Edgecombe County! – The view from 1891

Not long ago, MidLaw called attention to Joyner Library’s Digital Collections at East Carolina University. They collect and publish papers, photographs, maps, and other materials centered on northeastern North Carolina. There’s a trove of Tarboro and Edgecombe County materials there.

Partly in response to MidLaw’s post, a resident of Greensboro and descendant of Edgecombe’s Bridgers and Battle families came forward with a “motherlode” (her word, and she’s right) of documents. They include President Andrew Johnson’s hand-executed presidential pardon of Tarboro’s John L. Bridgers,  who commanded Fort Macon and earlier had commanded the Edgecombe Guards at the Battle of Bethel when Edgecombe’s Henry Wyatt was killed, becoming the first Confederate soldier killed in the Civil War.

Hands down, MidLaw’s favorite document from the motherlode is a 40-page pamphlet published in 1891, entitled Edgecombe County! North Carolina. Her People and Resources. The Foremost Agricultural Section of the State

It’s a unique and vivid picture of Edgecombe County in 1890 – in words and graphic sketches. And it evidences both how Edgecombe understood its past (“Cotton is no longer King!”) and also its robustly optimistic vision for the future (“The county offers every opportunity … and all that is needed is some men among us who have not cotton in their eyes, first, last and all the time.”)

It is spoken in the voice of an unabashed booster, seeking to attract people and investment to the County at the moment when Edgecombe was just beginning a major new emphasis on tobacco.

Tarboro is destined to be a great center for the sale and manufacture of tobacco. … How many of us thought, a little more than a year ago, what an easy mastery the bright leaf would have over King cotton?

At the time the pamphlet was published, the population of the County was 26,179. Only 7,956 of those were white. The pamphlet is breathtakingly racist and incidentally sexist as well:

It is well known that negro labor is unsuited to the cultivation of tobacco. It is a crop for white labor and small farms.

****

What we want is increased white population to cultivate the tobacco crops in Edgecombe. 

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We cannot speak of the society of our section without bringing conspicuously into view our women … . They are the most refined and intelligent, and possess all the attributes of body and mind that are essential for them to adorn the highest society of the land. 

So, if African Americans and women are pushed to the side, then the pamphlet actually speaks for only about 4,000 people (about half the white people) in a county of 26,000.

But the claims it makes for Tarboro and Edgecombe – as an agricultural, manufacturing and railroad center – are exuberant. Local resources are confidently said to be without peer in the State:

  • The hotel accommodations cannot be surpassed in the State. (There is a page-sized sketch of “Hotel Farrar, Tarboro – Cost $40,000.”)
  • Four railroads run to or through the town.
  • The town has just completed the handsomest city hall in the State.
  • Edgecombe doesn’t owe a dollar; has better school-houses than any county in the State; and pays three times more per child for education than is the average for the State.
  • President Battle, of the State University, say[s] that there is a greater number of college-bred farmers in Edgecombe than in any other county in the State.
  • The most striking and notable characteristic of the people of this county is the very high degree of intelligence and culture prevailing among our farmers.
  • There is more culture among her people, as little crime and disorder, and more comforts and refinement in her homes than can be found elsewhere in North Carolina.
  • It is a land lying midway between the bleak North and the hot languid South, where peace and plenty bless all with their smiles.
  • There is no section of the country in which the seasons are more equally distributed than in Edgecombe.
  • Tarboro is as cosmopolitan as any town in the South.
  • Edgecombe’s citizens are the most enlightened, law-abiding, liberty-loving, congenial and courteous.
  • No more cultured, able and impressive ministers are to be found anywhere. Regular church attendance is very large.

Some twenty pages adumbrate Edgecombe’s unique agricultural potential. Beyond cotton, tobacco and peanuts (“no section is superior to this for growing peanuts”), the range of vegetables, fruits, ornamental plants, crops, timber, dairy and livestock that can succeed in the County takes twenty pages and more to describe – from 50-pound watermelons to turnips, rutabagas, asparagus, all fruits, the tea plant of China, trailing arbutus, yellow jasmine, burdock, and the finest thoroughbred horses bred in North Carolina. “You stir the earth, nature does the rest.” Opportunities in manufacturing, transportation, and finance go from here.

Judge H.C. Bourne, who had come to Tarboro from Mississippi found that

The people of Edgecombe are unsurpassed for their energy, pluck and perseverance. They are hospitable and liberal, broad in their views and enterprising – requisites that always command success.

No doubt, salt is needed with this dish. Not a pinch, but a boxful.

Still – despite all the moral and social short-sightedness – and the pall of knowing that a hundred years of Jim Crow lie ahead – Edgecombe County, and all its towns and villages (which are described) are pictured as rising, hopeful and enterprising places. Leading farmers are cited by name.

The hyperbole itself is a gushing resource.

This is a great little artifact: parochial, chauvinist, historical, nostalgic. And it’s hard to resist the conclusion that, with all its (undisclosed) faults, Edgecombe County is a pretty cool place –  where the citizens are uncommonly “intelligent and hospitable”, the “plants please the eye and make glad the heart”, and the people “only die from old age”.

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Comments

  • Jim Winslow  On September 15, 2018 at 7:34 pm

    I have seen trailing arbutus at Medoc Mt. in Halifax County. I’m skeptical that it is to be found in Edgecombe. Must be climate change. I’ll keep my eyes open. Also this reads like the publication which I think is at Joyner now and featuring granddaddy as the center fold. I remember seeing the thing and admiring the pictures taken looking along the streets. Did it have ads? Seems like I read about people who went around and wrote these things for the advertiser revenue. Bah, humbug J

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    • Midlaw  On September 16, 2018 at 2:14 pm

      The one I got from my friend in Greensboro and that you took to Joyner has no centerfolds and it is dated 1891. That would pre-date granddaddy. I didn’t know that there were people who went around writing these. I had been trying to figure out who in Tarboro wrote such a thing. Maybe the guy who wrote it and the guy who drew the pictures (said in the picture from Richmond, I think) were the same guy. Now, I’m going to want to see the one you took to Joyner. You should look at all the plants he claims grow there. I only picked out a few things. There’s so much more.

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    • Midlaw  On September 17, 2018 at 2:20 pm

      This item has no ads and sketches, not photos. Also, at page 15, there is this statement, suggesting that the writer was local: “The fruits do well; pears would pay. The writer has grown fine crops of Bartlett, Seckel, Bell, Lucrative, Hellis, LaConte and other varieties.” I never heard of anybody raising pears for money though.

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  • Nanny Foster  On September 15, 2018 at 9:46 pm

    But for some reason we left! JC Raulston Arboretum is planning a trip to Calvary Episcopal. Alas it is full and I am only on the waiting list. Is it time to pull out my Edgecombe County pedigree?
    Fun piece by the way. Will show to brother Bob.

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  • Midlaw  On September 16, 2018 at 2:29 pm

    There’s a ton to see in the Calvary churchyard. Rev. Cheshire collected plants from all over the world a hundred years ago and planted them there. We used to go over there to pick up the Buckeyes. But, when you can go, don’t fail to read the monuments. See https://wp.me/p2f7xZ-XF Best to Bro. I still have to meet him.

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