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Sketches of Old Warrenton



The physical and material conditions of the Warrenton of today are so changed from those of the first half-century of its existence that I think it most appropriate, in the beginning, to draw the contrast rather than to wait to do so at the conclusion of these pages. During the first period, the town consisted largely of a map and survey of the streets; the houses and homes being limited in number, and for the most part unpretentious in appearance. There were only half dozen, or maybe fewer, residences of any claim to size or style, and the streets and sidewalks, where they had been laid out at all, were only wider roads of red mud in winter, and dust in summer. To find one's way from house to house at night lanterns with lighted candles were necessary, as well as to prevent bodily injury from falling into some pond of water, or hole in the streets, or upon the lots not improved or built upon.

The Warrenton of today is in some respects the most remarkable town in the country. There are many beautiful and convenient homes, all in good repair, with yards and gardens adorned with roses and flowers of every variety, and furnished with all domestic comforts. The streets and sidewalks have been laid with improved granolithic pavements, and where, during the winter season, the plain and heavy vehicles of ancient days moved, as it were, up to the hubs in mud and water, automobiles of the most improved type roll over the smooth paved streets without noise and without effort. The chief of these streets, more than a mile and a quarter long, is especially striking.

A modern courthouse in the center of the town has been recently erected, as has been also a commodious town-hall, well finished and furnished.

The old fashioned dug well, in diameter about five feet, and in depth about forty or fifty feet, with its necessary windlass, bucket and chain, has been replaced with up-to-date waterworks for all modern uses, both municipal and domestic. A small municipal tax provides a sinking fund to meet annual payments on the system.

For the old fashioned lantern and tallow candle, as the only lights on the streets at night, electricity now affords Warrentonians a brilliant white way, the lighting being furnished by the power of the Peck cotton factory, on the northern edge of the town, equipped with the most improved and modern motor. In place of the old excavation known in old times as the ice house, the town government manufactures ice for its citizens and the surrounding country, in a factory owned, debt free, by the town. The homes are lighted by electricity, and telephones are in almost every house, their use dispensing with messengers for communication between citizens, as was the old-time custom.

The town government renews its streets and pavements, or builds new ones, with stone crushed at its own quarries lying within half a mile of the court-house.

Until the "short cut" from Petersburg to Norlina was built by the Seaboard Air Line a village and station were established there, and a direct macadam road was run to Warrenton, the citizens of the town, and the stranger who came into its' gates, used a railway three miles long, from Warren Plains, a station on the Seaboard Air Line, formerly the Raleigh and Gaston Railroad.

The railroad's history is interesting. About 1877 three of the most estimable but most impracticable citizens of the town started the movement. At the first public meeting at the courthouse, the chief speaker met with the misfortune of having his manuscript of many sheets, lying by him on a table loose and unweighted, scattered over the floor in every direction by a strong gust of wind. After an awkward and unsuccessful attempt to recover the pages, he announced that he could not proceed as he was not prepared to extemporaneously produce the statistics and arguments contained in his written production. In consequence the meeting was adjourned.

In a short time about $2,000 was subscribed for stock, and was paid in, and the amount spent on grading and for some crossties. There were no streams to be crossed, and the surface of gray with a good clay subsoil was so level, that the grading was done with a small force equipped with pick and shovel and plumb. A good hand could then be hired for about seventy-five cents a day, the laborer furnishing his own rations.

But the enterprise halted, and the crossties were sold as fire-wood. In about 1883 the town subscribed $20,000 in bonds toward the stock (nearly the 'entire stock subscription). A gentleman (my husband) was employed as the attorney of the company to sell the bonds. He knew well a prosperous banker of New York City, formerly of North Carolina, and went to see him. The banker laughed heartily at the proposition to buy the bonds, but suggested that the attorney call on a gentleman whose name he gave him, saying that he might take the chance.

The gentleman to whom the attorney was referred was originally from Connecticut, then a banker in New York. The statement made by the attorney interested him. When. he had been informed of all the facts and conditions it was felt that the large negro population of the town, and especially that of the county the proportion then being nearly three to one was the main impediment to the negotiation. The attorney then mentioned that the negro question, neither in Warrenton nor in Warren County, had ever been a menacing one; that in the Reconstruction period the negroes there were respectful, polite, law-abiding and industrious.

The banker seemed satisfied, and said that he had just that amount $20,000, belonging to two maiden ladies in Connecticut, for investment, and that he would make the purchase for them. He said that he needed no counsel as he had experience in such investments, but that an examination of the North Carolina Constitution, and the Act of the General Assembly authorizing the issue of the bonds would be necessary. These documents were then produced from the hand bag of the attorney; and after an examination of probably an hour, the banker said the money could be had as soon as the bonds were executed and delivered. In a very short time the bonds were delivered, and the money paid over to the company.

Often the request was made by the company to pay bonds ($1,000 each through a series of twenty years) before maturity, but the request was always refused. The bondholders did not desire to change the investment. For several years past the town stock has paid in yearly dividends from $6,000 to $9,000.

The railroad was completed on the 8th day of November, 1884. The entrance of the first train, locomotive and two cars, into the town, was celebrated by a great concourse of people. There were fireworks, speeches, music and general good, cheer. The track at that time did not run any further than to the northern limit of the town. The citizens felt that they had a double cause for jubilation, as they were, after nearly a century of isolation, in touch with the outer world, and had also received the news confirming the election of Grover Cleveland as President of the United States, the first Democratic President since Buchanan.

The population of the town (1922) is only 813 souls (500 whites, 313 colored), the number of citizens not varying from 1850 to the present time a hundred persons. The government of the town consists of a mayor and seven aldermen, three of whom are negroes. Good feeling exists between the races, as has always been the case ; and it is a proverbial saying in all the adjoining towns and cities, that the Warren County servants are the most intelligent and reliable of all the domestic help.


End of Chapter I

Go to Chapter II

We are just starting this and will continue as time allows. 
Montgomery, Lizzie Wilson; Sketches of old Warrenton, North Carolina; traditions and reminiscences of the town and people who made it, Raleigh, Edwards & Broughton printing company, 1924.

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