Wilson County, North Carolina

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Wilson County administrative offices are located at 2201 Miller Road South, Wilson, N.C. 27893; phone: 252-399-2803.

Beginnings [1]

Wilson County lies in the central part of the coastal plain about thirty miles east of Raleigh, the state capital, about fifty miles south of the Virginia border, and about one hundred miles west of the Atlantic. The county includes approximately three hundred and seventy-three square miles and measures about thirty miles from east to west and twenty miles from north to south.

Wilson County's development can be divided into roughly five different periods; the Frontier Period, circa 1740-1787, the Post Revolutionary Period, circa 1787-1840, the Railroad Period, circa 1840-1860, the Civil War/Reconstruction Period, 1860-1875, and the Tobacco Period, circa 1875-1960. Developments in each period reflect broadly trends across the state.

During the Frontier Period (ca. 1740-1787) the county's first white settlers settled in what is now Wilson County. They found the Wilson County area to be a region of piney forests divided by many small streams. The naval stores industry and agricultural pursuits coexisted and the land was gradually cleared and planted as more settlers came to the area. The survey of Wilson County discovered no buildings that can be firmly documented as coming from this period.

During the Post-Revolutionary Period (ca. 1787-1840) the area continued to grow in much the same manner as during the Frontier Period, but the area suffered from a lack of navigable waterways and good roads. Mills were built along the waterways and as settlement increased so did pressures to offer better services to the residents of the area. In the latter part of this period a state wide out-migration drew off many of the area's population and decreased its potential for growth.

During the Railroad Period (ca. 1840-1860) the area's first railroad, the Wilmington and Weldon, brought new prosperity as well as better access to the area, ushering in a time of economic gains for the entire state. Agriculture became more profitable because of the easier access to markets and cheaper freight rates and the economy shifted away from subsistence farming. The town of Wilson was incorporated in 1849 and it became the most important trading center in the county because of its location on the railroad line. Growing prosperity and influence resulted in the formation of Wilson County in 1855 from portions of Edgecombe, Nash, Wayne and Johnston counties. The town of Wilson became the county seat because of its importance as a trading center and its location at the geographic center of the county.

The Civil War/Reconstruction Period (ca. 1860-1875) put a halt to Wilson County's prosperous antebellum economy,and businesses and schools closed while many farmers lost their farms. This was a period of retrenchment and hardship.

The Tobacco Period (ca. 1875-1933) is the most recent period in the history of Wilson County, and in many ways, is the most important. As the market value for cotton and other staple crops declined in the late nineteenth century, the bright leaf (flue-cured) tobacco market grew. Because no battles were fought in the county during the Civil War, commerce made a rapid comeback. The town of Wilson set out to mold itself into a tobacco market, and by 1910 rivaled such markets as Danville, Virginia, and Winston-Salem, N. C. By 1919 Wilson was the world's largest bright leaf tobacco market. The built environment in Wilson County and the state changed rapidly and the prosperity of the county is reflected in the architecture of the period. Lucama, Black Creek, Elm City, Sims, and Stantonsburg reflect the importance of commerce during the period in the rise of brick commercial construction. Frame construction continued to be the preferred method of domestic construction. The period of Tobacco prosperity was halted by the onset of the Depression. By the mid-1930s the farmers of the county were feeling the effect of the times. Farms were repossessed; there was no money for equipment. Rural construction practically ceased and construction in towns also slowed to nearly nothing. Even as the county began to pull out of the Depression the renewed growth of the late 1930s was halted by the onset of World War II which depleted the manpower of the county, slowing the labor-intensive agricultural growth, and bringing a new slump to the economy of the county.

  1. Adapted from: Kate Ohno, consultant to North Carolina Division of Archives and History, Historic Resources of Wilson County North Carolina, nomination document, 1985, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.

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