HISTORY OF THE DOWNTOWN AREA OF WAKE FOREST
Wake Forest’s resident journalist & historian, Enlightens us on how this place we call Downtown all began.
Carol Pelosi moved to Wake Forest from her home state of New York in 1970 with her husband, John, and three children. From 1974-1988, she worked for The Wake Weekly newspaper as a typesetter, reporter, columnist, editorial writer and editor. Since 2003, she has been the publisher/editor/reporter for The Wake Forest Gazette. Carol wrote the book Connections . . . 100 Years of Wake Forest History for the Town of Wake Forest’s 2009 centennial. Here she writes about the beginnings of Wake Forest Downtown:
A downtown was no part of the plan when the North Carolina Baptist Convention purchased Dr. Calvin Jones plantation in 1832 and opened a manual institute in 1834. Nor did the trustees consider stores or commerce when Wake Forest College was chartered in December of 1838. This was to be a place of learning with some accommodations for professors and students.
After all, there was the bustling village of Forestville with general stores, a railroad depot and a post office just a mile down the Powell Road.
But within a few years economic necessity forced the college trustees to sell a large part of the 600-some acres of the Jones plantation, and they planned that the main streets north and south of the college square would be residential. That is why Wake Forest differs from most other towns in North Carolina and across the United States where the major arteries through towns are commercial and called Main Street.
But we are ahead of our story here and must go back to the 1700s when what became Wake County was being settled. The area between the Neuse River and the Franklin County line, bounded on the east by the Raleigh-Louisburg road (roughly today’s U.S. 401) and on the west by the Raleigh-Oxford road (generally Falls of the Neuse Road and Thompson Mill Road) became known as the Forest of Wake – also called the Forest District – for the fine original oak forest that covered much of the land.
Between 1729 and 1746 those first settlers acquired large tracts for their plantations as land grants from King George II through the royal governors or by purchasing earlier grants. After 1746, all the ungranted land in what is now Wake belonged to the Earl of Granville. His agents here, however, were careless with records, people anxious for land moved into the Granville grant land and settled without permission, but there were also many who did have legal title to their lands.
Wake County was formed in 1771 during the Regulator period of unrest just before the Revolutionary War. It was made up from parts of Cumberland, Johnston and Orange counties, and once the new county was formed it was divided up into captain’s districts with this northern part of the county called the Forest District.
With the war with England finally settled after 1781 when General Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, the new nation and Wake County were able to make improvements and build a new country in what was then largely forest. The roads were mires of mud, travel was costly, slow and uncomfortable, and farmers who could produce more than their families needed were frustrated by the difficulties of getting any goods to market.
The Forest District up through 1838 consisted entirely of large tracts of land owned by one person or one family. For example, in 1838 the four members of the Alston family – father, mother and two sons – were listed on the tax rolls as owning 6,497 acres and 109 slaves.
These large landowners created a society famed for its “refinement, good society and wealth,” and they supported a number of schools, beginning in 1818 with the Forest Hill Academy on the Raleigh-Oxford Road. The Macedonian Academy opened in 1822 in the thriving hamlet of Forestville, and its two-story building with an outside staircase was later the Forestville Female Academy. The building remained on Liberty Street until the 1920s or 1930s. The Pleasant Grove Academy opened in 1826 across the road from the home of Jesse Powell, its founder.
Powell built the beautiful symmetrical Federal house that still stands on the east side of Capital Boulevard. He had inherited 318 acres on the north banks of the Neuse River after his father, Dempsey Powell, died in 1793 and later added several hundred more.
In 1820 two events took place which would shape the Forest District’s future.
Dr. Calvin Jones, newly married to a rich widow, bought a 615-acre plantation from David Battle and moved his family into a new two-story Federal house after adding four rooms at the rear.
George Washington Paschal, in Volume I of his History of Wake Forest College, mentioned the second in a footnote: “Until about 1820 there was no bridge on the Neuse River between the bridges on these roads [Raleigh-Oxford and Raleigh-Louisburg]. At that time Mr. Jesse Powell built a bridge about half a mile below the present railroad bridge and constructed through the heart of Wake Forest a road which branched just below the present town limits, one branch extending to the Oxford Road the other to the Louisburg Road. This road was called the Powell Road.” The road, now part of South Main Street, was called the Powell Road on deeds up through the 1960s.
The present owners of the Powell house can show visitors the two parallel dirt wagon wheel tracks that were that road and indications down at the river where that first bridge stood.
It is almost certain there had long been at least a rude path leading northward from Raleigh to the river and then northward toward the plantations owned by the Alstons, Josiah and David Battle, David Crenshaw and others. Homes were always built facing roads, and the Powell house would have been no exception. Also Wake County historian Elizabeth Reid Murray said a settlement with stores and homes and later called Forestville on at least one earlier path or road was already in existence in the late 1700s. There were a number of early roads or paths that linked plantations and settlements, and some of them can be traced on aerial photographs even if they are not apparent on the ground.
Powell probably cleared trees, stumps and bush from his road – in early days many roads still had large stumps in the middle – to allow easier travel by horse or mule and wagon.
Even 70 years later the Powell Road was not much more than a dirt path. There is a photograph taken in Forestville perhaps around 1890 that shows the road heading north and it is just a narrow sand and clay path. The photographer had to be standing about where the front door for the Hoy Auction House is now. The photograph shows the Powell Road and a road crossing it that had to be Forestville Road back when it reached to the Raleigh-Oxford Road that ran through Falls. On the right is the two-story John R. Dunn Store that was owned in 1890 by James L. Phillips, who was also the postmaster. Beyond it is Dr. Leroy Chappell’s two-room office building and his home with the front porch visible. On the left was another store with an open front porch. Vivian Phillips Branson, a long-time Forestville resident, said the store housed one of the first if not the first printing press in Wake County. Her daughter, a librarian in the Duke University Library, found a book about the practice of foot-washing written by one of John Purefoy’s sons which was printed in that store.