Davidson County, North Carolina
         
   

   

Year Established

County Seat

Population (2010)

1822

Lexington

162,878
 

First Settled

First Settled By

Significance of County Name

1740s

Scots-Irish, Germans

William Lee Davidson
 

Other Significant Towns:

Thomasville

Welcome

Churchland

Reeds Cross Roads

Gordontown

Healing Springs

Southmont

Friedberg

Click Here - To see how Davidson County evolved each decade - includes all the known towns and villages.

Click Here - To see the known battles/skirmishes in Davidson County during the US Revolution.

A History of Davidson County

 

Childress Vineyards - Davidson County, North Carolina

For hundreds of years the Trading Path brought Native Americans to this area to hunt, and Europeans soon followed. After stopping first in the northeast, settlers originally from England, Scotland, and Wales migrated south through Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley to North Carolina….and to Davidson County. They were attracted by abundant land, thick forests, many streams, and the mighty Yadkin River, which now forms the county’s western boundary. A large number of Germans also migrated to Davidson County, and many residents today boast German surnames. Among the Germans were Moravians, who had settled in great numbers in the Wachovia settlement of Salem.

Named in honor of Revolutionary War hero Brigadier General (Pro Tempore) William Lee Davidson, the county was thinly-settled when founded in 1822, and was still considered the backcountry of North Carolina. Lexington had been named for the famous battle of the Revolution, and soon became the county seat. Later, when the exact path of the North Carolina Railroad was determined, John W. Thomas, one the railroad’s major promoters, founded his namesake city, Thomasville.

Known for the last century as a center for furniture manufacturing, the roots of fine cabinetry in Davidson County date back many years. Throughout the 1800s, artisans such as John Swisegood, Joseph Conrad, and Henry Heitman created beautiful furniture, often decorating pieces with fine veneers and inlays. Swisegood headed an association of furniture makers near Abbotts Creek during the second quarter of the nineteenth century. Pieces attributed to the Swisegood School are highly regarded by museums and collectors, and also serve as a link between twentieth century furniture manufacturing and the county’s strong German heritage.

Soon the early seeds of factory production were sown in Davidson County. D. S. Westmoreland returned after the Civil War to the town that would later be called ‘Chair City’ and resumed making chairs in his backyard shop. In 1879, he founded Thomasville Chair Factory on Randolph Street, which operated eighteen years until it was destroyed by fire. The next twenty-five years of Davidson County’s manufacturing history mirrored that of many other communities as the industrialization of the South began in earnest. Many of the manufacturers we are familiar with today can trace their lineage back to furniture companies founded during the early 1900s. 


Davidson County was officially established in 1822 from a division with Rowan County. Prior to that, the area was part of Anson County. The county was named for Brigadier General (Pro Tempore) William Lee Davidson, a distinguished Revolutionary War general killed in 1781 at Cowan's Ford in Catawba County. The county was sparsely populated. Probably less than 1500 people lived in the new county at the time it was established. This is actually the second incarnation of Davidson County, which was originally established in what is now central Tennessee in 1783.

Prior to the 1700s, the only Indian tribe of size or significance described in actual occupation of Davidson County was the Sapona Tribe. The main Sapona village and trading fort was thought to be located on the eastern side of the "Great Sapona" River, now known as the Yadkin River. High Rock Lake now covers the village site. The Saponas migrated eastward and then northward in the early 1700s, and for the next several decades, the area was thought to be mainly used as hunting grounds for other nearby tribes of Indians.

White settlers first began to arrive in Davidson County in the 1740s and 1750s. All early settlements built a meetinghouse as soon as possible and the communities grew up around a church. Germans, English, and Scots-Irish who migrated down from Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania via "The Great Wagon Road" to the Yadkin River Valley region first settled the Davidson County area. Even though eastern North Carolina had many established settlements and cities, few eastern North Carolina residents ventured west of the Cape Fear River.

Davidson County was mostly settled by farmers with small- to medium-sized and self-sustaining farms. Few of the farms had slaves - most were too small and typically produced only enough to sustain their own families. Settlers to the Davidson County region were said to be thrifty and hard working.

By 1765, there were six small and thinly settled communities within what is now Davidson County:

Jersey Settlement (along the banks of the Yadkin River in the present Cotton Grove Township) Established by Scots-Irish who immigrated from New Jersey via the Shenandoah Valley region of Virginia. Jersey Baptist Church was established in 1755.

Abbotts Creek (in Northeast Davidson) was settled in the early 1750s and the Baptist church was established in 1753. Early settlers included Germans, English, and Irish who immigrated from Maryland and Pennsylvania.

Leonhardt's (Leonard's) Church, now known as Pilgrim was established in 1753 between Abbotts Creek and Leonard's Creek. This area was settled by German Lutherans and Reformeds from Pennsylvania.

The community of Friedburg in the extreme northwestern corner of the county was settled by German Moravians who migrated from Maryland around 1754. This community was established primarily because of the proximity to the already established Moravian communities of Bethania and Bethabara to the north. The county's first school was established at Friedburg in 1770.

Beck's Church, a few miles south Pilgrim was established by German Lutherans and Reformeds around 1765.

Fredericktown was another German settlement in the northern part of the county established in the 1760s. Fredericktown was later called Possumtown, and now goes by the name of Bethany. The first Bethany church was German Reformed and Lutheran (union church).

Other early churches in Davidson County include: Lick Creek Baptist (1787), Beulah (Sauers) Reformed (1788), St Luke's (Sandy Creek) in Tyro (1790), Pine Woods Friends, now Methodist (1795), Emanuel Lutheran & Reformed (1813), First Presbyterian in Lexington (1827), New Friendship Baptist (1827), Fairgrove Methodist (1828), Liberty Baptist (1828), Greer's Chapel (Old Chapel) Methodist 1828, Canaan Methodist (1831).

Other early communities in Davidson County:

Yadkin College - area settled in 1770 by a Pennsylvania German settler named Frederick Walser. He established a church and a school. In 1852, one of his descendents, Henry Walser, decided that the region needed an institution of higher learning. He donated land, $500, and he himself set to work building a kiln and making bricks. The college was opened in 1856 as Yadkin College, a Methodist institution. This was one of the area's first colleges and was, for years, a primary establishment of higher learning in the area. In the early 1860s, more than three-quarters of the students volunteered for the Confederate Army, so the school closed and was used as a storage house for tobacco. The school reopened in 1867 but had been vandalized during the war years. Leaders restored the school. In 1878, Yadkin College became one of the first co-educational colleges in the South.

In 1881, the college completed an impressive new building, a five-story tower, 92 windows, classrooms, auditorium, and a library. The new building was one of the most outstanding college buildings in the state. Financial burdens began to take a toll on the school, however, and in 1924, Yadkin College closed. Some years thereafter, the county declared the building unsafe, and demolished it.

In 1875, the town of Yadkin College was incorporated with approximately 150 permanent residents. Many fine homes were located in the Yadkin College community. Architectural records show about fifteen large homes built in the 1850s-1870s still standing, with about half in need of restoration. All homes are in private ownership.

Browntown - community in Northeastern Davidson County incorporated in 1843 with a population of about 800, making the community almost as large as Salisbury (population of 1,080) and Charlotte (population of 1,060). Note that at this time, Lexington had a population of somewhere around 300, and Thomasville was not yet incorporated, so Browntown would have been one of the largest settlements in the county, and one of the larger towns in the state in the mid 1800s. Some of the county's earliest and best-known cabinet-makers were from the Browntown community and these cabinet-makers were thought to be responsible for early folk art carvings on gravestones within the county. Browntown was located on an early road between Salisbury and Guilford Courthouse. However, in 1849, the famous plank road was built between Fayetteville and Salem, and it bypassed Browntown to the east. Without direct roads, the town slowly died. Today there is no visible location of the town.

Newsom - located in the southwest corner of the county, this area was first settled in the 1770s by a landowner named Nixon Newsom. The area grew when the Winston-Salem southbound railway came to the area in 1908. By the early 1910s, the town boasted a post office, a railroad (passenger) depot, two general stores, a factory, a lumber mill, and a quarry. The town existed for about fifty more years until the completion of the Tuckertown Dam in 1963 flooded most of the area previously known as Newsom. Few remnants remain - said to be only a few brick footings sometimes visible at the edge of the lake.

Arnold was a crossroad community on the main road between Winston and Lexington. Between 1888 and 1901, the community had a post office, a large general store, and numerous residences. In 1890, a three-story tobacco factory was built in Arnold, competing with the other large tobacco factories in Durham (Duke) and Winston (Reynolds). The business closed in the early 1900s, and Arnold ceased to be a thriving community in about 1915 when the new highway linking Lexington and Winston (US Hwy 52) was built and bypassed the community. Locals generally consider Arnold to now be part of the Welcome community.

Conrad Siding, later known as Jimes, later known as Lake, was located in the area between Lexington and Thomasville. The settlement had a post office established in 1881, a railroad stop, telegraph office, a school, and a general store. The post office closed in 1914 and the community began to lose its nucleus. Today there is a road named "Lake Road" that runs through that general area and named for the former village. There are no visible remnants of the village.

Healing Springs - the earliest post office in southern Davidson County was established in 1834 in Healing Springs. Indians were said to have used the waters from these "healing springs" to cure ailments. Around the time of the revolutionary war, white settlers flocked to the area for the healing waters. The area attracted numerous visitors between the 1840s and the early 1900s. Early visitors tell of a tavern and cabins to serve the needs of visitors to the springs. The only visible remnants of Healing Springs "resort" today are several rock shelters.

Other towns and communities from the past include Teaguetown and Penfield (located in the northeastern portion of the county), and Bain (located in the southwestern portion). There are no visible remnants of these communities today.

Yadkin River Crossings

An 1868 map of Davidson County shows nine ferries or bridges crossing the Yadkin River to the west (not including the railroad bridge). Early crossings (from north to south) included:

Fultons Ferry in Yadkin College
Clicks Crossing - vicinity of the Tyro community
Point Ferry - where the South Yadkin River joins the Yadkin River
Browns Ferry - approximately two miles north of the railroad
Looks Bridge - about one mile north of the railroad
Another ferry less than a half mile south of the railroad bridge (not named on map)
Trading Ford - near where Potts Creek empties into the Yadkin River
Hicks Ferry - just south of where Swearing Creek joined the Yadkin River
Stokes Ferry - right at the Montgomery County line.

Today there are only five access bridges crossing the Yadkin - US Highway 64, US Highway 29, Interstate 85, Bringle Ferry Road, and Highway 49. Perhaps the river used to hold a more dynamic role in day-to-day life in the county than it now does.

Thomasville was founded in 1852 and incorporated in 1857. However, the earliest settlements in this area of Davidson County were a few miles south. John Thomas moved to what is now the Fairgrove area of Davidson County in about 1820 to prospect for gold among the many mines in the area. However, when the railroad was built in the early 1850s, Thomas moved the "town" north, adjacent to the rail line. According to memoirs of Mrs. John Cramer, daughter of John Thomas, the founder of Thomasville … " before the main rail line was built through Thomasville, it was an old camping ground known as the Whitehart Hog Crossing. When the railroad was completed, Thomasville put on her gala attire and prepared a big barbecue to welcome the first passenger train and its operatives coming from the south." Note that even as far back as 150 years ago, barbeque was used as a tourism asset in the county. Other interesting anecdotes note that early passenger rail travel included a meal stop in Thomasville. Passengers would alight at the Thomasville hotel and take their time in eating. When it was time to leave, the conductor would go and hunt for each passenger before leaving for the remainder of the journey. These passengers never imagined a time when public transportation would leave without you if you weren't on hand.

John Thomas was apparently quite influential in getting the main rail line built through Davidson County even though the area was sparsely populated. At that time, there was considerable political pressure to run the main rail line north through the larger and more established community of Salem (now Winston-Salem). However, Thomas persevered, and the rail line proved to be a boon for commerce in the county. Prior to this time, there were already numerous accounts of skilled craftsmen making furniture in this area. Most of the furniture was for family use. However, there are anecdotes of some entrepreneurs carrying chairs on their backs to sell in Bush Hill (now the Archdale area). The railroad began to slowly open up commerce to a much larger market.

Denton was once known as Finch's Hill or Finch's Cross Roads. Finch Hill was the watershed between the Yadkin River and the Uwharrie River. Streams on the west side of Finch's Hill flowed to the Yadkin River and streams on the east side flowed toward the Uwharrie River, eventually emptying into the Pee Dee River. The main road through the area ran east-west and provided no direct link to the communities of Lexington and Thomasville to the north. The southern portions of Davidson County remained rather isolated throughout the nineteenth century. In 1878, two prominent residents of the Finch's Cross Roads petitioned for a post office. The first names submitted were rejected because they were already in use. Denton was submitted, named after the town of Denton in Texas.

Denton, however, is not the oldest community in southern Davidson County. Both Jackson Hill and Healing Springs were established communities with post offices prior to the opening of the post office in Denton. Jackson Hill remained the largest commercial center in the southern part of the county until the early part of the twentieth century. In early 1906, the Thomasville-Denton railroad was completed. The rail line was established primarily to provide an ample supply of lumber from the heavily wooded areas of southern Davidson County to the host of new furniture manufacturing plants that were being established in Thomasville. The rail line proved to be beneficial to both Thomasville and Denton. Prior to the rail line, an estimated sixteen families lived in present-day Denton. By the summer of 1906, a miniature boom had started that included the establishment of several new industries and a bank. The town of Denton was incorporated in 1907.

Early Davidson County residents were skilled craftsmen whose work was primarily confined to practical endeavors. Early folk art survives in the form of hand carved furniture and decorative inlays that can be seen in the chimneys of older homes. However, the most notable craftsmanship can be seen in carvings on gravestones in the area. Of all the immigrants to the Piedmont area of NC, the Germans produced the most visually recognizable decorative art, and their folk art survives in gravestone carvings found at many of the older cemeteries in the county including Pilgrim (1757), Beck's (1787), Beulah (1788), St. Luke's (1788), Bethany (1789), Emanuel, (1813), Abbotts Creek (1755), and Jersey Baptist (1756). These cemeteries have the best representational folk art gravestone carvings in NC. The designs on many of these early gravestones are pierced or cut through the stone. Some of the pierced gravestones remain in good shape despite the fact that they are carved from soapstone, a soft rock containing talc that could be easily carved with a knife. Locally, individually-carved gravestones were common until about 1860 when local stonecutters were virtually put out of business by imported stones brought in by the railroad.

It is believed that the makers of many of these stones were a group of early Davidson County cabinet-makers known as the Swisegood School from the Browntown/Abbotts Creek area of the county. No pierced grave markers are known to exist outside of Davidson County. According to the State Historic Preservation Office, these highly sculptured gravestones carved in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century by descendents of German settlers are not only historically and culturally important in NC, but also represent a nationally significant collection of folk sculpture.

Gold was first discovered in the Piedmont in Cabarrus County in 1799. Soon it was discovered that Davidson County shared in the rich mineral deposits of gold, silver, copper, and lead found among a line of Piedmont counties. The first mining leases in the county were drawn in 1828. The Silver Hill mine, opened in 1840 in central Davidson County, provided the first public employment in Davidson County. News of the gold and silver finds reached England, Wales, and Scotland and a new wave of immigrants began making their way into the county. Although records are spotty, eventually mining would employ a hundred or more workers - this in a county with a total population of less than 2,000 people.

Mines in Davidson County played a pivotal role in the Civil War effort with the production of lead for bullets and ammunition. The Davidson County mine and one other mine located in Virginia supplied all of the lead for the Confederacy. Correspondence written among Southern military leaders documents the importance of the lead mines in the Confederate war effort.

Numerous mining operations continued through the turn of the century but they were eventually abandoned due to competition from mines in the western United States. Today, little more than the underground network of shafts and tunnels survive from the once thriving mining villages that populated central and southern Davidson County. All are in private ownership.

Local historic preservation commissions are among the most effective means for promoting sustained historic preservation initiatives in our towns and counties. In North Carolina, the creation of such commissions is a local option authorized and governed by G.S. 160A-400.1-400.14, which enables local governing boards to establish commissions to study and recommend designation of local historic districts and landmarks. Commissions are appointed by the local governing board and operate in strict adherence to procedures and standards required by the enabling legislation.

Over eighty historic preservation commissions are active across North Carolina. The city of Thomasville established the Thomasville Historic Preservation Commission in 1999. The city of Lexington has established a Historic Properties Study Committee to look into whether Lexington should also establish a local preservation commission. In January of 2004, the study committee did recommend to the Lexington City Council that a Historical Preservation Commission be established. Financing and budget talks are underway and a final decision should be made by July of 2004.

Once a community has a preservation commission, they may then also become a Certified Local Government (CLG) to increase the opportunity for federal and state grant assistance for historic preservation efforts. Grant money is available for architectural surveys, identification of eligible properties, historic rehab, and writing of local ordinances. Because of tight budgets, governmental grant money for historic preservation efforts is realistically only available to CLG's and even then the process is extremely competitive. The NC State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) has approximately $70,000 (total) in grant money available each year.

Given this competitive atmosphere for state and federal historic preservation grant money, it is notable that the city of Thomasville has obtained two state grants since 2002. An updated architectural survey for Thomasville is underway and should be completed by the end of August 2004. In addition, a grant was obtained to write up the nomination for 25 acres/90 properties in the downtown Thomasville area to be studied for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places.

In 1982, the State Historic Preservation Office completed the first-ever architectural survey of Davidson County. This was designed to ascertain buildings and structures within the county of historical and cultural significance. The results of the survey were published in 1987 in a book entitled Building the Backcountry, An Architectural History of Davidson County. Similar surveys were completed in 57 other NC counties until governmental budget cuts in the early 2000s eliminated most of the program funding. The city of Thomasville will soon have a better and more complete architectural survey thanks to work underway now. However, survey information for Lexington, Denton, and all other unincorporated areas of the county is outdated and incomplete. The SHPO estimates that an updated countywide survey would cost between $25,000 and $30,000.

The State Historic Preservation Office shows that Davidson County has received just over $117,000 in historic preservation grant funds since the early '80s - far less than the average of $284,000 per county seen across NC. Most of the grant money went toward the publication of the architectural survey and for restoration work on the old Davidson County Courthouse. Davidson County ranks sixteenth in the state in the number of structures/sites included on the National Register of Historic Places and on sites inventoried by the State Historic Preservation Office. Davidson County ranks sixty-sixth in the amount of state and federal grant money obtained for historic preservation efforts.



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