Marking the way

Lee's historical signage keeps county in touch with its roots
Aug. 10, 2014 @ 05:00 AM

The home of the man responsible for passing legislation making Lee an official county still stands — right across the street from Kendale Plaza. The first president of what is now UNC-Greensboro lived near the All Animals Veterinary Hospital on US 421. And a mile from Central Carolina Hospital, a church remains that was founded in 1797 by Scottish Highlanders.

And there are signs to mark those places.

This area is rife with history, and the six signs placed by the Highway Historical Marker Program in Lee County mark sites or individuals of statewide historical significance.

“We're just marking that something happened here that people need to know,” said Ansley Wegner, a research historian in charge of the program with the North Carolina Office of Archives and History. “People love these markers, and there's a great deal of pride in having one in your community or having one about somebody you're related to."

The majority of nominations for markers come from people living in the area in question. In May and December each year, a group of history professors from North Carolina colleges gather to debate the significance of potential sites and honorees.

The six located in Lee County mark two people, a church, a road, a furnace and a coal mine. The signs are posted in the vicinity of a landmark, whether it was somebody's home or birthplace or the original location of an important building.

The following are summaries of Lee County's markers:

Item: Charles D. McIver

Known for: First president of what is now the University of North Carolina at Greensboro

Location of marker: US 421 northwest of Sanford

McIvers populate Sanford’s history. Charles McIver’s father, Henry, had the largest store in the Sanford area of what was then Moore County back in the late 1800s.

But Charles McIver made his mark when he founded the State Normal and Industrial School for Girls, the first college for women in North Carolina, in 1891 and served as president until his death in 1906.

McIver is renowned in the state as a women's education champion. A statue of him stands at the State Capitol building alongside renderings of other famous North Carolina figures such as the three former United States presidents — Andrew Jackson, James Polk and Andrew Johnson — who were born in the state.

Item: Egypt Coal Mine

Known for: Supplying Confederacy with coal during Civil War

Location of marker: US 421 at Cumnock Road northwest of Sanford

The Egypt Coal Mine was a electricity-free coal mine that operated from 1855-1928. It was comprised of two 10-foot-by-10-foot holes 440 feet deep. A crude elevator took miners down.

“That's astounding to think they dug a hole 440 feet straight down,” said Jimmy Haire, a member of the city council and Sanford’s resident historian. “One [elevator] took the people down to work, and once they got to the 440-foot level, they would mine the coal with the mules.”

Haire said during the Civil War, about 40 Union prisoners of war would help operate the mine, which supplied soldiers in Fayetteville. A railroad to that city had to be built because the boats that were supposed to take the coal down the Deep River couldn't hold the weight.

Item: A.A.F. Seawell

Known for: State Senator responsible for Lee County charter

Location of marker: NC 78 (West Main Street) in Sanford

Seawell was one of the Democratic Party's potential nominees for the state Senate seat from the Sanford/Jonesboro area of Moore County leading up to the 1906 election. He was the only one who supported a new county that would include the Sanford/Jonesboro area. Kenneth Ferguson and George Humber were the other two candidates, from Southern Pines and Carthage, respectively, and they supported keeping the area part of Moore County.

Since Republicans had no standing in the county because of how the Republican administration in Washington, D.C., handled Reconstruction, the Democratic winner would easily take the open seat in the Senate. Before the convention, Ferguson and Humber agreed to work together to keep Seawell out of the seat and keep the Sanford/Jonesboro area in Moore County, with the person with the most votes earning the other's support.

After 11 ballots, Haire said, there still wasn't a clear winner. Humber was ready to move on, but Ferguson, who was barely in the lead, said, “Let's do one more.” Feeling betrayed, Humber threw his support behind Seawell and encouraged Seawell's group, led by Duncan E. McIver, to revote.

“Duncan E. McIver rushes to the podium, realizes this moment may never present itself again,” Haire said. “He calls for another vote. Seawell’s people call for another vote, and Seawell gets a nomination. In the Senate, he was able to lobby them and get it passed so that Lee County could get formed.”

Ironically enough, Seawell’s father was the first person in the Jonesboro area to encourage thinking about creating a new county, but there wasn't enough money right after the Civil War to build a county seat and everything else that comes with creating a county.

Item: Plank Road

Known for: Helping farmers transport goods in mid-1800s

Location of marker: US 15/501 at White Hill near Lee/Moore County line

The Fayetteville and Western plank roads passed near this spot that sits a few steps from the Lee and Moore county line, finished in 1853. These roads, wood planks connected together, allowed farmers to put their wagons on something smoother than the rough ground to pull their produce to the markets in Carthage or Fayetteville.

“The roads were nicknamed ‘farmers' railroads,’” Haire said. “The roads allowed farmers to bring their produce to market themselves. A Fayetteville Observer reporter called it ‘The best constructed plank road I've ever seen.”

The construction of the roads made the land surrounding them valuable pieces of property. Toll houses, now called toll booths, were established along the pathway to help pay for construction. But once railroads were completed, specifically the North Carolina Railroad finished in 1856, there was little use for plank roads and barely any investment.

Item: Buffalo Church

Known for: Presbyterian church founded in 1797

Location of marker: Carthage Street in Sanford

America has been known in its history as a bastion for religious freedom, especially in its founding. The Scottish Highlanders in the Sanford area found a church home for their congregation when the Rev. William Paisley began preaching at the headwaters of Big Buffalo Creek in 1797. It was the northernmost Presbyterian church founded by the Highlanders.

The current building at the site is the fourth. Buffalo Church has spawned several other churches, something that made it attractive as a Historical Marker site.

“Churches are tough ones because churches are important to people and their communities, but they're not always of statewide significance,” Wegner said. “(Buffalo Church is) an old one. The old churches that are ones that founded children churches are marked.”

When the church first started, it hosted English services in the morning and Gaelic services in the evening. It’s also the National Register of Historic Places and still operates as a church to this day, with an extensive cemetery.

Item: Endor Iron Works

Known for: Furnace that provided iron to Confederacy during Civil War

Location of marker: US 421 at Cumnock Road south of Cumnock

“During the Civil War, the South's critical need for iron reinvigorated the local industry,” Haire said. “The Endor Iron Company was formed. The company purchased the Alexander McIver plantation, located in a bend of the Deep River east of Egypt, which is Cumnock.”

The iron works developed a number of iron-related products, including bayonets, during the Civil War for the Southern army. The products were then shipped to Fayetteville or Wilmington via nearby rivers.

Even after the war, Endor served as a furnace for George Lobdell, who formed the Cape Fear Iron and Steel Company with J.M. Heck. By 1872, it had become one of the South's largest and best-equipped iron furnaces. But its distance from the port of Wilmington, along with a decrease in local mineral deposits, forced Cape Fear Iron and Steel Company to stop using the operation four years later, and the furnace shut down entirely in 1896.

These six markers are tangible reminders of Lee County's past, and Haire said he loves the stories they represent.

“Personally, I don't understand how anybody could not be interested in [the history] if you live here,” he said. “It will always teach you where we've been, and I always hoped it would teach people not to make the same mistake twice.”

Wegner, who has done extensive research and writing on North Carolina history, sees the markers as an important reminder for the people of the state.

“It's history; it's our past,” she said. “In order to be named on a marker, a person has to be dead for 25 years so that history has time to judge people. It's just about remembering places that are gone, people that are dead and still associating them with a place.”

She encourages those who think they might know of a worthy individual or location to send their nominations in via the program's website,

“I can't encourage people enough to contact our office if they have an idea,” Wegner said. “People have to have ideas of important things. There's a lot of things we don't know about that are not marked.”