Authors at Home

Writers of the American South

The recent book Writers of the American South: Their Literary Landscapes (Rizzoli, 2005) features the homes of North Carolina authors Thomas Wolfe and Allan Gurganus. Wolfe’s Old Kentucky Home (now a state historic site) will be familiar to readers of Look Homeward, Angel as “Dixieland.” Gurganus’s elaborately restored historic Hillsborough house is featured on the cover of the book and in a nice fold-out section in this lavishly illustrated volume.

Happy Birthday, MJ!

North Carolina Miscellany would like to wish Michael Jordan a happy forty-third birthday. It’s been a quarter of a century now since he arrived at the University of North Carolina. We took a look at the Daily Tar Heel basketball preview (in the December 3, 1981 paper) for the 1981-1982 season to see what people had to say then about the freshman from Wilmington. Coach Dean Smith’s appraisal of young “Mike” Jordan was short and to the point:

“He’s got a lot to learn, but he can be an outstanding player.”

William Gaston, the Original Hoya

In doing research for February’s This Month in North Carolina History feature on “The Old North State,” the North Carolina state song, we came across an interesting bit of trivia. It turns out that William Gaston, who wrote the lyrics for the song, and who was one of the most prominent lay Catholics in early nineteenth-century America, was the first student to enroll at Georgetown College. He entered the recently-founded school on the Potamac River in 1791, but left before graduating, finishing his education at Princeton and then returning to North Carolina where he spent the rest of his life active in state and national politics.

February 1927: “The Old North State”

This Month in North Carolina History

Title page of "The Old North State"
On February 18, 1927, “The Old North State” was officially adopted as the state song of North Carolina.

The lyrics to “The Old North State” were composed by Judge William Gaston in Raleigh in 1835. Judge Gaston had left his plantation in Craven County and was staying with a local family while the state Supreme Court was in session. After couple of the women in the household had attended a concert of bell-ringers visiting from Switzerland, they sang and played on the piano one of the tunes they had heard. Taken with the music, Gaston wrote out several verses of the now well-known song.

Though the words to “The Old North State” are appropriately patriotic, one line often stands out to people hearing or reading it for the first time: “Tho’ the scorner may sneer at, and witling defame her, Yet our hearts swell with gladness, Whenever we name her.” Who were these scorners and witlings? Gaston was writing at a time when North Carolina was one of the poorest states in the nation. The state was rapidly losing population as people emigrated, often to newly opened western territories, in search of more promising opportunities for themselves and their families. It was not unlikely then for local elites who were determined to stay in the state, such as Gaston, to feel a little bit defensive.

“The Old North State” received statewide attention during the 1840 Presidential campaign. At a Whig rally in Raleigh, supporters of William H. Harrison gathered from around the state for a day of speeches and entertainment, which included a choir of fifty young women singing Gaston’s song.

“The Old North State” has been published on many occasions, and while the words have remained true to Gaston’s original poem, the music has evolved over the years and probably little resembles the original air upon which it was based. The current version of the song, with which North Carolinians today are familiar, is from an arrangement prepared by Mrs. E. E. Randolph in Raleigh in 1926.

William Gaston (1778-1844) was a native of New Bern, N.C. He was educated at Georgetown (where he was the first student to enroll) and Princeton. He worked briefly as a lawyer, but was quickly swept up into state politics. Gaston served in both houses of the state legislature, and in the U.S. House of Representatives. From 1833 until his death, he sat on the North Carolina Supreme Court.

Charles H. Bowman, Jr. “Gaston, Willliam Joseph.” In Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, vol. 2., ed. William S. Powell. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986.

“Our State Song: Carolina.” Undated and unsigned newspaper article in the North Carolina Subject Clipping File through 1975, North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Image Source:
“The Old North State: A Patriotic Song. Written by the late Wm. Gaston of North Carolina and by him adapted to a German melody and arranged for the piano forte by R. Culver.” Philadelphia: George Willig, 1844. North Carolina Collection.

Going Up?

The other day, while doing a little light reading in the North Carolina Department of Labor Report from July 1, 1938 to June 30, 1940, we came across a list of all the counties in North Carolina that had elevator inspections from that time period. Can you guess which county had the most elevators? Which counties weren’t even represented? The total number was a whopping 864 for the state, the most being in Buncombe County, which had 133 inspections. Mecklenburg, which is the home of many of North Carolina’s skyscrapers today, had only 48 inspections. We hope they’re checked a little more often than that these days. Here are the counties and their numbers:

Alamance-8, Buncombe-133, Burke-11, Cabarrus-3, Caldwell-13, Catawba-17, Cleveland-29, Craven-11, Cumberland-13, Davidson-32, Duplin-1, Durham-26, Edgecombe-3, Forsyth-106, Gaston-14, Guilford-126, Halifax-20, Henderson-5, Iredell-5, Johnston-1, Lenoir-26, Mecklenburg-48, Montgomery-2, McDowell-4, Nash-15, New Hanover-49, Orange-2, Pasquotank-6, Person-5, Pitt-7, Richmond-1, Robeson-4, Rockingham-1, Rowan-21, Rutherford-5, Stanly-1, Surry-10, Union-1, Wake-36, Wayne-28, Wilson-15.