, and all the marks of a good life. It permitted men - as least some of them - to go to college and to sit in the legislature and in Congress, to serve in the cabinet of the President, and even to represent the United States at the court of Spain. During the latter part of the 18th century and the first half of the 19th century, it was commonly said that nothing significant happened in Raleigh without some involvement from a leader from Caswell County.

For a while, wealth seemed to beget wealth. The solid economic base centered on tobacco begat the creation of many small businesses to meet the needs of the citizens: grist mills, foundries, saw mills, retail stores such as boot and shoe shops, hat makers, silversmiths and furniture makers. Many of those citizens without this wealth, however, departed to search for a better life elsewhere, thereby making it possible for the planters to acquire still more land at low cost. These citizens migrated in many directions and many of them rose to leadership roles in the communities were they settled - and reflect many professions as well as elected offices such as Governor of Mississippi. Our Historical Association has many members from all over the United States. Almost every week we have visitors from somewhere in the US or Canada who are engaged in family history research. I invite each of you to become a member, enjoy our quarterly newsletter, and support the preservation of our heritage.

A period of about twenty-five years, 1840 to 1865, forever marked the county. The county's historic architecture reflects the Boom Era from development of tobacco cultivation in the county following the discovery of the Bright Leaf curing process on Abisha Slade's farm in 1839. Within the boundaries of this county is one of the largest and most distinctive collections of antebellum architecture in North Carolina. This built environment is a product of its climate, its location in the geographic and cultural sub-region known as the "Upland South," and its dominant tobacco economy with its orientation toward markets and mores of Middle Virginia.

As one of the five leading tobacco-producing counties before the Civil War Caswell was one of the wealthiest counties in the state and 52% of the county's 1850 population were slaves with only five counties in the state having a higher slave population on the eve of the war. The proximity of sophisticated Piedmont Virginia architecture to this area's wealthy planter class led to the construction of many substantial, architecturally distinctive farmhouses. Rows of outbuildings - slave cabins, smokehouses, dairies, and kitchens - define the back yards of these homes and preserve the story of farm life. The prolonged economic decline of Caswell following the war prevented the replacement of these houses by more up-to-date designs. This riches to rags story resulted in the preservation of a rich architectural heritage. In the Museum shop you can see Inventory of Caswell County Historical Architecture which is a fascinating record of our architectural history.

The "urban" concentrations of buildings grew up around the three county tobacco markets, Leasburg, Milton, and Yanceyville. James and William Lea, who emigrated from England and established a large farm in this section of the county, settled Leasburg, established as the first county seat when the county was chartered in 1777. "Sweet Leasburg" is known for its village ambience and the beautiful Greek Revival homes, for Greensboro College's beginnings in Leasburg under the leadership of Solomon Lea and, infamously, for native son and Confederate spy Jacob Thompson.

Milton, a quiet village founded in 1796, flourished during the first half of the 1800's when it served as a trade and cultural center in the north-eastern Piedmont, and failed to survive the growing pains of the industrial revolution. The entire town, listed in the National Register of Historic Places, is one of the best-preserved antebellum villages in North Carolina. It has been said, "in Leasburg the traveler senses that he is passing through; in Milton he feels that he has arrived."

Milton is probably best known for its connection to the free black cabinetmaker Thomas Day. Day's brother John began the furniture business around 1820. Thomas Day joined him there in the mid-1820's, and John Day left before 1830 to relocate in the Liberian Liberation movement. John Day is honored in Liberia today as a signer of their Constitution. By 1850 Thomas Day had one of the largest furniture factories in the state. He retailed and wholesaled furniture across the state and also made custom pieces for prominent families including Governor David S. Reid.

Romulus Saunders, first US minister to Spain, lived in a stately home on the south side of Milton. Caleb Hazard Richmond's stately home, Woodside, is remembered for the marriage of Major General Stephen Dodson Ramseur (CSA) to his cousin Ellen Richmond and also for the birth of their only child there in 1864 days before Ramseur was killed in the Battle of Cedar Creek near Winchester, Virginia. Ramseur, who was the youngest West Point graduate Major General in the CSA army, had many relatives in Caswell County including his grandfather, State Senator Stephen Dodson.

Yanceyville is named for Bartlett Yancey, a local attorney, who served in the US House of Representatives and then the NC General Assemble where he became speaker of the NC Senate in 1817. Senator Calvin Graves, another attorney, was President of the NC Senate in the 1840's. He cast the deciding vote for the location of the North Carolina railroad that many expected to be a north-south route crossing Caswell County. Graves voted for the east-west route that has become the Piedmont Crescent of North Carolina, because he believed this was in the best interest for the whole state. He was "sent home" in the next election. Yanceyville was the site of the Kirk-Holden War in the 1880's that led to the only impeachment of a governor of North Carolina and removal from office.

Native son Archibald Debow Murphey (1777-1832), attorney, legislator, and judge planned the most progressive program of education, internal improvements, and social advancement that North Carolina has ever known. He is the Father of NC Public Education.

But the Civil War wiped the slate clean. Slave labor evaporated. Much of the land was worn out. Plank roads rotted, and there were no railroads or highways worth mentioning for getting to market whatever tobacco could still be produced. Business in Danville and Durham flourished at the expense of Milton and Yanceyville and the rest of the County. The meager industry that existed before the war or that was established afterwards soon fell victim to "The Trust," great combinations that controlled business. Tobacco was about all the people in Caswell really understood, and their market was at the mercy of outsiders.

Caswell County people, remembering the glorious days of old, struggled desperately against overwhelming odds. Plantations failed for lack of an adequate and reliable source of labor. Railroad building was tried with only modest success and usually with failure. Local attempts to establish textile, hosiery, or furniture plants were only moderately and temporarily fruitful. Lack of interest, desire, careful planning and hard work were not the reason Caswell County did not flourish. Surrounding counties with high development priorities, greater financial resources, and access to adequate transportation created a playing field on which Caswell County was not able to compete.

When Caswell County and the world returned to a civilian focus after World War II, the need for renewed efforts to overcome the handicap of the past was painfully evident. During the 50's and 60's county leaders, with new perspectives shaped by military service around the world, saw the necessity for more pro-active efforts to assure a good future for its people. They recognized that the county's hope lay in the development of water resources sufficient for industrial expansion, improved roads, the provision of county-wide services of various kinds, the growth of cultural resources, and the operation of local government in a business-like manner.

All gave promise of the return of the days of glory to a region with much to offer. The story of the last half of the 20th century in Caswell County is marked by many achievements in these areas, but pressing needs remain. The rich heritage of the Boom Era of Bright Leaf Tobacco and Greek Revival architecture has become both handicap and hope. As the county has moved into the 21st Century it struggles with a crisis in the tobacco industry and the urgent need for economic development to happen in the context of the Age of Technology and Information and a national trend toward Heritage Tourism as economic development.

Poems found in old county newspapers express the love of the people for its natural beauty and picturesque villages and give a glimpse of the heritage and the opportunities it offers.

Little Village 'Mong the Hills

(v. 5 of an ode to Sweet Leasburg)

I love this village 'mong the hills -

My good fore fathers' home -

And oh, I'm never satisfied,

When far from it I roam.

I yearn so for familiar sights

I can't contented be

Until I get back home again,

These hills once more to see.

W. Lea (c. 1850)

An early 20th century poem sings the praises of the county.

Going Back to Caswell

I'm going back to Caswell
The city's not for me.
I want the red dust in my britches
Like it used to be.

Summer nights, ploughed land,
Moonlight on the scene.
No one but a Caswell man
Can know just what I mean.

The Old Oaken Bucket
Bumping in the well,'
Bringing up a sparklin' drink
To cool the magic spell.

No Chlorene or chemicals.
Just plain ol' County Water
But by Golly it was good
And tasted like it aughta.

I'm going back to Caswell
Where I can sleep at nights.
I'm tired of all the noise
And all the city lights.

Trains coming, whistles blowing
Fire truck on a round.
When I lay down in Caswell
There ain't a single sound.

Here, they got me all steamheated.
Weatherstripped my door.
It's nice but (cough) I keep a cold
I never did before.

When I lived in Caswell
The snow blowed through the sill
But we never got the sniffles
It was healthy in them hills.

'I'm going back to Caswell.
I've been bragging - but you see,
That bunch O' Plain Old Hills
Is Home Sweet Home to me.

A. A. Allison


Much of this material came from the When the Past Refused to Die (A History of Caswell County, North Carolina, 1777-1977) and from An Inventory of Historic Architecture - Caswell County, North Carolina. [Presentation by Lib McPherson, President of the Caswell County Historical Association, on July 29, 2005 for the Middlebrook Family Reunion luncheon in the Richmond-Miles reunion, Yanceyville, North Carolina]

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