Step back in time with a visit to Richmond County, formed in 1779 from Anson County. In 1899, the southeastern part of Richmond County was organized as Scotland County.
The county was named for Charles Lennox, 3rd Duke of Richmond and Lennox, who was an Englishman and a member of the Parliament of the United Kingdom who sided with the colonists in America during the American Revolution. During the 19th century, the county became developed for plantation culture with vast areas of fields and farmland.
Richmond County is well known for its history in auto racing with the advent of the Rockingham Speedway, which opened in 1965. Until 2005, this one-mile race track featured bi-annual NASCAR-sanctioned events in the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series divisions. The race track also hosted several other events including ARCA, USAR Pro Cup, and UARA Late Models as well as a weekly scheduled series of events for Bandolero and Legends race car classes at the 1/2 mile infield track dubbed the “Little Rock.” As events were moved to other sites, the speedway has sat idle since 2015.
The County is host to Rockingham Dragway (directly across from the Speedway), sanctioned by the International Hot Rod Association. It hosts more than 90 drag racing events per year. Richmond County also hosts lawnmower races. Each weekend from April–October, the Lion’s Club of Ellerbe puts on a weekly show, attracting fans and competitors from surrounding counties and states.
Development grew around the railroad, built to Ellerbe in 1910, and a depot to form the town of Ellerbe. The rail line remained in service until 1954, and the depot suffered a fire and burned down several years later. The town’s most famous resident was professional wrestling great André the Giant, who owned a nearby ranch/farm. André was known for his extremely tall and large figure due to his affliction with giantism. His heart eventually gave out due to the disease, and he suffered a heart attack in his hotel room in France (where his family originated) while attending his father’s funeral. His dying wish was to have his ashes scattered on his ranch. Since there were no crematoriums in France that could handle a body of his stature, he had to be flown back to the United States to be cremated, and his ashes were spread on his ranch property in Ellerbe, NC.
Benny Parsons, a NASCAR driver and television analyst who won the 1973 Winston Cup Championship and the 1975 Daytona 500, also hailed from Ellerbe.
Rankin Museum of American Heritage
Experience the Rankin Museum’s (131 West Church St) displays on geology and paleontology as well as wildlife, arts, heritage, and artifacts from around the globe–even authentic fossilized dinosaur eggs. You will also find a special exhibit dedicated to its most famous resident, the Frenchman André the Giant. Peruse through his memorabilia, including news articles, photographs, a wrestling belt, and a pair of his size 26 wrestling boots. You can also stand beside a life-sized image of André and compare your hand size against his handprint. Admission to the museum is only $4 ($3 with a AAA discount), and they are only open on Saturdays.
The Berry Patch
Stop at The Berry Patch (Hwy. 220 N. Exit 25), also known as possibly the world’s largest strawberry, at 24′ tall, for in season fruits and vegetables, canned goods, 20 homemade ice cream flavors, Southern foods, and more.
Ellerbe Springs Inn
The Ellerbe Springs Inn (2537 N US Highway 220) is a longtime destination for this community. In its heyday, it attracted numerous guests. As of this visit, the inn is currently for sale and in need of restoration.
Located at 604 Clayton Carriker Road, the Bostick School was an active, one-room schoolhouse for grades 1-7 from 1800-1922. In 1992-1998, the old wooden structure was restored, and it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in April 2005.
Rockingham is the county seat of Richmond County. The City of Rockingham was named for the Marquis of Rockingham, Charles Watson Wentonworth, a strong friend of the Colonies, who was Prime Minister in 1765. He was in bitter opposition to Lord North and the policy that lost America.
On April 1, 1785, the three duly appointed Commissioners – General H. W. Harrington, John Cole Sr., and Robert Webb, met and bought 18 acres of land from John James, Sr. for about $30, and 32 acres from John Cole for $50. This land was situated on the road that ran from the Mountains to Cross Creek (now Fayetteville). The land was bounded by Falling Creek on the south, and Hitchcock Creek on the North and West – a constricted area.
During the early 19th century, numerous families from here migrated to Middle Tennessee, settling in what is now Nolensville. They quickly established their new community. In 1950, the town fielded a professional minor league baseball team in the Class D Tobacco State League, the Rockingham Eagles. The club won the playoff title in their only season before disbanding with the entire league. Downtown Rockingham is currently being revitalized as a part of a ten-year plan named “Shaping Our Future: 2023.”
While in Rockingham, you can also visit Discovery Place Kids-Rockingham, walk all of part of the 14-mile the Hitchcock Creek Blue Trail, and explore the area’s diverse floodplain forests, historic mills remnants, and rare plants and animals. Hitchcock Creek in Rockingham, North Carolina, is a destination for fishing, boating, and other family-friendly recreation. Leon Levine, founder of Family Dollar, hails from Rockingham.
You’ll find he Richmond County Visitor Center at 101 West Broad Ave. And although there is not an convenient overlook, be sure to drive by the Great Falls Mill ruins along West Broad Ave.
Rockingham Speedway and Dragway
The city is the home of Rockingham Speedway, formerly the North Carolina Speedway, a staple of the NASCAR schedule for nearly 40 years before the race was discontinued in 2004. The Rockingham Dragway (just across the street at 2153 North US HWY 1) offers year-round events that bring thousands of people to our area.
Known as “The Hub of the Seaboard,” Hamlet had seven hotels and numerous boarding houses and restaurants catering to transferring rail passengers.
The area in Richmond County which presently includes Hamlet was originally known as Sandhills. In 1872, the land was purchased by John Shortridge, an English immigrant who intended on building a textile mill along a creek. He renamed the locale Hamlet the following year, supposedly in homage to hamlets in the British Isles. He planted a sycamore tree to celebrate the occasion, which stood until 1946. A post office was established in 1876, and that year Shortridge sold a parcel of land to Raleigh and Augusta Air Line Railroad, which completed its own line through Hamlet by the following year. Railway shops were built in 1894 and the town was formally incorporated on February 9, 1897. Seaboard Air Line Railroad decided to establish its regional headquarters there, and Hamlet rapidly grew thereafter. By 1910, the locale hosted two five and dimes, five dry goods stores, and a Coca-Cola bottling plant.
Hamlet’s early growth was sustained by Seaboard, which heavily invested in facilities within the town. By the end of World War I, 30 trains passed through Hamlet daily, and the corporation decided to construct a maintenance shop, a roundhouse, and a shipping yard. After World War II, an $11 million classification yard, the first one in the Southeastern United States, was established. The Seaboard Line carried mostly freight traffic, but also brought tourists through Hamlet on the Orange Blossom Special, the Boll Weevil, and the Silver Meteor. Before sleeping cars became predominant, many rail passengers would stop in Hamlet and board at the Terminal Hotel or Seaboard Hotel. They provided traffic to the businesses on Main Street, which included several banks, a jewelry store, shoe shop, drug store, hardware store, opera house, and a bowling alley. Throughout the early 20th century, Hamlet was visited by prominent persons including Booker T. Washington, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Buffalo Bill, and Jenny Lind. Seaboard provided thousands of mostly-white men with well-paying, secure employment as conductors, engineers, and brakemen. Workers received sick pay, pension plans, and wages negotiated by national unions. As a result, Hamlet developed a large middle class, unlike the nearby city of Rockingham, which was home to many poorer textile mill workers.
Hamlet’s economic situation came under strain beginning in the 1960s, as the railroad faced increasing competition from growing road networks, trucking, and air travel. Seaboard acquired smaller competitors and consolidated its operations, moving workers out of Hamlet. It also froze wages, terminated some positions, and reduced passenger services, diminishing the number of outside visitors to the town. Seaboard became CSX Transportation in 1986. A K-Mart and Walmart were built in Rockingham in the 1970s, providing that municipality with tax revenue and pulling Hamlet’s customers away from their own town. Seaboard laid off hundreds of workers while more national business chains with cheaper prices moved into the region, driving down wages and further reducing the viability of Hamlet’s traditional businesses along Main Street. Racially-charged riots broke out in June 1975 after a Hamlet police officer discharged his gun during an altercation with a black woman. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, many businesses along Main Street and Hamlet Avenue were vacant, and the Terminal Hotel had become a flophouse. Seaboard’s facilities employed less than 600 people, and the Hamlet Depot was only serviced by Amtrak passenger trains twice a day and visited occasionally by railfans. National declines in manufacturing, including textiles, also had a wider stagnating effect on Richmond County.
In 1990, portions of the movie Billy Bathgate were filmed on Main Street, and in June the city was bestowed with the All-America City Award by the National Civic League.
Hamlet is at the junction of three major CSX rail lines, one running north toward Raleigh and south toward Savannah, Georgia, and the second running east toward Wilmington, and west toward Bostic, NC.
On September 3, 1991 the Imperial Food Products chicken processing plant in Hamlet caught fire. Many exits at the plant were locked in violation of fire codes, and 25 workers died. North Carolina’s government imposed a record fine upon the plant owners for the violations and the incident brought negative national attention to the town. You’ll find a memorial plaque for those who perished at the town’s lake.
In addition to the Hamlet Passenger Station, the Main Street Commercial Historic District is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Notable people from Hamlet include John Coltrane, jazz saxophonist and composer and the recipient of a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
The Hamlet Depot (2 Main St) is still a fully restored, active passenger depot and is known as one of the most photographed train depots on the East Coast–and is the only Victorian Queen Anne train station in North Carolina. Inside, you can peruse the heyday of railroads through the site’s museum. Outside, you can visit a few trains preserved in the park across the street–and you can wander over to the tracks to see the literal crossing of the north-south and east-west routes. Be sure to visit the Silver Meteor exhibit in the Tornado building.
In 1870, a railroad ran from Wilmington to the Pee Dee River and on to Charlotte and in 1877, a railway was established running from Raleigh to Augusta. The crossroads of these two rails occurred at Hamlet and spurred population growth for this town. Hamlet, incorporating on February 9, 1897, has always been a railroad town with five spurs radiating from the town to Richmond, Wilmington, Atlanta/Birmingham, Savannah/Charleston and Columbia.
To celebrate the importance of this hub for the Seaboard Air Line Railroad, an impressive train station was constructed around the turn of the century. The station was designed in a Victorian Queen Anne style that was popular with railroad architecture in the late 19th century. The long bracketed porches radiate around the corner entry tower that faces the railroad intersection, honoring the reason for its being. For years, the train station served as both a passenger depot and a freight yard.
The depot was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1971 and was fully restored in 2004. The museum is free to the public.
National Railroad Museum And Hall Of Fame
Located only a few minutes from the Hamlet Depot, be sure to stop in the National Railroad Museum and Hall of Fame (120 E Spring St). The museum preserves the county’s rail history as well as a model train display, train equipment, news stories, and many railroad artifacts. The museum is only open on weekends and is staffed by rotating train historians. Be sure to strike up a conversation, as you’ll learn a lot about the local railroad and Seaboard history in Hamlet.
Next stop… Granville County!