A remarkable two-page spread in the April 5, 1896, edition of the Raleigh News and Observer describes the rise and current status of Louisburg’s tobacco market. Filled with drawings of prominent businessmen and their businesses, the exposé demonstrates how tobacco had stimulated significant growth in “Franklin’s charming capital.” Articles by Louisburg attorney Charles Mather Cooke, who had recently been appointed by Governor Elias Carr as North Carolina Secretary of State, and James A. Thomas, publisher of The Franklin Times, provide a clear picture of the town’s recent development and prospects.
A local investor, Jordan F. Jones, opened the first tobacco warehouse in 1885, but transplants from Virginia played a more important role in the ascendency of tobacco as the most lucrative local crop. Jones’s warehouse was located across South Main Street from the newly constructed depot of the Raleigh and Gaston Railroad and adjacent to his existing grist mill on the Tar River. This enterprise failed to gain traction. Approximately four years later, some young tobacconists from Danville, Virginia, moved to Louisburg to develop a local tobacco market. Among them were William T. Hughes, who operated the Jones warehouse, and J. B. Thomas, who also managed a warehouse. Their pioneering efforts attracted additional tobacconists from Virginia and from elsewhere in North Carolina, but local men, including George W. Ford, and William H. Pleasants, also began tobacco businesses.
Investors built tobacco prize houses so that locally grown tobacco could be processed, packed into hogsheads, and shipped by rail from the new depot. Some of these facilities were located in the central business district, but others sprouted on South Main Street, very close to the depot. Among these was an impressive, four-story masonry building owned by W. B. Green. According to the article, Green, who learned the tobacco business in Lynchburg, “loves a warehouse sale. He delights in going through his vast prize house and watching the leaf as natural seasons re-dry and re-order it…. He is happiest when every warehouse floor is covered from end to end with great heaps of the weed, and when hogshead after hogshead is going out to re-tell the story of the par excellence of Louisburg’s superior leaf.”
The advent of the tobacco business had a dramatic impact on the town, even though cotton remained an important crop in the county. By the time the article was written, Louisburg’s four warehouses sold “several million” pounds of tobacco a year. The town had grown in population and the value of local property had doubled. In recent years, some twenty-five new residences had been built. Merchants had constructed several brick store buildings. Everyone was proud of the new three-story brick hotel on Main Street, which was nearing completion. Main and Nash Streets often were filled with people transacting business.
Editor Thomas summed up the metamorphosis this way: “The cause of this new prosperity and business activity in the town of Louisburg and the wonderfully improved condition of the farmers and laboring classes throughout the county is not hard to discover. The dawning of what may be called a new era in the history of the town and county was contemporaneous with the opening of the tobacco warehouses in 1890.”
Published in The Franklin Times on January 26, 2017.
Maury York is director of the Tar River Center for History and Culture at Louisburg College and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He wishes to thank Diane Taylor Torrent for bringing this article to his attention. It was accessed through the Nineteenth Century Newspapers database of Gale Cengage Learning.