Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Gaston County History

Gaston Day is producing a new web site and Martha Jayne Rhyne, Director of Admissions, has asked me to write a brief history of Gaston County so that out-of-town visitors will know more about us. Many of you may not know that my Ph.D is in history, that I was a Queens University of Charlotte College Professor before coming to Gaston Day, and that I am a state and local historian. Here is my first draft for the new web site. Feedback is welcomed.

Scotch-Irish, German and English pioneers settled the area that would become Gaston County in the 1740s, establishing homesteads, claiming old Catawba Indian fields, and clearing new land for farming. Agriculture would remain the primary occupation and source of livelihood until the 20th century.

The American Revolution was particularly brutal and violent in Piedmont North Carolina as neighbors split evenly into patriots and loyalists, with resulting feuding and bloodshed. After the Revolution, settled life resumed. Several important changes occurred around 1800. Farmers began purchasing slaves and producing surplus crops for market. Religious revivals also erupted here and throughout the American South. As a result, Baptists and Methodists grew rapidly and surpassed older Presbyterian and Lutheran churches as the largest denominations.

Gaston County was created in 1846 when its territory was carved out of Lincoln County. Dallas became the first county seat and the center of political life. The original courthouse, the old jail, the Hoffman Hotel (now the Gaston Museum of Art and History), and several other buildings from this era survive in and around the Dallas square today.

Like most of North Carolina, the majority of Gaston County supported the Confederacy during the Civil War. Gaston County soldiers enlisted in large numbers, fought mainly in the Virginia theatre of the war, and sustained high casualties. Union victory brought an end to slavery. Tenant farming and share cropping became new sources of agricultural labor and funding.

The last quarter of the 19th century saw agricultural prosperity return and the textile industry emerge. Powered first by water and then by hydro-electricity, cotton mills would grow throughout the first three-quarters of the 20th century, and Gaston County would become a world center of textile manufacture. Many mill workers migrated from the mountains and Piedmont to work in Gaston County factories. Gastonia replaced Dallas as the new county seat in 1911.

With textile manufacturing as its primary source of wealth, Gaston County became an emblem of New South prosperity before and after World War I. The Great Depression devastated the local economy, which only fully recovered during World War II. While manufacturing boomed in the 1950s, family farms vanished. Few remain today although the Cotton Ginning Days Celebration each October in Dallas recalls our farming heritage.

The 1960s were a time economic expansion and social transformation as desegregation and integration brought full equality to African-Americans. Downtown Gastonia declined and shopping centers and mall proliferated. New residential developments were built farther and farther away from downtown. Gaston Day School was founded in 1967 as a group of local civic leaders founded a non-sectarian, college-preparatory school.

The years since 1990 have been a time of transition for Gaston County as textile manufacturing declined and relocated abroad. Fortunately, Gaston County is connected to and benefits from the Charlotte region’s dynamic economy. Belmont and Mt. Holly on the eastern fringe of Gaston County have become bedroom communities for Charlotte. Gastonia still balances its independent, local identity and growing involvement in the Charlotte metropolis.