Marion, the County Seat of McDowell County, was planned and built on land selected by the first McDowell County Commissioners, after much bitterness and in-fighting among a number of local citizens. These people wanted the county seat to be built near the Carson House at Buck Creek several miles from its present location. In fact, court was held there for several years, but Sam Carson himself did not want the town there because he thought it would disrupt plantation life. Ultimately, he and his family donated fifty acres for the county seat. Then, thirteen additional acres were bought at $5 per acre. Marion was located at a crossroads in a rather central part of the county. The date was March 14, 1844.
It was not until 1845, however, that the official name Marion was sanctioned as county seat by the state legislature. This was in spite of the fact that Marion had been used unofficially for several years. The name Marion came from Francis Marion, the South Carolina Revolutionary War hero, known as Swamp Fox.
It was in 1843, that a committee consisting of Thomas Baker, Samuel W. Davidson, A. D. Whitesides, David Corpening, and J. J. Erwin was charged with selecting a site for the new town. Benjamin Burgin and David Chandler surveyed the land and laid out the site. George S. Walton, John Dobson, Andrew Hemphill, and Jesse Burgin were on the committee to lay off the town of Marion and to sell lots. The town was divided into 90 lots, which were sold to the highest bidder. The lot on the corner across from the present courthouse brought $601 while the lot diagonally across the street brought $305. The old First National Bank was later located on the more expensive site while the other lot was the site of the Marianna or James Hotel. The first settlers in the town were Alfred M. Finley and Samuel J. Neal.
Thus, the town began and grew following the topography of the land. The widest streets were Main and Court, and Marion stretched from the foot of Mt. Ida north to the end of Main, where it branched out. There were only horses, mules, and wagons to help in building streets around the gently sloping hills at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Much later, when industrial plants came, they changed the real growth of the town.
At the time of its founding, Marion was the end of the line west, and the old stage coach road west wound around from the end of Main Street through and by the pastures of Pleasant Gardens. Then it followed the hills to the wide ford of the Catawba River. Here buggies, horses, wagons, carriages, and stagecoaches could ford the river when the water was not up. The road then made its way to Buck Creek, the Carson House, and on westward.
The Main Street of Marion before 1894, the year of the big fire, which gutted the town, was a collection of mostly wooden huts, houses, and buildings. The old courthouse, located at its present location, was however, of brick construction with two outside stairways meeting each other at the second floor. Construction began in 1843 and court was first held in 1845.
The devastating fire of November 25, 1894 started on Sunday morning in an old building known as the Ark, which was located behind the courthouse. The fire spread to Main Street and roared down the street across the railroad bridge and beyond. Next, it jumped across the street and went back up Main Street to Court Street. The few brick buildings were also gutted, as there was no public water supply. Cinders and burning timbers were blown all the way to Mt. Ida, but some houses miraculously escaped with the help of bucket brigades. Marions citizens took in neighbors and shared what they had until permanent abodes could be established two or three years later.
Actually, the rebuilt houses and businesses were much sturdier and much better built, and a new Marion, like the Phoenix, arose from the ashes. Anyone who has seen a picture of Marion in its ruins can envision the hardships of that time.
Life in Marion in the early part of the twentieth century saw many changes. In those days, no one had to lock a door; children played in the street and walked to school and home for lunch. There were no paved streets. At first, there were no public schools. A Mrs. Guy had a private school at her home on West Court Street, while a Mrs. Ratiffe had another on Madison. Miss Mattie Perry founded and operated Elhanan in 1898. It served as an orphanage and Bible-training institute and was located where the present East Junior High School is located. Elhanan operated until 1927, and the building burned in 1928.
It was in 1903 that a group of local men, interested in education, got together and started the first public school, which was called the Marion Academy. This was located on Academy Street next to the old Presbyterian Church. Miss Maggie Hudgins was employed as the first teacher.
Besides the Presbyterian Church (1847), there were nearby the Baptist Church (1862), the Methodist Church (1908), and the Episcopal Church (1883) was on South Main Street. The African Methodist Episcopal Church was organized in 1867. Every Sunday morning, the church bells would ring, calling the members to worship. Each bell had a unique tone, and one soon learned to identify the right church bell.
The churches played an important role in Marion and the surrounding area. Each had organizations for young people on Sunday evenings. A number of these young people swapped attendance for various reasons that one can imagine. These meeting served a worthwhile purpose, as the leaders tried to instill right and good principles into the towns youth. Later, other churches were started and new denominations came as the town grew.
Two banks stood at the top of the Courthouse Hill and they served the early residents of Marion and McDowell County well and long. These were the First National (established 2-10-1896) and the Merchant and Farmers Banks. Later there was the Marion Industrial Bank.
When one thinks of Main Street and the early stores, one thinks of the McCall Brothers stores, side by side. These sold furniture, dry goods, and almost everything. J. D. Blanton also had two stores, carrying items from hardware to dry goods. Both McCall and Blanton sold coffins, which they kept upstairs. They also had horse-drawn hearses available. When a prominent citizen died, the stores on Main Street closed during the funeral to show respect.
Some other stores were: Gaston-Tate, J. H. L. Millers Mens Clothing, Bob Neals Variety Store, and Mr. Ratcliffs Candy Store. Much later, there was Workmans.
When drugstores, namely Streetmans, Davis, and Tainters opened their soda fountains, these establishments quickly became the hub of activity and the center of entertainment with their five-cent cokes or dopes, ice cream, and sodas.
One should not forget the movies beginning with the silent ones at the Savoy Theater (1912-13) in the first block on South Main Street with someone at the player piano. The Davis Grand Theater opened July 1914 where Jimesons Hardware is now. C. L. Self took the theater over in September 1914 and operated it until 1917. Bride XIII was an exciting serial on Saturdays at the Oasis Theater below Belks on Main Street. It was operated by E. J. House and Dr. Justice. The Marion Amusement-Marion Theater opened in 1929 in the present Belks annex. More sophisticated movies were later shown in the 1950s at the House Theater on Court Street. The first prices were five and ten cents, but later they advanced.
As for sports and athletics, in the 1920s, there were high school basketball, football, baseball, and some tennis. Basketball was just played on outdoor courts behind the Presbyterian Church and upstairs over Rice and White Furniture Store. Later, the court was moved to a vacant part of the Penick Building behind the Railroad Station.
In the early part of the twentieth century, the citizens heard a great deal about the Civil War and the hardships of that era, for a number of veterans were still living. Although Marion was relatively young at the time of the Civil War, it survived and slowly began to grow even before the fire of 94. Farming then was a main source of income besides the business places in town and the professions. On weekends, farmers would drive into town to sell whatever they had and to replenish their needed supplies, but especially to hear the news. One can imagine Main Street filled with horses, buggies, wagons, and people. It was a veritable beehive of activity.
With the establishment of the industrial plants: Marion Manufacturing Company (1909), Clinchfield Mill (1914), and Cross Mill (1916), and the furniture factories coming from neighboring counties, there was bound to be a change. Drexel Furniture was formed in 1903 and the Marion plant came in 1918. These plants had a tremendous influence on the growth of the town and its economy.
It is difficult to visualize red clay, gravel, and macadam roads, but these were the only kinds in the early period of growth, not only in Marion and McDowell County, but also in most areas of the state, except in the largest cities. All streets in Marion were unpaved, but Main was the first to be paved. Gradually, other streets were paved as well.
Industry made it necessary to have electricity, telephones, and running water. There came the old Marion Light and Power Company, started by J. H. Morgan and R. H. Bennett, the Marion Telephone Company, started by Paul Smith with central in an upstairs room on Main Street, and the Marion Water Works.
The first hotels played an important part in the life of Marion. The old Piedmont, later called the Flemming; the Crawford, later to become the McDowell; the Marianna, later becoming the James; and The Eagle (1905) were well-known to travelers in the western North Carolina area, and they served as gathering places for local matters as well. These hotels had excellent dining rooms for their day.
To entice the train travelers long before automobiles, horse-drawn carriages, well marked with the hotels name, were sent to the station on Railroad Street below the bridge whenever a train was due. The old station, now demolished, was quite the center of activity whenever the engines station blow was heard.
Directly across the street from the railroad station was the office of Marion Light and Power Company; while next to it, but a bit further up, was the first Coca Cola Bottling Company. Between the two buildings were several one-story buildings erected later from brick from the original courthouse. These were sold to J. L. Morgan for $100 provided he would tear them down and remove the debris. Other buildings, using the same material were built on Wall Street, now East Henderson.
Farther up Railroad Street near Main Street was the Livery Stable, where a traveler or resident could rent a horse, buggy, or carriage. Later, the first taxi came from this site. Near the old freight station farther west was a Farmers market where one could purchase country ham for twenty-five cents a pound, all sorts of produce, sourwood honey, and jams and jellies.
Most of the furniture factories of that day were located in the western part of town, and residential neighborhoods grew up near them.
Near the station, too, on Henderson Street was the second hospital, established by Dr. Guy Kirby (1917-20) in a large residence made into a treatment center. The first hospital was started on State Street in 1908 by Dr. Gaston Bailey Justice and had operated for one year. Later the first brick hospital was located north of the business area. McPar Hosiery Mill, Etta Paper Box Company, and Laughridge Furniture Store did not exist on Henderson Street then, only residences of solid Marion citizens. However, nearby were A. Blanton Grocery Co., a wholesale establishment that served Western North Carolina for many years and the Penick Building where medicinal plants were stored and later shipped.
As for Morgan Street, it began at the railroad with Payne and Decker Lumber Company and ran along the hill to South Main and Rutherford Road. It was to this site in November 1918 that the homeguard, followed by the Red Cross Ladies, and a throng of Marion citizens marched down and the guardsmen fired their rifles across a cornfield to Mt. Ida. This was to celebrate the end of World War I. There was no anticipation of horrible wars to come.
The coming of the automobile brought many changes in travel, transportation, and farm work. Filling stations were necessary, as well as garages for repair, maintenance, and car supplies. The highway west had been changed to a road by what was later Cross Mill. Then it followed the lay of the land, but it had two deadly horseshoe curves. The train and the car changed a way of life that had been in existence for a long time.
W. W. Neal started Marion Hosiery Mil (1908), on West Court Street. Others followed. Jay Wilkinson, long-time mayor started the Etta Paper Box Factory in 1929.
Mayor Corpening, the father of Max Corpening, was well known in the county as a gentleman farmer. There were a number of large farms, but in very early days probably only three would fall into the category of plantations: Pleasant Gardens, Woodlawn, and the Carson House.
In a recollection of Marion, it is important to recall some early barristers who played strong roles in the courthouse: D. E. Hudgins; William Pless, Sr. and his son, William, Jr.; Wallace Winborne; W. R. Chambers; Robert T. Proctor; and W. T. Morgan. Mr. Tom Morris was long associated with the courthouse. Their legal counsel was sought far and wide, and they served their hometown in many other ways by serving on various local, county, state, and national boards.