The Long Road Home

In 1996, Melissa and I bought our first home.  After college, I lived in a number of apartments, leased condos, and rented houses and it was not until I was 37 years old that I actually had the money for the required down payment for a home of our own.  In the mid-2000’s our federal government declared anyone can have the “American Dream” of home ownership –  regardless of whether you can afford the down payment, the mortgage payment, or required maintenance. However, I was taught by my parents you had to be able to meet your financial obligations.  It took some time for me to work and save for that first down payment but it was all worth it.

The message to the American public a few years ago pre-recession was – charge it!  “Don’t have the money or the credit – no problem!  You can still buy that new house, the new automobile, and all the furniture and electronics that your neighbor down the street has recently purchased. Banks – make that loan.    Consumers – put it on your credit card!”

The reality is – “No, we cannot all afford the American Dream.”  However, we all have opportunities with hard work, perseverance, and support to get there.  That’s the story behind Our Towns Habitat for Humanity and Mia Patterson and her family.  Mia, a single mother raising an 8-year-old daughter and a 5-year-old son, waited eight years for a home of her own.

Mia Patterson and her daughter Tamya and son TJ

The Lake Norman Chamber partnered with Our Towns Habitat to raise money last year to build a home for Mia and her family.  The project received a significant boost from Wells Fargo Bank that donated $30,000 and guaranteed an additional $20,000 in matching grants.

Lake Norman Chamber members stepped up to the plate with the McIntosh Law Firm, McBryde Website Design, Champion Tire and Wheel, Carolinas HealthCare System, Kimball Morrison, and Park Avenue Properties all making early contributions.

We saw the dollars tally as our own Chamber Ambassadors and the Barry family made individual contributions along with AT&T, Boatsman Gilmore Associates, and Lake Norman Chrysler Jeep Dodge Ram getting us closer to our goal of $71,500.

Now the objective is to close the gap and we are just $5,500 short of reaching our goal.  We are calling on our Chamber members and the public at large to help us make the “American Dream” possible.

On Friday, May 4th from 5:30 to 10:00 PM Pelican’s Patio (19930 W. Catawba Ave Cornelius NC) will host a “Partido un Dia Temprano – for those who do not speak Spanish “Party A Day Early!  We will have Heavy Hors d’oeuvres, Music, and a Cash Bar with a $20 donation at the door.

The event is sponsored by the Lake Norman Chamber and Wells Fargo Bank. Please come out and support Habitat for Humanity and our chamber project in a fun and relaxing way.

A couple of months ago, many of you had the chance to meet Mia and her family at a special Our Towns Habitat Business BeforeHours and an earlier Board of Directors Meeting.  Mia’s words of gratitude for the generous outpouring of support could be seen in her eyes as she tightly wrapped her arms around her children knowing they finally had a place of their own to call home.

While I believe in the American Dream, I believe many of the folks in Washington, DC  just don’t get it.  The American Dream is not what we gain by receiving something, it’s what we become as a community and individuals by giving something.

Hope to see you at the Chamber’s Business Build fundraiser and thanks to everyone who has changed a life one family at a time!


Recollections at an Old Country Store – Hugh Torance House & Store

Rev. Jeff Lowrance conducting a tour of the Store

Sometime in the spring of 1997, I received a call from Rev. Jeff Lowrance of Hopewell Presbyterian Church asking if I would consider joining the Board of Directors of the Hugh Torance House and Store.  Jeff knew of my fondness for history as we had both shared stories of our respective Churches.  Hopewell Presbyterian in Huntersville has deep roots in Mecklenburg County as does my home Church, Bethesda Presbyterian located in McConnells (York County,SC). My family was among the charter members of the church which was first organized in 1769 with some of the early families meeting as early as 1760.

As the president of the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce, I was intrigued that the Hugh Torance House and Store was the oldest standing store and residence in the state. I was captivated that this old structure was one of the very first retail businesses in North Mecklenburg and once the center of commerce in Huntersville and the surrounding region.  I agreed to sign onto the Board serving as treasurer for a couple of years as Jeff led us on a renovation of the site with assistance from the State of North Carolina, the Town of Huntersville, and a considerable amount of support from local residents, both in North Mecklenburg and beyond.

Through the generous support of local contributors, we were able to repair the roof and install new wooden shingles, paint the old wooden sides, and reopen to school groups and residents that summer.  Through successful fundraisers we were able to add furnishings and make other needed repairs which allowed us to make the old home and its store more comfortable and visually stimulating to our groups with furniture reproductions and merchandise more appropriate to the time.

Sadly we lost Rev. Lowrance a few years ago.  However, his spirit of commitment to educating our students and residents about their cultural past lives on in our efforts today.  We have a dynamic board of directors and we are always looking for new board members to bring energy and vision to our operations and new docents to share the story of the Torance family with our guests.

We are also in the early stages of another restoration process to protect one of our greatest historical assets – The Hugh Torance House and Store.  The North Mecklenburg area is fortunate to have historical treasurers like Hopewell Presbyterian Church and its cemetery filled with prominent Mecklenburg County community leaders, the Latta Plantation, the Rural Hill grounds which include the Davidson Family Cemetery and site of the Rural Hill Scottish Festival.  Davidson College and Beaver Dam are also significant cultural and historical treasures as well.

Perhaps few have put into perspective our debt to the past better than Jack Claiborne, then Associate Editor of  The Charlotte Observer at the formal opening of Hugh Torance House and Store, back on April 22, 1989 after our first restoration effort.

    “Standing before this splendid restoration, in this lovely setting, it is difficult to imagine the circumstances out of which this old house and store arose. Little in our modern surroundings compares with the environment that existed in 1779 and 1805, when these buildings were constructed. Imagine the isolation of the people who lived here. There was not another farm for miles. They had little idea where they were in relation to the rest of North Carolina, much less the American continent. Most of them never heard of the Mississippi River or the Pacific Ocean.

Hugh Torance House and Store

There was no electricity; no telephone and no telegraph. Steam engines had been invented but were yet to be harnessed to ships. Railroads were still 50 years away. Homes and barns were lighted by candles and heated by fireplaces. Communication was by mail, which was slow and uncertain. A courier from Charleston or Philadelphia might take weeks to arrive. The only means of travel was by foot or on horseback. Only the very wealthy had carriages. And the roads were unpaved, unmarked – and unlit. The nearest newspaper was The North Carolina Mercury, a weekly published at Wilmington. It hardly contained the latest dispatches. Ships arriving from Europe brought news that was already at least three weeks old. It wasn’t until 1824 that Mecklenburg County had a newspaper of its own.

Yet this was a newsy age.  The American Revolution, mired in stalemate up north, was moving south.  A year after acquiring this property, Hugh Torance faced the British in a number of Carolinas engagements.  In September, 1780, Lord Cornwallis and his Redcoats marched on Charlotte and met a “hornets’ nest” of rebellion. The British and Tory defeat at Kings Mountain 11 days later and at Cowpens that winter marked the beginning of the war’s end. In the spring of 1781 Cornwallis led his bleeding army into Virginia in search of reinforcements and supplies.

At Yorktown he was trapped and forced to surrender, giving America the opportunity to create a new society and invent a new government. In May, 1791, the leader of that government, President George Washington, paid an overnight visit to Mecklenburg County. In those days, Mecklenburg included all of what is now Cabarrus County and more than half of what is now Union County. It was twice its current size and contained about 10.000 people, most of whom farmed the bottom lands along river and creek banks where
the richest soils lay. That’s where early settlers built the county’s seven original Presbyterian churches.

Hopewell Presbyterian Church

The town of Charlotte was a crossroads, with maybe 200 inhabitants. It would take the discovery of gold and the 1837 opening of the U.S. Mint to put it on the map. Between 1780 and 1800 the town contained a few stores, an inn and tavern, a courthouse and market, and little else. It was looked down upon by farm people as a corrupt and indecent place.

This area of North Mecklenburg, known as the Hopewell community, was home to some of the county’s wealthiest, best educated families, including that of James Latta, a merchant and planter who traveled back and forth to Philadelphia, peddling wares, and at the turn of the 19th century built a plantation house near Hopewell Church. In establishing this store, Hugh Torance bought much of his stock from Mr. Latta.  The isolation of farm life and the absence of a post office made the church and country store places that people gathered to exchange news and assess current events. This store was no exception. Its owners often traveled south to Camden, Cheraw and Charleston or north to Roanoke and Philadelphia, and returned with merchandise and news.

Their wares were things people couldn’t grow on their own land or make themselves.  Bills of sale indicate that Hugh and James Torance sold salt, brown sugar (there was no white sugar), coffee, tea, pepper and other spices. They also sold tools – plows, scythes, sickles and rakes – which were in short supply. So were kitchen and household utensils: pots, pans, knives, forks, china, glass and paper.

Accessories for spinning and weaving cotton and wool were popular, as were scissors, needles, pins, buttons and hooks for sewing. Wealthier families went to the store for fine cloth and hats, both men’s and women’s. But shoes, boots, saddles and other leather goods were usually made on the farm or bought from local craftsmen. So were tables, chairs and other furnishings.

Over the years Hugh and James Torance also sold whiskey and brandy, perhaps from their own stills, as well as port wine. Presbyterians did not object to distilled spirits nor the moderate consumption of them. To finance an early college in the county, they taxed locally produced whiskey. The store’s ledgers also indicate there was little currency in circulation. Most commerce was on the barter system. The Torances often paid suppliers in butter, tallow, bees wax, wool or cotton.  In turn, they allowed their custorners to pay in farm products and homemade goods.

Cedar Grove

The family names of many of those customers are still prominent in North Mecklenburg: Alexander, Kerns, McConnell, Davidson, Hunter, McKnight, Henderson, Osborne, Johnston, Caldwell, Potts, Abernethy, Beard, McAuley, Knox, Wilson, Monteith, Barnette and Sadler. But many others left in search of better fortune. Though land here was cheap and fertile, there was little money and less opportunity.  People who owned property did well, but those struggling for a toehold in the economy were often daunted.

Mecklenburg County – like the rest of North Carolina – was tightly controlled and highly conservative. Only the wealthy could vote or hold public office. As a result the state exported almost as many people as it did goods. Families streamed west into Tennessee and Kentucky, and south into Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas, where laws were less oppressive and the propertied less entrenched.  Among those who left were Andrew Jackson and James K. Polk, both of whom became presidents of the United States. Others became governors, congressmen, senators – in other states.

The 11,000 residents of Mecklenburg in 1790 had declined to 10,000 by 1800, despite a birth rate that often produced seven children per household. Even so, economic conditions were changing and opportunities were slowly improving, thanks to three revolutionary developments.

Board Members Linda Dalton and Ann Williams discuss the upcoming restoration project

The first was the discovery of gold in 1799. Initially the ore was found in streams and shallow “placer pits” in woods and meadows. There wasn’t much of it but it was at least a source of hard money. Hugh and James Torance rented lands on which to prospect for gold in the early 1800s.By the 1820s gold was being deep-mined on the outskirts of Charlotte and in surrounding counties. That brought miners and engineers from around the world. It also brought the U.S. Mint and the beginnings of today’s banking center.

The second revolutionary development was the discovery of iron ore across the Catawba River in Lincoln County. That led to the establishment of three furnaces – Vesuvius, Mount Tirzah and Rehoboth – and the manufacture of tools that previously had to be ordered from distant places.

Farmers clambered to the forges with wagonloads of wool and cotton, which were exchanged for plows, tools, pots, hinges and other hardware essential to raising the standard of living. Like gold, the iron ore quickened commerce and enabled many families to begin accumulating wealth.

The third development was the most revolutionary of all. It was the cotton gin, invented by Eli Whitney in 1793 and brought to North Carolina in 1802. The legislature purchased patent rights that allowed the gin to be used in this state. To get cotton ginned, farmers paid a fee, part of which was forwarded to Eli Whitney as a royalty. Fee records show that from 1803 on, Mecklenburg was a state leader in cotton production and
remained one well into the 20th century.

Previously, cotton was grown for home consumption. The cotton gin made it a cash crop. Ginned cotton was pressed into 350 to 400 pound bales, loaded on wagons and hauled to market on muddy roads – either south through Charlotte and on to Camden, where it was loaded on barges for the trip down river to Charleston, or east through Wadesboro to Cheraw, and from there down river to Georgetown, SC.

Slavery was here before cotton, but cotton promoted its increase and enabled planters to accumulate great wealth. Slaves helped Hugh Torance get rich. At his death in 1816. he left his son James the house, the store, 1,400 acres nearby, 3,800 acres in Tennessee, 51,500 in cash and 33 slaves.

In 1831, James Torance built Cedar Grove, the brick plantation house that stands west of the frame house and store, creating three generations of early American architecture – a log cabin within a federal-period house and a brick plantation house – all within sight of each other.  From these details we can see how country stores like this one by Hugh and James Torance, even in an area as remote as this one was, could be centers of commerce. But it
wasn’t long before that changed.

The coming of railroads allowed farmers to get cotton to markets faster, and
shifted the focus of commerce from country stores like this to cities such as Charlotte. A railroad from South Carolina arrived in Charlotte in 1852 and the N.C. Railroad came 1856, spurring Charlotte’s growth. By 1860, the crossroads of 200 residents had swelled to a town of more than 2,200.

That left country stores like this one to wither and decay. James Torance must have seen the shift coming. In 1825, he sold his entire inventory to Charlotte merchant Samuel McComb and got out of the mercantile business. He died in 1847 leaving an estate of 3,200 acres and 109 slaves.

Fortunately for Mecklenburg County, his store remained in the family and is now the oldest commercial structure in the county. Through the care and sacrifice of Richard Banks, James Torance’s great grandson, it was preserved and now has been restored to tell its own story.

Bill Russell and Richard Rudisill with the Bear Scouts of Huntersville Cub Scout Pack 42

As Chairman of the Board of the Hugh Torance House and Store, I invite you to tour the store open on the first and third Sundays 2:00 – 5:00 pm from April through October.  We can also accommodate group requests.  You can reach me at or call the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce at 704-892-1922. 

If you are interested in a role as a volunteer or perhaps interested in taking a position on our Board of Directors of the historical association, please contact me.  I also hope you will join in our efforts soon raising funds for our upcoming capital campaign.

John F. Kennedy once said, “History is a relentless master. It has no present, only the past rushing into the future. To try to hold fast is to be swept aside.”

As we all look to the past, we learn from the lessons of those generations who came before us, making possible what we have today.  We have the awesome responsibility then to pass onto the next generation a community better than we found it, filled with the unbridled opportunities of tomorrow.  Such that those who look back on us today will one day say, “They used the talents and gifts provided by their creator to create a better world for us all, giving their absolute best, and not settling for anything less.”

Bill Russell, Chairman

Hugh Torance House and Store Board