The brutal beginnings, bright-eyed future of Mount Holly

by Sarah Melton

City officials and residents came together recently to celebrate Mount Holly’s history.

Fifty people attended the Mount Holly Historical Society’s first Founder’s Day on March 19 at the Mount Holly Municipal Complex. Dr. Richard Rankin, a local historian and head of Gaston Day School, gave a detailed presentation on the city’s history, starting with the people of the Catawba River.

The area was home to various Native American tribes before European settlers arrived. The settlers brought with them diseases, killing a majority of the Native Americans, but those that survived formed a new tribe, the Catawba Indians. They eventually became mercenaries for the government and fought against Cherokee Indians. Some old, local tombstones even read “Killed by Indian raiders.”

European settlers from Ireland, Germany and England came down through Pennsylvania and Virginia. Some settlers stayed in Charlotte, while others crossed the Tuckasegee Ford.

“A ford is shallow enough for a wagon and horse to cross,” Rankin said. “Fords are great when the water is low but can be very dangerous when the water is high. Tuckaseege Ford is where our settlers came from and in the 1740s to1760s, they began to settle in small farms throughout this area.”

The area was heavily involved in the American Revolution. Neighbors turned against each other. The militia was made up of young boys, around 16 years old, riding horses and armed with guns.

“My mentality is if you give a bunch of teenagers guns and put them on motorcycles that would be my description of the militia,” Rankin said. “It was a terribly brutal time, and I believe it made this part of the world even wilder. It made it even less civilized around here.”

But the end of the American Revolution brought growth and peace to the area. Farmers were planting commercial crops that were marketed in towns, such as Charleston. Rankin suspected wheat was the first cash crop in the area.

By the 1830s, the area was filled with farmers, stores and homes, and the area was first known as Woodlawn and eventually became Mount Holly.

“The Civil War devastated this area,” Rankin said. “It was not much through physical damage. There was not much fighting here, but there was tremendous devastation. Why? Because all of your ancestors, uncles and brothers and fathers, were fighting or dying or being wounded on the battlefields of Virginia.”

Mount Holly was founded March 14, 1879, around the time textile mills evolved as a major industry.

The city became home to parks, pavilions, jousting tournaments, hotels and grocery stores, according to letters obtained by the historical society.

“I am going to make this statement and it probably would be disputed in other counties, but I suspect from 1870 to 1910, Mount Holly was the most prosperous, largest and most prestigious city in Gaston County,” Rankin said. “Mount Holly was where it was at from 1870 to 1910.”

Transportation was also a big draw for people to come to Mount Holly during that time period.

“We had a railroad,” Rankin said. “Lincolnton didn’t have a railroad until after the Civil War. The railroad, the mills and Duke Power have driven this community and really been fairly prosperous. Also, the proximity to Interstate 85 helped, so that combination has been powerful.”

Since 1980, many of the manufacturing companies have gone away, but the connection to Charlotte has helped keep Mount Holly thriving.  Leadership through the Mount Holly Community Development Foundation, city leaders and the community has helped the city grow over the years, Rankin said.

“I look at Mount Holly and I think this community has done things in terms of its vision for the future,” Rankin said. “That is going to pay off.”

Founder’s Day also featured an 1880 census with around 400 Mount Holly residents’ names. Leigh Brinkley, a member of the society, encouraged the public to research a name and find out more about the people that shaped the city. The findings could be included in the society’s genealogy presentation in September.

“It will take some digging and documentation, but if we don’t learn about who we are and who was here and pass it on, it will be forgotten,” Brinkley said.

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