How Carrboro Got Its Name

The bustling mill town just west of Chapel Hill went through a relative flurry of renaming in the early 20th century. The unincorporated area was known locally as West End, a mundane name reflecting its location relative to Chapel Hill. With the establishment of a textile mill there in 1898, the area began to grow and develop an identity of its own separate from Chapel Hill. It was known briefly (and informally) as Lloydsville, after Thomas Lloyd, original owner of the first mill. In 1911, the town was incorporated under the name of Venable, after Francis P. Venable, President of the University of North Carolina.

Detail of a map showing the town of Venable.  From a 1913 map of North and South Carolina, NCC.
Detail of a map showing the town of Venable. From a 1913 map of North and South Carolina, NCC.
I have not been able to find any record of why the town leaders chose to honor President Venable. Perhaps, while they were setting up a separate community, they wanted to commemorate their close ties to the University. The only railroad stop in the immediate area was the depot near the mill, meaning that every student and faculty member traveling by train would make their way to Venable. All I have been able to track down so far is what Venable himself thought having the neighboring town named after him: he didn’t like it.

Evidence of Venable’s displeasure is in a very interesting letter we just came across in the University Archives. The letter is from Julian S. Carr, prominent alumnus, and the owner, since 1909, of the West End/Venable mill and neighboring buildings. Given his investment in the business community, Carr would have been a much more likely person to honor with the name of the town. Nobody thought so more than Carr himself.

In a letter dated 20 January 1913, Carr wrote to President Venable:

My Dear Dr. Venable:-

Letter from Julian S. Carr to Francis P. Venable, 20 January 1913. University Papers (collection 40005), University Archives, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Letter from Julian S. Carr to Francis P. Venable, 20 January 1913. University Papers (collection 40005), University Archives, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
I recall a conversation I had with you some time ago with reference to the naming of Venable, the factory town West of Chapel Hill. If I remember correctly, you were not especially pleased that the town had been named as a compliment to you. Since then my boys and I have purchased the other Tom Lloyd mill, and we now own about all of Westend, otherwise styled Venable, and I am thinking that if I had your consent, I would have the name changed from Venable to Carrsboro. However, I will take no action in this matter until I hear from you. Of course you understand I want your full consent and assent to this proposition, and I will do nothing without it.

Bespeaking your prompt response, I beg to remain,

Yours very truly,

Julian S. Carr

Venable did not mind at all. The following day, Venable’s secretary sent a response: “Dr. Venable directs me to write to you that he is entirely willing to have the name changed and thinks the name suggested by you an excellent one.”

Local histories usually say that the name was changed to honor Carr after he agreed to pay for electricity for the town. While this is true, the majority of the residents of the town at the time were likely Carr’s employees, so his was not a purely philanthropic gesture. Carr was clearly interested in having his family name memorialized on the North Carolina map. He got his wish. Later in 1913, the town name was formally changed and remains Carrboro today.

2 thoughts on “How Carrboro Got Its Name”

  1. I am new to North Carolina but have roots here in Winston-Salem. I moved here from Norhtern Virginia where many things are renamed because someone with money makes it happen. I read the history of the name and think West End seems appropriate as the new/old name. This is just my opinion but if I googled places to live in North Carolina the name West End would sound far more impressive than Carrboro. It’s unfortunate that we live in a time that image influences decisions. However, it is what it is and to move forward and prosper you have to do what works best.

  2. You might say why change the name of Carrboro now when we have so many pressing issues. According to Wikipedia: “Carr also supported white supremacy and the Ku Klux Klan, spoke favorably of the murder of African Americans that occurred during the Wilmington Massacre of 1898, which he called a “grand and glorious event”, and celebrated lynchings.[1][2][3] In 1923, UNC bestowed an honorary degree upon Julian Carr.[4]”

    I think we should look at the history of Carrboro and find the name of a prominent African-American in its history. In light of what we are seeing now (June 2020), we should rename the town. I know a lot of people might disagree but it is the price we must pay if we are to begin true reparations for the 400 years since slavery began. I live just outside of Carrboro and I am Caucasian.

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