Historic Marker Program
Program informs travelers of notable places
By Todd Callaway
Learning history is like swallowing a big spoonful of caster oil for most people — yuk! But a North Carolina program that has been around since 1935 has made gaining knowledge of our collective past easy.
"It’s history on a stick," said Michael Hill, who coordinates the North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program. "It’s a way to extend (North Carolina) history to natives and newcomers ... a spoonful at a time."
The General Assembly authorized the establishment of the highway marker program, modeling it after one begun in Virginia in 1926. It, unlike many other government programs, has survived for more than 60 years.
Whether through planned obsolescence, bureaucratic absorption or political unpopularity, most programs disappear before reaching that milestone, Hill said on a recent tour of Henderson, Polk and Transylvania counties’ 33 historical markers.
"Certainly, our signs are preserving history in almost every community in the state," he said.
The program, a cooperative venture of the North Carolina Division of Archives and History and the North Carolina Division of Highways, has defied the odds.
"Our (1,140) signs can be seen across the state at almost every crossroad," Hill said. "This program is an old program and a popular program. These markers reflect what aspects of the state’s history that our committee takes notice of and thinks the public should know."
In 1936, a group of state officials, several members of the Daughters of the American Revolution and others gathered in the Stovall community in Granville County for the dedication of the first marker erected under the program. It identified the homesite of John Penn, one of North Carolina’s three signers of the Declaration of Independence.
As the 47-year-old Dana native told his stories of growing up in Henderson County, the overcast sky didn’t dull the obvious enthusiasm Hill has for his work with the historic marker program.
His energy and febrific voice gave away his love for his own Henderson County heritage as well as that of a North Carolinian.
"They’re the public face of our organization," he said of the gray and black signs designed to look like a page from a history book.
The signs are made of cast aluminum and mounted on seven- or 10-foot posts. They cost about $1,225 a piece, Hill said. His budget allows the program to consider paying for 30 signs a year.
"This is one of the oldest and most popular DOT (Department of Transportation) programs. It puts us out in the public ... that reflects the important aspects of the state’s history."
Also organized in 1935 was the Highway Historical Marker Advisory Committee. This group of college and university professors, each an expert in North Carolina history, review about 30 to 40 applications for historic markers a year, of which about half are approved, Hill said.
They meet twice a year, and are charged with determining the historical authenticity, appropriateness and relative merit of all applications proposed for consideration. Hill said anyone is able to submit a proposal for consideration. His office receives about 200 inquiries a year about possible markers.
A hidden benefit of the program is its value to the state’s multi-million dollar tourism industry.
"Tourism obviously is a major component of the state’s economy," Hill said. "These markers are something tourists can appreciate. Heritage tourism has become a catch phrase, but it’s something our program has been doing since the ’30s. ... People are beginning to see the importance of tying history to tourism."
Another design feature of the signs geared toward tourism is their placement on state and federally numbered highways, which allows more people to see them. However, they cannot be on interstate highways or limited-access thoroughfares, Hill said.
The lettering on the signs is also an important aspect.
They all contain brief blocks of text that are intended to be read by passing motorists, Hill said. The writing on the signs are limited to five or six lines of about 24 letters and spaces. The black letters, telling the story of why each marker is there, are 3-inches high, again aimed at making learning history easy to see at 35 mph.
Thirty-five other states have historical marker programs, but none are as distinct as North Carolina’s program, Hill said.
"Each county in the state has at least one marker," he said. Wake County has the most with 63.
But unlike marker programs in other states, North Carolina’s does not concentrate primarily on military events. Most of the state’s historic institutions of higher learning, both public and private, are denoted by markers, Hill said.
Of the state’s more than 1,000 markers, there are 400 military related markers, 250 civilian related markers and the other markers’ subjects vary widely.
Subjects on the markers can vary from transportation-related history such as a marker in downtown Saluda to trading paths, explorers’ routes, lighthouses, railroads, plank roads, ironclad vessels, canals, shipwrecks and ferries.
Hill initiated the historic marker in downtown Saluda. It denotes the Saluda Grade, the steepest railroad grade east of the Mississippi River.
"In this case it seemed to be an appropriate marker," he said. "Another good example is the Carl Sandburg historical marker ... that subject is clearly worthy of a marker."
The diversity of the markers’ subjects makes listing them in a comprehensive book of Tar Heel history difficult, Hill said. The first guide was published in 1939. The most recent version was published in 1979, but Hill is working on a new guide, which should be in print by the end of the year.
As the 1976 graduate of the University of North Carolina toured his home county as well as neighboring Polk and Transylvania counties on that recent rainy day, his pride in 18 years of work with the DOT program beamed from his eyes and words.
"There’s a lot of interesting old history in Henderson County as well as the other 99 counties in the state," Hill said. "It’s good to see people’s dreams and ideas of their community’s history come alive on our signs. That’s the most rewarding part of my job."
Calvary Episcopal Church: Built in 1859. Grave of Bill Nye. Memorials to many famous Southerners. U.S. 25 North near Fletcher. Approved in 1935.
C.G. Memminger: Secretary of the Treasury of the Confederacy, from Charleston. Native of Germany. Summer home and grave nearby. U.S. 25 South in Flat Rock. Approved in 1938.
Edgar W. "Bill" Nye: Journalist, humorist, 1850-96. "Buck Shoals," his home, stands 3.5 miles west of marker. Grave one mile north. U.S. 25 North near Fletcher. Approved in 1937.
Stoneman’s Raid: One of 19 Stoneman markers in North Carolina. A raid through Western North Carolina by Gen. Stoneman’s U.S. Cavalry passed through Hendersonville, April 23, 1865. U.S. 64 East at Interstate 26 northeast of Hendersonville. Approved in 1940.
North Carolina-South Carolina: North Carolina colonized, 1585-87 by first English settlers in America and permanently settled in 1650. First to vote readiness for independence, April 12, 1776. South Carolina formed in 1712 from part of Carolina, which was chartered in 1663. It was first settled by the English in 1670. One of the 13 original states. Old U.S. 25 South at N.C./S.C. border. Approved 1941.
French Broad Baptist Church: Organized before 1792. Present building is here. First building stood 1 mile south of marker. N.C. 191 southeast of Mills River. Approved 1949.
Vance-Carson duel: On Nov. 5, 1827, Robert B. Vance, former N.C. congressman, was fatally wounded in a duel with Samuel P. Carson, his successor. About .5 mile southeast of marker. Old U.S. 25 South at N.C./S.C. border. Approved 1950.
n Gun shop and forge: Iron works set up four miles west of marker by Philip Sitton after 1804. Source for manufacture of rifles by Philip Gillespie. Both operated to 1860s. N.C. 191/280 (South Mills River Road) at Mills River. Approved 1951.
St. John in the Wilderness: Episcopal Church, built 1833-34 as a private chapel. Given to Diocese of North Carolina in 1836. Enlarged in 1852. U.S. 25 South in Flat Rock. Approved 1951.
Judson College: Baptist. Chartered in 1861 as Judson Female College; later coeducational. Operated 1882-1892 in building which stood three blocks southwest. U.S. 64 West (Sixth Avenue) at Fleming Street in Hendersonville. Approved in 1954.
Flat Rock: Landmark for Indians and the pioneer white settlers of this area lies nearby. Village of Flat Rock named for this natural formation. U.S. 25 South in Flat Rock. Approved in 1954.
George A. Trenholm: Confederate Secretary of Treasury, 1864-65; S.C. legislator, cotton broker and financier. Summer home "Solitude" stands .5 miles east. U.S. 25 South in Flat Rock. Approved in 1959.
Shaws Creek Church and campgrounds: Methodist congregation was organized at a camp meeting ca. 1810 on land donated by James Johnston. Church, 1905, is .3 miles north. U.S. 64 at SR 1311 (Camp Ground Road) east of Horse Shoe. Approved in 1974.
Wolfe’s Angel: Marble statue from the Asheville shop of W.O. Wolfe. Inspired title of son Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel. Stands 150 feet south of marker. U.S. 64 West (Sixth Avenue) in Hendersonville. Approved in 1986.
Carl Sandburg: 1878-1967. "Poet of the people," Lincoln biographer, and Pulitzer prize winning author. Lived 1945-67 at "Connemara," 1/3 mile west of marker. U.S. 25 South at Little River Road in Flat Rock. Approved in 1992.
Sidney Lanier: Southern poet, died in this house, Sept. 7, 1881. N.C. 108 south of Lynn. Approved in 1936.
Stoneman’s Raid: On a raid through Western North Carolina, Gen. Stoneman’s U.S. Cavalry fought Southern troops at Howard’s Gap, 4 miles north, April 22, 1865. N.C. 108 south of Lynn. Approved in 1940.
North Carolina-South Carolina: North Carolina colonized, 1585-87 by first English settlers in America and permanently settled in 1650. First to vote readiness for independence, April 12, 1776. South Carolina formed in 1712 from part of Carolina, which was chartered in 1663. It was first settled by the English in 1670. One of the 13 original states. U.S. 176 southeast of Tryon at N.C./S.C. Boundary. Approved in 1941.
North Carolina-South Carolina: North Carolina colonized, 1585-87 by first English settlers in America; permanently settled in 1650; first to vote readiness for independence, April 12, 1776. South Carolina formed in 1712 from part of Carolina, which was charter in 1563 it was first settled by the English in 1670. N.C. 91 southeast of Sandy Plains at N.C./S.C. Boundary.
Tryon’s March: Gov. William Tryon, with a body of militia en route to survey the Cherokee boundary line, camped near this spot, June 7, 1767. N.C. 91 southeast of Sandy Plains at N.C./S.C. Boundary. Approved in 1951.
The Block House: Early landmark, western terminus of the 1772 boundary survey between North and South Carolina. Stood .5 mile east. U.S. 176 southeast of Tryon at N.C./S.C. Boundary. Approved in 1951.
"Old Bill" Williams: Well-known guide and trapper. Helped survey Santa Fe Trail. Guided the ill-fated Fremont expedition of 1848. Was born near here in 1787. N.C. 108 (Mills Street) in Columbus. Approved in 1959.
Saluda Grade: The steepest, standard gauge, mainline railway grade in the United States. Opened in 1878; three miles long. Crests here. U.S. 176 (Main Street) in Saluda. Approved in 1987.
Tryon Mountain: Landmark on Cherokee boundary, negotiated by Gov. William Tryon and Cherokee chiefs, 1767. Elevation 3,231 feet. N.C. 108 (Mills Street) in Columbus. Approved in 1989.
North Carolina-South Carolina: North Carolina colonized, 1585-87 by first English settlers in America. Permanently settled in 1650. First to vote readiness for independence, April 12, 1776. South Carolina formed in 1712 from part of Carolina, which was chartered in 1663. It was first settled by the English in 1670. U.S. 178 south of Rosman at N.C./S.C. Boundary. Approved in 1941.
North Carolina-South Carolina: North Carolina colonized, 1585-87 by first English settlers in America; permanently settled in 1650. First to vote readiness for independence, April 12, 1776. South Carolina formed in 1712 from part of Carolina, which was chartered in 1663. It was first settled by the English in 1670. N.C. 276 south of Cedar Mountain at N.C./S.C. Boundary. Approved in 1941.
A.S. Merrimon: 1830-1892. U.S. Senator, 1873-79; Chief Justice of State Supreme Court, 1889-92. Birthplace was one mile east. U.S. 64 West at SR 1331 (Whitmire Road) southwest of Brevard. Approved in 1948.
Estatoe Path: Trading route between mountain settlements of the Cherokee and their town Estatoe, in what is now South Carolina, passed nearby. U.S. 178 at French Broad River bridge in Rosman. Approved in 1956.
Estatoe Path: Trading route between mountain settlements of the Cherokee and their town Estatoe, in what is now South Carolina, passed nearby. U.S. 64 West/276 at Davidson River bridge northeast of Brevard. Approved in 1956.
Forestry School: First U.S. school of forestry. Established 1898 by Dr. C.A. Schenck, chief forester, Biltmore estate. Location until 1909 was nearby. U.S. 276 in Pisgah National Forest. Approved in 1965.
Civilian Conservation Corps: CCC camps were established as a New Deal relief measure. Camp John Rock among first, operated here 1933-36. U.S. 276 in Pisgah National Forest. Approved in 1986.
Brevard College: Methodist opened 1934 on campus of Brevard Institute after merger of Rutherford College (est. 1853) and Weaver College (est. 1873). U.S. 64 (Broad Street) Brevard. Approve in 1988.
Walton War: A boundary dispute in 1804 between North Carolina and Georgia led to armed conflict. Militia called out after constable John Havner was killed .5 miles east. U.S. 276 southeast of Brevard. Approved in 1992.