Main Street in Rutherfordton climbs a gentle hill past the Norris Public Library and the Neo-Classical facade of the Woodrow Jones Community Hall before passing between rows of neat brick store buildings. At the crest of the hill stands the imposing Rutherford County Court House, a collection of venerable churches, and a number of gracious old homes sheltered by aging walnut and maple trees. The architecture and atmosphere speak clearly of an earlier time. At every turn there is evidence that Rutherfordton is a very old town.
When pondering the scope of Rutherfordton’s history it is helpful to put the town’s founding in 1787 in perspective with other events of state and national history. The Town of Rutherfordton existed before there was a Constitution of the United States and before George Washington was elected as America’s first president. Washington D.C. was still years away from being founded as the nation’s capital, and the North Carolina General Assembly had not yet moved to Raleigh to establish that city as the seat of state government.
Rutherford County was the first county established in western North Carolina following the Declaration of Independence. When it was established in 1779, the small village of Gilbert Town (located three miles north of Rutherfordton) served as the county seat. The location of a crudely built courthouse at that site, however, was eventually deemed unsuitable by local lawmakers and state legislators because the area around the log structure was swampy and became flooded during heavy rains. A committee was soon appointed to find another piece of property for the establishment of a new county seat.
The committee didn’t have to look very far. A cluster of small farms was located on a nearby wagon road running along Cleghorn Creek, just south of Gilbert Town. On September 7, 1786, one of the property owners, James Adair, sold the county 50 acres of land along the creek for $240. The property included a hill that was suitable for the placement of a new courthouse because it was unlikely to flood.
On April 17, 1787, the North Carolina General Assembly officially recognized the founding of the new county seat, to be known as Rutherford Town (later shortened to Rutherfordton) in honor of Gen. Griffith Rutherford, of Revolutionary War fame, who was also the namesake for the county. Because the move from Gilbert Town to Rutherfordton caused no interruption in the official business of the county or the local courts, Rutherfordton holds the distinction of being home to the oldest continuing body of government in western North Carolina.
The fledgling courthouse town was soon on its way to prominence. Rutherfordton was located on a stage route which ran from Lincolnton, North Carolina down into the old Pendleton District of upstate South Carolina. Rutherfordton’s location at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains also made it a natural stopping point for settlers making their way into the western frontier. From the late 18th century until the early antebellum period, Rutherfordton was the most important commercial and political center in western North Carolina.
Rutherfordton’s grid of streets, including Main Street, Court Street, Washington Street, Taylor Street, and several smaller lanes, was in place by 1791. Surviving records indicate that prominent men began purchasing lots near the courthouse at that time. In April 1791, Benjamin Hyder purchased lot number 12 for $10. Thomas Rowland bought lots 8, 9, and 10 for $17, and Col. Andrew Hampton bought three lots that bordered Court Street and Cleghorn Creek for $24. A public lot, or meeting ground, was once located at the intersection of present-day Main Street and Court Street. The Rutherford County Court House was located at that intersection until the early 20th century.
Rutherfordton was the location of the first U.S. Post Office in western North Carolina. It was established on October 10, 1798. The Rutherfordton Academy, which opened in 1806, was the first school chartered by the General Assembly for the western portion of the state. In 1838, the Rutherfordton Female Academy opened on Washington Street in a shared building with the Rutherfordton Presbyterian Church. In 1890, the Rutherford Military Institute was established by Captain W.T.R. Bell. For a few years that school attracted a corps of young cadets from across western North Carolina and five other southern states.
Rutherfordton was also home to the first newspaper published in the western foothills and mountain region. The North Carolina Spectator & Western Advertiser was first printed here in 1831. Later newspapers included The Sun, The Rutherfordton Tribune, and The Rutherford County News which was published from 1926 until 1994.
For a few brief years in the 1830s and 1840s, 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 existed to sell gold or exchange it for goods and services, and there was no safe way to transport it to the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia. In addition, state and federal coinage and currency was scarce which greatly impeded commerce.
At the height of the gold rush in the backcountry of North Carolina, an experienced German metal worker from the Grand Duchy of Baden, came to America and settled in Rutherfordton. Christopher Bechtler, Sr., along with his sons Augustus and Charles, as well as a nephew known as Christopher Bechtler, Jr., established a coin-producing operation here that is now recognized as the most successful private mint in the United States history. In July 1831, using hand-crafted dies and a manual press, the Bechtlers began striking coins in two denominations - $2.50 and $5.00. By 1832, the family began striking $1.00 coins which hold the distinction of being the first gold dollars ever created in America.
In less than 15 years, the Bechtlers minted more than $2.24 million in gold coins at the family’s farm three miles from Rutherfordton, and at the family’s home in town. In addition to their coinage, the Bechtlers also fluxed or refined an additional $1.3 million in raw gold that was used for other purposes. The family owned and operated a jewelry shop in downtown Rutherfordton, and created necklaces, earrings, brooches, rings, buttons, cufflinks, watches, and a variety of guns including pistols and rifles for their customers.
The Bechtlers handled more gold during the period than the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia and the Charlotte Branch Mint (founded in 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 the late 1840s, resulted in the closing of the Bechtler’s minting operation.
In the decades before the Civil War Rutherfordton was considered the most important town west of Charlotte in North Carolina. The town’s growing prosperity was reflected in the construction of several important homes, public buildings, and churches during the early decades of the 19th century. The McEntire Mansion, a two-story brick home with a grand portico was completed in 1825, as the residence of Dr. and Mrs. John McEntire. Dr. McEntire later served as the town’s first mayor. Nearby, a large frame hotel building, known originally as the Village Hotel and later as Guthrie House, was erected on North Main Street in 1830. That large frame structure included flanking pairs of brick chimneys and a broad porch that fronted Main Street. It was a victim of fire in 1911.
Anchoring the southern end of Main Street was a Greek-Revival style courthouse completed in 1836. At the time of its construction it was the largest public building in the western portion of the state. It was destroyed by fire on December 24, 1907.
Leading players in Rutherfordton’s long list of significant buildings are six structures that today represent the only cluster of antebellum structures to remain in western North Carolina from the decades just before the Civil War. The stately home, known as “Holly Hill,” was built for the Miller family in 1832, on North Main Street. That home features bold Greek-Revival trim around its wide front door, and boasts an impressive portico upheld by a pair of fluted square columns.
A home constructed by tinsmith Harvey Carrier in 1835 also survives on Main Street. In 1837, the Bechtler family moved into a new two-story house on North Washington Street (later moved to 6th Street). St. John’s Episcopal Church was completed on North Main Street in 1848 and consecrated in 1851. That structure is today the oldest standing church building in Rutherford County. It is recognized by the N.C. Division of Archives & History as the most important Greek-Revival ecclesiastical structure in Western North Carolina. It is owned today by the Rutherford County Historical Society.
The Gothic-Revival style dwelling known traditionally as the Rucker-Eaves house was begun in 1857 on North Washington Street. A neighbor of the Rucker-Eaves home is a dwelling with wide porches, deep overhanging eaves, and stout chimneys, known traditionally as the Bynum-Geer house. It was built between 1825 and 1830.
Before the close of the 19th century several other important structures were erected in the town including St. Francis Episcopal Church, which was completed in 1899 and consecrated in 1900. The rock structure was designed by the nationally-renowned architectural firm of Hazelhurst & Huckel, of Philadelphia, in the Gothic-Revival style. Hazelhurst & Huckel were leading architects of that era and completed such projects as the expansion of New York’s Grand Central Station in 1903, and a commission for the Pennsylvania Governor’s Mansion in 1907.
St. Francis Church was later enlarged in the 1930s. It is adorned with an exceptional collection of religious stained glass including three windows crafted by the Louis C. Tiffany Company of New York City. In contrast to the high Victorian style of St. Francis Church are two wooden frame chapels in town that were built just after the turn of the century. St. Luke’s Chapel was constructed in 1907, and St. Gabriel’s Church was completed in 1915.
The town’s architectural legacy is impressive in comparison to other small towns across the foothills and mountain region of the state. Several dozen homes and buildings survive in the town from the late 19th century. More than 50 structures in the town are listed individually, or collectively as a district, on the National Register of Historic Places.
In 1850, the population of the town had grown to 800 residents. Several merchants operated stores and shops that sold a variety of necessary and luxury goods. Other businesses included carriage and buggy shops, a livery stable, a tannery and a shoe factory.
Although North Carolina was the last state to join the Southern independence movement at the time of the Civil War, the state eventually supplied more troops to the Confederacy than any other Southern state. More than 1,940 Rutherford County men fought for the South during the war. Of that number, more than 450 lost their lives in battle, or from disease. While no major battles or skirmishes were fought in Rutherford County, Rutherfordton was raided by Union troops late in the war and much damage was experienced. In April 1865, an event known as “Stoneman’s Raid,” occurred, which saw more than two dozen federal troops ransack the town in an effort to quell pro-Confederate sentiment. During that event at least three buildings were destroyed by fire, and other structures, including the McEntire Mansion and St. John’s Episcopal Church, were commandeered for military use.
In the months following the war the Rutherford County Court House became the temporary headquarters of the Federal Freedmen's Bureau. It was also the first place in Western North Carolina where African-Americans were permitted to vote in a general election.
It took more than two decades for Rutherfordton to emerge from the bleak economic conditions and social strain that resulted from the war. The coming of railroad service to the town in 1887 can be credited with transforming the local economy and setting the municipality on a path toward greater prosperity.
In 1888, Kinchen Carpenter and D.W. Morrow established the first bank in town. In 1890, the grand three-story, 42-room Isothermal Hotel was erected on Main Street offering first-class accommodations to the growing number of travelers making their way to the town on the train. In 1892, a two-story opera house with a proscenium stage and balcony was constructed on Main Street. During the 1890s, the town’s first volunteer fire department was established.
Aiding Rutherfordton’s development and rise to prominence in the early 20th century was the establishment of a modern hospital in the town. Rutherford Hospital, Inc., was established by Dr. and Mrs. Henry Norris, and Dr. Montgomery H. Biggs, in 1906. At the time of its founding, Rutherford Hospital was the only hospital in North Carolina between Charlotte and Asheville. In 1907, Mrs. Ethel Wheeler Norris established the Rutherford Hospital School of Nursing which was responsible for launching the careers of hundreds of nurses until the school was discontinued in the 1960s.
A great wave of prosperity and optimism hit the town in the 1920s. During that decade dozens of new houses were built along several of the city’s streets (some of which had just been paved for the first time), and several grand public buildings and churches were erected. The Rutherford County Court House, the Rutherfordton City Hall, and Rutherfordton-Spindale Central High School, as well as the First Baptist Church and the First Methodist Church, were constructed during that iconic decade. Each of those structures was designed in the Neo-Classical style of architecture, with grand columns and limestone trim. Also built at that time was the new, 52-room Isothermal Hotel, with grand ballroom and dining room, facing North Washington Street. Unfortunately, that structure, completed in 1923, was razed in 1958 to make way for a supermarket.
A new brick church building, designed with Palladian windows and flanking towers on the front facade, was erected in the late 1920s on Ridgecrest Avenue for the congregation of St. John’s A.M.E. Zion Church. The church is home to the oldest African-American congregation in town.
Despite the faltering economy of the Great Depression, a new business established in Rutherfordton in the early 1930s soon brought national attention to the small town. In 1931, Mr. and Mrs. S.B. Tanner, Jr., founded the Doncaster Collar and Shirt Company, which soon began manufacturing fine ladies apparel. By the 1960s, the Rutherfordton company was recognized nationally and its reputation continued to rise as Doncaster and Tanner fashions appeared in magazines all across the country, including Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Town & County, Mademoiselle, Women’s Wear Daily, The New Yorker, Gourmet, and Southern Living. At the same time, major American newspapers, including The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, The San Francisco Gazette, The Los Angeles Times, The Dallas Morning News, and The Times-Picayune of New Orleans, featured Doncaster and Tanner creations on the pages of their lifestyles and fashion pages.
During the decade of the 1930s, Rutherfordton experienced some very difficult financial struggles, but progress did continue. Mrs. Ethel Wheeler Norris is credited with founding the Norris Public Library for the town’s citizens. She also joined with Dr. Norris in donating the land for Rutherfordton’s golf course, as well as the site of the town’s club house during that decade. The Norris Public Library and the Rutherfordton Clubhouse quickly proved to be important assets to the town’s citizens. The Clubhouse was the scene of many important fundraising events and entertainments for soldiers during World War II.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the Rutherford County Board of Education launched a wave of school consolidations which began to funnel more students into Rutherfordton-Spindale Central High School. During that era the school campus was doubled in size with new academic buildings and a football stadium. In the 1950s and 1960s, new buildings were also erected on the campuses of Rutherfordton Elementary School and Ruth Elementary School, and an entirely-new campus was erected for the New Hope School, which had traditionally served the African-American community. The New Hope School later became a middle school after integration.
R-S Central High School was relocated to a new campus just north of town in 1992. The former high school campus was renamed R-S Middle School. It opened in the fall of 1993. A new Rutherfordton Elementary School was constructed to the southeast of town in 2009.
During the 1970s, the business community of the town was delivered a serious blow when new shopping centers pulled customers away from Main Street. By the 1980s, several of the department stores and specialty shops in town had closed. Beginning in the late 1980s, Rutherfordton began to capitalize on its history and find innovative ways to draw businesses and customers back downtown. Since 1989, the town has been a member of the North Carolina Main Street Program. At that time the town council hired a downtown development director to coordinate a revitalization program for the municipality. The program, Rutherford Town Revitalization, has been responsible during the past 25 year for fostering much-needed improvements and enhancements. Successful projects by RTR have included having a significant portion of the business district and immediate residential streets listed on the National Register of Historic Places. To date, more than 100 structures in the town have National Register status as either independent properties worthy of listing on their own merit, or as contributing structures to the overall historical significance of the town.
In the spring of 2012, Rutherfordton celebrated its 225th anniversary. On April 14 of that year, The Rutherford County Historical Society partnered with the town to host a birthday party for hundreds of local residents. Rutherford County Historical Society President and Official Rutherford County Historian, Robin S. Lattimore, delivered the keynote address on the lawn of the county courthouse, and the entertainment was supplied by The Rutherford County Symphony. The day also included a reception, complete with a multi-tiered birthday cake, at St. John’s Historic Church. The anniversary celebrations continued throughout the year with other events including a parade, fireworks display, a series of walking tours conducted by costumed interpreters, concerts, and the premiere of the Emmy-nominated PBS Documentary “Gold Fever and the Bechtler Mint,” produced by UNC-TV and released nationally the following year on more than 175 television stations in 32 states. The film brought national attention to the gold mining and minting heritage of the town.
Rutherfordton is currently home to more than 4,000 residents. It frequently receives recognition in national publications for its high quality of living stemming from excellent educational facilities, a quality public library, low crime and unemployment, and exceptionally fine medical facilities and personnel.
Robin Spencer Lattimore was named Official Historian of the Town of Rutherfordton in 2016, and also serves as an Official Historian of Rutherford County and President of the Rutherford County Historical Society. He is the author of more than 25 books that celebrate the people, places and traditions of the American South. Lattimore was named the North Carolina Historian of the Year in 2009. In 2013, he was bestowed with the legendary Order of the Long Leaf Pine - North Carolina’s highest civilian honor.