Like many small towns in the Piedmont and Coastal Plain of North Carolina, Louisburg developed a noteworthy tobacco market in the last ten years of the nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth century. This was the result of a confluence of agricultural trends, the rise of tobacco manufacturing in the state, and a significant improvement in transportation facilities.
Tobacco had been grown in North Carolina since colonial times, but the perfection of the flue-cured, bright-leaf tobacco process prior to and after the Civil War increased the crop’s popularity. Production of this type of leaf spread from counties in the northern tier of the Piedmont to eastern North Carolina, especially after 1890. The Duke family’s near-monopoly of the manufacture of cigarettes, aided by installation in their Durham factory of a Bonsack cigarette machine in 1884, enhanced the state’s reputation as the leading producer of tobacco in the United States.
An important transportation improvement helped Louisburg take advantage of these trends. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, local farmers or merchants had hauled tobacco overland to key markets in Petersburg or Richmond. The completion of the Raleigh and Gaston Railroad in 1840, which included a depot in Franklin County that came to be known as Franklinton, made it easier for local farmers to sell their tobacco. In 1885, a branch of this railroad was built from Franklinton to Louisburg. This line, whose terminus was located on the south side of the Tar River, fostered commerce, including the tobacco industry.
The market was established by September 1890, when The Franklin Times published an account of its opening. The new brick warehouse of Dr. J. S. Meadows was not quite ready on opening day, but the warehouse operated by William T. Hughes, a native of Virginia, attracted numerous farmers whose wagons entered the facility full of the tobacco. The newspaper praised two of the buyers, John B. and Lee Boatwright, whose firm, Boatwright Bros. & Co., held “some of the largest orders on the Southern market for all grades.”
By September 1893, when the Sanborn-Perris Map Company published a detailed map of the commercial area of Louisburg, the footprint of the tobacco industry had expanded. Riverside Tobacco Warehouse occupied a large portion of Market Street, behind the Franklin County Courthouse. Franklin Tobacco Warehouse stood near the southeast corner of Church and West Nash streets. Also located downtown were at least four tobacco prize houses. William T. Hughes’s warehouse and at least two prize houses held strategic locations across the river, near the depot of the Raleigh and Gaston Railroad.
The growth of the industry continued. At the time of the 1900 census, some seventeen men who lived in Louisburg pursued tobacco-related occupations. These included tobacconists and warehousemen from the area as well as transplants from Virginia and elsewhere in North Carolina. These men were soon joined by C. B. Cheatham, who in 1904 showed the editor of The Franklin Times his new “tobacco factory” on South Main street. A buyer for the Imperial Tobacco Company, Cheatham had recently purchased the drying and ordering equipment of William T. Hughes. According to the news article, “This wonderful machinery takes the tobacco in at one end and turns it out ready for the ‘prizers’ at the other. It is first placed in an immense revolving sifter which removes all the dirt and foreign matter and then goes through a drying process, then a steaming one, and then prized into hogsheads.” It would be an easy matter to load the hogsheads onto nearby freight cars. Eventually, some of the tobacco made its way to points as far away as England.
Local farmers continued to enjoy the convenience of the Louisburg tobacco market, but a variety of factors led to its gradual decline after World War II.
Published in The Franklin Times on May 12, 2016.
Maury York is director of the Tar River Center for History and Culture at Louisburg College and can be reached at email@example.com. He wishes to acknowledge use of an article on tobacco in William S. Powell, ed., Encyclopedia of North Carolina (UNC Press, 2006).