Yadkin County was a central location for tobacco basket makers. Courtney in Yadkin County was my first home, and it is dear to my heart. Still largely rural, the county has always been deeply steeped in the culture of raising tobacco. I live seventy miles away, but my work takes me there frequently, and each trip is a walk down memory lane. My roots run deep in its red clay.
The original Hoots in America settled in the Yadkin River valley. Jacob Huth (anglicized to Hoots) came from Germany to the colonies in 1743 as a young man and entered through either Pennsylvania or Quantico Bay. He settled in Virginia and was in the Eighth Virginia Regiment in the Revolutionary War. Jacob received a land grant of seven hundred fifty acres from the state of North Carolina, presumably entitled as a War veteran. He settled in the Deep Creek community in 1780-87, and many of his descendants still live in the area. As a small child, our home was on a piece of that original grant.
The word “Yadkin” may mean “big tree” or “place of big trees” in a local Native American language. Yadkin County was created in 1850 from a part of Surry County to its north. In the formation of North Carolina counties, a rule of thumb was that a county had to be small enough that any resident could travel to the Courthouse, usually in the center of the county, and back home on horseback in a single day.
The county is named for the Yadkin River that forms its northern and eastern boundaries. Uniquely, it is the only county of the hundred North Carolina counties that derives its name from a natural geographical feature. The others are mostly named for a person, a Native American tribe, or a place, usually in Europe. The river flows out of the Appalachian Mountains on to Georgetown, South Carolina. It is not widely recognized by name outside the region; many Tar Heels don’t know where it is. Eighty miles are so south of Yadkin County, the river’s name changes to Peedee, the original title of a Stephen Foster song about the anti-bellum South in 1851. Foster finally decided on “Swanee.”
The county’s rich history traces back before the Revolutionary War, and the river played an important part in that history. As settlers began to move southwest in the pre-Revolutionary colonies, the Yadkin River was a barrier to travelers headed south through North Carolina into upstate South Carolina and Georgia. The Great Wagon Road, the Interstate 85 of its day, had to cross the river. And the spot that allowed a convenient crossing came to be known, not a surprise, as Shallow Ford, in the southeast corner of the county.
In 1764, the road south of Shallow Ford was improved from a packhorse trail to a wagon road to Salisbury, North Carolina. In 1770, another road was cut west to “Mulberry Fields” (now Wilkesboro) and was extended later to Kentucky as the “Daniel Boone Trail.” This turned Shallow Ford into a major north-south and east-west junction. Shallow Ford river crossing was used until 1920 when a new bridge gave far better access to Winston-Salem, fifteen miles to the east.
Because of the heavy traffic along the Wagon Road, commerce developed at the ford where there was a high concentration of travelers. Above the river bottoms on the west side of the Shallow Ford, a community grew, officially becoming Huntsville in 1793.
Today, Huntsville is a village of twenty or so houses. But according to Yadkin history, in the late 1700s, Huntsville was a thriving commercial center, streets laid out in an orderly fashion, with as many as sixteen languages spoken – a true American melting pot.
A notable part of its lore, Yadkin history books claim that when the new nation was searching for a capital site, Huntsville lost to what became the District of Columbia by only four votes. Huntsville was one of those anomalies of America’s development – a vibrant commercial and transportation center, then the world moved on and left it behind.
Every county in America, no matter how far off the beaten path, can lay claim to natives or residents who are famous. And Yadkin has more than its share. These come readily to mind.
Young Daniel Boone lived in the area along the Yadkin River just south of the county line in Davie County and spent a good deal of time in Yadkin before moving on to Kentucky and finally Missouri.
Richmond Mumford Pearson, Jr. was born at Richmond Hill in 1852. His father, a North Carolina Supreme Court Justice operated a law school in the county for a time. Pearson, Jr. was the valedictorian of his class at Princeton. He studied law and was admitted to the bar
In 1874. That year he was appointed U.S. consul to Verviers and Liege,
Belgium. At twenty-two, he is still the youngest U.S. consul ever.
Ernie Shore was a native of the East Bend community. For many years, he was the highly respected sheriff of neighboring Forsyth County. But his claim to fame was that he played for the Boston Red Sox and in 1917, while a teammate of Babe Ruth, pitched what qualified as a perfect game.
Andy Griffith lived a few miles east in Mount Airy, the model for Mayberry. The oft referenced “Mount Pilot” is Pilot Mountain a prominent landmark in Surry County that can be seen from any high hill in Yadkin County. I once had a guest from Sana’a Yemen. As we rode along I pointed out Pilot Mountain. To my amazement, he seemed overwhelmed at the sight; he was a devoted Andy Griffith fan. Cultural icons seem to know no national boundaries.
Tom Ferebee grew up in neighboring Davie County. He is buried in the cemetery of a Methodist Church on a farm road near the Yadkin County line. I passed that road at least a thousand times and never drove the mile down it to the church until a couple of years ago when my cousin told me that Tom Ferebee was buried there. His gravestone is unremarkable. It simply says, “US Air Force World War II.” Ferebee was the bombardier on the Enola Gay. He dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima to end World War II a week later. Though controversial today, the act undoubtedly saved a million lives that would have been sacrificed if the War had not ended.
Yadkin has been, and to a lesser degree, remains a tobacco farming center. However, with the changes in the market for the gold leaf, the county has reached out to industry and to other crops as well. Yadkin Valley entrepreneurs have turned to winemaking and with twenty or so vineyards, “Yadkin Valley” is now a recognized wine-producing region, although hardly as well known as Sonoma or Napa.
An incident a few years ago reminded me of the changes time brings. I had some Charlotte friends who were Californians and wine connoisseurs. They liked a winery in Yadkin County and wondered if I would visit it with them. I traveled to the area frequently, and we agreed to meet at the winery for a wine tasting and a picnic.
Hanover Park Vineyard, the first licensed winery in Yadkin County since Prohibition, opened on Courtney-Huntsville Road in 1999. The vintners transformed an 1897 farmhouse into their tasting room. I had not heard of Hanover Park. The couple began to give me detailed directions because they were certain I could never find the place on my own. I told them not to worry – I would be there.
That Sunday, as we sat at a picnic table, I pointed and said to them, “See that house. My Uncle Newn lived there. And that house there, my Uncle Lindsay lived there. And over in those woods, my cousins Clarence and Charles still have their homes. That old building on the other side of the vineyard was my grandfather’s office for his tobacco basket business. And finally, down the road there, the big white house was my grandmother’s and the old shed beside it – they brought me home there when I was nine days old.”
It’s hard for “outsiders” to understand – this is the South, and this is Yadkin County. Everybody knows everybody and most of them are kin. The graveyards here are filled with headstones bearing the names Hoots and Baity. I love this place, and I wouldn’t pick any other place to be from.
The older we get, the deeper the roots grow, and this will probably be my final home at the end of Tobacco Road.
Wikipedia. “Yadkin County, North Carolina.” Last updated April 10, 2020. Accessed July 5, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yadkin_County,_North_Carolina