A Very Short History of Johnston County

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Historical Properties
Historical Mural

The narrative that follows is based largely on a book by Thomas J. Lassiter and T. Wingate Lassiter: Johnston County: its history since 1746. Copies of the book may be purchased from the Heritage Center. Click here to order directly from our web site.

Prehistoric Residents, 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.

County's official origin

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.

Routes of migration and trade

The first European and African settlers came from coastal N.C. and the Tidewater areas of Virginia and Maryland, many traveling along Green's Path, an old Indian trade route apparently named for Roger Green, an Anglican minister in Virginia who promoted migration to neighboring lands in North Carolina. These early settlers were primarily subsistence farmers who grew little more than was required to feed and clothe their families. Some made profits by raising large herds of swine and cattle which they drove to markets in Virginia. A few grew tobacco which they hauled on wagons to Virginia or shipped down the Neuse River to New Bern, and from there to Norfolk.

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.

Cotton and railroads

Following the introduction of Eli Whitney's gin in Johnston County around 1804, cotton gradually became the county's leading money crop. Corn was also produced for market, although profits were small in comparison to the white fleecy staple. Before the 1850s poor roads leading to distant markets were a deterrent to commercial farming. Construction of the 223-mile North Carolina Railroad in 1854 placed Johnston County within the prosperous Piedmont Crescent between Goldsboro and Charlotte and meant an eventual shift from subsistence farming to market-driven agriculture. In addition to boosting cotton and grain productions, the railroad spurred growth in the turpentine and lumber industries and gave rise to towns at Princeton, Pine Level, Selma, and Clayton as well as a thriving industrial village at Wilson's Mills.

War and emancipation

During the Civil War, Johnstonians saw 1,500 of their sons, husbands, fathers, and brothers go off to fight. Almost a third of those men died in service, and many of those who survived suffered from physical disabilities. Union forces sacked and plundered their way through Johnston County near the end of the war in March and April 1865, leaving food supplies and livestock dramatically depleted. Emancipation of slaves and political turmoil further exacerbated the social and economic tensions that would not diminish significantly until the turn of the 20th Century. In 1868 a new state constitution would bring into being Johnston's first townships: "Bentonsville," Beulah, Boon Hill, Clayton, Elevation, Ingrams, Meadow, O'Neals, Pleasant Grove, Selma, Smithfield, and Wilders. Between 1887 and 1913 parts of these would be taken to form Wilson's Mills, Cleveland, Banner, Pine Level, and Micro townships.

More railroad towns

In 1886 the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad completed a second major line through Johnston County which later became the main line of the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad. Called the "Short Cut" (from Wilson through Fayetteville to Florence, S.C.), the new line provided quicker travel along the East Coast than the older route that passed through Goldsboro and Wilmington. The towns of Kenly, Micro, Four Oaks, and Benson grew up along this line.

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.

The rise of tobacco

A depression in 1893 and a resulting plummet in cotton prices forced many local farmers to look for another money crop. The success of bright leaf tobacco growers in the Piedmont areas of North Carolina and Virginia soon began to catch on in Johnston and other Eastern North Carolina counties in the 1890s to the extent that a market for tobacco was established in Smithfield in 1898. The county's first bank, by no coincidence, was also established that year. Within a few years cotton mills had been built and put in operation in Smithfield, Clayton, and Selma, and telephone lines were extended to practically every town. Within a couple of decades Johnston townsfolk would have electric lights and running water. It was a time of great optimism for those who had wealth and those who aspired to it. The array of stately homes in both town and country, brick stores, paved streets, schools, and churches of the 1920s had certainly reached a level higher than those of only a generation earlier.

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.

Progressive Era

World War I sent 1,000 young Johnstonians into military service, about 50 of whom paid the supreme sacrifice. Although it displaced manpower, the war further boosted the local economy by bringing a surge, albeit short-lived, in cotton and tobacco prices. The resulting prosperity fostered a progressive spirit across the county and state that brought revolutionary changes in education and transportation.

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 NC 10 (later renumbered as US 70) came through Princeton, Pine Level, Selma, Smithfield, and Clayton, and a north-south NC 22 (re-designated in the early 1930s as US 301) passed through Kenly, Micro, Selma, Smithfield, Four Oaks, and Benson. Towns soon began paving streets, and businesses boomed as never before.

Agricultural depression

Despite good fortune in commercial centers, farmers in the 1920s were suffering under a postwar agricultural depression that brought dramatic fluctuations in cotton and tobacco prices. According to the US Census Bureau, the number of mortgaged farms in the county grew from 793 in 1925 to 1,124 in 1930. Farms operated by tenants also jumped from an already high 51 percent in 1920 to 59 percent in 1930. Cotton farmers tried to make up for their losses by overproducing -- a practice that only served to drive market prices even lower.

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 US 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.

World War II

An astonishing 7,000 Johnston County men and women entered military service during the Second World War, at least 140 of them died in service. The war also displaced many others who left for war-related jobs in cities. Those left at home faced the challenges of keeping farms, businesses, schools, churches, and other institutions and organizations running, all the while coping with rationing and other exigencies of war.

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.

Industrial development

Following the war many soldiers returned home to family farms. Within a few years, however, farming operations were becoming increasingly mechanized, causing a loss of farm jobs. There was a corresponding decline in Johnston's population, which dropped from 65,906 in 1950 to 62,936 in 1960. The county's alarmed business leaders responded by recruiting new industries such as Jerold Corporation, a garment manufacturer which came to Smithfield in 1954, and Shallcross Manufacturing Company, an electronic-assembly operation from Pennsylvania that set up shop in Selma in 1958. Other big-name industries followed in the 1960s and 70s. Two Interstate highways built through Johnston County -- I-95 in 1960 and I-40 in 1990 -- have boosted commercial and residential development in recent times.

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.

20th Century politics

Members of the Democratic Party dominated Johnston's local political landscape for most of the 20th Century, although Republicans gained control of County Government briefly in the years 1924-1926 and again during 1928-1930. Republicans have enjoyed a resurgence of power since the mid-1990s, gaining control of the Board of County Commissioners in 1998.

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.

Religious heritage

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.

Public education

The first public schools were built in the 1840s after state enabling legislation allowed counties to adopt taxes for "common schools." However, many areas of the county did not have schools until Governor Charles B. Aycock's school-building campaign at the turn of the 20th Century. Several private academies prepared students for college and careers in teaching and business before the state established public high schools for whites in 1907. The first high school for African-Americans was founded in 1914, with the first graduating class in 1921.

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.

A new suburban town

Johnston County's 11th municipality came to life November 3, 2009 when voters within the proposed corporate limits approved establishment of the Town of Archer Lodge. Located in a rural area northwest of Clayton not far from the Wake County line, Archer Lodge is looking more and more like other suburban "bedroom communities" in the fast-growing Research Triangle region surrounding Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill.

Important Dates in Johnston County's History

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).

Nov. 3, 2009 - Town of Archer Lodge incorporated by a majority vote of residents within its proposed borders.

How Johnston County has Voted for President, 1912-2012

* denotes winner of national election

Woodrow Wilson (D)* 2,757 (53.3%)
William H. Taft (R) 1,335 (25.8%)
Theodore Roosevelt 1,083 (20.9%)

Woodrow Wilson (D)* 3,468 (54.8%)
Charles E. Hughes (R) 2,857 (45.2%)

James M. Cox (D) 6,030 (51.9%)
Warren G. Harding (R)* 5,588 (48.1%)

Calvin Coolidge (R)* 4,910 (51.2%)
John W. Davis (D) 4,656 (48.6%)

Herbert Hoover (R)* 7,696 (60.4%)
Alfred E. Smith (D) 5,041 (39.6%)

Franklin D. Roosevelt (D)* 9,574 (70.8%)
Herbert Hoover (R) 3,887 (28.8%)

Franklin D. Roosevelt (D)* 11,253 (72.2%)
Alfred M. Landon (R) 4,339 (27.8%)

Franklin D. Roosevelt (D)* 9,976 (70.4%)
Wendell L. Willkie (R) 4,192 (29.6%)

Franklin D. Roosevelt (D)* 8,282 (65.2%)
Thomas E. Dewey (R) 4,423 (34.8%)

Harry S. Truman (D)* 9,188 (70.7%)
Thomas E. Dewey (R) 3,211 (24.7%)

Adlai E. Stevenson (D) 9,997 (64.8%)
Dwight D. Eisenhower (R)* 5,429 (35.2%)

Adlai E. Stevenson (D) 9,852 (66.8%)
Dwight D. Eisenhower (R)* 4,893 (33.2%)

John F. Kennedy (D)* 9,914 (59.8%)
Richard M. Nixon (R) 6,660 (40.2%)

Lyndon B. Johnson (D)* 10,326 (57.9%)
Barry Goldwater (R) 7,523 (42.1%)

George Wallace 9,212 (45.0%)
Richard M. Nixon (R)* 6,764 (33.1%)
Hubert Humphrey (D) 4,492 (21.9%)

Richard M. Nixon (R)* 14,172 (79.1%)
George McGovern (D) 3,488 (19.5%)

Jimmy Carter (D)* 10,301 (54.6%)
Gerald Ford (R) 8,511 (45.1%)

Ronald Reagan (R)* 10,444 (51.3%)
Jimmy Carter (D) 9,601 (47.1%)

Ronald Reagan (R)* 16,210 (67.4%)
Walter Mondale (D) 7,833 (32.6%)

George Bush (R)* 15,563 (64.1%)
Michael Dukakis (D) 8,717 (35.9%)

George Bush (R) 15,418 (48.7%)
Bill Clinton (D)* 11,284 (35.7%)
Ross Perot 4,939 (15.6%)

Bob Dole (R) 18,260 (57.8%)
Bill Clinton (D)* 11,155 (35.3%)
Ross Perot 2,159 (6.8%)

George W. Bush (R)* 26,744 (66.3%)
Al Gore (D) 13,579 (33.7%)

George W. Bush (R)* 36,224 (68.2%)
John Kerry (D) 16,733 (31.5%)

John McCain (R) 43,622 (61.4%)
Barack Obama (D)* 26,795 (37.7%)

Mitt Romney (R) 48,202 (63.3%)
Barack Obama (D)* 27,052 (35.5%)

Page last updated:  December 11, 2023