First of two parts
Here in our slice of Southern suburbia, where all roads seemingly lead to a cul-de-sac, it seems inconceivable that slaves worked the cotton fields on plantations that once covered much of the land now dominated by the sprawling subdivisions we call home.
In fact, historical records identify Colonial settlements in the area that we now consider northern Mecklenburg County as early as the 1740s, a decade before Charlotte's first settlers stopped their wagons near what is now the center of the Queen City. In 1744, Mecklenburg's first itinerant Presbyterian minister, John Thomson, was invited by the residents in what is now southwestern Huntersville to preach at the home of settler Richard Barry.
The remnants of history dot Huntersville, Cornelius and Davidson. So, if you’re looking for a day trip into days long past, you needn’t go far. Buckle up as we take in some of the most important landmarks in the first of two segments on the Herald Citizen’s Magical History Tour, gleaned from information collected over the years by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission.
Our tour begins in the centuries-old Hopewell community on Beatties Ford Road, which follows an ancient Native American trading path that crossed the Catawba River at a point now under the waters of Lake Norman. Pioneers and their descendants adopted the pathway as their own, and as you drive along Beatties Ford you will notice several old farmsteads facing the road.
Head north on Beatties Ford from Mt. Holly-Huntersville Road and, after traveling about 1.5 miles, you’ll notice a distinctive stone wall on your right.
Hopewell Presbyterian Church
Those walls are the signature feature of one of the region’s oldest congregations. Services at Hopewell began as early as the 1750s, when itinerante ministers from the Presbyterian Synods of Philadelphia and New York, as well as an occasional evangelist from the backcountry, preached to the Scotch-Irish settlers. The current building dates to 1833, and the church cemetery includes the graves of some of the area’s earliest settlers.
Leaving the church, turn right onto Beatties Ford Road and then take an immediate left onto Sample Road. Follow the signs for Latta Plantation Nature Preserve.
The centerpiece of the county park is Latta Place, a restored 18th-century plantation house and farm. James Latta first came to the area after working as a peddler traveling between Philadelphia and Charleston, S.C., selling wares from his wagon to the farmers along the way. Latta and his wife, Jane, a native of Lincoln County, settled on the site in 1799 and turned it into a thriving farm.
Return to Beatties Ford Road and turn left. After 1.6 miles turn left onto Neck Road. Go a little more than two miles and pull into the driveway on the right at Historic Rural Hill.
Several porch columns are all that remain of the once-fine-brick plantation house at Rural Hill, which burned down two years short of its 100th birthday. When the house was built in 1788, its owner, Major John Davidson, was already a prominent figure in the area. He came to Mecklenburg as a young blacksmith in 1760 and was fortunate enough to marry Violet Wilson, whose father, Samuel, owned a vast amount of land in the Hopewell area. The land that is now Rural Hill was a gift to the couple.
Davidson and his family were important figures in the American Revolution. It was from the log house on the Rural Hill site that Davidson’s relative and a fellow officer, Gen. William Lee Davidson, left for the ill-fated battle of Cowan's Ford in 1781. General Davidson was killed at the battle, and his recovered body was buried secretly that night in the Hopewell Church graveyard.
John Davidson not only survived the war, but he lived at Latta until he was 88, when he moved to Beaver Dam, in what is now Davidson, to live for nine more years with his daughter, Betsy, and her husband, William Lee Davidson II. You can find John Davidson’s grave in the Rural Hill burial ground opposite Rural Hill.
Just a bit farther on Neck Road, opposite Rural Hill, you will see the plantation graveyard. Just past the graveyard, look to your left and you will see a one-room, frame school house at the edge of the woods.
The Davidson School
This schoolhouse was built in 1890 and served the white children of the vicinity until 1911. All grades attended the Davidson School, named for Rural Hill’s owners. The building originally stood close to the road but was moved to its present site when a larger, one-room school house was erected to replace it.
Turn left immediately past the schoolhouse onto the unpaved extension of Neck Road. On your right, after four-tenths of a mile, you will see Holly Bend.
The Federal-style house was built in 1800 by Major Davidson's son, Robert. In time, Robert Davidson would become the largest slave owner in the county, with more than 100 slaves.
Return to Beatties Ford Road. Turn right, and then take the next left onto Hambright Road. At the junction with McCoy Road, turn left. About a mile up the road as you round a curve, you will see an imposing house on your left, set on a hill.
This was the home of Benjamin Davidson and his wife, Betsy. He was the son of Major John Davidson of Rural Hill, and she was the daughter of James Latta of Latta Place. The house was built in 1818-20, but Benjamin only lived here for a few years before his death in 1829. Betsy had a passion for gardening and planted a quarter-mile-long avenue of oaks in front of the house, which gave way to a further three-quarter miles of cedars beyond. In her garden she blended herbs and flowers. She left the house in 1835. It is now surrounded by the Cedarfield subdivision, the rows of oaks still in place, lining a street to the neighborhood pool.
Continue on McCoy Road, and turn left onto Gilead Road at the stop sign. As you round a bend in the road after 1.2 miles, pull into the drive of the first house on your right.
Hugh Torance House and Store
The story of this property goes back to 1779, when Hugh Torance, a peddler from Salisbury, bought the land and built a log cabin. Torance and his family built a two-story addition to the south side of the log cabin in about 1796, which changed the orientation of the house. By 1800, Torance had a fine brick house built for himself and his wife.
In 1805, a one-story addition to the east side of the log house became the Torance Store, which was run by Torance’s son, James.
James Torance built Cedar Grove, the grand mansion next door to the store, between 1831 and 1833. This impressive Greek Revival house was probably designed by a professional rather than a local builder. The bricks were manufactured on the site, but tin, copper, sash cord, wood screws and locks came from New York. Pipe came from Philadelphia, and Torance bought the fine door knocker in Charleston.
Drive a another mile on Gilead Road, which turns into onto Bud Henderson Road. After nine-tenths of a mile, you will see the house called Ingleside to your right.
The planter Samuel Wilson owned the land here, and his descendent, Dr. William Davidson (grandson of Maj. John Davidson), built this elegant house at the time of the Civil War. The name he chose, Ingleside, is Scottish for fireside and reflects his family’s Scots-Irish background. However, this traditionalism is not reflected in the style of the house, which is quite rare in this area. Today, the house is one of the county's finest examples of Italianate architecture.
Continue on Bud Henderson Road to the junction with Beatties Ford Road. After a little more than a mile, look for the J.M. Alexander house on your left.
Gilead ARP Church
Gilead Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, organized in 1787, is the oldest ARP congregation in the county. The congregation first met in a log fort, built for protection against Native American attack. The present church building dates from 1880 to 1882.
— Next week: On to Cornelius and Davidson.