Union Tavern 1940
(Click on Photograph for Larger Image)
The town of Milton in northeast Caswell County was incorporated in 1796 as a center for warehousing and inspecting tobacco and flour. It was a natural site with a fine location on the Dan River. The property of Asa Thomas was selected and, according to Bartlett Yancey, Jr., by 1810 the young town had two stores, a saddler's shop, a hatter's shop, a tavern, and fifteen-to-twenty houses. Presumably, one or more warehouses also had been constructed. Because the new town was to have been located near the mill owned by Asa Thomas, it naturally was named Milltown or Milton. Caswell County's first newspaper, The Milton Intelligencer was publishing by 1818, and the Union Tavern also opened for business that year. Thomas Day had established his cabinetmaking shop by 1823, and around 1825 a two-story twenty-room hotel was in operation. The small town was alive with commerce, including numerous mills on the Dan River.
Romulus M. Saunders stated the following in a December 20, 1822, letter to Bartlett Yancey, Jr.:At the time Romulus M. Saunders of Milton was a United States Congressman.
I hear from home that things are going on well--the times at Milton pretty brisk--market full of everything. . . .
. . . .
I have prevailed on the Post Master to continue the Stage twice a week from Warrens to Milton. The Southern route he has not yet determined on. Adieu.
In 1820, the famous Milton Female Academy opened its doors to students, soon followed by the Milton Male Academy. The board of trustees of the Milton Female Academy included such Caswell County luminaries as Bartlett Yancey, Jr., Bedford Brown, and Romulus M. Saunders. The school's first superintendent was Reverend Abner W. Clopton, a graduate of the University of North Carolina and a highly respected Baptist minister. It was because of Clopton that John Day, Jr. moved to Milton to continue his religious studies. And, Thomas Day followed his older brother. Thus, had the Milton Female Academy not been established, it is unlikely that Thomas Day would have selected Milton for his cabinetmaking business.
Milton's oldest church, and the one to which Thomas Day and his wife belonged, is the Presbyterian Church of Milton, which dates from around 1826. The Milton Baptist Church followed in 1828. Both churches remain in use today, and both exhibit the artistry of Thomas Day.
In 1824, a new newspaper began publication, The Milton Gazette and Roanoke Advertiser, and it was in this newspaper that Thomas Day and others soon were advertising their goods and services. By the mid-1820s, Milton had cabinet makers, saddlers, coach makers, blacksmiths, doctors, lawyers, dentists, and various retail outlets offering goods from sweets to tin ware. Milton eventually was to be home to an insurance company and two banks. A substantial cotton mill, Milton Mills, was established in the late 1830s that eventually produced both cotton and woolen goods. By 1850, the name apparently was changed to the Milton Cotton Factory, and it surpassed anything comparable in Danville, which eventually would become one of the leading textile centers of the South. However, the Milton Cotton Factory was offered for sale in 1855 and soon burned, not to be rebuilt. The Civil War then changed Milton's destiny.
Milton was the location of numerous tobacco warehouses, and some historians believe it likely that the auction-style of tobacco sales developed either in Milton or neighboring Danville. In addition to tobacco warehouses, Milton also had several large tobacco factories in operation by 1847. Both smoking and plug tobacco were produced.
Here is how Tom Henderson described Milton in Plain Tales from the Country (Book One) (1942) at 11:
Years ago the village of Milton was a place of renown, with a far larger population than she possesses today. There was much wealth and more aristocracy. Fast horses ran on her race-track, down on the bottoms of Dan River, beautiful and well-educated women graced her parlors and private dance-rooms, and dashing, daring young gentlemen drank convivially at her numerous public saloons and played poker for high stakes in the game, in the old hotel which yet stands as a ghost of the glory it once knew, which went on continuously from New Year's Day to Cristmas Eve, and then around the calendar again. Milton had a State bank, a newspaper, three tobacco warehouses, manufacturies of varied sorts, and other enterprises, two drug stores, several tailors and saddlers, antique furniture artisans, including Tom Day, the West Indies Negro, and many finely outfitted general merchandising emporiums. Her fame had gone over the world, even to Jerusalem. People from far and near, including those from the then small village of Danville, Virginia, did their shopping, courting, drinking and gambling in Milton.
However, a number of factors conspired to prevent Milton from becoming the textile giant that Danville became or the tobacco center that evolved in Durham. While Milton did have the Dan River, that waterway did not connect directly to the main sources of raw materials or to the principle markets for Milton's goods. Moreover, it was marginally navigable. An early railroad connection might have changed the course of Milton's commercial history; but the railroad running to Danville and on to Richmond was built north of the Dan River. Nor did Milton have adequate roads connecting with its markets, with the new plank road being built between Yanceyville and Danville, but not to Milton. Add to this mix the devastating impact of the Civil War, and Milton's economic fate was sealed. Even though Milton did finally obtain rail service in 1877, it was too late. Milton would continue to lose business to towns with superior infrastructure, especially railroad connections. And, the reduced tobacco manufacturing that continued in Milton after the Civil War effectively ended when the tobacco trust decided to eliminate competition from smaller producers.
While post-Civil-War Yanceyville probably would have become a ghost town were it not for the business of county government, Milton, in comparison to its boom years, effectively did become a ghost town. According to William S. Powell, who wrote a comprehensive history of Caswell County in 1977, and upon whose work much of this article is based, Milton's population dropped from 1,000 people in 1896 to only 240 in 1974. The business district became almost derelict, to which photographs taken in the 1940s sadly attest. No trains pass through Milton, and abandoned streets have returned to woodland.
However, because Milton developed little after the Civil War, there was no need to demolish older structures to make way for new. The result is what architectural historian Ruth Little-Stokes calls a "museum without walls of nineteenth century architecture in North Carolina." The town is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Milton today is taking advantage of increased heritage tourism. The famous Union Tavern, now a National Historic Landmark, is being restored to reflect how it was when Thomas Day lived and worked there. Other structures are being preserved and restored as businesses return and Milton looks optimistically to the future.
The above sketch is merely an introduction to the history of Milton. We hope to add much more and need your help. If you have stories, photographs, anecdotes, or any other materials relating to Milton that would be suitable for this website, please send them to the CCHA.