Russell’s Ramblings

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

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

Hugh Torance House and Store teaches lessons of the past

In 1997, the late Rev Jeff Lowrance contacted me at the Lake Norman Chamber and said there was a piece of history in Huntersville that desperately needed the help of local volunteers.  Set back just off Gilead Road in Huntersville is an old two story house that thousands of people drive past each week – the Hugh Torance House and Store.  Located at 8231 Gilead Road, the store dates back to 1779 and is the oldest standing store and residence in North Carolina.   It was owned by Hugh Torance and his wife Isabella, and their son James operated a store there from 1805 until 1825.  By the early 1960’s the house had fallen on hard times.  Buried under layers of Kudzu, its once sturdy sides had given way.  The Mecklenburg Historical Association and local volunteers including, Dick and Belle Banks, worked to raise money to repair the old home.  In the spring of 1989, the Hugh Torance House and Store was again opened to the public.

Rev. Jeff Lowrance with Huntersville Commissioner Isaac B. Thompson

When Rev Lowrance contacted me a decade later, the energy of volunteers had faded, and the house again was in need of attention.  Walking into the house for the first time, I was struck with both its simplicity and craftsmanship.  Long before laser guides, power saws, and our wide assortment of power tools, carpenters created fluted paneling and carved intricate wood molding by hand.  The outside of the house is fitted with basket weave plank doors with exposed rose headed nails.  It’s really hard to imagine a craftsman using the chisels and gouges to create the chair molding and detail around the fireplace that I examined for the first time on that summer afternoon so long ago.  Jeff’s eyes lit up with a passion as he spoke of Hugh who fought in the Battle of Ramsour’s Mill and whose captain was killed in the skirmish.  It was his captain’s widow, Isabella, that Hugh would later marry, helping raise her four children and their own son James.

This past week, I served as a tour guide for the first and fourth grade classes of Ramah Christian Classical School.  It was a real experience for the young people as they peered into life before computers and cell phones.  Instead they marveled at the staple items of the store:  the sugar cones, blocks of tea, and ungrounded coffee.  They played with the simple wooden children’s toys and asked a litany of questions about the spinning wheels and tools of the time.  Too soon our tour was over and the children were headed back to the school leaving me to close up the house once again.  As I walked upstairs, my fingers traveling along the soft wooden rail of the staircase, I thought about the small fingers which ran along that same wood two hundred years ago.

I paused at the bottom of the steps in a chair by the window and wondered how many times James might have sat in the same spot, waiting on that customer to ride up for needed supplies.  Possibly leaving a note on the message board of the store, trading goods, and then perhaps enjoying an ale in the tavern next door before their long ride back home.

Perhaps John Kennedy said it best when he reminded us, “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 I turned the key in the door, securing the past, I looked back at the stately old house.  Closing my eyes tightly, I imagined that Hugh, Isabella and the kids were standing as silent sentries, watching over the home until our next visit.   As each of us go about our day, we are reminded of those who came before us, providing us with the blessings of liberty and opportunity, and we have the responsibility to leave our community better than we found it.  It is the legacy we were left and the responsibility we owe to the future.

November 29, 2010 Posted by | Chamber of Commerce | , , , , | Leave a comment

Lessons from an old country church

Bethesda Presbyterian Church

Bethesda Presbyterian Church

Over the years, I have written many articles about my childhood and early life in Rock Hill, South Carolina. While I live in Huntersville (NC) now, I still attend church when possible at Bethesda Presbyterian.  It’s a little country church located in McConnells, a sleepy little town, just outside of York.  Members of my family count among the early founding members which date back to 1789.  A few years ago, the late Rev. Jeff Lowrance of Hopewell Presbyterian Church in Huntersville and I discovered that one of the earlier ministers served both Hopewell and my church – Bethesda.  I cannot tell you how ironic it felt to me that 200 years later, a young man from Bethesda would travel to the Huntersville community, working with other business and community leaders as we seek to reach our potential as a community.

Rev. Jeff Lowarance

Rev. Jeff Lowrance

Growing up in a small country church, we didn’t have all new equipment and audio visual aids that churches like Huntersville Presbyterian have today. While our choir was quite dedicated and the members rarely missed a practice, the men of the choir in my earlier years were not particularly talented.  Most were pretty handy when it came to repairing the cemetery fence.  However, when it came to singing – few, if any, could carry a tune.  One Sunday, the Session of the church bought the Choir new robes.  They looked grand but sang just as bad. The next year, the congregation bought a new organ. Instead of drowning out the off key choir, the newly inspired group sang that much louder. Finally, the Session of the church hired a Choir Director who moved the choir to the balcony in the back of the church.  Now it seemed, no matter how badly the choir sang, no one actually had to endure watching them do it.

One day after church I was walking back to the car and I decided to ask my Granddaddy Russell why the Elders of the church didn’t simply ask those who couldn’t sing to drop out of the choir. He stopped walking, looked down at me, and took my hand. “You must use all the talents and abilities you have,”  he said.  “The trees would be very silent if no birds sang but the very best.”

songbirdToday, each of us as chamber members, civic club participants, school and church volunteers, and active citizens try to give back to the community we love. We strive to make it a great place to work and live.  Some do a better job than others, but every time we do something for someone else, we use the unique talents God gave us for that very purpose.  And the trees would be very silent indeed if no birds sang except the very best.

August 21, 2009 Posted by | Leadership Lessons | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Job Well Done – Rev. Jeff Lowrance

This article was written in 2007 and appeared in the Lake Norman Chamber newsletter.  It was about my good friend Rev. Jeff Lowrance.  He was not just a spiritual leader in our community – for many he was a teacher, activist, mentor, and friend.  While we miss his leadership, his presence is always felt in the lives he touched.


Rev. Lowrance with Huntersville Commissioner Thompson

A few weeks ago the Lake Norman region lost one of its natural resources.  It was not a commodity, a piece of valuable real estate, or a scenic greenway.  It was however a special asset whose void will be hard to replace.  The Rev. Jeff Lowrance finally succumbed to a near three year bout with cancer. Jeff, the pastor of Hopewell Presbyterian Church in Huntersville, was an inspiration to many as he fought the disease valiantly.  Pastoring his flock, calling on the sick and bedridden, and counseling others even as the illness ravaged his body, often leaving him physically drained. 

Rev. Lowrance was an avid historian of the Revolutionary War and the early settlers of Mecklenburg County.  Like them, Jeff had the resolve and determination of the men and women who first settled our region.  He spoke and preached often of the Scotch Irish who stood up to the English and issued the first Declaration of Independence – the Meck Dec. I first met Jeff when community leaders were assembled to help preserve and restore a piece of history that was in sad disrepair –the Hugh Torrance House & Store in Huntersville.  Together, our small group lobbied local, county and state leaders for funding to preserve the historical treasure.

Rev. Lowrance with Huntersville Commissioner Thompson in 1998 at the Hugh Torance House & Store. Over the last decade, I witnessed Jeff’s passion for preservation on many occasions as he pleaded his case before town and county boards – working to preserve historical areas, protecting slave cemeteries, or honoring our past leaders.  While heritage and history was second to his primary mission of serving the Lord, Jeff understood the relationship between church and community. Last fall, we discovered issues here at the chamber of commerce that resulted in the most trying moments of my professional career.  A long time member of our staff betrayed the confidence and faith we placed in this employee.  I will confess that I had a wide ranging reaction.  I was hurt, disappointed, and angry.

I turned to Jeff for his counsel looking for answers.  Jeff and I sat down to discuss the issue in his office.  I recall telling him how my personal and professional challenge paled in comparison to the daunting health challenge he faced.  Jeff smiled and said we all have problems – let’s talk about yours.  I talked and Jeff listened.  Before I left we prayed together.  Neither he nor I had an answer why people do bad things.  But we both understand good people make it through bad times.  They get through it because of their faith and because of their friends.

I will miss Jeff.  However, each day that I drive to work I am reminded of my friend.  A man who served his Lord.  Whose mark was left on his community for generations to come.  A mark greater than historical markers or designations.  A lasting imprint left on the people, the parents, and the children of our region.  I know that the instant Jeff left this earthly realm he was welcomed home.  The doors were opened wide to his father’s house.  He was welcomed by those who arrived before him.  The Scotch Irish he preached so fondly of on Sunday mornings.  I can only imagine the Lord and Jeff looking back on his life’s work and the legacy he has left.  And perhaps the words we would all like to hear said –  “Well done my good and faithful servant.”

March 26, 2009 Posted by | Leadership Lessons | , , , , | 1 Comment