Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Friday, March 21, 2014


The County of Gaston by Robert F. Cope & Manly Wade Wellman (1961)

Manly Wade Wellman was a proud Southerner and many of his books, both fiction and nonfiction, are set in his beloved state of North Carolina.  He wrote histories of several counties in the Tarheel State (Warren, County, Moore County, and Madison County) and wrote or co-wrote a number of the pamphlets that made up the 13-part Winston-Salem in History series.  For The County of Gaston, Wellman teamed up with local historian Robert Cope to come up with a surprisingly entertaining piece of local history.  (Wellman went on to use Gaston County and its history during the Revolutionary and Civil Wars as settings for several of his books, most notably his juvenile historicals Rifles at Ramsour's Mill, Battle for King's Mountain, Clash on the Catawba, and The South Fork Rangers.)

Gaston County lies about two-thirds into the southern part of North Carolina coming from the east and abuts South Carolina.  The county was officially established in 1846 after having been a part of several increasingly smaller counties over the years.  As enough settlers moved into an area it was often divided to form a new county, thus Gaston Country was formed from Lincoln County. which was formed from Tyron County, which was formed from Mecklenburg County, which was formed from Anson County, which was formed from Bladen County, which was formed from New Hanover County, which was formed from Clarenden County, which was form from Albemarle County.  (Phew!  It's like going though a list of biblical "begats.")  The county was named for Judge William Gaston, a revered citizen who had passed away just three years earlier.

The county was divided into eight areas or "companies," keeping with old militia organization, each with its own constable, justice of the peace, and patrol committee.  In 1850, the first census since its formation, Gaston County had 8,073 residents, including 2,112 slaves and 26 free Negroes.  Industry included textile mills, mines, and a brick manufacturing plant.  Textile mills remained an important part of the local economy -- an appendix in the book lists 65 active mills as of 1935 and 103 mills that had been discontinued, merged, or sold in the county's first 91 years.

Although I have no proof, I'm certain that most of the charm of this history is due to Wellman.  Figures from the past are brought to life with their various quirks, passions, and opinions.  Wellman's love for the country and its people are clearly evidenced.  Anecdotes are sprinkled throughout to illustrate the temper of the day.  The detailed research that went into the book is certainly on a par with that used by Wellman in other nonfiction books.  (The University of North Carolina library seems to have been Wellman's second home.)

We are able to see an area transform from virgin forest, through its infant stage of development, to the chaos and tragedy of the Civil War and Reconstruction and the emergence of the Ku Klux Klan, to periods of boom and bust, and through labor unrest and World Wars.  The book covers the first century of Gaston County and no mention is made of the burgeoning civil rights struggles that were going on before the publication date.

The history itself covers 197 pages.  Appendices, notes, and an index cover an additional 75 pages.  The financing for the book's publication by the Gaston County Historical Society was made by 81 sponsors listed in Appendix G.  The other appendices list the county's Revolutionary War soldiers, the Clerks of the Court, Sheriffs, and Registers of Deeds from 1847 through 1955, the Gaston County members of the state legislature from 1846 through 1961, the Gaston County confederate soldiers by company and regiment, the county's Spanish-American War soldiers, and the county's texile plants from 1846 through 1935.  A lot of nit-picking detail there, but if you were a local resident, you might really want that information.

The book is an interesting read, but the subject matter makes it interesting only to history buffs and Wellman completists.


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  2. I'm a big Wellman fan. I'll have to track this down.