Fact Friday 424 - Early History of Charlotte & Mecklenburg County (The Third Boom - 1980s)

Fact Friday 424 - Early History of Charlotte & Mecklenburg County (The Third Boom - 1980s)

Happy Friday!

This week's Fact Friday comes to you from the Charlotte Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission.


Trolley's became a popular mode of transportation in the mid-1920's. It was common for trolley conductors and staff to take a picture each time they finished a line. Charlotte Mecklenburg Historic Landmark Commission.

The Third Boom, The Roaring Twenties:
Nationwide the World War I lull in construction continued through a mild postwar depression that lasted until the early 1920s. Charlotte proved no exception to the national trend. Beginning about 1923 the city underwent a period of tremendous growth which lasted until the Great Depression of 1929. Large sections of present day Charlotte date from this period of prosperity.

The 1920s, unlike the city's two earlier booms, seem to have been a period of consolidating previous gains rather than setting new directions. By the twenties the first generation of New South leaders was either dead or ready to pass their power on to younger decision makers. D. A. Tompkins died in 1914, George Stephens departed for Asheville in 1922, and Edward Dilworth Latta made the same move shortly before his death in 1925. In the hands of their successors, economic development, urban growth and even architecture followed increasingly conservative patterns.

The city continued to develop as a distribution center. By 1920 more than 700 traveling salesmen lived here, a large percentage of the workforce. They sold not only textile related products but an increasingly diverse array of goods. Film Row along Church Street was built beginning about 1925 as the motion picture distributing center for North and South Carolina. By 1929 the Chamber of Commerce could boast:

All national film companies maintain exchanges in Charlotte and the movie establishments of the Carolinas are served through this city. The aggregate volume of business transacted annually by these film exchanges is approximately $2,250,000.

Ford Motor Company facility on Statesville Rd. Charlotte Historic Landmarks Commission. 

Sometimes distribution led to other things. The Ford Motor Company made Charlotte a distribution point for repair parts for the South in the early teens, and by 1915 was shipping parts in quantity for Charlotte laborers to assemble into complete automobiles. In 1925 Ford opened a vast new assembly line plant on Statesville Road that turned out 300 Model Ts per day for the Southern market.

In the 1920s the Victor Corporation, later RCA Victor, chose Charlotte as a regional distribution center for its radios, phonographs, and records. When the company began to send field teams south to record phonograph records, Charlotte's Victor operation became a major recording center. WBT radio, the earliest station in the Carolinas, was instrumental in attracting top talent to the city, and the city's large population of mill workers drawn from rural areas provided an eager audience for early country music stars. Such well known performers as the Carter Family, Grand Old Opry star Uncle Dave Macon, and bluesman Luke Jordan recorded for Victor in Charlotte beginning in 1927. The most important records were made by Bill Monroe, who began his recording career in Charlotte from 1936 to 1938. Monroe went on to found the "Bluegrass Boys" string band , credited with popularizing "Bluegrass" music and providing its name.

Vital to Charlotte's growth as a distribution center was the network of paved highways that began to converge on the city in the 1920s. They were the result of North Carolina's "Good Roads" program initiated in 1921 by Governor Cameron Morrison who was, not coincidentally, a Charlotte resident. The new highways helped the city to continue to grow as a wholesaling point, and also to develop as a trucking center for the whole southeastern United States.

Charlotte skyline in the 1920s. Charlotte Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission. 

More new skyscrapers joined the Independence Building downtown, reflecting the economic growth. In 1924 a group of Charlotte business leaders realized their vision of a grand hostelry and meeting place for the city. Their ten-story Hotel Charlotte is today listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Textile magnate R. Horace Johnston hired New York City architect W. L. Stoddart to create the sixteen story Johnston Building in 1924, a landmark on the skyline for decades to come. Two years later the twenty-story First National Bank tower (now known as One Tryon Center) arose a block north on Tryon Street, and the ten story Wilder Building opened nearby at the same time.

Sears, Roebuck & Company was a major employer in the early 20th century. Charlotte Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission. 

Retailing and banking continued to expand as well. Iveys and Efirds built large new stores on North Tryon Street in the decade and the third major department chain, Belks, greatly enlarged its East Trade premises. New bank buildings sprung up, from the towering First National to the delicate three-story Greek temple built for the Industrial Loan and Investment Bank on Church Street. The biggest news in banking was the opening of a branch of the Federal Reserve in 1927. Charlotte already had "more banks, capital, deposits, and resources than any other city in North Carolina.'' The new facility maintained the cash reserves of the region's banks and made cash loans to them, moved currency and coins in and out of circulation, and provided swift inter-bank check clearing, and it gave Charlotte a new financial edge on other cities in the area.

In 1928 the city boundaries expanded to encompass a total of nearly twenty square miles, reflecting the new growth. Suburbs continued to grow but became increasingly segregated by economic class. Developments of the 1890s-1910s had usually combined a grand boulevard of wealthy homes with side streets for the middle class. Piedmont Park, for instance, had fine Central Avenue and modest Jackson Avenue, and the Olmsteds' Dilworth had both impressive Dilworth Road and homey Sarah Marks. Even Myers Park had Dartmouth Road bungalows along with its Hermitage Road and Queens Road mansions. The 1920s suburbs, by contrast, were all of a piece. Only middle class people lived in Roslyn Heights off Rozells Ferry Road, created in 1923-25. Only the city's wealthiest lived in Eastover, built off Providence Road under the direction of landscape architect Earle Sumner Draper during the 1920s.

Even the style of the homes became conservative by the late 1920s. Charlotte's early New South leaders had experimented freely with the newest styles, Victorian variations in the 1890s, the Rectilinear, Bungaloid, Colonial Revival, and Tudor Revival styles of the 1900s through early 20s. By the late 20s, however, the Colonial Revival was adopted as the single acceptable architectural motif, with Tudor Revival variations being the only alternative. While this was part of a nationwide return to historical motifs in architecture, it seems to have been particularly rigid in Charlotte. Endless blocks of Myers Park, Eastover, and the new streets of Dilworth were developed in the 1920s with variations on the two-story brick Colonial box.

At the end of the decade 82,675 people lived in Charlotte, a 78 percent increase in just ten years. The city pulled ahead of Charleston to become the largest in both Carolinas. The Piedmont textile manufacturing region had triumphed over the old coastal agricultural export region.

In 1927 textile production in the South officially surpassed that in the old New England area. Charlotte was on the crest of the wave. It was, according to the city directory:

The center of a textile manufacturing territory having 770 mills, operating over 10,000,000 spindles, and consuming more cotton than any other section of the world. . .the largest center in the South for textile mill machinery and equipment, practically all the large companies in the United States and England handling their entire business in the South through Charlotte offices and plants. 

Not only did suppliers have representatives in the city, but increasingly the textile mills themselves had Charlotte offices, and many of the mill owners lived not in the small mill towns that dot the Piedmont but in Myers Park and Eastover. At the center of networks of railroads and now paved highways, Charlotte continued to build a broad economic base of banking, distribution, and wholesaling, in addition to textiles.

The Great Depression and Beyond, 1929-1983:
The stock market crash of 1929 triggered the United States' greatest depression. In Charlotte the rate of growth fell sharply as it did elsewhere across the nation. But, perhaps due to the diversity of the local economy, growth did not stop altogether as it did in many U. S. cities.

Between 1930 and 1940 the city population increased by 18,224 people, finally topping one hundred thousand, a respectable 22 percent rise. Though the number of building permits issued fell, streets of new houses continued to spring up even in the early thirties at the depth of the Depression. Building activity increased in the last months of the decade, then dropped to nothing when U. S. entry into World War II (1941-45) necessitated building restrictions.

It took the nation most of the rest of the 1940s to replace supplies of building materials depleted by the War. By 1948 the country was ready to build again and an unprecedented boom occurred. The returning G. I.s, ready en masse for homes of their own, were aided by the new Veterans Administration mortgage program and the recently established Federal Housing Administration loan guarantee program. With these, almost anyone could afford a house. This was a great change from the pre-war era when the "suburban dream" had been mainly for the middle and upper class, even with programs like Edward Dilworth Latta's "buy-with-your-rent-money."

Beginning in 1948 a whole new ring of suburbs sprang up around Charlotte. As before, these included middle class areas, like Maryland and Sterling streets at the edge of Myers Park. Now, however, there were also blue-collar suburbs, such as Smallwood Homes out West Trade Street. After the initial postwar boom came a brief lull in the early fifties, then steady growth into the 1960s. Much of the built environment of present day Charlotte dates from this postwar era.

The backbone of this new development was no longer the streetcar system, which ceased operation in 1938. Starting with Independence Boulevard in 1946, a network of expressways and widened thoroughfares cut through the city. They sped commuters to distant new suburban tracts and also, to the surprise of their proponents, encouraged businesses to leave downtown for new sites in the cheap farmland at the edge of the city.

This picture is of one of the first McDonald's in the city located off of Independence Blvd. Charlotte Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission. 

When the U. S. began its Interstate Highway program Charlotte became a center in this new net also. The first local leg of east-west I-85 opened in 1958, eventually linking the city with Atlanta, Durham, and Richmond. In 1965, construction began on north-south I-77 through the city, a link to Columbia, South Carolina, Roanoke, Virginia, and the Midwest. The Interstates reinforced Charlotte's position as the Piedmont's distribution center, particularly for trucking. According to some observers, only Chicago is home base to more tractor trailer rigs today than Charlotte. 

The rise of trucking is one of three major changes in Charlotte's economy since the 1920s. The second is the declining importance of textiles. Textile production still dominates the region around the city, but in Charlotte itself all of the mills that hummed sixty years ago are now silent and cotton buyers no longer throng Brevard Court downtown.

With the decline of textile activity has come the growth of banking. It is almost as if the descendants of the textile entrepreneurs gradually purified their trading activities to the point that the cotton disappeared, leaving a trade purely in money. Charlotte has become the financial center of the Carolinas. Deposits held by banks operating in Mecklenburg exceed that for any comparable area between Philadelphia and Dallas, and bank offices dominate the Charlotte skyline.



Charlotte Mecklenburg HLC Presents: The History and Growth of Charlotte, NC 

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“History is not the past, it is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.” - James Baldwin

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