Russell’s Ramblings

Those who do not hear the music might think the dancer mad

Historic Hugh Torance House & Store in Huntersville Completes Restoration

The Board of Directors of the Hugh Torance House & Store on Gilead Road in Huntersville are proud to announce completion of repairs funded by a Special Projects Grant from the National Society, Daughters of the American Revolution.

Hugh Torance House & Store

Hugh Torance House & Store

This grant was sponsored by the local Alexandriana Chapter of the NSDAR. The Hugh Torance House & Store is one of the few remaining 18th century structures in Mecklenburg County and is the oldest standing store in North Carolina.  The structure was built by Hugh Torance, a Revolutionary War veteran and dates to the 1770’s. Hugh Torance (1743-1816) immigrated to the American colonies from Ireland in 1763 and came to Mecklenburg County in the 1770’s. He became a very successful merchant and planter. Hugh’s son, James Torance, opened a store in the original log portion of the house in 1805. The “Torance Store” was an integral part of Mecklenburg County backcountry society. It is located at 8231 Gilead Road in Huntersville.

The Hugh Torance House & Store was salvaged and restored in the 1980’s by a group of historic-minded local citizens. Today it is a small non-profit 501(c)3 organization run entirely by volunteers. It is open to the public and serves as an educational field trip for school tours, scouts, senior groups and historical and genealogical associations.Torance Work Sign (3)

As a result of a recent inspection by Andrew Roby General Contractors, it was discovered that structural support repairs (due to failure of the main support beam and piers) were needed along with chimney flashing, floor repairs and electrical wiring repairs. Thanks to the DAR Special Projects Grant, Andrew Roby General Contractors has now completed all of this work and went above and beyond their scope of service to provide historically sensitive repairs that will keep this important historic landmark open to the public far into the future.

Tour of Special Needs Adults

Tour of Special Needs Adults

Bill Russell, Chairman of the Board said the Board is extremely grateful to Andrew Roby General Contractors for their excellent work and to the Alexandriana Chapter of the National Society, Daughters of the American Revolution, for their financial support for this project.  “I recently had the opportunity to lead a tour of special needs adults through the home, after the repair work was completed, and they were awestruck by their return to a simpler colonial time in our history.  We simply could not have had the house ready without the support of the DAR and the Town of Huntersville who continue their strong support of our history and cultural heritage,” said Russell.

For more information about the store, visit the website at  Group Tours are available by calling Bill Russell at the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce at 704-892-1922.

January 7, 2015 Posted by | Bethesda Presbyterian Church History, Lake Norman / North Mecklenburg History | , , , , , | 1 Comment

Cub Scout Pack #19 Visits Historic Hugh Torrance House and Store

Torance House Bears October 2013 013

Pack 19, Cub Scouts visited the Hugh Torrance House and Store in Huntersville to gain knowledge and insight into the history of the north Mecklenburg Community. The store, located at 8231 Gilead Road, is North Carolina’s oldest standing store and residence and one of Mecklenburg County’s few surviving 18th century structures.  The tour of the historic Huntersville home was led by Torrance Board Chairman and Lake Norman Chamber President Bill Russell.  The pack, whose sponsor is Huntersville Presbyterian Church, is comprised of third graders.  The unit was established in 1945.  Anyone wishing more information about the historic attraction, or wish to coordinate a group tour, contact Bill Russell at 704-892-1922 or e-mail

October 28, 2013 Posted by | Lake Norman / North Mecklenburg History | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Created to bring energy to the region – Lake Norman has powered a community

SailboatThis summer, celebrations are ongoing designating the fifty-year history of Lake Norman.  The first ground breaking for Lake Norman took place in 1959. It took four years to complete the Cowan’s Ford Dam and another two years to fill the lake.  But the story of Lake Norman actually began much earlier with the Native Americans.

     The Catawba Indians were the first to settle in our region. They referred to the Catawba River as “The Great River.” Years later, when early European settlers moved to the area, they brought diseases to which the native Indians had no resistance. These diseases nearly wiped out the entire Catawba Tribe. Once numbering 5,000, the Catawbas soon dwindled to less than 400 people. Later, early Colonists slowed the advance of General Cornwallis on grounds surrounding Cowan’s Ford, laying the foundation for later victories that helped gained America her victory from the British Crown.

     In the early 1890’s, the world’s largest hydroelectric plant began transmitting power from Niagara Falls to nearby Buffalo, NY. Local tobacco magnate James B. Duke and his brother Ben took note that electric power could be the key to their future if they could only harness the power of the Catawba River so they began to buy up land along the Catawba River basin. 

     About that time, the Duke brothers were introduced to Dr. W. Gill Wylie and a young engineer named William Lee.  Wylie and the Duke brothers came together to form the Catawba Power Company.  One can only imagine the excitement as Wylie, Lee, and the Dukes planned to bring electric power to our region.  Huddled around the table in their board room, could they have possibly envisioned what their collective dream would mean to the lake communities we know today?

     The creation of Lake Norman was not without sacrifice as homes, farms, and entire towns would be flooded to make way for the lake.  The Village of Long Island, once a thriving textile town with three mills, would end up under water as would countless other businesses and structures including the old Hwy 150 bridge.

     In 1957, Bill Lee (the son of William S. Lee) began the feasibility study for what would become Duke Energy Company’s final dam on the Catawba River.  This dam would create the largest lake in the Carolinas – our Lake Norman.

     Now, more than a hundred years later, entrepreneurs are still huddled around tables planning their future.  Some with just a dream and a Visa card as they discuss creating a new business. And like their counterparts of a hundred years ago, sacrifices must inevitably be made along the way.

     Corporations are moving to the lake.  Our proximity to Charlotte, transportation infrastructure, and skilled workforce make the area a great place to do business. But make no mistake – it’s the lake that lures them here.  Lake Norman is not just a majestic body of water – it’s a lifestyle like no other.Horizon

     The lake is more than 520 miles of shoreline covering 32,500 acres.  It is the spirit of the Catawba Indians who settled here first and who recognized then, that God had already been here.  It’s the colonial settlers who stood up to tyranny providing “a hornet’s nest” of rebellion.  It’s the dreams that spoke boldly of intentions and the actions which were bigger than the dreams.

     What began as a vision to power a business has become an energy that surges through time, touching lives, and leaving a legacy of leadership.  Lake Norman was created to bring energy to the Charlotte region and. fifty years later, its wake has powered a community.    


W.E. “Bill” Russell, CCE IOM


Bill Russell is the President & CEO of the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce with 950 business members serving the Cornelius, Davidson, Huntersville, and greater Lake Norman region. For more information on the history of Lake Norman, check out Lake Norman Reflections by Bill and Diana Gleasner.



July 11, 2013 Posted by | Chamber of Commerce, Lake Norman / North Mecklenburg History | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Looking ahead to our past – A visit to the old Croft Schoolhouse

Ribbon Cutting of Pioneer Springs Community School

This past week, Pioneer Springs Community School hosted a ribbon cutting of a new minimal-tuition private school at the site of the old Croft School House.  This new school is rooted in the basic school philosophy of Dr. Ernest Boyer, former president for the Advancement of Teaching.  This education philosophy is the foundation of the Community School in Davidson and the Corvian Community School.   Pioneer Springs will open this fall with a Kindergarten and First grade and plans to open another grade level each year thereafter.

Abigail Jennings, a Charter Member of the Lake Norman Chamber and president of Lake Norman Realty Company knew of my interest in history.  I also serve as Chairman of the Historic  Hugh Torance House and Store Board of Directors in Huntersville.

The Croft School House, site of the new Pioneer Springs Community School, first opened its doors in 1890 to serve the rural, railroad-centered business district of Croft in North Mecklenburg.  It’s been almost 80 years since its closing but I was amazed at how many alumni still turned out to take part in the announcement.

Abigail Jennings with Bill Russell

One of the senior women, Mrs. Barnette, had no idea as to my identity – actually that wasn’t important to her – as she approached to show me a picture of her class with their teacher.  She pointed out some of the students in the old black and white photo as her eyes sparkled and the bright smile filled her face as she pointed out her friends and neighbors. She traced her finger over each face on the picture, stopping to tell a brief story about each student as her memories took us both back in time.  

The school was converted to a soldier’s home after the War (World War II) for the returning vets and several years ago became an historic landmark and today also houses an architect who specializes in historic preservation.

I could tell Abigail was as passionate about the school as Mrs. Barnette was about its history.  I asked what inspired her to get involved in this project.  Abigail stated, “My husband and I decided to join two other families to start Pioneer Springs Community School, as we had recently been exposed to the popular educational model of “The Basic School” taught at the Community School of Davidson last year when our daughter attended Corvian Community School.”

Abigail added, “Unfortunately, when Corvian received their charter, everyone had to go through the lottery process and most families did not get back in. We realized that with over 4,000 children on waiting lists for these two schools, our area desperately needed another school that provided this type of holistic learning environment, and that’s how it all got started.”

Croft School Alumni gather for announcement

During the opening ceremony, those of us in attendance were reminded of the words from T.S. Elliott when he said, “We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

Walking the halls of the old school-house last week, I pictured Mrs. Barnette as a little girl. Sitting intently in her chair, listening to her teacher teaching the basic English and math of her day.  She and the other students would later be responsible for much of what we know in North Mecklenburg and now Lake Norman.  Now eighty years later, those same classrooms will again be a center of learning and once again we as a community will arrive where it all started and we will know the place for the very first time.

Pioneer Springs is currently accepting applications for enrollment in Kindergarten and First Grade.  For more information please visit, or email

August 6, 2012 Posted by | Chamber of Commerce, Lake Norman / North Mecklenburg History | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

April 4, 2012 Posted by | Lake Norman / North Mecklenburg History | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment