A History of Sanford, North Carolina

Lee County Court House - Sanford, North Carolina

Sanford, what now stands as the County Seat of Lee County began as North Carolina's western frontier. Home to Native American hunters and farmers, a vast wilderness was filled with roaming buffalo and thriving wildlife. Settlers began pushing into the region decades before the American Revolution, with migrating colonists from Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and coastal regions of North Carolina, as well as Scottish immigrants arriving in America through the port of Wilmington. Population estimates for early Lee County are complicated by the fact that “Lee County” did not exist as a separate political entity until the 1910 census; reconstructed 1860 population figures for the section of Chatham and Moore counties which later formed Lee County suggest a total population slightly in excess of 5,000 people at the end of the antebellum period. For over a century, life remained traditional and rural with the predominance of settlers living along the Deep and Cape Fear Rivers until intersecting railroad lines transformed the area forever.

The first line successfully built into Lee County was the Western Railroad, chartered in December 1852 to connect Fayetteville and the Deep River Coal Field. In the fall of 1860, the line was completed to Evander McIver's plantation on Big Buffalo Creek. McIver's Depot was established at this location, and workers began blasting the McIver Cut through a brownstone ridge that lay between the depot and the small village of Egypt, recently established at the heart of the coal field. Although some coal was being hauled to McIver's Depot and transported over the line by December of 1861, Confederate authorities considered it imperative that work be completed to Egypt and consequently provided assistance to the railroad's owners. In September of 1863, the Western Railroad finished its line to Egypt. Coal production boomed after the War; in 1869, thirty-nine rail cars were devoted exclusively to carrying Egypt coal to the port at Fayetteville. The Western Railroad was reorganized as the Cape Fear & Yadkin Valley Railroad in 1879; the same year it completed a four-mile extension from Egypt to Gulf. In later years, the CF&YV extended to Greensboro and Mt. Airy, providing enhanced shipping facilities to Lee County farmers and industrialists.

Raleigh entrepreneurs were keenly aware of the profits the Fayetteville-based Western Railroad stood to gain from Deep River coal. In 1855, they chartered the Chatham Railroad and planning began for the construction of a line from Raleigh to Gulf. As originally projected, the road would have also linked Raleigh to the navigation works on the Deep River. The line was built into the area by 1870, but it took a more southerly route through the center of Lee County toward the vast timber reserves of the Sandhills.

In 1871, the tracks of the Chatham Railroad, now reorganized as the Raleigh & Augusta Air Line Railroad (R&A), intersected those of the Western Railroad at a sandy ridge northwest of Jonesboro. By 1877, the R&A, which was controlled by the Raleigh & Gaston Railroad Company, had reached the North Carolina-South Carolina line. The crossing of these two important rail lines set the stage for a period of unprecedented agricultural and industrial development. Over the following decades, lumbering and naval stores production consumed the county's pine forests, coal mining rebounded at Egypt, and Lee County became a nationally significant supplier of architectural brownstone. Freed from slavery, the county's African-American citizens established farms, churches, and business districts, starting on the long hard road toward fuller participation in civic and economic affairs.

"At first it was simply a place where the railroads crossed," one laconic commentator recalled Sanford at its moment of birth, however, adjacent landowners, Jordan Wicker, Augustus W. Steele, John B. Matthews, Sr., and the McIver brothers seized the opportunity to develop a town by laying out approximately 225 acres into streets and lots and sold them at public auction. The town was named Sanford in honor of Charles O. Sanford, the R&A engineer responsible for the construction of the railroad through what later became Lee County.

Downtown Sanford grew rapidly at first, a result of its short-lived status as the terminus of the R&A line. One account puts the 1871 population as high as 285, when the town swelled with railroad workers and would-be capitalists. Among the first buildings constructed in the town were the depot and depot agent's residence. The latter, better known as the Railroad House, stood on the north corner of Hawkins and Charlotte avenues across from another early building, Brown's Tavern. The first occupants of the house were depot agent W. T. Tucker, later Sanford's first mayor, and his wife, Inder Tucker, who conducted the Sanford Institute in the house "for the tuition of young ladies and small boys" from 1872 until the late 1890s. Aside from its educational function, the Institute instilled a modicum of gentility in the raw town. It also served a promotional purpose. An advertisement for the school assured prospective customers that "parents wishing to send their children to a quiet and healthy location cannot find a place more so than Sanford." The idyllic Sanford portrayed by the Tuckers bore little resemblance to the "straggling village, ugly, dirty and uninviting" recalled by others, with its muddy streets, groggeries, and contaminated wells.

After the initial flush of development, however, Sanford stagnated. When it was incorporated on February 11, 1874, the town's population had dwindled to 200. By 1880, the population had risen only slightly to 236 persons - 126 whites and 110 African Americans. Some blamed the town's failure to develop a stable community life on the ready availability of “spirituous liquors." Liquor sales were prohibited by the Act of incorporation, but the problem persisted for years afterward.

Downtown Sanford was basically a working community of merchants, tradesmen, and laborers. The town fathers included Robert M. Brown, the postmaster and a leading merchant; George C. Newby, a physician and one of the town’s first commissioners; and Wilber C. Page, the proprietor of the town hotel. The Rev. Peter J. Klapp ministered to the town's spiritual needs, and Aurelia C. Weatherspoon, age nineteen, taught school. The town's businessmen included merchants Lodwick T. Brown, William T. Buchanan, John M. Stephens, and Thomas D. Watson; lawyer Thomas M. Cross; carpenters Henry A. Bland, Jack Miller, and David W. Womack; and gravestone maker George A. Davis. Wilber Page and his wife Fanny ran the Page Hotel, also known as the "Waffle House" for its house specialty. In 1899, the Page Hotel (which probably stood on South Moore Street) contained twenty-three rooms, “tastefully and cozily furnished" parlors, and a dining room table that could seat thirty diners. Downtown Sanford's early business life revolved around the McIvers general store.

Although McIvers may not have been the town's first store, it was for many years Sanford's leading mercantile emporium, and the list of individuals associated with it reads like a roster of the principal merchants and landowners in the Sanford vicinity. The original store building, a "rough plank structure" on the south corner of Chatham and McIver streets, was established in 1873 by local planter M. Henry McIver and businessman D. H. Marsh. John D. McIver joined the business at an early date, and it may have been his cotton gin that operated in conjunction with the store in 1877. About 1883, the firm moved across McIver Street to a "large and beautiful Store house".

The construction of the Raleigh & Augusta line also had a tremendous impact on the expansion of the lumber industry, as lumber speculators descended on the southern sandhills portion of the county buying up huge timber tracts. In 1883, a Raleigh newspaper declared that Moore County (which Lee County formed the eastern tip) "exports more dollars worth of natural products, perhaps than any other county in the state." Temporary lumber camps were established throughout the county; the remains of one survive today at the intersection of the Seaboard Coastline and Lower Moncure Road (SR 1002) near Blacknel.

Rollis Store was granted a U.S. Post Office on May 17, 1841 in Moore County, and its first Postmaster was Thomas Rollins. Its name was changed to Jonesborough on October 10, 1865, and its first Postmaster was William Rollins. Its name was changed again, to Sanford, on February 19, 1872, and its first Postmaster was Thomas Rollins. In 1907, the Post Office of Sanford was now in Lee County. It has been in continuous operation ever since inception.

Lee County Court House - Sanford, NC (2016)

Lee County Court House was built in 1908.

Lee County is a member of the regional Triangle J Council of Governments. The county is governed by a seven-member board of county commissioners, elected at large to serve four-year terms. Terms are staggered so that, every two years, three or four commissioners are up for election. The commissioners enact policies such as establishment of the property tax rate, regulation of land use and zoning outside municipal jurisdictions, and adoption of the annual budget. Commissioners usually meet on the first and third Mondays of each month.

On creation of the new county, both Sanford and Jonesboro were the major towns in the area. Rather than decide which would be the county seat, the decision was to place the county's new court house directly between the two towns. For decades, Lee County was the only county in the United States to have a courthouse with an RFD address. In the late 20th century Sanford had grown to such an extent that it eventually merged with Jonesboro. The town of Jonesboro became Jonesboro Heights, and the name of Sanford was kept for the county seat.

Click Here to view a 2018 map of the town of Sanford provided by the NCDOT.

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