2. Mecklenburg County

MOST authorities on the earliest known facts about Mecklenburg County rely on Lawson's History of North Carolina, by John Lawson (1714) and on A Journey to the Land of Eden, by William Byrd, written about 1733 but unpublished until 1841. Of the two, Lawson's book is the most enlightening as to the immediate vicinity of Mecklenburg County.
 
John Lawson was one of the incorporators of Bath Town, the first town to be established in North Carolina. During the eight years he remained in America, he occupied himself as a surveyor and explorer. His principal journey carried him from Charleston, South Carolina, via the eastern edge of the Santee, Wateree, and Catawba rivers to the vicinity of the Mecklenburg. Continuing in a northeasterly direction along the Catawba Trading Path, he went through Rowan, Guilford, and Alamance counties to the vicinity of Hillsboro. From there, he moved in a southeasterly direction toward the settlement on the coast.
 
While it is not certain that Lawson actually traversed the present county of Mecklenburg, he came near enough for his comments upon natural resources and the Indians to apply to this county. He termed it "a delicious country."
 
William Byrd, whose account was based on his travels through North Carolina in 1728, also liked what he saw: "The course from Roanoke to the Catawba lies through a fine country that is watered by several beautiful rivers. . . ."
 
It was into this favored land that Thomas Spratt and others came. During the 1740's there was such an influx into this section that by 1762 the legislature, meeting in New Bern, granted a petition for a new county to be formed from Anson County. The act creating Mecklenburg County was passed December 11, 1762, to become effective February 1, 1763. The county was named Mecklenburg in hope of pleasing King George III of England and gaining favor, since his Queen was a native of the district in Germany bearing the name.
 
In 1768 Tryon County was formed from Mecklenburg, and in 1792 another large slice of Mecklenburg went to create Cabarrus County. These losses were followed by several minor changes in boundary lines between counties, the final area to be removed from the original Mecklenburg was to form Union County in 1842. This left Mecklenburg an irregularly shaped 549 square miles, or 347,520 acres, lying in the south central part of North Carolina. The southern boundary of Mecklenburg rests on the South Carolina border. The county lies on the eastern edge of the Piedmont section of the Carolinas. Typical of southern Piedmont, the county's general surface consists of a series of gently rolling slopes to almost level interstream areas, becoming more broken and hilly as the larger streams are approached.
 
Elevations throughout the county vary considerably. From 300 feet above sea level along the bottom lands of the river, the elevation ranges to 795 feet at the western edge of Charlotte. The city's average elevation is 750 feet, dropping to 570 feet at Pineville, fifteen miles to the southeast.
 
The average annual temperature of Mecklenburg is about 60 degrees F., with about 100 degrees for the hottest day and 5 degrees below zero for the coldest. The annual precipitation ranges from 35 to 68 inches. The latest date for a killing frost is about April 1, with the first frost in the fall about November 1, permitting agricultural and horticultural activities to be pursued with only a short interruption during the winter months. Average monthly precipitation is from three to six inches with maximum rainfall in June, July, and August, at which time it is most needed for growing crops. The wind blows from a southwesterly direction most of the time with average velocity of about six miles per hour, carrying considerable moisture. These winds are seldom severe enough to cause appreciable damage.
 
The county is well drained. Its general slope is to the south and southwest except along the eastern border, which slopes to the east. There is a ridge extending from the northern boundary to the northeastern (Derita) area of Charlotte, thence to the Mint Hill area. All of the water to the east of this ridge flows into Rocky River, which all to the west flows eventually into the Catawba River, largest stream in the county, falling 190 feet between the northern and southern boundaries of the county. The principal tributaries of the Catawba River are Davidson, McDowell, Long, Paw, and Steel creeks. Those draining into Rocky River are West Branch, Clarks, Mallard, and Clear creeks.
 
In Mecklenburg County more than a quarter of a million people make their homes, most of them within 65 square miles that is Charlotte. In the county are five towns: Huntersville, Cornelius, Davidson, Matthews, and Pineville, and the villages of Newell, Derita, Mint Hill, and Paw Creek.
 
 
Government
Prior to the Civil War, the government of Mecklenburg County was conducted largely by Justices of the Peace, who acted through a county court. The General Assembly set forth certain necessary functions for the operation of the county and authorized the county court to engage personnel to perform the duties of the various positions created.
 
In 1868, the government of the county was placed in the hands of five commissioners elected by the people. This form is still in use. In actual operation, the Chairman of the Board of Commissioners is the chief executive of the county. His duties correspond to those of a city manager in a municipality, in that he carries out mandates of the board of which he is chairman.
 
To such obvious responsibilities in the early days as entering settlers on land and connecting them with roads; recording deeds, mortgages, and conveyances; settling estates and policing the county, there was added in the 1830's the duty of providing a "system of common and convenient schools." The 1880's saw the beginning of public health activities, and about 1900 public library service was begun. By 1960 there were about 700 people in the employment of Mecklenburg County.
 
It took increasingly large amounts of money with which to pay these people as their services became necessary, and to perform governmental functions. The money had to come from taxes.
 

Year Property Valuation City tax rate
per $100 value
County tax rate
per $100 value
1925 $163,744,296 $1.92 $1.00
1950 $259,659,145 $1.97 $ .97
1960 $794,500,000 $1.50 $1.56

 
The first courthouse in Mecklenburg was located on what later became Independence Square, where Trade Street crosses Tryon Street in Charlotte, boastfully renamed by some, the "crossroads of the Carolinas."
 
The first crude log courthouse was replaced in 1810 by a brick building of about the same size constructed on the same site. This building was overhauled about 1829 and served until 1845 when a substantial two-story building was erected on the northeast corner of Trade and Church Streets, later identified for sixty or more years as the location of the Selwyn Hotel. For some months in 1865 the records of the State Department of the Confederacy, including the Great Seal, were stored in this courthouse.
 
The fourth courthouse in Mecklenburg, built in 1896 and occupied in 1897, was located on the southeast corner of Tryon and Third Streets. For that period it was quite a pretentious building and one that was expected to serve indefinitely. However, by the early 1920's, it became apparent that so much more room would be needed that enlarging it was out of the question. Much of Charlotte's early history occurred on the spot where the courthouse stood. This was the site of Queens College, later Queens Museum and, still later, Liberty Hall Academy. On this lot were buried a number of Cornwallis' troops who were killed in the Battle of Charlotte, September 26, 1780. Some of their bones were found when excavations were made for the courthouse.
 
Bowing to necessity in 1925, the commissioners acted with dispatch in acquiring property and erecting a new courthouse, the fifth for Mecklenburg. The building occupies the greater part of a city block bounded by Trade Street, Fourth Street, Alexander Street, and Myers Street. The cost of the new building with added equipment was approximately a million dollars, about half of which was raised from sale of the property which had been vacated. This building, 700 East Trade Street, was formally opened in the spring of 1928 and is still in use, notwithstanding even more crowded conditions than existed in the building relinquished in 1928.
 
The present courthouse is in a beautifully wooded square and adjoins a like block on which is located the Charlotte City Hall.
 
To alleviate the inconveniences incident to crowded conditions in the present courthouse, Mecklenburg voters on November 1, 1958, authorized bonds in the sum of two million dollars for this purchase of property on which to build an annex to the courthouse, or more properly, a county office building, and 500 thousand dollars for modernizing the main building.
 
There has never been a serious scandal with any city or county official or office. Even with this enviable record and the excellent manner in which Mekclenburg public affairs have been handled, the news of improved methods elsewhere has led many people to advocate consolidation of the county and city governments, in the hope of decreasing costs and improving efficiency. One of the early leaders in this movement in North Carolina was Miss Carrie McLean, a member of the Mecklenburg delegation to the legislature in 1927.
 
The trend toward consolidation began in Mecklenburg in 1929 when public library service became jointly financed. Then, more from necessity than with the idea of promoting city-county consolidation, the health departments of Charlotte and Mecklenburg began joint operations July 1, 1953. Later, and probably because of the success of the health departments, arrangements were completed for submitting both city and county tax statements together and receiving payment in one place. Then, on June 30, 1959, the voters of Charlotte and Mecklenburg took a major step toward eventual complete consolidation, by authorizing the combining of the two public school systems. At the same election a large bond issue was approved for the purpose of increasing physical facilities throughout the consolidated public school system.
 
The consolidation of the school systems of Mecklenburg came just ten years after the completion of a survey made by the Institute of Government of Chapel Hill. This survey was ordered by the County Commissioners and the City Council in order to "find out whether or not it is feasible to consolidate the City Government of Charlotte and the County Government into one governing body for Charlotte and Mecklenburg County." Miss McLean's dream may indeed come true, as have those of so many other progressive spirits whose names adorn the pages of Charlotte and Mecklenburg history.

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