Hawfields & Mebane, North Carolina

Crossroads of Change

By the time the first Ulster Irish and West Africans entered Hawfields in the early 1730’s, wide expanses of cleared open fields defined the landscape. The Haw Old Fields, as the English-speakers called it, was an ecological artifact of long-established native agriculture, the migratory patterns of game herds and the heavy trading traffic that tri-sected the Haw-Eno highlands at three important river fords. The sounds of these peoples’ languages live on in river and place names, even as their descendants have integrated into the larger majority culture, shaped by the descendants of Europeans and Africans, that comprises modern North Carolina.

The Great Trading Path was a thousand miles of dirt broadways and foot paths that Native Americans had established linking tidewater villages to towns in the mountains beyond the Yadkin River and Continental Divide. The once flourishing communities at the old fields’ Trading Path fords survived 17th Century wars and pandemics only to melt before the on-rushing flood of Ulster Irish and smaller stream of West African colonizers.

History forced the Irish and African into a turbulent, shared social current.  Africans and their descendants, although never numerous in Hawfields, brought a culture forged from the realities of West African town and village life, overlaid by enforced encounters with Euro-American economic exploitation. Arriving primarily as enslaved individuals or families, they served the economic interests of the few Hawfields homesteaders who could support extra household members. African American labor in Hawfields was instrumental in building the fortunes of a handful of the largest land owners, particularly the Mebane, Murrayand Ruffin families. Among the Hawfields earliest African-descended historic personalities are Kizzy, “Chicken” George and Tom Murray, all associated with the Cross Roads Church Community of upper Hawfields and Alex Haley’s historical novel “Roots.”

Ulster Irish culture emerged from a century of shared colonizing efforts in Northern Irelandby English, Irish, Huguenot and lowland Scot farmers and freebooters. They spearheaded the religious, linguistic and military occupation of Ulsterthat gained for Britaincultural hegemony in six of Ulster’s eight counties. The Scotch-Irish, as colonial Americans renamed them, pushed on from provincial Ulster to colonial Pennsylvania in search of more favorable religious and economic opportunities. In Pennsylvaniahostile Germans and English refused to sell the Scotch-Irish land. Ulster families pushed southward to Carolina.

The word Mebane, unlike Eno, Haw, Alamance, Occaneechi, and Saxapahaw, does not derive from the sounds of the Siouan-speaking people who thrived here before the great cultural and population upheavals of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Mebane is the name of one of the early Ulster Irish families that migrated to present day Eastern Alamance County in 1739 and 1740. 

The Mebane family, headed by William, Sr., was part of the first great wave of Ulster folk to migrate to Southeastern Pennsylvania between 1715 and 1717. His eldest son, Alexander, had been born in Ulster; his second son William was born in Pennsylvania. The brothers Alexander and William joined with many other immigrant and first generation American Scotch-Irish families, caravanning down the Great Trading Path (eventually renamed the Great Wagon Trail by the English-speaking) to the sparsely populated areas of the land that bore the name of their former royal adversary, King Charles— the Haw Fields, in Bladen County, North Carolina.

Colonial administration fixed Orange County’s original county seat in 1752 at Pine Ford in central Hawfields on high ground between Back Creek and the Haw River, east of the present-day Town of Haw River. With the formation of Rowan Countyfrom western Orange, county government moved to Corbinton (later Hillsborough). The formation of Alamance Countyfrom the remnants of western Orange County in 1849 further reduced the Hawfields.  From Colonization to Reconstruction, Hawfields comprised the area served by two important white Presbyterian congregations: Hawfields Presbyterian Church and Cross Roads Presbyterian Church. Both congregations had their founding before the Republic and continue today as important local institutions.

Alexander Mebane and his wife Mary Tinnin settled on the north side of Back Creek, just above the present-day town of Mebane. The Siouan peoples whom the Ulster families met were already much reduced from two generations of epidemics and disrupted agricultural and commercial activity that followed in the wake of the arrival of Europeans. Many native inhabitants, some recent immigrants themselves from further east in the Carolina Colony and from the more European-penetrated areas of the Virginia Colony, moved further west and south, joining other native settlements. Others remained settled in areas, such as the Pleasant Grove plateau, just north of present-day Mebane, less desired by the Scotch-Irish, as well as the English Quakers, and the Lutheran and Reformed Church Germans who had also heard of the fertile tracts in the Haw and the larger Cape Fear River watershed.

Alexander quickly rose in economic and political prominence in the Scotch-Irish community of Hawfields. By 1751 he was appointed justice of the peace for Bladen County; in 1752, when Orange County was formed from Bladen County, he was appointed the first sheriff of Orange County; in 1755 he became a colonel in the militia, and in 1757 became Justice of the Peace, serving in that capacity until 1789, sometimes holding court on his property on Back Creek, as well as at the courthouse established at Pine Ford, in the present day town of Haw River. Alexander, his brother William, and other leaders in the Hawfields community had to walk a very shrewd and narrow line during the times of the Regulator movement. Sharing attitudes and concerns of both the western yeomen and the eastern colonial establishment, the Mebanes, as local civic officials and militia officers, managed to maintain the respect of both parties and avoid participating in the civil strife in Hillsborough in 1768 and along the Great Alamance Creek in 1771. 

Alexander and his brother William, and their many children and grandchildren were strong partisans for the Continental Congress and supported the rebel forces during the troubled times of 1775 - 1781. One of alexander’s son, Alexander, Jr., served as Orange County sheriff between 1777 and 1781, as a Brigadier General of the local militia, and a ranking officer in the Continental forces, seeing action in several engagements against Lord Cornwallis’s and other loyalist forces during Britain’s southern campaign just prior to Yorktown. Alexander, Jr., also served in the Colonial Legislature, the colony’s Constitutional Convention which drew up the Halifax Resolves of April 12, 1776 and, later, in the state’s General Assembly, as well as the second Congress of the United States, 1793-1795. A member of the group of political and business leaders instrumental in the founding of a college in Chapel Hill, Alexander’s son James was one of the university’s first graduates.

Hawfields was a gateway for the development of communities to its west, as well as an incubator of home-grown institutions and personalities reflective of its resources and advantageous location. Descendants of successful pioneer families established thriving agricultural operations and crossroad trading centers, often featuring a dry goods store, post office, artisan shops and perhaps an educational academy. Before elite support for public education, Hawfields was home to two of Alamance County’s most important private educational ventures.

The Bingham School, founded just across the Alamance–Orange line on The Oaks Plantation, moved just east of Mebanesville in 1865, the mercantile heart of Hawfields. Belfast-born Alexander Wilson founded the Melville Academy in 1851 not far from a commercial crossroads district near the Hawfields Church. Named for the renowned turn-of-the-16thCentury Scots partisan theologian, Andrew Melville, Melville Townshipcontinues to bear the Academy’s, and, by extension, Andrew Melville’s name, while Alexander Wilson Elementary Schoolin lower Hawfields honors the memory of Dr. Wilson’s work. By 1900, Hawfields was also home to two of Alamance County’s earliest African American free schools, in the West End Community just beyond the Mebane town limits, and in the Melville community just south of the modern-day Alexander Wilson School.

The area where the Mebane extended family settled continued as a center of agriculture, commerce, learning, and communication into the nineteenth century. Africans and their descendants were members of the community before the close of the first generation of Ulster settlement. Alexander, Sr., and his brother William maintained slaves, as did many of the larger, more prosperous households. During the revolutionary period, Hawfields had the largest concentration of Africans and African-Americans within present-day Alamance County. The community also included free African-American yeoman households. Up to the decade of the 1860’s, most households, whether of European or African descent, were non-slave owning, with most slave-owning households including no more than four or five, if any, enslaved African-Americans. In the 1850 census of Alamance County, only fourteen households, out of a population of almost eight thousand white European descendants, owned more than twenty slaves, ranging from a low of twenty to a high of sixty-eight. (Thomas Ruffin was the only major exception, with a census count of ninety-nine slaves). Only one Mebane family household was in this group, an Alexander Mebane with twenty-one. 

By the first decade of the post-revolutionary century, the settled area just north of the Hawfields Community was known as Mebanesville. It housed a post-office and hosted several schools during the period, including for a time the Bingham School. Mebanesville was also the center of the political activity that led to the formation of a new North Carolina county in 1848 and 1849, Alamance. Giles R. Mebane, grandson of Alexander, Jr., and husband of Mary Yancey, daughter of the noted North Carolina political leader Bartlett Yancey, led the effort to form a new county from the several communities of Western Orange County, of which the Hawfields - Mebanesville area was the most prosperous and populated. It was Mary Yancey Mebane who proposed “Alamance” as the name for the new county, although scholars still debate whether the word is of Siouan or Franco-German derivation.

The nature of the farming and commercial community of Mebanesville remained essentially unchanged, even after the arrival of the North Carolina Railroad in 1856, which linked Mebanesville eastward with Hillsborough, Raleigh and Goldsboro and westward with Greensboro, Salisbury, Concord and Charlotte. The railroad fundamentally changed the character and demography of Alamance County, with the rise of Company Shops (later Burlington); but Mebanesville continued agrarian and more inward looking until the generation after the war and civil unrest of 1860 - 1872. In 1881, the Mebanesville community was set on a course of change, as sweeping and as thoroughgoing as anything the community had experienced since the passing of Siouan and the arrival of Ulster-African culture one hundred and fifty years earlier.

In 1881 Dave and Will White opened the White Furniture Company. Two other brothers, J. Sam and Stephen Arthur, eventually joined, forming a powerful quartet that guided the company through prosperous and lean times until the last brother stepped down as an active leader, “Mr. Sam” in 1969, with over seventy-three years of service to the company his older brothers had launched. J. Sam’s son, Stephen, and his nephew, Stephen Millender, would continue to guide the company until it was purchased by Hickory Manufacturing Corporation in 1985.

The story of White Furniture, prototypical of the history of the U. S. furniture industry as a whole, in many ways becomes the story of Mebane until the last decade of the twentieth century, when the factory complex closed. Dave and Will, on borrowed capital, opened their factory and assisted in the incorporation of the community, to be known through statute for the first time as “Mebanesville.”  Within thirty-five years, White Furniture was to propel Mebanesville from an unincorporated village of approximately 250 residents to a bustling town of more than a thousand persons working in half a score of businesses, most existing to support the activity of the furniture factory and its employees. Between 1881 and 1886, the brothers worked in a barn-like building with only two pieces of equipment, a boiler and a planer. An investment from a local businessman that year allowed the brothers to expand, soon employing thirty-two persons, making various window sashes and doors for households and businesses, later expanding to household furniture, including a solid oak bedroom suite of bed, dresser and washstand that retailed for nine dollars.

The brothers made three significant marketing break throughs during the next generation: the advertising of its products as a distinctive “line,” as a way to establish and maintain a unique commercial identity; a major 1906 contract with the U.S. government to furnish the military officers in Panama with furniture; and a 1912 contract with the Edwin Grove family, to provide the majority of doors and furniture for use in their Asheville resort hotel, the Grove Park Inn. Many of these furnishings still bear the metal plate “The White Line, the Right Line.”

The brothers rebuilt upon the ashes of a devastating fire that destroyed practically the entire factory complex in 1923. The new factory rose in the same space, along the Old Trading Path, along the old stage road, along side the North Carolina Railroad line, directly down the hill from the 184* home of Giles Mebane, which, along with the extant White Furniture factory buildings (1904 – 1923), are properties on the National Register of Historic Places. The Giles Mebane home currently functions as the Mebane House Bed and Breakfast, and the former factory properties now are in use as office and light industrial. One suite of offices in the main 1923 factory building houses the offices of the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation, which is working to gain state and federal recognition of the Occaneechi as a Native American tribe.

Hawfields has earned distinction for its legacy of political leaders.  Mebane, Ruffin, Jordan, and Scott are preeminent names in North Carolina politics. Mebane family political ally, legislator and sectional reconciler, Thomas Ruffin was one of the longest serving chief justices of the state supreme court. Jordans, though relative newcomers to the community, have served in the U.S. Senate and both chambers of the state legislature. 

Perhaps the extended Scott Family, as much as any Hawfields family, has distinguished itself by the breadth of its contributions in medicine, farming, manufacturing, education and public service. Their leadership has included not only service in the US Senate, the governor’s office and cabinet, and both chambers of the legislature, but family members have played strategic roles in the founding of the School of Nursing at Chapel Hill and the expansion of the state’s Community College system. Alamance Community College’s main campus occupies land donated by Scotts on the east bank of the Haw River in Hawfields.

Today, Hawfields comprises the communities south of I-85/40, fanning out from the Hawfields Presbyterian Church toward the Haw River to the West, the Alamance County line to the East and highway 54 to the South. Once a state and national trendsetter in dairy and livestock farming, today the community boasts of only one full time farming operation, Bill Covington’s Dairy. The community’s historic open spaces now attract large scale residential growth, in turn fueling commercial development along the interstate corridor.

Of course, in the world of twentieth century arts and letters, the area boasts Joseph Aquiller "Joe Thompson (1918 - 2012)  and Edwin Milton "Ed" Yoder, jr. (1934). There's much already written about both men, the former an award winning, world-renowned, oral-tradition musician, written about elsewhere on this site, about the track "Oil in My Vessel." the latter a Pulitzer-Prize winning, Mebane Public Schools and Oxford University-trained columnist and author. The two are pictured together after a joint concert and lecture--the only time the two worked together--on September 20, 2004.  There's much on the web about both men, but one place to begin for each is  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joe_Thompson_(musician) and  https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/educational-magazines/yoder-edwin-m-jr-1934 

Still at the crossroads of information, culture, education, and commerce, a modern map reveals that the North CarolinaRailroad, US-70 and I-85/40 all overlay in-part the original routes the Native Americans blazed. As Hawfields approaches 275 years of recorded settlement, the community stands at a crossroads. New families, new businesses, new employees and new languages are changing the physical and cultural landscape of one of Alamance County’s oldest and yet fastest growing communities. How will these new migrants shape Hawfields’ future? As one distinguished, life-long resident puts it: ”I vote in Mebane, I get my mail from Haw River, my phone’s from Burlington, but I still live in Hawfields.”