History of Johnston County
A VERY SHORT HISTORY OF THE COUNTY
The Tuscaroras, an Iroquoian-speaking tribe, flourished here until the second decade of the 18th Century. They were defeated in a bloody war with European colonists in 1713, after which most Tuscaroras fled to New York where they became the sixth nation in the Iroquois confederation. Those allowed to remain in the Carolina colony were placed on a reservation in Bertie County, but many of these later followed their fellow tribesmen to New York. Tuscarora descendants still live on a reservation near Niagara Falls where much of their history and culture is kept alive.
Johnston County was created in 1746 from Craven County and named in honor of Gabriel Johnston, North Carolina's royal governor at the time. Johnston County originally contained most of what is now Wake, Wayne, Greene, and Lenoir counties and part of Wilson.
Smithfield, Johnston's first town, grew up at the site of Smith's Ferry on the Neuse River. The courthouse was moved there in 1771, and the town was incorporated in 1777. In 1770 the colonial assembly had attempted to boost North Carolina's tobacco trade by erecting a warehouse near Smith's Ferry for receiving and storing tobacco to be shipped down the Neuse River to the sea. Nonetheless, it would be another century and a quarter before this product would gain the attention of Johnston's commercial farmers.
In the 1880s Selma pharmacist Lunsford Richardson reportedly concocted a salve for treating colds and pneumonia. He later moved to Greensboro and began marketing it as Vicks VapoRub, named in honor of his brother-in-law, Dr. Joshua Vick, a Selma physician.
In addition to being the birthplace of the VapoRub, Selma gained importance in the late 1880s at the junction of the North Carolina and Atlantic Coast Line railroads. This left Johnston County poised for unprecedented commercial and industrial growth.
In 1908 Johnston County gained the distinction of "Banner Whiskey County" when its voters led the state in opposing statewide prohibition. Despite that opposition, the measure passed, keeping law-enforcement officials in a constant battle with alcohol producers, sellers, and consumers for the next 25 years.
When the postwar boom put extra money in many local pockets, those funds were spent mostly on automobiles. Ford Model A's and T's were the most affordable, hence the most popular. Merchants and other businessmen throughout the state soon realized that in order to get people to drive into town more often they needed better roads, so their friends in the state legislature of 1921 authorized a $50-million bond issue for statewide road construction. As a result, two paved state highways came through Johnston. East-west N. C. 10 (later renumbered as U. S. 70) came through Princeton, Pine Level, Selma, Smithfield, and Clayton, and a north-south N. C. 22 (re-designated in the early 1930s as U. S. 301) passed through Kenly, Micro, Selma, Smithfield, Four Oaks, and Benson. Towns soon began paving streets, and businesses boomed as never before.
The stock market crash of 1929 and Great Depression that followed intensified the hard times farmers were already experiencing. Most banks closed, and wealthy families in practically every town saw their fortunes literally disappear. The boll weevil joined forces with federal crop controls in dethroning "King Cotton" in Johnston County. While many farmers then turned to tobacco, market prices for the golden leaf remained low through the 1930s. Nevertheless, a combination of federal programs, conservatism, and firmly entrenched interdependence among families and neighborhoods saw people through this difficult era and prepared them for yet another trying time.
In 1941, as the economy gained strength and U. S. involvement in World War II was imminent, a Johnston County girl named Ava Lavinia Gardner was propelled to Hollywood stardom after an errand clerk for Metro Goldwyn Mayer saw her picture hanging in her brother-in-law's photography studio in New York. This internationally known Johnstonian's career would span five decades. She died in 1990 and is buried in Smithfield, where a museum showcases her life's work.
A March 1942 munitions-truck explosion on Highway 301 between Smithfield and Selma brought the war close to home in its early stages. Seven people were killed, more than a hundred were injured, and several nearby businesses were destroyed. The tragedy is referred to as the "Catch-Me-Eye" Explosion, named for a nearby tavern, tourist cabin, and service-station complex that was leveled by the explosion.
Smithfield's annual Farmers Day celebration on August 15, 1945 turned out to be "the most celebrated day in Johnston County history," according to The Smithfield Herald at the time. The previous evening President Truman had announced the Japanese surrender and the end of World War II. Those who lived through the Great Depression and the war would no doubt agree it was truly a moment without equal in Johnston County's history.
With the state's largest number of farms and highest total farm income, Johnston County is still an agricultural, rural county. Agri-business has supplanted the family farms which were once the county's mainstay, but there are still a considerable number of farms which several generations have owned for a century or more.
From Reconstruction until 1968, all presidential candidates carrying Johnston County were Democrats, except Coolidge (1924) and Hoover (1928). George Wallace, champion foe of desegregation, carried the county in 1968 as the impending forced integration of Johnston County's public schools brought racial tensions to a climax. With the exception of Jimmy Carter in 1976, Republicans have carried the county in every presidential election since 1972.
The first African-American on record to hold elected office in the county was Smith Brooks, a Smithfield town commissioner during Reconstruction. The first woman to hold elected office was Luma McLamb, Republican Register of Deeds from 1928 to 1932. In 1969, 25-year-old teacher Mack Sowell became the first African-American elected to public office in the 20th Century when Selma voters made him a town councilman. Eleanor Creech, a Democrat, in 1992 became the first woman elected to the Board of County Commissioners. In 1998 Democrat Dorothy Johnson won a seat on the county Board of Education, making her the first African-American elected to a countywide office.
Baptists and Anglicans organized the first churches in the county in the 1750s and '60s. Methodists began establishing churches in the county following the Great Revival at the beginning of the 19th Century. When Baptists divided over missions and Masonic membership in the 1820s, most Johnstonians sided with the anti-mission, or Primitive, Baptists. Missionary Baptists did not gain a stronghold in Johnston until the late 19th Century, when Presbyterians and Free Will Baptists also began to flourish. Catholics, Episcopalians, and Pentecostals organized in the county during the early part of the 20th Century. Today there are 300 churches in Johnston.
In 1920 Johnston had 99 schools for whites and 35 for blacks, most of which were housed in ill-equipped wooden buildings with one or two teachers. A local committee controlled each school, and special taxes approved at the district level dictated the size and quality of each school. When County School Superintendent H. B. Marrow took office in 1922, he set out to bridge the gaps between whites and blacks and between town and country in the public educational system. In only a decade he was able to oversee not only the largest school-building campaign in the county's history but also the abandonment of autonomous districts in favor of a county school system that could more equally distribute educational resources.
Federal mandates for racial integration and the need for a technical institute in Johnston County to promote industrial growth led to consolidation of 18 high schools into 5 in the late 1960s. Johnston Technical Institute (now Johnston Community College) was established in 1969, the same year South Johnston and Smithfield-Selma high schools opened.
An impending crisis in school-building needs brought by population growth in western Johnston County led voters to approve bond issues of unprecedented magnitude in 1995, 1999, and 2001. Those bond issues, coupled with state bonds and federal funds, have enabled Johnston County to spend $340 million to upgrade school facilities over the past decade --- a process that has replaced all the majestic brick schools built in the 1920s. An additional $85-million bond issue for schools won voters' approval in May 2005, resulting in more construction including two new high schools scheduled to open in August 2010 under the resurrected names of two old schools closed by consolidation in 1969: Cleveland and Corinth-Holders.
June 28, 1746 - Royal Governor Gabriel Johnston signs legislation creating the County of Johnston.
Oct. 18, 1775 - Independent North Carolina's Provincial Council holds its first meeting at Johnston County Courthouse (Smithfield).
May 9, 1777 - Town of Smithfield chartered by the N.C. General Assembly.
May 3-15, 1779 - N.C. General Assembly meets in Smithfield.
Feb. 16, 1861 - Town of Boon Hill chartered - renamed Princeton in 1873.
March 19-21, 1865 - Civil War Battle of Bentonville rages as the "bloodiest battle ever fought on North Carolina soil."
April 12, 1869 - Town of Clayton chartered.
Feb. 11, 1873 - Town of Selma chartered.
Jan. 30, 1874 - Town of Pine Level chartered.
March 7, 1887 - Towns of Benson and Kenly chartered.
March 11, 1889 - Town of Four Oaks chartered.
May 1, 1899 - Town of Jerome chartered - renamed Micro in 1905.
Aug. 15, 1945 - Farmers Day in Smithfield celebrates the end of World War II.
Sept. 1, 1965 - Johnston County's public schools begin racial desegregation, completed by consolidation of high schools in 1969.
Oct. 1, 1991 - Land-use zoning instituted throughout Johnston County as suburbanization follows recently completed I-40 from Raleigh.
Aug. 2, 1996 - Town of Wilson's Mills re-chartered (original charter issued in 1927, revoked in 1971).
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