By Frankie L. McWhorter
Heritage Tourism Development Officer -Rutherford
Division of Tourism, Film, and Sports Development
North Carolina Department of Commerce
Rutherford County located in the Southern Appalachian foothills at the southeastern corner of Western North Carolina is a county of 61,000 citizens covering 563 square miles, making it the state's third largest county. The diverse landscape ranges in elevations from 806 feet at Caroleen to 3,967 feet at Sugar Loaf Mountain and includes forests and fields, rivers and streams, a moderate thermal belt climate, mountains, resorts, small towns and communities, beautiful trees, rock, vistas and a rich history and heritage. Its neighbors are Burke, McDowell, Polk, Henderson, Buncombe and Cleveland County in North Carolina and Cherokee and Spartanburg County in South Carolina. The County is in close proximity to the metropolitan areas of Asheville, Charlotte, Greenville, Spartanburg and to several major highway corridors.
Human beings have inhabited this landscape for thousands of years and artifacts and mounds are testimony. White and black settlers arrived here in the 1730's through1760's. The area was once the center of Tryon County, which was formed from Mecklenburg County in 1768. Rutherford County and Lincoln County were formed from Tryon in April 1779. Rutherford County is named for Brigadier General Griffith Rutherford of Rowan County, a famous Revolutionary War solider and leader of the Rutherford Trace.
The County's formative years coincide with a drastic decline in the Cherokee and Catawba Indian populations largely attributed to epidemic diseases. The American Revolution began here with a conflict with the Cherokees encouraged by the British government. Some people were massacred and local forts were besieged. Settlers, attacked by both Indian and Tory, built forts as arsenals for protection. These forts included Fort McGaughey, Fort McFadden, Pott's Fort, Hampton's Fort, Munford's Fort and Earle's Fort. In the fall of 1776, in response to the conflict with the Cherokees, General Griffith Rutherford collected some 2,400 militia out of Rutherford and other counties and marched against the Cherokees destroying thirty-six (perhaps more) of their towns. This campaign is named the Rutherford Trace.
Many of the earliest settlers to Western North Carolina were of Scotch-Irish origin who traveled down the Great Wagon Road from Pennsylvania into the Carolina piedmont and then came west to settle the fertile lands of the foothills and mountains. Brittain Presbyterian Church, located in present-day Rutherford County, is documented as the oldest church chartered west of the Catawba River in North Carolina. Its congregation was formed in 1768, and it can be assumed that the community of Westminster that surrounds the church was one of the first permanent settlements in the region.
Gilbert Town was established as the county seat of old Tryon County in 1769 and as such is the oldest documented county seat in all of Western North Carolina. Rutherford County was formed from Tryon County in 1779 and Gilbert Town remained the county seat for Rutherford until 1787 when it was moved to a more suitable geographic location, renamed Rutherford Town (Rutherfordton), and a new courthouse constructed. This fact allows Rutherfordton the distinction of being the home of Western North Carolina's oldest continuing body of government.
When Rutherford County was formed in 1779 it encompassed, not only the land within its current borders, but territories originally belonging to Tryon County that have since become Polk County and parts of McDowell, Henderson, and Cleveland. In addition, when Rutherford County was originally formed, its western boundary extended into present-day Tennessee. It was only after Buncombe County's formation from Rutherford and Burke counties in 1791 that the remaining counties of Western North Carolina were formed. Thus, Rutherford County shares the distinction with Burke County of being the mother of most of the territory of present-day Western North Carolina.
The County's Revolutionary War history continues with the Overmountain Men Victory March. Citizen soldiers assembled starting in Tennessee and adding recruits as they continued across what are now nine western North Carolina counties. They marched through Rutherford County on October 3-5, 1780. On October 7, 1780, these citizen soldiers, including those from Rutherford, met and defeated Major Patrick Ferguson and his Tory troops at the Battle of Kings Mountain. The battle is considered the turning point of Southern Campaign of the Revolutionary War and the March is commemorated in the Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail. Eighteen miles of the historic trail traverse Rutherford County.
Gilbert Town has the distinction of being the only site in this Campaign where both Loyalists and Patriot forces encamped. Major Patrick Ferguson camped there and the British bivouacked there for several weeks. The Overmountain Men camped at Gilbert Town on their way to and from the Battle of Kings Mountain and early in 1781, following their brilliant victory at the Battle of Cowpens, the Patriot troops came to Gilbert Town to tend the wounded and confine their prisoners.
Gilbert Town's role in the history of this Revolutionary War Campaign is distinguished by the exceptionally large number of troops who passed through. It too is made prominent by the notable Revolutionary figures who are documented as being at Gilbert Town. These include John Sevier, Isaac Shelby, Daniel Morgan, William Washington, Francis Marion, Andrew Pickens, Patrick Ferguson, Banastre Tarleton, Griffith Rutherford, Benjamin Cleaveland and Felix Walker.
Following the Revolutionary War, citizens returned to their lands. Travel was difficult and roads were poor but the Broad, Second Broad and Green Rivers were waterways to the markets at Columbia, SC. In 1820, navigation on the Broad River between Twitty's Ford and the South Carolina line was improved with a state appropriation of $5000. The Broad River was navigable and was a major transportation route especially for the farm and home products which were in demand downstream in the Charleston and Columbia, SC markets.
In the 1830's the county prospered. Stagecoach routes carrying both people and the mail made traveling and communication easier. Stagecoach routes included one from Lincolnton through Hollis and to Rutherfordton and then on thorough the Hickory Nut Gorge to Asheville. Another route wound from Spartanburg across Island Ford to Harris, through Rutherfordton, Hickory Nut Gorge, and on to Asheville. Along these routes both post offices and way stations or inns developed. In addition, drovers followed the road from Morganton to Charleston, SC, where they sold or exchanged their surplus livestock for staple goods. Although economic conditions were difficult and the cost of land high, citizens were largely self-sufficient and signs of industrialization in the county began. Records indicate a large quantity of iron was produced at the High Shoals Iron Works near present day Henrietta. In 1829, the General Assembly appropriated $12,000, to complete a road through Hickory Nut Gap to Asheville thus opening the western counties to travelers from the east, piedmont and foothills of North Carolina and to those from low country and mid regions South Carolina as well.
For a few brief years in the 1830's and 1840's, the hill country to the west and north of Rutherfordton led the entire United States in the mining of gold. Although raw gold was abundant, gold coins as a medium of exchange were not. No reliable, reputable, or accurate way to sell gold or to exchange it for good and services and no safe way to have it assayed existed. State and federal currency was scarce. Gold nuggets and gold dust poured from a quill were used to purchase items such as sugar, coffee and whiskey and merchants and miners often kept a set of pocket scales for weighing gold which was commonly used for payment.
Christopher Bechtler, his son Augustus, and a nephew, Christopher, Jr., came to North Carolina in 1830. Experienced German metal workers from the Grand Duchy of Baden, they first came to America in 1829 and settled briefly in Philadelphia. When in 1830 they opened a jewelry store in Rutherfordton they apparently soon realized the need for a reliable means of economic exchange. In 1828, the US Congress had rejected a proposal by Samuel Price Carson to have a branch of the United States Mint established in Rutherfordton. Therefore, the Bechtlers decided to coin gold themselves and began the most important private mints ever operated in this country located approximately three and one-half miles northwest of Rutherfordton. In July 1831, using hand-crafted dies and presses, the Bechtlers began striking coins in at least two denominations - $2.50 and $5.00 pieces - and soon they coined the very first $1.00 gold coins in America. The Bechtlers also manufactured necklaces, earrings, brooches, rings, buttons, cufflinks, watches, and a variety of firearms including several types of pistols sold in their store in Rutherfordton.
The Bechtlers minted $2,241,850.50 in currency and fluxed an additional $1,384.000 in raw gold between 1831 and 1840. They handled more North Carolina gold during the period than the Philadelphia Mint and the Charlotte Branch Mint (founded 1837) combined. The death of Christopher Bechtler, Sr. in 1842 and the decline of the gold industry in North Carolina following the discovery of gold in California in 1848 resulted in the closing of the Bechtler Mint.
Although North Carolina was the last state to join the Confederacy, 1,734 men from Rutherford County fought in the Civil War. In 1865, a campaign known as Stoneman's Raid occurred. Rutherford County's history includes two occurrences relating to this campaign. First a contingent made up largely of Southern recruits known as "home Yankees" led by General Gillem found themselves blocked at Swannanoa Gap near Old Fort. They entered Rutherford County from the Montford's Cove region of present day McDowell County and proceeded to Rutherfordton where they burned buildings and thoroughly trounced citizens. On the following day a group of regular Union troops led by General Palmer came into Rutherford from Mecklenburg following the Lincolnton stagecoach line. They apologized to the people of Rutherfordton for the actions of Gillem's troops. Palmer then proceeded to the Green River, reportedly stopping at the Green River Plantation, before continuing from present day Polk County on to Asheville.
With the end of the War came the building of railroads and the ability for people, produce and products to more easily be shipped to markets. At one time, five railroads operated in the County. During the post-war years, agriculture remained the principal industry. There were no banks and the railroads and public roads were in need or repair. However, by 1873, a system of post offices and mail -routes were re-established and schools were operating in various communities.
Rutherford County's economy began an upswing with the beginnings of the textile industry. In 1874, the first textile plant located in an old wheat mill on the Second Broad River near present day Henrietta opened. It manufactured cotton yarn and employed fifty persons but operated only a few months before being destroyed by fire. In 1885, 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 a mill village with homes for the workers, a school, and a company store. They even helped build churches. Other textile mills and villages began operations in Avondale, Forest City, Cliffside, Spindale, Rutherfordton and Ruth. Into the 21st century, textiles remained an important economic force in the county. The legacy of this industry, its people, products, and traditions remain an important part of the county's history and heritage. As a by-product of the textile industrialization, hospital insurance in the textile mills was "born" in Rutherford County.
In the early 1900's, the county experienced improvements in the area of education, roads and railroads. Rutherford Hospital opened in October 1906. Chimney Rock Park was conceived in 1922 by Dr. Lucis B. Morse with the idea of building a summer resort. The Lake Lure Dam covering 750 acres of land with waters from the Rocky Broad River, Pool Creek, Wolf Creek and Buffalo Creek was built in 1926. And while the Great Depression resulted in the hardship of no work and no markets for the goods produced, the citizens of Rutherford relied on their resiliency and tradition of self-sufficiently. Despite the hardships, four of Rutherford County's banks did not close during this time.
In the 1930's, traditional music with banjo, mandolin and fiddle was a popular form of entertainment. Snuffy Jenkins was born in Harris and his and other Rutherford County musicians are known for the three-finger picking style, locally known as the Broad River style. Jenkins and other musicians participated in the Hollis Fiddler's Convention that was held for more than fifty years. The Ellenboro Fiddler's Convention is now held annually on the Saturday before Thanksgiving and traditional music and gospel are performed and taught in a number of venues throughout the county.
Well into the 20th century, agriculture and textiles drove the county's economy. During the 1940's, nearly 6,000 men and women from the county served in World War II. Residents produced "war crops" and plants manufactured war goods. The U.S. Government leased the Lake Lure Inn and surrounding buildings to house a "rest and recuperation" center for returning air corpsmen and about 5,000 men stayed in the Inn, the Highway Patrol R&R Center now known as the Lodge on Lake Lure and the roadhouse behind the present location of Larkin's on the Lake during this period.
Rutherford County's growth and prosperity has continued with the development of Isothermal Community College and the construction of new public schools including Rutherford-Spindale Central High with a performing arts facility. The Foundation, a performing arts center located on the Isothermal Community College Campus, opened in the 1990's and Rutherford Hospital has continued to enhance both the medical staff and services to the citizens of the area. The County has completed renovation of its court house, constructed a modern Senior Center, and been designated an e-community. A Business and Technology Center is slated to open in the near future.
Agriculture and tourism remain vital to the economic well being of the county. In addition, the County experienced diversification in its industry to include plastics, bearings and others. With the shift offshore of the textile, sewing operations and furniture industries, Rutherford County is in the process of redefining itself for the 21st Century. Citizens for whom arts and crafts and farming were an avocation are now relying on these previously avocations as their means of livelihood. The County is experiencing tremendous growth in the numbers of persons retiring to the area, purchasing second homes or locating primary residencies given the natural beauty, plentiful land, and convenient location.
(Compiled from Sources: Notes collected from community meetings and comments from meeting participants; "A History of Rutherford County by County Historian Nancy E. Ferguson, 1990;" Rutherford County: An Overview: The Formative Years" by Bill Byers; "Home of the Nation's First Gold Dollar by Robin Lattimore; Heritage Book of Rutherford County, Editor William Bynum; other collected information.)