May 1906: Stuart Cramer and Air Conditioning

This Month in North Carolina History

cramer_auto_regThe small hand of the clock pointed to 10 as Stuart Cramer stood before the 600 or so people assembled for the American Cotton Manufacturers Association’s annual conference in Asheville’s Kenilworth Inn on May 17, 1906. It was the second-day of the association’s 10th annual meeting and Cramer, already established as a leading designer of cotton mills in the South, was on the agenda as the day’s first speaker. He was scheduled to discuss the Automatic Regulator, one of his most recent inventions and a device designed to allow for automatic control of humidity and temperature within cotton mills.

“At first sight,” Cramer began, “the title chosen for this paper seems to be rather comprehensive when it is considered that I intend to limit my remarks largely to the description and application of my new Automatic Regulator.” The five words he chose for the title of his talk were unremarkable by themselves. But two of them in combination would brand one of the biggest technological innovations of the 20th century–an advance that would allow factories and office buildings to keep their windows closed year-round and would contribute to the decline of front porch life in the South. Cramer spoke for thirty minutes on “Recent Development in Air Conditioning.”

Cramer could not lay claim to being the first to develop methods for simultaneously cooling, dehumidifying, circulating and cleansing the air. Credit for that development is generally given to Willis Haviland Carrier, a Cornell-trained engineer. The system he installed at a Brooklyn, N.Y., printing company in 1902 controlled humidity and temperature by pumping air at a regulated speed over coils refrigerated at a set temperature.

Carrier’s invention would find a receptive audience in the South, where cotton mill owners struggled to control the temperature and humidity in their factories. And it was those issues that Cramer sought to address during his speech to those assembled at the Asheville meeting.

“In building and equipping of mills, you are accustomed to consider heating and humidifying separately, without regard to that interdependence which is so strikingly brought to notice upon even the crudest effort at hand regulation,” he said. “And the moment you attempt the refinement of automatic regulation, you are confronted with another problem, and that is ventilation. Parenthetically, I would also mention air cleansing, which, however, is a problem largely solved by an efficient humidifying system. And so, I have used the term ‘Air Conditioning’ to include humidifying and air cleansing, and heating and ventilation.’ ”

cramer_portrait_croppedCramer was 38-years-old when he delivered those lines. He was born in Thomasville and educated at the U.S. Naval Academy, where he studied naval engineering. Upon graduation in 1888, he resigned his commission and headed to New York City, where he spent a post-graduate year studying at Columbia University’s School of Mines. Cramer returned to North Carolina in 1889 to assume the position of chief assayer at a United States Assay office in Charlotte, more commonly known as the Charlotte Mint. Four years later, in 1893, Cramer left the Assay office to become chief engineer for D.A. Tompkins Company, a Charlotte textile equipment manufacturer.

Cramer was quick to see opportunity in textile manufacturing, which experienced rapid growth in the Carolina piedmont between 1880 and 1915. In 1895 he left D.A. Tompkins and set out on his own, opening a Charlotte office that specialized in the design and construction of mills. Cramer also served as the local agent for several manufacturers of textile mill equipment. He is credited with planning or equipping nearly one-third of all cotton mills in the South between 1895 and 1915.

Among Cramer’s notable designs is the Highland Park Number 3 mill in north Charlotte, which opened in 1903. The facility was a full-service spinning and weaving mill and considered state-of-the art. It served as a prototype for textile mill design and construction throughout the South. And, at 250,000 square feet, the mill was also the largest in Mecklenburg County.

In addition to designing and building mills, Cramer also developed techniques to increase mill efficiency. He is credited with 60 patents, many of which were for devices to achieve such a goal. Cramer pushed for mill owners to abandon the use of a central power plant, which powered all machinery through a maze of connected belts and shafts. Instead, he suggested, each machine should include its own motor and operate as an independent electric device. His push for the use of electric power and reliance on a network of power grids made him a natural ally with industrialist James B. Duke. Consequently when Duke Power Company was formed, Cramer became a director.

Cramer’s 1906 speech to the American Cotton Manufacturers Association was a much-abbreviated discussion of the topics he addressed in the fourth volume of his Useful Information for Cotton Manufacturers. The multi-volume handbook was first published in 1904 as an advertising vehicle for Cramer’s mill design firm. But, chocked with information about mill equipment, mill design, power generation and, of course, air conditioning, Cramer’s work quickly became a general reference source for textile industrialists. It was republished several times between 1904 and 1909.

cramer_a_c_adCramer did not limit himself to merely offering advice on mill design and operations. Over time he moved into mill ownership. He was an active investor in textile ventures and sometimes accepted shares in mills as partial payment for his design work and equipment. In 1910 he became president of one of the company’s in which he had invested, Mays Mills in Gaston County. Five years later, in 1915, he acquired controlling interest in May Mills. About the same time, Cramer renamed the mill town from Mayville to Cramerton, and in 1922 he changed the company’s name to Cramerton Mills. Cramer would remain involved with the company until his death in 1940. During that time Cramerton Mills underwent rapid and continuous growth, increasing its output more than tenfold.

Air conditioning would not experience such a rapid growth. Many Southern mill owners did not install air-conditioning systems until the 1930s or 1940s. And, of those that did, most only partially air conditioned their mills. Air conditioning was more quickly adopted by Southern movie theaters, which, prior to installing the new technology, were forced to close during the summer. As for cooling Southern homes, air conditioning was not commonly found in houses until the 1950s or 1960s.

Despite his coinage of a new term, Cramer’s 1906 speech drew few headlines. Instead, reporters writing about the conference focused their coverage on textile manufacturers’ agreement to not poach workers from each other and on a speech by a vice president of Southern Power, the pre-cursor to Duke Power, who spoke on “The Power Behind the South.” Indeed, it would take electricity—and plenty of it—to power the Southern mills, including their air conditioning systems.

Arsenault, Raymond. “The End of the Long Hot Summer: The Air Conditioner and Southern Culture.” The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 50, No. 4 (Nov., 1984): 597-628.

Cramer, Stuart W. “Recent Development in Air Conditioning,” in Proceedings of the Tenth Annual Convention of the American Cotton Manufacturers Association, Held at Asheville, N.C. May 16-17, 1906. (Charlotte, N.C.: 1906): 182-211. Available at

Cramer, Stuart. Useful Information for Cotton Manufacturers. (Charlotte, N.C.: Queen City Print and Paper Co., 1909).

McGrath, Mark. “Stuart W. Cramer,” in The North Carolina Century : Tar Heels Who Made a Difference, 1900-2000, eds. Howard E. Covington, Jr. and Marion A. Ellis (Charlotte, N.C.: Levine Museum of the New South, 2002): 39-42.

McNeill, John Charles.”Stuart Warren Cramer,” in Biographical History of North Carolina from Colonial Times to the Present, eds. Samuel A. Ashe and Stephen B. Weeks (Greensboro: Charles L. Van Noppen, 1908):81-87.

Image Source:
Air Regulator in Cramer, Stuart. Useful Information for Cotton Manufacturers. (Charlotte, N.C.: Queen City Print and Paper Co., 1909).

Portrait of Stuart Cramer in Ashe, Samuel A. and Stephen B. Weeks, eds. Biographical History of North Carolina from Colonial Times to the Present. (Greensboro: Charles L. Van Noppen, 1908):81-87.

Cramer System of Air Conditioning advertisement in Cramer, Stuart. Useful Information for Cotton Manufacturers. (Charlotte, N.C.: Queen City Print and Paper Co., 1909).

May 1888: William Henry Belk Opens First Store in Monroe, N.C.

This Month in North Carolina History

Postcard of Main Street, Monroe, NC, includes Belk store in foreground

In the late 19th century, many of the large retailers we know today were establishing their first stores and offering new goods and services to middle class consumers. Macy’s doors opened in New York City in 1858; Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia opened in 1861; and Sears and Roebuck founded their business in Chicago in 1886.

After the end of the Civil War, country and general stores became popular in the South, and in 1874, William Henry Belk began working in a dry goods store in Monroe, NC. Henry Belk, as he was called, was only twelve years old when he started. He worked as a store clerk for more than a decade, and the skills he learned and the money he saved allowed him to open his own store.

During the Post-Reconstruction period, the Southern farm economy was in shambles–especially the credit system— because farmers received such low prices for their crops. Belk saw an opportunity to create a new type of store that was not based on the credit model of the Southern general store. On May 28, 1888, he opened the New York Racket on the corner of Main and Morgan in Monroe’s business district. The Racket’s business model was cash only, accept no credit, offer low prices, and provide excellent customer service. Belk was able to keep prices low because the store was not carrying the weight of the customer’s credit. As a result, he could afford to pay producers in full, which in turn lowered his cost. At the end of his first year of business, Belk’s Monroe store had turned a profit of $3,000. As the store became busier and more successful, Belk began looking for a partner and found a likely candidate in his brother, John, who left his medical practice in 1891 to join Henry in running the Monroe store. They changed the name of the store from New York Racket to W.H. Belk and Bro. They advertised aggressively in newspapers, heralding their low prices and scheduling sales when they knew they could draw a large crowd, for instance, during town parades and large celebrations.

The Belk brothers enjoyed success in their retail ventures and continued to make decisions that encouraged growth. For example, they would invest in textile mills in order to sell the cloth in their stores for less than what competitors were charging. However, in 1894, economic setbacks for the Belks became the subject of town gossip in Monroe. Henry was so insulted that he considered moving his business to Texas, but his mother convinced him to stay in North Carolina. Charlotte seemed to be the best option to open a new store–at the time, Charlotte was North Carolina’s second largest city, a commercial center for textile production in the state, and just a short train ride from Monroe. Belk opened his Charlotte store on East Trade Street in September of 1895. His brother John remained in close touch as the manager of the Monroe store.

Postcard of East Trade Street, Charlotte, NC with Belk store in center of image

The Belk stores quickly expanded throughout the southeastern United States, and often formed strong partnerships with store managers, many of whom worked their way up from being clerks. This process resulted in the opening of Belk stores with names like Belk-Park, Belk-Hudson, and Belk-Leggett. The Belk leadership was flexible and innovative in that bulk purchasing was organized through the Belk headquarters so as to afford lower prices, but indvidual stores maintained independence to mangage their store’s promotions and services. By the mid-twentieth century, Belk stores had become a fixture of the downtown landscape in towns all over North Carolina and the Southeast.

Bridget Madden
May 2010

Henderson, Belk. Early Belk Partners: Ordinary People Who Did the Extraordinary. Cramerton, NC: The Belk Press, 1994.

Blythe, LeGette. William Henry Belk: Merchant of the South. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1958.

Covington, Howard E., Jr. The Company and the Family That Built It. Belk, Inc., Charlotte, NC: 2002.

Image Sources
“Main Street, looking North, Monroe, N.C.” Durwood Barbour Collection of North Carolina Postcards (P077), North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, Wilson Library, UNC-Chapel Hill.

“East Trade Street, Charlotte, N.C.” in Durwood Barbour Collection of North Carolina Postcards (P077), North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, Wilson Library, UNC-Chapel Hill.

May 1898: The Death of Ensign Worth Bagley

This Month in North Carolina History

Bagley-1The sinking of the USS Maine in Havana, Cuba, on the night of February 15, 1898, accelerated the deterioration of relations between Spain and the United States which had resulted from Spain’s attempt to crush a long-simmering rebellion on the island. On the 19th of April, well in advance of the declaration of war on the 25th, the United States Navy began a blockade of Cuba. U. S. warships patrolled the approaches to every significant Cuban port and began probing coastal defenses.

On the afternoon of May 11, three American ships, the gunboat Wilmington, the torpedo boat Winslow, and the converted revenue cutter Hudson entered Cardenas Bay, about seventy miles west of Havana to confirm the presence of Spanish gunboats in the bay and the creation of new Spanish artillery batteries. Spotting a gunboat tied to a dock in the city of Cardenas, the Winslow moved closer to investigate and suddenly found itself the target of a barrage of shells, fired from the gunboat and hidden artillery on shore. In short order the Winslow‘s steering was shot away and its engines damaged. Attempting to limp away from the Spanish guns, the Winslow signaled for a tow. With shells falling all around them, the Hudson managed to get a tow line to the stricken torpedo boat. As the Winslow was pulled out of range, a final shell exploded on its deck killing three men instantly and mortally wounding two others. One of the men killed, Ensign Worth Bagley of Raleigh, North Carolina, is thought to be the first American naval officer to die in the Spanish-American War.

Bagley entered the U. S. Naval Academy at the age of fifteen in 1889 where he made a name for himself as a football player. Following graduation and a series of typical junior officer assignments, Bagley became secretary to the captain of the Maine, which post he left in November 1897 to become executive officer of the Winslow. The navy hoped for great things from its torpedo boats and service on one was a good choice for a young officer who wanted to distinguish himself.

Bagley’s death was widely reported and caused a sensation in North Carolina. He was buried in Raleigh with the military honors due a brigadier general, and in 1907 a monument was erected to him on Capitol Square. In part this attention stems from Bagley’s family connection. As grandson of a governor and brother-in-law of a powerful newspaper editor and Democratic Party leader, Worth Bagley was clearly part of North Carolina’s political elite, but the reaction to his death also points to the symbolic importance of the Spanish American War. North Carolina had resisted the clamor for war with Spain until after the destruction of the Maine. In the war itself, however, many North Carolinians and other southerners saw a reuniting of the country after the Civil War. Former Confederates volunteered to serve under the American flag—although Joseph Wheeler, once general in the Confederate Army and commander of American cavalry in Cuba, kept referring to the Spanish as Yankees. Worth Bagley, and other young southerners gave their lives in what many saw as a renewal of national allegiance.

Daniels, Josephus. The First Fallen Hero: A Biographical Sketch of Worth Bagley, Ensign, U. S. N. Norfolk, VA: Sam W. Bowman, Publisher: 1898.

Feuer, A. B. The Spanish-American War at Sea: Naval Action in the Atlantic. Westport, CN: Praeger, c. 1995.

Gibson, George H. “Attitudes in North Carolina Regarding the Independence of Cuba, 1868-1898.” North Carolina Historical Review, 43:1 (January 1966), pages 43-65.

Image Source:
[Front cover of] Daniels, Josephus. The First Fallen Hero: A Biographical Sketch of Worth Bagley, Ensign, U. S. N. Norfolk, VA: Sam W. Bowman, Publisher: 1898.

May 1868: The Death of Tom Dooley

This Month in North Carolina History

On the first of May, 1868, Thomas C. Dula met his death by hanging in Statesville, North Carolina, convicted of the murder of Laura Foster in the community of Elkville in Wilkes County on May 25, 1866. Dula’s execution ended a prolonged legal battle that included two trials and two appeals to the state supreme court and began the building of a legend in which fact and fiction mixed to create a story of love, jealously, betrayal, and murder. In the 1950s the Ballad of Tom Dooley, a musical version of the legend, was a hit song for the Kingston Trio.(Dooley was thought to be the local pronunciation of the name Dula.)

Listen to a 1920s version of the ballad by Grayson and Whittier.

dula_newspaperStripped of the melodrama which came to surround them, the more or less agreed upon facts of the case are that on the 25th of May, 1866, twenty two year old Laura Foster left her father’s house on horseback, telling a friend whom she saw on the road that she was riding to meet Tom Dula who was going to marry her. Tom was seen by several people later that day going in the direction Laura had traveled. A day later Laura’s horse returned without her, and she was never seen alive again. Several unsuccessful searches were made for Laura during the summer. Tom was suspected of being involved in her disappearance, and some time late in June he fled the county, eventually going to work on the farm of James W. M. Grayson near Trade, Tennessee. Although no body had been found, a warrant was issued for Tom Dula’s arrest. He was captured in Tennessee by deputy sheriffs from Wilkes County with the aid of James Grayson and was jailed at Wilkesboro on July 11.

Early in August 1866, Ann Melton, a married woman of the Elkville community, told Pauline Foster (no relation to Laura) that she knew the location of Laura Foster’s grave. Under suspicion herself of complicity in Laura’s disappearance, Pauline passed this story on to the authorities, who located the shallow grave containing Laura’s corpse early in September. Tom Dula and Ann Melton were indicted for the murder of Laura Foster on October 1, 1866.

The subsequent trial revealed a web of sexual relationships and violence that both disgusted and fascinated observers at the time. Tom Dula was known as a womanizer, having formed a sexual liaison with Ann Melton—perhaps with her husband’s knowledge—in about his fifteenth year, which lasted until he enlisted in the 42nd North Carolina Regiment of infantry in 1862. Tom returned from the war in June 1865 and took up again with Ann, while at the same time beginning sexual affairs with Pauline Foster, who worked for the Meltons, Laura Foster, and at least one other woman. Some time in March, 1866, Tom became aware that he had a venereal disease, probably syphilis, which had also infected Ann Melton, her husband, and Pauline Foster. Although Pauline seems to have been the source of the infection, Tom believed he had caught it from Laura Foster and threatened her publicly.

Tom Dula was represented at his trial by Zebulon Baird Vance, former governor of North Carolina and future United States senator, one of the best lawyers in the state. Vance obtained a change of venue for the trial to Statesville in Iredell County and got Tom’s trial separated from Ann Melton’s. The state called several witnesses, but relied primarily on circumstantial evidence linking Tom to the vicinity of Laura’s grave and the testimony of Pauline Foster. The jury brought in a guilty verdict on October 21, 1866, but Vance appealed to the Supreme Court of North Carolina, which ordered a new trial. After some delay, the second trial began on January 20, 1868, and once again Tom was convicted. This time the North Carolina Supreme Court upheld the conviction, and Tom Dula was hanged. Just before his death Tom wrote a short note saying that Ann Melton had had no part in Laura Foster’s death. Primarily on the strength of this note, Ann was acquitted.

Over the years story tellers and writers transformed the murder into a tragic love triangle about an innocent young girl, Laura Foster; a wicked, jealous woman, Ann Melton; and caught between them, Tom Dula, a victim of circumstances. Some characters in these stories are changed beyond recognition. James W. M. Grayson, on whose farm Tom worked after he fled Wilkes County, and who aided in his arrest, becomes Tom’s nemesis. In some accounts he is the vengeful sheriff of Wilkes, chasing Tom into Tennessee. In some, he is Tom’s rival for the affection of Laura Foster, bitter with jealousy. The story was also remembered in song, according to legend first sung by Dula himself. Folklorist Frank Warner heard Frank Proffitt of Watauga County, North Carolina, sing a version of the Ballad of Tom Dooley which came ultimately from his grandmother, who knew both Tom Dula and Laura Foster. It was this version that the Kingston Trio recorded in 1958.

John Foster West. The Ballad of Tom Dula: The Documented Story Behind the Murder of Laura Foster and the Trials and Execution of Tom Dula. Boone, NC: Parkway Publishers, Inc., 2002.

Rufus L. Gardner. Tom Dooley: The Eternal Triangle. Mount Airy, NC: The Author, c1960.

Image Source:
Wilmington Journal, May 8, 1868. North Carolina Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Audio Source:
“Tom Dooley.” Going Down Lee Highway: 1927-1929 recordings. Davis Unlimited Records, 1977. Southern Folklife Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

May 1972: First Presidential Primary

This Month in North Carolina History

North Carolina held its first presidential primary election on May 6, 1972. Prior to 1972, delegates were chosen to represent the state at the national party nominating conventions, but the candidates were not subject to a popular vote in North Carolina until the general election. North Carolina’s primary came toward the end of the 1972 election cycle, but was still ahead of a few large states including California and New Jersey. By early May the Republican nomination was wrapped up, with the great majority of voters continuing to support incumbent Richard Nixon, but the Democratic race was a different story.

Sanford for President 1972 campaign brochureWhen the 1972 Democratic Presidential campaign began, there were no clear leaders. U.S. Senators Edmund Muskie, Hubert Humphrey, and George McGovern were viewed as the establishment candidates, with McGovern eventually winning the nomination. In the South, however, two alternative candidates resonated with many voters. George Wallace, the Governor of Alabama was running for the second time and was a popular anti-establishment choice throughout the South, as well as in a few midwestern states. Shirley Chisolm, U.S. Representative from New York, was also running and, while not garnering enough votes to put her among the leaders, her candidacy appealed to many women and African Americans.

In early March, 1972, former North Carolina Governor Terry Sanford entered the race. Although the earliest primaries had already passed, there was no clear leader and Sanford saw the North Carolina primary as an opportunity to boost his candidacy. Eight years after leaving the Governor’s mansion, Terry Sanford remained a contentious figure in North Carolina. During his four years in office in the early 1960s he fought to expand and improve education in the state for all students, including African Americans, most of whom remained in poorly-funded segregated schools, and led an ambitious anti-poverty campaign. Sanford’s liberal agenda stood out when compared to other Southern governors, including George Wallace, who were elected on strict segregationist platforms.

The Sanford campaign organized quickly, opening a headquarters in Washington and beginning a nationwide campaign. Campaign literature portrayed Sanford as an outspoken progressive leader in the conservative South. His work for expanded Civil Rights and educational opportunities was highlighted, as was his position that the United States should not stay in Vietnam. However, he did show signs of trying to appeal to Southern voters, such as his proposition to limit the growth of the federal government and return more control to the states, and his contention that the South was growing too quickly and needed to “avoid the mistakes the North has made in industrialization.” While these policies, especially combined with the effective campaigning style of the charismatic Sanford, were effective in North Carolina in 1960, the response was very different in 1972.

After the votes were counted on May 6, George Wallace was the clear winner, beating Sanford by more than 100,000 votes. Shirley Chisolm picked up over 60,000 votes, suggesting that African American voters had also turned away from Sanford. This was a crushing defeat for Sanford. Not only did it effectively end his presidential hopes, but it was especially painful that so many people would vote for a protest candidate who had no real hopes of winning the candidacy over a once-popular governor. Sanford returned to his position as President of Duke University, but was eventually elected to national office in 1986, serving in the U.S. Senate until 1993.

Sanford’s defeat in 1972 marked a turning point in North Carolina politics. In the general elections that year, North Carolinians elected conservative television commentator Jesse Helms to the U.S. Senate and James Holshouser to the Governor’s office, the first Republican to serve in the state house since the “fusion” period of the late nineteenth century.


Howard E. Covington Jr. and Marion A. Ellis, Terry Sanford: Politics, Progress, and Outrageous Ambitions. Durham: Duke University Press, 1999.

North Carolina Clipping File through 1975: Biographical Clippings. North Carolina Collection, CRBo N87.

“Sanford in ’72: Why not?” Campaign literature from North Carolina Elections, North Carolina Collection, VC329 C186.

May 1908: Statewide Prohibition

This Month in North Carolina History

"The Sun Will Rise Tomorrow on a State Redeemed from the Whiskey Evil--Saloons and Dispensaries will be Hunting for a City of Refuge," from the News and Observer, May 26, 1908.
“The Sun Will Rise Tomorrow on a State Redeemed from the Whiskey Evil–Saloons and Dispensaries will be Hunting for a City of Refuge,” from the News and Observer, May 26, 1908.

On May 26, 1908, by a referendum vote of 62% to 38%, North Carolina became the first southern state to enact statewide prohibition of alcoholic beverages.

The temperance movement of the antebellum period expressed the concern of many North Carolinians about the social consequences of what was perceived as the wide-spread abuse of wine, beer, and liquor, but the prohibition law of 1908 was the product of a more focused and organized movement which grew in the years following the Civil War. Increasingly after 1865, opposition to the traffic in liquor became a crusade against the saloon, which was depicted as a source of evil and corruption. New or revived organizations such as the Friends of Temperance, the Independent Order of Good Templars, and, most importantly, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, pressed the state legislature for more control over the sale and consumption of alcohol.

The North Carolina General Assembly responded to the pressure in several ways. The sale of alcohol was forbidden near churches or schools. Townships were permitted to call special elections to decide whether or not to allow the licensing of liquor sales in the township, and special legislation prohibited alcohol in specific towns and counties. In 1881 the prohibition forces felt strong enough to seek a state-wide ban on alcohol through a referendum. They had not counted, however, on the strength of the opposition and the proposition failed by a vote of slightly better than three to one.

Over the next twenty years the dry forces improved their organization and allied themselves closely with the Methodist and Baptist Churches which supported prohibition strongly. They were materially aided by the disfranchisement of African Americans in North Carolina after the “White Supremacy” campaigns of the Democratic Party in 1898. With African Americans barred from voting, Democrats no longer feared splitting the white vote over a volatile issue like prohibition. In 1902 the creation of the Anti-Saloon League brought together many of the strands of the prohibition movement into a strong, politically oriented organization.


In 1908 the General Assembly called for a referendum on prohibition which, after an active campaign, the dry forces won.The manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages in North Carolina thus ended eleven years before the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution brought prohibition to the entire country.

Daniel Jay Whitener, Prohibition in North Carolina, 1715-1945. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1945.

Clarence Hamilton Poe, The Case for Prohibition in North Carolina. Raleigh, NC: Mutual Publishing Co., [19–?].

Image Source:
The Sun Will Rise Tomorrow on a State Redeemed from the Whiskey Evil–Saloons and Dispensaries will be Hunting for a City of Refuge.” News and Observer (Raleigh, N.C.), 26 May 1908. North Carolina Collection.

May 1925: Carolina Coal Company Mine Explosion

This Month in North Carolina History

News & Observer. [Raleigh, N.C.] 29 May 1925.
At 9:40 in the morning on May 27, 1925, a massive explosion shook the town of Coal Glen, N.C. “All at once, we heard this big noise, like booooom, and black smoke just boiled and rolled up in the sky,” recalled Margaret Wicker, who was a young girl at the time. The blast came from the Deep River Coal Field, where local miners were working nearly a thousand feet underground. The explosion, probably touched off by either coal dust or natural gas, was devastating: fifty-three miners were killed.

Ben Dixon McNeill covered the catastrophe for Raleigh’s News & Observer as a correspondent and photographer. His first-person accounts appeared on the newspaper’s front page for five straight days and included a retelling of his descent into the mine on May 31st. Seven photographs accompanied his articles on May 28th and 29th; the two images displayed here appeared in the latter issue with a caption that stated the photographs “need no explanation.”

The tragedy helped to speed passage of the state’s Workers’ Compensation Act, passed in 1929. North Carolina was the forty-fourth state to pass such legislation.

News & Observer. [Raleigh, N.C.] 29 May 1925.

Historical Background

The presence of Deep River coal was first noted in print in 1820 in a letter to the American Journal of Science by Professor Denison Olmsted, chair of chemistry, mineralogy, and geology at the University of North Carolina. Olmsted, and later H. M. Chance in an 1885 report, noted that earlier uses of coal to meet local needs most likely dated to before 1775. The Deep River Coal Field is the only noteworthy source of coal in the state. There are some “sporadic deposits,” as Chance described them, in the Dan River region from the Virginia border southwest to Germanton on the border between Stokes and Forsyth Counties.

Attempts to develop commercial mining efforts in the Deep River Coal Field began during the early 1850s, and had a rocky history. The Western Railroad, chartered in 1852, was the first railroad to reach into the region. Completed in 1863, its purpose was to connect the coalmines centered at the village of Egypt (renamed Cumnock in 1895) to the riverside port of Fayetteville on the Cape Fear to the southeast. Coal was mined at three towns within a four-and-a-half mile band, all within close proximity of the Deep River: Egypt, Gulf (upstream to the west of Egypt) and Farmville (downstream and directly to the east of Egypt).

The mine at Egypt closed down in 1870 and remained flooded until 1888. Three years earlier, in 1885, H. M. Chance submitted his “Report on an Exploration of the Coalfields of North Carolina,” which identified two coal beds between Egypt and Farmville that might be worthy of thorough exploration, but doubted the likelihood of large scale production. Furthermore he did not believe further expenditures would be justified outside of the limited area. When Chance described Deep River Coal Field, he listed eight “Obstacles to Successful Mining,” he wrote:

In the Richmond coalfield great trouble has been caused by what is called spontaneous combustion. Judging from the similarity of the coals it seems possible that this same difficulty may obtain here. While this is a mere supposition, it is one that cannot safely be ignored.

The Egypt mine reopened in 1888 and ran continuously through 1902 after sizeable gas explosions in 1895 and 1900, and financial difficulties once again forced closure. In 1915, Norfolk Southern Railroad obtained the property and ran the mine under the name of Cumnock Coal Company, the word Egypt having become synonymous with explosions and failures. The company supplied coal primarily for railroad purposes and was a small operation. In September 1922 the Erskine Ramsey Coal Company purchased the company with plans to significantly enlarge the enterprise and its output. Around 1921, the Carolina Coal Company developed a mine on the site of the old Farmville village on the Chatham County side of the Deep River, less than two miles east of the Cumnock Mine.

There is some confusion over the name of the event. The News and Observer called the event the “Cumnock Mine Disaster” in its initial coverage and a negative envelope in the Ben Dixon McNeill Collection carries the same title. The Cumnock Mine, however, was not the mine where the accident occurred. Farmville was later renamed Coalglen, or alternately Coal Glen at a date not readily available. The disaster has since been referred to in association of one of these three nearby locations. The dateline in the New York Times is from Coal Glen.

Printed Sources:

“Red Sand Stone Formation of North Carolina: Extract of a letter from Professor D. Olmstead, of the College at Chapel-Hill, North-Carolina, dated Feb 26, 1820.” American Journal of Science, 2:1 (April 1820), 175-176.

Wilkes, Charles. Report on the Examination of the Deep River District, North Carolina. Caption title: Report of the Secretary of the Navy, communicating the report of officers appointed by him to make the examination of the iron, coal and timber of the Deep River country, in the state of North Carolina, required by a resolution of the Senate. [Washington, 1859.]

Report on an Exploration of the Coal Fields of North Carolina: made for the State Board of Agriculture. Raleigh, N. C.: P. M. Hale, state printer and binder, 1885.

Campbell, Marius R. and Kent W. Kimball. The Deep River Coal Field of North Carolina. Prepared by United States Geological Survey, in cooperation with the North Carolina Geological and Economic Survey, 1923.

Coal Deposits in the Deep River Field, Chatham, Lee, and Moore Counties, N.C.: Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1952.

Reinemund, John A. Geology of the Deep River Coal Field, North Carolina. Washington, D. C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1955.


World Wide Web Sources:

Margaret Wicker: The Coal Glen Mine Disaster

The Coal Glen Mining Disaster


Image Source:

News & Observer. [Raleigh, N.C.] 29 May 1925.

Photographs cropped as they appeared in the newspaper. Originals in the Ben Dixon McNeill Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library, North Carolina Collection, Photographic Archives.

May 1969: Howard Lee

This Month in North Carolina History


Howard Lee

“The placid, academic retreat of Chapel Hill, N.C., has always been something of an anomaly in the South.”
Newsweek, May 19, 1969.

Whenever Chapel Hill, North Carolina elected a new mayor, few people outside of the small college town paid much attention. But when the 1969 mayoral race came to a close, newspapers and magazines from around the state, nation, and world reported the news. Time and Newsweek ran profiles of the new mayor and his photograph appeared prominently in a West German newspaper. Why all the fuss? When the votes were counted and the election was certified, on May 6, 1969, Howard Lee became the first African American mayor elected in a predominantly white southern town since Reconstruction.

Lee had lived in Chapel Hill only five years when he decided to run for mayor. He moved to North Carolina from his native Georgia in 1964 to attend the University of North Carolina. Lee earned a master’s degree in Social Work in 1966 and was hired to direct a research program at Duke.

When Lee and his wife began to look for a home, they found that, despite the town’s progressive reputation, race was still very much an issue in Chapel Hill. The Lees encountered white residents who were reluctant to have an African American family move into their neighborhood, and realtors who hesitated to show them homes in white subdivisions. When, after six months of searching, they were finally able to purchase a home in the Colony Woods neighborhood, they received harassing phone calls and a cross was burned on their front lawn. The experience inspired Lee to enter local politics.

The 1969 race for mayor set records. The 4,734 votes cast were the most in town history, and included a record turnout from the Chapel Hill’s African American community, which made up nearly ten percent of the population. The race was close: Lee’s margin of victory – about 400 votes – was the smallest on record for a municipal election. He defeated Roland Giduz, a former newspaper editor and long-time member of the Chapel Hill Board of Aldermen.

Lee served three terms as mayor of Chapel Hill. He received 64 percent of the vote in the 1971 election, and 89 percent in 1973. Lee ran for Congress in 1972 and for lieutenant governor in 1976, and though he lost both races in the Democratic primaries, his career in politics was far from over. He was appointed as secretary of the Department of Natural Resources and Community Development in 1977 and served in the state senate from 1990-1994 and 1996-2002. Lee is currently the chair of the State Board of Education, the first African American to hold that position.


Howard Lee campaign materials. In North Carolina Collection Biographical Clippings, North Carolina Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Childs, Jack, “Negro Wins in Chapel Hill.” News and Observer (Raleigh, N.C.), May 7, 1969.

Bridgette A. Lacy, “On His Honor.” News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.), February 20, 1995.

Shinkle, Kevin. “Lee Mulls Run Against Sen. Helms.” The Chapel Hill Newspaper, September 25, 1989.


Image source:

Howard Lee campaign brochure, 1969. North Carolina Collection Biographical Clippings. North Carolina Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.