Rich History, Bright Future
Tryon County was formed from Mecklenburg County in 1768. Old Tryon County was divided into Lincoln and Rutherford Counties in April 1779. Rutherford County was named for Brigadier General Griffith Rutherford of Rowan County, North Carolina; Brigadier General Rutherford was a famous Revolutionary War soldier.
The early settlers of Rutherford County were of Scots-Irish origin. They had traveled down the Great Wagon Road from Pennsylvania. It is assumed that the community of Westminster was the first area of the county settled. This assumption is based on the Brittain Presbyterian Church being formed in 1768.
The area was rich: fertile land, plenty of virgin forest pine, plenty of hardwood, and plenty of wild game for food.
Gilbert Town, served as the first county seat from 1779 to 1787. It was named for William Gilbert. The people complained about the muddy condition around the courthouse and Gilbert Town. This mud made it difficult for them to reach the courthouse. Although the courthouse was at Gilbert Town, the first county court session to be held in Rutherford County was in the home of Colonel John Walker on Cain Creek. At this session of the County Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions, the following appointments were made: Felix Walker, clerk of county court; Richard Singleton, sheriff; Benjamin Hardin, public register; David Miller, entry taker; Jonathan Gullick, county surveyor; Davis Whiteside and William Gilbert, Representative of the House of Commons; and William Porter, Senator.
During the Revolutionary War the citizens of Rutherford County, were troubled by both Indian and Tory attacks. The Tories under Major Patrick Ferguson camped at Gilbertown and scouted the area for food and supplies. To escape Ferguson the people took refuge in the following forts: McGaughy; McFadden; Potts; Hampton; Mumfords; and Earle.
The Overmountain soldiers marched through Rutherford County on October 3-5, 1780 on their way to meet Major Ferguson at the Battle of Kings Mountain. This battle took place October 7, 1780, and was the turning point of the war. The trail of march has since become known as the “Overmountain Victory Trail.” It became the second national historical trail in America when then President Jimmy Carter signed into law on October 7, 1980. This is a national historical honor for Rutherford County, as part of the trail passes through the county.
Life, following the Revolutionary War, in Rutherford County was not in the best of conditions. Life offered little. Most activity took place on the farm: planting of grain, raising cattle and sheep, and growing food for the table. The loom furnished clothes for the family. Skins from animals were tanned; furs from wild animals were secured to provide additional clothing. The pioneer homes were built from the surrounding forest. Furniture and furnishings for the home were also made from the woods of the forest. The plantations and farms were small. Land could be bought for a nominal fee paid to the state for a grant. Each land owner tilled his soil, sometimes assisted by a slave or two. The farmer drove cattle and took surplus agricultural products over the best road leading from Morganton to Charleston, South Carolina. At Charleston at the market they could then buy staple products to take back home. Schooling was received in the home. The Bible was sometimes the only textbook available.
The General Assembly appointed a commission of five men: Thomas Rowland, William Nevill, Felix Walker, James Miller, and James Whiteside to select a new site for the county seat. In September 1787, the above-named commission purchased fifty (50) acres of land from James Adair for the new county seat. It was located on a hill with a good water supply. Ezekiel Enloe surveyed and platted the land. The new town was given the name of Rutherford Town. Later the “w” was dropped from the spelling and today is spelled “Rutherfordton.” This is the oldest county seat in western North Carolina. Rutherford County is the parent county of the sixteen western counties in North Carolina. Buncombe County was the first county to be formed from it in 1792.
The first census of the county in 1790 listed 1,136 heads of household. In 1800 the census showed Rutherford County had a 2,945 gain in population.
Transportation by First Broad, Second Broad and Green Rivers accounted for a better way of travel than by bad roads, the court records show that men, who lived along these streams, were required to see that they were kept open for the passage of small boats. These streams were used until the 1840s as a mode of transportation for the taking of farm products to market at Columbia, South Carolina, for sell or exchange.
Conditions in Rutherford County following the War of 1812 were far from inspiring. Land values in western North Carolina were higher than any part of the state at this time. The financial conditions at this time were not satisfactory. Prices of products bought from abroad were high due to the poor transportation.
At this time each home had its own loom, spinning flax and cotton into cloth for clothes and linens. Each community had its own potters, shoemakers, carpenters, etc. Some signs of industrial growth began to arise in Rutherford County. This is supported by the county clerk of court making the following entry on the county docket. It shows a large quantity of iron having been made at the High Shoals Iron Works near Henrietta. The General Assembly of 1820 appropriated $5,000 for improving navigation of the Broad River from the South Carolina line to Twitty’s Ford. This money was to be spent under the direction of the Board of Internal Improvements.
Rutherford County prospered in the 1830s due to a great demand for farm and home products by the Charleston and Columbia, South Carolina, markets. Taxes were high.
The stagecoach line began carrying people and mail. This created a need to keep the roads in repair. The men who lived along the roads were thusly required to keep the roads in good condition. In 1829, the General Assembly appropriated $12,000, through the Board of Internal Improvements, to complete a road through Hickory Nut Gap to Asheville.
At one time Rutherford County and Rutherfordton were the center of the gold production within the United States. To Rutherfordton belongs the distinction of operating the only private gold mint ever operated in the southeastern United States. This distinction existed from the 1790s to the 1840s. Again to Rutherfordton belongs the distinction of being the first mint in the nation to coin a gold dollar. This mint was operated by two skilled German metallurgists, Christopher Bechtler, Sr. and his son, Augustus Bechtler. The county has in its possession today a few of the coins minted by the Bechtlers. It also has a gold-plated pistol made by the Bechtlers. Gold mining in the county led to an increase in population.
During this time period Rutherford County was regarded as the strongest Whig county politically.
The Civil War followed. With it came a period of the building of railroads through the county. This improved the transportation for the county. This led to a better way to ship products to far markets.
The freeing of the slaves had a great effect on the larger farmers in the county. They now had no one to do their tasks on the farms.
One thousand seven hundred and thirty four men from Rutherford County served during the Civil War.
Reconstruction, following the Civil War, had both bad and good effects on the county and the state. The General Assembly changed the way the counties were governed. In the past the counties had been governed by the court and justices of the peace. What is called by some, “The Greatest Awakening in North Carolina,” took place. The counties were now to be governed by a commission, called the Board of County Commissioners. These commissioners were elected by the people. This now gave a voice to the people in their county government. The first meeting of the Rutherford County Board of Commissioners was held August 3, 1868 with the following men serving: B. W. Andrews, chairman; J. M. Allen; Calvin J. Sparks; H. H. Hopper; and Jonathan Hampton. The county has five commissioner’s district with fourteen townships.
Agriculture remained the principal industry of the county. There were no banks or railroads and public roads were in worse conditions than before the Civil War. By 1873, the federal government had succeeded in reopening for the county a fair system of post offices and mail routes to other points. Schools of the different communities reopened.
Also in 1873, Elisha Baxter, a native of Rutherford, was elected governor of Arkansas. In 1874, Rutherford County’s first textile plant opened. This plant was established in an old wheat mill on the Second Broad River near the present town of Caroleen. Bought by a Mr. Homesley, this mill manufactured cotton yarn. It also employed fifty people. Unfortunately it ran for only a few months, January to November 1874, when it was burned down.
The year 1885 saw a large economic improvement in Rutherford County when R. R. Haynes and S. B. Tanner began their textile industry in the county with the building of a cotton mill near Henrietta. Along with the mill they built homes for the mill workers. They also built a school and company store and helped in the building of churches.
This textile plant was also noted for the birth of hospital insurance to protect its workers. Hospital insurance in textiles plants was born in the industry in Rutherford County. Rutherford Hospital was opened for use in October 1906. Other improvements in Rutherford County during this period were the nucleus of the present school system and completion of the railroads and. better roads.
The aftermath of World War I brought a change in social customs and business life. With young men drafted into military service, many vacancies were left in industrial and farming communities which had to be filled; this lead to higher wages and salaries which raised the standard of living for many people. New highways and automobiles knitted the communities closer together. With women permitted to vote in the election of November 1921, the number of voters were doubled in the county. Miss Una Edwards, a member of the Board of Education, was the first woman to hold a public office in the county.
In 1922, Dr. Lucis B. Morse conceived the idea of building a summer resort at Chimney Rock. This is one of the major attractions in western North Carolina. In 1926, the Lake Lure dam was built, covering one thousand-five-hundred acres of land. Also in 1922, Rutherford Hospital was given a gift of nine hundred milligrams of radium, valued at $100,000, by J. C. Plonk of Hickory, as a memorial to his wife. Rutherford Hospital was deeded to Rutherford County in August 1926.
During the Great Depression four of Rutherford County’s banks did not close. People were without work since there were no markets for the goods they produced. With the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt as president of the United States, the County Board of Commissioners requested from the federal government’s Public Works Administration $160,000 for the building and remodeling of eleven school buildings. A group of citizens protested, whereupon the county did not receive the funds. Through the trying time of the Depression the farmers within the county at least had food to put on their tables. With the textile workers it was a different situation. In September 1933, President Roosevelt passed through Rutherford County with thousands of people lining the sides of roads.
The first newspaper, published in Rutherford County, was on January 19, 1830. This paper was called “The North Carolina Spectator and Western Advertiser.”
A well-known fact is that Rutherford County was named for Griffith Rutherford. Many Rutherford Countians have had counties named for them. For example, Bedford County, Tennessee, was named for the Bedford family of Rutherford. The Bedfords had settled here early. Baxter County, Arkansas was named for Elisha Baxter of Rutherford. Whiteside County, Illinois, was named for the Whiteside family who were early settlers here. Hardin County, Tennessee was named for Benjamin Hardin of Rutherford County. In both states of Oklahoma and Arkansas are numerous towns named for former Rutherford Countians.
During the 1940s Rutherford County centered most of its attention on World War II. Farmers and industries produced needed items to their capacity. Yet, when the war ended, Rutherford Countians had to readjust their lives, for they could now buy items they could not buy before. Industry became slower. Prior in 1938, a new horizon opened for hundred of citizens in the formation of the Rutherford County Library. Through the library’s bookmobile, families living in the remotest sections of the county could borrow books for reading. On September 14, 1947, Radio Station WBBO aired as the first station in the county.
In 1950, Rutherford County began a year of growth, prosperity, and hope. This flame has continued to burn until today. We are the greatest county in North Carolina, with its citizens being its most natural resource. On April 14, 1979 Rutherford County celebrated its two hundredth anniversary.
Written by Nancy Ellen Ferguson,
Rutherford County Historian, February 1990
The Cherry Bounce Trail
The Bostic Lincoln Center
Genealogical Society of Old Tryon
Rutherford County History
First Private Mint in the US