Before man created Lake Norman, he lived off the land.
Our European ancestors settled onto the trading grounds of the Catawba Indians. Wilderness gave way to farmland. Neighbors established churches, spawning communities.
What I love about history is that you can adjust the zoom level based on interest. I can recite stats from my 1990s basketball cards with relative ease, but I really want to hone in on my Lake Norman knowledge.
Enter Leadership Lake Norman.
The Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce offers the program to the next generation of leaders. Daylong seminars help inform participants of the issues affecting the region.
I was intrigued most by the opportunity to learn more about The Herald Weekly’s coverage area of Cornelius, Davidson and Huntersville. We, as a newspaper, can cover these communities better if we better understand them.
Fortunately for me, the Oct. 24 program featured stops at some of the Lake Norman region’s most historic sites, such as Davidson College, Hopewell Presbyterian Church and the Hugh Torrance House & Store.
Given the newspaper’s constraints of time and space, I’m going to fall short in portraying the signficance of these sites to our lives, but hopefully someone may develop an interest in learning more about them.
Davidson College growth parallels society
At Davidson College, Leadership Lake Norman toured the campus, as well as heard an abbreviated lecture on its history from Archivist Jan Blodgett.
Blodgett has a unique way of presenting the history of the college in a flowing way that rides the tides of American history, such as the Civil War, Great Depression, segregation and the advent of automobiles and television. She’s also masterful at throwing quirky tidbits, like how the sheriff’s son was among the first to get a speeding ticket when the highway in front of the college was paved.
Blodgett notes how women attended classes as early as the 1860s, when the college president’s daughters began sitting in. By 1900, three women completed coursework.
She was also struck by how many women drove around town once automobiles started hitting roadways in the 1910s. The Davidson College student newspaper kept tabs on all the ladies from various colleges who were coming and going to campus.
Students were also traveling abroad and bringing back new ideas from Europe in the early 20th century.
“In some ways, we were ahead of the curve and ahead of the world, but in others, we were a small town that is about to have a revolution hit them and we don’t even know.”
That was the case in 1949 when residents would stand outside Withers Electric – now the site of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream Parlor – to get a glimpse of the first TV program shown in town.
“Davidson has long had a complicated history of civic engagement of supporting our neighbors and also of Southern segregation,” Blodgett said.
She noted how college students would help get black churches up and running. The community even rallied to fix housing in 1949 after some downtown shacks without running water or electricity caught fire.
However, the college’s history includes an instance in which white students picketed a black barber shop and the Ku Klux Klan marched downtown.
Lake Norman helps spur town
I found Blodgett’s description of Lake Norman's development interesting.
“There was no Environmental Protection Agency, no archeological digs,” Blodgett said. “Everyone thought this was a great idea.”
Lincoln and Catawba counties were the hardest hit areas upon Lake Norman’s arrival, considering the number of farms and jobs that the lake replaced. Last year, Davidson College launched a crowdsourcing project in which the staff collected stories from the community of the lost mills, homes and landmarks that disappeared. The project coincided with the 50th anniversary of the lake.
“The lake is finished in 1963. Nothing happened,” Blodgett said. “We get electric power. A few people haul their trailers and fish on the lake. No one thought recreation, no one thought much about it until the 1980s.”
At one point, Davidson was approached by Marine World, which wanted to build a water park in the Exit 30 area.
“The consensus is we’re a college town,” she said. “We don’t want to be a touristy type of place.”
Blodgett attributes banks as a major driver of the lake’s recreational potential, noting how they recruited people from the Northeast who didn’t play golf, but enjoyed sailing.
Davidson has since attracted large employers, most notably Ingersoll Rand.
The arrival of River Run Country Club doubled the size of Davidson’s population in the 1980s. The town would open a new elementary school in 1994, but it would become overcrowded on the first day of school.
From some of the Davidson Town Board meetings I’ve attended in recent months, I sense commissioners are trying to find ways to allow for growth without making life here miserable inb terms of traffic.
Honing in on home life
Later that afternoon, Leadership Lake Norman traveled to Huntersville to visit Hopewell Presbyterian Church and the Hugh Torrance House & Store.
The Rev. Allan Purtill Jr. told us that Hopewell Presbyterian was the oldest institution in Mecklenburg County that’s been in continuous use. People began gathering at the church since 1762.
Purtill explained how one of the cornerstones of Presbyterian faith is education.
The church grounds contain the graves of prominent people of history, including Gen. William Davidson, Davidson College’s namesake.
I sat inside a sanctuary built in 1831 – the same pews in which aristocracy sat. Slaves watched from the balcony. As many as 140 slaves were on the church rolls in 1860.
Interestingly, slaves were taught how to read so they could read the Bible., Purtill said. And when they were freed, some went on to start African American churches nearby.
The Hugh Torrance House & Store proved to be another highlight of the program. Chamber President Bill Russell described it as the oldest standing house/store in North Carolina. While there are older homes and older stores, this house is the oldest combination of the two.
Torrance moved to the property in the 1770s. He was a Revolutionary War patriot who fought in the Battle of Ramseur Mills.
Years ago, the house was overrun with vegetation and looked rundown. But Torrance’s descendents had an architect verify the workmanship that set this home apart from others.
“A family back then would not have had something of this type of structure with the hand molding and everything that went into this house,” Russell said. “This represented a lot of wealth at that particular time.”
Thanks to local and state leadership, a group of history buffs restored the home and have been showing it off since 1997.
Justin Vick serves as executive editor of Lake Norman Publications. He controls the command center at Lake Norman World Headquarters.