Welcome to Davidson County History 101. Here you will find a brief overview of Davidson County history.
Davidson County is named for a hero of the American Revolution, General William Lee Davidson, who died in 1781 at the Battle of Cowan's Ford, while opposing General Cornwallis and the British crossing on the Catawba River. Only two years after his death, North Carolina created the 'first' Davidson County during a time the state's western boundary extended far beyond the Appalachian Mountains. After being part of North Carolina for six years, the state ceded this western area to the federal government in 1790, and it became part of the “Southwest Territory” in 1790. In 1796 Davidson County became part of the State of Tennessee. Twenty-six years later, in 1822, the North Carolina legislature created a second Davidson County from Rowan County, once again honoring General Davidson. As it emerged from the 'backcountry,' the exploits of Daniel Boone and others who followed the Trading Path through this region became the stuff of legends.
The first century of Davidson County, North Carolina, was eventful, to say the least. The small village of Lexington was chosen by the NC General Assembly after local citizens managed to pass a bill overriding the long standing tradition of choosing the geographical center of a new county as its seat. Had that not happened, the county seat and a new courthouse would have been built near where new Davidson County Law Enforcement Center on US Highway 64 is, and not on Washington Square, as the center of town was once known. One of these citizens, Dr. William Rainey Holt, would later join forces with John Thomas, founder of Thomasville, to push for construction of the North Carolina Railroad, an unprecedented public project focused on growing the state's economy. Holt and Thomas would sell more stock in the railroad than any other county, culminating in construction of the lines through Davidson County in 1855. The next year the county started construction on its second courthouse, which still stands on the Square in Lexington.
At that time county government was administered by a Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions. The county court heard minor civil matters, often debt-related, by justices of the peace. Misdemeanors, probate, local taxes, and public works (particularly roads, bridges and ferries), were also handled until after the Civil War, when the state rewrote its constitution in 1868, abolishing the court of pleas, and giving many of those responsibilities to superior courts. A commissioner-manager style of government was adopted for day to day business. During the Civil War years, Thomasville quickly became a center for producing shoes for the Confederacy, as well as serving as a major transit stop for troop movements. Although Davidson County was not in a battleground state like Virginia and Maryland, several unique events at the very end of the conflict occurred in the county, and of course, the economic impact of the war was devastating. Like most counties, Davidson County was broke, so private funds were borrowed to repair fire damage that had occurred at the courthouse in late November 1865. Dr. Holt died soon after the war, having lost his renowned 1,800-acre experimental research farm, Linwood, once operated by over 100 Holt slaves, all now free.
Still, Holt family members and others in the Lexington and Thomasville were instrumental in starting the cotton mill industry within just a couple of decades. These frame mill buildings were very susceptible to fire from highly combustible cotton dust. Finally, Wenonah Cotton Mill was built in 1882, made out of of stout brick to last. Many of the owners constructed mill housing, rented to their employees based on the number of rooms needed by their family. By the time Davidson County celebrated its Centennial, men who survived military service in Europe during WWI had returned home, the pandemic flu had finally ended, and the first of many furniture factories founded in the early 1900s were now nearly 20 years old. In 1918 the county decided to spruce up the Courthouse in Lexington, excavating a full basement to accommodate county offices that needed more space. 1927 High Rock Dam was completed, and the Depression hit not long after.
Perhaps the biggest boom years the county would experience were in the run-up to WWII, and the years after. The US Army relied on local mills to produce, among other things, parachute silk for the new paratroops organized in large part by then Colonel Robert Sink. Raw milk was shipped from Coble Dairy for troops overseas. Everyday life in Lexington and Thomasville, along with every town in the country, was dominated by the war efforts at home, as well as following the sometimes grim news of Allied military action in the European and the Pacific Theaters. For many years manufacturing jobs provided a stable and steady income; some plants employed nearly 2,000 people. Within a few decades family owned companies merged or were bought out by larger corporations, plants and factories were retooled and upgraded, and market forces began to change these industries. Post-war sensibilities about racial equality and civil rights would affect local schools and businesses, beginning a process of needed social and cultural change.
It is clear that many aspects of our local history reflect the impact of national, even international events. However, the story of how these events affected local residents is unique to our county...creating a story worth examining more closely. In the future we will be adding more information to this site on the events and people whose stories have built our shared history.