A History of Pittsboro, North Carolina

Chatham County Court House - Pittsboro, North Carolina

The Act establishing Chatham County provided for the courts to be held at the home of Stephen Poe. It also named commissioners to have a court house, prison, and stocks erected. In 1778, a town was established on the land formerly belonging to Ambrose Edwards where the court house was. This town was named Chatham Court House and is mentioned in correspondence from 1776 to 1782. In 1785, a law establishing Pittsborough on Miles Scurlock's land on which the court house already stood was enacted.

In 1787, an act was passed stating that the heirs of Scurlock would not allow a town to be established on their land. Therefore, the trustees of the town were advised to purchase land from William Petty adjoining the Scurlock tract and lay out the town. It was named Pittsborough, in honor of William Pitt, the younger. It continues to be the county seat to this day.

One community member, when asked to describe Pittsboro, responded, "There are roots for people here." Indeed, Pittsboro has a long and rich history, with much to be proud of. It was incorporated in 1787 as the county seat of the recently-formed Chatham County, and was originally named "Pittsborough," after William Pitt the Younger, the Earl of Chatham. Many of the original founding families came from sections of eastern North Carolina in the early nineteenth century and built large homes in town. Although the population of Pittsboro has never been more than five percent of that of the county, it quickly became the business and cultural center, and in 1850, was still the only "important" town in the county. Many of the factories and industries of the largely agricultural county had central offices in Pittsboro. It also housed many churches, which were the center of the social life of the town.

"Pittsborough Academy" was established the same year, 1787, and became one of the leading schools in the state. This was followed by the founding of several smaller, private academies and girls' schools. Much of the education of young people was carried out by churches, including the first school for African Americans, at St. James Episcopal Church.

The American Civil War brought a temporary halt to much of the industry and development of Pittsboro, even though the town itself escaped devastation (the Haw River was flooded and Northern troops could not cross over). Although Chatham County was initially reluctant to leave the Union (voted against it 6:1), it formed its own company which was among the first in the state to enlist; over one-fifth of enlisted men died in the war. Pittsboro residents have a great deal of pride in these men, as evidenced by the large memorial statue of a Confederate soldier in front of the current court house. The unveiling of this statue in 1907 drew the second-largest crowd of people recorded together in the history of Pittsboro.

Pittsboro slowly recovered from the Civil War and became again a center of trading and business in the county. In 1886, the Pittsboro Railroad was completed between Pittsboro and Raleigh, an event which contributed significantly to the development of Pittsboro, and drew the largest crowd ever recorded in Pittsboro's history. Pittsboro's first paved road, to Sanford, was completed in 1925, and in 1927 the Chapel Hill Road was completed, facilitating much faster access to surrounding resources and towns. The Chatham Record, the town's primary newspaper, was founded in 1878 by London, a prominent resident and a Democrat-Conservative, and became a mouthpiece for his strong political views. The newspaper continues to this day.

Older copies of this newspaper reveal some of the tension between white and African American residents of Pittsboro which has existed since its founding. There is hardly an issue of the Chatham Record from the first six months of 1900 that does not contain editorials and other printed rhetoric promoting white supremacy and supporting the July "illiteracy" amendment which would effectively bar most newly-freed African Americans from voting (illiterate White residents would still be allowed to vote if their fathers or grandfathers had been registered). A March 1, 1900 paper calls for white supremacy clubs to be formed in every township and county of North Carolina. One of these clubs was formed in Pittsboro and over 3,000 people from the surrounding area joined it. The "suffrage" amendment limiting African Americans from voting was passed in July in the state of North Carolina to the sound of great rejoicing in the newspaper. An interesting fact not mentioned in the Chatham Record was that Chatham County was one of the few in the state to vote against the amendment. Despite the strong white support, enough African Americans and Quakers rallied around the issue that they formed the voting majority.

This story is only one of many which illustrate the long history of racial inequalities and tensions in Pittsboro, a town in which slavery was a reality from the time of its founding up until the American Civil War, although there were fewer slaves in Chatham than in many other North Carolina counties. While a published history of Chatham County reports that after the Civil War good relationships existed between blacks and whites from a social standpoint, stories such as the one above suggest differently.

Although Pittsboro remains the county seat and houses many of the county's services, it is no longer a center for commerce. Most of the mills have moved out and most of the downtown stores that served residents (general stores, groceries, department stores) have gone out of business and been replaced with antique stores that attract primarily tourists. Although these bring in a lot of revenue for the town, they offer few opportunities for teenagers to either "hang out" or work, and little incentive to stay around in Pittsboro after high school graduation.

Pittsboro's demographics have also changed dramatically in the last few decades. Several respondents remarked that many of those involved in the "hippie" movement of the 1960s chose the Pittsboro area as a place to settle down. A lot of them have taken up organic farming, and also contribute to the many artists present in the area. This group tends to be more politically progressive than many of the longer-term Pittsboro residents. Another big change followed the advent of paved roads to nearby cities such as Chapel Hill and Raleigh, resulting in a multitude of subdivisions for day commuters to the Research Triangle Park; in fact, many of the residents of greater Pittsboro do not work inside Chatham County. This leads to a diffusion of a sense of community; many of the newer residents feel as much a part of Orange, Wake, or Durham Counties as they do Chatham County. It also leads to a considerable amount of tensions between the "older," more-rooted residents and the newer resident-commuters.

In addition, Pittsboro's central square, the area around the court house, is no longer the natural gathering place for the town and county that it used to be. One large reason for that is the way traffic flow was engineered in the twentieth century. Previously, traffic was routed one block north of the square. With the installation of larger roads such as Highways 15-501 and 64, the main traffic flow through town became routed in a circle around the court house. The large volume of noisy vehicles driving straight through the center of town every day limits the utility of the public square as a gathering place and affects the character and function of the community. Many Pittsboro residents predict that this problem will only worsen with the imminent widening of 15-501 and 64 to four-lane roads.

The simple volume of newcomers to Pittsboro in the last ten years has put a tremendous strain on its resources. In 1971, the town proper held 1,447 residents, and only 174 more were added between then and 1990, a 12% increase. However, between 1990 and 1999, the population of the town grew from 1,621 to 2,237, a 38% increase. The town issued a six-month moratorium on growth in March of 1999 because the waste treatment plant was operating at 82% of capacity. Only half a year after this ended, the town hit its cap for residential growth, and another prohibition on development was enacted in May of 2000 in order to take time to better plan for it. Although growth in the town itself may be restricted at the present, the surrounding county remains the 17th fastest growing in the state. The need to both creatively plan for and handle current growth is an issue most Pittsboro residents agree with; however, how best to go about doing that is a subject of much contention, and decisions made will have a significant effect on the adolescents of Pittsboro as well as all other residents.

Despite recent changes and uncertainty over the future, many Pittsboro residents retain a deep sense of pride in the long history and roots of the town. The town has more historic residences and buildings still standing than any town its size in North Carolina. There is an active Chatham County Historical Association, which holds periodic meetings and events for the community, organizes preservation activities, published historical accounts and maintains a small museum in the Pittsboro Court House. In 2000, through the hard work of the Pittsboro Historic District Advisory Committee, Pittsboro gained entry to the National Register of Historic Places. Inclusion in this register is "widely viewed as an opportunity to demonstrate that the town is proud of its history and is interested in preserving that character," remarked the secretary of the Historical Association. There are several annual town traditions which preserve the small-town community atmosphere many residents are proud of. These include the weekly Farmers' Market and annual County Fair, the Street Fair in October, and the Christmas Parade.

Older documents advertising Chatham County and anniversary editions of the Chatham Record emphasize Pittsboro's churches, location (in the very "center" of North Carolina), history, industry (emphasizing the nearby poultry plants), important people who have lived there, tradition of educational excellence, and its charm, friendliness, and hospitality as characteristic features of the town (American Legion Auxiliary, 1945; Retirement with a Purpose; Chatham Record, 1962). More recent documents have emphasized Pittsboro's "underlying hipness" and "Norman Rockwell-type hometown touches," as well as dwelling on its pervasive sense of history and ubiquitous antique shops.

A careful look at Pittsboro's history yields several implications for the present. A sense of community pride in the well-preserved history and roots of Pittsboro is a strength, and means that many in the community have a stake in looking after the town. However, a tension exists between the outlooks of residents dedicated to preserving the historical, small town character of Pittsboro and adolescents who do not see much available for them and are eager to welcome shopping malls, movie theaters, and Wal-Marts to town. It may be difficult to develop recreational facilities acceptable and accessible to adolescents which do not destroy the historical atmosphere so important to others.

In addition, Pittsboro's history evidences an independence and self sufficiency that many residents still possess. Many feel threatened by the rapid growth and development, and perceive the larger Triangle area (Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill, the Research Triangle Park) as encroaching on Chatham and destroying much of what is important to them. This can make it difficult for someone outside of Chatham County who wishes to work with residents towards an issue to develop a relationship of trust.

Finally, there are many divisions inside Pittsboro itself, both rooted in older history and springing from more recent history. These include distinct racial divisions, as evidenced by the mostly all-white or all-African American churches who many say are at the center of community, as well as divisions between the older and the newer residents and the more progressive and more conservative residents. The Chatham County Online Chatlist serves as one forum showcasing the strong and often emotional differences in viewpoints between different residents. These differences are often strongest when issues of growth and development are brought up, and since these issues touch so many others, they form a strong barrier against community collaboration around any one issue.

Authors: Dana Eckroad, Heather McDaniel, Michelle Manning, Molly Pescador, Susanne Schmal 2001, The Chatham Journal [with minor edits]

As Chatham C.H., the town was granted a US Post Office on April 1, 1796, and its first Postmaster was Mr. Mial Scarlock. It has been in continuous operation ever since.

Chatham County Court House - Pittsboro, NC (2016)

The Chatham County Court House was built in 1881 for $10,666 and is a two-story rectangular brick structure in the Late Victorian style. It features a two-story classical portico crowned with a distinctive three-stage cupola. A one-story addition was built in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration (WPA). In 1959, extensive renovations were performed on the building.

A fire on March 24, 2010 did great damage to the building which was in the midst of another renovation. The restored building reopened April 20, 2013 with an exhibit covering Chatham County history on the first floor and a courtroom on the second.

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