A History of Shelby, North Carolina


Cleveland County Court House - Shelby, North Carolina

The area that Shelby, North Carolina would later occupy was familiar to the Cherokees and other American Indians of the Southern Appalachian region when the first European explorers arrived in western North Carolina. This occurred in May of1540, when the Spanish expedition of roughly 600 soldiers led by Hernando DeSoto (1500-1542) came up from Florida, where they had arrived from Cuba the previous year, and visited the Cherokee town named Xulla in western North Carolina before crossing the mountains into eastern Tennessee. The Spanish did not stay, but the Cherokees, an Iroquoian-speaking people, would later have to deal with the French, British, and Americans in closer proximity. The presence of the Cherokees proved troublesome to the newly-arrived English colonists, as many Cherokees staged attacks against the English during the French and Indian War, even defeating an invading British Army in 1760 and forcing the surrender of Fort Loudon in eastern Tennessee. The Cherokee presence did not prevent the arrival of European settlers, however.

During the 1750s, European settlers first arrived in the region that would later become Shelby, which was then part of Anson County, North Carolina's westernmost county. Originally settlers from Pennsylvania, of Scots-Irish and German origins, settled the region, making their way south through Virginia and North Carolina along the Great Wagon Road. Virginia natives also followed this route, and intermarriage between the Pennsylvania immigrants and migrating Virginians produced nearly half of the influential families of Shelby - the Blantons, Gardners, Webbs, Roysters, Youngs, Hamricks, Wrays, Suttles, and McBrayers.

The town of Shelby, named for Isaac Shelby, the Revolutionary War hero of the battle of nearby Kings Mountain, was officially incorporated by an Act of the Legislature in 1843 as a circular town extending one-quarter mile in each direction from the public square. Although Shelby's early growth and development can be attributed solely to its designation as county seat, the town grew little during antebellum years. Poor roads, a lack of bridges over major creeks and rivers, and the absence of rail connections hindered the development of trade and industry in Shelby before the American Civil War. Contemporary accounts described Shelby at the time of the Civil War as "just a wide place in the road, mostly woods and all frame buildings," with the exception of the brick court house.

The religious denominations of antebellum Shelby paralleled the predominate religions in the rest of the state. The fact that James Love, an influential landowner who offered 147 acres of land for the county seat, designated lots for the use of the Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Episcopal congregations indicates that there were members of all four denominations in Cleveland County at its formation in 1841. Only the Methodist congregation built its church opposite the public square as Love had intended. The Baptists, who declined an offer of land from the county and, instead, purchased a lot on North Lafayette Street, became the largest and most influential denomination as the nineteenth century progressed.

The Civil War interrupted the life of Shelby and Cleveland County with many of the local men serving in the Confederate forces. Union General George Stoneman's army from Tennessee, a force of 6,000, entered western North Carolina in the spring of 1865, ravaging property, food, and supplies in the Shelby vicinity. Cleveland County resident James Carson Elliott in the "Southern Soldier Boy: A Thousand Shots for the Confederacy," wrote of Stoneman's men "marauding the country in quest of horses and provisions." There was little physical damage, however, to individual residences or town property and the intact town of Shelby escaped the task of physically rebuilding. Shortly after Confederate General Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox, Virginia, in 1865, Federal troops moved into Shelby and occupied the Court House Square, the very visible and central location that had always been at the heart of the town. The Reconstruction period following the war brought tremendous social and political changes in the Shelby community.

Branson's North Carolina Business Directory for 1869 shows that Shelby, in the years immediately following the Civil War, had changed little from the rural county seat economy that it had been throughout the antebellum period. Its major businesses were the types that supported the community's day-to-day life - carpenters, wheelwrights, silversmiths, gunsmiths, blacksmiths, grocers, druggists, butchers, and tailors all operated businesses in Shelby in 1869. Manufacturers were also locally-oriented: flour mills were plentiful and other essential trades for the town included builder Mike Rudisuill's planing mill, a boot and shoemaker, two cabinet makers, a saddler, and a harness maker. Four attorneys practiced law in the court house town; at least six physicians practiced medicine; and one man operated a male academy.

Toward the end of Reconstruction, Shelby began to make industrial progress with the assistance of northern investors and industrialists. In 1872, J. J. Babington of Pittsburg and Massachusetts inventor M. S. Wothington formed the Carolina Sewing Machine Company at the old Shelby Foundry on North Lafayette Street. Most sources agree that the Democratic victory of Zebulon Baird Vance in the Vance-Settle campaign for governor and the recall of Federal troops in 1877, marked the end of political and military Reconstruction in North Carolina (Vance had served previously as governor during the Civil War).

In Shelby, these events were preceded by the introduction of rail service by the Carolina Central Railroad in 1874. In the same year, Shelby's first banking institution, the Cleveland Savings Bank was organized. During the 1880s, Shelby's economy was based on the agricultural production of Cleveland County's farmers whose principal crops were corn, wheat, oats, cotton, potatoes, rye, sorghum cane, tobacco, and vegetables.

Civic pride grew in Shelby, and by 1897 the Masonic lodge, the YMCA, the Knights of Pythias, the Woodmen of the World, and the United Camp of Confederate Veterans were flourishing organizations within Shelby. In 1894, the women of South Washington Street organized a literary club, which held its organizational meeting at the Ryburn residence. This club is believed to be the state's first literary society for women. T. S. Gold's 1905 "Glimpses of Shelby" provides an enlightening view of the town after 1900 as a community "blessed with conservative but thrifty people, happy homes and firesides, and good schools, and churches."

Beginning in the 1880s, Shelby saw the rise of the political movement known as the "Shelby Dynasty" which influenced not only Shelby, but the state of North Carolina and the nation for more than half a century. Within Shelby, the dramatic population increase between 1920 and 1930 caused an unprecedented building boom. Clyde Hoey's Methodist Church built a new church opposite the Court House Square. In 1924, the Masons moved to the impressive and imposing Egyptian Revival lodge building they constructed on South Washington Street. Marion Street expanded west and large lots were divided to accommodate newer homes. Some of the old houses - simple frame structures such as the McFee house where author Thomas Dixon was born - were moved to the rear of their lots and more modern houses built to the front. This practice was especially prevalent on Washington and Marion streets.

Cleveland County became an important cotton producer relatively late, and during the 1920s production of cotton in Cleveland County rose from 8,000 to 80,000 bales a year. Cotton production peaked in 1948 with Cleveland County producing 83,549 bales, making it North Carolina's premier cotton county. By 1947, Shelby had fulfilled the promise of its nineteenth-century label of a thriving town. With the mills paying among the highest wages in the South, Shelby remained a comfortable town with successful shops on its Court House Square and well-maintained homes throughout the town. In the 1950s, droughts, insect infestations, and government acreage controls resulted in the decline of cotton as Cleveland County's primary crop.

By 1975, Cleveland County was producing only 1,934 bales of cotton as compared to the more than 83,000 bales of its peak year of 1948. The decline in cotton was accompanied by a shift away from textile manufacturing in the city as competition from foreign exporters combined with Shelby's inability to compete with larger, more modern mills.

Shelby, today, is still a court house town; its economy is based on diversified industry and cash grain farming as well as on general merchandising. The Court House Square is still tree-lined and continues to dominate the downtown that has been named a "Main Street" by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Shelby stands as a remarkable town for the contributions it made to the literary, industrial and political life of North Carolina and the United States.


Shelby was granted a U.S. Post Office on December 11, 1841, and William B. Morris was the first Postmaster. It has been in continuous operations ever since inception.


© 2007 - J.D. Lewis - PO Box 1188 - Little River, SC 29566 - All Rights Reserved